Walking out of the airport into the biting winter cold of Beijing, what greeted me was the thick grey skies. It was with relief that our group boarded the bus, out of the heavy smog and bitter cold, which took us to our Bed and Breakfast place in an old Hutong.
After breakfast the next morning, our group made our way over to the Sun Temple in Chaoyang district. As we made our way to a central point of the park, the park seemed greener and brighter with its fresh coat of rain. Having always been a fan of Amazing Race, I was enthusiastic about the start of the Discover Beijing team exploration – the activity scheduled for the first day of our three week trip to China under the APLP program. We were soon divided into four sub-groups and each sub-group provided a mini package of essentials for the day – a bilingual map of Beijing, a mobile phone, subway cards and some sheets of papers with the challenge questions we were supposed to answer through our exploration.
Mami, Rachel and I were assigned South Beijing. We decided that the first thing we needed was some hot coffee and a few minutes to strategize our route. Exiting a gate, we came across a shopping mall.
Expecting to find a coffee shop inside, we went in, but as it was too early, the shops were not open. The shopping mall, and its immediate neighbourhood, seemed to have a Russian influence.
We found another café near the park gate and went in for some caffeine boost. While enjoying our coffees, we pored through our maps marking locations that we would need to visit in order to answer our challenge questions. We soon realized that the area we had to cover was too large to do so, within the given time. The team quickly came to a decision. We were doing this challenge for fun and so we should have fun, instead of trying to rush from one place to another. Prioritizing the places we were interested in most, we mapped out a route that we would follow and the time we would stop, wherever we were, to check in with our challenge hub staff who would then provide us with the mystery end destination.
We decided to go to the nearest subway station of Yong’anli, from where we could take the train to Jingsong, where the first stop for our challenge – the antique market was located. We passed a street that seemed to have many embassies on it. I have always found it interesting that embassies tend to cluster themselves around a few streets in every capital city. The section of Ritan street that we passed had the Bangladesh High Commission and Brazil embassy close to each other. Thinking it would be fun to send a photo of the respective flags for our APLP friends from those two countries, we took out our camera but the security guards barked out warnings so we quickly moved on. We had difficulty locating Yong’anli because passersby did not seem aware of that station and finally we simply asked for the nearest subway. As we went along the street where the nearest subway was, we passed a bank. Recollecting that one of the artefacts we had to collect for our Discover Beijing challenge was an application form for opening an account, we popped into the bank to change some dollars to renminbi and collect our first artefact.
Reaching Jingsong, we realized that it was quite a long walk from the station to the antique market even though it was the closest station to the place. My team agreed that after the antique market, we would take cabs where possible so that we did not overwork our legs on our first day itself. It seemed it was too early for the market as most of the stalls were empty. The few that were open only sold some cheap trinkets and souvenirs. There were some shops at the end of the stall, which seemed to have stuff that looked like antiques. We took our requisite photo souvenir and answered the question in our challenge.
As we came back to the entrance, we saw a group playing Chinese checkers and we decided to take a photo with them for our ‘interaction with locals’ for our Discover Beijing photo collection. The group was friendly and allowed us to take a photo with them. I had no idea how the game was being played, even after watching for a few minutes, but it looked very interesting.
Our next point for the day was the pearl market and after hailing many cabs, one finally stopped and we were dropped off right in front of the Hongqiao pearl market in Dongcheng district. We took the elevator to the pearl exhibition hall to find the answer for the question on black pearls and to take a photo for our collection. There was delicious smells of food wafting in the air and we realized it was lunch time and that we were very hungry so we quickly wrapped up our challenge question and followed our noses to the food.
Our noses led us to a hotpot shop in the building. The other two were ecstatic and I was happy to try something I had never had before. It was quite a challenge for me though as it was the first time I was seriously trying to attempt using chopsticks, where there was no alternative cutlery provided. It was quite interesting to have to be patient, when you were very hungry, and try to pick your vegetable from the hotpot carefully.
After spending a lot of time enjoying our lunch, we decided to move on to our next location on our route – the Temple of Heaven, which was conveniently right across the road. The temple had been constructed in the early 15th century by the same emperor who was responsible for building the Forbidden city.
We walked around the lovely park area around the temple and came across a group of people clapping in unison over some chorus. I have seen groups undergoing laughing therapy but I had never seen group clapping therapy or whatever that was.
We walked around the temple of heaven gardens, finding the answers to the different questions on our list. We decided not to enter the temple precinct to find the answer to one final question on the Temple of Heaven, as we found the entrance ticket we had bought only covered the park area and the queue lines were too long for the temple entry.
Since we only had an hour or so before the end of our challenge, we decided we would try to cover only two more places. We took a cab to Niujie mosque. The mosque the driver dropped us off in the Niujie area was closed but a kind lady there mentioned it was closed to visitors due to ongoing renovations and posed for a photo for our challenge photo souvenir. I later found that the Niujie mosque in Xicheng district that we were supposed to have visited was not the modern one we visited but the oldest mosque in China, built in 996 AD during the Liao dynasty.
We took another taxi to the Beijing south station, which looked like a small airport from the outside and inside. After our requisite photo souvenirs, we sent a text message to the staff member, who was the contact person for the challenge, and received a message to come to Tiananmen Square and to look for the angel in red wings under the flag.
We took the subway to Tiananmen west and found that we had to walk to the other end of the road to reach the flag. We were tired by this time and we found security blocks preventing us from getting into the area that would take us to the flag area. Apparently, you had to be within the Tiananmen Square area by a given time or wait till the flag ceremony is over before you are let in. So, we had to be content with watching the ceremony from a distance.
By the time the ceremony was over, we simply wanted to get to a warmer spot. We received a text message asking us to come to the Tiananmen West station. We realized we had to walk the entire way back to the station and I think that was the point in the entire day that our group felt grumpy as we were tired, cold with two of us limping due to having walked beyond our normal walking distances. We slowly made our way back and rejoined the rest of the group.
Tired and hungry, we made our way back to our Hutong for dinner in the neighbourhood restaurant. Looking back at the day, though we were perhaps not as efficient as we could have been, we had a lot of fun and the right spirit – not that of competition but more of a joint exploration as a team, enjoying each other’s company and our attempts at locating places and undertaking challenge tasks. It was also a fun introduction to Beijing.
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