China - Beijing

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, May 28, 2007

At Beijing airport we struggled to get a taxi, with no driver wanting to have to deal with a foreigner or try and figure out where our hostel was. We asked an airhostess and a tour agent to translate our hostels name and address into Chinese but they each wrote something different so we were none the wiser. When we finally found a taxi driver who was up for the challenge he just squinted at the symbols in front of him and nodded as if he knew where to go.
Half an hour later we found ourselves going round in circles so tried to get our driver to ring the hostel. It seemed he didn't have a clue how to ring the number we gave him so we had to do it ourselves. Another 20 minutes and three expensive calls to the hostel and we eventually pulled up outside our accommodation! The complete lack of any common language was proving to be a bit of a challenge.
On checking into the hostel we came across the common situation of being given a twin room when we had previously booked a double. After a lengthy discussion in some sort of broken English we were put into the hostels only suite. This sounded great, especially as it was worth 3 times the price of the double room. It would have been great had it not smelt of damp, and had a massive damp patch outside the bathroom! The lime green furniture was an acquired taste but the fancy power shower with lights, a radio and various jets was a welcome addition.
We were expecting to stay the one night in the suite and then move to a double room for the rest of our stay. The following morning, after being woken up at 9am by a member of staff to change rooms, we discovered that they didn't actually have any double rooms for us to move into! It seemed the hostel had a policy of 'it doesn't matter what you booked - if someone in that room wants to stay longer they can!' We asked if they would have a double room available and they simply didn't know - so we ended up staying in the suite for the duration.
Our hostel was smack bang in the old enclosed streets, known as hutongs; a dying breed in Beijing as the developments for the 2008 Olympics are gradually tearing them down to build more "attractive" housing. The hutongs are one of the only places in Beijing to see old China, the dusty narrow streets packed with bicycles and locals shuffling around between the tiny houses.
We walked up one of the larger roads and hoped we were heading in the right direction to get to the Forbidden City. We didn't have a map or a guidebook so we were trying to guess our way there! We did eventually find it - who needs SatNav when you've got Verdi?!
The Forbidden City was enormous and absolutely heaving with tourists, at least we assume they were tourists; we were about the only westerners in sight! We picked up a clever little GPS audio tour and started our journey around the city. There were loads of interesting features dotted around the place, many of which were added by one ostentatious empress who had a penchant for anything frivolous and over-the-top.
We had seen a lot of this type of architecture before in many other temples, especially in Hong Kong and certain 'Chinatown' areas of Singapore and Malaysia. The most impressive and unique aspect of the Forbidden City was the sheer size of the central buildings - they were mind blowing (PICS). Unfortunately the main building at the centre of the city was covered in scaffolding and off-limits to visitors due to the renovation works that were underway in preparation for the Olympics.
As we emerged from the opposite end of the Forbidden City we found ourselves faced with the vast open space of Tian'anmen Square. Well, it would be a vast open space if it weren't eternally full of tourists! Tian'anmen Square is infamous for the massacre that occurred in 1989 when thousands of students and intellectuals were slaughtered for opposing the government's regime that they felt was restricting their freedom and civil rights.
It was the anniversary of the massacre (which is actually kept pretty quiet in most of the country) a few days after our visit and as such the place was probably more busy than usual. The square and the busy 8-lane road alongside it harked back to the harrowing images of the tank and the student during the massacre. The iconic image of the Chinese flag flying at the front of the square was one we simply had to take (PIC).
There are a few "must-do's" in Beijing: The Great Wall, a Peking Roast Duck dinner and an Acrobat Show. We planned to do all three and the first of them was the Acrobat Show. There are a couple of top-notch shows and we booked one through our hostel for about 6 pounds each including transport.
The show was a full house and once again we were among very few westerners. We didn't mind this at all and it indicated that the Acrobatic show, although tourist driven, is clearly a popular form of entertainment for the local people.
Within seconds we could see why.
The show was simply breathtaking, like a junior version of Cirque du Soliel. The oldest member of the troupe must have been no more than 17 or 18 and most of the performers were not even teenagers. There were about 15 different performances, each as spectacular as the next, and we were left spellbound and speechless by the amazing talents we saw (PICS & VIDS).
Make sure you download the Hopping Hats videos - BRILLIANT!
We met back up with our minibus to get us to our hostel and chatted to a few other tourists who had been to Beijing's other well-known shows; the Kung-fu and the Chinese Opera. As the discussions progressed we all determined that the Acrobatics show was the best of the three, the other two being a bit slow and padded out with weak storyline instead of action. We decided not to bother seeing the other shows.
The Peking Roast Duck was next on the list of must-do's and we discovered a place just down the street from our hostel that specialised in the original dish. The place wasn't hard to find, what with all the red neon lighting and the huge 'Roast Duck' signs adorning the shop front. We were lucky enough to find a young Chinese girl who was a part-time English student and helped us to get seated and to decipher the menu.
We opted for a steamed dumpling dish alongside the duck meal and were not disappointed. The duck was less crispy and a bit more rare than we were used to from the UK but both dishes were still excellent - and fantastic value! We managed to get a little private room of our own to enjoy the meal (PIC) - though the décor did tend to have more than a passing resemblance of Amsterdam's Red-light district!
It was time to complete the must-do list and to do the most eagerly anticipated of the three, in fact one of the most eagerly anticipated experiences of our entire journey...the Great Wall of China.
We agonized and debated over which part of the great wall to see. There are three places in the Beijing area that you can still visit sections of the world famous structure; Badaling, Mutianyu and Simatai. Each section has different features to suit each tourists needs.
Badaling is the closest section to the city and as such it is by far the busiest section with most of the tourist buses turning up at this part of the wall.
Mutianyu is further away than Badaling and is a much quieter section. It is a well preserved and restored part of the wall in attractive surroundings.
