Tuesday, 31st May 1988
Our room at the Sportsman’s Hotel was not too bad at all. We had twin beds, a shower, a writing desk and for what it was worth, given the lack of interesting programmes, a TV set. We unpacked completely and made ourselves at home.
We popped downstairs to the restaurant for a dinner of chicken, cashew nuts, cucumber and rice. It was all surprisingly good.
Wednesday, 1st June 1988
On our first morning we walked a long way from the hotel to the CITS (Chinese International Travel Service) and then on to the railway station. It was a fascinating walk. We went past people sat in little workshops who were busy making small items with welding equipment; they were making everything from dustbins to garden shears and even bicycles. We struggled to understand why there would be any need for more bicycles as there were already millions of them everywhere. There was a mass of bicycles on every road and hundred of cyclists at every corner.
The CITS gave us a map of the city and then we set off on the single line of the brand new subway to the Beijing Hotel. The hotel had a kind of colonial atmosphere but it made an excellent place to grab a beer and people watch for an hour or so.
Then we walked up Wang Fujing Street to the market at Dong Feng. We negotiated a street of food sellers selling everything on sticks. There were eggs on sticks, frogs on sticks and even whole small chickens on sticks. We found a little café just off the market and had a couple of plates of chicken, fish and rice. It was nice food and the service was pleasant and efficient.
After lunch we visited the Palace Museum and then watched people on little boats on the lake near the Forbidden City. We spent one and a half hours walking back to the hotel. On the way we passed the Mao Mausoleum, the vast Tiananmen Square and lots of men in their blue “Mao suits” sitting at the kerbside playing chess, mah jong, cards and even billiards.
It had been a long day and quite a comprehensive introduction to the city. Beijing had given me some pleasant surprises compared to my expectations of visiting “Communist China”. First of all, the people were not as poor or badly dressed as I has expected. The food was also very good and was certainly comparable with the food we had experienced in Hong Kong.
On the negative side, there were bikes everywhere and combined with the numerous trolley buses they presented quite a problem every time we attempted to cross one of Beijing’s wide streets. The city was vast and its size made it quite difficult to negotiate easy routes from place to place.
Thursday, 2nd June 1988
We spent the morning looking for the hotel where needed to pick up our railway tickets for Moscow. We spent a good hour trying to find it. We asked various people and ended up trampling across a building site before we finally got there. We explained the purpose of our visit to the clerk on reception and he directed us to a little office off the main lobby.
The two men in the office spoke only a little English but they smiled as they took our voucher, which was written in English, and gave us two paper tickets which, apart from the date and some figures, were written entirely in Chinese. I used sign language to seek reassurance from them that the tickets were for the two-berth compartment on the train I had reserved. They smiled and said that they were.
We caught a bus from the hotel to the centre and spent the afternoon with all the other tourists walking around the massive Forbidden City Imperial Palace complex. It was fascinating at first but after a few hours we had had enough.
We emerged at 5:30pm and had a walk around Beinei Park and Dai San Yuan. We climbed to the top of Dai San Yuan for a great view of the whole city. The entry fee was only a few cents. Beijing was also proving very cheap; we hadn’t even managed to spend 50 dollars over 3 days.
The bus network was too complicated to understand and there was absolutely no information in English. We got around by pointing at the map and nodding at people. We took five separate buses to get back to our hotel.
We watched the news in English on the TV and after that they showed a programme about hedgehogs.
Friday, 3rd June 1988
We woke early with the intention of getting to the Mongolian Embassy when it opened at 9:30am. We knew that they were only open for an hour each day for visa applications so we set off early at 8am.
We got a bus to the CITS and then another from there. Unfortunately the second bus broke down and we, along with all the other passengers, were stranded at the side of the road. We found the embassy behind the Friendship Store but by the time we got to the gate it was 10:30 and it was just closing.
We then caught two buses across the city to the North West corner with the intention of visiting the zoo. We had lunch at the famous “Moscow Restaurant” and had our first introduction to Russian Cuisine; borsht (beetroot) soup and beef casserole. The borsht was quite delicious and had little chunks of ham and sausage in it.
The zoo was disappointing. There were more empty cages than full ones. The cages that were full were very full with animals that were being kept in very close confinement. We watched the elephant circus demonstration and soon understood why the zoo has a bad reputation for cruelty. We left.
In the late afternoon we caught a trolley bus back to the Beijing Hotel for a rendezvous with 2 of Aiko’s friends who were living and working in the city. One of them had spent 5 years living and working in New York and her English was great.
