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October 28th 2009
Published: October 31st 2009
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Day 482: Saturday 24th October - The Forbidden City

I’m not exactly full of beans this morning and it takes me a while to get going. I soon get a bit of urgency to my day when a chat with an Israeli girl over breakfast reveals that the Forbidden City where I had planned to visit today will take a full afternoon at least to walk around. It is 11am when I leave the hostel and walk the 750 metres towards Tiananmen Square. As I enter Tiananmen Square a young girl approaches me and starts talking to me in English. She is very friendly but too friendly, I taste a scam in the air and sure enough after a few minutes she tries to lead me to a cultural event. Thanks but no thanks, leave me alone you scam artists, I have already learnt my lesson.

Tiananmen Square lies immediately to the south of the Forbidden City and I have to walk across it to reach the Forbidden City. For us in the west over a certain age the name Tiananmen Square immediately brings recollection of the events 20 years ago when tanks were used in the square to suppress student demonstrations. Although nobody died in Tiananmen Square on 3 June 1989, hundreds were killed by the military later that evening elsewhere in the city for their part in those demonstrations. Apart from the scene of an unfortunate part in modern day China’s history, Tiananmen Square is famous for being the world’s largest public square. It is also the symbolic centre of China, a vast sea of paving stones, flanked by halls to the east and west and massive gates to the north and south. It is massive and it is buzzing with people and many children holding Chinese flags posing for photos taken by their proud parents. In the middle of the square is a memorial hall to Mao where his body is housed but it is already too late in the day to visit his corpse. A giant picture of The People’s Republic of China’s first leader hangs from the gate of Heavenly Peace at the northern end of the square....Mao’s presence lives on!

Access to the Forbidden City is through the gate of Heavenly Peace and then through another gate, the Duan Gate and then through another gate, the Meridian Gate which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. These gates are hugely impressive buildings in their own right and lead you to think that you are about to enter something very grandiose and very special.

The Forbidden City was so called as for 500 years it was home to the emperor of China covering both the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 to 1911. Yesterday on the train I watched the film the ‘Last Emperor’ which tells the story of Pu Yi the child Emperor and the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty before it fell in 1911. Watching that helped to build my excitement of visiting this palace which for 500 years was off limits and no one could enter or leave the palace without the Emperor’s permission. Today it is the world’s largest surviving palace complex and the best surviving example of imperial Ming and Qing architecture. It is probably measures a kilometre north to south and maybe two-thirds of a kilometre east to west and as I soon find out it is easy to get lost inside the Forbidden City.

From the Meridian Gate you walk up towards the Supreme Harmony Gate and I’m starting to lose count how many gates I’ve been through without actually getting to the centrepiece of the Forbidden City. The Supreme Harmony Gate overlooks a massive courtyard and standing at the gate I get my first glance of the most important and largest structure in the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. You cannot actually see inside it but nevertheless it is impressive from outside. Its yellow tiled roof symbolises the colour of the Emperor (Almost all the buildings have similar coloured roofs), and a three tiered white marble terrace leads up to the elaborately decorated building. Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony lies the smaller Hall of Middle Harmony and behind that lies The Hall of Preserving Harmony. All three great halls are situated on the marble terrace, and functioned as ceremonial buildings for the Emperor.

From the Outer Court you move into the Inner Court, passing by the Palace of Heavenly Purity, a residence for Ming and early Qing Emperors, the Hall of Union and then finally into the Imperial Garden which lies just to the south of the Northern Gate and exit of the Forbidden City. It has taken long enough and a fair bit of walking just to get to this point but all I have seen is the central section of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City actually consists of 980 buildings and most of these can be found in the west and east of the Forbidden City.

