Perhaps we have left the best for last, but we all regret that our week across the country of China is over. Today we head to the capital, Beijing, and it will be completely different than anything we have seen so far, especially rural Yangshuo and Dunhuang which we loved.
And it means I have to work more. I’ve been working on the road a few hours a day, but in Beijing it will be very busy – at least until the weekend.
Landing in Beijing is uncomplicated, except we wait a while for our bags, and they play piano sonatas in the airport, which seems grim and slightly affected. The drive into town is interesting enough. There is a mix of old soviet and ultra modern architecture.
The girls are really surprised by the Hyatt hotel, which is much nicer than expected. The concierge gives me a free upgrade onto the top floor. Fantastic! The view, although hazy, is very nice.
For much of the morning I have been furiously texting with a company in Beijing to plan an activity for this evening. I have decided to go for an expensive tour that I found through trip advisor. Most of the reviews say “expensive, but worth it” – the costs, even with discounts for kids is $500 – a blowout to our budget. But my hunch is this is pretty cool.
We have just enough time to put down our bags in the room before we have to go. The girls are eagerly awating the surprise, about which they have only been told that they won’t have to walk a lot, and that it’s super cool. It seems our drivers are a little late so everyone takes a peak at the swimming pool, which is underground but surprisingly beautiful for an indoor pool.
Beijing by motorbike
And when we come back outside, I see our two drivers in front of two Chang Jiang bikes. We are taking a four hour city tour on Beijing on classic motorcycles with sidecars. The girls high-five each other with excitement. And after a few photographs we head off in the warm, but not sweltering Beijing evening.
As we get up to speed, I briefly worry that we elected to skip the helmets. Helmets are not compulsory here. But our guide Gael assured us that there are no highways, and in fact we would be crawling along at low speeds most of the time. Beijing just has too much traffic, and the girls are in the side-cars. Parents are on rear seats that are surprisingly comfortable, with springs and a wide seat.
Being out in the open air is really a treat. The drivers wind up and down hutongs first, which are the side streets and alleys of old Beijing. Some have stores and restaurants, some seems deserted, some have families cooking dinner outside.
Old Beijing Mansions
Gael, our main driver and tour guide, stops first at Gui Gong Fu, a Qin dynasty mansion for a prince of the Empress Dowager Cixi. (Tsi-shi). It’s been restored into a Peking Duck house that can do many different size dinners. If I were here with just Trish, I would definitely come here, but it’s not a family joint.
They have a wisteria that has to be 100 years old and there are rooms with Ming and Qin antiques. Trish looks like she is smoking a doobie, but she means to be sipping tea (English style I guess). Already I’m glad to have done this tour. We would never have seen this spot.
Another old hutong courtyard home is the Huilinh center for the mentally disabled. They run a day center that helps Chinese with mental disabilities make a little money with crafts and learn some basic skills. We buy some bracelets as gifts for the girls’s friends at home. It’s a sweet place.
Riding on bikes is dehydrating. Gael knows every spot in town and decides to take us to the Hongqiao Pearl Market, which is south and a little east of the center.
It’s unassuming from the inside, just knock-off converse and electronics. We grab drinks from a small stand inside the door of the super-mall.
Surprisingly, on the top floor are some very inexpensive freshwater pearl shops, a bathroom and an outdoor terrace that overlooks the Temple of Heaven park. It’s open to the public and we get a nice view in the sunset.
Trish likes some of the pearl necklaces and gets one for $25 or so and Emma buys cute earrings for $2. This is another great little spot we would never have seen. And it’s a fantastic introduction to Beijing.
Traffic in the world’s most populous country
Traffic is crazy here! They don’t quite obey lights, lanes or signals. But there is sort of an order to things. It’s not nearly as bad as Cairo, which was a taxi demolition derby. Fortunately as a motorcycle, we could go anywhere – including bike lanes, sidewalks, the wrong side of the road and through the alleys. It makes getting around fast, and we never really felt unsafe.
From the Pearl Market, everyone headed north to get our first look at the forbidden city from the outside. We drive through the front gate and could see soldiers marching in the background of Tienanmen square as they lowered the flag for the evening.
These bikes were designed in WWI
The bikes themselves are part of the fun. The Cheng Jiang motorcycles are based on an original design from Germany, the BMW R71, the engineering and production capacity of which were traded with the Soviets in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression treaty of 1939.
The bikes were then improved slightly by the Soviets and used against the Germans in the war. Afterward they were produced for the Soviet market internally as the Ural, which is still in production and sold mostly to the USA to classic motorcycle hobbyists.
Although it is no longer in production in China, the manufacturer still makes parts, and the tour Beijing Sidecar has 7 of these bikes. The one I am on stalls a few times, and the speedometer is broken. But I’m sure we have the oldest bikes because we booked at the last minute.
The only hill in Beijing, and it’s fake.
Then as dusk finally turned to night, we caught the final glimpses of sunlight from the cities highest ‘natural’ spot – Jingshan park, behind the Forbidden City. When the moat was dug for the Imperial Palace they moved the earth manually to a hill behind, which was useful for ceremonies and accommodated Feng Shui ideals.
But the real reason to be up here is to see the roof tops of the Forbidden City, which gives you a sense of how big and dense it is. I can’t wait to get inside, but that’s almost a week away.
Now it’s time to see some of Beijing’s night life. We crawl through the people on Nanlougu Xiang, which is a street that has lots of upscale (but not brand name) stuff. It looks cute, with restaurants, clothing stores and interesting purchasables, a little like the lower east side in Manhattan is today. It’s right near the drum tower, which is the old center of the city.
Also very near by is the massive waterfront district of the front and back lakes. “Front and Back, I say?” How boring! Most Chinese names are like “9 orderly rows of golden goose lake” and “Eagle flies to musical paradise pond”. Are the two most important lakes really called “Front and Back?” He laughs. Yeah, it seems Chinese language can be extremely flowery or extraordinarily practical.
The Houhai, and Xihai lakes are bordered end to end with restaurants. There are boats, including ones you can pilot yourself for rent. It’s quite a scene and the number of people are staggering. We vow to come back here before the week is out.
Lastly, we circle Tienanmen Square, with the big portrait of Mao, and the Soviet styled communist party buildings. It’s a throwback for me, having spent so much time in Russia. The girls don’t yet appreciate this square for it’s historical significance, which is mostly symbolic. It has been the official ‘entrance’ to China for centuries and is located right in front of the Forbidden City.
One of the newest buildings in China is the Opera house, which houses three theaters in an area that was once hutongs, but was demolished to create this huge park and egg shaped building that glows in changing colored lights. The shape is meant to contrast with the rigid square shapes of the Forbidden city and the Soviet architecture. It’s a stunning sight at night. I can only imagine what it’s like inside.
And we go back to the hotel. This has been one of the best four hours we’ve ever spent and it was well worth the money. I think I would do this again if I come back to Beijing, and it’s the perfect way to start a city trip. We covered miles of tough city streets in 4 hours that would have taken days to see on foot.