Beijing – Qingdao – Seoul (July 12th – July 18th 2015)
Beijing welcomed us with sun and a scorching heat > 40C. Our directions to the hostel were good. No difficulty to find even though it was located inside a Hutong area with narrow alleys. It was a cosy hostel, rooms where facing the yard (traditional Chinese “siheyuan” courtyard) which was a renovated Hutong with roof. Quite pratical for drying our laundry (finally washed and clean). Our first dinner was the traditional Beijing Duck, great restaurant in our street, then we had a stroll around the Qianmen area. It has changed a great deal, modern walking street full of fashion shops and souveniers for tourists. Several of the traditional Hutongs still stand, but most have been renovated a bit and clearly have higher standards than earlier. The area still has charm. Kids play and families are having their late night barbequed snacks with beer. The occasional card game can also be witnessed, the streets are well and living. It is good to see that good things stay the same.
Next day after booking a trip to wall, we headed for the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Mausoleum of Mao. The Mausoleum seemed closed, but the Forbidden City was crowded, hot and noisy. It very different to visit in the summer in holiday season compared to the winter out of season. It is beautiful regardless, but with so many tourists and heat, several places felt cramped. Wintertime is recommended!
Beijing has several large gardens and palaces. We decided to go to two of these, the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). Both are easy to access by Metro now and both beatiful. However, the (New) Summer Palace is clearly the best. It has several large large lakes with causeways lined with trees and hanging leaves. It is very peaceful and you can see people fishing and even swimming at some locations. Take good shoes if you plan to walk around the lakes, the park is huge.
On the way back we tracked down the location where we met 9 years ago! The “Feiying” Youth Hostel had now changed and become a business hotel. The neighbourhood was not changed much so we recognized the sights. Very special!
Back at Qianmen we met a friend who took us to a Laoshe Tea House. It was about closing time, but we still managed to get some excellent tea before heading back to our hostel.
You can’t go to Beijing without taking a hike at The Great Wall of China. At the hostel some backpackers had just come back from the Jinshanling – Simatai hike and were telling us it was great. We agreed saying we did that almost 10 years ago 🙂 This time we took an advice from friends from Fujian and went to Mutianyu. Something to note is that even though the trip is slightly cheaper, you will likely not manage to walk the whole stretch including the stairs up to the wall, unless you take the cable car. Time on the wall is about 3 hours before you have to head back to the lunch and bus ride back. When including the cable car ticket, this trip is the most expensive one, but it is very special experience. Towers up to 23 are renovated. However past the tower no. 23 you can see old parts that are untouched. The wall is overgrown with trees, bushes and has only narrow paths that are walkeable. In the summer it is not easy to keep the pace up to reach the remote towers, as the ascent is straight up the mountain, but the reward is great when you gaze down the mountain on the “ants” walking below. Only few tourists bother to go beyond tower 23 when coming with a tourist bus, but we did meet a few that had hiked a couple of hours from the other side of the mountain. With more time and devotion, going on longer hikes and stops in villages on the way is clearly possible.
With sore feet and after the long walk whole day a traditional Beijing Hot Pot can’t be recommended enough. It gives you both strength and nutrition and if you are not careful with the spices, it gives yourself and the whole restaurant an itch and a cough. Our neigbouring table, maybe from Sichuan, got the comment “What kind of fuel did you put in that burner?” (even the waiter had to run out on the street to clear her throat!) 🙂
Next stop Qingdao, the home of Tsingtao beer and a port city. We were welcomed by a local friend Wenwen, that Dragana knows from Oslo. After checking in, we had an excellent lunch/dinner with all local specialities and of course fresh unrefined Tsingtao beer in a pitcher. Later we walked through the night market (夜市) and walking street Taidong, looked in shops and had some iced coffee. Refreshing! Qingdao is one of the smaller cities we visited, has around 10 million people and a bit too much smog in the air, but all in all is quite a cosy place.
Next day we grabbed some breakfast and headed for the airport. The female taxi driver was very cool and had decorated the car with stitching. You have to be pretty tough to drive in a city like Qingdao, the traffic is terrible and there is no metro yet (to be finished in 2017).
Seoul welcomed us after a short double decker plane trip from Qingdao. This gigantic city has more than 10 million people + another 15 million in the suburbs and surroundings. Added with the media coverage of MERS outbreak recently, we were careful. Very few people wore masks and it seemed like people where quite relaxed now. Hand sanitizers placed around entries/exits of shopping centers and free masks in the hotel showed that the situation was taken seriously.
As we arrived quite late, our options for food were limited, but with the help of some local girls in the street, we found a great place for Korean soup and something similar to Hot Pot. Clay pot on a gas burner with well boiled meat, vegetables and assortments of kimchi served with Korean rice wine. Excellent! It was fun using the language in Seoul – it turned out that it went much easier once we used Chinese instead of English! The city namely speaks Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
The next day we headed for the palaces and the folk museum. Not so crowded, but very peaceful and serene instead. The Folk Museum was great, much information in English and with multimedia shows depicting peoples lives and livelihood in different seasons and times. The South Korean culture is quite specific. With later influences from China and Japan, it has an origins from long lasting and quite stable monarkies that were established by the tribes that settled and divded the land. The similarities to clothes, tools and similar used in Balkans, Russia and even by Norwegian indegenous people is striking.
The evening was spent in the more modern areas of Seoul, the Damdaeamun clothes market and Dootsa shopping mall. Contrasts are large in Seoul as well. Climate is pleasant, breeze from the sea and quite green with parks and well kept palaces.
Today we boarded the KTX (Korean Train Express) to Busan where our flying ferry is waiting to take us to Japan! It speeds through whole South Korea in only 2 hours and 30 minutes, impressive. There is not a city without some adventure. Kjartan read about the Yongtsan Electronic Market the day before. It is said to be as large as the electronic market in Hong Kong and Tokyo combined and was rebuilt due to the construction of new KTX lines (2004). Seoul has several train stations and it seemed quite logical that our train was to depart from Yongtsan station. We arrived in very good time and yes, there are KTX trains leaving from here. However not OUR KTX train, that one leaves from Seoul Station. Ok, jump in another taxi and head for the Seoul train station. At least we got to see the Yongtsan Electronic Market in the end 🙂
Next stop Fukuoka, Japan!