In some of these buildings are collections of artefacts dating back to the dynasties. These collections include ceramics, jewellery, jade, paintings. The most impressive has to be the collection of clocks which are from around the world but mainly the UK surprisingly. I didn’t realise we had such a heritage in producing world class timepieces. I pay extra to get into the area in the East of the Forbidden City where the Nine Dragon Screen and the Imperial Supremacy Hall can be found. I find wandering around the city fascinating and allow myself one last walk through the entire central area to take it all in. This is dynastic China at its absolute best and you feel that you are in somewhere special because of its history. In the late afternoon sun it feels even more special. Yes it is full of tourists but even they can’t spoil the feel of the Forbidden City. As for my other gripe with visiting tourist attractions in China - the entrance fee - The Forbidden City is a reasonable 60 Yuan (£5). Take note the rest of China!

I leave through the north gate and walk around the moat back towards Tiananmen Square. I can’t actually get through the gate of Heavenly Peace as it is blocked off whilst the evening flag raising ceremony is performed in Tiananmen Square. As I sit waiting to be allowed through the gate I get talking to a girl from Jiangsu province who can speak English. The Chinese people are so friendly and engaging if they can speak English but I can’t help thinking like in South America that my one regret from visiting China is not being able to speak the language and being able to engage more fully with the local people.

After quarter of an hour or so we are allowed access to Tiananmen Square or at least through the gate as I find that the soldiers that patrol the square will not let anyone on to the square after nightfall. It seems a bit excessive, I thought this was a square of and for the people, a square to represent democracy?! I walk around Tiananmen Square and to Qianmen subway station where I have arranged to meet Patricia, the German girl I met in Xian at 6:30pm.

Patricia duly turns up on cue and we walk to Leo’s hostel where I am staying in Beijing to meet with Noodles to discuss Tibet. And it is Tibet that is the sub-plot of my first visit to Beijing. I arrived here with a group formed of 4 people all of which are in different locations (save me and Patricia), but without a tour agency and without definite dates and itinerary decided although we are close with the final two points.

Tibet isn’t easy to organise as you have need a special permit to visit there and to get this you must be in a tour group. This ‘group’ can theoretically consist of just you and the guide but realistically you need more people to reduce costs. It is up to you not the tour agency as in most cases to put the group together, and to decide your itinerary, and the date of the tour. All the agency provide is the permit, a guide (who must stay with you at all times) and transport.

So although we have a group, sorting out the finer details is not easy as we are all in different locations to discuss things. Patricia at least is with me now and I spoke to the French guy, Bruno in our group on the phone earlier. But Angie, a Taiwanese girl is uncontactable somewhere in Sichuan province for a few days. Then this morning we got another complication when Nick, an English guy called me and expressed an interest at joining the group, so maybe the group isn’t fixed after all!

We meet with Noodles who says we can do the 8 day itinerary that I have laid out, and also that it is possible to have five people in the group. Although he is a nice guy I’m not terribly convinced that he’s had much experience with organising Tibet Tours and his price of 5000 Yuan (£450) per person is on the expensive side compared to prices I’ve seen other travellers get. But at least it is a starting point and something I can put to the others. I get dinner in the hostel with Patricia as we discuss the outcome from the meeting and what steps to take next. We also agree to visit the Summer Palace together tomorrow as she has no plans.

Day 483: Sunday 25th October - I can cheat the seasons no more

I had arranged with Patricia to meet her at the Summer Palace at 11am but with the things I’d like to sort out this morning that is too early. I put our rendezvous back an hour to allow me to sort a train ticket out with the hostel to Hohhot on Tuesday night and to contact the Tibet Tourism Board to see if they can offer the tour at a better price. I eventually get out of the hostel just after 11am thinking this will give me enough time to get to the Summer Palace in 45 minutes. However, the Summer Palace is on the outskirts of Beijing, and as a city of over 12 million people, Beijing is quite some size. I take the metro all the way from Qianmen station a 10 minute walk from my hostel but it takes forever to get there. Thankfully I bump into some westerners on the subway who’ve already been to the Summer Palace and they tell me the correct station to get off. From the metro station it is a further 10 minute walk and it must have taken a good hour and a half to get here. The problem is when I arrive that Patricia isn’t there. Although I’ve been in contact telling her my progress via text, her mobile has run out of credit so I don’t know if she is receiving the messages. After half an hour of waiting and deciding it is unlikely that she knows where I am I decide to enter the Summer Palace alone.

