Trans-Mongolian journal: Six days in Beijing

September 17th – September 22nd, 2017

Beijing railway station
Beijing railway station.

Day 1: Struggling to get a taxi

We arrived at Beijing Railway Station around 12, and followed the crowd out of the station. Our first priority was finding an ATM, but we couldn’t locate one at the station. We crossed the road via a bridge, where we soon located an ATM in the building of Bank of China. My fiancé had started feeling a bit sick on the train the day before, and her symptoms had worsened. She was already exhausted and tired, and carrying a large backpack in the heat didn’t help.

Since the hotel we had booked was too reach by walking in a reasonable time, we walked towards the taxi line outside the station, thinking that we would soon arrive at the hotel by car. We had read that unlike taxis in Mongolia and Russia, official taxis in Beijing are usually pretty trustworthy. They tend to use a taximeter, and they usually don’t scam tourists. We therefore expected it to be unproblematic.

We found the taxi stand in front of Beijing Railway Station, where there were several lines of official taxis waiting. Next to this, there were several illegal taxi drivers trying to lure us into their cars. “Taxi, taxi! 150! 100!” they said and wanted us to follow them. “No, official taxi only”, I said, and walked towards the closest taxi. We showed the driver the address of our hotel, written in Chinese, but he waved us off. The next one did the same. The next too. We asked perhaps ten different drivers, but none would drive us, and all of them doing the same wave-off gesture. We had no idea why, and became quite frustrated. One of the people there said “I’m his boss”, and pointed to the taxi, then added “100 Yuan, ok?”. No. That’s at least five times what it should cost. Searching online later, it seems that this particular taxi scam is well organized, so the guy we talked to might actually have been his boss in a way.

Official taxis in Beijing have a licence plate number starting with a B.
Official taxis in Beijing have a licence plate number starting with a B (after the Chinese character).

My fiancé said “fuck it” for the second time on this trip, and we started walking towards the hotel. As expected, the streets of Beijing are much larger and longer than they seem on a map, so the walk would in reality take at least two hours rather than fifteen minutes, as it immediately looked like on the map. We were soon able to flag down a taxi, and told him the direction of the hotel based on the map. He wasn’t very interested in looking at the GPS. For taxi drivers all over the world, knowing the route is a matter of pride.

Although we reached the coordinates where the hotel was supposed to be, we were unable to find it anywhere. The hotel was supposed to have a few hundred rooms, but there was no building anywhere nearby of such size. We looked around, walked around blocks, but it was nowhere to be found. While standing on a street corner and looking confused at Google Maps, a man came towards us.

“Are you looking at a map there?” he said.

“Yes, we are looking for Prime Hotel”, we answered.

“Oh, you don’t need a map for that. It’s that building right over there”, he said in perfect English, pointing towards a building maybe half a kilometer away, well hidden behind another large building. Both of us being quite tired at this point, the help was well appreciated. Accepting help from strangers can sometimes be rewarding. We soon checked into the hotel, and it was fancy enough. They even had a small antique shop in the lobby of the hotel, with some items selling for the price of about 60000 yuan (~9100 USD). You’d have to be pretty well off to spontaneously decide to get rid of 60000 yuan on a vacation, but hey, who am I to judge. I just know that finally dropping off our backpacks was fantastic. The rest of the day was spent walking around in Beihai park, which had some beautiful lights in the water after dark.

Day 2: Wukesong camera market and a tasty Peking duck

The next day, my fiancé had flu-like symptoms, and decided to take it slow. I was still searching for a charger for my camera, so I went out alone in search of one. I had read that Wukesong camera market was the place to look. To reach it, you could take the metro to Wukesong station, then take the bus going north for 2 stops. At Wukesong station, I figured that I would just walk the rest of the way, as 2 stops surely couldn’t be too far. In my head, it was probably a few hundred meters. It’s 3.2 km. I also walked the wrong direction, as the instructions I had read online were a bit unclear. After doing some walking, I tried a few taxis, but none would understand the address since it was written in English. Once I got my fiancé to send me the address in Chinese, I was there in no time, but I had already wasted almost four hours looking for the place on my own. I primarily learned two things these four hours: Everything in Beijing is further away than you think, and always get your address written down in Chinese.

