Spring Festival (Chinese New Year to you and me) is a huge celebration in China, akin to our Christmas festivities. It is the largest mass migration of people in the world as the hordes of migrant workers travel home to be with family. As a tourist this is actually one of the most difficult times to travel because with so many people on the go, securing a train ticket can be practically impossible. Thankfully, my friend and I left for Beijing a few days before the mad rush actually started. Something to keep in mind: if you visit Beijing in January, it is freezing! No matter how many layers you have on, you will still be cold. Nevertheless, my Starry-Eyed Travel experience was so good because it was freezing.
It started with an overnight train journey, sharing a bottle of wine and strawberries with a good friend. The train pulled into the railway station at 6 am giving us an early start in Beijing. Our first stop was the Summer Palace. This is where Chinese royalty used to holiday in the summer to escape the heat of the inner city. Being freezing cold, the huge lake surrounding the palace buildings was frozen over, so much so that people were walking across it. As it was off-peak season the palace grounds were not busy, populated mostly by local people, particularly retirees who can take advantage of the free entry in Chinese parks. Wandering around the grounds was relaxing and breathtakingly beautiful; a sun low in the sky sent beams of light glistening off the lake and shining out from behind the stunning architechure. The cold doesn’t keep locals from doing what they love and as we walked around we watched an elderly man painting calligraphy on the ground, people gracefully twirling long strips of colourful material around like rhythmic gymnastics, tai chi amateurs, and kite flying enthusiasts.
Our second adventure in Beijing led us to the Great Wall – a tourist attraction that you might just have heard of. In the summer there are people as far as the eye can see. My advice to anyone who wants to visit it is to go in the winter. Our journey started in Jin Shan Ling and ended 10 miles later in Si Ma Tai. Standing on this world famous piece of history, without another person in sight, was the single most peaceful moment I experienced throughout my year in China. We were so anxious not to disturb the peace and tranquility that we were whispering to each other. During our three-hour hike we encountered 2 Chinese people; one checking our tickets and another selling a little worse for wear postcards and rusty canned drinks. The 4 tourists we saw were along the end of the walk at the restored part of the wall. Eating our packed lunch sitting on the step of one of the watch towers was such a fantastic experience I can’t help but think back on it and smile. Upon reaching the end of the hike we were given the option of either walking around the large lake beside the wall or ziplining across it. Do I need to tell you which option we chose? Put it this way – it was a fantastically exhilarating end to a quiet and serene day walking along the Great Wall of China.
“Katie Melua was wrong when she sang about nine million bicycles in Beijing: most people have upgraded to electronic scooters”
Our final experience was helped along by our Lonely Planet travel guide. Hiring bikes from our hostel we followed their recommended cycling tour of Beijing. Katie Melua was wrong when she sang about nine million bicycles in Beijing, as most people have upgraded to electronic scooters, but don’t be put off by Beijing traffic. If I can manoeuvre my way around the streets, surely anyone can! The bike tour was great because it took you from the big boulevards surrounding Tian’anmen Square, along tiny hutongs (alleys) and past a frozen lake in the middle of the city. It’s easy to stop at a local café, take some time to relax watching the world go by or take some tips from elsewhere in the guidebook and explore some parts of Beijing off the tourist track. My favourite part of this day was cycling back to our hostel past the lit up Heavenly Peace Gate (with the famous picture of Chairman Mao) and taking in the beauty of Beijing bathed in street lights.
Honestly, if you go to Beijing, go in the cold months. It’s chilly, but it’s such a beautiful time to see the wonders of Beijing, away from the tourists of the summer.