A city in change!
Trip Start May 05, 2006
3Trip End May 13, 2006
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We headed first to Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City. Both were heaving with people, nearly all Chinese tourists, for whom we were clearly the main attraction. I lost count of the number of times we posed for photos with people - China may be opening up to tourism, but Westerners are obviously still pretty rare in most places
We finally managed to get away from the photos, negotiate the complicated queuing procedure (this booth for the entry ticket, this booth for the audio guide, this booth to pick up your audio guide, this queue to enter etc etc. The audio guide was interesting, but as it only worked for about 10% of the total tour, not entirely useful! The buildings are all being restored in time for the Olympics in 2008 (a familiar story) and so unfortunately one of the main halls was covered in scaffolding - but the restoration work is very good and the detail on the buildings is incredible.
We spent at least 4-5 hours in the Forbidden City, with each courtyard and building revealing something new. However, we didn't come close to seeing everything - it's huge! The garden at the furthest point from the Gate of Heavenly Peace was really tranquil - I could have sat there for hours...
On the way back from the Forbidden City, we wandered along Donghuamen Dajie, where the evening food market was being set up, and later Wangfujing snack street. We managed to resist the temptation to tuck into cockroach or scorpion kebabs - and were quite relieved to see that we weren't the only ones - there were groups of chinese teenagers daring each other to try as well
The following day we hired bikes from the hotel and did the Lonely Planet bike tour. It was a great way to get ourselves away from the centre of the city and to some places we probably wouldn't have seen otherwise. And to see first hand the contrast between the busy, wide boulevards and the hutongs where the majority of people live. Cycling down these narrow alleyways, it felt like being in a different city. Actually, it didn't feel like a city at all - but rather like somewhere fairly rural.
Another highlight of the tour was Beihai Park, which we were going to skip (figured we'd seen enough parks by then) but I'm really glad we went in. Even with the thousands of tourists in the first section, the bridges and galleries set around ponds were very peaceful and very pretty. On the edge of the lake there were people playing music and dancing - as far as I could tell this wasn't a tourist thing - just people enjoying themselves on a sunny day. It was fun to watch.
The only downside was the fact that we got out to find that my bike had gone... I'd been distracted as we arrived, and stupidly forgot to lock the bike (not something I'd ever do at home - and we'd been expressly warned to lock our bikes carefully as theft is a big problem)... Doh! So our bike tour ended rather abruptly - and at the furthest point from home! Luckily we were able to walk some parts (along the edge of Qianhai lake, watching a couple having wedding photographs taken, and some old men using the free gym equipment at the side of the road. There was some distinctly unpleasant wrinkly skin being exposed in nothing but speedos!!