Beijing’s a city I’ve been to a whole bunch of times, including a spell living there for a few months in autumn/winter of 2013, so I’ve come to know the place pretty well and have plenty of memories there.
But it was that very first weekend I ever spent in China that stands out the most from all the time I spent in Beijing; my two travel companions (Mike and Ross) and I arrived in Beijing on a Trans-Mongolian train from Ulaan Baatar, on the back of a 3-week Trans-Siberian journey. It was a crisp autumn Friday afternoon, fairly cold but feeling nice and warm to us after the severe temperatures in Mongolia. A guy from the hostel met us at the station (I remember it was the first time I’d ever booked a hostel online – Hostelworld etc were still in their infancy – and the first time I’d ever had a hostel do pickup service!), and we were off to a good start. It was to prove to be perhaps the most exhausting, action-packed, and enjoyably mental weekend I’ve ever had visiting a city while travelling.
The first evening was fairly restrained; we met up with Stevo, an Aussie I’d befriended in India a few years earlier who was now living in Beijing. He took us for a session in Sanlitun, the most notorious Beijing nightlife area, but our energy levels were flagging after weeks of travel and we called it a night fairly early.
The following day, which was about 33 hours long (i.e. we kept going for two days straight and didn’t sleep), more than made up for it. Along with another English lad who was in our dorm with us, we started with the Forbidden City, right at the heart of Beijing, and the city’s main sight (along with the Great Wall). It was grand and we were suitably impressed, but it was when we exited from the south gates into Tiananmen Square that things got interesting.
The plan for the evening mostly evolved around food – we wanted to go to Wangfujing snack street and eat fried scorpions and whatever other critters we could find, and we wanted to go to a restaurant for either Peking duck or hopefully even bull’s penis soup if we could find it (Mike’s obsessed with trying unusual foods, and Ross & I had been ribbing him all the way across Russia that we were fully expecting to see him eat some dick in China).
So when a friendly young couple approached us in Tiananmen Square, struck up a conversation to practise their English, and then offered to show us around some places, we were stoked to have some new friends to go on an eating binge with. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that they were initially going to try and pull the Beijing Teahouse Scam on us – their story about being students from out of town, the place where they approached us, how familiar they were with the city and its hutong alleyways despite being ‘first-time-visitors-from-out-of-town’ in those pre-smartphone days, and the way they steered us towards a certain particular set of hutongs near Wangfujing, were all clear indicators. Of course, it helped that we actually wanted to go to Wangfujing! We told them we wanted to go eat some bugs there, so they said they’d show us the way; of course I didn’t know it at the time, but the route they took us wasn’t the best route (when I went back and lived in Beijing a few years later, I realised all this, but at the time there was no way of knowing), instead taking us on a detour through the teahouse area. I remember the girl saying as we passed a teahouse, “oh hey, do you guys wanna go for tea?”, but we just completely derailed the attempt; we were hellbent on eating some weird shit, then going for Peking duck or bull dick, then going clubbing.
At that point, I think they gave up on trying to scam us (or anyone else) that day, and actually started just hanging out with us for fun. I’ve since explained to Mike & Ross that they were probably angling to get us into a scam teahouse, but Mike at least thinks I’m being paranoid and they were genuine. It’s hard to be 100% sure, but given all the red flags I do think they started out as scammers and then just decided to have some fun instead.
And have fun we did, running around Wangfujing snack street, Mike doing his kid in a candy shop routine with the candy switched for grilled scorpions and duck foetuses on sticks, assorted random sea creatures (e.g. grilled starfish) on sticks, massive fried beetles on sticks, and so on… basically, lots of weird stuff grilled on sticks.
It’s said in China that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs that isn’t a table, and anything with wings that isn’t a plane; but this doesn’t hold true for the northerners, and most Beijingers have little interest in eating bugs, finding it just as gross as most foreign tourists do. In other words, Wangfujing’s more interesting offerings are very much for the curiosity of tourists, and our new Chinese companions thought Mike’s performance was hilarious. In fact, so did a whole bunch of people at Wangfujing that night, and the stallholders were running up to him waving whatever fried insects they had under his nose; he was just grinning and happily accepting everything offered to him, declaring repeatedly that “this is fucking brilliant!”… I tried a pretty good selection (the little white scorpions are pretty good actually), but no way I was having a go at those bird foetuses, they looked absolutely disgusting. The Chinese girl (I’ve long since forgotten what they said their names were) said it made her feel sick to watch him eat them! It was plenty of fun (on a later visit to Wangfujing when I lived in Beijing I also tried a grilled snake, which was a bit like eating a leather belt), and even though Wangfujing is basically just a road full of big boring malls with an overpriced-and-not-very-authentic snack street attached to it, and even though it’s grand central for the teahouse scam, it’s still a fun place to check out for an hour or so. Just don’t agree to go for tea with any of the friendly young ‘students’ who will almost certainly approach you there (see my full teahouse scam post here)
After we were done with the bugs, I think they may even have made one last-ditch attempt to suggest tea, but we declared it was time for Peking duck and drinking, and invited them to join us for dinner. They accepted, and we jumped in a couple of taxis and went to a really nice duck restaurant. The meal was awesome, and it’s something you should definitely try when visiting Beijing. I have absolutely no idea what the restaurant was called or where it was, but it was good.
