This month I took my first trip to Beijing. Just as I thought it would, the old Capital checked many boxes: great food, warm people, and loads of history. Here’s a look at the highlights of my trip.
After traveling by train the previous night, I did not want to get out of bed on Saturday morning. I had done quite a bit of wandering to find the place the night before, and my bones were begging to lay in bed for thirty minutes longer. My adventurous side wouldn’t hear of it though, and the warmth of the sun funneling through the skylight beckoned me out of bed. After mapping out my day, I got on my clothes and headed out of the Hutong and on to breakfast.
After a quick, but delicious fast food breakfast, I made my way to the metro and headed for the Forbidden City. Fortunately for me, I had my translator on my phone as well as the Beijing subway map. Those aids—paired with the metro workers’ bits of pieces of English—helped me get where I wanted to go. I had found a place to stay in the history Hutong and Dongcheng area of Beijing, so the historical center was less than a 30 minute subway ride away.
Once I found my way to the Forbidden City entrance, I was blown away by the long lines of people. This is the off season for Chinese attractions, and still people stood shoulder to shoulder, patiently waiting for their turn to enter. Despite the crowds (I only saw one foreigner in line besides myself), the cue moved relatively quickly, and I was only in line for about 30 minutes. And to my great surprise, only one woman asked to take a photo with me. It was a very pleasant surprise and a nice break from the usual finger pointing, staring, laughing, and general amusement I receive from the locals.
Once inside, I was greeted by a light breeze, brilliant sunshine, and throngs of people walking to and fro. There are a number of sites to be seen inside of the complex, but it seemed that most people were making their way through the tunnel below Mao Zedong’s portrait (to the Forbidden City).
I have always admired the cleverness of the Chinese. They don’t charge you any admission to get through security and walk around the place. It’s only once you’ve stood in line for at least 30 minutes and walked through several gates do they ask you to pull out your money. By that point, anyone who wasn’t expecting the prices or thought it was free will feel inclined to pay, even if they weren’t going to. Genius! I was prepared myself and happy to head inside this mysterious landmark that was once adorned by the dynasties and rulers of the Middle Kingdom.
After passing through several corridors, courtyards, and gates, I was blown away by the architecture, artistry, and elegance of the Forbidden City. Words can’t express the awe and wonder that fell upon me as I visited the Ceramics House, Gate of Supreme Harmony, Mountain of Accumulated Elegance, and other incredible wonders. As I walked around and took it all in, all I could think of is what my Dad always says, “What man can do.” My mind wanted to continue down every alleyway, ever room, and every nook and cranny. But my body was growing tired, and the four hour train ride to Beijing was catching up to me. I made up my mind that I couldn’t see it all in one day, and that I would return for another visit. After taking more photos, I made my way to the exit.
Later that night, after a shower and a much needed nap, I made my way out on the town for some good traditional Chinese food. I had read about this restaurant in my e-travel book. It said Man Fou Lou Restaurant had individual hot pots (my favorite Chinese meal), a lovely atmosphere, and English Menus. What more could I ask for? After a long day of walking around this megacity, I prayed to just have a nice, easy evening. Thankfully, I stepped out of my Hutong rental and immediately hailed a taxi (something I could not do the night before). I showed the driver the Chinese name of the restaurant and he nodded and took me right there. At the lovely restaurant, I waited for about five minutes and was shown upstairs to a beautifully decorated dining room. The staff was curious and courteous, helping me order and even cooking my lamb and vegetables at the table for me.
At one point an African American guy came up to me and said, “I’m sorry to bother you Ms., but I just had to come over and say hello to you. I’ve been here with my family for five days, and you’re the first Black person I’ve seen.” I told him he was the third I’d seen. We both had a good laugh while the staff stood curiously by, trying to make out what we were saying. He asked for a photo with me, which I happily took. Unfortunately, his Chinese guide did not get the photo of us on my camera. He didn’t press the button hard enough! By the time I realized his mistake, they were out of sight, on their way back to their dinner table. Well, hopefully there will be another opportunity to take a photo with a fellow African American in China!
After a fantastic dinner, I meandered along the sidewalks, past lit weeping willows and the sounds of traffic and youthful laughter. I had paid careful attention in the taxi to the direction we had traveled to the restaurant, and figured I could easily make my way back by walking and the subway. At the intersection, there was a cute little bakery on the other side of the street. I dared to check it out an was rewarded with a delicious durian pastry. Of all places to find my favorite fruit, baked up in a delicious little cake! As traveling has taught me, being curious and daring usually pays off.
Sunday was my last full day in Beijing. And although I had barely just arrived, I needed some serious R&R. And as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts, in Asia, R&R for me means bathouse. My Hutong host suggessted a premium spa in the city center, but I found it to be on the pricy side. So instead, I opted for one I had found on the internet. But before I made my way there, it was time for a good American Breakfast.
Again, my trusty e-travel book didn’t disappoint, and after getting directions from about six people, I made my way to a lovely little American diner, a good 40 minute subway ride East of where I was staying. The breakfast, complete with fresh strawberries and gourmet hot-press coffee was well worth the trouble, and the next time I’m in town, I will certainly make my way there again.
After a hearty breakfast, it was time for the bathhouse. Getting there by metro and then taxi was pretty straightforward. But after arrival, it took forever to get information such as the cost of a body scrub and admission from the front desk clerk. They were all very nice, but standing there translating on our phones for 30 minutes was a sobering reminder of my desperate need to learn some Chinese.
Once inside, I put my valuables in a locker and took a look around the place. This was by far the biggest hot springs resort I had ever visited. Indoors there was pool after pool to swim in and enjoy. There was also a huge swimming pool in the center of the building. Lovely red, white, and black fish swam around the peaceful garden area. Fresh fruit was served as well as traditional Chinese treats. My body scrub was, as usual, incredible, and I shuddered to see the all the dirt and dead skin that a regular shower just can’t wash away, no matter how hard I always scrub. As I was preparing to leave, I decided to take one more walk around the place. I found a whole other side of the spa I didn’t even know was there, as well as like, 10 other outdoor pools! I stayed there, enjoying the relaxing hot springs for about five hours, but next time, I will get there earlier and stay much longer! I can never get enough of the bathhouses!
The next morning, I showered, brushed my teeth, packed the last of my belongings, and headed to the metro station. After missing the train by five minutes on the way up there (I was able to catch the next train) I had learned my lesson about allowing myself extra time. I hustled to the metro, and got to the station about 30 minutes before take off. I got some fast food for breakfast and was sitting on the train about 10 minutes before departure. I sat there, eating breakfast, listening to Gospel music and reminiscing on an awesome weekend getaway. Beijing did not disappoint: the people were friendly, the weather was surprisingly good for mid-March, and the atmosphere was awesome. Although I’m not a fan of megacities, Beijing has got my vote, and I will definitely head back there very soon!