Billions and billions in Beijing

Trip Start Aug 09, 2010
Trip End Feb 01, 2012

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Hello all! 

Here is our installment from Beijing. 
We got the 07:00 train from Ulan Bator to Beijing. The journey was roughly 25 hours (I think). We shared our cabin with a 23 year old American who had been backpacking around Europe and his 56 year old Mother! She joined him in Moscow and they got the Trans-Mongolian train together. She wanted to do it in her late teens but never managed, so she decided to do it now. How cool is that?

We got into Beijing at noon and we were met by a sea of humanity! The day we arrived was October 1st. Our Chinese friends will know what that date means. Basically its the start of a National holiday that lasts a whole week. It also means that there are millions of people traveling around. In fact we read in the paper that 280 million people travelled on October 1st! 280 million! It was a bit different than the Mongolian steppes! 

So we made it to Beijing from London by train! Woo hoo! 
We squeezed through the crowds and jumped into a taxi that cost 2 to get to our hostel. It was in a hutong. A hutong is basically a very narrow alley in Beijing. There are not many of them left as the Chinese government are knocking them down. Which is a shame as they are great. There is a
real sense of history in them and the atmosphere is special. We loved walking and cycling around them. Although it was quite hard when there were loads and loads and loads of Chinese tourists about. We were amazed how cheap Beijing was. For example to hire the bikes it cost us 1 pound a day! It was so easy to cycle too as on the main roads the cycle lanes are as big as roads back home. In the hutongs there are food vendors and restaurants everywhere and the food was amazing. It was so great to go into any place you fancy and know that you would get decent food! The beer was amazingly cheap!

 On our first proper day we headed down to Tian`anmen square and The Forbidden City. They were both very impressive places. On the way there, Karen brought a head piece that people were for the National Holiday and became an instant celebrity! So many people came up to her and asked to have photos with her.
(P.S. I handled this with great grace and good manners and posed good naturedly with everyone who asked - see I would make a good celebrity) In fact that was a constant thing for our two weeks in all of China. We were frequently asked to pose for photos with people and we were always stared at. I don't think I would like that side of being famous! (Although we would never do what a girl from our hostel did. Tried charging people for taking a shot of her and then took their camera and deleted it when they refused to pay! - how horrible is that!!!)

In the evening we went to the famous Peking duck restaurant and had the best duck ever. This is THE restaurant to go to in Beijing. It's won thousands of awards and the food is spectacular.  (More on Karen`s food blog) There was a 1 hour wait to be seated which was cool as they gave us free wine! As you can imagine we were more than happy to wait. We also got free desserts. What more could you want? Well a cup of tea would have been great which reminds me.........

...Tea! A drink normally associated with afternoon breaks, biscuits, friendly chats with neighbours. After Beijing however Paul and I will react suspiciously to any offers of the said beverage. Why? I'll tell you why!

There we were happily walking down Huangang, after a morning of cycling. The place was packed with people and we were having trouble finding 'snack street' where we wanted to get our lunch. This pretty Chinese woman approached us and said 'hello'. Having had so many great experiences with strangers P and I were delighted she wanted to speak to us and started chatting happily away. Her two cousins also joined us and started asking us about our trip. They told us they were from Qingdao and were in Beijing for the National Holiday. We got very excited as we were actually going to Qingdao a few days later. We asked them if they knew where snack street was and they said they'd take us there. 'Great! More helpful people' we thought. On our way there the terrible trio made sure they massaged our egos by telling us how beautiful we were (to me) and how adventurous we were and how this and that. By the time we turned round the corner we were walking taller and more inflated. They nonchalantly asked us if we wanted to go for some tea with them and we said ok. The thing is that both Paul and I had read the strong advice by our guide book never to accept any offers of drinking tea. I even told Paul that we should be careful as we entered this tourist shop and were hurried upstairs. My instincts were screaming 'nooooooo'. The menus were put in front of us and I noticed that the cheapest cup of tea was $6. By this point we should have stood up, made our excuses and left. But no, the idea of saying 'no' to these lovely people didn't sit too comfortably with us. They were so nice, we wanted to be nice back! So we stayed and we drank tea and after an hour we asked for the bill. Lo and behold we were presented by a bill that we had agreed we would split. The total was 90!!!!! For 1 pot of tea!!! Apparently we'd drunk the best tea and we also had to pay for room rental. You'd think we would protest at this point, refuse to pay, call the manager, anything but take out our credit card. Well, you'd be wrong. We were in such shock that we paid quietly and even said bye to them before we left. Be both staggered out of the shop feeling dazed and confused. The whole incident had just absolutely shattered this street-wise, seasoned-travellers- image we had of ourselves. To be honest I think our ego was a lot more bruised than our pocket. Kudos to the con men - they were absolutely brilliant. They had us eating out of their hands and in a way deserved their cut. We actually escaped relatively unscathed as apparently some people are presented with bills of 300 at the end if the scamming session. 

