Bustling Beijing

Trip Start May 30, 2005
Trip End Sep 30, 2006

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

*Sniff* It was with a tear in my eye that I left UB and Mongolia, and to be honest I was getting a bit worried about the whole toilet situation that I'd heard about in China, not to be sniffed at, quite literally.

The train out of Mongolia was a fairly quiet affair, especially compared to the trips that I'd taken with the Vodka Train lot. The journey consisted of being very hot through the Gobi desert as our Air-Con had broken (again a common occurance on the trains that I'd been in). The view of the Gobi was superb though, not to be missed, it was just a real shame that I didn't have enough time in Mongolia to head down this way on a jeep trip.

At the Chinese border there were the usual border controls (although easier that those damn Ruskies, but then everything is easy when it's not in The former CCCP). One added bonus though was the addition of the wheel-change pit stop. Since Mongolia and China use a different Rail Gauge they need to swap over the bogies (honest I'm not making up these words), this involves taking the train into a little hanger at the side of the track, separating all of the carrages and then jacking them about 5 feet into the air. Once all the carrages are up then they roll in a whole new set of wheels before very slowly lowering each of the carrages onto the new wheels. The whole process takes about an hour and involves thousands of people, but then China isn't exactly short of man power.

My trip from the train station in Beijing was alost a disaster as I'd copied instructions from the Internet on how to get to the Hostel, but the instructions were from one of the other train stations - Doh. I knew roughly where the GH (Guest House) was so I took the metro to one of the stations nearby. I went into a little shop in order to phone the GH to get further instructions but both numbers that I tried just resulted in music being played as if I was on hold. I was considering where I might be able to find an Internet cafe in order to get a hold of the proper instructions. Don't forget that all of this is done with a big 20 KG (I need to lighten the load) backpack on in 30 Degree heat. At this point my Guardian Angel stepped in to save me, She sent two Westerners into the shop to buy ice cream. I asked them about Beijing phone numbers and whether I had to drop any numbers from the front on the numbers that I'd been dialing. They took one look at my piece of paper and said, "The Red Lantern, that's where we are going now, want us to show you where it is?". What do bears do in the woods?

So despite the slightly dodgy start Beijing (or BJ as I heard someone call it!) has been fantastic, it's a truely amazing city. It's got everything, true old China, modern skyscrapers, noodles on the streets, bikes EVERYWHERE, a modern subway, old men flying kites, The Olympics, people playing Mahjong, McDonalds (aka Free Clean Toilets), and so the list goes on and on.

On my first full day there I headed out in my nice red T-Shirt not really thinking anything of it, of course, this is an extremely lucky colour in China. There are loads of Chinese tourists visiting Beijing, so when you go to the touristy places, so do they. In fact I think the Chinese tourists out number western tourists at these places at least 100 to 1. It's still a bit of a novelty for some of these guys to see a westerner in the street, even though they'd have seen them on TV (and I bet most of them would recognise Mr Beckham), so to see a westerner in a red T-Shirt was just too much for some of them. They come up to me and ask if I could stand in their picture, and it wouldn't just be one, they'd line up Granny and Granpa for the second shot. This would lead to a queue of people waiting to get their turn with the funny looking man with yellow hair in that great red T-shirt. Ahhh, now I know how the rich and famous feel, without of course being rich or famous.

I had to visit Tiananmen Square to see what it really looked like, it's huge, probably 400 meters in length. On one side of the square you have a massive portrait of Mao overlooking everying that's going on. Thousands of Chinese tourists are there getting their picture taken with Mao (this was one place that I wasn't 'shot'). I guess you really have to be a Chinese Communist to really enjoy the place, but the whole experience left me a bit cold. I read 'Wild Swans' by Jung Chang during the first couple of weeks of my trip, and after reading about what this man did to this country, well, I'll leave it to your imagination. I'm writing this in China, which is a country with serious 'issues' when it comes to the internet, so I'll leave it at that.

On one of the evenings I went out with a few people from the guest house, over to the expensive part of town, it was still less than 2 pounds a beer, but that's expensive over here (try 20-40p, depending on where you are). We stayed a while and then got a taxi back to our GH. It dropped us off on the main street where a number of people had set up food stalls, we decided to get something to eat before heading to bed. we saw a group next to us with some soup that looked quite nice so we ordered a bowl (they're big bowls) to share. I wasn't really thinking about what I was eating, I just knew that it was spicey and tasty. Then the American guy next to me said that the 'Calamari' was actually probably intestine. Oh well, I've eaten a few already and I'm still ok. Then the German identified that the red bit of meat with bits in it was probably heart. This didn't stop us continuing our chow down. Not even the tasty unidentifiable piece of something, we don't even know if it was 'meat', stopped the feast until it was all finished. Looking back on it now, I don't think that I should have really eaten all that rubbish - but I am still alive, thank goodness!