Then we headed to Sanlitun and returned to a decent bar Stevo had taken us to the night before for a few cocktails. The male half of our Chinese companions was soon absolutely shitfaced, explaining that he can only handle two bottles of beer, and they said they’d better be off – we made arrangements to meet them at the same place in Tiananmen Square the following night, and wished them goodnight. The four of us then went to the hostel for a quick change, found a new dorm-mate from Germany had checked in and recruited him as an additional drinking pal, and went to find a nightclub called Babyface, apparently one of the most famous in the country.
To be honest, it was crap; shitty music played so loud it makes your drinks vibrate across the table, and a club full of tables instead of a dance floor (a typical set-up in China – you pay for a table and table service, with the best-placed tables – i.e. the ones at the front where everyone can see you – costing a fair whack). We didn’t fancy that, and just went to stand at the bar. At one point I went to buy another round, and a great big bloke at the bar gambei’d me – gambei means cheers, literally ‘dry glass’, in other words ‘bottoms up’. It’s like saying cheers – except it obliges you to drink the entire contents of whatever glass you’re holding. I didn’t have a drink, so he poured me a whisky & green tea from his jug and we downed them. Then he poured me another and his friend gambei’d me, and then poured another and we all did it again.
“Where your friends?”, he asked, and I pointed to the others along the bar. “Cool, bring them here”, he suggested, and I beckoned them over. Soon the five of us and the two of them were locked in some sort of weird friendly-but-highly-competitive drinking ritual; they had a bottle of whisky, poured and mixed with green tea in a jug as per usual in China, and we were gambeiing glass after glass. When the whisky ran out, Mike and I bought a bottle of nice añejo tequila to thank these guys for their hospitality; the big fella went to pour it in the whisky & tea jug, but we stopped him, explaining that this was classy stuff and needed to be enjoyed straight. So he shrugs, and pours us all a full glass of neat tequila…
…er, what? Now we have to neck a full glass of tequila? Not sure tha-
No choice; we necked them. I then beat a hasty retreat to the bathroom as I saw him pouring more glasses, not wanting to end up puking everywhere; Ross and our German and British hostelmates also made themselves scarce, and I looked over to see Mike and these two guys downing more glasses of tequila, and then watched aghast as the big guy dumped the rest of the tequila into the whisky and tea jug, which also had a load of beer in it by now, and then stood back from the bar, legs planted wide apart, and started necking the entire contents of the jug. To be fair, he poured half of it down his front, but he still consumed an absurd amount of booze in a very short time.
I thought this guy would be going down for sure; he was a big unit, but I was expecting him to be in trouble all the same. However it was his smaller mate who ended up spewing, all over the bar and floor; in the UK he’d have been chucked out on his arse at that point, but the staff simply came and cleaned it up around him while he continued drinking. So, this was binge drinking Beijing-style. We all went back over, another bottle of whisky was ordered, and things started getting very, very messy. Our German buddy bailed, saying he was “too scared of drinking with the English, it’s madness!” (direct quote), and we eventually headed back over to Sanlitun as the club was dying down.
It was there that the big guy finally lost all capacity for reason. I’m not sure what started it, but he got into a fight with his friend and the two of them squared off… big guy pulls a knife out and starts screaming, threatening to stab his friend, and the crowd in the bar scatters… bloody hell, he’s gonna stab him I thought, while snapping a photo. Odd thing to do looking back, but here it is:
Very shaky with the flash off, but you can see the scene. They caused quite a commotion, but eventually the big guy left in a taxi, and the smaller guy suggested more drinks at an after-hours place. Ross and Ben (the other English guy) were done and went to the hostel, but me and Mike just kept on drinking, eventually deciding we’d go straight from the bar to visit Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square as there was no pointing in sleeping for an hour or two.