The Summer Palace is another of the landmarks of Beijing which dates back to Dynastic times. It was where the Qing emperors went to escape the insufferable Beijing summers that made life in the Forbidden City unbearable. It is predictably teeming with tourists but I soon get off the beaten track to appreciate the extensive gardens. The trees are showing their autumn leaves, and the spectrum of colours is a beautiful sight as they line several lakes that also make up the grounds of the Summer Palace. It makes me realise that for the past 16 months I have been cheating the seasons.

When I started my trip in Central America it was summer and then when I went to South America in the northern part of that continent it was so close to the equator that they didn’t really have distinguishable seasons. When I reached the south of that continent it was spring and then when I crossed the Pacific to get to New Zealand it was late spring/early summer. I got to Australia in summer and then once I crossed into the tropics I was in the wet season pretty much until I left South East Asia. Southern China was too close to the tropics to really have much variation in the seasons and I got Japan in what we would consider back home as an Indian summer. Back in China as the weeks have progressed it has got steadily cooler and although I have noticed the changing colours of the trees before now, nothing has struck me quite like today that I am well and truly in autumn, and the first autumn I have seen for two years. I can cheat the seasons no more!

I get to Suzhou Street in the Summer Palace when I get a message from Patricia that she is at the front gate. But which gate? There are three. I take my chances and rush towards the one I came in, in the hope she will still be there. I send a message back to wait for me but I still don’t know if she is receiving messages. Thankfully when I arrive she is still stood there and at approaching 2pm, two hours after we agreed to meet we have found each other.

I take Patricia through the gardens that I have spent the last half hour or so in and we work our way towards Suzhou Street. Suzhou Street is modelled on that famous canal city in Jiangsu province where I spent one wet, grey day a month ago now. Suzhou Street is a series of eateries and shops in a riverside setting designed to mimic Suzhou but I actually think it does a better job than the original even though it may not be authentic. From Suzhou Street we climb up Longevity Hill where there are a number of palaces and temples and pavilions overlooking Kunming Lake on the other side of the hill. Beside Kunming Lake we come across the tourist hordes in force. It would be nice to take a boat on the lake but none appear to be running across the lake which occupies 80% of the Summer Palace.

With less than an hour before the Summer Palace closes we make our way back around to the entrance we came in and come across a strange guy who speaks several languages, having a conversation with the two of us in English, German and Russian. We never figure out his purpose and whilst it is harmless it was a bit weird. We then catch the metro back to Patricia’s hostel.

The Summer Palace is regularly grouped with the Forbidden City and the Great Wall as Beijing’s three must see sights. The autumn colours in the gardens were splendid, I really like Suzhou Street but the rest of the complex teeming with tourists wasn’t in the must see category. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable afternoon out.

Back at Patricia’s hostel I ask them to scan my passport so that I have it to send to whichever agency we use to get the Tibet permit if we don’t go with Leo’s. Nick has managed to get a quote from Sims in Chengdu and they are considerably cheaper. We are looking at 2500-3000 Yuan (approx £250) for the same tour that Leo’s will charge us 5000 Yuan for. In one respect things are becoming clearer in that it looks certain we will use Sim’s as our agency but they have offered to put us through two end companies which gives us another decision to make. Nick has also said that it will be cheaper if there are 4 of us not 5 but that he is thinking about joining an alternative group despite doing the legwork with Sims. Angie is still uncontactable and my enquiries with the Tibet Tourism Board look to have reached a conclusion - they cannot accommodate our request as our group has different starting cities. We are further forward than the start of the day but not much. A lot needs to happen tomorrow if this is to be sorted before I leave Beijing.

484: Monday 26th October - One of the wonders of the world....becoming a true man by walking the Great Wall

‘He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man’

Mao Zedong

If you believe the words of Mao then today is the day I become a true man, but quite what I have been the rest of my life has been I don’t know!??!

