China, 2nd stop: Beijing

From Harbin to Beijing I took train nr. D28 which was one of the modern and fast trains at a speed of 250 km/h. The passing scenery was much different from the Russian scenery. Instead of untouched grassland and forest it was all farmland. And instead of small villages the train passed by one big city after the other. The amount and the size of the construction sites along the railway where quite impressive. Many huge clusters of at least 20 story high buildings were growing out of the ground like mushrooms everywhere. You could really see the 10 percent growth of China. The farming, by the way, was all done by manpower. I didn’t see any machines.

In Beijing I stayed at the Leo courtyard hostel. The first day after my arrival was still two days ahead of the national holidays, therefore I visited the Great Wall right away in order to avoid the upcoming tourist invasion. I went to Mutianyu, which was a really nice part of the wall with very few people on it.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

On the second day I did my first stroll around the streets of Beijing, where I was also checking out the restaurants for their prices. Very surprisingly in one of the restaurants I caught sight of the Russian tour guide who I met on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk. Together with her and her friend we explored one of the bar districts one night. In the bars you can find many people from the west. However many of those westerners where not typical tourists, but a rather interesting international crowd of businessmen, students, English teachers, backpackers and all kind of adventurous people.

Another night I was going to a couch surfer meeting, where I met a similar international crowd. One very interesting girl from the USA was a beekeeper who had taught people in the poor parts of China how to keep bees for several years. She and her boyfriend showed me around in Beijing a bit during some of the following days, giving me some very interesting insights. One night we went out for a pub crawl to the countless street restaurants in the alleys. There you sit on tiny plastic chairs outside on the sidewalk and you can get really cheap beer and cheap food on sticks. And you can throw all your waste on the ground, which is very easy to get used to. Since mostly locals visit those restaurants there is no English spoken at all, so good thing to have someone with you who speaks Chinese.

Another day we walked through one of the hutongs, which are the old areas of Beijing with the traditional old Chinese buildings. These hutongs are more and more dimished these days and are replaced by modern districts. The girl from the USA told me that she could hardly recognize Beijing anymore compared to the last time she was there 2 years ago, because many buildings she knew where demolished and replaced by new buildings. 

Streets of Beijing

Beijing is changing really fast from a traditional Chinese city into a modern westernized city. Probably thanks to the Olympic games in 2008 it was also very easy to get around as a tourist in Beijing (easier than in all the other Chinese cities I’ve visited). Everything, from sights to public buses were made clearly understandable with English signs. It also seemed that the city worked hard on their “bad” Chinese habits. The traffic was much more organized with much less honking then in other Chinese cities. Also fewer Chinese people where spitting out on the ground, probably partly because of the many signs telling you: “no spitting”.

“China meets West” is probably a good phrase to describe my general impression of Beijing. This mix of an old Chinese city and a modern metropolis, together with the international crowd living and working there, gives the city a very cool international and almost surreal vibe.

View from Jingshan park

Altogether Beijing was my favorite of all the cities on my trip so far (and it turned out to be my favorite city in China) and I’m glad I was stuck there for a little longer as planned. Because of the national holidays the earliest train I could get a ticket for left Beijing on the 4th of october and headed to my next city which was Xi’an.

Have a look at the gallery to see more pictures from Beijing.