Wukesong camera market is a treasure, and they sure have a bunch of different items. The market consists of many different shops, specializing in Nikon, Canon, Sony, Hasselblad, etc. They sell cameras, tripods, lenses, memory cards, professional lighting and a lot more. It is not a cheap place, but there is some room for bargaining. The shops I visited did not have show their prices, you had to ask. I finally found a charger for my Nikon, and also bought a new memory card for my GoPro. It cost almost the same as it would cost at home, in Norway.

When I finally arrived at the hotel, my fiancé was feeling better. She was ready to go out and take a look at the streets in general, but she was looking for a particular store of makeup. After searching for two of those stores for several hours, we concluded that Google Maps and its information is a bit unreliable in Beijing, as none of them seemed to exist in real life.

Peking duck at Siji Minfu in Beijing
Peking duck at Siji Minfu in Beijing.

In the evening, we went to a restaurant called Siji Minfu, which specialize in Peking duck. They are rated as number one for Peking duck on TripAdvisor, and someone at the camp in Mongolia told us that it was excellent. We had of course prepared a bit by reading some reviews before going, so we were prepared for the 1 hour wait to get a table, and 30+ minutes to get the duck. They solved the long line by handing out numbered tickets, and people could sit outside and wait. They even provided snacks.

While we waited for the table, a man on a scooter stopped by to talk to us. “Hello! Have you visited the Great Wall yet?” he said.
“No, but we are going tomorrow” I said.
“What company are you going with? Where are you going? What price? No shopping stops?” he said, obviously trying to get us to buy his tour.
“You’re not going to change our minds!” my fiancé said, and the man soon left.

An hour later, we were at the table. The place was very busy and quite noisy, and it was clear that this thankfully wasn’t a fancy restaurant in any way. We ordered a duck, some pancakes and sauce, sliced vegetables, sugar and garlic. Forty minutes later, the chef brought the duck out and sliced it up for us.

God damn, I have never tasted anything like it. The bacon practically melted in my mouth and brought me intense joy and inner harmony. The meat was tender and juicy, and the garlic/sugar/vegetable/sauce were perfect for the excellent duck meat. If this is not the best Peking duck on the planet, I would be very surprised. This is the place to eat Peking duck in Beijing. It wasn’t even expensive. I have later made the mistake of ordering Peking duck in Norway, and it was of course a terrible decision. 

While walking towards our hotel, we saw the Great Wall tour selling guy on the scooter again. I made the mistake of looking at him while he drove past us, and he immediately sensed this. He was soon stopping in front of us, trying to sell his tour.

“You want to go see the Great Wall?” he said.
“Yes, but we have already decided, thanks!”, we said, and he left once again.

Day 3: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Before arriving in Beijing, we had booked a one-day tour of Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Great Wall at Mutianyu through a company called China Highlights. There are many different tour companies showing you various places in Beijing. Some are cheaper than others, but there is often a reason for this. People are sometimes placed in hot buses as part of a large group and with a tour guide that doesn’t speak understandable English. To top it off, they usually have shopping stops along the way, where you will spend a lot of time with very persuasive sellers.

China Highlights was a bit more expensive than others, but they promised a small group, a great guide speaking fluid English, and of course no shopping stops. In our experience, everything was true. We were picked up in a modern minibus, and there were only three other people in the group. One American and a German couple. The guide was fluent in English, and he was very knowledgeable about every part of the tour and about what’s going on in the world in general.

Plenty of people on Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Plenty of people on Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square was our first stop of the day. I should have expected it, but the amount of people there was insane. Most people on the square were fortunately in line to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, which is something many Chinese people seek to do at least once in their lifetime. I guess it would have been interesting to take a look for ourselves, but we would have to stand in line for at least 2-3 hours to get in, and that was not an appealing thought. Before entering the square, we got these little wireless headphones to make the guiding easier as there would be a lot of noise on the square. I didn’t think we’d need it, but it sure did make everything more pleasant.