I meet Patricia at Qianmen metro station at 7am. Her phone still has no credit so we chose to meet there as it is one of the smaller stations and close to where I am, so we won’t miss each other. She is running late and doesn’t appear until 7:15am and I have visions of going alone. But all is alright and we catch the metro around the loop line to Dongzhimen station where without delay we jump straight on to a 980 bus for an hour or so to Miyun. Here we are supposed to be able to catch another bus to Jinshaling but that looks unlikely so after a while of bargaining the price with a host of taxi drivers waiting to take tourists to the Great Wall we agree a price of 200 Yuan (£18) for the driver to take us the hour further to Jinshaling and then pick us up at Simatai and drop us back at Miyun. Whether this represents a fair deal I am not sure but we’ve bargained the price down 50% and the 130 Yuan we will both pay to make the return journey to the wall is about half the price I saw in both mine and Patricia’s hostel. I think Patricia is far from convinced it will all work out, especially having failed to complete the same journey with a Chinese friend days before, but today she is with me and I always find a way to get where I want.

The journey up to Jinshaling is worth the price of the taxi alone. It is a bright, sunny day, a perfect autumn’s day with clear blue skies and the autumn colours are just incredible. We arrive at Jinshaling at 10:15am and it has taken exactly the three hours that the staff in Leo’s hostel said it would. There are closer sections of the Wall to Beijing but absolutely everyone I have met on my travels has told me to walk the 10 kilometre section between Jinshaling and Simatai. When one person tells you to do something you take note but when everyone tells you to do the same thing then you make sure you do it. It may not be as easy to access this section of the wall but the other advantage of the Jinshaling section is that it isn’t packed with tourists. In my experience in China, as soon as you try to do something that requires a bit of effort or inconvenience, the Chinese tourists won’t follow you and the end result is that your experience is enhanced and more than compensates for the extra effort.

Actually when we arrive at Jinshaling a group of western backpackers have just arrived on a tour and a group of Chinese tourists also. We never see the Chinese tourists on the wall and although we see the backpackers, a lot of the time we have the wall to ourselves or nearly to ourselves. Before we climb up to the wall I make sure I eat something befitting of becoming a true man! Well, I have a packet of cookies and some water and that is all I need to walk the Great Wall. Hardly the food a true man needs but adrenaline and living a dream will carry me along the Wall alone.

How to describe walking the 10 kilometre section between Jinshaling and Simatai? Words are not enough and although my pictures do it more justice, to truly experience it you must walk it yourself. Incredible, amazing are just two superlatives to describe the walk along this rugged section of the wall. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the Jingshaling to Simatai section is a stretch of watchtowers, precarious plunges and scrambling ascents as the wall follows the natural contours of the mountainous area. Parts of the wall are in ruin, others have been restored but it still feels very, very special to be walking along the wall. The mountains in the distance, the wall stretching in both directions along the horizon and the amazing colours of autumn just add to the wonder on walking along the wall.

It takes four hours to walk from Jinshaling to Simatai and as some sections are quite tricky and quite steep it is no walk in the park. However, it has to be one of the most memorable walks I have ever made, one that I will remember for as long as I live. Patricia is very slow walking along the wall and in the end I take one of her bags but I don’t mind waiting for her to catch up. I could spend all day on the wall just soaking up the amazing experience it is to walk along this man-made wonder.

The Great Wall was recently voted as one of the 7 modern man-made wonders of the world. The Taj Mahal, Macchu Pichu, Chichen Itza, Petra, The Colosseum of Rome and the panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro make up the list to join the Pyramids of Giza as the only surviving ancient wonder of the world and make up the new 8 wonders of the world. I have been fortunate to be able to see all but Petra from that list and I can definitely say that the Great Wall deserves its place in that prestigious list. It is one of the most amazing places I have seen and for me would join the Taj Mahal, Macchu Pichu and the Pyramids on my list of the ultimate man-made wonders of the world. As to what the rest are I would need to have a good think. But to put it simply, after 16 months of travelling and having seen a lot of beautiful places, the Great Wall would be on my shortlist of the Top 10 places I have been to. It is that special.

