Beijing 2015: Hiking on the Great Wall of China

One of our top goals of the Beijing trip was to experience the Great Wall given that sections of it are only an hour away from the city. After quite a bit of research we decided to try a hike along the unrestored ‘wild’ part of the wall and contacted tour companies about a private guide. We ended up choosing Untouched Great Wall Hike to take us from Jiankou to Mutianyu, and both Joe (our driver) and Yaxin (our guide) were great.

Our day started early with a 7:00am pickup from the hotel. We were on highways for first third, then twisty mountain roads for the remainder, with a quick stop in a small village for a bathroom break. We didn’t hit any traffic on a Sunday morning, so around 8:30am we were at the base of the trail.

starting the hike...
us with our guide at the start of the trail

The initial ascent is steep with quite a few switchbacks, but the steepness paid off with pretty views across the fresh snow-covered hills. Eventually we climbed about 1 km to the first tower with fantastic views and surprisingly clear skies.

a mist in the air
our only blue skies of the trip!

climbing a ladder to the first tower  Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

The views were simply amazing, and better yet, it was quiet and peaceful in the hills, a welcome change from the bustle of Beijing. After exploring the small fort we began our walk along the Great Wall itself.

on the wall!

We only saw two other groups along this part so it was very quiet and we marveled at the shrubs and small trees growing in the middle of the wall itself. Footing was a bit slick, especially on north side, but fresh snow helped.

Great Wall of China with snowman

The last third of our hike was through the improved part of Mutianyu. This section is very steep, made more difficult by the packed snow and more people. Also, the day was warming up, so combined with the physical activity of hundreds of stairs, we were shedding layers during the second half of the hike.

very steep!  scaling the wall

Great Wall of China  Great Wall of China
coming down is harder than it looks!

It was nice to see this section improved and maintained, but I’d stick to the purely wild wall if I did it again.

posing in front of the sign
success!

our cable car - #26

After making our way down the hill — in the very same cable car Bill Clinton during his visit — we met up with our driver and in about twenty minutes we were seated for lunch at a small local place.

our lunch place (no idea what the name is)

Our guides ordered for the table: cauliflower hot pot (spicy!), General Tsao’s chicken, a beef and mushroom dish and a tofu wrap with spiced pork. Leandra and I also split a large lager that was light and refreshing.

Our return trip had a little more traffic, but we spent the time chatting about religion, pollution woes and how long someone has had their license plate. (If it starts with A, B, C… then a long time!) We arrived back to our hotel before 5:00pm, a bit sore but quite happy.

The hike along the Great Wall was our favorite activity in Beijing and we would highly recommend it others.

Beijing 2015: food & drink

Friday

Great Leap Brewing #6 – located in a hutong, this brewery was a bit tricky to find – thank goodness for working GPS! We grabbed a table in the nearly empty tasting room and ordered a sampler to split: Dan Cong Dark Ale (6.7%), Chai Masala Stout (6.5%), Aggressor (7.0%), and the Imperial Pumpkin (7.5%). All the beers were solid but we both liked the pumpkin one best so we decided to split a full pour to bide our time before going out in the cold again.

Great Leap #6

Great Leap beer list

After we secured our beer sweaters, we walked about ten minutes north to Mr. Shi’s Dumplings and… encountered a very rambunctious birthday party! As the eponymous Mr. Shi was toasting shots of wine with all of his employees in turn, we enjoyed plate loads of fried dumplings. Eric tried the pork and chive while I ordered a sampler of pork & potato, potato & leek and beef & chive. The atmosphere was lively, with notes (and money) from around the world displayed on the walls and under glass of the tables.

birthday celebrations @ Mr Shi's Dumplings  birthday celebrations @ Mr Shi's Dumplings

As with many (if not all) restaurants located in hutongs, there are no inside bathrooms, only public restrooms in the alley with varying degrees of privacy. Most were squat toilets and some had partitions. As a woman, I got used to carrying toilet paper with me at all times.

Saturday

Our fancy meal for the trip was an all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch at Jing Yaa Tang (in the Opposite House Hotel). For about $20 pp you got a sheet with a variety of items to order. Pricey for dim sum but the setting was pretty swanky and full for Saturday lunchtime so I would suggest reservations. The wine was expensive, I though the draft beer was a better options but Eric’s lychee passion fruit lemonade was memorable also. Overall I think the quality was pretty good… the bbq pork bun, pork puff, and steamed shrimp dumplings were very tasty, but the soup dumpling skins (xiaolongbao) were too thin to pick up easily. I managed a few bites of a delicious egg tart before I declared myself completely stuffed.

dim sum lunch!

