Trip Start May 02, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2014

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Friday, June 27, 2014

The train journey from Hanoi to Beijing was very enjoyable and interesting. We have found that catching a train in Asia is a lot more difficult than traveling by air - nobody speaks English at the stations, and any direction signs in English are few and far between.  In fact in China the signboards are all in Chinese!  

On leaving Hanoi, and in order to get to the required platform, we had to cross all twelve main railway lines at the station – pulling our luggage along.    The taxi driver had dropped us at the wrong entrance to the station!   Thank goodness for the information that Andy gets from site as this site describes in detail how to negotiate and use major train stations around the world.

We departed from Hanoi for China at 5:30pm in a single-carriage train with only a Mongolian couple as co-passengers!   The train was Vietnamese and, as it operates on a narrow gauge, we rocked and rolled along.   There were six conductors looking after the four of us and they spent the trip playing cards and shouting loudly.   At least we had a compartment to ourselves and at about midnight we stopped at the Vietnam/Chinese border at Dong Dang (has a nice ring to it!) for immigration control.   We had to leave the train with all our possessions in a hurry and enter a building to hand in our passports.  After a while our passports were returned to us, our exit from Vietnam having been recorded.

We were then hurried along to a different train - Chinese this time but still only the four of us!   This train was much better, on a wider gauge so much smoother, and better organized, and we were very happy to again have a four-berth compartment to ourselves!    As we got into our carriage a guard handed us a printed card, in English, to tell us that in two hours we would be stopping at Nanning where we would have to leave the train again and wait for an hour. (It turned out to be three hours!).   Chinese immigration took place on the train – an official barged into our compartment, switched on the lights, looked us up and down without a smile or a word, took our passports away and returned them some four hours later duly stamped – what he did with the four passports for four hours I do not know

At Nanning we left our luggage on the train and were ushered to a special area in a huge waiting room containing thousands of daily commuters.   We watched in amazement as they were organized to get to their respective platforms on time.   Officials used loudhailers to chivvy them on and at least twelve automatic gates were in operation …. And it just went like clockwork…..! Wave after wave of commuters…

Back on the train more carriages were attached and we even got a dining car.  This didn't help us much as the menu was in Chinese but, using a translating package on Andy’s cellphone, we did order a delicious chicken stir-fry.  (The food is just soooo different here, and I am rather scared to try some of the things on offer!). 

So we arrived in Beijing and checked into our hotel in one of the busy htngs in the Dōngchng area of the city.   Hutongs are the old part of the city - narrow alleyways crossing east to west through the city for feng shui purposes (everything is feng shui mode here!).  Our hutong is always busy, with not much room for cars, but pedestrians, electric motorbikes and bikes continually weave through.    It is such a pleasure to be able to walk outside our hotel without watching out for motorcars.  An amazing variety of goods are for sale in the hutong – lots of different food and drinks, clothes, touristy things, live snakes, jewellery, art, etc., etc.   Our hotel – called Courtyard 7 Hotel - is in one of the alleys and I am sitting in one of the seven courtyards now surrounded by pear and pomegranate trees.  We feel cocooned from the hustle and bustle around us!

And so we spent a few days exploring Beijing.

The city has a population of twenty one million persons but is only the third largest in China!    It is a beautiful city – so huge, but beautifully maintained. The gardens along the main roads are immaculately kept up, with plantings of annuals, and even roses.  The roads are wide and although congested, pretty manageable.

We have had a really good guide – Joe – for four days and have visited all the major tourist venues: The Great Wall, The Summer Palace, Lama Temple, Temple of Heaven,  the 2008 Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube (where the swimming events were held in the 2008 Olympics), The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square (the 25th anniversary of the revolt by the students is this year) and went to an acrobatic show.   Yesterday we went into the countryside about two hours outside Beijing to see an old, traditional village called Cuāndīxī.

It is rather intense doing the tourist thing in a place like Beijing - there is just so much to see and learn about and there are vast areas to cover.   The Forbidden City has 800 buildings and 9000 rooms.  (We just went straight through the middle and it still took us three hours).  

