We loved our time in China’s capital city, in large part because we picked an amazing Airbnb home. We knocked out everything on our Beijing wish list and made great friends at the same time. We knocked out: The Great Wall, The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, exploring the historic Hutong alleyways and the Hutong museum, street food with our friend Dana Fong, The Lama Temple and an amazing dinner of Peking Duck. And this was even dealing with the crazy travel time we had for our flight – leaving Tokyo at 2am and arriving in Beijing at 6am.
We started our move to China by staying up late and taking the train to the airport about 8 or 9pm before our 2am flight. We had lots of time to explore the airport and have dinner, as we made exploring Haneda Airport part of the adventure. But by 2am we were all getting either droopy or loopy. Cindy our Airbnb host arranged for us to get picked up at the airport and taken to the Happy Dragon Courtyard hostel near her place so we could sleep a few hours before we could check into her home. We got the hostel by 7am and slept until check out time. We were thankful for the additional four hours of sleep – but it could have been an additional hour if I had remembered to change my clock back the hour to China time.
The Hutongs are the Beijing’s historic residential alleyways. They are really something to be explored and we are so fortunate to have stayed there and would recommend that anyone make the effort to stay in one of these districts. The government is making a huge effort to clean up what has been generations of encroachment and the opening of businesses by punching a window or door here and there. The Hutongs have public toilets about every half block because there are so many “homes” that are really just tiny rooms built with no bathroom or cooking facilities. The Hutongs traditionally have a front on the alleyway and then are very deep with the walled rooms surrounding courtyards; our place had a front courtyard and an even deeper main courtyard area.
Day 1: After getting settled into our space, which had high ceilings and actual chairs (amazing luxuries after Japan), we connected with a friend living in Beijing, Dana Fong. She has been here five years and took us to a dinner of lamb roasted at our table.
Day 2: The next day we had arranged for a driver to pick us up at 7:30 for an early start exploring the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. This section of the Wall has been wonderfully maintained and has a luge to get down, but was a good 90 minutes from Beijing. Our driver walked us to the ticket office and we bought a package of tickets – bus ride up to the entrance, entrance to the Wall, ski-chair lift up and luge down (cost: driver from center of Beijing and back $100; tickets for adventure $112 (three adults and one child set of tickets).
We were thankful we got an early start; by the time we left the Wall around 1:30pm there were swarms of tourists. I experienced a range of emotions visiting the Wall – from awe to tourist trap to awe again. We all agreed it was epic to just be there, almost surreal to think “I am actually standing here on the Great Wall of China” but then I would feel like this is just a ‘thing’ and a damn touristy thing at that. After all, it was a failure as a defense and built at a ridiculously huge expense in resources (The Emperor wanted Mongolia to pay for it but instead Genghis Kahn, who said, “walls are only as good a defense and the men for stand upon them” simply bribed the guards and conquered China anyway – just kidding of course about the ‘pay for’ part, but Khan did supposedly say that and did of course famously sack Beijing). Not to mention the fact that Europeans were already a threat from the seas. For centuries people have been allowed to deconstruct the Wall to reuse building materials. This beautiful section is clearly a nod to history for visitors. It was great to walk to Tower 3 where the reconstructed Wall ends and what is left of the Wall in its more natural state starts, just a big berm with lots of overgrowth. But before we board the luge down the hill you just can’t help enjoy the spectacular views and feel the history and audacity of power that it takes to undertake and complete such a marvel. Also happy Kate got to luge, the staff almost stopped Kate with her arm in her soft cast since you have to be able to pull back to brake but they gave in when Judi agreed to ride with her.
Day 3: We figured out how to ride the subway and it takes you right to Tiananmen Square. We took in the heavy military presence everywhere and the wide open space which makes a wonderful approach to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City is awesome in its beauty. It is easy to walk the grounds from the front entrance and exit the back side. The audio guide was just ok and was designed to click on when you approached an information point but worked only sporadically. The temples are amazing and clearly built to impress and address masses of people. At least as interesting to us were the smaller, more human scale, buildings that housed the various wives and family members of the Emperor on the right and left side past the main temples. Also cool was the central temple building which was the audience space of the mother of the Emperor – she was basically the intermediary between mortals and the Emperor, who was of divine linage, literally the Son of Heaven.
Day 4: We explored the Hutongs of Beijing and the Lama Temple, the largest and most active Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. The kids were overwhelmed with the incense and we have seen our share of Buddahs in the last four months in Asia but it was still very cool and worth the walk. I found an excellent IPA and a pint of Stout beer at the Great Leap Brewery buried deep in the Hutong alleyways and we soaked up the history of how the Hutongs evolved in the Hutong Museum (free and has excellent volunteer guides waiting to talk to you in english). We learned to make dumplings from Cindy and Nic, our Airbnb hosts, which we all agreed were the best we had every had (certainly better than CostCo). John was tired out but Judi and Kate ventured to a nearby restaurant which is constantly writing up in the guide books for their Peking Duck and Nic told us you have to be there by 5pm when it opens or the lines are huge. Judi claims it is the best meal of her life.
We all felt that we had seen and done everything we came to Beijing to do and see but we would have loved to stay longer to linger in our home courtyard, meeting new friends and living the local / hipster lifestyle with Anders and Rassmus, the two Danes living in the front courtyard; Alberto, the Spanish flamenco guitarist; the parade of their friends that we met, and our hosts Cindy and Nic. The Wall was an epic thing to visit, but of course it was just a ‘thing’ and what we will always treasure are all the memories of the people that made our short stay in the Hutong come alive.