Wandering Tiananmen Square

On our last day in Beijing, after spending the morning recovering from our hangovers at a tea house we took a quick trip to Tiananmen Square.

Despite it being a Monday, there was still a huge queue to get into the square. Guards were checking IDs at the gate with and ID scanner, and at first I thought I wasn’t going to get in as they can’t scan my passport with it. I figured they would just want to look at it, but they just waved my girlfriend and I through. I guess we weren’t the people they wanted to keep an eye on.

Being a Monday the square was relatively empty so we had space to breathe. I was impressed by how large Tiananmen is. It’s a fine example of how to build a city – don’t keep blocking the view with skyscrapers. The vast open space is surrounded by empty roads, government buildings, museums and the entrance Forbidden City.

We had wanted to visit the Chairman Mao mausoleum but were disappointed to find that it was closed. So instead we just wandered around the square.

At the center of Tiananmen Square is a war memorial, commemorating those lost in the Second World War. China really suffered during the Second World War, and as a Westerner raised on tales of nothing but Nazi Germany it’s easy to forget what was happening in China at the time. The memorial stands in the center of Tiananmen Square, a reminder of those who gave their lives fighting for China’s freedom.

After wandering around for a while and taking some pictures, it was time to fetch our bags and fly back to Shanghai. We managed to not visit the Great Wall so we will definitely come back again at some point.

Tea House: The Best Hangover Cure

For some reason I’ve been very un-British and never actually visited a single Tea House in China (despite having been here more than a year), but today it was time to break that streak.

After a good night out in Beijing were I lost my shoes, we decided to nurse our hangovers by drinking lots of tea. Being in Beijing, it was obvious we had to visit a tea house. Yi had spotted one she wanted to go to the day before, so we hopped into a taxi and headed out to start our day.

First we went to a shop next door and bought a cheap pair of shoes very common in China (they’re basically like pumps), then we went to the Tea House. After sitting down we ordered ourselves some jasmine tea.

Jasmine is a flower used to brew tea in northern China. You place the closed bulb in a cup and pour hot water over it. As it brews the flower will open up. It tastes really nice, and is good for getting over a hangover if you happened to have gotten a little drunk the night before…

I also ordered some mutton ribs, which were served in the style of Peking Duck. There was plenty of meat and fat to suck off the bone, and a couple of spicy sauces to dip it in. I would have preferred spicier stuff, but was definitely a good way to start the day on a hangover.

We chilled out for a while, slowly drinking our tea and topping it up with more hot water. Eventually I could feel the effects of the previous night wearing off. Eventually, the flavour of the jasmine flower was drained, so we paid our way and went for one last short trip before leaving Beijing.

Water Cube: Visiting the National Aquatics Center

After leaving the Bird’s Nest we wandered over to the National Aquatics Center (a.k.a. the Water Cube).  The events I focused on when making the official Olympics game were the Swimming and the Diving events, so I had spent more time working with the Water Cube than the other arenas.  The Water Cube didn’t seem to be as much of a big deal as the National Stadium, but for me it was.

Outside the Water Cube

From the outside you can see how the National Aquatics Center gets its nickname.  It looks like a cuboid made up of blue bubbles. Despite it not actually being in the shape of a cube, it’s still known as the Water Cube.  I always thought that the bubbles were made of a solid plastic – but it seems that they are actually made of something that seems like clingfilm (later on I found out this stuff was called EFTE).

After passing through the entrance gate the first thing Yi did was to run up to the side of the Water Cube and try to climb it. She really wanted to touch the bubbles! Outside was a sign saying “H2O^3” which I thought was pretty clever.

Inside the Water Cube

Inside the Water Cube there was a pool full of koi that you could feed milk to, and several restaurants serving overpriced, low-quality food (as you would expect in any tourist trap). We could also see the water park that was built, although at this time it was closed.

Finally we made our way to the actual swimming pool. It feels weird to say this having never actually been there, but it was exactly as I remember it. I remembered staring at the thing for ages, tweaking the difficulty so that you could just about beat the world records if you tried hard enough. Then just as I got it perfect, Eamon Sullivan had to beat the 50m Freestyle record meaning I had to tweak it again.

