Magnus’ guide to Beijing


I lived in Beijing for 5 months and never really did enjoy it. Sure, I found a lot of rather nice spots, especially a lot of really nice restaurants and pubs, but the city as a whole was not for me. I think that the main reason was that BeijingIMG_8203_small seems to hate pedestrians – walking around Beijing is such a chore! The distances are enormous, for long stretches you see nothing worthwhile and crossing streets is usually fraught with danger. There are a few gems, but they are far and few between. I thought I’d share the ones I did find in this post.

My number one tip is the 798 Art District. It’s a rather big, former factory district with a lot of really cool old brick factory buildings most of which are filled with art galleries. There is also lots of cool graffiti and art pieces strewn around the area and lots of nice design shops with all sorts of trinkets and knick-knacks. You can easily spend an entire day here and I especially recommend it if you have an interest in photography since there are just so many cool unexpected motifs just waiting to be discovered. To get there you either take a taxi or go to Jiangtai station on line 14 and walk north along Jiuxiangqiao road until you see the signs – a little over a kilometer.

Another favorite is the Panjiayuan market. It’s at the subway stop by the same name and it’s a very large market with tons and tons of art, clothes, books, souvenirs and jewelry. Just don’t think you’ll find any actual antiques here, it’s almost certainly all copies. A full day is stretching it, but you can easily spend an afternoon or a few hours here. Around this station they also have lot of stores selling eyewear, so if you’re looking for good and cheap sunglasses it’s worth a look.

In terms of eating, Beijing has a lot to offer! I’ve actually had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted in Beijing. The chain is called Gung Ho! (make sure you get the whole-wheat dough) and has a handful of locations throughout town, where the most accessible one is next to the Hooters in Sanlitun. There is also one near Lido hotel in Wangjing where I lived (which is also fairly close to 798 Art District). Some of the best burgers I’ve had was at The Local, a pub in Sanlitun. They have an avocado burger that is really good, and their chicken filet burger is very IMG_8208_smallgood too! Make sure to try their drinks as well, especially the Mint Berry.

A spot that mixes both tourism and good grub is the Lama Temple. Get off at Yonghegong station (north part of the ring line) and first visit the temple. It has a bigass wooden Buddha statue and some nice architecture and is one of the more worthwhile temples in town in my opinion. Afterward you walk back toward the station but turn left into Wudaoying Hutong just before you reach KFC and the big crossing. Now you will find yourself in a cramped little street with lots of knick-knack stores, cafes, microbreweries and restaurants, even a vegetarian one called The Veggie Table (吃素的:东城区五道营胡同甲19号 – for more vegetarian options, see this blog post). If you walk almost to the end of it, there is a Mexican restaurant on your left that is very good (Pebbles Courtyard 卵石庭院). Looking at Google maps I also see that there apparently is a donkey meat restaurant there if you walk even further. My friend Tanhsin introduced me to this tasty treat after a hard day of snowboarding outside of town. BasIMG_8294_smallically you get gyros style donkey meat in what is more or less a pita bread and it actually even tastes a lot like gyros as well. You should absolutely try it if you get the chance (The Beijinger has a short article on the subject: The Best Ass in Town). If you want to make sure you find it you should show the characters 驴肉火烧 to a Chinese person and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you.

Another part worth visiting is Houhai lake and the adjacent Hutongs. Lake Houhai is rather touristy but still very nice. In the summer you will see a lot of people flying kites and even people going for a swim. There are a lot of salesmen around the lake, along with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, but it’s still nice for a leisurely afternoon walk. A little bit to the east of the lake there is Di’anmen Outer Street which leads to the Drum and Bell towers, both popular tourist locations, and if you continue east (well, I actually suggest you get on the green line subway and go to Nanluoguxiang station and get out at exit E) you get to South Lougu Alley. This is another rather touristy site, but if you go there outside peak hours and peak season, it can be quite nice. There is a lot of knick-knack shops and little restaurants, and if you continue all the way up to Gulou East Street you can turn right and find even more cool little shops.

You can just walk around the hutongs on your own, but to get the best experience I suggest you book a walking tour with Nelly at www.beijingbyheart.com. She’s really well read and does an excellent job of showing you around all the nooks and crannies and telling you about the history of the place. They also do other themed tours at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City for instance. Speaking of the Forbidden City; I suppose you kind of have to go there if you visit Beijing but I’m not a huge fan of it. The sheer scale of it is the most impressive part, but it very soon gets rather repetitive and dull. My favorite part is the little garden at northern end of it which has a lot of meticulously groomed trees and plants. Also, if you cross the street just outside the north gate you can go up to the temple on the hill for a nice view of the Forbidden City complex. You can also go down into the park on the other side of the temple and if it’s on a weekend, expect to find people doing all sorts of fun stuff in there. You might see people singing, dancing, working out (usually by kicking IMG_8774_smallsomething that looks like an oversized shuttlecock like a hacky-sack), flying kites, walking backwards (it’s some sort of crazy health thing). It’s all very entertaining and I highly recommend it. Another good park to wander in is Tiantan, which has the Temple of Heaven, touted as one of the must-sees of Beijing. Personally I’m not that fond of it. Sure, it’s big, old and generally impressive and you may see a wedding photoshoot if you’re lucky. It is good for people watching though, especially if you come in the early morning when all the Tai Chi practitioners are out.

Right next to Tiantan park you have the Pearl Market. How much you enjoy this place depends a lot on how good your tolerance is for insistent salesmen. Suddenly you find yourself in one of the few places of Beijing where everyone speaks English and even other languages as well. I’ve even had one try Swedish to get my attention! The Pearl Market is probably the worst one of the markets, I like Yashow better which is up close to Sanlitun (where the surrounding area is also much nicer to walk around in). There is a third one which is a bit of a hassle to get to; the Silk Street market. I was only there once, but found it to be the nicest of them by far. The store owners are far less pushy and there is fewer people there. You need to remember that haggling is mandatory here. The store owners will start out with different prices depending on what ethnicity they think you are. If you’re American you will get the highest price, northern Europeans the middle and southern Europeans the lowest price since they generally already come from a tradition of haggling and know what’s up. If you haggle well it’s not uncommon to pay something like 20-30% of the originally quoted price.

If you’re up for a bit of walking, the area west of the CCTV building is rather nice. (the CCTV building is the iconic one that reminds you of a man squatting to take a dump). You take the subway to Jintaixizhao station and get out at exit A, then go down to Jinghua Street and head west. There are a lot of cool buildings to look at and some small parks to break up the cityscape. Keep going until you hit ‘The Place’ which basically is a square with roof. The roof is a bit special though since it’s actually a giant screen and as soon as it gets dark they will play videos on it. At the time of writing it still holds the Guinness world record for largest screen at 7500 m2. If you continue past the place and then turn right onto Dongdaqiao Road you will find the pretty cool Parkview Green mall on your left. It’s a really big glass building, reminiscent of the Louvre pyramid, and much like its French counterpart, it’s also packed with art! You have Gundam robots, a Volkswagen Beetle rolled up into a ball, Stormtroopers, a giant dog eating the Road Runner and lots more. It’s well worth spending an evening just wandering around here and look at all the weird stuff. The architecture is also very cool with gangways all over the place.

I have a few recommendations that wouldn’t fit in with the rest that I’ll just dump here at the end:

Peking Duck – If you’re in Beijing, you should of course try the Peking Duck. I’m sure there are lots of terrific places, but a lot of them are huge impersonal restaurants with dining rooms that are 50 m across and the ceiling is 10 m high. One I really liked was the Peking Duck Private Kitchen. It has excellent duck and side dishes, but the main thing for me is the very cozy setting.

