Me, My Wall and Carly
Trip Start Aug 27, 2011
99Trip End Jun 01, 2012
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The last leg of my trans-Siberian journey took me from UB to Beijing. I had no choice but to ride 2nd class again and shared my cabin with three other Chinese people. Boarding the train at 630am, I woke again around midday. Podcasts, music and plenty of tea later, we arrived at the Mongolian border. Immigration was a simple procedure and this followed with the train having to change wheels. The Chinese train tracks are slightly narrow compared to the Soviet ones! Each carriage was separated and then lifted up like a car being lifted at a garage. Wheels were changed and we were returned to earth! By the time we hit Chinese immigration it was late evening. I changed some of my remaining Mongolian currency at a shop in the train station and was surprised when the Chinese immigration people offered us a free coupon for breakfast, and one for lunch!! I set my alarm for the following morning. Breakfast was two boiled eggs and bread, never in my life have I spread jam with a chop stick! Lunch was some tasty beef with rice! Always love free food! The morning and early afternoon we travelled south through northern China and even passed the Great Wall. The day offered perfect sunshine and cloudless skies. I felt strange coming to the end of my trans-Siberian journey. It's almost as the train is a drug and I didn't want to leave. On entering the central train station of Beijing I felt great pleasure and pride for completing the journey and reaching the end of the rainbow. In the future I will undertake the trip again but next time travel east to west.
Leaving Beijing central station, I enter the crazy land of China! There were hundreds, if not thousands of people bustling around the station! It was simply crazy but totally expected! My time in Beijing lasted nine days and it is reported that I arrived during the quiet tourist time, I would hate to see what busy would look like! Traffic was tense, subways were always full and wherever you looked there were people. I particularly enjoyed riding the subway. The ride was only 20p to go as far as you like. What I really enjoyed was the subway at rush hour, pushing through masses of Chinese people and having the odd rugby scrum! There are even TVs inside the tunnels that show adverts! The city is extremely modern and Westernised.
During my stay, I resided at two hostels. For the first four nights, I stayed in a courtyard hostel in a Hutong. Hutongs are narrow streets that snake between large blocks, they contain small houses, delis and local businesses amd are the intimate and older part of Beijing. They are also very quiet and peaceful compared to the crazy main roads. The hostel was quiet, contained two adult cats and one kitten, the showers were super hot and I enjoyed relaxing there after a couple of weeks on the train. My second hostel was located near Tiananmen square and was a cheaper hostel and also busier. They cooked great food, had a large plasma screen with a hard drive of movies and music videos. The mattress was thin and I was bitten often but not sure what was biting me. The hostel was located on a more commercial Hutong and it felt like you were living on a crazy Chinese street. One is on the constant look out for random bicycles, motorbikes and cars. Passengers do not have the right of way, they will simply rather run you over.
My first full day in Beijing I headed to Tiananmen square and the Forbidden city. The best of Beijing lies in its past and I was not disappointed. I think we've all seen the footage of the student protests in 1989 when a student stopped a tank in it's tracks! The square was different to what I imagined. It is dominated by the large hall containing Chairman Mao's body. I saw him on another day. It took 30 minutes of queue shuffling, to go through a security check before being quickly whisked passed his body. Amazing, that another man estimated to have killed between 40 to 70 million people is celebrated! Tiananmen square itself is incredibly vast and heavily populated with kite flyers, tourists, photographers and the odd English speaking Chinese student trying to con you. Seeing Tiananmen square satisfied one of two things I'm looking forward to do. Firstly, I've travelled from the Red Square to Tiananmen Square, from Lenin to Chairman Mao, from democracy to communism. it felt very satisfying stood in the square knowing it was only a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying the beauty of the Red Square. The Square holds the peoples monument as well as two large plasma tvs and a flag that has a raising ceremony in the morning and vice versa in the evening. North of the Square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the entrance to the Forbidden city. The second satisfying moment would be at the Great Wall.
