“There was once a dragon in the Ancient Orient,
and its name was China;
there was a group of people in the Ancient Orient,
and they were all the descendants of the dragon.”
Derived from ‘The descendants of the dragon’, a very popular Chinese song back in the 80s. I still remember I used to sing this song when I was a kid and learnt the lyrics by heart, because I am the descendant of the dragon after all (not to mention I was also born in the Year of the Dragon). Despite I am the third generation that was born in Malaysia, we still able to trace our family history back to Qing Dynasty in mainland China. My parents used to love going back to China to visit the country, the small village in Fujian province where our ancestors were from and also made connections with our long distance relatives who actually still live there. I have to admit, tracing family history back to China had never been an interest of me. Just like any younger generations really, my childhood was highly westernised and always dreamt about visiting western countries instead of tracing back to my root. But funny how things have changed as I got older, I had been thinking about visiting China for the last few years for numerous reasons. One particular reason is to see the country before all its culture and history vanishing in front of our own eyes, as China’s economic growth continues to soar in an alarming rate. So, is either now or never, and this ‘dragon’ is heading to motherland – China!
First stop – BEIJING.
TianAnMen Square – 天安门广场
For any first time visitor to China like myself, Beijing is inevitably the must-visit city where many of the history and culture of this country still remain. Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China, with a population of over 21,150,000, it is the second most populous city after Shanghai. Can you imagine almost the entire population of Australia in one city? If you want to experience what it actually feels like to be amongst a sea of people in one spot, then head to TianAnMen Square and be prepared for the stampede.
Humans everywhere! This is definitely not the place for those who suffer agoraphobia. Despite Tiananmen Square being the fourth largest city square in the world, don’t be surprised to find this 440,000m² space is overwhelmingly crowded with visitors daily, especially in the morning. Today, the square can actually accommodate up to 600,000 people and you definitely don’t want to be there when that happens.
The square has a great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history including the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 which resulted in military suppression and the deaths of thousands of civilian protestors. There are many entry points into the square, so just join the long queues and ready to have your bags searched for security reasons. Once inside the square, be ready to fence off hundreds of photographers who offer to take your photos for a fee.
Tiananmen Square is named after the Tiananmen Gate located to its north, the most photographed entrance into the Forbidden City. At the southern side of the square you will also find the Monument of People’s Heroes, and behind it is the Chairman Mao Zedong Mausoleum where many locals come to pay tribute. There are strict rules before entering the mausoleum, no bags and cameras are allowed inside, there are two stations where they will store your belongings at a fee. Once inside, hats must be off, no talking, no cross arms, no mobile phones; pass the main hall where many lay chrysanthemum flowers for the father of the nation before entering the second hall which offers a quick glimpse of Mao’s preserved body before the guards quickly usher you off and out of the building.
Did I mention the Tiananmen Square is huge? It took us a good two hours walking from one end to the other of the square, taking photos and also queueing to get inside the mausoleum. We eventually joined a horde of people walking towards the Tiananmen Gate to visit the Forbidden City.
Forbidden City – 紫禁城
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912). It was a highly guarded imperial court surrounded by 10 meter high wall, and was forbidden for any commoners to enter. Its extensive grounds cover 720,000m², 800 buildings and more than 9999 (and a half) rooms, hence it was referred as a ‘city’ itself. In Chinese, the number 9 has the same pronunciation as “long”, hence 9999 rooms signifies longevity.
There is an entrance fee of RMB 60 (AUD$12) to enter the Forbidden City, with extra charge if you want to visit Treasure Gallery and the Clock and Watch tower. Once inside, be prepared for a lot of walking as there are a lot of grounds to cover.
More humans to dodge.
There are some corners in the palace where you can actually have some peace and quiet while admiring the majestic imperial court.
And some other time, not so much.
Some of the rooms were opened to public, I found the most fascinating part of the palace is the Inner Court, where Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China grew up before the Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi. You can easily spend hours in the palace and still not able to visit all the rooms.
By 2pm, we decided to get out of here as all the rooms started to look repetitive. Most visitors will walk the length of the palace and exit through the north gate (Gate of Divine Might). Here there are regular buses that you can catch to go to the other touristy spots including Summer Palace or Temple of Heaven. You can also hop on a rickshaw and go for a tour of the old Hutong area. Instead, we headed to grab some food as we were well famished.
