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Published: June 25th 2011
We arrived early. Not stupidly early as in Vietnam, but early enough that it was a bleary eyed Steph that returned to Beijing 5 years after she had last been here. This was unfortunate as alertness is a required trait when you arrive in the largest train station in Asia. It was due to this that we struggled to find the stop for the number 47 bus to take us to our hostel and, in the end, had to resort to asking.
About twenty minutes later we were on a rather crowded bus in rush hour heading towards the hostel. There were a few flair ups with the conductor who wanted me to put my bag to the side, irrespective of the four people I would have to leave comatose by the action of getting it there. Nevertheless we preserved and were soon getting off the bus and heading towards Dairy Queen, the only marker we were given to find our hostel.
Now, whilst the idea of a courtyard hostel sounded great when we booked it in Xi'an, the problem with them is that they are all inevitably in the hutongs. These windy streets are often a nightmare to
navigate at the best of times, and after a poor nights sleep on the train - due mainly to sharing a carriage with a guy who snored loudly and talked in his sleep - these weren't the best of times. Needless to say we got slightly lost, but did eventually find it and manage to check in to the hostel.
After a pretty good breakfast we headed out to explore the surrounding areas including the nearby hutongs, which was definitely on purpose and not because we got lost, and also to the nearby lakes. We had also seen a recent TV program about the bell and drum towers in Beijing, something not previously seen by Steph, so made these a top priority as well.
It was slightly odd walking around a lake in the near centre of Beijing watching people from the decking of the boating lake. Not because this should appear out of the ordinary in a big city, but when there has apparently been an 11 year drought, with a critical shortage of water such that they are going to store snow in winter to melt, it seems that nobody really knows about it. Still it
was a very picturesque lake and there were some nice cafe's around.
As for the bell and drum tower, well, they were very impressive architecturally and they did put on a performance of the drums which, whilst considerably louder, was probably less impressive then the one we had just seen in Xi'an. Still it was well worth the money. A highly active return to sightseeing on our first day in Beijing was topped off in a suitable style.. with a dish of rather stinky and horrible tofu. How they managed to make it smell so bad is beyond me, that it tasted the same as it smelt was stomach turningly bad! However the rest of the meal was good.
The next day we headed out to do some of the main sights of Beijing, Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. We arrived on the bus at the bottom end of the square and, for the first time that day, I was disappointed. For something world renowned as a massive square, full of history, it was amazingly underwhelming. This was in part due to the rather large, bland looking, mausoleum stuck in the middle of
the square. That anybody would actually want to turn up and see his remains, and there was a surprisingly large crowd to do so, is an amazing testament to the propaganda machine at work in China. In my eyes all he managed to achieve was to take one of the largest nations, kill a lot of people for very little/no reason, and turn it into a backwater country; so much so that after 30 years of unparalleled economic growth they still aren't the power they could become. Still, just my view of Madman Mao.
Anyway, pressing on, we soon arrived at the Forbidden City, home of the Emperors of China through various dynasties for hundreds of years. The gateway entrance to the city was formidable and a truly impressive sight. The other main structures were a bit of a disappointment as, after fighting your way through the crowds you were met with a pretty dull throne room, or a glass screen that largely showed your own reflection and not the contents of the room. It did improve greatly the second you got off the main path and left the tour groups behind, but many of the problems remained. Ultimately,
after having seen a few houses of various monarchs, both former and present around the world I would still have to say – for an amazing tour and grand rooms go to Buckingham palace; for an amazing garden go to Versaille.
Afterwards we took a long walk down to the Temple of Heaven. Set in a large park it is one of the few places in Beijing to get something attempting, but failing, to be clean air. In true Beijing style, they took an amazing piece of historical architecture and turned it into a pretty bad tourist attraction. Seriously if you have a building with an amazingly intricate ceiling design putting a barrier up to stop people entering the room, and then not putting any lights in the room, make it impossible to see the thing!
Still they did have a lot of signs up explaining the significance of the building, where the Emperor a.k.a the Son of Heaven would come to pray to the God of Heaven, and seemingly every other deity going, for an abundant harvest. Done largely by the reading of scrolls, offering of wine and an intricate animal sacrifice which saw the animal killed,
cremated and buried at various different sites around the complex.
