The alarmwas set for 05:00 as we had to be at Hong Kong airport for 06:00, in time for our 09:00 flight to Beijing. Check in was smooth and before we knew it we were spending our last Hong Kong dollars on a coffee each and heading to the departure gate, where we met up with our Tour Manager, Mary, and the rest of our group who had flown in from London overnight.
One reason that we love travelling with Great Rail Journeys is because despite us usually being very independent travellers, we do enjoy having the services of a tour manager to follow on these long trips in non western countries. Whilst we had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Hong Kong, it’s exhausting travelling on our own in a foreign country with limited time. We find having a tour manager to follow and transport us from place to place offers us the right mix of being adventurous and seeing new places, yet still being able to relax and rewind.
Another reason we enjoy GRJ is that they allow us to be somewhat flexible in our holiday approach. For example, the main group flight from London to Beijing had a layover in HK; but we thought it would be a shame to pass HK without seeing it, so GRJ organised an extension for us. We weren’t the only couple to do this and another 2 couples are doing HK at the end of our main trip too.
Our flight from Hong Kong to Beijing was around 3 hours in length and so by lunchtime, we had landed, retrieved our cases, successfully passed through immigration with our visas (hurrah!), met our group & our Beijing local guide, Lily, and were on our coach to the hotel.
We were staying at the Novotel Peace Hotel which was pretty central, so after check in we decided to have a little wander to acclimatise. We found a local supermarket and stocked up on room snacks and local beer! We were noticing that there seems to be a lack of bars etc – the Chinese don’t drink like us Brits!
Dinner was included and we enjoyed the buffet which served a selection of Chinese and western cuisine, whilst getting to know some of our fellow group members before having an early night- our previous travelling days along with late nights were catching up on us and we had an early start tomorrow.
Our alarm was set for 06:00 – we had a full day ahead! Beijing is huge but also extremely densely populated. Traffic is a huge problem and it was a Chinese Holiday so the bad traffic was even worse! Lily suggested we meet earlier than scheduled to enable us to reach the Temple of Heaven before the mass crowds. By doing this we got to The Temple of Heaven early enough to see the groups of seniors partaking in Tai Chi in the Park.
The weather was glorious – which made our first glimpse of the magnificent UNESCO site just breathtaking. It really is a beautiful sight and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
Next stop was Tiananmen Square which is the largest city square in the world and Lily and Mary did a wonderful job of guiding our group of 30 through seamlessly, despite huge numbers of tourists!
We walked though from Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City- which once was home exclusively to the emperor, concubines and staff for over 600 years. We knew it would be large but it’s not until you are there and navigating through on foot, that you get a feel for how large!
We absolutely loved our tour of the places and courtyards etc- and again, it was amazing how Mary and Lily kept the group together- I don’t think I’ve been anywhere so crowded in my life. Lily provided us with ear pieces which allowed us to hear her commentary and instructions- a vital piece of equipment I’d say!
We were taken to lunch at a local restaurant which was delicious, before going to a tea shop for a demonstration of various teas local to Beijing which was really enjoyable.
The afternoon was spent visiting The Summer Palace, which is a collection of lovely courtyards and gardens along with a large man made lake, which we travelled across on an amazing Dragon Boat, similar to how the emperor would have travelled many years ago.
This evening we had booked an additional excursion to a sample evening of the Beijing Opera. The hour long show consisted of 3 short operas, and gave a great insight into the art. We found the evening very interesting and despite musically not being to our taste, it was brilliant to see the costumes, traditional music and instruments, movement and of course the singing!
Sunday dawned with another very early start; today we were off to The Great Wall of China and I was so excited that I barely slept as I was petrified of missing our alarm!
The weather could not have been any better and during the hour and a half coach journey to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall you could almost smell the excitement and anticipation on the coach.
The Mutianyu section is a little further away from Beijing that other sections and as such is much quieter! That along with our early start meant that once again, we were joined by only a few others.
We took a cable car up to the wall and when we took our first steps out onto the wall, I became so overwhelmed that I burst into tears! It is absolutely phenomenally spectacular. No matter how many pictures you look at before you travel, nothing will ever come close to how it feels to be on that wall! And it’s not just the wall and the background of how it was built etc ; it’s built in such a spectacular mountainous area- the view is worth seeing on its own!
We had two hours of free time on the wall which was great as I was so overcome it took me nearly 20 mins just to take a picture!
After our visit we were whisked to a local restaurant for a fabulous lunch. Everyone was in high spirits having seen one of the 7 wonders of the world, and the food was wonderful.
Next stop was a workshop that made wonderful copper ornaments and vases which were hand decorated using filigree. We purchased a pretty Christmas decoration but if money were no object we’d have brought at least 2 or 3 vases.
We made our way back to Beijing, stopping for a photo at The Birds Nest Olympic stadium for a picture, before arriving in Beijing’s Old town – known locally as the Hutongs. Lily had arranged for us to take a rickshaw ride around the oldest streets of Beijing which was enjoyable, and fascinating to see the grey concrete buildings – the colour grey was only allowed to be used by he commoners.
We also were allowed to visit a traditional Hutong which was fascinating. I loved the courtyard with the red lanterns hanging over head.
We had an hour at the hotel before we were taken out for a traditional Peiking Duck meal in a 5 star restaurant. The whole meal was delicious – the duck slightly different to how we have it in the UK as the skin was not so crispy. But it was delicious non the less and as authentic as you can get! Lily told us these ducks are cooked for an hour in huge ovens using wood from fruit trees so the skin doesn’t get blackened.
We returned to the hotel around 9pm and so we wandered down to Wungfalung Street food market which was about 10 mins walk from our hotel. I had read that this was the place to try more “unusual” foods and had quite imagined that I may use this opportunity to try something local. The stalls sell things like Scorpion kebabs and spider kebabs – in my head I thought no problem, I’ll give that a go! In reality I very quickly changed my mind! We loved our walk through the market and at night the lights were on and there was a great atmosphere. The smells were interesting and intense and not always mouth watering! Check out our (sneaky!) video of some of the sights we saw! 🤢 including Keith’s face when he saw a squashed lizard type creature on a kebab! 😂 I doubt we will ever see anything like it again – although some of our group are saying they saw similar scenes in Vietnam and Cambodia. It really was a fascinating wander – a real eye opener/tummy turner!
Our time in Beijing had come to an end- it was time to go and pack our cases – first thing tomorrow we are transferring to Beijing Railway station for our high speed train to Xi’an.
What a fabulous, jam packed introduction to China, and as Mary said when we said bye to Lily, we could not have asked for a better guide to show us around, Lily was a ray of sunshine and knew her stuff!
Until next time.