8-bit Bar (link) – A really cozy place for having a Nintendo themed drink and playing a round of Duck Hunt or Mortal Kombat. They also have a decent selection of beers if that’s your thing.

The Great Wall – Well, I suppose you really can’t go to Beijing without visiting the Great Wall. Easiest is to just hire a driver through your hotel that takes you all the way there and back. Expect to pay around 600 RMB for this. You can of course also take the bus and just get a driver for the last bit like I did and get away with just 150 RMB, but honestly the headache of figuring out from where the bus leaves and then where to get off makes it not worth it. Oh, also don’t go to the Badaling section of the wall, that’s by far the most touristy section! A far better choice would be the Mutianyu where you as a bonus have a quite fun toboggan run for the way down.

Melo Lounge (link) – Towards the end of my stay in Beijing I found the swanky Melo Lounge just around the corner from where I lived. The staff remember your name and what you like and the snacks are really great. It was really fun when my friends came to visit and I could just breeze in there and get treated like royalty. The decor is rather strange, but really nice and the drinks are expertly mixed. It’s on the expensive side, but if you want to treat yourself to a really nice evening, I’d be hard pressed to think of a nicer place.

Harbin Ice Festival


My first excursion in China goes to Harbin, which is famous for its annual ice festival. Any time you check into a hotel or hostel in China they need to report to the government that you’re staying there, so even if I’m travelling within the country, I still need to bring my passport.Beijing train station For that reason I wanted this trip “out of the way” as soon as possible, since I also need to turn in my passport to the immigration authorities, in order to get a residency permit. And before I have my residency permit, I can’t get the rest of my things from Sweden into the country. So right now I’m still living out of my vacation bag, which of course is packed for 30 degrees, and not the -20 which Harbin is expected to bring.

My colleague Tanhsin has helped me book a night train for the way up (Harbin is located way up northeast, due north of the Korean peninsula) and my first task is to get to the station.The Russian Church Turns out that it’s not as easy as I’d imagined to explain that to a cabbie that speaks no English.  I get waved off twice before I think to just give my ticket voucher to the driver and after studying it intently for almost a minute he says “Beijing cha4? (fourth tone, black finger down is the memory aid), which I assume means station. It turns out to indeed be that and I’m dropped off outside the impressive looking behemoth of a station, tastefully lit up in the February darkness.

I remember Tanhsin saying something about first having to get the real ticket, and that it’s off to the side of the station. So by just showing my voucher to random official-looking people I finally find my way over there and get my ticket. Then you need to go back to the real station house and show the ticket to a guard before being let in. After passing through a metal detector you get in to the actual station, which looks more like an airport terminal than a train station. Too bad, I had my hopes up for one of those impressive old-school station house ceilings. Instead the ceiling is really low and the place even manages to feel cramped.

At the marketBoarding starts as early as half an hour before departure and to my delight I actually recognize the character for car/wagon on my ticket, to mean the cart number I’m in. The interior is just like any other sleeper train, nor fancier or worse than a Swedish one and the ride is uneventful. We arrive in Harbin at seven in the morning, and as you might expect, it’s bitterly cold. I discover almost immediately that it’s very slippery, oddly enough I seem to be the only one having a problem though. The fucking joker who designed my so-called winter boots ought to be stripped, dipped in honey and buried in an anthill! They can’t possibly have tested them in real winter conditions, since the Vibram rubber in the sole seems to turn into almost hard plastic when subjected to lower temperatures. This means that I spend most of the weekend walking like a grandma, and even though I’m amazingly close to taking a spill roughly 44 times during the weekend, I never actually do it. If there is one super power I have, it has to be “getting around in low friction”.

Tunnel of love?My very nice colleague Frigg (awesome name, eh?) has prepared a vacation package for me, since she’s from a town very near to Harbin. She has equipped me with maps, a suggested list of sights and written them down in Chinese so that I can show taxi drivers. I start off by just walking around though, to get a feel for the place. The ground is littered with the remains of firecrackers since yesterday was Lantern Day, the finale of the Chinese New Year.

Crossing the street, I go for an underpass (most Chinese streets will have a hard-to-climb fence in the middle, making it not really worth crossing where there aren’t crosswalks). The underpass has doors, which seems a bit strange, but I enter and find myself in what could almost be called a mall! Right there, under the street, are rows upon rows of tiny shops, all selling clothes. Relishing the warmth, I walk around a good while, finding that the place is huge! It just goes on and on and it’s pretty fun to just browse. I come upon an area selling men’s dress pants, and I’ll have to admit that they look really nice. It’s hard to judge the fabric quality, but the workmanship is very good, and there are lots of cool details incorporated into the designs.

SwordfishEmerging back topside, I decide to turn on the GPS to see where I am. When it finally gets a reading I am somewhat shocked at seeing how far off I am, I’m usually pretty good at gauging where I am and where I should be going, so this discovery stings a bit. I’m in the northwestern part of town when I should be in the northeastern. Well okay, I start heading back, regularly checking in on the GPS to make sure I’m not veering off course. But the GPS behaves rather erratically and doesn’t seem to follow along as it should. Finally I hit a larger street and some street signs (which thankfully are both in Chinese and English) and is able to locate where I am. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing, the GPS is actually _wrong_! This goes against everything I know about the technology involved, but it aside from that, it all makes sense. It’s not off by a little either, it’s something like a kilometer! Not sure what to believe, I write it off as the cold doing a number with on tablet. I guess I will have to rely on plain old map reading from now on.

Huge doggieI find a café that has Internet and a waiter that speaks passable English and decide to sit down to defrost and come up with a plan. Frigg had suggested that I first go visit the Russian church and after some thinking I decide to swallow my navigational pride and take a taxi to the church. (it turned out that I’d taken the opposite direction right off the bat and was actually in the southeastern part of downtown)

The Russian church is indeed nice, and next to it is an indoor market, filled with all sorts of wonderful things. Everything from sausages, nuts and candy to sea cucumbers, river turtles and cakes. Now that I’ve gotten my bearings it’s not hard to find my way to the next location; the pedestrian precinct. From what I’ve gleaned so far, it is not very common to have streets exclusively for pedestrians in China, so this is very welcome to my European sensibilities. The street is really nice, and there are beautiful ice sculptures at regular intervals, giving me a first taste of what to come.

Near the end of the street is a park that Frigg suggested I visit, it’s a smaller version of the main exhibition, but still pretty large. Admission is a whopping 200 rmb, but since I’ll likely never come back here I fork up the cash. The sculptures are really beautiful, but are probably even better viewed in the evening, when it’s dark and they’re lit up from within. Even though it’s really nice, there isn’t much variety and there aren’t many people either, undoubtedly due to the steep price (normally it is 80, but since this weekend is Lantern Day and all, the price is higher).

Up on the castle wallMoving on to the nearby river I find the next stop on my itinerary; an activity area out on the river itself. It’s filled with people doing the most amazingly boring things, like renting a sledge with ski poles and then using those to get around. There are other kinds of sled rides, pulled by horses or some of the largest German sheperd I’ve ever seen (the poor dogs aren’t very well suited for that though, they can hardly get around without slipping even before being strapped in front of a sled). Over on the side is a really shifty looking fellow, it looks like he just stepped out of a Tintin comic!Buddha He has a table with two positively adorable arctic foxes and he charges a ridiculous amount of money for you to pick one up and get a photo with it. Even though they are amazingly cute, I resist the urge as they don’t seem to be treated very well and I don’t want to support that kind of behavior. Off to the side there is some kind of escalator filled with people, it turns out that they all have tractor inner tubes and up on the river bank they all line up before, on a given signal, go down the slope like a rubber avalanche.

