The overnight train from Hangzhou may have been the end of my modeling career, but it was only the beginning of our adventures in Beijing. As Anna and I made our way to our newest hostel, I noted that Beijing was very different than hip, flashy Shanghai. The city was older, historic and slower paced, although still plenty crowded. Our hostel, the Peking Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, was on a hutong in a fantastic location.
A hutong is a narrow street or alleyway lined on both sides by traditional residences. These were the neighborhoods of olden days, although now most hutongs have either been demolished, or the old homes have been turned into shops/restaurants and hostels, as was the case with ours.
Our hostel was on a street filled with cute boutiques, a variety of restaurants and was within walking distance of the subway and a bus stop. We got a double room with a private bathroom, only slightly more expensive and a definite step up from our room in Shanghai. The room was clean, the staff were friendly and helpful and breakfast was included at the cute little restaurant next door. Having not been overly impressed with Chinese food up to this point, I was glad to see some more familiar options on the menu, even if they were a little strange for breakfast, and ended up ordering a tuna sandwich every day. I recall it being delicious, don’t judge.
Since we had slept on the train, we showered quickly and then hit the streets for a full first day of touring. Our first stop was the Lama Temple, a beautiful 17th century Buddhist temple and monastery. It was a lovely, spiritual place, and very peaceful despite all the tourists and thick clouds of burning incense.
The temple is still active today and we encountered many monks studying, praying and prohibiting pictures of the 85 foot tall Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. That is awesome to behold and definitely the main attraction at the temple. Of all the temples in Beijing the Lama Temple is one of the most popular and definitely worth a stop!
We followed the Lama Temple up with a trip to Beijing’s main tourist attraction, the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the Chinese Imperial Palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.
I loved these adorable tour groups waiting outside the main entrance. They all wore matching hats, I guess so that if anyone got lost, they would be able to find their group again? Ingenious and hilarious.
I did not find the red and yellow palace to be particularly beautiful, although it is huge and very well preserved. I did like the glimpses inside the living quarters, like these bedrooms, and the guided audio tour with stories about the emperors and their families was fascinating.
Remember when I talked about people constantly taking our pictures, hence why we weren’t creeped out with the train modeling? Here’s a perfect example of Anna posing with a small Chinese child per his mothers request after he pointed her out in the crowd and shouted “meiguoren!” (“AMERICAN!”).
Shortly after a man asked for a picture of the two of us. Maybe we were mistaken for celebrities since he was taking our picture but before we knew it there was an entire line of tourists photographing us. I snapped a picture of a few of them which made them all laugh.
Perhaps my modeling career didn’t end on the train after all
The Forbidden City is directly across from another famous tourist stop, Tiananmen Square.
I remember learning about the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre back in high school and found it to be a very eerie place. You must pass through a metal detector to enter the square and it is full of armed guards, both in uniform and plain clothed. There are huge television screens that play beautiful images of the Chinese countryside on a constant loop along with weird propaganda-like captions such as “Welcome to China, the best country in the world”. It was very surreal, and I remember feeling uncomfortable and keenly aware that I was somewhere VERY different than the states for the first time during the trip.
We were hungry leaving Tiananmen Square and decided to grab some snacks from a street vendor as we made our way back to the hostel.
Surprisingly, those delicious looking deep fried mystery balls were absolutely disgusting and seemed to be filled with raw squid, vomit. I’m not totally sure what the other delicacy on a stick was but it appeared to be crab apples glazed in sugar and they were yummy. Lesson learned, never judge street food by it’s appearance! We tucked in early that night knowing that we had to be up early for the highlight of the trip the following morning, hiking the Great Wall!