When the going gets tough, the tough toughen up...
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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All this is coupled with the fact that I've been on the road for six months already, and that certainly takes its toll. Much of the next six months however will be in places like China which don't have the same level of user-friendliness. Eastern Europe and the Middle East house some mighty and venerable civilisations with strong ancient and modern histories, and an intense nationalism that often defies the visitor; almost says "You're in my country, you live like we do or you go home". If they need your business they don't really show it, you have to make the effort to learn the language and customs. So I'll have to take what I've learnt missioning in Asia, be as adaptable as ever and go with the flow. Otherwise I'l be left in the cold (literally and figuratively).
Anyway, back to this corner of Earth and the one and only Beijing - a 24 hour train ride since saying fond farewells to my father in Hong Kong. The ride was pleasant on the most luxurious train in China, much of it over very flat land with an odd mix of rural and industrial zonings. One minute frost-bitten farmland - the next a series of smoke-belching factories or power stations. Overnight I slept like a log. The temperature change as we headed directly north was also very noticeable - disembarking in Beijing (2,000km) north at 4pm was to a temperature of around 0C!
After my first taste of the notorious Beijing traffic congestion, I eventually made the hotel and was only 15 minutes late for the Vodkatrain Check In meeting. Not bad for 3 or 4 months' effort racing to get here on time. After meeting new Trans-Mongolian travel team-mates Leigh and Amanda, we headed out with city guide Jimmy Z for some Peking Duck and a local beer. A nice way to settle into this new adventure indeed!.
Next morning was visa hassle central for all of us. I hadn't been able to get my Mongolian visa in Hong Kong (the embassy had shut for some reason - probably closed for winter) and Leigh and Amanda had to get a Belorussian Transit visa for their ongoing travels beyond the Vodkatrain. We went our separate ways and I ended up sightseeing alone for the day.
The meter taxis around town are pretty crazy - unless you have your destination written down in Chinese script it's a bit of a lottery. Even convincing them to take you to the Forbidden City by pointing to a map is a chore. Still, we ended up close to it at Coal Hill in Jingshun Park so I got out there. After a warm coffee in a can I charged up the hill to survey the view.
Beijing's smog problem is evident at this angle but it lent a certain atmosphere to the scene. The roofs of the multitude of temples that make up the Forbidden City were visible and views in other directions were enlightening. It's a flat town so Coal Hill is a good place to get some bearings if the weather is right, and the park at the base of the hill was also worth a wander - the peony gardens would be nice in summer and for a bit of history, the Old Scholar's Tree from which the last Ming Emperor hung himself after a peasant uprising in 1644 is toward the east entrance too.
From there I resisted the rickshaw drivers and walked the length of the frozen moat-ringed Forbidden City to the southern entrance on Tianamen Square. The walls are suitably imposing and the livid red pagodas of the sentry posts would have kept the unwashed masses at bay. Tianamen square itself is quite massive (880 metres x 500 metres) but somewhat uninspiring - almost like a huge drive in movie arena but with pedestrians all over the place. It must have been the lack of enclosing walls that reduced the impact for me.
Plonk in middle of the south end of the square is Mao Tse Tung's (Chairman Mao or from now on - Uncle Mao) Mausoleum. Once again I missed the morning opening times and rush to see the preserved body, but a wander around the perimeter revealed a couple of very large revolution statues (top centre), the Great Hall of the People (naturally difficult to get in to for the common man), the Chinese Revolutionary History Museum and the Monument to the People's Heroes (top right). The museum and Hall of the people are apparently symmetrical and there is a certain gearing up for the Olympics, especially on the museum side of the square.
It was getting on a bit by now so had to make my way into the Forbidden City or it would have become forbidden again for the day. A 6 metre portrait of Mao sits proudly above the arch once used only by the Emperor to make his forays outside the sealed city (the royal family and officials had to use secondary arches to the sides of the main arch). 40 Yuan ($US5) and I was in like flynn.
The Forbidden City is a collection of temples and great halls all built in a very similar style and mostly constructed during the 15th and 16th centuries. There are over 800 buildings and 9,000 rooms in the complex, but sticking to the central avenue allows you to cover the important halls in a reasonable time. In the southern section a river flows in a large curve and is crossed by ornate bridges leading to the outer arches as described above. The central section is typified by stepped terraces overlooking paved courtyards. In the north, there are interesting Cypress groves and rock gardens, with Ming period round-roofed pagodas and a very odd temple atop a massive jumble of rocks that the Royal couple would view the moon from. Even the Chinese had wacky royals back then...
The next day was bluer of sky over yonder so we got out as a team to pick up our passports and do some more sightseeing. Close to our hotel was the Confucian Temple (under major renovation unfortunately) and the Lama temple, an important stop in the north of the city. After the Forbidden City it was a bit more of the same for me, but the huge (18 metre) Buddha carved from one piece of sandalwood was worth a look even though photos were verboten (boo). Before lunch we tried to get to see Uncy Mao again but the old dude was closed until 2pm, so we headed off to the inspiringly-named Temple of Heaven to check it out on such a heavenly day.
This place was certainly different to the other religious architecture we had seen around town. Built in the Ming style the focus was circular and on the heavenly number 9, so the Round Altar was suitably immense, symmetrical and well, round. Onwards and northwards, more round altars and a groovy Echo Wall were found at the Imperial Vault (top centre). Unfortunately the main focus of the place - the Hall of the Good Harvests (no need for further explanation) was also closed for renovations (this being low season) so we had to contend ourselves with vast groves of ancient (some over 300 years old) and weather-beaten Cypress trees and the Seven Stones of the Stars, a bizarre collection of carved boulders aligned a significantly Feng Shui manner.
Should probably also mention lunch at the minority run Dia Restaurant close to the Temple of Heaven. A little commercial but loud and colourful with much song and dance by the hosts, we chowed down to an array of interesting food including one dish consisting of fried cicadas. Pretty tasty all up although the cicadas were actually a little bland. Also on the menu was a lively a friendship dance, very much in the Indonesian village style with much yodelling, stamping and clapping.
After lunch we made an express effort to finally see Uncy Mao, which we did in the afternoon viewing session (2-4pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays only). Much smaller than I imagined, his head seemed to glow like a light-bulb as we were cattle-prodded past by the surly guards. Still, many of the locals that still worship the guy didn't seem to mind the rough treatment and we were through and out the north-side within 20 minutes.
So in general, fun was had by all and I think I we'll get used to the new, harsh realities of travelling across frigid China, Siberia and Russia over the next few weeks. To round this off, thanks very much to Jimmy Z for guiding us around this often difficult to navigate metropolis. The food has been great (especially that Beijing hotpot on the second night) and you helped reveal a city that is more vivid and entertaining than one would expect from the architecture and enclosing atmosphere of this winter-bound capital. You even got us through the scrum at the train station to get us on our way to Mongolia so cheers again mate - hope you enjoy the photos!
Next entry -> on the train or Ulaan Bataar (depends what's on the train to see!)
Words from the wise #22
"For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same."
On the road