Beijing is so very easy to navigate around. Once you have acquired your ludicrously cheap travel pass about 20p per trip you can travel anywhere on the reasonably crowded buses and super efficient subway system. Beijing was revamped for the 2008 Olympics and the infrastructure is pretty good. There are good maps with English of the area around the stations.
But venturing outside Beijing by train is another thing. Trains especially with sleepers have to be booked some 10 days in advance if you want to avoid agencies. We first went to Beijing south station where like all main stations in theory you can buy tickets to and from all China. English is not spoken!. After negotiations with sign language map and pen and paper we repaired to the station McDonalds for real coffee, not easy to find. So proud of ourselves to get a sleeper ticket to Pingyao; ha ha we had the wrong dates; changing tickets getting refund and finally getting only seats for the 12 hour journey was I suppose a triumph.
Beijing has to accompany its travel system a world class network of spotless public toilets. Perhaps a legacy of the hutongs where many houses didn’t have toilets or plumbing and each small area has often newly built toilets with a resident live in cleaner.
One isn’t hassled in the streets, only at the major tourist sites; we made the mistake of booking driver and English speaking guide to visit the Great Wall as solo travel out there seemed difficult without Chinese. The problem is these tours are very intricate ways of trying relieve you more money than the initial 500 yuan. Yes the great wall is impressive even on the misty day we went, but negiotiating your way from car park to wall via cablecar is a deafening experience. The mist meant we could only see 2 or 3 watchtowers ahead but with the trees, visibility and quiet it looked like a Chinese water colour.
The downside was the visit to the cloissonerie factory,the silk factory the tea ceremony each with a firm salespitch., answered by my firm Bai Bai.
Independent travel is easy if you have the time, patience and perhaps someone with a Chinese credit card as no visa,mastercard., and the planning to think up to 10 days ahead for train bookings. Flying is is just expensive but not a problem.
The general market near Houhai lake is a bustling local affair for fresh and dried produce, clothes, shoes, plumbing supplies and yes double glazing. Lots of noise. It’s set in the middle of a hutong area and not a lot would have changed in forty years. Except forty years ago at the hieght of the big upheaval there would have been less people.
Beijing is a young city and it appeared that the majority on the streets were under thirty five. And it is an achingly fashionable place. But the faces of those over fifty five are so different from those born after 1970. There is a not only a sadness but a look of bewilderment.
Back to Ghost Street for that popular dish HotPot that becomes a Pollack for my white shirt.