beijing-china-summer-palace-temple

Beijing – the Flabbergasting Chinese Capital

“-Hello, do you know the password for the Wi-Fi?” I curiously ask the Asian girl, sitting on the sofa in the hotel’s lobby in Geneva which my family and I have chosen for a stop-over on our Euro trip.

“Yes, it is youth1234,” retorts she in a ringing voice.

“Thank you very much,” reply I, and add “By the way, could I kindly ask where you are from?”

“I am from China,” replies (Wang) Zhen with a charming smile.

“Oh, I know so many things about your huge and enormously interesting country,” immodestly add I.

We continue chatting and Zhen turns out to be one of the most captivating interlocutors I have ever met, let alone in a random hotel in the French-Swiss city. Two hours pass in an instant.

“I shall come and visit you, Zhen,” I promise her confidently and say good night.


8 months later, my friend, George, and I, are greeted by Ms Wang Zhen at Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3. China starts amazing you even before you have passed its customs. To say that the terminal is gigantic would be a huge understatement. Indeed, it is the second largest airport terminal in the world after Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 and the sixth largest building in the world.


Zhen welcomes us with the most beaming smile despite our delay of more than an hour and a half. We quickly get on the subway and head to Haidian district where she has already booked us a great hotel at a decent price.

It is a good place to say that Chinese people bargain for everything. Not only on the street for confectionery – at hotels too. As soon as we arrive there, Zhen manages to further reduce the price by putting her exceptional bargaining skills into action. We are yet to experience more of them in the following week.

First Impressions of Beijing – Sheer Grandeur

After a quick shower, we meet her at the West Gate of Renmin University of China (or the People’s University of China), where she is following her second major. Renda, as it is colloquially called, along with Peking University, two of the most eminent Chinese hubs of knowledge, have the honour to teach one of the brightest and most hard-working young ladies I have met.

Renmin University of China
Near the West Gate of Renmin University of China

Zhen takes us to a student cafeteria where we have our first bite of China – a quite tasty and hearty meal for a negligible amount of renminbi. During dinner, we make a plan for the next week of exploring the most stupefying city I have ever set foot in. We head back to bed early as we need to recharge our batteries and deal with the jetlag.


George and I are curiously agitated to suck in every inch of Beijing and since Zhen is busy on the next day, we have to sight-see on our own. This proves to be a challenge. Armed only with our gorgeous smiles, diplomatic approach, and, of course, a tiny Chinese phrasebook, we enter into a local restaurant.

My Mandarin vocabulary is around a dozen words, George’s is non-existent. We are lucky that there are photos of the meals. We point to some, smiling and nodding. There are some surprises, but overall, the meal is quite delicious. After having finished, with the help of the phrase book, we order the bill (maidan), pay, and proudly march out of the restaurant.

First meal in Beijing
Anxiously waiting to see what we have ordered.

In the evening, Zhen introduces us to her sister and a friend of hers, and they take us to the Renmin University’s playgrounds. It is a beautiful campus, with breath-taking flowers and loads of sports facilities.

Since my friend and I are keen bars lovers (in this case, the ones that are used for pull-ups), we are astounded to see how good the sports base is. We show the girls some moves and are even applauded by some random people there. I start to fall in love with this city.

Renmin University's Playground
George doing some pull-ups which attracted the audience’s applauds.

I have heard stories, rumours, and even legends that Beijing’s air is one of the worst in China, respectively in the world. It could be a media jibber-jabber, it could be true, but in seven of our eight days in the Chinese capital, we are greeted by a blue, cloudless sky.

Haidian District, Beijing, China
The cloudless sky in the end of March, Haidian District.

The temperatures hit around 30 C (86 F) at noon, which is perfect for a walk in the Summer Palace, where the emperors used to retreat from the scorching summer sun when the mercury of thermometers can reach as high as 40 (104) degrees.

The Palace is tucked into a mesmerising park with a huge lake in the middle. The park is teeming with people and we quickly decide to head for the pedal boats in order to escape the crowd. While George and I pedal our way through the lake, our three Chinese friends sing us some traditional songs.

Summer Palace Lake Complex, Beijing, China
George and I vigorously navigating the boat.

We have no idea what the lyrics are (later we are told that they are about the lake we are in), but they have angel voices. Since the Chinese language is a tone language, pretty much everybody who can speak it fluently, is capable of singing. That explains the craze about KTV or karaoke bars.

