August 5, 2018
Our first weeks in China contained some breakneck tourist activities, and we arrived in Beijing exhausted from the overnight slow train. So we spent our first day doing pretty much nothing. We were super lucky to get to stay at a friends place near the embassy. We know her from DC, and were excited to catch up, but unfortunately she was out of town during our stay. But thanks Devon for letting us crash at your place, it was wonderful!
There is a lot to see in Beijing, so we hit up the touristing the next day. We did a bit of a 2008 Olympics tour and visited the site of the games. The architecture of the stadium and surrounding buildings is quite interesting. But in general I’m interested in the other weird ghosts of the Olympics like the abandoned kayaking course, which we didn’t have time to visit, but there’s also a velodrome!
So next we went to velodrome. It was an hour plus metro ride to the Laoshan Velodrome on the west side of the city. As we made our way around the entire velodrome and it looked totally abandoned and perhaps converted into a training center for youth fencing. But eventually we started to see some folks milling about. We entered the building on the north side and were greeted by a security guard who just waved us in without question. And so we walked up into the center of a beautiful 250 m wooden track. The track was in use by some serious cyclists, perhaps even the national team based on the bike paint jobs.
I was nervous about asking to ride. The other velodromes I visited were obviously used by amateurs. Fortunately Christina pushed on and inquired if I could ride on the track. We were passed off onto a coach who spoke basic English. In what seems surprisingly common for the velodromes we have visited, she said no problem and sized me up for a bike and told us to come back tomorrow.
We showed up the next day at the assigned time and the coach was no where in sight. Crap. So we asked another set of coaches, this time using spotty google translations. This coach didn’t even blink and just searched around for a bike for me to ride and told me to wait until the team finished up its laps. So I warmed up on a fly Look bike (I was originally sized up for a Zhoukou team bike which would have been awesome, but I’m not complaining here). I was provided with a helmet, but I was riding clipless pedals in sneakers. No brakes, but there was no one else on the track so it wasn’t too worrisome.
I was told to stay below the red line (not up onto the banks) and just set loose on the track. I had no clue how many laps I was permitted to ride, but I just kept going until the enthusiastic thumbs up from the coach turned into a halt sign. I don’t know how many laps I rode. The course was too short for Strava to track correctly (I tried), but it was probably something around 10 laps. I was slow of course, but it was just a great experience. The wooden track was beautiful and had a wonderful feel and sound as I pedaled around. So that makes three velodromes ridden on three different continents!
The next day we made our way out to the Great Wall of China! Beijing is the typical starting point for a visit to the Wall and there are several sections to visit. The most well known ones are also well known for being terribly crowded, organized fun sorts of ordeals. We wanted something a bit off the beaten path.
Our original plan was a hike between Jinshanling to Simatai, but that has been closed for redevelopment into a tourist trap. Glad we figured that out beforehand, but it left us scrambling for where to go. I decided that the Huanghuacheng would fit our style well enough. I didn’t have high hopes since it’s pretty often recommended and has a full section in the Lonely Planet guide. But I also found some very clear guides for how to get there, which is a rarity.
In general navigation in China has been difficult with the language barrier. That, plus the quickly changing landscape of Beijing and most of our trips in the city taking an hour on metro, made a clearly written, recent description of the transit route a huge selling point. The LP guide and several other websites corroborated the bus route to get there so we set off with relatively high confidence in how to get there.
The most detailed and up to date guide that we followed with good success was here. The only details that I can add are some pictures showing the timetables of the buses. I also pinned the locations of the bus stops: 916 start in Beijing (picture of the entrance below), 916 stop in Huairou, H21 start in Huairou (the buses aren’t blue like the website says), H21 Stop in Huanghuacheng, H21 start in Huanghuacheng, H21 return stop in Huairou, 916 start in Huairou (we were only allowed to board the express bus, but it was following shortly behind the other bus). Note that the GPS coordinates should be listed in the urls above even if a pin doesn’t show up on the map.