Unfortunately the whole incident put a real dampener to our visit to 'snack street'. Which turned out not to be 'snack street' after all. Instead it was a market that specialised in weird food. But not even the sight of sheep's penis on a kebab got a smile from us. 

I was determined to turn this incident into something positive and whilst cycling back home philosophised about our general reluctance to say no for fear of appearing uncooperative, unhelpful or unfriendly. How often have we said yes when we would have loved to say no, to a friend, a manager, a family member, a neighbour.What does it end up costing us? On this occasion I had a very specific figure - 46. So I made a pact with myself, from today onwards whenever my instincts told me to, I would remember this day and say 'NO' loud and clear. 

Paul had a completely different take on the incident though. His angle was that in the 2 months we'd been on the road we'd trusted scores of people. Only this incident had turned out to be negative. Most people are good and we shouldn't stop trusting people just because of one bad incident. a very true and very nice take on the whole thing. 

Anyways, onwards and upwards... to the Great Wall we go!! And so the next day we made our way to the bus station to catch a bus to the most scenic part of the wall - Badaling. When we got there we quickly discovered that our idea was somewhat unoriginal. It seems that the entire population of Beijing had also planned the same trip that day and the queues for the bus were literally never ending. We could see where the line started, but not where it stopped - and this was the line for the standing tickets, never mind the queue for seats!! We decided that as beautiful as Badaling might be, sharing it with thousands of other people would somewhat take away the magic of the wall. So we decided to visit another part of the wall and set off on our journey to Dalian.

 Hold on, I write this as if the whole process took ten minutes at the most. I haven't yet mentioned that there were about twenty different departure stations for bus 363. We still haven't figured out how to determine which one goes where. In our case the queues were a good indication but they were conveniently hidden away behind a corner and we only saw them after walking around the other 19 stations. I also haven't mentioned that we did queue in the sweltering heat for a while before deciding to abandon the original plan. Or that we thought the other bus we wanted also left from the same bus station and so we walked around for hours until someone told us it left from a completely different place in Beijing. But these are just details. It's these challenges that add to the joy of actually making it to a place.

We finally got to the right part of town and caught the bus to Dalian. This time the whole thing really did take a few minutes and I was thinking that it couldn't be that easy, I wasn't convinced we'd actually make it to the wall.

Well our bus did not go straight there. We had to get off and find a mini bus. As soon as we got off the regular bus we were pounced on by tour operators who were determined to take us to a different place. We managed to fight them off and eventually found a driver to take us there.he immediately went in the wrong direction and tried to pick up two more tourists who he'd obviously accosted earlier. The fact that they started shouting 'No, we don't want to come with you' wasn't a particularly good omen. Karen was convinced he was going to take us to a closer but busier part of the wall and in her sternest voice warned him to take us to the right place. It worked as 30 minutes later we saw a sign welcoming us to Dalian. Although next to it we also saw another big sign saying that the section of the wall was closed and couldn't be climbed! We think they meant another part as the locals all pointed us to the direction of the wall and there was an old man standing guard who charged us a 20pence entrance fee. 

The only way on to the wall itself was by a rusty ladder propped up against a tiny window and balanced on a big stone. Now if this was in Badaling we would have had to wait an eternity to go up but amazingly we were almost alone in Dalian. So we climbed up and had the wall practically to ourselves! Wow, we could not believe it as we imagined that during National holiday week all the sections would be packed. It turned out that all the locals wanted to go to Badaling. It was brilliant being there. Its one of the most photographed places on Earth but actually being there and seeing the wall snake over mountains was very impressive. Apparently the section we visited was built by a very conscientious general who insisted on perfection. So much so that it took twenty men to build an inch a day. When his superiors heard about this they beheaded him for efforts. (every time you feel under appreciated think of the poor man). Still as perfect as it was it didn't do much to defend them as many other tribes and countries conquered China over the years!

So now, we have seen the Great Wall of China too. Even with the Tea mishap, we feel truly blessed and incredibly lucky that we are seeing all these wonderful things. Beijing really surprised me. It was clean, modern and it really catered well for tourists. The transport is brilliant and everything is in English. Even the military and police have helped us and had a laugh with us! So all in all a thumbs up to Beijing!

Zai jian!

Paul & Karen xxx

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Sis on

wow what a great place! love reading ur entries u always make me laugh! and got me so hungry talking about the duck haha! shame about the tea thing but hey if thats the worst thing that happened to you you're doing great so far! cant wait to read more entries especially karens food blog! lol
love to both xxxx miss you xxxxxxx

Patricia on

well..... I never !! One expensive sup of tea !!! :) hahahaha it happens!
Are there 10 million bikes ?
wish I was there !

mom and dad on

it wasnot a cheap pot of tea ,but hey you are both ok.anyway you are both so lucky to see such amazing places and that duck,my mouth was watering, keep on writing cannot wait for the next one xxxxxxxxxxx

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