We landed in Beijing in heavy rain, smoggy and very humid. Immigration did some extra checks on us without informing us why, after a nervous few minutes delay - we realised that this was due to having flown from UK but our China visa's had been applied for and granted in Switzerland.
Our first hostel was a traditional 'courtyard' set-up in a 'Hutong' (single storey traditional buildings) area of the city. The room and facilities were great - much better than we had expected and the staff were extremely helpful and friendly.
Based on a recommendation from the hostel we went to a local restaurant and had a 'hotpot' cooked in front of us. We were asked if we liked food spicey and both nodded enthusiastically - and oh boy was it SPICEY, hottest Chinese we've ever had!! Very nice though and a great start to our experience of China.
Our first days were spent walking aroung Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace which were all very impressive and beautful in their own way, despite the hot conditions we were able to join the many chinese tourists under trees for shade.
We joined the other backpackers for a Chinese Dumpling party at the hostel on the Fri night - where we were shown how to make Dumplings and then ate our efforts as punishment.... only joking, they weren't bad and it was a good way to socialise with other travellers and gain information.
On Saturday, at Wangfujing (an area of central Beijing) we saw some recognisable highstreet shops (and several KFC / Mc D's -which are everywhere over here) but the outdoor food market was the most interesting. Speared silk worms, snakes and scorpions (still wriggling in some cases) on sticks that are cooked infront of you to your taste! Some sort of smoking chemical experiment which we were told was tea and spagatti worms which many of the Chinese were slurping up as they walked through the bustling streets. Needless to say we were spectators rather than customers and opted for a restuarant, one of the most famous places to eat Peking Duck in Beiging apparently, no worms or live animals in sight, although we had the option to eat the ducks head but decided to just take a picture of the poor thing instead.
We had a train booked on Sunday morning to take us to the nearest (to Beijing) part of the the Great Wall - at Badaling. Lonely planet recommended not to go there at the weekend as it gets too busy so of course we went on a Sunday. As we neared Badaling we could see the Great Wall from the train and it was so packed with people walking it - that it was like a human snake. We opted for the steeper walk and this resulted in a quieter part of the wall, albeit the gradient on certain sections were extremely challenging in the midday sun and heat.
Second hostel was another 'courtyard' set-up, however the quality of the set-up was even better than the first. The room was better than many European hotels we've stayed in and the common area was air conditioned, Wi-Fi, a pool table and serving great food. The only negative was the staff were pretty useless.
Still, Two hostels visited and the standards overall were excellent - the time spent reading reviews on the internet had paid off!
We had a great time in Beijing, we didn't see all '9 million bicycles', however we were very greatful of one particualr one (of sorts)! We cut it really fine in terms of leaving to catch our overnight train and on exiting the very packed underground with 10 minutes to spare (before our 16 hour overnight train was due to leave) - and a 25 minute walk ahead of us to the train station, Nic and I (with our backpacks on) jumped on the back of a small motorized bicycle trailer, crouched down as there was not enough room to sit down, negotiated a price with the elderly Chinese chap and he sped us towards the station with us both hysterically laughing and clinging on for dear life, both hoping that the weight of us and our backpacks would not result in us toppling over or crashing into the oncoming traffic - yes we were going the wrong way down the road! Our friendly local driver was not able to take us the whole way due to the police ahead. However, after a run - in very hot, humid conditions - we made it to the station and somehow to our train with literally a minute to spare, dripping with sweat and out of breath - much to the amusement of the other passengers we found our beds for the night! Bye bye Beijing and Xi'an here we come!
Overall our inital experience of China (Beijing) has both lived up to our expectations and has in some ways exceeded it. The hostels have been great and the people have been really friendly. Getting around has been fine, most place names are written in Chinese and English, the subway in most places was cleaner than the London Tube and people were happy to help even when they couldn't speak English. One of the most interesting things was the intrigue the people had in us. In most places we were literaly the only white westerns there. Some (both young and old) looked at us with fascination. We frequently had people stopping us for our picture, very bizarre! China is definitely a destination to be experienced by everyone, although maybe not all at the same time as it's already a bit busy!