Updated: Aug 20, 2019
This was my first working trip abroad of 2019, and my third visit to China, and if I’m honest I was quite apprehensive during the weeks leading up to my departure. There are aspects of China that I find a real challenge: very few people speak any English, spitting in public places is socially acceptable, public toilets are most often squatting toilets (and not very clean!) and local food tends to be very spicy. However on my arrival I soon realised there were things about Beijing that I was going to love: it seldom rains, and waking up to blue skies and sunshine every day was a game changer! Whereas South China is very humid, the air in Beijing is very dry and whilst my skin suffered a little, my frizzy hair was frizzy no more and I could leave the hotel without worrying about looking like a poodle. The city is vast and traffic is insane, but there is so much to see and do I knew I wasn’t going to spend my weekends bored and lonely. I’d expected to struggle with air pollution but there were only a couple of days when the air felt ‘gritty’, and it seems the government is making big strides in controlling pollution and clearing the air around the city.
I only had five free days to cram in everything on my sightseeing list, and it wasn’t quite enough to fit it all in, especially as on a couple of those days I also had to move hotels, relocating to different areas of the city. I spent an afternoon wandering around Tian’anmen Square, a huge public space that was surprisingly not crowded, followed by a wander along Wangfujing pedestrian street. Here you can find the fancy shopping malls with all the usual big brands and western high street shops, as well as a side street selling fried scorpions on sticks and other culinary delights!
Following my first week of work I was keen to escape the city and spend some time in the sunshine, so along with a colleague I spent an afternoon strolling around the Summer Palace. Despite not being too far from the city centre, the air feels a lot fresher and there is so much outside space to wander around and explore. The buildings are colourful and the blossom trees were just starting to flower – these are a huge attraction in the spring and you need a lot of patience if you want to capture the perfect photo! This was the perfect antidote to a week spent at a desk and a must-see if you ever find yourself in Beijing.
The Forbidden City was one of the places I definitely wanted to see while I was there, however I found the whole experience quite stressful and exhausting! I don’t think you’ve experienced crowds until you’ve experienced crowds in China, and the number of people visiting this attraction meant there was a lot of noise and a lot of pushing and shoving. The Forbidden City itself is huge and to do it properly you need the best part of a day – if crowds are not your thing, I would highly recommend Lamma Temple as an alternative. I visited this temple the following weekend and found it to be a much smaller version of the Forbidden City – the buildings are just as pretty however it’s a lot less stressful to walk around, you only need an hour or two to take it all in, and the area around the temple is also interesting to explore. You can wander around the ‘hutongs’ (side streets), experiencing the more authentic side of Beijing, and I stumbled across a cute vegan restaurant with really delicious food.
The highlight of the trip was of course being able to visit the Great Wall of China. It required a taxi journey, shuttle bus and cable car to reach the wall, but it was certainly worth the effort. The views are breathtaking and to be able to walk on the wall itself is an incredible experience. I certainly wasn’t prepared for how steep it was in some places, with big giant steps that were difficult to walk up and down, together with tiny baby steps – as you look at the wall snaking off into the distance, winding its way through the mountains, it’s impossible to comprehend how they managed to build it, and how it’s survived for so long. We went to the Mutianyu section of the wall, which is less busy than Badaling (the section closest to the city), and I was really impressed with how organised the site was, with good tourist facilities at the entrance.
I can certainly say that this was my favourite visit to China so far and if you enjoy exploring cities I would highly recommend visiting! I’m so grateful that my job allows me to experience these new places, especially those that I would never have thought to visit as a holiday. China may have it’s challenges but I feel richer for having experienced it’s vibrant, colourful culture.