The four of us made our way around the corner and had a meal at a famous Peking duck restaurant. It was great. We coated the small pancakes with plum sauce, added duck and some spring onion and then made it all into an envelope. We chatted amongst ourselves and with a couple of Canadians who were touring China and seated at the next table.
After dinner we had quite a walk through the Peace Park and eventually back to the hotel.
Saturday, 4th June 1988
We had a long lie in on Saturday morning. Eventually we caught a bus down to the CITS and reserved tickets for a Great Wall bus tour the next day. We found a canteen for a late lunch across the road from the Peace Park and then walked around the park again, this time in daylight.
After we got back to our hotel we had a walk along the river bank. It stank badly but there was an interesting array of brick huts and houses along the bank.
Then, turning a corner, we found an amusement park. It must have been aimed at the locals only as it had not been mentioned in any of the guidebooks nor any of the maps the CITS had given to us. It was open but it was almost deserted. We spent a couple of hours riding the big dippers, the big wheel and the log flume ride almost alone. It was quite bizarre.
We just had bread for dinner when we got back.
Sunday, 5th June 1988
We rose very early and traipsed all the way back to the CITS to board the tour bus for the Great Wall. I don’t know quite was I was expecting but I was surprised to see that the bus for the journey was just a regular Beijing city bus.
It was already pretty full and we had to split up to get seats. All of the other passengers were Chinese and the ones around me were very inquisitive and spent most of the journey to Baunduang trying to make conversation and communicating with sign language.
We made it to the Great Wall and we got out of the bus. The wall was impressive and we set off to tour one of the fortresses. We found a secluded spot and had some of the bread we had brought from the breakfast table for lunch. It was only 9am.
For the rest of the day the bus made a tour of some of the other tourist spots in the vicinity. At each stopping point the driver would get out of his seat and make a long speech in Chinese. People would laugh and clap and then file off the bus. We would then approach the driver and we would draw a clock face in Aiko’s notebook. We would give him the pencil and he would draw time we needed to come back to the bus. We were never late.
We visited monuments and temples for the rest of the day and we finally ended up at the Ming tombs with the underground palace model and the rows of miniature statuettes forming the army. It was all very interesting but it was a gruelling schedule and everyone, including us, slept on the journey back.
Back at the hotel we had a meal of pork balls, vegetables and rice.
After a few days of going to the toilet in the dark I was glad to see the hotel had finally replaced the light bulb in the room. I was also happy to see that my laundry, missing for a few days, had finally turned up.
Monday, 6th June 1988
On Monday morning, we repeated Friday’s trip to the Mongolian Embassy and this time had success. We queued and had the pleasure of paying 20 dollars for a transit visa. The man in the consulate was totally rude and grabbed the photograph out of my hand whilst I was still trying to cut it away from the others with the scissors. We were told to come back the next day.
We went round the corner to the Friendship Store, took a few more passport photographs and then headed off towards the Summer Palace. We boarded the bus and stopped off at the Huyan Restaurant located in the Xidan district for lunch. The restaurant was almost full and we got the last table. We chose blindly from the menu but we were lucky as we got a cracking meal of chili seafood, sweet and sour pork, green beans and baby corns.
We then went to the nearby Sino-Japanese war museum which had lots of interesting stuff about the war with Japan and the revolutionary war that followed.
Next we visited the Summer Palace and it was, to my mind, the most beautiful part of Beijing. As well as a massive lake surrounded by a temple complex that included a long lovers walkway, there was also a beautiful island with its own little house.
We returned via Dong Feng market and bought corned beef and bread to make sandwiches in the room with.
Tuesday, 7th June 1988
We made our third trip to the Mongolian embassy. We waited for a bus but it never came but we did eventually make it to the embassy by a combination of walking and taxi. We finally walked away with a visa.
We did a little more shopping in the Friendship Store. Or at least Aiko did the shopping and I waited in a coffee shop. We caught the subway again to Tiananmen Square.
We had Mongolian hot pot at a restaurant near Dong Feng Market. We were given strips of mutton and lumps of cabbage and told to boil them ourselves on a boiler device that was fired by charcoal. It was bland and tasted of nothing but mutton and cabbage. It was easily the worst meal we had in Beijing.
We did more shopping in the afternoon (or I had more coffee) and then changed money, posted letters and then bought two bottles of whisky for the train ride.
I managed to smash both of them on the way back. We agreed that the train ride would have to be done without any whisky.
We went to bed early that night and made sure the alarm clock was set.
The International train to Moscow would leave the next day at 7:40am.