Beijing All The Way.
Following 4 nights in Shanghai and a first taste of Chinese culture, the next stop in my trip was Beijing for United’s game vs City on 25th July. This was due to take place in the impressive Birds Nest stadium, China’s national stadium built for the 2008 summer Olympics. First though, I had to make the 700+ mile journey between the two cities.
The Bullet Train
When I booked my main flights I’d also checked out the domestic connections between Shanghai and Beijing, pretty reasonably priced at around 65 quid for a 2 hour flight. However, knowing I’d have been in the air for half a day to get over from Manchester I thought I’d opt for something different; China’s famous bullet train was something I had to experience.
This departed from Hongqiao station, located just over 11 miles west of the main Shanghai station where I’d been staying. Apparently a relatively new station to support the adjacent airport of the same name, from here it was an 819 mile journey to Beijings south station, all in under 5 hours. At 553 yuan each way this was just a little bit cheaper than the flight prices I’d seen, with the post-brexit exchange rate working out at 63 quid.
The train itself was a step up on the pendolino’s I’m used to from Manchester to London, more like an airplane cabin with 5 seats across and a regular stewardess service coming through. Like most long distance trains I’ve experienced in Europe there was a full dining carriage where I stopped for beers (15 yuan) and took in the largely green, mountain views. Even at speeds of 200mph, a speed which was certainly noticeable, there was plenty to see on the outside thanks to the tall carriage windows.
Having settled into the hustle and bustle of China and now in the much bigger city of Beijing, I’d planned to up (or down) grade to a hostel for a bit more of a social experience. The Dragon King Hostel ended up being a great choice, not just because it worked out at £11 a night in a shared room of 4, but it provided easy access to the metro which was even more vital for travelling around the city than it had been in Shanghai. One mistake I did make when booking this place was that I’d assumed it was close to Beijing railway station, however, whilst it was on the same straight road it was actually a 2.5 mile walk. Beijing’s grid like city centre meant that some roads just seemed to never end and maps had to be checked, twice.
The hostel was in the Dongcheng region, just around the corner from the Zhangzizhonglu metro station. My daily excursions started and ended here most days and it was easy enough to connect to all of the many metro lines. I spent a few of my evenings in the hostel bar which was a great space, with friendly English speaking staff and cheap draught beer, 15 yuan a pint and 2-for-1 happy hours (85p!). I’ve not had too many bad experiences in hostels and the Dragon King didn’t disappoint; again with a proper toilet and half decent shower and one of the more social I’ve stayed at too, with plenty of western and English speaking guests.
The City of Beijing
After having a bit of a hiccup with trains out of Shanghai I ended up with a day less than I’d planned to have in Beijing, a bit of a shame given the city was so much bigger and had plenty more to see. These things can happen when travelling though, even with good planning, and I still managed to work my way through a lot of the sights. The problem I found with trying to get between anywhere in Beijing was that the long, deceptive streets just meant everything was so far apart, even the closest metro stops were a good walk to some attractions.
I also found that Beijing didn’t have an obvious centre, nothing like Shanghai or London with a river flowing right through the middle. Perhaps more like Manchester, with Albert Square a central point, Beijing’s was Tiananmen which was geographically right in the middle. This was a huge area, much larger than Moscow’s Red Square, and with a lot more going on around it. I got the metro into Qianmen which was south of the square and by the Zhengyang gate, once the souther gate of the city’s walls. At the centre of Tiananmen Square there was another monument to the People’s Heroes, with three of the inward facing sides housing notable buildings; the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
Walking across the square I had my first picture request(!) joining a family’s group shot, I’d end up having a few that day which I was happy enough to be involved in. The soldiers marching through at intervals were less accommodating. Clearly there was no monument or recognition of the famous student protests and stand off in 1989 but I’m fairly sure I crossed the road in the exact point at which the tanks were stopped.
At the north side of Tiananmen Square is the Tiananmen gate (translated as the Gate of Heavenly Peace) which leads through to the Forbidden City. Another of Beijing’s key attractions and unfortunately one I planned poorly; I quickly found out that many of the tourist spots stopped letting people in around 4pm each day and so the closest I made it to the Forbidden city and palace museum was the main Meridan gate. Without wanting to waste my afternoon here I wandered around the neighbouring Zhongshan Park and the moat that surrounded the whole city. It would probably have made for a half day trip if I made it in, and had I more time I’d have visited again.
