Tienanmen Square was our first destination. But it was all closed off for some massive VIP-only event involving people dressed in red, or yellow, or blue outfits, some on rollerskates, others with drums. The whole place was closed off, and the smog was pretty intense so we didn't even get a really great look at the square from across the (closed) road.
Zhongshan Park, just outside the Forbidden City, was a bit more rewarding. Cool trees and a break from traffic was what we needed.
From there, we went to Beihai Park, which is located on the former site of Kublai Khan's palace. The day got smoggier, so the views were probably not as spectacular as they could have been, but it was still pretty amazing. Also, there was some kind of giant flash mob, or maybe choir practice, happening in part of the park, so we had nice music in the background as we looked around.
After a slightly harry attempt to get home, we made our way over to the apartment of more friends / colleagues. We all went out to 798 Art District, a very cool, former industrial zone that has been colonised by artists. I got edamame, and we drank some beers, and we looked at art from lots of different genres.
We had takeouts for dinner from a vegan place called Ginkgo Tree. The food was pretty good - we had mapo tofu, some sweet and sour mock fish, spicy vegan chicken, and stir fried bean sprouts. I didn't take any photos, because I was tired and hungry, but it was in takeaway containers so it didn't look that fancy anyways.
After the first 24 hours, when we'd tried to stick to cabs because people had told us the Beijing trains were cray-cray, we realised that cab drivers who don't speak english and don't know where our hotel is and drive like they want to die are actually much more terrifying than the trains. It was a much more pleasant journey after that - the trains are actually pretty easy to use. So if you ever find yourself in Beijing, take it from me - even though cabs are cheap as chips, the trains are easier and even cheaper (2 yuan per ride, or about 30 cents in AU$).
The next day we took an organised tour to the Great Wall, because, duh. The trip was a little bit tourist-trap, beginning at a jade "factory" and finishing at a silk "factory". But we went to the Ming Tombs, going down into the tomb of Emperor Ding Ling.
And then, we went to the Great Wall of China. It was pretty great, actually.
For dinner, we met up with my Beijing-based colleagues / friends at Sunao vegetarian tea house. This place was fancy pantsy. After we ordered, they brought out a smoky plate of melon.
Then we ate plenty. Vegan chicken with walnuts - a nice, earthy twist on the usual cashew-based stir fries.
Deep fried eggplant with lemon-pine nut sauce. This was really delicious, with a sweet yet tart lemon sauce that had more depth, from the pine nuts, than usual lemon sauces.
Dumplings, stuffed with something like mushrooms.
And maybe the best dish of the night was the vegan spare ribs. The sauce was sticky-sweet, and the spare ribs themselves were yummy and well proportioned. The stick in the middle was some kind of vegetable which I am fairly certain was lotus root. It had tiny, spider web-like strings that sometimes got stuck to my face, but it's all part of the experience, right?!
We also got dessert. The purple potato and blueberry dumplings were actually really starchy and not that great.
But the durian pastries were surprisingly good. Wrapped in flaky, hot pastry, durian loses its sewerage-stench and only the nice flavour makes it through.
We left the next morning very early, to head on in to Hong Kong for the conference which was the real reason for our travel. I'll post about that soon! Beijing wasn't a city that I fell immediately in love with, but it was redeemed by the 798 district, and I think spending more time there would reveal some more of its good features.