After some engaging history of the square, we walked inside Forbidden City. I must admit that I didn’t know much about it before going, and I didn’t know why it was called Forbidden City. The answer is of course that back in the good old days, it was “forbidden” for anyone to enter or leave the place without permission from the emperor. Two things in particular struck me as we walked around the city: “damn, this place is huge” and “damn, there are so many people here”. There were people pretty much everywhere, but we could fortunately walk right past the line as we were part of a tour group. This wasn’t even high season, so I can only imagine the amount of people there in the summer months. Still, we got to take a quick peek inside some of the rooms in some of the buildings, and these rooms consisted mostly of gold.

Plenty of people in Forbidden City, Beijing
Plenty of people in Forbidden City.

One of the other members of the tour group said that when she visited Forbidden City in 1987, there were only about sixty other people there. There were a bit more people this time.

After spending a few hours on the square and inside Forbidden City, we were picked up by the minibus driver who would take us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. While waiting at a place next to a bus stop, we saw large groups of sad looking tourists entering their large buses. It looked quite terrible, and I was really happy that we spent a little bit more money to be in a small group.

We had a lunch stop in a place about 45 minutes outside of Beijing, where we were served North and South Chinese food in a private room at a restaurant. The food was great, with many different things to choose from. After a little bit more driving, we arrived at Mutianyu, where we took the chair lift up. Another member of the group was terribly afraid of heights and decided to walk up. She was fortunately in a good shape, so she arrived at the top right after we did.

View from beneath the watchtower at The Great Wall at Mutianyu.
View from beneath the watchtower at The Great Wall at Mutianyu.
People continuing walking the Great Wall at Mutianyu, after climbing through a window in the watchtower.
People continuing walking the Great Wall at Mutianyu, after climbing through a window in the watchtower.

At the top, our guide left us alone for a few hours to explore the wall at our own pace. We hiked to the watchtower on the right side. They say that Great Wall at Badaling attracts so many people that it’s annoying, but Mutianyu was far from crowded, so we had plenty of space to walk and stop wherever we wanted. You couldn’t officially walk any further than the watchtower, but some chose to jump outside one of the windows to keep going a little bit. I’m not sure if it’s illegal, but it sure is possible. Walking the Great Wall was fun, and the view was spectacular.

The best way to go down from the wall is to ride a toboggan, where you could more or less choose your own speed. We wanted to go fast, but unfortunately had some people in front of us who wanted to go slow. Either way, it was great fun. We were soon driven home to our hotel, and the tour was over.

Previously that day, my fiancé and I had joked that we should go eat Peking duck again. While we were hungrily wandering around seeking a place to eat, this soon was no longer a joke. We suddenly found ourselves in line to get a table at Siji Minfu again. The duck was fantastic this time too. While waiting in line, we met the scooter-driving Great Wall tour seller again for the third time.

“Have you visited the wall? Do you want a tour?” he said.
“You again! We have met you before!” we said.
“Oh, you have? No… But can I interest you in a tour of the Great Wall?” he said.
“Sorry, we’ve already been there” we said, and he left once again.

Live scorpions on sticks at Wangfujing night food street
Live scorpions on sticks at Wangfujing night food street.
Fried snakes for sale at Wangfujing night food street in Beijing
One of these fried snakes may or may not have given me food poisoning.

After eating the fat and fantastic force-fed bird, we walked to Wangfujing street, a popular shopping street. One of the side streets there are known for their street snacks, where you get the chance to taste deep-fried scorpions, starfish, seahorses, snakes, various insects and other stuff that probably tastes like chicken. Although VERY crowded, it was a lot of fun. The snake we tasted actually didn’t taste like chicken, more like fish. Not too bad. This is a place where you shouldn’t have any valuables easily available in your pockets.

Day 4: Seeing pandas and being an attraction in Beijing zoo

Happy panda in Beijing Zoo
Happy panda in Beijing Zoo.
Sleepy panda in Beijing Zoo
Sleepy panda in Beijing Zoo.