Siji Minfu – 四季民福
It paid off to do a bit of research before the trip and had all the restaurants that I wanted to visit all mapped out on Google Map in my phone. We headed to Siji Minfu restaurant which was within walking distance from where we were. We were on a quest to try as many Peking Duck as possible while we were there, and this restaurant claimed to serve one of the best peking ducks in Beijing. I have blogged about how to order and eat Peking Duck in Beijing previously, and also you can find out all the Peking Duck restaurants we visited on an article I’ve written for Expedia Travel.
Siji Minfu has four branches spread all over Beijing city and the WangFuJing branch being the most popular. This restaurant prides itself on being MSG-free, with a few dishes focusing on organic produce, but most importantly, the peking duck. While most restaurants will only serve a full duck, here they offer half a duck for only 108RMB (auD$21.80) and full duck is 178RMB (AUD$36).
I just loved the whole experience where a glossy roast duck was being carved by skillful chef at the table. The friendly waitstaff here also showed us how to wrap our own peking duck pancake. The array of condiments to go with the duck is aplenty, but usually the best way to enjoy the duck is to keep it simple by using wrapping it with cucumber, shallot and hoisin sauce. I’ve never had Peking Duck quite like it, the crispy duck skin was so brittle and they just simply melted in my mouth.
Apart from the Peking Duck, another dish that I wanted to try was the Gongbao Chicken (or Kung Pao chicken). I do have a soft spot for this famous Szechuan dish, so I wanted to find out the differences between the local version and those I’ve had in other countries. The dish is a quick spicy stir-fry of chicken, peanuts, dried chillies and the distinctive numbing sensation of Szechuan peppercorns. The Gongbao chicken here was definitely a lot hotter than those I’ve had outside of China, it didn’t take long before I could feel the tingling sensation on my lips and eventually went numb.
A new type of broccolini that I’ve never seen before. These young organic broccolini is pesticide free, not overcooked as they still hold that nice crunchy texture. Even though it says simple stir fry with pork on the menu, they came out just as spicy with the addictive smokey flavour from the breath of wok.
The meal at Siji Minfu was great and not overpriced, definitely worth checking out next time if you are in Beijing.
32 Dengshikou West Street
Opening hours: 10.30am-10.30pm daily
Phone: +86 10 6513 5141
Visit the Hutongs neighbourhood – 胡同
We chose to stay in the old part of Beijing at the Emperor Hotel for the first part of our trip as it is conveniently located right next to the Forbidden City and is also a Hutong neighbourhood. Hutongs are the old neighbourhood where alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. Due to the rapid growth in China’s development, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. Some Hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.
Many hutongs in the vicinity of the Bell Tower and Drum Tower are popular tourist spots that offer a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has been for generations. And one of the best things about visiting hutongs is you get to try some of the local street food and delicacies.
On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a group of professional photographers gathered at the north-east end of the Forbidden City taking photos of the sunset. It started as a small group but it gradually grew to almost fifteen to twenty of them with all kinds of fancy cameras pointing at the same direction. It was fascinating to watch.
A photographer was using a fancy Hasselblad Pan X.
So I also joined in the fun and took a few photos of the sunset. I guess smog makes beautiful sunset photo.
Wangfujing Snack Street – 王府井小吃
Thanks to YouTube videos and Amazing Race of crazy people eating scorpions, tarantula, starfish and all kinds of crazy shit, Wangfujing Snack Street is no stranger to foreigners anymore. As we had a big lunch that afternoon, so we decided to hit the famous snack street for some local street food.
Between Wangfujing Street and Dong’anmen Street is a very popular shopping hub for both tourists and residents of the capital. And you will find a row of food stalls lined up Dong’anmen Street for a couple of blocks. Here you seriously can eat to your heart’s content, from noodles, skewers, dumplings to some exotic delicacies.
The cutest crab meat dumplings, and the cutest ‘Fortune Crab’ (富贵蟹)!
And the cutest sweet buns!
Many locals were gnawing a whole lamb shank as they strolled along Snack Street, totally my kind of street food.
And then the not so palatable one…
There were a few stalls selling something that you don’t normally find on the menu. Trays upon trays of creepy crawlies and critters such as scorpions, starfish, silkworm chrysalis, crickets, maggots, centipedes, snakes and tarantulas were all ready to be deep fried and masticated by the curious tourists.
And flying lizards! I mean seriously, why?