When we arrived at the town of Huanghuacheng the detailed instructions from the websites ended. So we figured it would be simple. We wandered off to the area that Google maps marks as the Great Wall (east of the bus stop). It didn’t look super promising though and during our walk we passed several signs telling us to go the opposite direction. So eventually we decided to go back and try going west from the bus stop. This seemed more promising.
We followed a few signs, but they started becoming infrequent. We were sitting at a sign (roughly here) with a terrible map that didn’t match the road layout at all, confused. I’m used to this after Yangshuo so we were trying to translate the sign as best we could when a car pulls up and the passengers start talking to Christina.
It was a Chinese family on vacation, a couple with their 10 year old daughter. They all spoke English to varying degrees and the woman was pretty much fluent. They told us that the Great Wall entrance was closed for the last few days because of heavy rain. Upon reflection, this didn’t make much sense to me, but the point is, it was closed. Most importantly, the family offered to let us tag along as they tried to find an unofficial entrance. Having Mandarin speakers with their own car for this task was a life saver so we happily joined them. They totally saved us.
We drove off in the original east direction that we started off in on foot, and found out that we were very close to where the Wall submerges under the lake and we did see a few people on the wall across the lake. The family drove on, inquiring with locals here and there as we drove back and forth until we finally found a well maintained trail through a chestnut grove.
The hike was pleasant and the family was astonished by our love of Chinese snacks and tofu. Which leads me to wonder, who are these white people that travel in China but don’t like the food here? Or is there some Chinese movie about foreigners not liking tofu that has all of China confused?
Anyway we eventually made it to the wall. We passed through a small arch and found a set of steps leading up the other side. Now we are half wondering if the path which continued down the other side went to the official ticket office. But it doesn’t really matter because we made it and our 2.5 hr bus trip wasn’t in vain.
This section of wall went off to the west was unrestored which quickly turned into weeds taking over the wall. I really wanted to travel more of the unrestored section and we all climbed up to take a peek, but it was clear that we wouldn’t have the energy to hit both sections with all the backtracking involved.
So we turned our attention to the main section of wall heading off east to the lake. This section of wall was incredibly steep. Unfortunately, the young girl had a rough time getting up to the first guard tower and started to slow down, so we thanked them for helping us find the wall and set off on our own. I hope they had a good time with their visit and got to see some of the views from the top. They really helped us out so much!
The view from the top of the mountain was amazing with the wall stretching off, up and down mountain peaks as far as we could see on the hazy day. I think we found the optimum view point in the second guardhouse from the lake. We sat at the entrance, in the shade and ate snacks with an excellent view of the lake and wall.
We continued down the wall until it fell off sharply towards the road below. There was no real warning, but it quickly became evident that we needed to turn around and find an alternate route. I was of course tempted to climb down but down-climbing sucks and I really don’t know how safe the stones would be.
After turning around I noticed a small orange X spray painted on the wall apparently indicating ‘don’t go here’. As we worked our way back to the closest guard tower, where we saw so trails leading off to the side, I started to notice small spray painted orange dots. Being accustomed to following these sorts of cryptic tail markings we found a trail down to a local restaurant. The proprietor quickly greeted us with a request for 5 yuan. So in the end, that was our fee for visiting the great Wall of China, less than a dollar!
They might charge more for entering the wall from their restaurant, or maybe they are just a shortcut for people that don’t want to back track to the main entrance, wherever that actually is. But if you want to give it a shot, we took a picture of the restaurant entrances and here is a pin on Google maps. Honestly, from the bus stop, it may be easier to find this place compared to the main entrance.
We made our way back to town and the journey was slightly faster. Overall it was a huge success visiting the Great Wall of China. Even though it was unexpectedly closed. I think we had an even better experience and adventure than we would have otherwise had.
For dinner we tried to be lazy and just pick up street food, but found that difficult. In seems that Beijing has decided that street food isn’t in keeping with the image that it would like and it is being eradicated. Sad! So it’s nearly impossible to find a reasonable little place to eat.
