. It was tucked down a nice and quiet side street and was cheap enough. The very basic rooms were surrounding a gorgeous and quaint classical courtyard. After settling in and filling my belly the intense heat of the day was fading and I headed out to explore a little bit. Although I was in Qianmen supposedly one of the oldest parts of the city everything looked brand new. It was a typical Chinese reconstruction of the past, a rat race of tourists buying nick knacks and souvenirs. That said, I actually enjoyed walking around this superficial tourist theme park. Wondering a little further afield it was fairly easy to get beneath the surface and find something a bit more genuine. After walking around for a few hours and catching a bite to eat at the night market I headed home.
The following few days were dominated by an extremely annoying and frustrating ordeal with the Russian embassy. Having been already turned away from the Hong Kong embassy and Shanghai Consulate the Beijing embassy was my last resort. With only 5 days before my confirmed flight to Moscow, and without a visa I was feeling more than a little nervous as I was sweating in line in the afternoon heat, for about 90minutes. The clerk glanced over my files, which as far as I knew we perfectly in order, and threw them back at me. With the frosty soviet manor you would expect he said ‘Zu enta Russiaaa on plane, oni zhree dayz allow’…. explosion! In a huge panic and went back to the guest house and continued to spend about 8 hours glued to my laptop booking a new itinerary. A whole day lost and a good 100 Euro in missed connections I was ready to return to the embassy for a second assault. Another 90 minutes sweating in the queue outside. This time my heart really was in my mouth as I approached the counter. My application was accepted although the euphoria was short lived when the lady abruptly informed me that I would need to get a same day express in order to have my visa in time for my flight
. That would come in at an extortionate cost of about 120 Euro, may not sound like that much but that is almost a months income for a farmer or factory worker in China. I had a coffee nearby and waited just an hour for the visa to be processed. In spite of the extortion, I was pretty elated to have my passport back with my Russian visa… waahooooo I was going to ‘Mother Russia’.
With some time left in the day I set off to finally do a bit of exploring of the city. I headed for a major Tibetan Buddhist monastery, as I figured the cities take on this outlawed religion would be interesting. The monastery was nice with numerous artistically decorated pagodas with golden Buda idols inside. It was pretty and had a pleasant atmosphere but the distinct artificial feeling just couldn’t be ignored. Also the monastery seemed to be void of its most important part… monks! Which led me to believe this was nothing more that another attraction on the tourist trail. Doubtful that I would find anything genuine or historic in Beijing I got back on the metro and headed for the Olympic village and birds nest stadium. Another sea of concrete, the area made for at least a pleasant stroll. There were plenty of structures and sculptures designed to strike the international community with awe of the Chinese empire. The main attraction, the birds nest itself, too was quite impressive
. After the Olympic village I wanted to get off the beaten track for a while and decided to randomly walk back towards the center. It was really not a very exciting city, although I was astounded by the distinct lack of high rise buildings. It seemed to be a great contrast to every other city in China. I found a small park and a few other small sights. One unnerving thing I noticed was signs for ‘Emergency Shelters’ all over the place, though I never found one of the shelters. It’s like how I would have imagined cold war nuclear paranoia. Next it was back to the hostel to catch up with the people in the dorm. There was a Canadian couple, a US girl, a strange polish guy and a fantastically gay Swedish guy. The Swede guy really freaked me out at first but once I got to know him I thought he was great fun. Much of our evenings were spent hanging out in the room or around the courtyard.