Later that evening we needed to warm up again after spending a few hours at the 798 Art District, so we made Jing-A Brewery our next destination. We were still relatively full from lunch so we really just wanted beer and snacks. The brewery was busy, but they had a few tables available when we arrived. Eric ordered the Monster Mash Pumpkin Ale first, then an El Hefe (hefeweizen) for his second. l had the Black Velvet Vanilla Stout and then a Nine Rivers Imperial Chestnut Ale. We split a mixed nut bowl for snack which had tasty pecans with Asian spice and other nuts. Their beer was surprisingly good, and the atmosphere was lively for the 2+ hours we were there. It would have been an even better deal for IPA lovers, as they offer a discount on their double IPA depending on the smog levels; given the the conditions we would have had a 30-40% discount if we liked that style!

Jing-A Taproom

Sunday

We couldn’t leave Beijing without having some soup dumplings, so for our last dinner (and lunch the next day!) we headed over to Din Tai Fung. The subway exit into the large shopping mall was a bit squirrely, but we eventually found the restaurant on the 6th floor. Amazingly, there was no wait either time and we settled in for a feast of xiao long bao. Yum.

xiaolongbao @ Din Tai Fung  dumplings

Slow Boat Brewery – We had one more brewery left on our list, so we found ourselves heading down a very dark hutong alley to the mark on our Google map which was a barely lit sign. The other side of the door couldn’t have been any different – a lively tap room with bench seating and a ton of beers to sample, way more than they listed online. Eric opted for the Northern Drift Sour, which was gingery with a subtle sour twist, very refreshing. I had yet another vanilla stout (Sea Anchor Imperial Vanilla Stout) which was dessert-like with lots of vanilla and a bit of salt spray. We would have loved to try more but we were pretty worn out from the day so we stuck with one each.

slowboat

Beijing 2015: 798 Art District

After a filling dim sum lunch, we tried to take an Uber out to the 798 art district, only to be thwarted by the language barrier. Thankfully we were at a hotel so we asked one of the staff to hail us a taxi and explain where we wanted to go. Everything went smoothly and the driver dropped us off in front of the west entrance just outside of the gated area.

ART 798

Much of the 798 district was under construction but we still enjoyed exploring the shops and, of course, posing with the large outdoor sculptures!

me with a hare  what are we looking at?
a very large green hare; not sure what we are looking at

a pig in a top hat  798 Art District

street art

It was very cold and the sunsets early in winter, so we only spent about two hours walking around. I imagine this area would be much more lively in warmer weather. There were lots of cafes and restaurants along with independent art galleries over a several block rectangle. Currently, the closest subway stop is a twenty minute walk away but hopefully that will change as the 798 art district gains in popularity. Definitely recommended if you find yourself in Beijing.

Beijing 2015: The Palace Museum (Forbidden City)

Saturday morning we awoke to an even smoggier day, but decided to continue with our plans to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, we found the smog obscuring Tiananmen Square, so we couldn’t really see anything. Thankfully we were still able to experience the grounds of the Forbidden City, the imperial palace for over five centuries, known today as the Palace Museum.

To get onto the grounds we had to pass through two layers of security, first from the metro station tunnel, and then again at the gates of the site. Tickets were easy to obtain just to the left of the main entrance, and we found maps in a variety of languages at a kiosk just inside. Your first view past the gates is quite impressive and provides an imperial ‘wow’ moment just as intended.

Forbidden City

There are hundreds of details in and around each building: water cisterns for fighting fires, statues, carvings, etc.

Forbidden City  Forbidden City

water cisterns for fire protection  Forbidden City

We continued through the several layers of the complex, each successive courtyard getting a little smaller, but the buildings becoming even more ornate as we approached the royal living quarters.

Forbidden CityForbidden City

Forbidden City  Forbidden City

We also explored some of the side buildings, including the Pavilion of Literary Profundity, one of the catchiest names we experienced on this trip.

Directional signs wanted us to exit to the north, but that was a long walk from the metro, so we circled back toward the south and took the east exit instead. One of our last views was a pretty canal running near the outer walls:

Forbidden City

The Palace Museum is an immense site with hundreds of buildings for which it is justifiably famous – even give the cold conditions and air quality it was still a memorable experience.

Beijing 2015: Lama Temple

After my morning at the Temple of Heaven and Leandra’s morning in her cooking class we met back at the hotel to warm up and plan the rest of our day. Lama temple had been recommended to us, and given its location directly north along our metro line, we decided to stop there before dinner.

So, bundled up against the cold, we headed to the temple. In a rare case, the subway station exit signs weren’t very helpful, but it was still relatively easy to find the temple entrance. Our first step was buying a ticket, then through the standard cursory security screening.

lamatemple1

The grounds of the temple were quite lovely, and the temple complex was massive, much bigger than expected.