It may or may not have been the snake I ate the day before, but I was feeling a bit sick this day. I’m not sure, but it didn’t feel like regular food poisoning. This was the day we had planned to go to Beijing zoo, and no sickness could keep me from visiting the pandas. We took the metro and did some walking to the zoo, but I had to take it REALLY slow, taking a break every 100 meters we walked. Not a single part of me was ready for anything but stay in bed, but the zoo had pandas, and that’s unresistable.

The zoo was quite large, but many of the animals sadly had too little space to be happy. The pandas seemed to be alright, though, with a lot of space to move around. It was clear that the pandas are the big attraction, with a lot of people standing there to get a glimpse of these silly, fluffy bears. The pandas were mostly just lying there relaxing, but did move around sometimes. Some people were shouting to the pandas, trying to get a reaction. It makes me a bit sad. The other sign that pandas are the big attraction at the zoo, was the shops selling panda stuff. Panda teddy bears, panda toys, panda chopsticks, panda toothbrushes, panda everything.

Photogenic monkey baby in Beijing Zoo
Photogenic monkey baby in Beijing Zoo.
Bored monkey biting a chain in Beijing Zoo
Bored-out-of-his-mind monkey biting a chain in Beijing Zoo.

The other big attraction in the zoo that day seemed to be us. Based on the number of stares we got from people, we could easily had our own cages where we would attract a lot of curious visitors to observe us living our lives. Lying there relaxing and being fed all day sounds a bit appealing, but getting shouted at by random people trying to get a reaction is unfortunately a deal breaker. 

Giraffe licking a colorful wall in Beijing Zoo
Giraffe enjoying a wall in Beijing Zoo.

One lady even decided to take a picture of us without even trying to hide it, seemingly taking her time to get the right angle. Somewhat rude and unusual for us, but I guess we are a bit exotic in China. People were staring at us not just in the zoo, but anywhere we walked in Beijing. Perhaps not too strange, as I didn’t really see many non-Asian people in Beijing, and when I did, I caught myself staring at them myself. At one point, I even thought to myself “hey, that guy looks like me!”, even though it was a short 70-year old bald man with a white beard that in no way looked like me.

Taking all the stares into consideration, this sure wasn’t a good day to be sick. I had to lay down a few times in the zoo to avoid getting dizzy, and the stares didn’t exactly go away, but I decided to not care. Even though I was sick, we managed to spend four hours in the zoo. The metro ride back to the hotel almost went very wrong. While on the train, I gradually felt more and more sick. When we approached our station, I was so close to vomiting that I had concentrate really hard to avoid it. I was considering whether to throw up on the floor, inside the rain cover of my backpack or in my fiancés shopping bag. She had bought a couple of panda teddy bears for her nieces, which I figured perhaps wouldn’t look as cute with my vomit all over them. For a second I thought about the possibly very awkward situation of delivering two vomit-stenched teddy bears for cleaning at the hotel. It might actually have been fun.

The ten seconds it took from the moment we stopped to the doors were opened were the longest I have ever experienced in my life. I ran towards the closest waste basket to prepare to empty my stomach, but managed to avoid it by sitting down right next to it and breathe deeply. I can only imagine the panic on the crowded subway if someone suddenly started throwing up. Well, I actually can imagine it, as I once as a teenager puked all over myself on a crowded bus after suddenly waking up with nausea. There was a bit of panic. And to make matters worse, there turned out to be people I knew on the bus.

I spent the rest of the evening in the bathtub in our hotel room. To be exact; most of my body spent the rest of the evening in the bathtub. It wasn’t made for people of my height, so it was about half a meter too short to fit my entire body.

Day 5: “Hello hello, have a look?”

I was still feeling just a little bit sick, but I was far better today. We had decided that the day would be spent checking out some of the markets in Beijing, and our first excursion was to Pearl Market. We arrived there early, and I soon found my t-shirt being pulled by a Chinese lady who tried to sell me a soft but fake cashmere scarf.

