I decided the first stop on my journey would be Beijing. I’m not too interested in big cities, but I figured Beijing is a must. From Dalian, it also made sense to start there, because I wanted to head West and then South. Tickets for trains in China sell out fast. I remember I had looked one day and there were tickets available, and the next day they were all gone. I decided to buy a second class seat tickets, 215 yuan($33), to Beijing because all the cheaper options were sold out.
After packing up my dorm and giving away things to friends, I woke up early Saturday morning to take the bus to the train station. I had my big backpacking pack and my smaller day backpack. The train station is always a little overwhelming.
The thing about China is that because there are so many people, there are always huge lines. The other thing I’ve discovered, is that even if the line looks ridiculously long, they usually go faster than you think. You do have to get used to some pushing, and sometimes cutting, but in general, I am impressed at how the Chinese handle all these crowded spaces.
The train ride was pretty comfortable. There was AC and I listened to my music and slept. The time seemed to go by pretty quickly.
Arriving to Beijing and stepping out of the train, I was hit with a very hot, humid, and not too great smelling air. There was just a sea of people at the Beijing train station. After making my way through the station and outside, I walked for a while and finally found the bus that I believed would take me to the area where my hostel was. I paid only 2 yuan (30 cents) and sat down in a mostly empty and thankfully air-conditioned bus. I always try to take the bus whenever I can, because it is much cheaper than taking a taxi or other forms of transportation. The traffic was horrible so we ended up stopped in one spot for over 30 minutes. The bus also ran out of battery twice and the driver had to pull over, wait, and turn off the AC. So it took almost 2 hours to finally arrive to the stop where I thought my hostel was.
I got out and made my way down some hutongs. (Hutongs 胡同 are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. Hutongs represent an important cultural element. Thanks to Beijing’s long history and status as capital for six dynasties, almost every hutong has its anecdotes, and some are even associated with historic events.)
It was a very crowded alley with a ton of Chinese tourists and shops along the road. I finally found my hostel, Beijing Backpacker Hostel 85 yuan ($13) per night, and was very glad to be able to put my bag down and rest for a little.
As I was resting, a guy walked in and we exchanged hellos. Nicolas was from France, although he was half Chinese. He spoke with a heavy French accent. He told me how the oil industry in France was doing badly and that he had been fired from his job. For the past 5 years, for one month a year, he has been coming to Beijing. He studies Kung Fu under a teacher here, who happens to be one of only 5 left that teaches this style. Nicolas was really easy to talk with. After I had gone out to get some dinner on my own near the hostel, him and I bought some drinks and went up to the roof of the hostel.
We had great discussions about European politics, the recent terror attacks, the protests happening in the US, and Trump and Hilary. I learned a lot about France that I didn’t know previously. Apparently, the French are very racist. They also have a huge problem because about 3000 people from the poor areas in France in the past few years had traveled to Syria and are now all back in France. They are unsure which people have good intentions and which people do not.
In the morning, we had free breakfast together in the hostel, I packed up my things, we walked to the subway together and parted ways.
My next goal was to make it to Beijing West Railway Station and meet my Couchsurfing host at 3pm. I spent the next 5 hours resting and walking with my heavy backpacking pack on my back, and day pack in my front. I think I need to figure out a better way to pack my bag, because my back and shoulders were hurting. After some exploring, the time arrived to meet my host.
First meeting Shane, I felt pretty comfortable talking to him. He was a very well spoken Chinese guy. He had an apartment very close to the West Railway Station. After dropping my stuff off at his place, I rested for a bit and then we went out for dinner.
He brought me to a hot-pot restaurant, and this would be the first time trying hotpot. I let Shane order everything, because reading Chinese menus is too difficult most of the time. We ate intestines, tofu, some sheep, and finally, brain. We had to make sure the brain was thoroughly boiled, or you could get really sick. This is my second time eating brain, the first time was a cow’s brain, and I didn’t like the way it was prepared. This time, I enjoyed it.
Shane is a journalist for CCTV, which is one of the largest media in China. It was interesting talking to him about media in China and his opinions on the rest of the world’s media. Especially because as we all know, the media in China is censored. He also went on a trip to Antarctica with a Chinese team to report on their new research site and was personally recognized by China’s president. An interesting guy.
While I stayed at his place, he asked if I could help edit his essay applications to Yale, Columbia, and other top business schools. I accepted and ended up putting a lot of effort into helping him with his essays.
The next day was a long one. I woke up early and headed to Tiananmen square, then to the Forbidden City. Tiananmen square is just a giant square, honestly not too exciting, but just cool to see because of the history. I spent over two hours in the Forbidden City. Even though it was very hot and crowded, it was an interesting place to see and definitely worth the 20 yuan($3.00). (Originally 60 yuan but I got a student price).
After the Forbidden City, I took the subway to the area where the Yonghe Temple is. I walked down a hutong that reminded me of an artsy part of San Francisco or New York City. Lots of small shops with interesting styles. I found a Mexican restaurant, and for the first time since I’ve been in China, I ate tacos. They were actually good.
Afterwards, I walked over to the Yonghe Lama Temple 雍和宫, “Palace of Peace and Harmony”. It is a temple and monastery of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism located in Dongcheng District. I explored all of the many rooms with the different statues of Buddha and other gods. Most of the Chinese there were intensely praying to each statue. I’ve heard that they pray for wealth, luck, or help with school or jobs, even though they aren’t Buddhist, or any religion for that matter. There was one really large Buddha statue that was really impressive. I believe it said it was 18 meters tall.
Afterwards, I walked through and explored some more hutongs. It really felt like old style China. I also awkwardly walked into some alleys that I wasn’t sure if people lived there or if it was a public alley, but I was curious.
Returning to Shane’s apartment that night felt great. I was sweaty and tired from walking around all day. I helped him a little more with his essays and talked some more. He told me it was getting harder and harder to be a journalist in China, and that their salaries were getting lower. They are being replaced by robots that can automatically generate news stories.
In the morning, I said goodbye to Shane and headed to the train station. On the way down his apartments steps, I twisted my ankle wearing sandals with my large bag on. I’m not sure how it happened. Maybe I just suck at wearing sandals. It’s a little painful, and hard to move.
I’m currently on a train to Hohhot (呼和浩特）. I am on what is called a “hard sleeper.” It’s basically a small bed that each person gets in a long hall full of beds. There are 3 bunks stacked on top of each other. It’s pretty comfortable, and my ticket was only 142 yuan ($24) for a 9 hour train ride(300 miles or 500km).
I’m really hoping that my ankle feels better, because it could make my travels a bit more difficult.
Let me know what you think in the comments! What are your feelings on Beijing?
To be continued…