This day was the day I became ‘that really silly tourist’.
So my original plan was to set off early and visit The Forbidden City, you know, that really popular tourist destination that everyone knows about? Yeah, well it didn’t go to plan.
I got there easily on the subway. As soon as I left the station I found myself in a really busy, unpleasant crowd of people. Ahead of me was a security check, not too unusual, you have to go through a security check every time you use the subway but this was a bit different. It was super busy, it was boiling hot (again) and folk in Beijing don’t do the queuing thing. It was just a horrible mass of people getting way too close with most people pushing their way through. I hate crowds and I don’t like touching people so I queued for ages before I even got close to security. And then I noticed they were checking IDs. I didn’t have my passport on me. I nearly turned back but decided to try getting through, strangely I did and there was no fuss. I just avoided all eye contact and kept walking.
I followed the crowds until I got to the big open space just before the entrance to the Forbidden City…and this is where things went horribly wrong. I got confused because my Lonely Planet guide book has a warning not to mistake the Forbidden City entrance with the Gate of Heavenly Peace. There were ticket booths that were marked as neither of the two, but marked as tickets for some kind of museum, so I got really worried that they weren’t the right booths. I spent ages walking around in the heat looking for different ticket booths.
I suffer with anxiety so the longer I looked the more panicked and frustrated I started to get. After about an hour I managed to work up the courage to try and ask some people where they got their tickets. I did a lot of smiling, pointing at the entrance, other folks tickets and the booths… I’m certain that I was being super clear but the response was either blank, pointing at me and laughing or just saying ‘no’. Folk just weren’t willing to try and understand me or help, fair enough really because I hadn’t really put the effort into learning much of the language, but it was still really upsetting, particularly when I was laughed at. I had my first and only lonely traveller cry at that point. I didn’t know what to do, on my way in I’d witnessed security shouting at someone trying to leave through that entrance, so I felt completely trapped. I cried for about 20 minutes before I tried to ask for help again. This time I went to the service desk and thankfully someone spoke a little English, all the ticket booths were for The Forbidden City, I have no idea what that Lonely Planet warning was about.
So I went to the ticket booth….ID required.
Seriously? Whyy? I’d been trapped there nearly 2 hours and it was all for nothing. I was about to get my cry on again until I got my shit together, looked at my map and found a side exit that went along a river. There was no way I was going back to get my passport that day, so I located the nearest veggie restaurant to cheer myself up. Fu Hui Ci Yuan Vegetarian Cultural Restaurant didn’t look too far away.
I started walking along the river and stopped when I heard someone calling ‘hello? hello?’. I was feeling so alone that I turned round to see who was trying to grab my attention. I had a really nice chat with someone from Hong Kong who wanted to work on their English and make new friends. They had heard of Manchester and everything. It was all really lovely until they invited me to go and have some tea…and then it clicked. I was about to be scammed. The classic tea room scam. Fantastic. I won’t go into details here, but here’s someone elses experience.
It was easy enough to get rid of this person, I kept saying no, wished them a nice day and then kept walking on my way. Looking back now it’s quite funny, that cheeky swine! But after the morning I’d had I found it really upsetting and felt even more vulnerable and alone than I had before. Luckily Fu Hui Ci Yuan was only 15 or so minutes away and I found Xila Hutong where it is located easily.
I definitely picked the right restaurant to cheer myself up. No English is spoken here but there are English menus and the staff are very helpful. Like all Beijing restaurants, the menu is super extensive. Prices here are really reasonable too, I think I spent less than 80 yuan (£8.00) and the portions were huge. I ordered 3 dishes and a can of pop. Because no English was spoken, I whipped out a booklet I made with useful vegan phrases written down, I’ll explain what was in this booklet when I do my tips post. If you plan to come here I recommend having similar things written down or knowing how to state, no egg, no milk etc just to check that the dishes you order are okay.
I had the following
Aubergine and mince Hot Pot
Pancake filled with fake meat and spring onions
See what I mean about massive portions? This was enough for 4 easily. I mostly ate the hot pot and saved most of the pancake and meatballs for future snacks and breakfast. All of it was absolutely delicious. The pancake was my favourite, I want to try making something similar at home. The sauce for the meatballs was nice and sweet and the hot pot was so oily. I love oily aubergine.