“The insects banquet”, says on the sign. Here it explains all the different health benefits and nutrients from each insect (and starfish) by eating them. It says silkworm chrysalis is high in protein and amino, consuming seven of these bugs equivalent to eating one egg. It helps to reduce cholesterol and improves the liver functions, not to mention it has anti-aging benefit too. The centipede helps reducing risk of cancer and arthritis. Starfish can be found in vitamin capsules, reduces stomach ache, diarrhoea, gastric etc etc. Spider (tarantula) is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, regular intake of spiders can help reducing back pain and improve children’s breathing.
Whether they contain health benefits or not, most tourists will still try them purely for the novelty sake. But don’t go all gung ho all order yourself an insect before checking the price first because they are not cheap! We saw a group of douchebags trying to dare each other by ordering a tarantula but only later found out that it cost a whopping RMB80 (AUD$16.40)! They refused to pay for it, even the vendor had already deep fried and seasoned it for them, it ended up with a huge argument at the stall. What a bunch of douche.
We couldn’t come without trying any of it. So between The Pom and I, we shared a skewer of two baby scorpions which cost us 15RMB (AUD$3). The vendor deep fried the scorpion in hot oil for about a minute then heavily sprinkled with chilli salt seasoning. And here’s a video just to prove that I indeed ate a scorpion and liked it!
I had to watch out for that stinging barb on its tail that sometimes will hook to the side of the mouth, but apart from that, the scorpion actually tasted just like a crunchy prawn with shell on. It was quite salty from the seasoning so I assumed the scorpion itself is pretty much flavourless.
Apart from the scorpions, we also had deep fried soft shell crabs on a stick, pan fried pork buns and steamed dumplings, all between 10-15RMB (AUD$2-$3). Another street food that I wanted to try is the stinky tofu as I was curious to see how difference it was comparing to the one I had in Sydney. Soon I realised there are two versions of stinky tofu, the version I’ve had was deep fried normal tofu that served with the pungent spicy chilli bean paste sauce, whereas the other version is a lot more deadly with the tofu being fermented for days until it looks rotten and grey. It is definitely not for the faint hearted, even the locals had to pinch their noses in disgust as they walked past the stall.
The Pom had his eyes on this odd looking dessert, called something snow something ice cream. (Quay’s snow egg, eat your heart out!) The vendor put a big scoop of ice cream on a slice of white bread, then covered it with white meringue before dunking the whole thing in hot oil and deep-fried the hell out of it. And the end product looked nothing like the one on display! It was like eating a soggy sponge soaked in old deep-frying oil on top of a slice of burnt toast. It belonged to the bin.
Day Tour to the Great Wall of China
We started bright and early the next morning as we will be joining a day tour to visit The Great Wall of China. There are many different day tours to choose from and each tour will take you to a different section of the Great Wall. The most touristy spot will be the Badaling (八达岭) station which is closer to Beijing compared to SiMaTai (司马台) or JingShanLing (金山岭) sections which are further but less crowded (and also more expensive to get there). We decided to stick with the basic tour and joined the mass at the Badaling station.
Ming Tombs: Chang Ling – 明十三陵(长陵)
Our day tour also including a quick pit stop at the Ming Tombs, another popular tourist spot in Beijing. There are thirteen imperial tombs of the Ming Dynasty scattered over an area of 40km² in Changping District to the northwest of Beijing. Our visit was short and only around the Chang Ling site, here lies the tomb of the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di and his empress which is still intact and hasn’t been excavated to preserve the historic artefacts.
Out of the thirteen tombs, the Dingling tomb is the only one that has been excavated as a trial and sadly most of the artefacts were severely deteriorated. Hence the government has set a new rule not to excavate any historical site except for rescue purposes. Some of the survived artefacts are on display inside Ling’en Hall – Hall of Eminent Favor.
The Ling’en Hall itself is an impressive wooden construction. The whole building is supported by huge camphor wood pillars. In the center of the hall is a large bronze statue of Zhu Di, emperor Yongle, sitting on his imperial throne.
According to Chinese superstitions, visiting a tomb site is like visiting the after life, the past where one might get affected by the negative energy. As we were leaving the site, we had to thump our feet on the ground three times and then shouted out “I am coming back!” loudly before walking through the Lingxing Gate (the Double Pillar gate) to come back to the present day.