After a hectic day of sightseeing we finished the day off with a hot pot meal and then possibly the best dish of the trip so far, which Steph remembered having when she lived in Beijing so specifically asked for. What it was called I don't know but some form of hot caramelized toffee apple, was possibly the sweetest tasty thing I have had in a long time.
The next day we awoke and started the Changping Challenge. 5 years ago Steph came and taught English at a school in Changping and we were determined to pay it a visit. Undaunted by the fact that the hostel staff had no idea how to get there we headed off for the nearest main bus station. A bit of confusion at a large road junction later and we were in a subway station marveling at the new Changping Line. Sure it served the district and not the city but it was a start.
Guessing at the station we needed we hopped on the subway only to arrive at a seemingly invisible university in what appeared to be the middle
of a field. After a rather strained conversation with the ticket seller we were back on and heading for the end of the line. Disembarking we spoke to three members of staff about getting a bus to the right area. Needless to say we got told to take three different buses! We therefore found ourselves standing around in seemingly the middle of nowhere asking every bus that arrived if it went to the right place. A few finger points later and we were on a bus hoping Steph remembered enough about the place to figure out when we arrived.
True to form Steph did not disappoint and we were soon standing in her old stomping ground. Sure the dumpling pace had changed management – but still did good dumplings- and the supermarket had gone but we were there. We popped around to see the flat she stayed in – granted no one was home but you could see most if it through the cloth front door anyway. We then tried to find the school she taught in. We managed to find the building, and also the builders busy gutting the place. A few futile attempts to talk to the
locals and find out where it had moved to lead to the inevitable conclusion that we had failed to find the school. We ended our slightly disappointing day with an amazing vegetarian meal at the Buddhist restaurant near Steph's old flat before returning to Beijing.
With most of the main tourist attractions ticked off it was time to head off to the Great Wall. Determined not to do an over priced tour, and with Simitai closed, we found ourselves heading to Badaling – the tourist centre of the wall. As the train pulled up it was soon clear that the only parts of the wall I would see would be between my legs as the sheer number of tour groups dwarfed anything I had seen before. That said when we got on the wall they all appeared to head off in the same direction and we were soon on a quiet section of the wall with only a few other people.
Two things can be said for the Great Wall of China. Firstly, it is truly breathtaking. On a good day, which we had, watching the wall snake off into the distance of steep cliffs and through valleys
is an amazing feat, especially for the time. Secondly, it is probably the most impractical and useless defensive wall ever built. That you can walk around it at one end says as much about it's design as the number of times China was conquered/invaded from the North after it was constructed. In a much smaller scale, the stupidly steep gradient that the wall traverses makes reinforcing it impossible as even troops in the nearby barracks would be shattered by the time they arrived. Still a nice wall nonetheless.
Our final day in Beijing was taken up with the Summer Palace. Set in a large park, which is predominantly a lake, the Summer Palace was the former retreat of the Emperors from Beijing's heat. Granted it is now accessible from line 4 of the Beijing Subway but they couldn't have forseen how large Beijing would grow.
Having fully explored the Summer Palace, reading nearly every English sign in the place I know two amazing facts about the place. Firstly it is a truly remarkable feat of ancient Chinese architecture and culture and it is almost impossible to overstate how important it is (a direct quote from many of the
signs). Secondly that pretty much everything in the Summer Palace was burned to the ground in 1886 by those dastardly French and English in their evil alliance.
Fortunately the Dowager Empress invested a small fortune – largely meant for other things – on rebuilding the summer palace and adding important new things like – a marble boat. True she was meant to improve the navy which might have helped later when the 8 Allied Forces returned to attack China.
Still the grounds were amazing and it was just a shame that so much of the view was lost due to an impenetrable fog of pollution over the lake. That said what remained of the Buddhist Temple at the top of the hill was amazing and the intricate working and detail in many of the ceilings was, for once, clearly visible – hurrah!
After returning from the Summer Palace all that remained was to pack our bags and get ready to say goodbye to China as we depart on the trans-Mongolian the next day. Luckily Beijing was not through with us yet. Determined to throw one more curve ball our way we went out to dinner in a
city renowned for Beijing duck, but not for spicy food. It was therefore a bit of a shock when our food arrived and contained possibly the most chillies I have ever seen in one dish! It was with full bellies, and hot mouths, that we returned to our room to get ready for the next stage of our world adventure.
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