Simitai is a much more remote and crumbling section of the wall and tourists normally visit this area as part of a demanding 10km walk from one part of the wall to another. This area is very isolated and you would be unlucky to see another group of people anywhere in sight.
In the end we opted to go to Mutianyu. We wanted to go to a quieter section but the strenuous walk over broken sections of wall wouldn't have agreed with Verdi's knees and ankles so the decision was made for us.
Our hostel had an organized tour to the Mutianyu wall, taking in some Ming tombs and a few obligatory 'tourist' stops along the way. We would have rather done the trip to the wall with a private driver so that we wouldn't be stuck to a timetable or have to go to the other places we weren't that bothered about. However, a private driver would have cost twice the price of the tour, which included lunch and entrance to the wall.
The Ming Tombs were quite dull and disappointing, with very little to see and no access to the actual tombs. We were given a load of history about the tombs, which was interesting in parts, but we were glad to be back on the road and heading towards the wall.
In between the tombs and the wall we were dragged into two Jade factory shops, at which point we were told to say we were from the USA, as we would then be allowed to leave after 30 minutes instead of an hour - apparently American tourists spend more quickly so they can leave sooner. We just couldn't believe that we were held captive until our time expired, none of us bought anything (apart from the one American on our trip - guess the stereotype must be correct!)
The weather got continually worse as we approached the Great Wall. The mist, cloud and drizzle stayed throughout the day and didn't show any signs of clearing up. We took the chair lift to the top of the wall and walked around for an hour or so. We were told we had less than two hours on the wall, which annoyed us slightly as that was the only reason we had joined the tour.
As it happened, the poor weather meant that we were ready to leave within the two hours. We had strolled along a section of the wall and took some photos of various angles but the views were unfortunately quite dull and disappointing (PICS). We could tell that they would be much better in the sunshine, and this section of the Great Wall was clearly a picturesque and quiet part - it was just bad luck that the weather had failed us.
We could have caught the chair lift back down to the car park but there is another option at Mutianyu - a toboggan ride. The toboggan had been closed when we arrived but luckily the weather had improved slightly and they re-opened the ride. Our luck didn't extend to the ride itself as we were both stuck behind people who didn't share our 'need for speed'!
We managed to experience glimpses of how good the toboggan could be, when we held back and waited for the path ahead to clear - we could then get up to full speed for a few seconds before having to slam on the brakes again - very frustrating. We would definitely recommend it, as long as you can get a good full-speed run.
On our way back to Beijing we asked if we could take a quick detour via the 'under construction' Olympic village. The crowning glory of the complex is the main stadium, otherwise known as the "bird's nest" (for obvious reasons) (PIC). We couldn't get too close, as the whole site is still a mess of building work. Hopefully they'll finish it soon; the Olympics starts in less than a year and the construction of the stadium began on Christmas Eve 2003!
Our tour guide wasn't quite ready to get rid of us and proceeded to take us to a Chinese medicine shop (with 'free' foot massage that we had to pay for), and a traditional teahouse (with 'free' tea that we were expected to purchase afterwards). The foot massage was relaxing, and some of the tea quite tasty, but we were all just ready to get back to our hotels and rid ourselves of the pressure of parting with more money!
Before catching an overnight train to Xi'an we had the day to explore the commercial centre of Beijing, and maybe pick up a few souvenirs. One of the main shopping streets in the city is Wangfujing Street, within a ten minute walk of our hostel. It is a bustling pedestrianised strip crammed with chain stores and local sellers alike. Unfortunately, as was the case all over Beijing, it was undergoing a facelift ahead of the Olympics so this spoilt the overall appearance somewhat. We decided to take a turn off into the back streets and explore the nearby market.
This proved to be far more interesting as the crowded stalls had much more character and life about them. The tourist tat was intermittently punctuated with food stalls...but these were no ordinary food stalls! The main snack on display was scorpion on a stick, accompanied by starfish and sea horse. We were fascinated by these intriguing delicacies, so took a quick photo (PIC). We were even more amazed to find that when the flash went off the scorpions all wriggled around - they were still alive!
Andrew was tempted to try one, but with a 12-hour overnight train just ahead we thought it best to give it a miss.
We spotted one chap actually preparing the stinger kebab, casually grabbing the tiny scorpions by their stings and lancing them onto the wooden shaft - not a job for the faint hearted (or those allergic to scorpion stings!) (PIC)
We wandered across the city to the Friendship Store, a tourist driven souvenir place that is supposed to be a great place to buy gifts, mementos and local artifacts.
Only if you're loaded with cash it seems!
The place was huge and had every souvenir you could imagine, but the prices were extortionate and there was no room for haggling. Useless!
We then ventured next-door to the Pearl / Silk Market. Now this name is fairly misleading. Although they do indeed sell pearls and silk, there is far more on offer over the seven or eight gigantic floors. Everything from electronics and clothing to souvenirs and sporting goods are available at massively reduced prices. They all claim to be 'designer' but are merely good copies, and best off all - you can barter like there's no tomorrow.
We bought a chopstick set and a mahjong kit, the latter we knocked down from 700 Yuan to 150 for a very good quality boxed set!
With no time left to continue shopping (we would return) we returned to our hostel, picked up our bags and headed to the Beijing West train station to catch our overnight train. Everything in the station was in Chinese with very few people who spoke a word of English. Eventually we found our crowded VIP waiting room and then finally boarded the train.
We had opted to pay for the most expensive, 2-berth deluxe sleeper. It had an en-suite, air-con, table and chairs and a TV for each bed. It was fairly pricey at about 50GBP each one-way but this was still far cheaper than a flight, and far more comfortable. We would soon discover whether we would be booking a return journey, or opting for the winged transport back to Beijing!
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