China: Beijing & Xian

We flew into Beijing Airport early December as we were meeting Dave’s friend Darren there. Beijing Airport is huge and after finding our way through the Chinese Metro system, that evening we met Darren in Qianmen Street station located in a great central spot in the heart of Beijing. 

We walked to our hostel to check in and have some down time before finding food. The hostel was decorated just as you would imagine a backpackers hostel to look, with travel paraphernalia in every corner and Chinese lanterns decorating the whole of the main lounges ceiling. Empty beer bottles gave the place a student vibe, and touches of bamboo only added to the cool backpackers vibe of the hostel. Grabbing some food in apparently ‘the best duck in China’ restaurant (which was consequently not the best but did satisfy our hunger pangs) we went back to the hostel for a beer to catch up and an early night.

Having a lazy lie in the following morning, we had breakfast and headed to the Temple of Heaven which wasn’t far from our hostel. Situated in the southeastern part of Beijing, the complex of temples was visited annually by the Qing and Ming dynasties to pray for good harvests. The park surrounding the temples covers a massive area consisting of playgrounds, exercise and games spaces. Arriving in the morning we saw many small groups practicing small exercises and various ethnic dances which were lovely to just stand and watch. 

The first temple we saw was the Circular Mound, an altar that served as the ceremonial place for worshipping heaven during the Winter Solstice. The empty circular platform is constructed on three levels of marble stones, each decorated by lavishly carved dragons. The numbers of various elements of the Altar including its balusters and steps, are either the sacred number nine or its multiples symbolising the nine layers of heaven. The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart of Heaven where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. Many people stood on the centre stone to clap which resonated against the marbled concentric rings.

The second temple was the Imperial Vault of Heaven; a circular building with a double-eaved roof, it stood elegant and majestic with its wooden structure, blue roof tiles with a gilded sphere, and jade dragons decorating the ceiling. Surrounding the Imperial Vault is a smooth circular wall known as the Echo Wall, which can transmit sounds over large distances similar to that of the dome in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The final temple, The Hall of Prayer temple is a triple gabled cylindrical building made entirely from wood. It stands impressively in a huge square and is considered a masterpiece in ancient Chinese architecture and art. We walked through admiring the wood carvings and bold colours that make these temples stand out, especially when the sky was bright blue and the sun was shining. Despite the air being crisp it was a pleasure to wander and just sit for moments to enjoy the place. 

Feeling cultured we went in search of food and came across a cheap place to eat. We ended up in a hot pot restaurant, one of the most famous dishes that China is known for. Uncertain of what we were ordering at the time, we asked when prompted for two soups (both of which happened to be really spicy) which is heated on an electric hob in the centre of the table. This was served with several side dishes to cook in the boiling soup before eating. However the soup was so spicy that it took the word ‘hot’ to a whole new level of spicy. Nevertheless we ploughed through and if you didn’t count the burning tongue, it was quite tasty!

That evening we caught the metro to the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. The distinct structure also described as the popular ‘bird’s nest seemingly has a random pattern but is inspired by Chinese style crazed pottery and abides complex geometric rules. Viewing the dynamic form was incredible in the early evening light as it stands prominently amongst the other buildings. As night time drew near, the bird’s nest was then lit up with red and yellow lights, together with the aquadrome, Olympic Watchtower, and the Observation Tower. 

The following morning we woke up early to see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. A large public square in Beijing, China, on the southern edge of the Inner or Tatar City, thee square was named for its Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), which contains the monument of the heroes of the revolution, the Great Hall of the People, the museum of history and revolution, and the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. 

Close to sunrise, we were standing a couple of rows back in a fairly large crowd which had gathered around three sides of the flag pole. As Dave and Darren were both taller than the average Chinese person they had a good view of proceedings, whereas I was of a similar height so struggled to see the ceremony apart from a gap between two people’s heads. At the appointed hour, a group of around fifty soldiers marched into the square from their barracks behind Tiananmen (the gate), raised the flag according to how long the sun took rise above the horizon, and marched back from whence they came with the flag. The crowd melted into the square and that was it, and of course as we were in China, many selfies were taken.