Our continued to a jade factory where we also stopped here for lunch. Have to say the jade factory is pretty much a tourist trap, cunningly split into two sections by keeping foreigners to one side where the jades were very expensive. We noticed only locals were browsing on the other side. The Pom and I snuck into the other side and had a quick peek and indeed the jades were a lot cheaper. Sneaky buggers.
Great Wall of China (Badaling Station) – 万里长城 (八达岭)
Everyone in the bus was getting excited when we saw a glimpse of the great wall as we were approaching the destination. There is an admission fee of RMB45 (AUD$9.30) for adults, but if you want to take the cable car and head straight to the top, it will cost an extra RMB60 (AUD$12.40) for a return ticket. I would advise those who do not feel like hiking 6km (12km return trip) all the way to the top of the wall to go for the cable car option. Many parts of the wall are uneven and steep, definitely not suitable for elderly. Another option is to take the cable car up and then hike down which is less strenuous, but make sure to give yourself extra time to get back to the base. The good thing was that the cost of our tour also including the return ticket for the cable car which saved us from all the hiking.
When we reached the top, I was totally in shock because seems like half of the population in China had the same idea of visiting the Great Wall of China on the same day.
Welcome to the Great Wall of Humans!
I knew it was two weeks before the Golden Week when we were there and was also a Saturday, but I seriously didn’t expect it to be this crowded where everyone pretty much had to walk shoulder to shoulder. Being MOFO is almost inevitable here in China, so we pretty much had to fight our ways through the crowd to get anywhere really.
At this point, I was totally regretting it by joining a day tour to Badaling station instead of going for the more secluded ones.
Chairman Mao once said, “One who fails to reach the Great Wall is not a hero” while he was climbing the Great Wall. These days, many Chinese will try to reach the top station at the wall to fulfill a sense of achievement and be the true hero.
I was like, “Bugger that, I am getting out of here and away from the crowd.”
EAST, Beijing Hotel – 东隅
The traffic on the way back to Beijing city was pretty bad so we didn’t get back till quite late. We also decided to stay at another hotel a little further away from the congestion so that we could catch a flight the next morning without being caught in the traffic jam.
EAST, Beijing is possibly the swankiest business hotel I’ve ever stayed at. It is located in INDIGO mall in Jiangtai, conveniently connected to a shopping mall with 200 retailers inside. This area is not only a business district, but it is also the centre of China’s contemporary art scene with the famous 798 Art Zone just nearby.
EAST, Beijing is not your typical business hotel, you won’t find any suit-and-tie concierge and receptionists but a laid back attire of polo long sleeve, jeans and sneakers. As they believe the casual approach able to help to take the guests’ minds off their busy business lifestyle and relax a little at the hotel.
I fell in love with this amazing sculpture at the lobby of the hotel. It looks like a splash of mercury, but look closely the whole sculpture were covered in engraving of Chinese characters. Pretty amazing.
By the time we checked in and put our luggage in our room, it was well over 8pm. Good thing that we didn’t have to go far for dinner as a table had already been reserved for us at HAGAKI, a Japanese restaurant in the hotel. The restaurant is tucked away at the back of the lobby, it is a cosy little space that you instantly feel like being inside a sushi restaurant somewhere in Tokyo. Here they serve up a great selection of maki rolls as well as many traditional Japanese classics like tonkatsu, tempura and udon. Those who choose to seat at the sushi bar will get to watch all the action in the kitchen.
The food was well prepared, fresh sashimi that simply melted in the mouth. I particularly enjoyed the Wang Jing Roll, their signature roll of marinated tuna with korean gochujang sauce, topped with kimchi and tobiko roe; it was a perfect combination of sweet and spicy. The chicken karaage went down like a treat, golden chicken nuggets that were crunchy and salty. For some reason The Pom decided to order deep fried chicken soft bone which he kind of grossed out by munching on the crunchy cartilage, just as I predicted. Ended up he had one piece and I had to finish the whole plate! We ate way too much that night and by the time we finished our meal, all I could think of was the comfy bed.
The hotel has only been there just over two years, so all the rooms are equipped with the latest technology. Complimentary WiFi at the hotel is always a bonus, there is also an iPod dock and audio docking system.
After a quick shower, I crashed into bed and slept like a log.
EAST, Beijing Hotel
22 Jiuxianqiao Road
Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
T: +8610 8426 0888
[We stayed at EAST, Beijing and dined at HAGAKI as the guests of the hotel. The trip was independently paid for.]