Chairman Mao can only be visited in the morning, and gets a massive queue of pilgrims every day:
I remember the two of us stood in this crowd of serious people, trying to hold our shit together, alternately giggling like a couple of schoolkids and then micro-sleeping on our feet until the crowd pushed us forwards again. After what seemed an eternity, we filed into the chamber where he lays not-so-peacefully for the hordes of well-wishers to shower with roses, and then just like that you’re through the chamber and out. Like Lenin in Moscow’s Red Square, it’s a really bizarre experience, though in quite a different way. Lenin is presented in something like a red-lit vampire dungeon, whereas Mao is in this brightly room surrounded by armed guards; there’s very little queue for Lenin, and a huge one for Mao. To be honest, it isn’t worth lining up to see a mass-murderer unless you’re into weird experiences; we certainly weren’t there to pay respects, and I guess we just drunkenly found the whole thing funny.
We then went and staggered our way to the Drum Tower, ate some lunch in a hutong restaurant near there, and jumped in a cab to the Summer Palace. By now, we were running on empty, sobered up, hungover, and very, very tired; we managed to walk around a good chunk of the huge Summer Palace grounds, and then we were absolutely done in. The whole thing was probably the most impressive feat of endurance I’ve ever done – I would literally find it easier to run a marathon than repeat that Saturday/Sunday bender in Beijing. It was hard work, but we loved every second of it.
We went back to the hostel, booked a Great Wall tour for the next day (with train tickets already booked for the next night) and crawled into bed, just as Ross and Ben were heading out to meet the couple from the night before as arranged. I wasn’t there for what followed, of course, but in a nutshell, they got stood up but – lo and behold – were approached by another two friendly young women who suggested tea… and they went with them, opting for beers instead of tea while their companions ordered a teapot. They said the bill was ridiculous, but as the Beijing teahouse scam goes I think they got off pretty lightly, and just paid it. They actually said that although they got ripped off, they had a fun evening with the two lasses and weren’t too upset by it – not only that, but the teahouse had a sign in the bathroom reading “禁止大便 No shitting”. Ross was rather amused by this sign and took it to show one of the girls, who solemnly informed him that “In China, we scared of big shit!”… this cracked him up no end, so after getting ripped off he took it as a memento and brought it back to the hostel, and I later took it and used it (after Mike & Ross had flown home) to get some calligraphy scrolls done for each of us in Yangshuo (the guy in the calligraphy shop thought it was hilarious). It remains an in-joke to this day. So although they got teahouse scammed, they got off lightly and it ended up almost being a semi-positive experience for them (most are not so lucky with the scam teahouses).
Meanwhile, while Ross and Ben were having the most expensive cuppa they’ll ever have, Mike and I went out, hungover, to find something to eat. We walked around a bit, and to our surprise we spotted bull’s penis soup on a restaurant menu… we looked at each other… what do you think? Can we really do it? But of course, we had to… we went in and sat down, and got stared at by the entire restaurant staff while we tried to order. Unfortunately, upon ordering the penis soup we were told (to our simultaneous disappointment and relief) that they didn’t have any in stock. Oh well; it was crazy expensive so it saved us some money at least. We settled for fish, which was served whole, with at least one waitress staring at us from the end of the table throughout the entire meal, watching our every move. Not my preferred style of table service! Now, they say it’s bad luck in China to turn over a fish you’re eating and that it means the next boat you pass will sink (so we’d learned from the Lonely Planet), but it’s pretty damn hard to eat a whole fish with chopsticks without doing so! Mike struggled and struggled with it, and then said he was just going to flip it, reasoning that the LP’s etiquette guidelines for China were probably overstating things. He flipped the fish, and the waitress watching from the end of our table reacted with genuine shock, hand on mouth, running back over to her co-workers to excitedly tell them what we’d just done! So I guess that superstition is still very much a thing… thankfully our Yangtze boat the following week did not sink as a result.
After that it was back to the hostel to hear Ross and Ben’s story and get some more badly-needed sleep; the following day we dragged our already exhausted bodies out of bed to go and hike along the Great Wall, which lived up to its name, and then we were on our way to Xi’an on a night train from the impressively massive Beijing West train station.
That concluded an enjoyably bonkers first weekend in China, a weekend which left me with a not entirely accurate impression that I loved Beijing… returning to live there (briefly) a few years later I found it to be a seriously hard place to live in, often abrasive (both physically and psychologically), with air so bad it makes you cough blood, and I realised I couldn’t live there long term; a few months was ample. And yet, it always retained its capacity to be an unpredictable and sometimes just absolutely hilarious place, a rapidly developing, fascinating city which for all its faults definitely has its moments, and it’s a place to which I’m sure I’ll return even if just for the odd visit.
For more China posts click here, and check out my China overland travel guide
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