My story begins when I landed in Beijing Capital airport at 5 am on a Saturday in early November. The British Airways flight from Heathrow was smooth and uneventful. It landed 20 minutes early, but the Beijing Capital airport is so large, it took 30 minutes to taxi to the gate. Immigration and customs was ok, but there was a 45 minute queue at immigration. (Tip: Fill in the arrivals card on the plane or before you get to the immigration queue. I watched so many people queue for 45 minutes, only to be sent back as they hadn’t filled in the form.)
Our guide from The China Travel Company was in the arrivals hall, holding my name on a placard, so I found him easily. We got into the car and started our journey to the hotel as dawn was breaking over Beijing. All around me were large, 8 lane motorways, and high rise buildings. As this was a weekend, there was not much traffic around.
During the journey, our guide filled me in with some facts and figures about Beijing. Beijing is home to 20 million people and spreads over 16000 square kilometers. The city has a 1000 year history, most if it as the Capital of China. Today, all heavy industry has been moved out of city and Beijing has mainly a service based economy.
I arrived at the Beijing Penta hotel to meet up with my parents who had arrived from Sri Lanka the previous night. We had breakfast at the hotel, which consisted of a good selection of Chinese and Western dishes as well as hot and cold buffets.
Despite the early start (and late night before), we were all wide awake, so we decided get some breakfast and explore Beijing.
Our first stop was the famous Yonghegong Temple, also known as Lama Temple located in the north of the city.
The Chongwenmen underground station is close to the hotel, so we decided to travel to the temple on the underground. The Beijing underground train system is similar to that of anywhere else in the world. Signs are in English as well as Chinese, so it is easy to find your way around. (Tip: Ask your hotel for a copy of the subway map. I didn’t see any available at the station itself).
To use the subway, you need to know your destination station and the line which it is on. The self service ticket machine has an English option, so you just need to select this, and it is very straightforward from there. (Tip: The machine only accepts small notes – 5 or 10 Yuan, so make sure you have some change handy). If there is an issue with the machine, you can also buy tickets at the counter. The staff may not speak English, but pointing to the station you want to go on the map seem to do the trick. Tickets are quite cheap at 3 Yuan for a single ticket.
We got off at the Yonghe station located close to the temple. Finding the temple was tricky as we had unwittingly taken the wrong exit from the underground station and ended up coming out in the middle of the Hutongs. The Hutongs are the ancient residential districts of old Beijing and are made up of single story courtyard houses. Much of the ancient Hutongs have been destroyed but there are some still left in the north of the city. It was great to see the Hutongs, albeit accidentally.
We finally found our way to the temple and bought entry tickets (25 Yuan per person). After this, there is a short security and ticket check queue.
There is a magnificent entrance gate to the temple. Behind this there is a tree lined road, which was absolutely beautiful in its autumn glory.
At the end of the tree lined path, there is an incense service which provides 3 boxes of free incense packs per person. We wondered why so many boxes, but the reason soon became clear. The temple is a large complex with many shrines, so there are many places you can make your incense offerings. There were several signs saying that on windy days offering of incense was prohibited, but today was a clear bright day, so everyone was making an offering.
Tip: At the first Shrine, follow signs on the right hand side to the tourist office. It is a small office tucked in a corner, but if it is open, you can get an English booklet, with history and details of the temple, and pictures from inside of several shrines.
The Yonghe Temple was built as the residence of the Prince Yong in 1694. After the prince came to the throne, temple was turned into a lamasery or lama temple by his successor, emperor Qinglong. The temple is a large complex. The main buildings of the temple are built on a central axis, with many supplementary buildings on each side. Photos of the outsides of the shrines are allowed, but not inside.
Pretty much all of the signs around the temple are in English and Chinese both, which is very helpful.
The most impressive among the Pavilions is the Wanfuge Pavilion which houses the statue of Maitreya Bodhisattva, status, 25m high statue, carved from a single piece of sandal wood.
The temple was busy, but not overly so. Most of the main buildings had a small queue to get in, but this is only if you wanted to go through the central door and offer incense. If you went through one of the side doors, you get just as a good view, but no queue.
After the visit to the temple, we had lunch at a Costa Coffee nearby. I like trying out familiar chains when I’m abroad, to compare prices and see if there are any regional specialties. The drinks and food at this one was very similar to that of the UK, but they did have this “London style” theme everywhere.
After lunch, we still had some energy left, so we decided to head to the famous Wangfujing shopping street. This is a large pedestrianised shopping area in Beijing. It wasn’t very crowded when we visited, but it must get busy, as they had pedestrian crossing gates at all the crossing points.
Both sides of the road were lined up with many department stores including many western brands, which were a lot more expensive than at home.
Tucked on to the west side of the shopping street is the Wangfujing Snack street. Very popular area with lots of Chinese delicacies.
After a look around the snack street, and a delicious yogurt drink, we decided to call it a day and rest up to get ready for out tour the next day.
On Reflection, it was a great first day to ease into our week in China. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get around on the metro in Beijing and the language barrier was not a problem as I had imagined. It has to to be said – my first impressions of China were good.