Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 27, 2010

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, May 3, 2010

Thanks to a free ride with Jason from the hostel, we made it to the train station in good time just as boarding started. This cabin was even better then the last; no TV screens, but cleaner and newer. Unfortunately we discovered that we were sharing a carriage with some rather noisy Chinese passengers, but they settled down soon after leaving Xi'an and all was good. We woke up about ten minutes before arriving in Beijing West train station (on time – yeh!) which is not connected to the subway system and so decided that our best bet was to hop into a taxi and head for the nearest subway station. It may have been the right decision, but it was by no means a "hop"…. after 40 minutes of queuing in a vehicle tunnel with zero air flow we had ourselves a taxi. Now, maybe something got lost in translation, maybe the driver was trying to pull a fast one, or maybe he just always takes tourists to the same spot no matter what they ask for … because it wasn’t until he pointed at a sign for Tiananmen Square as if to say “not much farther” that we realized we were heading to the wrong place and the meter was ticking up nicely! Luckily we have the “pluck” of the Irish on our side and after some gesticulating at maps, road signs and his licence number he got the message and returned us to the subway station we had asked for and only charged us 10RMB ($1.5).

Organisation has not always been our strongest feature on this trip and we had arrived in Beijing without directions to the hotel, but as it had Wanfujing in the title we figured that it would be a safe guess to head for Wanfujing, Beijing’s most popular shopping street. It was a long trek up Wanfujing, though it did at least give Sarah the chance to check out some stores without actually being able to go inside to buy anything because of the backpacks!

Arriving at the hotel, we were delighted to find that we had been upgraded again, and could spend the next four nights relaxing a bit. Our room wasn’t quite ready and so we set out to explore the local area, find some lunch and do a spot of shopping. Our British friends may be amused to hear that we ended up shopping at C&A – they may have gone bust over there, but seem to be doing fine in China!

We returned to the hotel in time for afternoon tea and were shown to our room. This was probably the nicest hotel room that the kids have ever stayed in; three beds (two double, one single), desk, armchair, sofa, 3 flat screen TVs, bar (not minibar), bathroom and luggage/dressing room! We were only just settling in when there was a knock at the door….. a delivery of chocolates, cookies and more as a welcome gift!

As usual, arriving in a new city, we needed to book our onward train tickets and were able to enlist the help of the concierge in finding what we needed. However, even with Hilton clout at the helm, we had great difficulty in finding tickets to anywhere that we wanted to go. May 1 is Labour Day in China and the first day of a three day weekend, the biggest public holiday of the year after Chinese New Year and apparently a time when everybody travels somewhere. We eventually managed to find some tickets to Shanghai, but leaving Beijing two days later than originally planned….we will have to leave the Hilton and find a hostel for the second part of our stay in Beijing.

For Derek and Sarah one of the greatest benefits that staying at the Hilton provides is the easy access to the gym, and so we wasted no time in making use of the facilities and also the swimming pool. The gym was rather small, but met the needs, the pool on the other hand was enormous, offering expansive views of the city and surrounded by very luxurious four-poster loungers with nets. We all had fun getting some exercise before heading back to the lounge to replace all of those burned calories (and more, I’m sure).

Next day, after a good breakfast, we set out to discover some of Beijing’s greatest tourist offerings before the public holiday got into full swing. Just a stone’s throw (if you’ve got a good arm) from the hotel, and visible from the lounge is the Forbidden City or “Palace Museum” as it’s officially called. Compared with other Chinese attractions we have been to, the Forbidden City has been well preserved and protected. It’s footprint is enormous, more than one kilometer in length and about nine hundred metres wide. Inside the city walls are numerous temples, halls and living quarters, all resplendent with colour and intricate design, and all extremely important to the Chinese. And while we were happy to admire and photograph the ancient edifices on display it seemed that the locals preferred their digital mementos to be records of other, more western faces. You guessed it, and not for the first time, but more than any other time, we were to be stopped regularly and asked for pictures, particularly the kids. Having said that, Sarah had her fair share of admirers too, usually of the middle aged man variety. Speaking of middle aged men, Derek was only invited in once, andthen also by another middle aged man! After a few of the early photo-ops we thought it would be fun to get a tally going and by the end of the day had been stopped about forty, yes 4-0 times, with an estimate that probably 200 photos had been taken and that’s not including the sneaky ones that people take when they think you’re not looking ;-)