From Tiananmen Square we walked through Zhongshan Park, a former altar and now a public park, which was just south to the Forbidden City. The park includes various halls and pavilions built for the members of the imperial family, stone archways and a greenhouse which houses fresh flowers on display all year round. Unfortunately as we were visiting in Winter we were unable to see the flowers and blossom in bloom.

We then stepped into the vast Meridian Gate for the Forbidden City which had been the Imperial Palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is the best preserved palace in China and the largest ancient palatial structure in the world with amazing traditional Chinese architecture. For security the Forbidden City is enclosed by a ten meter high defensive wall. At each corner of the Forbidden City, there stands a magnificent watchtower, which was heavily guarded in the past. Around the city there is a moat called the Golden Stream as the first line of defense, shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges 

The Forbidden City is made up of the Outer and Inner Court. The outer court is has three main halls where emperors used to attend the grand ceremonies and conduct state of affairs. The Inner Court comprises of the Emperor’s sleeping quarters, wedding room, and a store for the Imperial seals. Besides these three buildings are six eastern and six western palaces that were previously living quarters for the Emperor’s concubines but now serve as various exhibition and display halls. 

Exiting the Forbidden City at the Gate of Divine Might we walked up towards Wanchun Pavilion where we greeted by amazing yet slightly foggy panoramic views over the whole of the Forbidden City. Although our view was slightly hindered by the mist, it was lovely to see the Forbidden City and its old traditional buildings surrounded by modern Chinese architecture.

On the way back home to our hostel we stopped off at Beijing Zoo to see the panda sanctuary. We saw them straight away and had arrived at feeding time which gave us the perfect opportunity to see the pandas eat their favourite meal, fresh bamboo! They seemed to love it, which you cannot blame them for as food time is definitely my favourite time of the day also!

The next day we went in search of The Great Wall of China. Two buses and one taxi, 130km and three hours later, we arrived at a section of the wall called Jinshanling. A great portion of the Great Wall at Jinshanling was built in 1567-1582, under the command of the Ming Dynasty general who guarded China against foreign invasions.

It has to be said that the Great Wall of China is truly one of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen. We meandered between the densely distributed watch towers to view breathtaking panoramic views of the wall and Jinshanling’s natural beauty.

Visiting one of the less popular sites of the Great Wall in December, allowed us to trek the Wall virtually undisturbed, and the weather was perfect as well, with blue skies and sunshine to warm us against the wind which blew lightly through the mountains. We even saw snow up on The Wall where it hadn’t melted from the suns rays. Walking, we also noticed how the Wall’s structure had deteriorated in structure as we continued to walk, from parts that were flawless in form to parts that were broken where we had to climb off and then back on again!

After four hours of walking the Great Wall, we stopped at sunset to stop and appreciate the beautiful colours that surrounded us and the Wall, creating stunning silhouettes in the evening light!!!

We hitchhiked back to Beijing and went to a place recommended by our drivers that served the best Peking Duck. The restaurant Quanjude, an old and famous roast duck restaurant with a history of 149 years, and I have to say it really was the best Chinese duck I had ever eaten! The duck was brought to our table cooked where one of the chefs then began to slice it up in front of us. We sat and watched as many other tables in the restaurant were going through the same motions of having the duck presented and prepared at each table. Slices of duck were arranged neatly on a plate after carving ready for us to make our own duck pancakes with plum sauce and spring onion and cucumber filling. The best ending to a great day in China!

We visited the Summer Palace, which is the largest and most well preserved park in China, with a large number of lakes and gardens. We spent the morning wandering around the old buildings and walking around the beautiful lakes in the winter sunshine.