Another half day trip that I managed was the Summer Palace, situated near the end of the metro line at Beigongmen in the city’s north-west. This was a perfect setting for what was the emperor’s old summer haunt, with a palace and temple on a hill looking over a pretty large lake. As with many sights in Beijing there was a full entry ticket (60 yuan) to see all of the exhibits and galleries in each building, or the standard entry (30 yuan). I went for the basic option which still provided me with plenty to see. A steep climb up the Longevity Hill offered views from behind the Tower of Buddhist Incense which seemed to be the central point. Behind this stretched out the huge Kunming Lake which, despite the continued mid-30s temperature, was covered in mist due to a fairly damp morning. I still took one of the 20 yuan dragon boat trips across the lake to take in the wider views of the hill and various surrounding structures, including a marble boat and the well named seventeen-arch bridge.
The signs and stories all around the Summer Palace described an Anglo-French invasion and destruction sometime in the 1800’s as part of one of the Opium Wars. The tone I picked up was that the Chinese were (rightly) deeply upset by this and so I tried to keep my head down whilst wandering around; fortunately none of the locals tried to throw me into the lake as retribution. A 15 minute walk down the road took me to the old Summer Palace, a similar site with a much larger lake but very little in the way of buildings, just spots of ruins. Whether more was destroyed here during the war I didn’t find out, but it was certainly a much more tranquil and quiet park to walk around, with the big crowds preferring the sights of main park.
One of the last spots I visited in central Beijing was the Temple of Heaven. Another park and vast area in the south of the city, a short walk from the Tiantan Park stop. The 10 yuan entry ticket seemed a little pointless here as there were three distinct zones and key spots which required the 34 yuan through ticket. This included the Circular Mound Altar, a marble altar used for sacrifices – though not of tourists; the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a small temple with a surrounding ‘echo wall’ filled with clapping tourists; and the Imperial Hall of Heaven, a bigger and more impressive temple for ancient religious ceremonies. Whilst the whole Temple of Heaven park was as busy as any other site I visited, the history and buildings themselves were some of the most impressive I saw.
Having eventually arrived in Beijing a day late due to train issues in Shanghai, I actually found myself a little short of time to see some of the other interesting areas of the city. There were so many notable areas to visit and although nearly all had an entry fee, which I’d found less of a case in Shanghai, it was largely nominal and around 20-30 yuan a time. One of the recommended sights in Beijing is the Ming tombs, literally the tombs of emperors from the Ming dynasty, which was about 25 miles out of the city centre. Whilst people I’d managed to speak to described it as grand and historic, it was also said to be nothing special and ultimately it was a sight I ended up skipping.
The Great Wall
Aside from the United match, the one attraction that pulled me in to coming to China was visiting the Great Wall. No other attraction in the world compares to this 13,000 mile wall, built mainly to keep the noisy neighbours out. Given part of it was just 40 miles north of Beiijng, it was a trip I just had to make.
There were plenty of adverts for trips to see the Wall, my hostel was advertising a 2 day camping trip at 1000 yuan, whilst plenty of other operators had day trips which stopped off at the Ming Tombs as well. I thought I’d try and make my own way there, which seemed easy enough with trains heading to Badaling from Beijings north railway station. I’d been warned to leave early to avoid the huge crowds and almost got it just right; unfortunately arriving at Beijing north at 6.30am I’d just missed a train and absurdly they were only every 2 hours. The 90 minute trip was just 6 yuan each way though, and so I eventually arrived at the foot of the wall for 10am.
Frustratingly there were big queues already but I quickly got in (40 yuan) and onto this beast of a structure. It was amazing to see how the wall crept along the crest of the mountain and off into the horizon in both directions. The section of the wall I was at in Badaling was a fully restored section whilst other spots were either part-restored or largely untouched. Here though it meant I was able to walk for miles, or hours at least, making a steep ascent to one of the towers almost 1km high. This was a challenge for a few reasons: firstly the Chinese continued to push and disregard others in crowded situations; second it was incredibly steep at parts, and even I struggled with the height of some steps; third it was trying to rain and the distant sounds of thunder were a little concerning. I quickly put my phone away when I saw a sign warning about storms and, given I was the tallest person up at the peak, the lightening might have found me first.