The largest and best-preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China is the Forbidden City. 800 buildings, 9000 rooms meant a great deal to explore. The palace was fascinating, my only point would be, imagine seeing your own house multiplied in size by a thousand times. The end result would mean your house looked pretty similar all over. I'm obviously supposed to be in admiration of the sheer size of the palace but I like looking for intricate details and found few. The view from the temple north of the city was breath taking. Here is what I saw.
Continuing this entry without discussing FOOD will be impossible! That's right, delicious Chinese food! Each morning I woke hungry! My mind wondered on what delicious treat I would be eating during the day. It was one of my highlights of Beijing. Ironically, one day I was not feeling the best, I tried to wake at 5am for the Great Wall, turned off the alarm and slept most of the day, so, I ordered Chinese take away in China! It felt unusual but was very cheap, a big plate of food for a couple of bucks. My first night, I did indeed wander out to a nightly food market called Wangfujing Snack street. The street is brightly lit, full of mouth watering smells and is bustling with people, the majority who are carrying sticks with some type of meat on.
My first visit involved chowing down on some meat on a stick for 20p a time! Someone mentioned about being careful of the street food, but so far, my stomach is made of iron!! So far!
My next visit to the snack street, I picked out some live small scorpions, watched them enter the deep fryer, removed and then covered in salt. Carly and I walked to an empty part of the street to build up the balls to eat them but also for some picture taking. Let's just say I was grateful for the salt, but not the contents of their stomach and having to continue chewing three of them for the next ten minutes. Carly tried one but refused to eat the tail. You could also try one large scorpion, spiders, bugs and some black stuff that made me reach each and every time I smelt it! Yuck!
One night I also tried some Tibet food. I last tried some in Copenhagen with my friend Line, around 10 years ago. I ordered a chicken wing curry and it was some of the best food I have tried.
Eating out occurred often, especially while I was hanging with some cool people, but there is a funny story about trying some Peking duck. Now, Beijing is famous for Peking duck. It is a delicacy and I did not want to miss out. Luckily, three of us went to a posh(ish) restaurant and ordered half of a duck between us. The confusion occurred when asking for pancakes. Strangely, it is the first time I have ever placed an order on an ipad. I have never seen that before. But under 'pancakes' it said 'pancake' for 12yen. Now, is that one pancake, or ten, or what? I ask the waitress, she replies one thousand. Clearly, that's not right, so I ask again and again she says, one thousand. I start using fingers and hand signals, trying to keep a straight face but again her answer is one thousand. Right, do I fancy eating 334 pancakes if the other two are going to have 333 each? Eventually, another waitress came over to tell me it was ten.....ah....that makes more sense! I was just imagining the size of a pancake basket that holds a thousand pancakes. It was so funny, even more so as to how serious she was in her answer and how I persisted to search for the truth! Just thinking of it now makes me chuckle. Sadly, a chef comes out and slices meat off the duck, I would have preferred him to drop the half of duck on the table and watch the three of us fight over the remains.
I met a couchsurfer on one of my days in Beijing. Her name was Paige and we had a fun day together. I met her after she finished work one early afternoon and instead of walking and exploring, we spent the first two hours eating. She would ask if I have tried something, I'd say no and then we'd eat! Dumplings, small fried chicken pieces, street yogurt, tasty sweet pastries and some cake/savoury/sandwich thing. After a couple of hours, we were stuffed and explored some Hutongs and the lakes to digest all that we had eaten. Her company was great. She spoke perfect English and I enjoyed hearing about life in Beijing and her travels. Beijing is her favourite city and she always wants to live here. So refreshing as ever to meet someone who loves their city.
In the evening, we went to Xiand, which is full of shopping centres, but we sat at a hot pot place. There are two rows with the servers in the middle. I went for a curry hot pot, you know, you dump the food in the hot pot, wait for it to cook then gobble it up with satay sauce. I do like this idea, but sometimes, you just want to eat, not have to spend time cooking your food!