Chinese karaoke bars are very different from their Western versions. KTV buildings resemble somewhat a hotel in the sense that your friends and you rent a room where you can sing with them, drink something, and sometimes order food (I believe in Guangzhou you can do the last). In this way, you are not embarrassed to sing in front of many people, who you do not know, and practise your performance skills.

KTV, Beijing, China
Karaoke Room (KTV)

Must-visits and Local Cuisine

You cannot go to Beijing and miss the Forbidden City – the place where the Ming and Qing dynasties have resided for almost 500 years. It is comprised of 980 buildings, 9,999 rooms, including antechambers, and covers an area of around 180 acres. Even a month is not enough to explore its one-of-a-kind architecture.

Despite our busy programme, we decide to spend a whole day there trying to absorb as much as we can. We enter into it from Tiananmen Square (a square so large it could hold 1 million people at once).

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China
Tiananmen Square

The Forbidden City

Astonished by its enormous buildings and palaces, we slowly push our way into the City. The day is even hotter than the one before it, so from time to time, we hide in the shades, which gives us an opportunity to admire the structures, constructed for such a short time.

The Forbidden City was built from 1406 to 1420. There is a host of museums inside, but due to the limited time, we satisfy ourselves with buying a book about the City and leave for Jingshan Hill. Atop, we witness a stupendous view of Beijing, its parks, and spectacular skyline. From there, we also get a picture of how colossal the Forbidden City is.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China
The Forbidden City, as seen from Jinshan Park.

HOT POT time

The evening is designated for a gourmet visit. Our lovely hosts take us to a famous hot pot place. Slightly resembling the French fondue, you are given two bouillons (spicy and milk-based) and you can order the ingredients you would like to dip into the bouillons – ranging from different kinds of fresh meat (I recommend goat) to all kinds of delectable vegetables.

The Chinese lotus flower is edible and is a real treat. In addition, you can fill a bowl with a throng of sauces – garlic, peanut, sweet and sour, coriander, to name a few – with which to garnish your boiled delicacies. Make sure you get enough green ice tea to put out the fire in your mouth as the spicy broth is quite piquant.

Hot Pot, Beijing, China
The two bouillons (milk-based and spicy from left to right) in which you dip the food.
Beijing, Hot Pot, China
Various Hot Pot ingredients – goat meat, lettuce, cabbage, sauces.

The Great Wall of China

Another must-visit place is the magnificent Great Wall of China(万里长城). The Badaling part of it is the closest to Beijing and on the next day, we are regally seated in a bus where we curiously suck in the scenery from the window.

After arriving at the foot of the mountain and in order to get on top, we take a small chain train. Probably the Mandarin language has better words to describe the fascinating view when you are on the top of the hills. We are speechless before this world wonder.

The Great Wall of China
Showing some kung-fu moves at the Wall. A Chinese got scared in the background. ^^

It ranges from 5 to 15 metres in height, around 5 metres in width and runs for more than 6,500 kilometres. According to some sources, with its branches altogether it is more than 21,000 km.

We decide that walking all the way will take years, so we just admire the views and head back to Beijing, not missing an opportunity to bargain for T-shirts, with “I have climbed the Great Wall” on them, on our way down. Thanks to Zhen, we get a sound discount and go back happy.

Beijing Duck

After this architectural wonder, we are ready for one of the culinary wonders of China – the eminent Beijing duck. The succulent skin of the duck should be eaten with sweet sauce while the fillet is supposed to be consumed with soy sauce. You put all that into a small rice pancake (or a crêpe) and add finely sliced cucumbers or onions.

The meal also includes a mouth-watering duck soup. In order for our senses to fully blossom, we decide to accompany this emperor’s treat by a ginseng tea. A real celebration of life.

Peking Duck, Beijing, China
The meal on display. Ginseng tea is served in amazingly decorated small kettles.

The Olympic City of Beijing

Beijing’s Olympic City is another wonder of the modern world. Situated on a massive territory, you find yourself between the Bird’s Nest (the Olympic Stadium), a monument of five running women representing the Olympic symbols, and the Aquarium (where water sports take place).

While taking photos in front of the running women, we are also shot (photographed) by passing Chinese girls who thank us warmly afterwards. Foreigners in China, even in cosmopolitan Beijing, are celebrities in themselves. In return, we bestow them with our kindest smiles. A fair deal, I trust.