I was glad to see that this place was still being used as a swimming pool, and not something gimmicky like segway-riding. I sat down to watch for a short while and on noticing the flags at the top I immediately turned around and pointed out the British flag to my girlfriend without even looking. I hadn’t even been here before but I could still remember the exact location of our flag. Say what you will about the game, but the artists really got the details right.

We were getting hungry now so we went to the nearest Macdonalds to get food. Unfortunately it turned out that they were selling only one set meal at a ridiculously expensive price, so we decided to head back towards the center of Beijing to find some real food.

Bird’s Nest: Visiting the Beijing National Stadium

My very first job after university was as a Gameplay Programmer at Eurocom (which sadly closed down last year). The game I worked on was Beijing 2008 the official video game of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I spent 2 years staring at virtual models of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube (we actually had the models before the buildings even existed!). I swore that one day I would see them for real.

Six years later I finally saw them.

It was tricky to find where we could get tickets. There were a lot of touts selling tickets – whether or not these were genuine I never found out. We found what seemed like a legitimate ticket office and purchased tickets to both the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. To my disappointment it seemed that these were the only two stadiums we could visit.

Inside the Bird’s Nest

Once inside the first thing I noticed was that the field hadn’t been maintained much. It probably wasn’t being used that much, so they had no need to. On the actual race tracks people were zipping around on segways.

In the tourist shop I saw the Friendlies – the mascots of the Beijing Olympics. I was pretty excited to see them, but was then told by my girlfriend that these guys were really unpopular in China. This suddenly made sense of an odd request we received from Sega when working on the Game.

If you play Sonic and Mario at the Beijing Olympics, you will see the arenas full of Friendlies. Those arenas were created by artists at Eurocom and added into the game by Sega. The reviews were critical of the arenas in that game, which makes sense – they were still in the first-pass stage as that game was released 6 months earlier.

After the game came out Sega asked us to remove all friendlies from the environments because they were ‘too cute’ for the actual game. We never really understood why, but now I realise it’s probably because they were so unpopular in China.

Very Important Places

Since we bought VIP tickets we were allowed into some extra areas – the entrance hall, the VIP lounge, the VIP viewing area (where the Chairman would watch the games) and a meeting room were the Olympic Games Committee would meet. Whilst this was interesting to see, you aren’t missing much if you skip this part to save money.

Climbing the Bird’s Nest

After the tour we were allowed to wander the Bird’s Nest by ourselves. We were now at the top of it, but as it turns out we could go even higher.

We had to pay extra for this part – but I would recommend it. We were able to climb to the very top of the Bird’s Nest and see it from above. The only downside was that we were on the wrong side and thus couldn’t see the Water Cube from here – a missed opportunity in my opinion. Still, I wasn’t expecting to be able to do this and I loved that we could. Definitely do this, even if you don’t get VIP tickets.

The only thing left to do now was to go onto the track and field itself. Unfortunately it turned out we could only get in if we paid 200 RMB, and we could only ride a segway around the track. It didn’t seem worth the price to us, so we ended up leaving a little disappointed.

Still, it was awesome to finally see it after 6 years. Although I spent most of my time at Eurocom working on the Swimming and Diving events. With the Bird’s Nest out of the way it was time to visit the Water Cube…

Forbidden City

Whilst in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City (紫禁城 or Zǐjinchéng). The Forbidden City was once the capital of China where the King/Emperor resided and is now probably the most popular tourist destination in Beijing if you exclude the Great Wall.

We went during the weekend of Labour Day so it was extraordinarily busy. As soon as we exited the subway at Tienanmen Square we we almost crushed by the crowd of people trying to get into the square.

Forbidden City Entrance
Many people want to see it.

The entrance to the Forbidden City was just as crowded. As we crossed the bridge to the city we noticed that despite there being several uniformed soldiers around, the real security were plain-clothed.

Once inside we had to queue up for tickets. Again, there were a lot of people so the queues were long. I was beginning to think that we had come on the wrong day. I’ve seen pictures of how crowded the Great Wall can get and I was now seeing that it would be the same in the Forbidden City today.