Notwithstanding the 40 stops, we managed to explore most of the Forbidden City in decent time, and so made our way to the hall of clocks for the two o’clock performance as recommended by Lonely Planet. I have to say that it was quite disappointing as they only demonstrated three clocks, but maybe the disappointment was due to the fact that we had paid twice as much as we should have for it….they gave us the wrong tickets to the wrong building which we didn’t even have time to enjoy as that would’ve meant missing the clocks. Having viewed the many sophisticated clocks (most of which were made in the UK in 18th Century) we made our way out of the Forbidden City and to Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, capable of holding one million people. After the obligatory photos of Mao, we made our way into the main square where yet again the kids became rock stars and posed for photo after photo. But they met some celebrity rivals, and a very rare find indeed .... Chinese siblings. There aren't many, and those that you see are usually twins like those we spotted in Tiananmen Square. The photo op that the crowd was calling for didn't go as smoothly as planned though ... Twin # 2 (probably feeling guilty for being born) shied away and wouldn't come into the photo with L&A for their parents. C'est li vie en Chine.

With a mere six hours of walking (with one stop for ice-cream) under our belts, we continued with the “rock stars for a day” theme and headed back to the Hilton for a little pampering. There’s something to be said for taking a shower while drinking freshly brewed coffee and watching TV all at the same time.

Being a major holiday weekend, we were prepared for the worst as far as crowds were concerned and decided to make Saturday a day for chilling out. After a large late breakfast we made our way to the Wangfujing shopping street (think Oxford Street) to check out a few stores. First stop the “Foreign Languages Bookstore” where we soon found a huge wall of Lonely Planet guides, close to a Lonely Planet monthly feature on India – perfect as we were looking for L.P. India and either East Africa or Tanzania! Other than the China version (mentioned earlier) they seemed to have every single Lonely Planet in existence, except for the ones we need! We were also hoping to find the 6th Harry Potter book, which we did, however, it was so extortionately priced and we had heard that it was possible to get cheap (copied) copies of Harry Potter, so we passed it up and left the store empty handed. Maybe it was indeed the “crucible green” colour that caught Derek’s eye upon leaving the store, or maybe it was down to the enormity of the giant (40ft x 20 ft) TV screen mounted high up on the opposite wall, but Derek was for a few minutes both transfixed and shocked by the sight of the World Snooker championships (from Sheffield, England) that were taking centre stage in the middle of Beijing. Indeed it became apparent over the following days that the Chinese are snooker-mad with the games being piped to every imaginable location, including the inside of most of the elevators we frequented! Must be a gambling thing. Our next store was the New China Children’s store, highly recommended by LP, but really not worth the while and so we returned to the hotel empty handed and spend the rest of the day taking advantage of the hotels facilities; gym, pool, internet, food, drinks, etc.

Assuming that the tourist attractions would still be very crowded, we headed for the Hung Qiao Pearl market, which seems to be targeted at extracting cash from western tourists! Every aisle is a gauntlet of vendors yelling “you buy, you buy”, looky looky”, “wanna bag/purse/belt/shoes/shirt…?”, “have a look, lady”, “I give you good price”, etc, etc, practically forcing you to move so fast that you really don’t see too many of the goods on display. Before long though we got used to the patter and grabbing and started to browse for the things that we actually wanted. Once you find something of interest the fun really starts and it’s time to bargain hard, and by hard we mean like you’ve never bargained before. Luckily, Sarah had read some tips for bargaining in Chinese markets (“barguing”) and was ready to play the game…..our first purchase was the elusive running shoes for Lauren. Having finally found some that would fit her skinny feet, we were keen to buy, but at what price? Certainly not the 450 RMB they suggested for some imitation Nikes. Sarah eventually parted with 70 RMB (about $10) for the shoes. This may still have been more than necessary as the vendor was still smiling, but $10 is still less than we’d pay at home for non-branded shoes, so I guess everybody was happy. Behind the pearl market is another market, but this one is solely for toys and with two kids in tow how could we resist? We soon discovered that most of the toys seemed to be targeted at either boys or babies and there was little for Lauren to spend her birthday money on and for the few toys we did look at there was little room for barguing.

Our second destination of the day was across the street from the market at the Temple of Heaven, however we had spent so long at the markets that we weren’t sure we had enough time to do it justice as it was closing in 45 minutes. We were sitting near the turnstile, weighing up our options, when we suddenly realized that we had been cornered by a large group of Chinese tourists. But, luckily, all they wanted was pictures and after a good ten minutes of posing with a seemingly unending string of people, we were able to make our escape to the subway …the Temple of Heaven could wait until another day….

There was a tinge of sadness at leaving the Hilton, having wallowed in luxury for a few days it was back to reality and we trekked our bags about twenty minutes through the “hutongs” (sidestreets) to the Happy Dragon Hostel.
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Shirley on

I like the way you shower Sara. I can't believe how much the kids have changed since you've been gone.

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