I'd timed my trip to Beijing to meet up with my friends Nicola and David from home (which is why I'd left Mongolia early than I'd really have liked to). They arrived about 3 days after I did, I'd only done some of the basic sightseeing around (which was all lovely) waiting for them to arrive so we'd see some of the biggies together.

First up was the Forbidden city, which really requires a stroll through Tiananmen Square to approach it properly. This was a set of Royal Palaces during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The entrance fee used to be death for anyone that dared enter without permission, now it's 60 Yuan (about 4 British Pounds). The city is a series of courtyards with a temple at the far end. You walk through the courtyard saying, "Wow", "Oh My", "Look at That!", and then through the temple saying "Stunning", "Amazing", "Isn't that Great". This leads you onto another courtyard where you repeat the process from step one. Occationally they throw in a few curve balls where the courtyard is raised, or perhaps there are three temples immediatly behind the one the dominates the courtyard. My favourite curve ball was in the very center where there are a gathering of little shops selling water and ice-cream to the hot, thirsty tourists. I amongst these shops was a... Starbucks - well, at least it wasn't a McDonalds. On the whole I enjoyed my visit to the Forbidden city, but it does go on and on as if you're stuck in a tape loop as if you're stuck in a tape look as if you're stuck in a tape loop. But then again, there's no way you can visit Beijing and not pay homage to the ancient emperors of China.

Next up on our list was the Summer Palace. This is a park on the outskirts of the city to the Northwest, leave a whole day to visit this baby, it's superb. The center of the park is dominated by a huge lake surrounded by well kept gardens all the way around. There are many ornate temples to visit if it all gets too much and of course the ubiquitous water sellers every few yards (and you need them there). Everything is just so photogenic and you can't help yourself snapping away, little ponds, pretty flowers, trees weeping over archways, amazingly tall bridges crossing the rivers, it's all amazing. We took a trip out on the river on a little boat, we ended up sharing this with three American girls that had been in China for a few months. We'd been patiently waiting for our turn as there were a queue of people also waiting. They turned up and proclaimed "You've got to be a bit more pushy, if you want something then you've got to go and get it", to which David replied (under his breath and out of their earshot) "Hey, we haven't got enough oil, let's go to Iraq and get some more". The little boat trip was great, they even let me drive for a while. The steering wheel had a little button with a picture of a horn on it, but no sound came out, even if I pressed it repeatitly.

The Summer Palace is perhaps most famous for the Marble Boat which sits permanently moared at the side of the lake. The story goes that one of the old queens (or perhaps emperoress) of China misappropriated some funds that were destined for the Chinese Navy. She took the cash about built the rather opulent Summer Palace. As a salute to the source of the money she built a boat for the navy made of marble which she used to wine and dine in, I bet the sailors were really pleased with that!

And lastly, The Wall, The Great Wall, well.... a little stretch of The Great Wall. Only two hours out of Beijing it was really easy. While everyone else from our minibus took the chairlift up to the wall, the Stupid Scots walked up to it in 30 degree heat (It had been 40 degrees 2 weeks previously so we were lucky), 3 hot, sweaty jocks reached the top 45 minutes later, and I must confess it was worth it to approach it in this manner. It gives you a true feeling of how imposing this wall is. Can you imagine any army approaching this wall in full armour, carrying weapons, they get to the top of the hill and say, "Just give me a moment while I get my breath back, there's a good chap". Another thing to note is that we climbed on the old Chinese Side, NOT the old Mongolian side which was a geat deal steeper. Of course a few hundred miles to the west the wall isn't quite so great so good old Chingis (Ghengis) Khan would have just had a little stroll around.

So onto the wall itself, wow, what a view. We walked along a little, wow. I guess it's a bit like the Forbidden city in that it's quite repetative, but I was never bored by the repetative nature of this wonder. The views were simply stunning in all directions, you could watch the wall weave it's way across the mountainside before it climbs a hill and disappears over the top to continue its journey for thousands of miles.

At one end of the tourist section that we were on (only parts of the wall have been restored) there was a steep section leading to the brow of a hill. Some of these sections were past an angle of 45 degrees, maybe as much as 60. We took our time, taking full advantage of the watchtowers that line the route, "No, I'm not having a rest, I'm looking at this rather fine Watchtower". When I eventually reached the top I found out that the climb had really been worthwhile. Even better views were our reward for the hard work. What can I say, Amazing.

The rather non-comunist Chinese have installed a rather unique way to get back down to the bus drop off points, they've installed a toboggan! it must be a drop of about 500 feet, down a shiney twisty turney semi-circular track. It was fantastic, I managed to get about 3/4 of the way down before I caught up with the person in front (and I'd wasted as much time as I could at the top to give them a big head start). There were people with Megaphones lining the route shouting "Brake Brake" at all the foriegners that were perhaps flying down the hill a little too fast. I had a smile on my face for ages after that little trip.

So at the end of our time in Beijing we got on our train and headed to Xi'an. Next stop: Some geezers made of pottery than have been dug out of the ground over the past 30 years, oh yeah, and some horses too.

Till next time, Zai'chen.
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