Thankfully I was wrong. There were several ticket stalls set up and the queues went down pretty quickly. We made our way through the gate into the Forbidden City proper.

As we went through the Meridian Gate (午门 or Wǔmén) we noticed that everyone would touch the metal studs on the gate for luck. You could see on them that the ones most touched had the colour worn out of them.

Once inside the Tardis effect manifested again. In front of us was a huge square which was, despite the huge number of people, mostly empty. We could now wander around at our own pace to see the sights.

A waterway stretched across the middle of the square, and on the other side we could see the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门 or Tàihémén).

Once through this gate we came into Harmony Square and could now see the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿 or Tàihédiàn). There were a couple of large incense burners in the Square, and the Hall itself had a tortoise statue, a sundial and a weight that define a jin – a basic unit of weight in China (which in modern times is defined as half a kilogram).

The Hall contained several buildings which we were unable to see inside. My girlfriend said that when she came here as a child people were actually allowed inside these buildings. There were some parts were you could see the throne rooms that were inside the build, but you had to swim through a mass of people just to catch a glimpse.

After wandering the halls it was lunch time. Luckily some shops were nearby and we were able to get some overpriced microwave chicken burgers.

We were near the north side of the City now. The Palace of Heavenly Purity was closed, so we wandered the Imperial Gardens instead. Apparently the King was not allowed to leave the palace, so he would spend his days wandering the gardens instead.

After this we returned south on the western side, through the rooms that were occupied by the various Empresses and concubines of the King. Every courtyard had one or two trees planted in it.

It was around this time I realised I was completely lost. My girlfriend had the map so was guiding the way, but I had no idea where we were in the City.

Somehow we ended up on the eastern side, where we had to pay more money to see the Nine Dragons Screen and the Palace of Tranquil Longevity.

At the end we exited through the northern Gate of Divine Might (神武门 or Shénwǔmén) and were met with the usual hustle and bustle of Beijing. It was as if the city had disappeared behind us and we had returned to the modern Beijing.

Temple of Confucius

The Beijing Temple of Confucius (北京孔庙 or Běijīng kǒngmiào) is the second largest Confucian Temple in China. 庙 (miào) also means shrine, so this place could be considered more of a shrine to Confucius and his teachings rather than an actual Temple.

Confucius Temple Entrance
Entering the Confucius Temple.

The temple contains a few museums detailing in brief the history of Confucius, how he travelled China, spreading his ideas and teachings; and building schools. It shows how Confucius created standardised exams, and is apparently the source of our modern-day education systems. It also shows his influence on other countries right up to the modern age.

His philosophy is detailed in brief – his ideas of honesty and piety and what they mean. One story told in the museum was that of a young boy whose father blamed him for a bad harvest: Continue reading Temple of Confucius

Yonghegong Lama Temple

Right next to the first hostel we stayed in Beijing was the Yonghegong (雍和宮 or Yōnghé gōng) – the largest Lama Temple in Beijing. 宮 (gōng) actually means palace – a reminder that this temple was once a palace that was eventually fully converted to a Lama Temple. It managed to survive the Cultural Revolution under the protection of Zhou Enlai so it is also the most well preserved temple in Beijing.
Continue reading Yonghegong Lama Temple

涮羊肉

In Beijing, 涮羊肉 (shuàn yángròu) is a kind of sliced mutton hotpot which is as famous as Peking Duck. It consists of sliced mutton which is boiled in water and dipped into sesame sauce. We decided to go out of our way to try some when we were last in Beijing.

Order Form
Ordering the food.

We went to a small place on Dongzhimen Inner Street – a place famous for street food. Unfortunately as it turns out I don’t like sesame sauce so it wasn’t something I enjoyed personally. Without it there’s no flavour to the dish.

Afterwards we went out to top up on some street food. There were plenty of places around and we stopped at a barbecue place to pick up some meat and beer. Now this I liked!

The street started to close down so we decided to head back to our hostel. We noticed at this point how much Chinese people like to eat sunflower seeds.

Sunflower Seeds
People love their sunflower seeds!

So I’d recommend you try it, even though it wasn’t to my personal taste. At the end of the day there are plenty of other places to fill yourself up if it turns out it’s not your kind of thing.