It was the 6am stop at Jiningnan that woke me up as the train went completely still and silent. The sun not quite out though the lights of the station and city were diluting any attempt at seeing the stars. I climbed out of the top bunk clumsily flailing to the floor only to step in the nasty sloshy carpet below me. Darn it, where are those shoes! The prior evening they had given us a free breakfast coupon that was valid from 6:30-7:00a in the dining car. Curious to see what it would be, I got ready for the day and headed over.
The train car was smooth and rolled forward with an ease, the creaking had stopped, the wobbling had stopped, whatever changed at the border was a delightful improvement. I was able to move between the train cars to the dining car without effort, it was smooth and effortless. The dining car was mostly filled when I arrived. Unlike the last Russian one there was no bar, the car was setup with booths much like a Village Inn but with cloth draped over the tables. Unlike the windows in my carriage, these were clean and if for anything else the view was worth the trek.
Breakfast came on a small paper plate and consisted of 3 half slices of toast, a hard boiled egg, and a glass of tea. I think it’s official I am the only one on the planet that doesn’t like tea. Coffee cost 10 Chinese money, which I had none of, so I went without and made my instant coffee back in my suite. The sun had come out and the towering and impressive mountains of China were in full view. Snow capped and magnificent. It killed me that I couldn’t capture their beauty in a photograph through the dirt covered windows.
After a bit of window watching, Ian had come back from the lunch buffet and convinced me it was worth trying. A small bowl of rice, a sauce covered ball of squishy unknown meat, and a soft warm-ish green squash of sorts. Back in the carriage the staff were starting to dismantle the suites, removing the linens, curtains, hangers, and cushion covers. With our rooms in full disarray, Ian and I compared travel stories.
Turns out four years ago Ian had been to the same exact igloos I went to in Finland. He was on his way to a 23 day tour of China from the north all the way to the south, including Hong Kong. It sounded amazing. He was the first person I bumped into on a similar length journey with a smaller bag than me, most everyone else had bags larger than a carry-on. We talked about the different travel bag choices, travel locks, and other cool travel gadgets. It was clear I had met my match in minimalist travel as we talked about everything in the context of weight and size.
When the train pulled into the Beijing station, my suite was stripped of all comforts with a wet sloppy floor as they’d removed the mildew carpet. The mountains had been replaced with large apartment buildings crammed tight into the jam-packed city. We all piled off the train and I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad as this symbolized the end of my land journey. What a wild adventure it’s been traveling from Berlin to Beijing over ground, 5,000+ miles. Coolest experience ever!
Having booked a hotel by the airport to make tomorrow’s flight a little easier, I wanted to spend the day checking out the city so I leveraged my Marriott Gold status to finagle the nearby to hold my luggage for the day. Across the street at the W Hotel, one of my favorite chains, I had a real lunch of veggie spring rolls and a glass of Chardonnay while various people in high end outfits scurried around the bar trying to transform it into a runway. Beautiful tall slender people with gorgeous clothing stood around getting primped and primed for the upcoming show.
The subway station was a quick walk and navigating it was relatively easy given how much English was available. I took the train to Tiananmen Square, which drops you off right at the line to the Forbidden Palace. Trailing for what seemed like forever, the sea of people eager to see the palace, I decided to abort the plan. I’d been there a year ago with a functioning camera, so waiting in line, paying a bundle of money, to wander a crowded place without a camera just didn’t seem worth it.
Surrounding the palace is a beautiful large mote that separates the craze of the jam packed little buildings and hustle and bustle of the hutongs from the palace. It’s possible to walk the Eastern side for only about one block before it’s closed off and you’re detoured over to the busy hutong. Hutong is just the word for the alleys / small streets that scatter the historic areas of Beijing. They are full of energy and buzz, small vendors selling everything from souvenirs to meat on a stick to colorful fabrics and knick knacks.
With four hours to squander I slowly meandered through the hutongs, watching the people, the families on scooters, the small tuk tuk’s construction workers used to carry supplies, the stray dogs, the endless swarms of people, and the periodic temples that appeared randomly throughout the chaos filled streets. Just north of the Forbidden Palace is Jingshan Park with it’s ornate pagodas towering on the hills of Beijing. The park has lovely walking paths with trees and flowers and in the middle the largest hill in the city. Climbing up the seemingly endless staircase a 360 view of the city appears just beneath the pagodas with Buddha shrines and music playing.
As one of the few westerners in the park, it seemed to be an invitation of sorts. Up on the top, various tourists would randomly pull me to the side, smile, and gesture for me to be in their photos. Yes, in their photos as if I was some celebrity. Sure, why not. At the bottom of the hill a couple of high school guys approached me for a school project and asked to film me and one of the guys having a conversation in English. He was shy and sweet and it was adorable. I appeased, why not.
The park is quite large and allows for an enjoyable stroll as it wasn’t too crowded. Just outside the walls was back in the hutongs, though the ones in this area were more residential. As I walked through, the only westerner in sight, the locals moved about their business walking kids home from school, carrying groceries, sweeping their staircases. The ‘roads’ were windy and without much notice would end and vier a different direction. Small corner stores with fruits out for display, tiny stores the size of large closets sold old dusty electronics, another was a seamstress, there were trucks parked with swarms of people grabbing cabbage from the back.
As the sun began to set I made my way back to the palace and it’s mote for some amazing sunset photos. If only I’d had my nice camera working. Photographers of all backgrounds were huddled around the corner with their tripods and large lenses grabbing picture after picture. I wonder what they do with these – sell them to people? To businesses? Obviously there were amateurs like me there too, but this was ‘the’ spot for professionals.
Having been to Beijing a year ago, I discovered the Temple Restaurant run by a French chef. It’s a bit of a splurge, but a must-do for this visit. The restaurant is in an old temple complex, that evening the NY Colombia University had rented out the ancient temple for a dinner. In the complex were a few historic buildings which showcase local art and photography. The restaurant has been modernized and is tucked around the historic buildings with large floor to ceiling glass windows to admire the historic architecture while indulging on the lovely meal.
Inside were tasting menus of 3, 4, and 5 courses (I chose 4). After providing a wet napkin to cleanse my hands, I was treated with champagne and an amuse bouche of various savory flavors. My first course was the eggplant ravioli, followed by a ‘free course’ of potato soup, then my second course of grilled salmon, third course of steak, and fourth course of chocolate cake. All topped off with a wine pairing for each course, including the ‘free course’ which left me feeling far too tipsy with their heavy pours.
I stumbled out to the taxi they called me and we were off to the Marriott to pick up my bags, then over to the airport hotel. Although it wasn’t even 10pm when I arrived, there was nothing more I wanted then to just drop everything on the floor and plop into bed, so I did.