Lama Temple

Since this is a working temple there is a lot of incense, altars, and praying. We tried to keep to the edges so as to not disturb others in action.

Lama Temple

Lama Temple  lamatemple2

Once we got the end we simply turned around and retraced our path. Thoroughly chilled, we hightailed it for the metro station and a well-earned beer at our first Chinese brewery.

Beijing 2015: Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven contains quite a few centuries-old religious buildings where the emperor would make sacrifices for the harvest, fortune, etc, and is now a large urban park. Just a few miles from our hotel, it was easy to get to via metro (Tiantan stop) with an exit directly into the park’s East Gate.

bicycles
Lots of bikes outside

A large ticket booth was to the right, so I bought my all-inclusive ticket, then made my way through one of the ubiquitous Beijing security checks (bags through x-ray). I started my exploration to the right at the Animal Pavilion and then the Divine Kitchens. For these I needed a second ticket to enter but there was no sign in English to explain this. The security guard pointed to a small kiosk where Chinese tourists were handing over an ID and getting a secondary ticket; I followed their lead with my US driver license and got my second ticket too. The buildings were quite ornate.

the sun is trying...  Temple of Heaven
Some snow still around so you needed to be careful about icy spots.

As I walked toward the Imperial Hall of Heaven I heard music and singing; coming around the corner I saw a large group of people passing around songbooks and stayed to watch for a few minutes.

singing @ the Temple of Heaven

Click on the above to show as a video. Everyone in the group was older than me and the singing was awesome.

Around the corner were hundreds of locals hanging out in the sub-freezing weather, playing dominoes and hacky-sack.

Temple of Heaven

Not too far off was the Long Corridor and an entrance to the temple area itself. Starting on the north side is the huge altar complex.

Temple of Heaven  Temple of Heaven

In the middle of the plaza was an elevated strip of stone, which apparently was the roadway reserved just for the emperor that lead all the way to the Circular Mound altar.

Temple of Heaven

From here I doubled back toward the Abstinence/Fasting Palace which also needed the secondary ticket. This time I knew what I was doing and got in quickly! This large complex was a palace for the emperor to prepare for his rituals at the various altars, and was quieter than most of the park.

Temple of Heaven

icicles

After walking several miles in the cold my face and fingers were becoming numb, so I hurried through the Double-Ring Longevity Pavilion area, which featured amazingly intricate painting.

Temple of Heaven  Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven  Temple of Heaven

Even on a cold day the Temple of Heaven complex was quite amazing and well-worth the visit.

Beijing 2015: Dumplings Cooking Class & Market Tour

I found a few options for cooking classes ahead of our trip to Beijing but I really wanted to learn how to make dumplings, so Beijing Cooking School seemed to be the best choice for me. I opted to add on the market tour for an additional ~$16.

It was a very chilly ten minute walk at 9am to the hutong where the class was taking place and I quickly spotted another woman looking at directions on her phone nearby so I guessed she was also in my class. We introduced ourselves and set about trying to find the numbered entrance for the school. Thankfully it was well marked and we were ushered inside to warmer conditions. Because of a cancellation, we were the only two people in the class so we settled in with some hot tea and listened to a half hour lesson about soy sauces and vinegars. All the while, I was being snuggled by the resident pup.

our work space

The market tour took about an hour and after gawking at all the colorful veggies, sauces and meats, we headed back to the school to prep our dumpling dough and fillings.

condiments
a variety of condiments – most very spicy!

don't you always hang beef this way?
what? you don’t store your beef this way?

We prepared the dumpling dough from scratch which was pretty great. It’s helpful to see what the texture is supposed to feel like and how to section the dough and roll it out into the proper thickness. The fillings were fairly simple – about 3/4 greens to 1/4 meat plus soy sauce, ginger, scallions and vinegar.

Now came the hard part – folding the dumplings! Anyone who has enjoyed eating dumplings knows there are many different shapes depending on the variety of filling inside. We learned to make three different shapes and I will be needing A LOT more practice before I can get a consistent product. But, here is my best effort…

I made this!  all ready for pan frying

Our dumplings were steamed, boiled and fried (pot-sticker-style) and served with a lovely cucumber salad at the end of the class.

the final feast -- steamed, boiled and pan fried dumplings!

Overall, I think this class was worth the experience but I am glad I didn’t pay more than $65. While I feel like we got more attention than normal because there were only two of us, the assistant and chef made quite a few of the dumplings (to save time presumably) and I could have used more practice. Additionally, we finished a good two hours earlier than advertised even after a leisurely lunch.