Following in the footsteps of Sue Barker

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

After a pretty disappointing train journey up to Beijing (the air con in our cabin was rubbish and we hardly slept a wink all night) we were gruffly awoken by a train attendant shaking our legs at 7am to tell us to get ready because we would be arriving in Beijing in an hour and a half. We felt like pointing out that we hadn't actually ordered a wake-up call but we thought that joke might be lost on him. Leaving our cabin in search of a toilet I was slightly grossed out to discover that a small boy had been sick all over the floor and there was now a river of sick flowing down the aisle, while the mother of the boy just stood there and stared at everyone trying to pick a path through her sons vomit. She made absolutely no attempt to clean it up and it wasn’t exactly the best start to our first day in Beijing.

Beijing has four main train stations and we were arriving in the largest one called Beijing West. We had heard some horror stories about this station: 'it’s a maze’, ‘you’ll get lost’, ‘it’s so crazy there’. So when we arrived and found a clearly marked sign pointing us in the direction of our bus stop we were pretty pleased with ourselves. The temperature in Beijing wasn’t as bad as we’d expected it to be and before we knew it we were being swept through the middle of Beijing’s rush hour traffic in a lovely bus which had English translations everywhere (thank god for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it now means that most important signs are bilingual). The first thing we noticed about Beijing was the smog; the whole city seems to be shrouded in a heavy white cloud, sometimes it’s so thick and muggy you feel like you can taste it and feel it brushing against your face like a fine warm mist. One of the most iconic sights we’ve been looking forward to seeing in Beijing is Tiananmen Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City, so it was very strange to find ourselves getting dropped off at a bus stop right in front of them both and then having to walk with our backpacks on through the early morning sightseers to find our hostel. Having only been in Beijing for about half an hour it was quite surreal to be confronted with one of China’s most iconic sights so early in the morning!

We made it to our hostel and we very pleased to find that we’d been upgraded from a 6-bed dorm room to a private twin room at no extra cost… we might have had bad luck on this trip when it comes to encountering natural disasters but we’ve had great luck when it comes to getting free room upgrades at our hostels! After dropping off our bags we backtracked to a small dumpling café we’d seen earlier to get some breakfast and then went to the main shopping avenue near our hostel and bought some books from a huge sky-scraper of a book store that sold tons of English language books (one of the few positives of being in a city with so much English everywhere is that I have got plenty of books to chose from). During the rest of our first day in Beijing we tried to get our bearings and catch up on some much needed sleep. That evening we went to a local supermarket to get some drinks and found that they had a huge deli that sold tons of great food so, having eaten out quite a lot recently, we bought a big salad, some sushi and a baguette and feasted in our room while watching some funny Chinese game shows (if you think Total Wipeout is funny in the UK, you should try watching it in China where the winner is the person who can stay out of hospital the longest).  

The following day we headed out to our first site, one of the entries in our guidebook which really caught our eye, the ‘Beijing’s Underground City’. During the Cold War the Chinese government decided that in order to protect against nuclear attack they would build an underground city which stretches for hundreds of kilometers and links up some of the most important buildings in Beijing and the surrounding area, however nowadays the underground city is mostly falling apart and is covered in mould and mildew, so the only people going in or out of it are nosey tourists(by the way there is actually something very similar to this in London, which has miles and miles of tunnels, chambers and nuclear bunkers, exciting hey?). We thought it all sounded pretty unusual and a bit James Bond-ish so we went along for a look around, however it turns out that finding the entrance to a huge underground city is actually a lot harder than you might imagine! We searched high and low for it but couldn’t find it anywhere. That was until we came across a ripped, misspelt, handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard which had been selo-taped to someone’s front door. We laughed at each and kept looking for the real entrance…until we realized that this crappy, soggy cardboard sign was indeed the real entrance to the ‘Beijing Undeargruund Sity’. It was basically a door into someone’s dingy living room and at the end of the room was, what looked like, some stairs leading into a basement. As if that wasn’t bad enough there was a group of about 7 men hanging around the entrance looking like they were going to mug us… it turns out that these guys were actually the ticket officers, but I had a funny feeling they would be more likely to give us a kicking rather than a wonderful guided tour of the underground city! We took one look at the whole thing and just kept walking; we still have no idea if this was the genuine entrance (in Asia anything is possible) or whether it was just some trying to lure stupid tourists into their basement so they could take all their money and credit cards… and I’m glad we didn’t have to find out!

So instead of visiting the underground city we opted to go and see the Olympic stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We arrived at the Olympic Park area and were surprised at how quiet it was; there were only a few Chinese tourists taking photos, half a dozen touts trying to sell us some old tat and I think we were the only Western tourists in sight. No matter where we go you can’t help but enjoy looking at things that you’ve seen on TV; I know it’s really sad but we spent most of our time wandering around the Park saying ‘Ohh I remember seeing this on TV’ and ‘Do you think Sue Barker stood here once?’. The Watercube and Bird’s Nest Stadium were actually really beautiful even though they are starting to show their age now; unfortunately they look a bit tatty up close. By the time the clock struck noon the temperature had soared to about 38 degrees and we needed to cool down so we said goodbye to the Olympic Park, not without having our photo taken with some Japanese tourists first, and headed back to do a bit of souvenir shopping in the city center. We’ve got a busy few days ahead of us, so for now we were very happy to just rest and take it easy for the remainder of the day.    
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