“Look look Sir, it originally cost 950 yuan! You are my first customer, so I will sell it to you for only 350. It is very good price, sir! Special price!”
“No”
“How much will you pay?”
“Nothing”
“Look look”, she said, and entered 150 into her calculator. “It is special price!”
“Not interested”, I said, trying to walk away.
“Look look, how much?”, she said, and forced her calculator into my hands.

I entered 50, and I was suddenly the owner of a scarf I didn’t know I wanted. It’s very soft.

Most of Pearl Market consisted of clothes, bags, sunglasses, speakers and small electronics, in addition to pearls, of course. Some of the fake brands were of cheap quality, and many of the sellers sold the exact same items. It was fun just to walk around, but not much was interesting to purchase. Neither of us wanted 15 FPS GoPro clones or sunglasses that were almost pre-scratched, but we did buy a few t-shirts. There was some heavy bargaining involved in that transaction too, with the final price being ~10 % of the price he first came up with (520 yuan for two; we ended up paying 50).

Silk Street Market was much of the same as Pearl Market, but many of the stores had posters saying that the prices were fixed, and that bargaining was not welcomed. Everywhere we walked, we heard “hello hello, bag, Sir?” and “hello hello, have a look?”. I ended up buying ten boxer shorts from a store where bargaining was accepted. I bargained heavily, but probably not as much as I could have. She tried a few tricks to make me accept a higher price. “No no no, you are crazy! You see, this is a smaller business!”. It’s important to know that these vendors are experts at negotiating prices, and will try a bunch of different techniques to make you pay more than you should.  Their sizing is interesting, too: While medium is my regular size, I had to go for XXXL this time. “You have big ass!” the seller blurted out. 

Scary woman performing on a stage on Wangfujing street in Beijing.
I am scared.

We ended the night by visiting Wangfujing street again, where there were a lot more people than the other day. I wanted to taste a deep-fried scorpion, but chickened out because I may or may not have been food poisoned by the snake I ate the other day. 

On a stage in one of the side streets on Wangfujing street, there was a frightening woman doing some kind of performance. We first thought it was a traditional mask changing performance, but it was not. It might just have been something to scare the tourists back to the main food market street.

Day 6: Going home

This was the last day of our Trans-Mongolian adventure, and neither of us really wanted to go home. We took a shuttle bus from the hotel to the airport, and it was cheap; only 25 yuan per person.

Beijing airport seemed to be a bit more disorganized than most other airports I’ve been to. There was a long line to check in, a long line in passport control, a long line through security. Every person in security seemed a little edgy and stressed out. Pretty similar to Newark Airport, New Jersey.

The flight towards Moscow must be mentioned. There was a group of maybe 30 people who were travelling together, and most of these people spent their time loitering on the floor, blocking the toilets and the trolleys. The flight attendants didn’t seem to mind, but some passengers were a bit annoyed. The moment we touched ground in Moscow, the flight attendants suddenly did mind, as a guy from this group immediately unfastened his seat belt and got up to get his baggage, all while the airplane was taxiing towards the terminal. The flight attendant told him to sit down immediately, and he did, until the flight attendant turned his back to him. He immediately got up, and 10-15 others from his group did the same. One of the flight attendants passive-aggressively slammed shut the luggage compartment one of the passengers opened. Parts of me hoped there the passenger would get his head stuck there, or at least slightly injure some other body part.

“Have they never been on an airplane before?”, my fiancé asked. Probably not.

Passport control at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport was slow, but we did have 3.5 hours until our flight to Oslo. They had only one booth open, and there were several hundred people waiting in line. The queuing was bad, of course, with people cutting in line everywhere. It took 45 minutes to get through, and some people were nervous that they wouldn’t get on their connecting flight. There were soon representatives there to move those people to the front of the line.

As I had grown a little bit of a beard during our trip, the border officer had to take a close look before finally deciding to let me through. Phew.

Arriving at home felt weird. It felt like we had been away for months, but at same time it felt like we hadn’t been anywhere at all. Our bed felt extraordinarily soft. It was a trip of a lifetime.