No trip to China is complete without a hike on ‘The Great Wall’ and Bridget and I booked ourselves on a trip referred to as the ‘hidden wall’. Most excursions to the great wall went to the same few locations which were totally developed for mass tourism and horded by SLR wheedling tour groups and a proportionate number of touts and vendors… sounds like a nightmare. The tour we took was a little more expensive and involved a good two hour bus ride, going well beyond the busy spots, but it was surely worth the extra effort
. We got just what we paid for, totally quiet section of wall where we met no more than a handful of intrepid Chinese tourists. The guide walked with the 20 of us to the first watch tower where he gave a quick introduction to the history of the wall. He told us how the Ming dynasty built much of the 6,400km of standing wall in the 14th
century to mark the northern boarder between China and Mongolia. He left for a few hours to hike along the wall, I lingered back allowing the group to go ahead so I would have the wall all to myself. I was not expecting the hike to be so strenuous and in parts the inclination of the wall was very steep. I was ill prepared in my flip flops, but I would be dammed if I was going to miss out on the Great Wall as a result. The first few kilometers were well restored, but after about the 4th
watch tower we reached the unaltered section which became even more difficult to navigate. After a good 90 minutes of strenuous hiking I reached the highest point of 1500m. Drenched with sweat at that stage I came to understand Mao’s famous statement ‘You are not a real man; if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall’. It was well worth the struggle as the views the wall winding over hills and valleys from the higher watch towers were just stunning. After about 3 hours on the wall we headed on for a nice Chinese style lunch at a nearby restaurant before heading back to the city. It was around the evening rush hour when we reached the center so the end of the day was a bit annoying
. Another evening was spent around the guesthouse chatting over a few beers.
The following day would be my last in Beijing, in China and indeed in Asia. There was still so much I had not seen in Beijing so I headed out on my own to pack as much into the day as I could. I started with the vast famous expanse of Tiananmen Square. After going through tight airport type security, with heavily armed army and sniffer dogs I found myself in a vast concrete expanse. The security was a bit more discrete in the square apart from a silly amount of CCTV cameras and plain clothes detectives. I have been assured however that if you do so much as sit on the ground you have about 30seconds before being ejected from the square. While big squares are usually laid for the use of the people this one in particular is under the firm grip of the authorities. The feeling of being watched, a lack of freedom was quite profound. I was disappointed to find the Chairman Mao mausoleum was closed so I would not be able to see his preserved remains. I passed the monstrosity concrete pillar (Monument to the Peoples Heroes) before leaving the square for Tiananmen Gate, where Mao would preside over his subjects. There is still a huge picture of Mao there and as I walked passed it I was gestured at angrily by one of the guards because I was looking at a text on my phone. How could I be so disrespectful to the picture of a dead dictator? If Beijing is Mordor, then Tiananmen Gate is the center and this picture the evil eye which watches over the realm
. For a small fee I went up Tiananmen gate to view the square how the Chairman himself would have seen it. There was a familiar feeling from the podium, reminiscent of the rally grounds in Nuremberg. Before continuing on into the Forbidden City I took a detour to Zhongshan park, where I was told I could find something quire bizarre. Parents and grandparents of ‘of age’ children we sporting personal adds. Although in Chinese I imagine they would sound a lot like the personals in a paper ‘Good looking Engineer GSOH blah blah’. The ads were being browsed by other grannies looking for suitors and the odd young businessman. I think all of this, and the resulting date set-ups goes on behind the suitors backs’. Next it was onward into the Forbidden City. This was the seat of power of the old imperial government. Access to non nobility was denied and trespassing was punishable by execution, hence the name. By now the punishment is reduced to an entrance fee. Surrounded by a moat, it was quite huge and expansive inside and had lots of old style oriental buildings which like everything else felt a bit like the props on a movie set. It took a good few hours to browse the city and by the end I was melting in the heat of the sun. In the evening I had planned to have dinner with the gang from the hostel dorm. About 8 of us headed out for a nice Chinese style meal, full of all the disgusting things I have come to expect. We toasted my last meal in Asia and washed down the fish heads and chicken feet with a few shots of Bijou rocket fuel. It was a nice way to mark the end of my time in China.
After just catching the early morning train, by the skin of my teeth, I was on my way to the capital of the Red Empire. I had a feeling of the hobbit who had travelled across middle earth and was now approaching the enemy's lair of Mordor. The 5 hour journey was the standard monotonous landscape plagued with overdevelopment and polluted skies. Arrival in Beijing was no less manic and overwhelming than I expected. I had no accommodation booked, but I did have a good idea of where in the city I wanted to stay. The metro made it easy to find the area but navigating from the station was another story. In the midst of the capital the heat and humidity was almost unbearable, made none the more pleasant by my now heavy backpack and uncertainty of direction. Strangely there were no skyscrapers which made me consider I may be totally outside the center. In spite of my doubts, and crappy photocopied map I found the street I was looking for in about 30 minutes. Eventually after being turned away from a number of full hostels I found the 'Emperor Guesthouse’, a place which had been recommended to me by Mark and Cas