All the little shops we found were boarded up and only moderate to upscale sit-down places seem to exist (or within easy view for a visitor). Our go-to became Lanzhou noodles. They are hand drawn noodles from a western, mostly Muslim province. They are on the cheaper end of the Beijing food spectrum and very tasty. They also served a variety of other dishes like a Halal Beef sandwich and, at the place were we went frequently, a super super ma la (Sichuan spicy) ma po tofu. I went wild on it and probably made my self sick, but it is seriously on of my favorite tastes. I enjoy chewing on the peppercorns and then just basking in the numbing feeling all over your face (see image below).
Speaking of food we splurged on a Peking duck meal one night. I’ve already mentioned that duck is probably my favorite meat food. I still think Nanjing is better for duck, but the Peking duck is really nice with the crispy skin. Also look at that ridiculously huge bowl of soup!
We also got to meet up with another one of my former colleagues from the DC area, Yanping, for dinner one night. One of her visiting researchers from China also joined. As well as her daughter, who I met on a few occasions in the US. Her English had improved dramatically and it was cool to get to meet her again with more confidence in her English.
Yanping treated us to a wonderful dinner full of Beijing specialties. Lots of stuff that we would have never found on our own. The ordering process was a delightful flurry of conversation and back and forth among the hosts. We had no clue what we were in for. One course arrived, then another and then quickly a rush of plates showed up until we were juggling space on the table to fit everything.
There were way too many things to describe and I don’t know the name of most of them. I think the highlight was this tofu mash that was maybe fermented or perhaps had mushrooms mixed it. It was earthy tasting and delicious. Also we had some imitation tofu because we found the translation interesting. Basically it had the consistency of tofu but it was made of milk and peanuts. It was like a desert. Another interesting favorite was goat meat which is quite a delicacy in China. It was a cold meatloaf type deal. There was a black and white tripe dish with lots of sauces that is all the rage in Beijing right now apparently.
But the most unique thing was dou zhi, which is a fermented soy milk with a fried dough ring that you dip into it. It smells pretty bad and is not very popular, but it’s a traditional food. It really is a strange tasting dish and one that I’m sure most people won’t care for. It also came with a side of the pickled vegetables that are pretty common in Chinese meals. The soup plus the salty crunchy veggies made me think of sauerkraut and once I got that in my head, it made a lot more sense to me. The corollary is that I now also understand better why people think sauerkraut is gross.
Afterwards we got to tour Yanping’s lab and meet some of her co-workers. It was great to get to catch up with her and experience such an exciting food experience.
Our last two days in Beijing were dedicated to Tiananmen square. I was mostly jazzed about seeing the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. The goal for our visit was to see the tomb, square and then go through the forbidden city palace complex.
We arrived to a huge queue for the security screening into the square. It went relatively quickly and I’m very glad that I had read up and knew that we would need our passports. We headed to the mausoleum first and noticed how empty the ‘largest public square in the world is’. I inquired to some folks about how to go there and came to the conclusion that it was closed to the public.
As a consolation prize I was going to simply relish the poetic hypocrisy. But then as we were weighing our options, we saw a small herd of humans crossing the barriers into the square and we followed. I’ve pieced together that the square is open very early in the morning for the flag raising and for allowing people to visit the mausoleum. Then they completely clear out the square at noon. I guess to root out hoodlums or something. Then they open back up the square. But the mausoleum is only open during the morning. So that means we missed the tomb and had to come back the next day.
Next to the square the Forbidden Palace. We passed under Mao’s famous portrait along with the throngs of other tourists into the Forbidden City. Christina was interested in visiting it, but I decided that I only wanted to visit the less expansive, less restored, and cheaper Beijing Working People Culture Palace. However, we ended up both going to the Culture Palace because tickets to the Forbidden City were already sold out for the day.
So we ended up 1 for 3 on tourist attractions that day. But I was quite happy with the Working People Culture Palace. I can’t compare it to the Forbidden City, but I imagine the architecture doesn’t differ much, with the addition of tufts of grass growing out of the roofs. I found that kind of charming. There is also a building that you can enter with several bells that were made for celebrating Y2K. There were also tons of couples out taking wedding photos with the brides in red dresses, which was fun to watch.