The following night, she invited me and anyone else I could bring along to a Hutong bar where one of her friends was playing live music. The place was called Hot Cat and it was a funky place, playing unusual alternative music. We spent a couple of hours there, although, before we got there, Carly and I had a couple of beers at our hostel bar, made the mistake of giving ourselves 30 minutes to find and eat food then meet Emma in a subway. Carly chose what she thought was beef, but it was infact fish. So, she munched through my delicious vegetarian meal while I dropped sticks and got stuck into the fish. The most digusting moment being a combination of hiccups and a large blob of snot departing my right nostril! I blame Carly! The highlight was finding this cool bar in a Hutong area. Only ex pats and locals were enjoying the atmosphere. A fun night, so thank you Paige for the invite!
During my stay, I also visited some of Beijing beautiful past in the old Temples. I visited the Temple of Heaven and also the Lama Temple. The first is based in a large park and has a whispering wall where a small whisper, in theory, will travel around the cone shaped wall. It was too noisy to try. The park was angelic and included locals singing, stretching during aerobics and playing badmington. We had a relaxing couple of hours. The Lama Temple included Tibetan prayer wheels, tantric statues and a superb pair of Chinese lions that mingle in with the dense clouds of incense. We spent some time here people watching and enjoying the wonderful architecture and relaxing surroundings.
I also took a trip to see the Olympic park with Emma. The subway that was built to transfer people to the stadium is now closed but there were buses. This was the only day it rained and it was pretty cold but seeing the 'Birds Nest' and 'Swimming Cube' first hand was spectacular. it cost to enter, so you know I didn't enter. But for 20 quid, you don't have to bother train for the Olympics, you can stand on the gold medal podium and receive a medal.
I can't discuss Beijing without including the negatives. Hocking and spitting! It is disgusting and I saw it often in Russia and Mongolia but here, in Beijing, they are world champions. Bus drivers spitting out of their windows, tickets inspectors leaving their booth to hock and spit. Randoms constantly hocking, sniffing then spitting one great large lump of whatever bile is leaving their body. I thought for a while it was aimed at me, but now I think it's just that everyone is simply disgusting. There is a large population of smokers and the food is spicy but for buses and trains to have no spitting signs demonstrates how gross a society it is. The dense traffic is a nightmare and is very dangerous. Six hundred people die each day on the roads in China and cars do not slow down for pedestrians or large bushy haired ginger men! For four days we had misty/foggy/pollution filled skies. You could barely see ten yards in front of you? Unusual weather and a worrying factor for seeing the Great Wall. In my second dorm was a snorer, and the way the beds were arranged, it was close to my head. Next night, the English knob comes down with a shirt unbuttoned and offered pastries to some girls Carly and I were talking to. I have a good first impression of people and he was a knob. He said he'd been travelling and get wasted every night for three months. He even offered Carly some LSD and the best was yet to come. As he and some girls went clubbing, he said goodbye, you know, best of luck, happy travels, and.....you know.....just get fu**ked up! Who says that? He must have seen the look on my face, what a knob! So he went clubbing knowing he would be getting a 430am taxi to the airport. He came back at 3am, woke everyone up in the dorm, went to sleep, snored and slept through 4 alarms before someone in the hostel woke him up. He then woke everyone again leaving! Knob! Sadly on Carly's last day, she left a ring in the shower and a few hours later, when she realised, it was gone. The hostel couldn't care less and it was disappointing. The following day, I was relaxing watching a movie when someone found the itouch from a girl I had been chatting to. They openly asked around and I took it off them and locked it away till Lauren got back. Sadly, I think a cleaner stole Carly's ring. Disappointing. Lastly, the public toilets on the streets of Beijing are gross. One time I couldn't even hold my breath to take a tinkle! There are no sinks to wash your hands and even though the facilities are numerous, I'd rather find a bush or buy a man sized nappy!
I was lucky to spend my time in Beijing with some great people. I bumped into Carly again. We were in the same hostel and I agreed to meet her at the bus station. It was more fun exploring the city with her than wandering around on my own. It's not often you meet someone who you can be yourself with, tell disgusting jokes and have unusual things in common, for instance, singing the same song in karaoke, liking the same movies and music. Anyway, her situation is complicated which meant I could just be myself and not have to be 'cheesy'. She's from the North West of England, is 29 years old and spent some years living and working in Prague and is a little like me in moving around the place. Her plan was to spend a year in Taiwan but she ended up going back home as her dad was pretty ill. It's not often I enjoy meeting English people while travelling, but it was a pleasure having her company and we became good buddies.
