From Shanghai Hongqiao rail station we took the super fast G class train to Beijing south, about 5 hours in total. Our guide met us outside the Kung Fu restaurant, and when our driver had battled traffic and arrived, we took the plush black car across the city to our hotel.
From the train station we were immediately in a traffic jam, and that’s how it seems to be in Beijing. Every trip we made had at least 20 stationary minutes stuck in traffic. Cars, bikes, scooters and buses all fight it out to get out of a junction first, every driver aggressively owns their space on the road, and horns are used obsessively to warn others, “I’m coming through”. To get from one side of town to the another, to our hotel in the north, was over an hour. But we had our guide, Ashley, and she pointed out the sights as we passed them slowly.
Fuxing Lu road, 42km long, dead-straight and lined with government buildings, at times it’s 9 lanes wide each side. We drove north, past elementary schools and parks, and many many building sites. Today was teachers day, the first day back at school. “Autumn lasts only 15 days in Beijing, the weather changes very quickly”, Ashley told us — we’d picked the best time to come, not too hot, not too cold. We talked about the school system and school entry depending on your registered region, public hospitals where you pay a small percentage of the costs yourself and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Eventually we arrived in the hutong (‘narrow alleyways’) part of Beijing where we’d be staying, at our hotel Courtyard 7.
The alleyways here are fascinating. Grey-bricked single storey buildings line the criss-crossing little streets. There is a mix of ancient Qin dynasty courtyards and modern communist rebuilds. Much of it seems under re-development, all seemingly to a certain look and feel, grey bricks are mandatory it appears.
Many of the buildings are quirky boutique shops and our hotel was just off The Alley, the main shopping hutong. It’s Beijing’s equivalent of Brighton’s lanes. Lots of good little eateries and bars, shops selling tea, clothes, sculptures, porcelain, hand painted art, leather-ware, stationary, souvenirs, and even ocarinas. The whole time we stayed here the alley was busy, filled with trendy looking Chinese teens (with bow ties in their hair, or kitten ears, or chunky platform boots and punk jackets, or t-shirts bearing nonsense English phrases — “truck furniture”), Chinese tourists with their big cameras and the occasional English speaker.
The taxi couldn’t get down the alley, so we were dropped off at the north gate and wheeled our luggage through the crowds and shops to our hotel, where we said goodbye, for now, to our guide.
The courtyard is an escape from the hustle and bustle outside, in its tranquility it’s easy to forget the enormous city you’re in. The courtyard is a 300 year old original, surrounded in red-beamed grey-tiled historic rooms, each furnished with Chinese antiques.
From reception you pass through a stone arch into a small yard with a restaurant. Through another wooden gate and you’re faced with a beautiful walled courtyard, one room either side. We had been given a free upgrade, and through a small arch at the back we found our room, with its private courtyard, rocking chair, Chinese paintings and delightful fittings — golden fabrics, wood panelled bathroom and sauna, traditional bed and curtains.
Breakfast was included, which was a spread of fresh fruit, salad, salami and cheese, with tea and coffee. It was quite average, but that’s our only real complaint.
After checking in and settling down we set out to explore our surroundings. In the alley we queued at all the food stands that looked popular; a bag of fried squid bits, some fried sweet potato — oddly doused in sugar, lobster and cabbage fried balls, passion fruit drink, and a Tiger beer. Stuffed, and with a bit of bellyache, we retired for the night.