Trip Start Sep 26, 2004
Trip End Jan 15, 2005

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

After two days and nights on a train, I thought I would be exhausted when I arrived in Beijing. Since there really isn't much to do on a train, I ended up catching up on some much needed sleep and was well rested upon arrival. The ride was uneventful, as we left and arrived on schedule, and there were no problems at both border crossings. The scenery was another thing. I left Hanoi just before nightfall. After the border crossings, we stopped in Nanning for our cars to be attached to the express to Beijing. This took about 2 hours so we were allowed to roam the city. I met an English guy, a Russian couple, and a German traveler in the waiting area. We decided to head out and find a restaurant and a store for supplies. It was 5 a.m. so not much was open. We did find a place to eat close to the station. Breakfast was warm milk mixed with rice, and a fried bread used for dipping. Not bad, but I think I was so hungry it didn't matter what we found. This was my first real taste of a Chinese city. Tibet is still mostly wilderness with small towns scattered about. Lhasa was large, but this was a big city. I tried to find a place to change money, but banks were closed and the government here controls everything so I had to wait until I reached Beijing. The Russian couple had extra money so we all bought enough from them to last the trip. I wandered around on my own after breakfast and found a market that opened at 6:00. I pointed at fruit and finally managed to figure out the cost. If you smile during the pointing game things usually work out. I got my bananas and oranges and headed back to the train. The countryside was very different than I expected. A lot more farms and small villages. China is huge, but I expected to see more industry and larger cities. We zoomed past farmers plowing fields with cattle and small tractors and I saw them pulling carts by hand through their villages. Rice paddies and fields of crops surrounded them. It's winter here so I didn't see many people working the fields, but some were getting a head start on spring. China has entered the world of finance and global commerce, but these people seemed oblivious to all the changes. If you were on a train 50 years ago you would have seen the same scene. Their world hasn't changed much as modern China zooms past on a train going 100 mph. I did eventually see all the industry and larger cities and towns. All those 'Made in China' items have to come from somewhere!
We tried to find things to occupy our time on the train. We looked at maps and tried to guess our position, we walked the cars looking for other western travelers,(only a few) and we haunted the dining car and small shop they had aboard. The dining car was no bargain for backpackers, so we cooked our own meals. Well, cooked is putting it loosely. The train provides hot water, and we added it to our pre-packaged bowls of noodles and veggies. The berths were comfortable. I was put in with two Chinese women and we had some interesting conversations.The language barrier was present, but they spoke some English and were interested in knowing all they could about where I was from and where I had been. They slept more than I did so conversations were short. After arriving in Beijing, the German, Englishman and myself ventured out into the city to find our hostel. I had made a reservation in Hanoi, but we had to find our way there on our own. We knew it was near The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so it wasn't too hard to locate. We jumped a on bus, and I showed the collector the business card for the hostel and we were dropped off within walking distance. A lot of people on the bus wanted to help us and to try out their English skills. A lot of smiles and head nods all around. I only had two days in Beijing so I booked a tour of The Great Wall as soon as we arrived. Rolf the German guy went along, and we were picked up at 7:00 the following morning for the 2 hour ride to the wall. We went to the main tourist section of the wall, but opted to walk off on our own rather than stay with the tour group. We walked all the way to the highest point of the wall, and it took about 45 minutes to make it. The wall is steep in places and has sections that are made up of flat stones instead of steps. We had to watch our step as there was a little snow and ice to dodge. We made it to the top only to be greeted by a tourist stand where you could buy a plaque engraved with your name saying you had reached the highest point of the great wall. I was not impressed, as most people rode up on a cable car! They also had hot drinks which I did accept. I wanted to hike the wall on an overnight trip outside of Beijing, but my time is short in China so I had to do the next best thing. It was still an amazing thing to behold. The wall climbs up and down mountains at seemingly impossible angles. It snakes its way through the hills and valleys as well. It must have been quite a sight for invading armies to see after marching for hundreds of miles across the plains of Mongolia. At the high point of the wall you can see the valley stretching out far below. The mountains have a natural gap here, but the wall dissuaded most from even attempting to invade.The wall just goes on and on. Trying to go around wouldn't even seem like an option when you see it disappear over the top of the mountain range. An unbelievable accomplishment in construction.
After the wall tour we visited a few tombs from the famous Ming Dynasty era. Very elaborate and a stunning amount of detail to the buildings. There were man made mountains of earth for burial sites, and an enormous hall with single tree trunks as supports. These trees are the hardest in the world and come from southern China. A special canal was built to float them to Beijing. They are massive and have stood for four hundred years without moving an inch. The next day we did an abbreviated tour of the forbidden city and Tiananmen Square. Mao's tomb was closed, so I only got to see one communist under glass on this trip! I wish I had more time in Beijing. It is an impressive city. It has 13 million people and I was told there are 9 million bicycles. I saw 2 traffic jams on my city tour, so I think the bike is going the way of the dinosaur here. They do have a special lane for bikes all over the city for those who so choose. The Olympic village and stadium is coming along well, and everyone seems excited about 2008. There is a large countdown clock to opening day in Tiananmen Square, and souvenirs are being sold already. All in all a good trip to the capitol city. I'm off to Shanghai to catch transport to Seoul for my flight home. I may take a slow boat (38 hours)or end up flying. There are no road routes to South Korea. North Korea frowns on backpackers and tourists in general. More from Korea.......................
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