Olympic City, Beijing, China
The Symbol of the Olympics in the Olympic City

Bargaining Time

The afternoon is reserved for some bargaining. Hong Qiao Pearl Market is a place where, as soon as you enter its colourful chambers, you are immediately surrounded by myriads of Chinese merchants speaking decent English and advertising their goods’ qualities.

Seething with emotions, we dive into a world of opulence, silk, pashmina, and, indubitably, chopsticks. At some point, I start negotiating with a woman who begins the trade with a much higher price than expected. Since George and I are not easily deceived, and after a failed round of initial trade negotiations, we decide to continue our stroll around the market.

The lady, however, is not content and starts chasing us and since I do not pay her the attention she seeks, she starts lightly hitting me on the back. Chinese could get quite aggressive. We dexterously evade her grasp and go down to the ground floor where we see the real prices.

Minutes after that when we ascend again, the hostile woman is now as calm as a puppy. She offers us a reasonable price and we become friends. We spend a couple of hundred renminbi on silk scarves and chopsticks and leave the market at dusk.

Beijing, Honq Qiao Pearl Market, China
Honq Qiao Pearl Market

On our last day in Beijing, we decide to audaciously immerse ourselves into shopping. Zhen shows us a huge market and leaves us for several hours.

We quench our thirsty eyes in a world of confectionery, scrumptious Chinese delicacies, swarms of tea, and luxurious Chinese porcelain. We spend a good amount of money on those and save our last yuans for a performance show with Chinese acrobats. Pity we were not allowed to take pictures of that magical spectacle.


After a hard-to-say goodbye and affectionate hugs, we take a taxi to the airport. On our way, around midnight, we are yet to observe the real Chinese construction power. It is how China grew in the last several decades – by non-stop work, assiduity, and discipline. Our breaths are once again taken away by the fairy-tale of generously lit skyscrapers, residential buildings, and gargantuan boulevards where even the asphalt is flabbergasting.

 

谢谢, 妹妹! 谢谢,中国!

 

Some months later, I find myself in the capital of Guangdong province – Guangzhou – which in February 2015 became the largest world agglomeration by surpassing the Japanese capital – Tokyo. But that is a different story.


Have you been atop the Great Wall of China? Have you treated your palate to the succulent Chinese duck? What was your impression of Beijing?

PIN ME, WILL YOU?

Beijing, Flabbergasting Chinese Capital, China, Near the Temple of Heaven

30 comments on “Beijing – the Flabbergasting Chinese Capital

  1. Alouise

    Gotta love those random people you meet when you travel, and how you can end up meeting up and connecting later on as well. Beijing looks like a fascinating city, one I definitely want to visit one day.

    • svet

      Yes! Indeed, the people I have met this way proved to be one of the most fascinating of all!
      The Chinese capital is a booming metropolis which has everything a passionate traveller may require – culture, historical monuments, modern landscape, mesmerizing parks, delectable food. There are so many that can impress you there – the subway system is the largest in the world (there are 18 lines at the moment), to name an example.

      Do put it in your bucket-list, but be sure to get at least some advice from a local or a person who has been there. 🙂

  2. Karla

    Love the food. Seems so delicious. I was wondering about the great wall. When I checked it out it had many entrances…. what made you choose the Badaling one ? Curious to know whuch I should take. Would you know the diffference?

    • svet

      The food was indeed delectable, but one has to be guided by locals – especially in China!

      Well, as I said, we were guided by our lovely host and she suggested visiting the Badaling one. Yes, it is most touristic due to its vicinity to Beijing. I am afraid I cannot give you some advice on other Great Wall spots, though. I know a big part of the wall is in dire straits (as a result of the rule of Mao), which is really sad judging the sheer size this world wonder has.

  3. Elaine J. Masters

    It’s always a great blessing to visit a foreign country with local friends. How fortunate to visit China that way.

    • svet

      Indeed it was great. George, I and the girls were laughing all the time. Some Chinese do have a good sense of humour!

  4. Liesbeth

    I can understand why that Chinese man got scared of your Kung Fu moves! 🙂
    Great story, makes me relive my own visit to Beijing all over again… And soooo great you were able to visit with locals!

    • svet

      Haha, were they so scary? 🙂 When were you there, Liesbeth? Beijing, respectively China, changes almost every day, so I guess it has changed a lot.

      Yes, the locals were extremely helpful, friendly and easy going.

