17 May 2016
Beijing sightseeing: eating Peking Duck, visiting the Olympic Park and exploring the historic hutong area around Houhai Lake.
On the second main day of the conference there is an optional visit to the Great Wall but it is exactly the same place I am scheduled to visit on a tour later in my stay in China. Instead my colleague Liverpool and I have planned to do our own sightseeing that afternoon and another colleague Mark decides to join us. Liverpool has contacted a friend to find a good place to have Peking Duck for lunch and the three of us are treated to a delicious feast including the whole ceremony of the chef carving the duck and us being shown how to assemble our ‘duck pancakes’ correctly.
Unfortunately Liverpool is not feeling well and decides he had better go back to the hotel, but he shows Mark and I how to navigate the subway system first. I have some maps and other information so we decide we are up to the challenge. It is really easy when you know how and very cheap: you can select ‘English’ on the ticket machine; a map is shown on the screen and you enter in your destination – selecting first the line it is on and then the station; it tells you how much it will be and you have the choice of how many tickets you want before confirming. We are going quite a distance and it costs us 5 yuan each (just over NZ$1). The ticket is printed out and you scan it on the turnstile as you enter and insert it as you exit your destination. The signage is good and is in English as well. The only trick is to make sure you are going in the right direction but there are maps on both sides of the platform showing all the stations and including an arrow to show which way the train is heading. When you get on the train there are excellent electronic displays showing all the stations with a red light showing where you are and green lights indicating the next stations; the names are written in Chinese and English and upcoming stations are announced in both languages as well.
Our first stop is the Olympic Park and we are blown away by how huge the area is – particularly the massive expanse of concrete in the middle linking everything together (we decided it would be great for rollerskating or learning to ride a bike). There are huge towers at either end (one where the Olympic flame was lit) and as we walk along we see gigantic halls and indoor stadiums – and that is even before we get to the iconic Birds Nest stadium and the Water Cube. Apparently they are lit up at night time and look absolutely spectacular. Although it is possible to go inside the Birds Nest and Water Cube, it is unseasonably hot (at least 32C) and even with the light breeze we agreed that we’d prefer to go and explore the hutongs instead. There are subway stations at either end of the park so you can go in either direction.
Hutongs are narrow streets or alleyways formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences joined together. The word hutong is also used to refer to the neighbourhood. Many of these traditional neighbourhoods have been demolished in the recent urbanisation and modernisation of Beijing but some have been protected to preserve their cultural heritage. We visit the most famous Shichahai area which surrounds a series of connected lakes. This area is close to the Forbidden City and was home to many of the high-ranking officials during the various dynasties. I have just read Empress Dowager Cixi – a historical account of the end of the Qing Dynasty and am intrigued to see for myself where it was all set. Prince Gong’s mansion can be visited but we get there just as it is closing. Away from the lake to the west it is not touristy at all except for the rickshaws, with their drivers either trying to convince us we need a ride or passing through with passengers already on board. We are happy to explore the area on foot but have also heard that rickshaw scams are rife in this area, charging a fortune to the unwary. We also see a lot of restoration work underway and some very grand entrance ways. Every now and then we get a little glimpse inside the courtyards.
Lake Houhai is surrounded by trees and the lake itself is full of boats for hire – it is a very scenic spot. We were pleased to see it was very popular with the locals as well. We passed through one area full of men in a curious assortment of bathing attire, some toweling off after their swim and others just getting in. Some had long fishing poles jiggling in the water, although I don’t think I’d eat anything out of that lake. I had just remarked that we were clearly passing through the men’s swimming club when we saw a large sign in stone saying no swimming and no fishing. Further around the lake is the Marina Market area with lots of little stalls selling all manner of edibles: little white jars of Beijing yoghurt that is apparently always served at room temperature, Old Beijing pig tripe, stinky tofu, octopus balls….
Where the two lakes join is the Silver Ingot Bridge and this area is certainly aimed mostly at the tourist market with a vast selection of bars and restaurants, many offering live music of varying qualities. We spot a rooftop bar and decide to retreat up there to rest our feet for a while. It was very pleasant trying out a local beer and watching the world passing by, with a cooling breeze blowing through.
Suitably refreshed we head towards the Bell & Drum Tower that we can see above the other buildings. Back in the Imperial Dynasty days, bells and drums were sounded to indicate that the gates of the Forbidden City were opening and the Emperor entering or departing. Today it is an impressive monument in the middle of a traffic island, and we are too late to go inside. On the way we pass through a very touristy part of the hutong brimming with tourist trinkets.
Then we make our way to the subway station to return to the hotel. It is rush hour so the trains are very crowded but it is a much better experience than I had anticipated. People are very orderly and polite, mostly much better dressed than we are and everyone has their heads down looking at their phones with no interest in us whatsoever. Although we do take care of our bags we decide that no-one would have the slightest interest in stealing our devices as they already have much more up-to-date technology. At one point we are so jammed in that there is no need to hold on to anything as we won’t be moving anywhere but it isn’t an unpleasant experience. The transfer between lines is uneventful and thanks to Liverpool’s instructions we even manage to exit the subway at a place that we can recognise where we are and find our way back to our rooms.
Liverpool has had a good rest and is out eating noodles when I get back but then we go to visit the Ole supermarket in the mall. It is an extremely upmarket supermarket stocking luxury goods from around the world. The fruit and vegetable displays greet you at the entrance and look absolutely stunning. Pride of place in the middle of this are lots of NZ products: gold kiwi fruit of a quality we don’t see at home; Jazz apples and tubes of Rockit apples; even NZ pumpkins. We wander around the store in amazement, me taking photos and Liverpool finding some medicine.
There is another day of conference to go complete with a Gala Dinner in the evening. After the conference people are all heading their separate ways and my holiday is just beginning.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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