The views from the top were incredible, with mountains and shadows of mountains disappearing into the distance. The rain even ceased for a short while to offer up some almost clear views. After hiking right through midday I was pretty exhausted and handily found a quicker, cooler way down, a soft of toboggan roller-coaster track. Although it cost twice as much as the entry at 80 yuan, it was the best way to descend my day on the wall. There was even a surprise at the bottom, with a pen of bears who happily plucked chunks of carrot which you could throw to them, even if they did look to be struggling in the heat. I should have stayed and played with them a while longer as it was another long wait at Badaling station to get the train back to the city.
That’s right. After travelling more than 7,000 miles from Manchester, via Munich and Shanghai, I found out just a few hours before kick off that game in Beijing had been cancelled. There’d been reports earlier in the week that some were concerned about the state of the pitch, whilst we’d had virtually no rain in Shanghai, Beijing has experienced thunderstorms. Having seen pictures of the pitch it looked like the bad condition was not just caused by a big downpour, but more through neglect.
Part of the official statement said: “The cancellation was made in the interest of player safety and comes following extreme weather events in Beijing over a multiple day period, that have left the playing surface in a condition deemed to be unfit for play. The conditions experienced in Beijing on July 19 and July 20 were reported as being some of the most extreme weather conditions the capital of China has experienced in recent history. Regular rain occurred also on July 21 and July 22.”
Obviously it was a disappointment but I’ve experienced worse incidents watching United; not wanting to waste the evening I met up with 6 other lads from Manchester and we drowned our sorrows, for want of a better expression. A good session though, with pints around 30 yuan.
Later in the week I went up to see the Birds Nest stadium in the north of the city. Like seemingly everywhere I’d travelled to it required 3 changes on metro to get to the Olympic park; this was another huge area, much like London’s with the large Olympic forest park (including an intriguing dragon-shaped stream and pond), the ‘Water Cube’ aquatics centre and another indoor stadium close to the Birds Nest itself. It’s a fantastic stadium from the outside, so very unique with it’s intricate mould of steel; a real shame we didn’t get to experience it from the inside. The whole Olympic park was still busy on a weekday, and although there was no sign or indication around the ground that United and City were ever due to play there (clearly the organisers quickly moved on from that embarrassment) they did have a ‘wall of winners’ noting all of the athletes who won medals in the 2008 games.
After a busy week or travelling in and around Beijing my plans changed again, originally I’d thought to get the overnight sleeper train back to Shanghai, which would have saved a further night in the hostel and offered a slightly different journey, a 12 hour trip on a longer 909 mile line. It’d have saved me another 25 quid or so, at just 309 yuan for the overnight trip with a bunk. Instead I paid the premium for a return on the bullet.
Back in Shanghai my trip was quickly coming to an end, I was soon at the airport (after picking up gifts of tea and pickled chickens feet) and on the long flight to Munich. Having left on the bullet train at 10am Saturday from Beijing before eventually landing at Manchester at 10am Sunday, it felt like I’d been travelling home for days, the 7 hour time distance lost as I nodded off flying over the Middle East.
And that was it for China. Just short of 2 weeks in the country absolutely flew by and I’d lost count of the number of pictures and metro rides I taken. I know that I could easily have spent another week in Beijing in order to see even more of what was going on – even though that didn’t even include any football in the end! I very much doubt United will rush back there after the chaos of the cancelled match, but the lure of the Chinese Super League money may help persuade them. For me though, it was a journey full of culture and new experiences for the biggest trip I’ve made to date.
Total travel costs: £128 (1120 yuan)
Miles travelled: 830 (one way from Shanghai)
Accommodation: £11/night hostel (shared dorm of 4)
Match ticket: 800 yuan (£84)
Average cost of pint: 24 yuan (£2.75)
Match attendance: Cancelled
Result: Manchester City – : United –
Match was due to be played 25/07/16