The sun is finally setting now, so it’s time to head out to the big ice exhibition. The cabbies are reluctant to go out there, I guess because it’s a ways outside of town and it’s hard for them to get a fare back. So in the end I have to pay an exorbitant 40 rmb to get there. It’s now around seven in the evening and the exhibition area is bitingly cold. It’s another 300 rmb to get in and I actually have to start worrying if I have enough money to get back since scrounging up all that cash for the rent has made me run up against the withdrawal limit on both my debit cards. After some calculating it seems like I’ll be fine if I just steer clear of any more unforeseen expenses, but there’s this gnawing doubt at the back of my mind throughout that isn’t much fun.

Ice festivalThe exhibition is beautiful, but bitterly cold, and there is really nowhere to defrost. When I was downtown I could at least duck into stores every now and then, now I’ll just have to tough it out. The coolest things they have are the large snow Buddha and the really big Disney-esque ice castle that you can even go up on the wall and look out over the area. The exhibition area is of course packed and getting around is a hassle, especially with my shoes being in the state they’re in. The cold makes my camera battery drain super fast (I changed it just three hours earlier, and normally it lasts about a week). So when the battery finally give up, so do I. In the interest of saving money, I take the bus back to town (public transport is amazingly cheap in China, the bus is 3.50 rmb), hoping it will stop somewhere recognizable… Turns out I’m in luck and it stops at a bus station I passed earlier.

To get to the hostel I booked I have to take a taxi though, since it’s a bit off. I had the waiter back at the café earlier write down the address in Chinese so that I can show the cab driver. Despite this he drops me off totally wrong, and since I don’t really know how to argue with him I decide to walk the remaining ˜2 km. When I finally get to where the hostel is supposed to be according to the map, it simply isn’t there! There is a hotel there though and with some gesturing I’m able to communicate that I’m lost. They speak no English at all but seem to indicate that if I just walk over to the side road, it should be there.More Ice Festival So I head back over there, but find that it’s all stores, and all closed to boot. I go back and try the neighboring hotel this time. This time I show the lady the address instead of the map. The hostel is supposed to be at 63 Huashan Road and the lady tells me that this is number 8 Huashan Road. So yet again I’m screwed over by the map!

Grudgingly I start walking again. Ironically 63 Huashan Road is really close to where I was originally dropped off by the cab, making this whole misadventure even more infuriating. Checking in at the hostel I get a room that happens to be 11 degrees, I just can’t catch a break this weekend! It takes ten minutes to explain to the staff (again, no English whatsoever) that even though I’m running the AC full blast, nothing is happening to the temperature. Finally one of them gets it though, and they put a space heater in my room (which runs amazingly hot!). Finally things are looking up and I get all cozied in.

Dragon TowerAt 1 am, someone knocks on the door. Fortunately I’m still up and as I open the door, one of the staff hand me a note with the words “Bank card is not just money do you think you can brush card trouble can not pay cash you use” scribbled on it. After some back and forth I understand that the Visa I paid with is not coming through. They want me to pay cash instead and they’ll refund the money to the card. Problem is that the refund isn’t working either… The staff are getting really frustrated by not being able to communicate and finally they phone someone up (it’s now 1:30) that speaks a little English, problem is that the sound quality is awful so I can barely make out what the guy is saying. In the end I’m able to verify that the money has indeed been drawn from my account, even if it hasn’t reached them. So I grudgingly get my cash back (the poor kids probably have to make it up out of their own pocket, too bad I really can’t afford to be generous at this point).
The next morning I wake up with a sore throat, that, and seeing the thermometer is showing -23 makes it an easy decision to sleep in. When I finally get going it’s almost noon, but since I crammed almost everything I’d planned to do into yesterday, today is more ad hoc anyway. The hostel is right next to a pretty cool looking TV-tower, called Dragon Tower. It basically looks like a slightly more steam punky version of Tokyo Tower which is a look I really like.

With a ticket in my hand I naïvely assume I can just go up the elevator, but no, the elevator ladies just wave me away and points up to the second level. So I head up there and find that there are little exhibitions, each one worse than the former. There are terrible 3D paintings where the Chinese delight in pulling down the shorts of opponents to Yao Ming (the NBA basketball hero of China) or photographing themselves pulling off the sheets of a sleeping, nude, woman. There is a tiny science museum where you can lift yourself and all that usual stuff and a natural history room with plastic dinosaur skeletons.Yao Ming At each of these you get a little stamp and as I’d visited most of them I was finally let into the elevator.

From down below it had looked like a reasonably clear day, but up top you can’t really see far, the smog is still there. Not that there seems to be much to see anyway, the cityscape looks really drab, the building all alike in their dirty, off-white facades. They’ve made an effort to fence the platform up, but I cannot help but thinking that a determined BASE-jumper would have no trouble scaling it. There are a couple of additional levels above this one, but they are both indoors and doesn’t offer much of interest.

Optimus PrimeI grab a taxi back to city center and stop in at the café I found yesterday to try and find out how to get to the zoo northwest of town that has Siberian tigers. The waiter explains that there really isn’t any way to get there except for taxi, so I decide to give it a miss and instead ask him for suggestions. He tells me I should visit the convention center and a nearby place where I can eat all the regional foods of China in one place. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound too bad, so I get him to write them down and he also gets me into a cab.

As I get to the convention center, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do there, it’s really just a mall like countless others. It’s focused on outdoors equipment so I browse a bit, only to find that if you get the brand stuff, it’s just as expensive as in Sweden. I come to another part of the mall and there it is gold, gold, gold as far as the eye can see. It seems that the Chinese really fancy gaudy golden figurines, much like the ones I saw in Hong Kong. I do find some adorable Doraemon earrings though. The mall doesn’t hold my interest for that long, but at least it’s warm, so I stay longer than I normally would have. I remember seeing a big Optimus Prime statue across the road when I rolled up with the taxi, much like the Gundam Wing statue in Tokyo. So I decide to make my way over there, remembering that the waiter had said something about “being able to play” over at the convention center. The statue is of the newer incarnation of Optimus Prime, the pointy one from the movies, which I’m not very fond of. Regardless, it’s still pretty cool. But when I get inside the building next to it I’m sorely disappointed since this is just another mall… At this point it has gotten dark and I realize that I won’t have time for the buffét restaurant, so instead I head to the airport to get back to Beijing.

Beijing – First week


Descending into Beijing, the ground looks funny, like the light is hitting it in a special way. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s not just a light phenomenon I’m seeing, it’s snow. Coming from three weeks of 30 degrees heat to Beijing’s -5 is not all that pleasant, but I finally get some use of my winter jacket that I’ve been lugging around Indonesia. I can’t be arsed to change into pants though, as it would entail having to fit all my luggage into one of the tiny airport restrooms.Lights! So I just wear the shorts, something that draws a lot of eyes and smiles from people.

Not wanting to attempt to navigate the streets to my hostel I set out to get a taxi from the subway station. But after being waved off twice in a row I get pissed and decide to walk anyway. It turns out that it wasn’t very far, and that there are surprisingly good street signs. In the end I have no trouble finding it, even though it’s up a back street among the hutongs (old Chinese quarters, which are not in any way built to be accessible by car, which likely is why I was waved off by the cabbies).