  5. Richelle

    I’ve been living in China for a few years and I actually live super close to Renmin! It’s so fun to hear your perspective about the city because it really brings be back to how I felt when I first arrived. Also.. hot pot is my FAVORITE.

    • svet

      Hehe, great! I really loved it there, but then I lived in Guangzhou for 3 months and my fascination about China lost some of its strength. Still, it unforgettable!

      I also love hot pot, but I also like the seafood (fish) soups served in Guangzhou, large enough to feed 4 people. 🙂

  6. Maya

    It looks like you had an amazing time! I was dragged once into a karaoke bar but probably didn’t have enough drinks to actually sing..I was scared I would empty the bar, haha! Thumbs up for the pull ups 🙂

    • svet

      Hehe, yes, George and I had an unforgettable piece of experience. Singing in KTVs is quite odd at first, but it all adds up to the sensation.

      Thanks for the thumbs up.

  7. Stefan

    We loved Beijing, one of our favourite places in China and helps so much when you have a local friend. We loved the hutongs and of course the food. But the Forbidden City? Impressive but was awful for us – we went in the peak Chinese summer in mid August when every single Chinese person in the entire country decided to visit as well – no seriously, it felt like we were squashed between 2 billion of them – ha ha ha.

    Missing Beijing hot pot…and duck…and those dumpling…#nomnomnom

    • Svet

      Beijing is definitely one of my favourite places in China too. I did not have a chance to visit the hutongs, but I am sure I will visit the capital in the future. Oh, yeah, I cannot even imagine the sheer number of people coupled with the sizzling sun!

  8. Adventuring The Great Wide Somewhere

    I never knew karaoke existed in a less-embarrassing form! I definitely need a drink or three before getting up on that stage! It looks like you guys packed a ton of fun into a short trip! I’d love to try the hot pot for myself, and of course the sights look incredible! How cool that a chance meeting led to all this.

    • Svet

      Yeah, karaokes in China (and other parts of Asia, like Korea) are much less embarrassing than in Europe. We had a tremendous amount of fun I am really looking forward to going there again. I fell desperately in love with Beijing!

  9. Alyssa Setia

    One of my favorite things about traveling are the people you meet and adventures you go on! It looks like such a great city to visit, someday I hope to get there! Thanks for sharing your journey there.

    • Svet

      Oh, I am so happy that you enjoyed reading it and I a little sad because I feel Beijing-sick. One of the most amazing places I have ever visited!

  10. Alice Teacake

    It’s so awesome that you had such good weather! You’re lucky because the air really is that bad >< You're also double lucky that you had a local to show you round 😀 Was lovely to see you get up to all the stuff I love about China. I lived in Shanghai for 1.5 years but unbelievably never visited Beijing! I'll be coming back soon to catch up!

    • Svet

      Well, we were lucky for the weather, that is true, but the air – China has been trying to reduce the pollution. Probably not the best efforts though. 🙂 Did you like living in China?

  11. Sonal of Drifter Planet

    One of my favorite things of traveling to new places is getting to taste new food. The food pictures look interesting.:)

  12. SLioy

    Sounds like that local friend made sure you had quite a good trip!

  13. Hung Thai [Up Up and a Bear]

    Incredible story Svet! Isn’t it amazing the friends you’ll meet when you just open yourself up for the opportunity? I really love these chanced meetings that turn into something amazing! Beautiful!

    • Svet

      It is indeed incredible, Hung! Next to impossible almost, but yet so true! Hehe! I love it whatever it is – pure luck, destiny, faith.. 🙂

  14. Laura @ Grassroots Nomad

    One of my favourite things was all the food! My friend took me out and there was enough food for 30 people including a whole duck!!! We managed…a delicious challenge!

    • Svet

      Hehehe, I loved the food in Beijing. Where did your friend take you? :))) 30 people sounds like an enormous meal!

  15. Absolute Wanderlust

    Wow, sounds like you had the most amazing trip! I love that you were able to experience so much Chinese cuisine and had some local friends with you to assist with the bargaining process! Great article, thank you for sharing 🙂

    • Svet

      Thanks very much for reading, dear friend! I am sorry for replying so late, but your comment was marked as spam for some reason.

      The best way of travelling is when you are shown around by a local. She did an amazing job! You are very welcome!

      Have you been to Beijing?

    I bet you enjoyed what you just read! Share what impressed you most.

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