We left and wandered off to the Wangfujing pedestrian street and shopping area. It was awful and I highly do not recommended it. We were told by Yanping that it wasn’t worth a visit, but we were starving and it was nearby. The ‘authentic street food experience’ area looked very sanitized and overcrowded so we went with KFC instead.
That may sound strange, but KFC is ridiculously popular in China, making it possibly the most authentic modern Chinese food experience there is (jk). I knew this going into the trip and was originally very excited to try it out. In years past, KFC was an expensive, western food. But since breaking into the market they have kept the prices down so in big cities like Beijing, it’s actually a relatively reasonable meal. Not cheap in absolute terms and certainly not that great, but you can get by on it.
We have been offered KFC many times during the trip, but declined for want of actual delicious Chinese food. But now, on our own, hungry in a tourist trap, it seemed like the right time to try it out. The place was super crowded with Chinese customers and the menu looked largely familiar. Not that I’ve been in a KFC in the US during the past decade, but I mean that nothing looked out of place or unusually Chinese.
We ordered a few items. I can say with certainty that the food is crap. I had this grand idea in my head that maybe Chinese KFC would be unique or higher quality, but it’s basically the same thing that you would avoid eating the states. The only redeeming quality of Chinese KFC is the soft serve ice cream. Soft serve in China is surprisingly amazing.
First off, we’ve found soft serve for as little as 2 CNY ($0.30) in a tourist trap area. KFC is more expensive, but still under $1 and super easy to find everywhere in China. But pretty much no matter where you get it, it’s delicious. It’s much less sweet than soft serve in the US and has a slightly yogurt/sour edge to it. I was afraid that I was going to expire in China for lack of dairy (where is my cheese???), but it turns out that I’ve found the greatest soft serve of all time. FlavorBurst only loses out because I have recently learned that nostalgia isn’t actually a flavor.
Since Christina enjoys architectural sites, we went to go visit some interesting Beijing buildings. Namely Big Pants, the CCTV building. It’s right at the output of the Jintaixizhao metro station and doesn’t take long to see. The building is about at spectacular as the pictures show, but it seems that there is no way to enter the building (at least that we could find). But it was cool too see, and there were several other crazy spaceship buildings in the surrounding area including ones that would make great evil bad guy headquarters.
The next day, bright and early, we went to go see the mausoleum (not so early because it’s us). The line was huge, and it was just chaos to enter the queuing barricades. There are guards that are supposed to check you for prohibited items, but it was terribly set up so nearly everyone got through with their backpacks, only to be turned back at a later stage. We were about to be those people, but I wasn’t going to have any backtracking.
I was able to flag some one down and ask if my bag was ok. Nope, so we ducked out of line and followed some other folks that recently got kicked out of line to the bag check (roughly here, but there are signs in English so it’s easy). The whole process took about 15 minutes and would have been way easier for everyone if they just made it clear at the queue entrance that bags aren’t allowed.
It was about a good hour of standing in line and dodging ever present umbrellas (for blocking the sun, it wasn’t raining). We finally arrived at the entrance, and you are faced with a slightly larger than life-size marble seated Mao where people laid flowers. And then you continued on to see Mao himself, in all his preserved glory. His skin orange-ish due to the lighting in the air-tight box, and the room was surprisingly not well isolated from the heat outdoors.
The Mao cult stills seems to be incredibly strong. Nowhere else in China have I seen people so voluntarily quiet and reverent. Though, I have to say that, in comparison to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the structure and experience weren’t as impressive. Which is interesting to me given the devotion to Mao. In Vietnam, by comparison, lots of people still call the city named after Uncle Ho, Saigon. It’s a shallow comparison of course, but going into this I was thinking that the Mao tomb was going to be far more grand than Ho Chi Minh’s. IMO they should have put Mao in the building that you see when you exit the tomb. That thing is impressive.
We finished off our journey with the only street food we were able to find during our stay. It’s a pancake wrap filled with sauces and a hot dog. The wrap part is made from any variety of different ingredients from crepe to roti to a thick corn tortilla. I ended up really liking the crepe version.
From there, it was off to Harbin!