My first three days are not very pleasant; I’m coming down with a fever and Ericsson has lost my transfer details, so it will be a good while before I get a computer, phone, or even an ID card. The hostel is very cold, with the AC struggling at 31 degrees, I’m not used to the cold and I have to find an apartment to live in.My home I do manage to power through however, and after some haggling I manage to get a never-lived-in studio apartment, right next to Lido place – for those of you familiar with Beijing geography. For those not so familiar, it’s right outside the 4th (out of six) ring road, positioned at about 1:45 if you look at it as a clock face. The upsides of the place are that it’s brand new (no previous owner that has smoked in it), just the right size, has floor heating, is fairly close to work (around 45 minutes door to door when taking the bus), nice area, the owner speaks great English and that the real estate agent is operating out of the very same building, so it’s easy to get help when it’s needed. The downsides are that it’s fairly far to a subway station, the apartment is designed by a moron and that it’s pretty far from city centre.

The apartment design merits a bit more explanation I guess. The place is obviously built with the express purpose to be impressive rather than useful. There is for instance no place at all to put your shoes or hang your jacket. Additionally, the bathroom sink has no cabinet to put your toiletries in, only the one under the sink, which incidentally contains no actual shelves.Interior There is a big light fixture in the shower (five lamps) that is not controlled by any of the light switches in the apartment. And the entertainment center around the TV is apparently built to house large bronze busts of Mao or something, because anything else would just be dwarfed.

There are also several glaring building quality issues. The floor boards are not fitting flush together, but have almost centimeter-wide gaps between them at places. The aluminum skirting board between the two floors have just been glued down, and every 20 cm or so a large gob of glue is sticking out from under it. The floor itself exudes little puffs of fine wood dust when you step on certain boards, so the entire apartment gets covered by that fine dust when I run the AC.Smog lies thick over Ericsson There are also little things like the fact that they’ve only used two screws for the hinges on the bathroom door, when there are holes for four. But that lack of attention of detail is something I will have to get used to, the same thing is evident in the building where I work. It looks very nice and impressive at the first glance, but as soon as you look more closely, you spot all sorts of glaring mistakes and omissions. For instance; even at Ericsson there is a sign not to throw toilet paper in the toilet! That’s something I’d expect to see in really old building in places like Rome or Mexico, not in a modern office building in Beijing…

Some tidbits from my first week:
There are so many women working at Ericsson in Beijing, and not only in HR, which traditionally is heavily slanted towards women. My gut feeling would say that it’s easily around 50% women, if not more, in the building I’m working.

Mmm durian...Electricity and hot water you buy as a pot, like a prepaid cell phone card. You go down to property management (where no one speaks any English whatsoever), wave a couple of bills and point to your hot water card and eventually they charge it with the money. Incredibly convenient for everyone but the actual consumer…

The streets are often 30-40 m wide and pedestrians are clearly not a priority. Beijing seems to have the right-on-red rule, so even if you have a green man signal, there will always be cars trying to run you over when you cross. You need to continually be looking in all directions while crossing if you are to escape unscathed.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing that in Beijing everybody rode a bike. That certainly isn’t true anymore, these days the regular bikes are few and far between, instead you have the electric bikes and scooters. Silent and deadly, you can’t hear them coming, you have to be constantly looking around you and not make sudden course changes without looking over your shoulder first.

Mask on!There is surprisingly light traffic, but when I talk to my boss’ boss (who is Swedish) I get the explanation: The Chinese New Year isn’t properly over until Friday when it’s Lantern Day. Right now the city is missing about five million cars…

Every time you enter the subway you have to put your bag through an x-ray machine. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of, aside from that car crashing on Tianamen Square back in October last year, I haven’t heard of a single terror incident in China. But I guess that doesn’t mean anything since China has a habit of manipulating news and other shenanigans.

Apartment contracts run over a year and rent is paid quarterly in China, which meant that I had to come up with 3 x 6000 rmb, plus a deposit of an additional 6000 rmb (that I will lose if I terminate the contract early). Since the owner is a private individual, I couldn’t pay using my credit card either so I had to get the cash and make a bank deposit. Not all that easy when no one at the bank spoke any English either.

IMG_8205_smallI’ve never been to a country where English is less of an asset. Not even kids in their late teens, something that’s usually a safe bet, speak any English. That is mind-boggling to me. I thought Japan was bad in that respect, but Beijing is so much worse. If you find someone who speaks decent English, have them write stuff down for you, like the location of your apartment/hotel. Stuff you want to buy at a store, addresses. That’s not always a guarantee though, because not everyone can even read. The best solution is to have a Chinese friend you can call for an impromptu translation of course, but now everyone has that luxury. Also, showing a cabbie where you want to go on a map is surprisingly useless. In China people more or less don’t use maps, they go more by neighborhoods apparently. Even if you have everything written down in Chinese, chances are that your cabbie won’t know the address, Beijing is a really big city after all, so after a while I had a friend write down the closest well known landmark as part of the description, which helps a lot.

It’s really cool to be able to go out at nine in the evening and find a mall that is open for another hour! That’s when you really know you’re in the big city. The stores are usually hilariously overstaffed as well, an employee on every corner, engrossed in their smartphone and bored out of their minds.

The infamous Beijing smog was not very bad the first few days, I could even see stars at night the first two days. But on Thursday, when I had to go to the police station and register my new address, it really hit me. The rest of that afternoon my throat was burning and I was coughing constantly. It was extremely unpleasant and on my way home I bought my first breathing mask at a pharmacy. The clerk asked several times if I really wanted that color since it apparently was meant for ladies. The Chinese are really hung up on gender roles. The mask came with a separate filter that you’re supposed to change once a week.

Red Alert


Going to Hong Kong from Linköping wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. I scored tickets from Norrköping with Finnair and the entire flight was only 12 hours, including a too short for comfort connection in Helsinki (we landed 10 minutes after boarding time).Hong Kong airport My fears of losing my baggage were unfounded and I’m met by Jen and Jaime who usher me onto the bus into town. Hong Kong is very hot this time of year, it’s 33 degrees, very humid and as we roll into town I’m struck by the stupenduous number of harbor cranes. This really is one of the biggest harbors in the world…

Jen has some hotpot in mind for us, but as we try and locate the place, it seems to have moved, so we end up at a Yakiniku place. They are indeed trying hard to be authentic; they have the stools for waiting in line, the staff are shouting “Irrashaimassseeeeee!” (although not all of them at once as they would’ve in Japan) and they have the proper grill thingies with the chimney.

It’s very nice beef, properly marbled and very nice cuts.Kung Fu kids Jaime orders the chicken, but gets some beautifully marbled pork instead. But seeing as she expected chicken, that’s what it tasted like. The mistake is only found out after we order another plate of chicken, pointing at the first on, which leaves the poor waiter rather confused.

The island Lantau is our plan for the second day, which entails a lot of subway hopping and a cable car to get to. The cable car overlooks the airport, which appears to be a man-made island right next to Lantau. Lantau itself is rather hilly and very green, criss-crossed by trekking paths that look very nice – some other time perhaps. The main attraction of the island is the Tian Tan Buddha statue which today is shrouded in mist. It’s nice, but doesn’t take long to admire, so we move on to the second sight on the island; the pink dolphin tour in the Tai-O fishing village.

The dolphins aren’t home today though, and we’re left wandering the village, waiting for the bus. The village does have it’s sights, most of it is dried fish though of many, many varieties. I buy some suspicious-looking unlabeled beverage out of a cooler from this woman and it turns out to be a very refreshing, tangy sort of drink. I also buy these deep fried chili fish balls, that are incredibly spicy and not that good. Meh, you win some and you lose some.

Back in the main village, we happen upon a rather unimpressive Kung-Fu show. It’s still fun though, and they certainly make an effort of it, so we stay for a bit before grabbing lunch and an ice cream.Dried fish I go for black sesame seed ice cream, and it turns out to be another winner! Jen and I also grab a milk tea with bubbles (where ‘bubbles’ are small, slimy tapioca balls) each before heading back to the mainland.