Tiananmen Square (the focal point for the history of communist China and the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe) is also vast, the biggest city square in the world.   A picture of Chairman Mao still dominates the Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City, and his mausoleum is situated here.   Every sunrise and sunset the troop of soldiers march – at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace!     The Chinese are very "disciplined"!

The Lama Temple is the most important Tibetan Buddhist temple in China (outside of Tibet itself) and we were lucky enough to be there on the one day of the month when the monks hold a ceremony.   (Our guide who regularly does this venue said that he had only seen it twice before!)  There was much scurrying around by the monks setting out things on the altars, water on the floors, and then chanting with Mohican-style hats on and off!   Our guide requested a prayer by writing his wish on a piece of paper with a particular colour, and the different coloured papers representing the different prayer wishes of participants were ceremonially burnt – giving off coloured smoke.  An interesting part for me was an empty throne reserved for the Dalai Lama – who, of course, is persona non grata in China - although most of the monks were from Tibet.   A huge Buddha, the largest in China, eighteen metres high and sculpted from a single white sandalwood tree is in one of the five halls of the temple – an awesome sight.

I loved the Summer Palace, which was used by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty during the hot summer months.   The Palace is in a park containing the large man-made Kunming Lake (now part of the water supply for Beijing) with dragon boats and a long covered walkway linking the usual temples. The park and Palace was once reserved for only the Emperor but now is well used by the citizens of Beijing and we saw many locals enjoying the park surroundings.   The Empress Dowager Cixi was responsible for rebuilding the palace after it was ransacked and destroyed by the British and French during the Opium Wars in the 1860’s.   (There is a fascinating book about Cixi written by the Wild Swans author, Jung Chang – well worth a read).

The Temple of Heaven which the Emperor used to ceremoniously “make everything in China perfect” was most interesting as it is now a venue used by the public (especially the elderly) to go about their daily fitness and social activities.   There was such a variety of activities going on in the large park grounds – dancing of all kinds (muslim, ballroom, sword, traditional), a kind of game like “Hackey Sack” where a feather shuttlecock is kept in the air by foot, a two-handed racquet game with a soft ball where the ball is kept going while the players twirl around, tai chi, people knitting and crocheting, card games, board game, stretching and exercise classes and even a sharply-pebbled walkway where people take off their shoes to massage their feet.  There are bands, orchestras, single musical instruments and join-in choirs.  I would go there everyday if I lived in Beijing!!!!

We visited the Mtiny section of the Great Wall, about 90kms out of Beijing. It has always been one of my dreams to see the The Great Wall of China, and it was well worth the journey.  To think that this huge wall (6000 km long) was built with the sweat of the local farmers and soldiers to keep out raiding nomads – mainly the fierce Mongolian people.   Fortunately there is a cable car at Mtiny to get up and down to the Wall on top of the mountain but we still did a lot of walking on the Wall itself – and it gets very steep in places!

We have been amazed at the activity in China.   From the train window we saw beautiful farmlands with lots of rice paddies and other crops growing, and then would suddenly come across immense building and infrastructure projects. The rate of growth and development is staggering – but China is also a place where cities are built and then not inhabited – the huge so-called “ghost cities”.   

While it has been really interesting to get a measure of the history and way of life in China we are so aware that we have not even scratched the surface of this huge and complex society.   Other than being blocked from using Google, Facebook or YouTube, we have not experienced, nor even been able to get an understanding of, living in a society with a communist political system.  (It has been quite a thing for me not to be able to follow what is going on through Facebook!!!!)   And after seeing how people have to live in Beijing I do appreciate so much more being able to live in my house with it’s garden, with the mountain and sea close by.

So, today we are ambling around at our own pace before setting out by train early tomorrow for Mongolia.
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Justine on

Happy Birthday from both of us. So enjoying your blog and seeing all the interesting things you are doing.

Loraine on

Hi there birthday girl, hope you have a fantabulously interesting and blessed day.Just got back from book club, you were missed, only five of us.

much love
Loraine and Ellis

Elspeth on

I have only just got your link from Tony - thank you - wonderful read. I hope you had a Happy Birthday without seeing all the postings on Face Book

Gill on

I definitely agree with Alistair's comment on the previous entry! Enjoying all the details you give us, Ann. Xx

Paula on

Just loving the reading...I am so envious!!!

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