Once you reach Simatai you have the choice of taking a zip line over a man-made lake to complete the experience. It is only 40 Yuan which isn’t too bad (it has only cost 95 Yuan - £9 to walk along the Great Wall which is good value compared to other tourist attractions). However, after having so much fun in Laos using all the ziplines there I’ve had more than my fair share for the year. The walk down to the car park is better anyway. The colours of the trees here are comparable to anything I’ve seen whilst on the Wall and that’s high praise indeed, and in fact is probably better. I can’t recall ever seeing such an array of colour in autumn time but I am sure I have, but it just rounds off a very, very special day.

Our taxi driver is waiting for us in the car park at Simatai, and it takes an hour of driving through some more incredible scenery to reach Miyun. Here we connect immediately to a bus to Beijing and we are back in the capital by 5pm, much earlier than I expected. What a day, I’m on a high! It would be nice to sit back and savour the memories from a very special day but right now our thoughts must turn to Tibet.

We catch the metro back to my hostel. Before we start to work on Tibet we get dinner, a feast of Peking duck. Crispy duck pancakes in the city which gave the world this great dish, it just had to be done. It is good and this is more fitting of the cuisine I should now enjoy in my new status as a true man! After dinner, we go back to Leo’s to progress Tibet. Bruno called earlier to say that Nick has dropped out, which is confirmed on an e-mail from Nick saying that he has decided to join another group. It is no problem and brings our group back to four, always my preferred number for a combination of cost and comfort.

So, it looks like the group is me, Angie, Bruno and Patricia. All of us are really keen but we have been unable to get in touch with Angie for some days. This has me concerned. How can we finalise things without her? Nevertheless, I progress the work started with the agencies. Another contact in Tibet has been in touch and although the price is competitive they have arrived on the scene just a bit late to be a real alternative to Sim’s. As Sim’s have Angie’s details already they are really the only option as far as I can see with time running out. Tonight I get a quote back off them, or two should I say for two alternative companies, one quoting 2500 Yuan, the other 3000 Yuan. This is the best price so far - Sim’s it is, but which end company? Me and Patricia discuss things and we call Bruno. The outcome is that we decide to go with company B as they are cheaper and to move the start of the 8 day overland tour to Nepal back a day so that Angie will be able to connect with us as trains only depart every other day from Chengdu.

Progress has been made but we still have much to do. We need another contract, a final price but more than anything we need Angie, otherwise this is not going to be sorted before I leave Beijing. Where are you Angie?!

Day 485: Tuesday 27th October - The Tibet Saga drags on

I have contact from Angie. She will be back in Chengdu by this evening. Great, that is such a weight off my mind. However, it means that we will be unable to finalise Tibet before I leave Beijing. But, with Angie in Sim’s this evening I expect progress to be much quicker than it has been over the phone and by e-mail. I have had messages from other backpackers in response to my note in Chengdu and my contact in Tibet keeps trying to court my custom but although there isn’t much in the price, Sim’s is still the best bet. And at this late stage I don’t really want additional complications with extra people joining the group. Right now there’s not much more I can do, I contact Sim’s again but it is all out of my hands at the moment.

At lunchtime I walk to the Temple of Heaven, another of Beijing’s sights that dates to the Ming Dynasty. The Temple of Heaven, built in 1420, used to be a place where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties went to worship heaven and offer sacrifices to pray for good harvests and favourable rains. The Temple of Heaven grounds is mainly gardens and parklands with a number of halls, altars and temples dotted around the extensive grounds. The standout temple is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, overall the Temple of Heaven park suffers in comparison to Beijing’s other stand out Dynastic sights: The Forbidden City, The Great Wall and the Summer Palace.

Whilst I am on the phone to XueLan in the evening Angie finally makes contact. She has arrived in Sim’s and will talk to them tonight. Everything is potentially set, group, dates, agency, end company in Tibet, itinerary all we need is Angie’s buy in and a new contract and we’re ready to go. But that won’t happen today and in that respect I failed in my objective to get Tibet sorted before I left Beijing. Tomorrow will be the key day one way or another, the day that I realise my dream and get to go to Tibet or the day it all falls apart at the final hurdle. I get on the night train to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia with complete faith that tomorrow is going to be the former not the latter but it is going to be one big day.......................

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