I’ve talked Jen into trying a deeper shade of red for her hair, but she’s skeptical and at least wants to try out a couple of wigs to find out which shade that will suit her. So we go to a couple of wig stores that I’ve looked up online, but all of them are rather strange and don’t have that big a selection. The closest thing they have to a red one is a strange purple one, so we give up and just go for a color that seems nice. It luckily turns out really well and her hair is now a deep reddish brown. (I’m going to keep lobbying for a bolder choice though)

Jaime and JenThe next day we sleep in a bit since we aren’t due to meet Jen’s roommate Jourdan and her boyfriend Alex until noon in Macau. We make it down to the ferries a bit late at elevenish only to find out that the ferries that normally aren’t a problem to get a ticket right away for are now booked up all the way to 15:30!!! And that one’s only available if you get the first class ticket (330 hkd apiece). Problem is that the show we’ve gotten tickets for starts at 17, which leaves precious little time for the 1 h crossing, navigating customs and getting to the hotel where the show is. Oh well, not much to do but wait at this point.

We almost end up missing the ferry as well, since we hadn’t considered that we’d need to pass through customs as we leave Hong Kong as well. We actually end up making it with only seconds to spare. The customs on the Macau side turn out to be another half hour on top of that – at least we get a proper stamp instead of the little note they put for Hong Kong. A hurried cab ride later we meet up a rather miffed Jourdan (that hasn’t gotten any of our texts) and we manage to catch something like two thirds of the show, which by the way is excellent! It has all the glamour and flair of a Vegas show. and actually a decent storyline. (the daily turnover of Macau is actually bigger than Vegas, by the way)

Our miserable luck continues when it turns out that we don’t have time to have dinner with Jourdan and Alex since we have to get back in order to catch the ferry again. Oh well, at least I get to talk a bit with Jourdan, which is probably Jen’s main henchman/sidekick.

Nude Adventures in Shenyang


My roomie Janne wants to start the day with some chess and I oblige, beating him three times in a row before deciding to head out and explore the town. Adjacent to the hotel lobby is a classy store, the kind where all the clerks wear suit and tie and I wander about looking at all the overpriced goods. After a while I happen upon a box of bird’s nests used for making soup from, it’s a certain kind of cave-nesting swallow that builds its nest out of saliva. Very hard to get of course and therefore automatically a delicacy I guess. They’re hideously expensive; just over 10 000 yuan (about the same in sek and just shy of $1500) for a box of sixteen. I snap a picture and is politely interrupted by a lady explaining that photography is prohibited.

I head back to the lobby and run into Karina and Ingar who have been out for a bit already. I tag along and we end up at a Starbucks near what seems to be the center of town. After a cuppa joe we’re ready to explore and brave the murderous traffic in the roundabout surrounding a giant Mao statue. By the looks of it you’d think you’re back in DPRK, the thing is easily ten meters long and about as high, surrounded by hundreds of flowers. Our photography is interrupted by a big tanker with a guy on the roof wielding a water cannon watering the lawns and plantations. It’s really an absurd sight.

Even the city center is full of back alleys with sordid-looking holes in the wall masquerading as stores and we steer clear of them. After a while our feet are sore and we start looking for a place to get a foot massage. There doesn’t seem to be any places that serve both men and women so Karina and Ingar go by themselves and I’m left to explore on my own. One minute I walk by watch stores where I can’t afford to even look at the watches and the next I walk by houses ready to fall over, it sure is a diverse town! After a while I feel nature calling and I head into a large building looking like it would contain a toilet. Some sort of clerk gesturing for me to take off my shoes, so I do and head over to the doorway with a mans silhouette over it. A kid escorts me over to a locker and gestures for me to undress. At this point I start to suspect that this is in fact not a toilet. My suspicions are confirmed when a portly Chinese man walks by, stark naked, farting loudly. I decide that the bath probably has a toilet somewhere and take off my clothes, but after some unsuccessful spelunking I decide that I don’t want to see any more naked men pouring water on each other and quietly leave.

Hooking back up with Karina and Ingar we finally find what looks like a proper shopping district, we go down what looks like a subway entrance to find an underground mall. This is like the coolest place ever! There are tunnels in all directions, lined with tiny shops selling anything and everything you can think of. It’s almost like I can stretch my arms out and touch both walls simultaneously. The place is crowded, but not overly so and I start wandering off on my own. There are lots of cool local brand clothes, not like in Beijing where everything are copies of well known brands. Many of them with hilarious engrish-style prints and others just plain weird. I try lots of clothes but find to my dismay that I’m a tad too large for the majority of the clothes. Normally I’m a medium to large guy but here I’m lucky if XL fits.

As I walk up and down this underground mall for hours on end it strikes me that I haven’t seen a single tourist all day. It’s a really cool feeling and it also means that you don’t have to haggle so much when buying stuff since the prices are already reasonable. Having bought more than I’m sure that I can fit into my pack I finally head back to the hotel for some workout in the hotel gym, followed by a dip in the pool. The evening is rounded off with us stuffing our faces at the fabulous buffet.

Goodbye DPRK


At breakfast Mats tells us an amusing story about his mailing experience from the night before. He went down to the post office in the lobby with a bunch of postcards ready to mail them. The lady takes the postcards and starts flipping through them one by one, inspecting them closely. Every once in a while she stops to scrutinize something and gives him the old “communist glare” (yeah, you know the one I’m talking about). Suddenly there is something wrong and she calls over her colleague who takes a look at the postcard and nods in agreement. Post office lady points to the stamp on the offending postcards and shakes her head. Close inspection reveals that there is a miniscule tear on one of the teeth of the stamp. That might have been okay on any other stamp but this stamp bears the likeness of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and is therefore sacrosanct. Mailing the others is okay, but that one postcard is rejected.

Following breakfast we’re taken to the train station and boarded on a rather luxurious Chinese train, with flat TV-screens in every coupe. The train ride is slow and the scenery uninspiring, only the occasional freight train livens it up, mostly due to the unimaginable sorry state they’re all in. Gaping rust holes half a meter in diameter seems to be the norm. Some of them are actually transporting people as well, crammed into regular ore carts.

We head over to the lunch cart which looks more or less like a school canteen from the seventies with some surly North Korean party officials enveloped in noxious cloud of cigarette smoke. We sit down at a table ordering some beer which is the only thing the staff manages to understand, Henrik tries ordering a bottle of water by making the international sign for water (moving a half-closed hand repeatedly up and down) to no avail. Suddenly the lights go out and Mats seizes the opportunity to slap himself on the thigh and yell “You bastard!” in a girlish voice. There is general amusement as the lights come back on, but only at our table it seems… Deciding that we’ve overstayed our welcome we leave shortly after.

After some positively horrid box-lunch we reach the border in the late afternoon. Now starts the circus we’ve heard so much about where the border police take their good time going through all the pictures in our respective cameras. Any offensive photos are promptly deleted, and by offensive I mean embarrassing to the North Koreans. I get only one photo of an, from appearances alone, generator gas driven truck deleted while Ingar gets a total of 15 deleted. Getting ahold of Kimberlys video camera containing some four hours of film the officer decides to do the only sane thing and hands it back over after watching a minute or so. All in all it’s about two hours before we start rolling again and we get back the bundle containing our mobile phones.

