Published: May 20th 2012April 16th 2012
Sleeping on the train was actually OK. I managed to change into trackpants and T-shirt and had a doona if I felt cold. While I woke various times during the night (including when some of the people went in and out of the room, sometimes stepping on my lower bed), I got a lot of sleep until the attendant came in at 7am and announced the time (we were due in at 7.25am).
We were told that our local guide, Leon, would meet us at the platform but once the platform cleared there was no one in sight. Fortunately I had been given his phone number, so I gave him a call. He was running late and advised to wait. Yet another example of the benefits of getting a local SIM card before starting my trip (thank you 3G Solutions again!). Leon eventually found us and navigated us through the ecosystem surrounding the station, taking us to a car with driver. They then took us to the Tian Rui Hotel, which is within walking distance of the Forbidden City. We had a chance to grab some breakfast and, even more important, use a bathroom. I had read that the toilets
on the train were not a pleasant sight, especially by the end of a trip, so I "held on" as much as possible. Phew!
Lyle, Leon and I then walked to Tian'anmen Square, which is basically a large, open area beside the National Congress, Forbidden City, etc. There were security checks to enter, but foreigners were waved through.
The Forbidden City itself was packed with tourists from throughout China. Originally off-bound during 24 dynasties, it was opened 100-isn't years ago after the last Emperor. Lovely buildings and a lot of history, but seeing the place mostly involved pushing amongst throngs of people trying to photograph empty thrones. Having read about it in guide books gave me a better idea of its history than being there. The grounds also had vendors hawking everything from chinese "red star" hats to guide books and ice blocks.
More notable, at least for us, was the weather. The sun was strong and hot, even though the day itself was quite cool. This was one only the second day of sun we've had on the trip (the other was in Xi'an). All other days have had a constant haze in the sky, which
all tour guides have denied to be pollution. "It will clear up after string winds" or "It is just humidity" seems to be their explanation but I'm now thinking it is really a constant cover of smog. It reminds me of Seoul, where I could look into the Sun without squinting due to all the haze.
For lunch we had yet more food -- the trip is feeling a bit like a foodies tour because we eat every 5 hours and aren't doing any more active exercise. I think I need to skip some more meals before I bloat out, especially since we are eating restaurant food every day. Today's lunch was notable due to the absence of Peking Duck (too expensive for the tour budget) and the consumption of Coconut Juice from a can, which felt like having half a Virgin Piña Colada (which it is).
Leon then took us to the tour company's local office to collect some bikes. They had red bags on the back, which reminded us of our earlier cycling trip. It's hard to believe that was on the same holiday, since we've been on this trip for so long now! We cycled
through The Shichahui "Old Beijing" area, which still has Hutons (the old style housing that shares a courtyard between households). Leon tells us that he grew up in such a house, with five families sharing the yard. This particular area has been preserved as a reminder of the old way of life - most such areas have disappeared from the city due to the construction of office buildings and large residential blocks. The Hutons we saw actually looked too "new", even though they had an authentic look. Leon explained that the old buildings were too dangerous and have been rebuilt in a similar style. I also noticed many public toilet blocks in the area, probably because the original Hutons did not have bathrooms.
There was a friendly lake we rode around, which seemed a popular tourist spot. There was yet another Bell Tower and Drum Tower like saw in Xi'an. We even managed to cycle amongst the traffic with no incidents.
Next was some free time where we just sat on wifi, updating our messages back home and having Skype calls. We met Cecilia, who will take us to the Great Wall tomorrow because Leon was a bit
I'll from his recent trip back from Hong Kong.
Yet more dinner - spicy food, and we experimented with the local Arctic Ice drink (like Fanta). After dinner we took a walk to the nearby shopping district and found a "weird food market" with delicacies like seahorse, testicles, penis, squid, haggis and other strange objects that kept my camera busy. I tried some sweet rice in pineapple, Lyle had the squid and we tried some fried ice cream and fried banana balls.
Nearby the markets I saw a lady with a young sleeping child in her arms, with signs that I couldn't read. Whatever they said it was obvious that her child was sick and she didn't have much money. I've seen a few such cases in my trip so far, and from what I have learned there is little public medical aid available in China, so sickness can be expensive. I gave her some money with a heavy heart.
Venturing further we found a crowded tourist store that had many of the same wares we found in the Muslim Quarter in Xi'an, except that all these products had prices clearly marked. I recognised some musical balls
that I had previously purchased, and they were going for the same price as we had haggled them down to in the markets. Therefore I knew that I could trust the prices in this store and I realised how much profit margin there is in the markets!
I then ran into some similar street markets with similar products we've seen in similar cities. They are all starting to blur together! I got some musical spinning tops for the boys for under $1 each. The main street also sported big-brand shops like Adidas, Nike and Rado. It would appear that China is becoming Westernised as far as commercial brands go.
On the way back to the hotel, I thought of the unfortunate mother in the street once more and passed by again (now after 10pm at night) and made sure to give her as much as I had spent on decadent products. It grieves me to see China becoming such a consumer-oriented country when many citizens will never be able to afford (nor, frankly, need) many of the glitzy products now being sold here.
We had a surprise visitor in the evening - Frank, our tour leader from the first two weeks. He has started with a new tour group already and seemed to miss our group. We couldn't keep him for this portion of the tour because we were now only two people, but we still think he was our best tour leader of them all! He's also feeling much better now, with his rash greatly improving.