Later that evening we went to the Red Theatre to watch The Legend of Kung Fu. The theatre was impressive and we had amazing front row seats where we could see all the action. The show told us the story of Kung Fu with amazing and real Kung Fu moves, martial arts routines, impressive stunts and beautiful costumes and set design. A truly great way to see Kung Fu through the story rather than just the static movements!

Our last day in Beijing took us to the famous Chinese tea house, Lao She Teahouse, where not only tea but Chinese culture can be appreciated. Neatly arranged tables with wooden chairs stood with Palace lanterns hanging from the ceiling surrounded by folk paintings and calligraphy. We were immersed in the Chinese culture. With over twenty different teas to choose from, we ordered our teas which were served with loose tea leaves in small bowls with lids, with a brass tea pot of hot water to top up. 

We walked around for a while around Tianamen before having one last Peking duck meal and then leaving Darren to go our separate ways. A busy week where we saw some amazing sights of China, and where we made some unforgettable memories, it was weird to say goodbye but the next part of our adventure was waiting for us.

We headed to Beijing West train station to catch an overnight train to Xian, the eastern end of the Silk Road and the home of The Terracotta Warriors. We had arranged to stay with Kai, our CouchSurfing host for the next few days. He was the perfect host and hilarious, kind and generous with his time. He and his dog Lisa shared a small flat in Downtown Xian which was the perfect location to see most of the sights. 

The next day he took us to the Shaanxi History Museum which showed excavations from the four big dynasties that had their capital as Xian. We spent some time looking around the various fossils, pottery, murals, and different metal tools used back in the day.

Located next to the museum was the Small Wild Goose Pagoda which is one of two significant pagodas in Xian, it stands with 15 levels of tiers which add to the impressive structure of the hollow building. 

Cramming as much in as possible, Kai then took us to see the famous water fountains near the Large Wild Goose Pagoda. Walking towards fountain square, we watched the famous water show as various fountains changed in sequence to music. We could have stood to watch the sequence of fountains and lights and music all day, it was mesmerising!

Tired and hungry and after a quick check on Lisa the dog, Kai took us to eat the best hot pot in town before treating us to the cinema where we watched Hacksaw Ridge. A long and busy day we returned to Kai’s apartment knackered and fell asleep straight away. 

The next day as Kai had to work, we took the bus to Lintong to see the Terracotta Army. We arrived three hours later at the main entrance to the museum. There are three excavation pits and two exhibition rooms. Visiting the exhibition rooms first we saw ancient weapons that were used, and glass cabinets with Terracotta Army members of different ranks. Being able to see them up close was amazing. Walking into the one of the exhibition rooms we also witnessed the bronze chariots that were unearthed and led by horses where we could stand and admire the detail of the work that was put in to make these marvels.

Heading towards Pit Two and Pit Three, we saw how the excavation had begun, with much of the army still under cover by the housing roofs and many army warriors and horses broken into different fragments.

Lastly we entered Pit One, which was the largest and most impressive pit of them all, with over 2,000 terracotta warriors displayed in army formation in the front half of the Pit. The other half of the Pit was still being worked on, and although not displayed like the front half, many different types of warriors could be seen.

After spending a few hours looking around, we caught the bus back to Xian. We walked through the back streets off the main road where Kai’s flat was. Wandering through the Muslim Quarter we saw many streets brightly lit up by market stalls that were selling a variety of street food dishes and souvenirs. Carcasses of meat were hung as men expertly stripped the meat from the bone until only nothing was left. Oyster shells were layered in heaps to collect the pearls, clean them and make them into jewellery pieces. It was full of activity with all of our senses amazed.

Our last day in Xian took us to the famous Bell Tower and Drum tower, as we walked around the area. Stopping to do a bit of shopping between, as the area was full with many shopping malls lining the roads on all sides. 

Occupying ourselves until dark, we walked around Xian’s old city wall as it lit up with coloured fairy lights which outlined the iconic shapes of both the Bell and Drum Towers.

That evening we caught another overnight train to Shanghai where we would experience the bright lights of the city. 

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