Arrived in Beijing by plane on the evening of my birthday and went straight to look for our hostel. Our hostel was located within the hutongs (a labyrinth of narrow alleyways) behind the ancient Lama temple and is notoriously difficult to find. Eventually got there though after some phone calls and a helpful local. Checked in, dumped our stuff, showered and headed straight out to Sanlitun to meet some friends. Seems like Beijing was the place to be for Chinese New Year as a lot of TTC interns were around. They found out it was my birthday and we all had a big night out on the town. It was great to be back in Beijing and so good to catch up with old friends again. Only bad point about that night was losing my phone somewhere in the course of that night.
Woke up late next day - the 14th - to the sound of firecrackers and some early fireworks. Chinese New Year's Eve. This is the biggest date in the Chinese calendar – a spectacular kick off to the following week long festival. We headed to the frozen Hou Hai lake, another famous bar district, which was apparently the place to be for the most dramatic views of midnight fireworks. We found a bar and waited for the big moment. I didn't really know what to expect from Chinese NYE except that there would probably be a lot of fireworks – apparently to ward off any lurking evil spirits before the next year began. Well just before midnight it all kicked off. It was INSANE! The bar let us go up on their roof to get better views and within minutes the whole sky all around us was filled with fireworks of every type. These weren't just professional displays, but thousands of locals buying their own massive crates of fireworks and setting them off in the street. Even our bar had their own extensive supply. The number of firecrackers being set off in the crowded streets was immense and totally deafening. Almost everyone is lighting and setting off something. And there are no safety precautions, no barriers, no nothing… just packed streets and endless explosions. Apparently there's some vague law that you can't set off fireworks within the third ring road, but if true this is the most abused law in China. But anyway, the main fireworks frenzy lasted about 3 hours till 3 am, but for the next week firecrackers would be continually being set off during the day and fireworks displays still marking every evening. It's amazing to think that this intense, explosive and deafening NYE celebration is being repeated across the country, in every town and city, and throughout the countryside where families are gathered for the festival. I don't know how enough fireworks are produced to supply 1.3 billions people with a weeks worth of explosives. Crazy.
Next couple of days in Beijing gave me some time to visit the Forbidden City, which was beautiful and fascinating. I especially recommend climbing the artificial hill (constructed on the Emperor's orders to improve the Feng Shui of his palace) for amazing view of the Forbidden City and also of a large part of Beijing centre. Also visited Beijing's ancient observatory, which was interesting mainly because it was an ancient castle structure hidden within one of Beijing's most expensive and modern high rise districts. On the last day, just before catching the train back to Changsha, managed to get to Tiananmen Square in time to join the huge morning queues for the Mao memorial hall. After an hour and a half of queuing, security checks, pushing and barging we finally all got into the inner mausoleum and filed slowly past the preserved body of Mao in a glass coffin, with a flag of China draped over his body. The level of preservation was amazing, and so creepy. He looked like a rubbery Madame Tussaudes version of himself. Definitely worth seeing though.