Passing over the Yalu river that separates North Korea and China is somewhat surreal. On one side are wooden sheds and on the other the shiny highrises of Dandong. It’s also a bit strange to enter one of the more oppressive regimes in the world with a feeling of freedom. Originally the plan was to go by boat to Seoul, South Korea, from Dandong, but due to the Moon festival all boat traffic is canceled so we board a bus to Shenyang instead. What’s the first thing you do after escaping one of the last dictatorships in this world by the way? You go to McDonalds for a McMao (no, there is no such thing, but wouldn’t it be great if it did?!) of course! (and getting the best service I’ve ever received a McDonalds anywhere, you’re hardly done placing the order before it’s on your tray)

We arrive in the tiny podunk town of Shenyang (6.5 million people) by nightfall and boy is it a sight! The whole place is lit up in neon like a classy version of Vegas, it finally feels like we’re back in civilization. Checking in to the really fancy New World hotel we gather in the hotel bar to digest our North Korean adventure.

Parting is such sweet sorrow


This is the day the group is split up and we go off to North Korea. The others go to Qindao on the Chinese coast with the evening train. I haven’t been able to get to the post office to ship my shopping back to Sweden (I’m pretty overloaded and need space for more shopping =P) so I dump it with Jacob so that he can do it for me, supposedly it costs around 500 sek to ship 10 kg by air mail back to Sweden. I follow Anna’s advice and mix in some dirty laundry with it so that it won’t be so obvious that it’s all new stuff and attract the attention of the customs people.

There’s lots of hugging but the blow is softened by the fact that we’ll actually meet once more in Seoul as we come back from North Korea and the others are there before moving on to their last leg of the trip in Japan. We get one of our Chinese guides with us to the airport and she tells us some stuff about the city on the way out. There’s something like seven ring roads in Beijing and she tells us a joke about the traffic: “The wife says to her husband: ‘How much so you love me?’ ‘As much as the traffic on the third ring road’ the husband answers.” I’m not sure I understand it but I guess it means that it’s pretty much traffic there…

In line at the airport I strike up a conversation with a couple of brits, guessing their nationality after hearing the b-word (bollocks). They’re going to North Korea as well (well duh, we’re in the same check in line after all…) and we discuss how to call someone a bastard in an amiable way. I discover that I’ve lost my departure card when it’s time for passport check, no problem though, just fill out another and I’m good to go. The passport check is kind of neat as the counter has buttons you can press to signal your level of satisfaction with the process. It’s very expedious and I press the highest button.

Coming up to baggage check I realize I left my brain back at home and packed my Leijona shot in my carry on. They start by taking that and continue on with my toilet back (which I moronically also put in my carry on…) and away goes my scissors and hand disinfectant. I get to keep my Minty Boost though.

Our ride

The airline we’re flying with is called Air Koryo and they don’t have the most modern planes. We board a really cramped Ilyushin Il-62M and find our seats. The seats are really fun because if you push the seat in front of you it flops over like a domino, I’m reasonably sure it wouldn’t pass any kind of safety standard (in fact, it turns out that it’s banned in the EU). After a brief security demo of how to put on the belt (apparently they don’t have either oxygen masks or life jackets on this flight) the cute attendants begin handing out some reading material. Imagine my delight as the Pyongyang Times and the DPRK Juche is put into my lap. They’re filled with inspirational tales like the one about the textile factory manager who was so good that his workers sang songs in his honor.

In spite of the rickety plane and the cramped seating the flight is quite comfy, mainly because it’s so silent. The Il-62M has four engines all placed at the very back making for a very silent flight if you sit up front. Landing at Sunan International Airport we’re immediately greeted by the sunny smile of the eternal president Kim Il-Sung, displayed on top of the terminal building. A bus is there to pick us up and drive us the 100 meters to the terminal, now that’s service! =P The baggage check is surprisingly light, they want to know if we have any mobile phones, but we collected them all and gave to Karina prior to takeoff. Mobile phones are banned in DPRK and are “sealed” (by sealed means put into a plastic bag, rolled into a ball and clad with massive amounts of tape and finally a paper with a stamp is affixed) and taken care of by the guides until we leave the country again.

Our ride to the terminal

The baggage check guy wants to know if I have any batteries for some reason and I show him the ones in my Minty Boost which seems to satisfy him. Before exiting I’m stopped once more and need to show that my boarding card matches the baggage tag, pretty smart actually. Some people weren’t as lucky though, there were guards over by the baggage carousel watching the luggage go by and every now and then they decided that they saw something suspicious and resolutely plucked one of the bags of the belt and carried it off for a more thorough inspection (without notifying the owner).

Outside the terminal we’re met by our head guide Mr Kim. He introduces himself and then goes inside to help Karina with the phones. Turns out that we have no less than three guides: Mr Kim – a guy in his forties, Miss Kim – a beautiful 23 year old and Yeoh (I have no idea if that’s spelt correctly), a 23 year old guy in a suit. A camera man and a bus driver are also part of our crew.

After a while Karina is ready and we head for the bus that’ll be our second home for the next four days. It’s a really old bus imported from Japan (and therefore right-hand steered) with a pimped out interior featuring chandeliers and lazy-boy seats! As we drive into town the age becomes apparent as the bus shake like the hands of a wino before the mornings first drink. The lousy road probably has something to do with it as well, they’re even worse than in Ulaanbaatar! Writing while on the road is out of the question anyway.

Sandeep enjoying the seats

My first impression of Pyongyang is that it’s pretty run down, not as bad as Russia though. It just seems like they built all the buildings some 20 years ago and haven’t done any kind of maintenance on them since. The whole city is more or less like that, with the exception of the important buildings, that are in a tad better shape. Mr Kim goes over how we’re allowed to take photos on the way: out of the bus window in the city is okay, so are nature sceneries, but people, especially close ups and military men are a definite no-no.

We later learn that the “no photos of people”-thing is more a cultural thing than anything else. North Korea, and South Korea as well to a lesser extent, is still a place where you dress up and is prepared for when a photo is taken. So taking photos of people, especially when they’re unprepared, dirty or otherwise unkempt is extremely rude.

Driving through the city I see several billboards, but none of them have any advertising on them, instead there are large inspirational propaganda posters. It’s a pretty surreal feeling… We make our first stop at the Arch of Triumph, which of course is the largest in the world, purposely made just slightly larger than the one in Paris. The fact that we can just stop and hop off to look at the monstrosity bear witness to the sparsity of traffic in Pyongyang. It’s mostly trams and cable buses milling about followed by the occasional Volvo 144, Mercedes or the domestic Pokugee.

The Arch of Triumph

The Volvos are a leftover from 1973 when Sweden delivered 600 of them to Pyongyang and North Korea decided not to pay for them. The total debt is about 2.2 billion sek and still unpaid. They’re all in surprisingly good shape though, so they must make their own spare parts or something.

We drive on and you can really tell that the North Koreans aren’t used to traffic, the driver honks every 30 meters or so at different jaywalkers and -bikers, but often they won’t even turn their head. They just go about minding their own business, seemingly not caring very much whether they get run over or not, very strange. There are also a lot of soldiers just standing around (with weapons), but given that DPRK can field the world’s fifth largest army, in absolute numbers, not percent, I guess that’s kind of expected.

The Yanggakdo Hotel

We arrive at the Yanggakdo Hotel and make a speedy check in before being whisked off to dinner. Driving in Pyongyang at night is an interesting experience, almost everything is dark, only the windows to people’s homes are lit up (as well as the monuments and propaganda posters of course), everything else is dark, even the street lights owing to the serious energy shortage in North Korea. The restaurant is a nice place where we’re treated to a traditional Korean meal with kimchi, omelet, rice, chicken, deep fried greens, and some sort of pork stew. I’d been dreading the Korean cuisine before coming here, but it’s not bad actually, it’s a lot of picking though so eating takes a while. The fact that the chopsticks are made of metal (=slippery) doesn’t help either.