After eating all this tasty food I was feeling confident and determined to visit somewhere else. I wanted to turn this day into a success. I had enjoyed Temple Heaven Park so much the previous day that I thought I’d head over to another park, way less pressure and I knew I would enjoy myself. Daria had recommended Beihai Park which is north west from The Forbidden City, so wasn’t too far away.
I think I ended up taking a long route to the nearest subway, but I walked by some interesting shops that I checked out on my way. Once I was on the subway it wasn’t far at all. I managed to take a wrong turn and got lost on the way from the subway which was super silly of me because the entrance to the park is pretty much opposite the station. I clearly wasn’t with it that day. I won’t go into my second lost experience of the day, it was a bit rubbish and I got annoyed with all the rickshaws trying to rip me off but eventually I got into the park.
My day got so good from here, I loved Beihai Park, it was really lovely. I didn’t get a through ticket as I’d done a lot of wandering and didn’t think I had time to get round the whole park, so it was only 10 yuan (£1) to get in, bargain!
The park is pretty much a huge round green space surrounded by a beautiful lake. I had so much fun there, it was beautiful to walk around part of the lake. I also spent a lot of time watching elderly locals play cards and dance on the bridge that runs along the lake.
Everyone was so happy here, it was nice to have this experience after having such a rubbish start to the day. There were some really cool duck boats that could be ridden across the lake, if I hadn’t been alone I would have done this.
The main path is really lovely to walk along, but I went off path and found some quieter areas to mooch along. I spent some time with a group of wild cats chilling out amongst some trees. There was even a cat fight. Unfortunately the excitement left me there too long and I got bitten by every single bug there. It was so worth it.
I spent the rest of my day at Beihai before heading back the way I’d arrived in the late afternoon.
When I got back to my brothers apartment, he and Daria were up for eating out, so we hunted down a vegan friendly restaurant. We found what sounded like a cool Korean place at Ju-er Hutong in the Dongcheng area, it was called Saveurs de Coree
This place was pretty hip. It has a courtyard inside that was quite nice to sit in. There were quite a few vegetarian options on the menu (not labelled vegan though) and I read that they don’t really use dairy, no msg and a lot of it was organic. All sounds good. The staff speak a little English and they have English menus, we also found out the manager speaks fluent English but we’ll get back to that…
We ordered some rice cake to share and asked for it without fish. It came out and was all good. I asked Daria to order my dish, she pointed to it and checked that there was no egg in it and was reassured there wouldn’t be.
When my dish came out it was pork. We explained this, we were accused of ordering wrong, Daria pointed to what we wanted on the menu again (it was a vegetarian option) and whilst the waiter looked angry, the dish was taken away for a replacement. This made me feel really uncomfortable but apparently this is a normal response for a situation like this, customer service is very different there.
They returned with my dish, this time it was beef. This is when things got really awkward and unpleasant. Daria basically had to have a full on argument with the waiter and another member of staff on my behalf. They accused Daria of ordering the wrong dish on purpose and were very reluctant to make it again. The manager was called down and whilst it was great that he spoke English, he was equally shitty about it, asking us to consider the waiters side of the story. In the end Daria said ‘I am trying to order a vegan meal for my friend’ and suddenly the penny dropped. Immediately the manager apologised, took the dish away and resolved the issues. I was pretty amazed, I’ve never had a response that positive to me saying I’m vegan in a restaurant.
The next dish that arrived was vegan and tasty and the manager served it politely but the whole experience soured the meal a bit and I most likely wouldn’t go back. I suggest if you do go here that you keep saying the word vegan when you order as they seem to actually care about that and do know what it means.
I felt really awful for Daria having to deal with that because of me, but we finished the evening having a few drinks in a local bar and enjoyed the rest of the night.
Looking back on the day it was quite a difficult one, but the good bits definitely outweighed the bad. I did consider going back to the Forbidden City on another day but decided against it in the end. It was so busy that I didn’t think I’d enjoy it and whilst it’s the big tourist attraction in Beijing, I’ve been told it’s over rated. There were way more exciting things I went to see instead. Though my tip if you do wanna visit is to 1) Ignore Lonely Planets warning and 2) remember to bring ID.