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Happy New Year

Beijing, China
Monday, February 11, 2013

We would like to say we planned to be in China for New Year but we didn't, it was just luck we managed to get a train ticket at all at this time of year. With an estimated 500 million people travelling home for New Year, train tickets are like gold dust. We have already been told the trains we were planning on catching later in China are already sold out and are standing room only. Standing room only! It's a 14 hour overnight trip! We might have to rethink our plans. With having to stand up for so long maybe the rumours of the adult nappies are true. Apparently the trains are so full you can't move through the carriage so people have to resort to wearing nappies... use your imagination as to why!

The Year of the Snake

We were last in Beijing in 2009 and did most of the major sights both in and around the city. We decided to stop off for a few days after the long trip on the Trans-Siberian and it just so happened to be New Year!

New Year in Beijing is an experience! On New Year's Eve the place is manic until around 8pm when it goes completely dead as people enjoy their New Year's meal. This is the calm before the storm because from about 10pm the fireworks start and then at midnight the city is under fire. It's like living in a war zone, there isn't an organised firework display and everyone does their own thing and the sky is just alight with fireworks. We soon realised that it is safer to watch from our hotel room as people set off fire crackers and fireworks anywhere and everywhere... in the street, in front of traffic waiting at traffic lights, hotel doorways, anywhere! From the safety of our 6th floor hotel room it was an amazing sight which got crazier and crazier, just don't plan on getting much sleep!

Day 1 - New Years Eve

We decided to head over to the Olympic park. Although we have been before we wanted to visit the Water Cube which has recently been converted into the biggest water park in Asia. Cossies in hand we had a mini mission to find the entrance. After walking around the building twice and some difficult conversations with the security guards we decided to give up as we think it was shut for the New Year. A bit concerned that this was the sign of things to come for the next few days we decided to go for a walk through the Olympic Park. When we reached the river it was completely frozen and was full of people playing around on wooden chairs with ski's sticks. Very strange and quite crazy but fun to watch. After sliding about on the river for a few minutes we were approached by a group of girls excitedly jumping up and down speaking Chinese. Having been here before we guessed they wanted a photo so after a bit of sign language there were more excited squeals and then a photo session ensued. Five minutes of fame and a strange celebrity feeling we soon went back to just being tourists :-(

Day 2 - New Years Day

Since we arrived the smog has been heavy but not as bad as we were expecting and you do get used to it. However after last night's fireworks and the warnings on the TV we were fully expecting the smog to be the worst since we arrived but surprisingly we awoke to reasonably clear skies.

It is a New Year's Day tradition to go to the temple to welcome in the New Year. So we decided to visit White Cloud Temple, not something we would recommend if you are claustrophobic! It was rammed full and the queue to get in was ridiculous. However it was a great to visit and watch the locals burning incenses. Moving around the temple was difficult due to the over-crowding and people just stopping in their tracks to stare at the strange western people but it added to the atmosphere.

In the afternoon we took a walking tour from Tiananmen Square to the Houhai Lake District. As the name suggests an area with lots of frozen water and if we thought there was a lot of people messing around on the river yesterday we were wrong! There were hundreds of people ice skating, scooting around on mini 'bikes' and even playing on a bouncy castle that was frozen into the lake. We passed and walked through many Hutongs through the old backstreets of Beijing many of which have now been redeveloped (destroyed) for regeneration. Well worth a visit but it is easy to just wander around and you won't get lost like the rickshaw riders try to convince you.

Day 3 - Great Wall

We did the Great Wall last time we were in Beijing but as it is one of the biggest must see sights in the whole of China we thought it would be rude not to go again. Last time we booked a tour and although we weren't ripped off we didn't get value for money as part of the tour included a visit to the Ming Tombs, lunch and shopping. The shopping part was a waste of time and just delayed us getting to the wall and thus meant the time we had at the wall was significantly less than we would have liked. Having experienced this ourselves we have heard of similar stories where people have had less than an hour on the wall! Avoid this tourist trap and go by public transport. We went to the most touristy section Badling which is renowned for being very busy but if you are prepared to walk you can get away from the crowds. We took the train from Beijing North which cost an extortional 6CNY (approx 60p!) one way. Entry fee for the wall is 45CNY so a massive saving on the cheapest tours and you have the freedom to do what you want. We took the cable car to the top to avoid the crowds on the first part of the wall and then walked to the end of the restored wall. Well worth the cable car ride as it drops you near one of the lookout towers which is where most people who haven't taken the cable car turn back. Soon after this the crowds dispersed and we often found ourselves on our own. Do not underestimate how tough some parts of the wall can be! Although we have been before we both enjoyed this time much more than the last.

Getting on in China

Although we love China we will never get used to the locals spitting. It's almost as if they see a western person and go out of their way to spit in your direction, never at you but in the vicinity is near enough! It's almost as if they think it's good etiquette to do so. A disgusting habit that you just don't see in the West.

If you are planning a trip leave your English manners at home, sharpen your elbows and don't be afraid to push. If you don't you will find yourself patiently waiting at the front of a queue until it moves then before you know it you will be at the back scratching your head wondering, how did that happen? Some trains don't have seat reservations and boarding a Ryanair flight is civilised in comparison so be prepared to be shoved and elbowed. It amazing how fast the old ladies can run when they think there might not be any seats left.

Hotel Review

We stayed at the Beijing City Centre Youth Hostel. We chose the hotel based on its location just across the road from the train station we arrived at from Mongolia and only 20m from the metro for sightseeing, it is in a great location. The hostel is a strange hostel/hotel spread over 6 floors the bottom 4 referred to as the hostel and the top 2 the hotel although anybody can just use the hostel facilities. After so long on the train we opted for a double private with en suite, the last time we had our own bathroom was Berlin! A nice room with good facilities but badly let down by the poor internet, strange smell in the bathroom and the bed, which is currently winning the most uncomfortable bed award. We wanted to use the kitchen facilities but were put off but the cockroach going for a walk across the sideboard! Reception staff were pretty useless and unhelpful with most things unless it's taking your money. Nice room shame about the bed which really lets it down.


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