Dinner

After dinner we’re bussed back to the hotel and we mill about looking at the visiting Chinese dignitaries, they’re in town as a gesture in connection with the 60 years celebration. It gets old pretty soon though and we go to bed trying to digest the fact that we’re actually in North Korea.

Wallwalking and the Duck of Doom


Today we go to the great wall. Since being unanimously unrecommended the Badabing (sorry, Badaling) section (jam packed with tourists) we go to the Mutianyu section instead. You ride a cable car up to the wall and then you can wander for approximately 500 m in each direction. Jacob and I choose the steep section (surprised? No, didn’t think so…) and set off. I’m wearing my five-fingers today garnering lots of smiles and comments from the locals =)

The first part is really steep, something like 60°, and it’s on shaky legs I clamber up the steps. But as you reach the first tower the rest isn’t very steep, I’m already dreading going back down though. Two towers later you cannot go any further, well you can, but it isn’t restored and more or less overgrown so there’s little point to it. There’s a great view from up there and we explore a bit before going back. Going down the really steep section I try and film a bit to get a sense of how steep it is. It wasn’t as bad as I thought going down though.

As for going back down to the village again you have two options: Either you can walk or you can ride the toboggan; a kind of sled going down what looks like a metal water slide (without the water). Naturally we opt for the toboggan and set off down the track. After a couple of turns I get the hang of it and really let loose. It’s pretty fast when you pull out all stops but every now and then you catch up to some slowpoke in front of you and is forced to brake. But if you wait a while to get some distance between you and the next guy you get some pretty fast stretches out of it. It’s great fun and well worth the 30¥ I paid!

Down in the village we poke around in the shops a bit and I find some more of those feather kicky-ball things and buy a bunch. Then we hop on the bus back to Beijing. There’s a food stop on the way back at a Cloisonné factory. They make those traditional pots/vases that I’ve always thought were made out of porcelain. Turns out they’re made out of copper with copper thread glued on in patterns, the space between the threads is then filled with enamel powder and burned. Polish, rinse and repeat for another coat until the enamel is level with the copper wire and the vase is smooth. We get a tour of the place and then some lunch. It’s a traditional Chinese lunch with a lazy susan covering almost the entire table filled with plates of different foods, most of it good, but the sugar coated lettuce didn’t have many fans… The rest of the drive back to Beijing is uneventful and a good chance to catch up on lost sleep. We have one more stop once we get to Beijing though: the Olympic “Birds Nest” arena. It’s kind of fun but nothing more. We also see the bubble building housing the water sports and the hotel shaped like the Olympic torch.

Back at the hotel I take some time to relax and blog before Jacob and Peter suggest I join them, Johnny and Matilda in a quest for some Beijing Duck. Of course you need to try that while in Beijing so we go out to find a cab to take us to an area where the guide book says they have good duck. Trying to hail a cab we’re approached by a guy wondering if we need help. So we tell him the we’re looking for some good duck and he tells us that there’s one just down the street. We figure that we go for his recommendation and start walking. After a while we find the place and head for the entrance, only to be cut off by another guy telling us that it’s closed (looked open from where we were standing though…). He says we should go to this other place, just down the street… He describes it as being one block down and then left, a really red place.

We decide to take his advice and resume walking. After a while the guy catches up to us and says he’ll follow us there, in hindsight a good thing since I counted more like three blocks down, a left and then another left before arriving… Seems like a nice enough place though and we go inside. The staff takes us past the tiny front restaurant area, past the kitchen, up a flight of stairs, past a storeroom, past another dining area to the end of the corridor where there’s a door. They open the door and to reveal a tiny room with a large round table seating nine. We sit down and get an English menu with pretty much only one item on it: a Beijing Duck meal. It’s rather expensive, 198¥ apiece, but we’re tired of chasing ducks and order. We also ask for a bottle of Chinese liquor so that we’ve tried that as well. After a while the starters are dropping in, we also get our Chinese booze, arriving in a fancy box. The food is great and the booze – not so much… In fact, it’s horrible! It smells just like scented acetone, if you haven’t smelled that it’s a sickly sweet synthetic strawberry smell that will stay with me to the grave. The thing is that it tasted exactly as it smelled! Johnny bailed out immediately and ordered some Coke to dilute the horror. Problem is that it only makes it even worse! We managed to drink two thirds before calling it quits. I took the bottle with me to show the others at the pub later (we’d made plans to join the rest of the gang at the same place as we were yesterday).

How was the duck then? When the duck arrived we were already almost full from all the excellent starters (Kung Pao chicken among others) but we manage to eat most of it before throwing in the towel. Beijing Duck tastes nothing like chicken and is served cut into slices like a pot roast. You take a slice, dip it in black bean sauce, salt, sugar and lemon juice, then put it on a tiny pancake that you roll into a spring roll before finally eating it. Deeelicious! Towards the end of the meal the staff bring in a huge bowl of soup as well. As far as we can tell it’s the rest of the duck, made into soup. We give it a sip before leaving the place with an unsteady gait.

Since we only have a vague idea of where we are anymore we catch a cab back to the hotel. There we find out that everyone but Sanna have already gone off to bed, scandalous! Being a good sport as she is, Sanna joins us for a Gin & Tonic before we call it a night as well.

One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest


This lovely Sunday morning, Peter, Jacob, Andreas and me have decided to go up early to see if we can catch some Tai Chi in one of the parks. So at six am we take the subway to Tiantan park (the one with the Temple of Heaven). There’s a 15 yuan entry fee but it turns out to be well spent money…

At first the park seems to be a bit empty but soon enough people come running by. And how they run! It’s like they don’t know how to run properly! They lean backward, they hardly bend their knees, some don’t move their arms, each one we meet is weirder than the previous. We happen upon a guy standing by himself doing what can only be described as a repeated Hitler salute. Suddenly we hear someone shouting and down the path comes a guy jogging leisurely while shouting at different heights. First one level for a couple of seconds, then down low, up high etc. It’s like we’ve climbed right into the Cucoo’s Nest! =D

We press on and are passed by even more hilariously running people. To our right we see a guy practicing the Diavolo, but not just any Diavolo. He’s using three meter long fiberglass sticks to control it (in contrast to the usual half meter sticks). Then we find some guys playing badminton, the first normal activity really. But to offset that there is a guy right next to them, repeatedly hitting a tree with his palms (and not in a forceful martial artsy way).

Then we hear what appears to be rock music but turns out to be, horribly distorted, regular Chinese wailing music. Listening to it is a bunch of women doing, not Tai Chi, but regular morning gymnastics. Moving on we find some guys playing some badminton-esque game but with beach tennis paddles and a rubber feather ball. Seems quite fun and we buy a set from a lady and try it out..

There’s also a couple of guys throwing a ring back and forth between them. The ring is made of cloth but still heavy enough to throw. He wants Peter to catch the rings around his neck and he obliges. Upon catching them all the guy wants to take pictures and us to thread our heads into the rings with them. Weirdo. There are also some seniors nearby kicking something that looks like a hacky sack between them. Closer inspection reveals that it’s another, more heavily weighted, type of feather ball, that’s really easy to kick back and forth. I buy one of those as well.

Further in we hear some more wailing and this time there’s a guy singing, accompanied by his friend on traditional Chinese instruments. Sounds awful, but he has a crowd of obviously appreciative onlookers so I guess it’s just us. Nearby is a guy in his seventies shaking like Shakira to no obvious rhythm and a bit further away another guy walks around clapping his hands (he’s not the first though, lots of people were walking around clapping various body parts, it’s supposed to be soothing or something).