I also met a young Dutch girl called Emma. She dined with Carly and I a few times and I met her in my first hostel. I had a fun day with Paige then came back to a chatty young Dutch girl. Great company, she is spending two months travelling but never wants to settle in Holland. She was very jealous when I mentioned NYC but is young and has loads of determination to go where she wants. I also befriended another British girl who has been living in Korea for 3 years called Lauren.
Right, onto the highlight of the trip and a highlight of my year. The Great Wall! I was nervous and apprehensive. I wasn't going to waste money on a tour or a tour guide. I was happy to find my own way there and find my own way home. One problem was not being able to find the schedule for the bus timetable of bus 916. It goes to a town called Huairou which is then a 30 minute mini bus ride away from the Muttianyu part of the Great Wall. It's partly the reason why I didn't go to the wall on that other day, I wasn't sure about the public transport and didn't really want to go on my own. So instead, Carly agreed to join me and together we ventured off to the wall. We woke at 445 am and headed for the first 916 express bus at 550 am. Waking that early, there was the temptation to just drop back off to sleep, but we didn't and were soon trooping off to the subway to grab line 2 to the bus station.
Ahem, I walked the wrong way out of the metro, but luckily, bus 916 leaves Beijing every five or ten minutes and before we knew it, we were on our way. Luckily, 45 minutes later, a little guy asked in hand gestures if we were going to the wall and he had a mini bus waiting in the nearby town. He charged the price quoted in the lonely planet and we arrived at the Great Wall at 730am. We arrived before the hawkers, we arrived before the tourists and best of all, they let us in early. The climb was steep to the top, it was long, step after step, but our excitement and adrenalin pushed us on, well, with some breathing out my ass as well. Quickly, we made it close to the top and what a site when we hit the top. As I said earlier, four days before this day, we had nothing but mist, fog and poor visability. I truly believe in Karma and truly believe someone looks over me. We arrived to The Great Wall to a cloudless sky and bright warm sunshine! Amazing! The wall felt incredible! I really felt as if one long leg of my trip was finally coming to an end. I knew I would relax once the trans-siberian was over and now it was! The air was fresh and I sucked in as much of the oxygen as possible. Stupid grins covered our faces and best of all, with the Fall/Autumn, the trees were a mixture of gold, yellow, red, brown, green, amber.........there could have not been a more perfect time to visit. It felt more satisfying sharing the moment with a good friend and we had a fun three hours at the top. This section of the wall has a cable car or chair lift to take you to the top and has a large slide to take you to the bottom. Our mini bus driver allowed us 3 hours at the top before we had to depart. I was over ambitious and thought we could walk further than we did, but the Wall is steep in many parts and hugs the mountain line for miles in the distance. We walked away from the rising sun to take better pictures and for a short period of twenty minutes, the Great Wall was ours!! It was worth the early start, the anxiety and confusion. It's moments like these that I'll never forget, similar to seeing the Angel Falls and the Sugar Loaf mountains in Rio. We had fun on the wall, bought a moldy banana and took enough pictures before other tourists arrived. We were down from the Great Wall at 11am, bought a tshirt and I managed to knock the lady down from 29 quid to 4 quid! Crazy lady! We were back at our hostel around 2pm thoroughly exhausted but truly happy and ecstatic about our achievement for the day. What better way to finish Beijing on and for Carly, who had a tough start to her trip, finished the trip hanging out with a bushy gingerman. Well, till she cut my hair off before she grabbed her flight back to the UK!
My time in Beijing soon came to an end, my last hour was spent frantically trying to get a taxi. It took Lauren's Chinese friend to sprint after one and get to to West Beijing Train station for my 12 hour hard seat overnight trip to Pingyao.
Next stop, Pingyao.