Discovering Beijing On A Budget
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, China @ February 12, 2012 - 3:38 pm

By Thamar and Richard

Our first full day in China

Needless to say our first night in Beijing we slept like the dead and awoke to a see that the sun was up but not the temperature - still in the minus (although for a brief moment it may have got into the positive).

We had no real agenda but knew we wanted to see some of the big sights. Luckily we picked a good place to stay as most of the sights were just south of the Houhai District. Since we weren't going to tackle traffic on our bicycles just yet we decided to walk. Our point of reference was the huge Drum and Bell Tower across the road. We headed in that direction and found a trendy little coffee shop where we ordered two cappuccinos, which came to about R50 - the same as it would in SA. Since then we've realised that this was massively expensive (we've figured out you can get a McDonalds coffee for about R10 and we've been sticking to that).

After the Drum and Bell Tower we headed to Jingshan Park, an artificial hill, which looks over The Forbidden City. The park was pretty bleak since it was winter, but we did enjoy a hot milk tea overlooking the city and Tham bought some Chinese pins - most of them have the face of Mao Zedong, who the people still seem to be nuts about.

Jingshan Park

Next we headed to The Forbidden City or Palace Museum, which is bordered by a frozen moat. It was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 720 000 square metres.

We also stopped midway for another tea - just to try and abate the cold a little. There is generally a huge contrast in prices here. At a touristy location like The Palace Museum you could say for instance buy a milk tea for R7-R10 a cup, while the same cup of tea would cost you R4 at any other local spot. Another example is the meal we had last night. We paid R160 for two dishes and a beer which we shared and then today for lunch we plucked up the courage to and headed to a quaint local eatery where they spoke no English and managed to share a massive bowl of egg-drop soup and about 20 dumplings and got two bottles of water all for R35 or so!

Day Two

On our second day we headed further South past The Forbidden City after a quick stop at the Smile Bakery on the corner for a bagel-looking thing for Rich to eat, while Tham had an almost-muffin (their bread stuff is more like cake really). Our first stop was the People's Cultural Park which is across the road from Tian'anmen Square. The entrance is huge in size and very impressive with its decorative roof - and there's even a massive poster of Chairman Mao. As we went through the entrance we were packed liked herding cattle - everyone wanting their picture in front of their hero's portrait.

There was a large security presence at Tian'anmen Square as one would expect and we had to check our bags as we made our way under the road and up to the enormous square with what seemed like 10 000 other people. The Square is the third largest city square in the world. It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history. Outside China, the square is best known in recent memory as the focal point of the Tian'anmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended on 4 June 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the death of at least hundreds of protesters.

Needless to say it was overwhelming standing in this place which has such significance and is so ingrained in our minds as a place of terror and oppression but to the people here is seemed like just another 'great site of the people'. Quite eerie really...

We kept heading south and found ourselves in a trendy shopping district called Qianmen - not unlike Oxford Street in London. People here absolutely love to shop and this place was even more packed.

It was getting late but we really wanted to see the Temple of Heaven - we'd been walking the whole time though - probably covering a good 10 kilometres already as we didn't want to have to tackle the Chinese bus system, and so we had to practically run to try make it on time. Unfortunately the actual temple was closed but the park surrounding it was still open and we got to stroll around. It really was idyllic with the moon rising behind the awe-inspiring temple. It was only interrupted by some touts trying to sell us wooden models of the temple.

As we headed back to our accommodation exhausted after walking about 20 kilometres during the day, we found a little side-alley restaurant where they spoke no English at all. Luckily there was an American guy having dinner with a Chinese guy and they helped us order some Gong Bow Ji Ding which is actually the only dish that Tham's really knows in Chinese - or knew at that time...