At this point Andreas and I go back to the hotel for some breakfast, but Peter and Jacob stay and, among other things, reported seeing a large group of people dancing the Tango.

Back at the hotel I latch on to Anna and Karina to go to Ya Shong market (more or less like Pearl market). We split up to do our separate shopping, but Anna and I make loose lunch plans. I’m hopeless at haggling, so I pay much more than I need to but end up buying lots of stuff anyway. For example a pair of dress pants and nice shoes to wear at the mausoleum in Pyongyang (they have a very strict dress code there), a camera battery, some jeans, regular shoes and a lot more. I run into Anna a few times and she helps me haggle a bit. After a while we decide it’s time for lunch and go to the top floor restaurant/food court. We’re met by a girl who shows us a table and brings over a couple of plates with sample food, nice! We order some of it and after a long wait, no less than seven plates descend upon us! We do our best but still leave more than half. Upon paying we’re in for a bit of a shock, the meal costs 170 yuan, excluding beer! At least I get a compliment from the waitress about my beautiful wife =D Anna insists she’s my mother though…

After some more shopping Anna decided to get eyelash extensions; for 180 yuan they glue individual eyelashes to your existing ones, one by one. It looks great and they stay on for a month or so but the process takes a little over an hour. I decide to tag along for a foot massage (30 yuan for 30 minutes) and it’s a good decision. A pretty little girl wearing a breathing mask thoroughly rubs my feet and calves in every conceivable way for the next half hour, niiice…

Some even more shopping later we decide we’re done with Ya Shong and head back. Anna still has a couple of errands to run and I go with her to Pearl Market. Anna knows this place there where they almost have fixed prices and it’s so nice not having to haggle that I end up buying some underwear and a sweater as well.

We rush back to the hotel to have time to freshen up before the planned sort of goodbye dinner (last one with the entire group together) before splitting up. Anna and Karina have arranged for a traditional Hotpot meal at a nearby restaurant. A hotpot is the Chinese equivalent of Swedish “Pytt i panna” really, you get a pot of stock and a bunch of plates with different meats and vegetables. Then you put whatever you like into the pot and boil it for a while, when you’re satisfied you fish it out, dip it into sauce and eat it. Boiled veggies (or boiled anything really) isn’t my cup of tea though, but it’s nice to have tried it.

Anna and Karina ask the staff if we can get any dessert as well. At first they’re very distressed but then they get an idea and in comes the strangest dessert I’ve ever seen, tasted or even heard about. It’s like a bowl of snow with some sort of snow tower in the middle. Over the snow is a cover of brown beans and to top it off it’s drenched in sugar as well. It tastes about as bad as you’d imagine but it sure was fun eating! =P

After dinner we move on to a tiny little bar across the street from the hotel. It’s barely large enough to fit us all and they probably sell more that evening than they normally do in a month. I try their entire selection of umbrella drinks (not too many) and Jacob treats me to his own recipe; a sewage pipe (recipe pending, but it has Bailey’s and Blue Curacao). Looks horrible but tastes nice. In the wee hours one of the staff announces that she’s making meat- and celery dumplings for us – what a place! They’re delicious and the perfect late night snack before heading home.

I have a cock in my throat


Having set the clock one hour late we almost miss breakfast. We’re just in time to hook up with Elin, Sanna and Anna-Karin though and decide to go to Tiananmen Square first. Getting there we notice there are x-ray stations for bags at every entry point. It probably has something to do with the impending 60-years celebration held on this Thursday (Karina told us that last Thursday was some sort of rehearsal day for the celebration and that the _entire_ town had been shut down. Not a car or a person in sight!). We accidentally drift into the line of people going to to see Mao and get shooed away with shouts of “Bag!”, “Bag!” We mill about on the square for a bit before finally deciding to go see the old corpse.

There is a place across the road where you can store bags (no bags allowed in the mausoleum) so we do that and get in line. Entry to the mausoleum is free but bag storage cost 8 yuan I think. There is a booth where you can buy flowers but we don’t feel like honoring the bastard any more than necessary. Inside Mao lies in a glass box (inside a larger glass box with two guards) and you get to see his waxy profile as you walk by for 20 seconds. There’s no spending quality time with the man in other words.

Next on the menu is the Forbidden City (it’s forbidden because only the emperor and his staff had access). The place is absolutely huge and you get a bit bored after a while, highlights include the Emperor’s garden at the far end and the smaller houses along the side.

Feeling rather spent after three solid hours of watching epic history stuff we split up since it’s only me that’s going to the Kung Fu show later this afternoon (this was yet another optional scheduled event like the acrobatics show). So I head back to the hotel and since I’m short on time I find some vegetable dumpling/pirogue-thing in an alley behind the hotel.

This show was much more artistic than the last one and they did fewer really cool things. A flip-flop directly on the head (on a hard surface) was pretty nice though. Outside the sun had just gone down and we walk back toward the subway. Right next to the station is the famous Pearl Market (one of those places where they sell Nike and Puma knockoffs and every store is at most two square meters) so a bunch of us decide to head over there. Turns out that they close as early as 7 on weekends so Kerstin suggest we go to Donghuamen Night Snack Street, a place where you can get _really_ exotic foods…

We take the subway to the start of Wangfujing street which is a large, quite famous, American style shopping street. After a bit of walking we arrive at the snack market which is a row of stands, each one selling something nastier than the next. Luckily we are a few guys able to spur each other on and we start off feasting on a little sea snake. The texture is soft and spongy, but the taste is quite actually quite nice (all these things we ate were cooked in oil and seasoned before serving, so there’s probably not too much left of the real taste to be honest). Next up is some sort of crayfish; quite good, tasted like… crayfish really. Then the first really nasty thing: Silk worms, these guys are brown grubs about the size of a thumb each. The texture is like oatmeal with a crunchy exterior and the taste (seasoning really) is very nice.

Jacob find some oysters and we try those as well, they’re ruined by too much garlic though and not very nice. Somewhere in between we have some sheep’s testicles. The texture is weird and there’s something tangy about the taste. Other than that they’re pretty much like pork fillet. I also find some snake skin, but that’s probably the worst one of the lot. The texture if just too much and the taste isn’t nice either.

Peter finds scorpion and we try that as well. It’s quite good actually, but mostly shell and not much meat. There’s also sheep’s penis at the same stand and of course we have to try that one also. Really tough to chew but it’s not bad, one of the better ones actually. Toward the end there is a stand with water beetles, bee cocoons and centipede (the 30 cm kind). Jacob buys some bee cocoons and they’re pretty good, mostly crunchy. I get a centipede and water beetles. The centipede tastes like the outermost part of spare ribs, the beetles have an incredibly hard shell and have to be peeled before eating but are otherwise nice. We finish up with some shark meat in the very last stand (very good, but probably bad for you since it’s at the top of the food chain and has lots of accumulated poisons, it’s also somewhat endangered and we really should have skipped it). The lady claims that she has dog and cat meat as well but we don’t really believe her and leave it.

About to finish up for the evening we take a cab to Sanlitun, an area my friend Miro recommends with a bunch of nice bars. We sit down at “The Den” and have a beer. We also had a tip for finding some decadent pole dancing but couldn’t find it (turns out we had the wrong district, should have looked in Solana, near Chaoyang park for “Sex and da City”). We did find a Hooters though and popped in for an almost midnight snack. Not much of a place though, way too much makeup but a decent dessert.

That about sums the day up, we took a cab home after that (26 yuan for a 15 minute drive, cabs are ridiculously cheap in Beijing).