Military planes, The Great Wall and Beijing duck...

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October 21st 2014
Published: November 4th 2014
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Our third day in Beijing and Jerry and I parted way for the day. I was planning a day indoors at a mall - not to shop but to escape the smog and give my lungs a chance to recuperate - and Jerry was heading out of the city to spend the day at the Chinese Aviation Museum. First though I wanted to visit a small shop I had read about which uses pieces of porcelain from dishes smashed during the Cultural Revolution and sets them into tiny boxes. Of course it took much longer than I expected to get there and after many locals kept giving me directions which contradicted each other a kind man eventually led me down a street and pointed at the street sign I had been looking for - impossible to see as the whole sign was buried inside the branches of an overhanging tree. I would never have found it own my own...

The shop was tiny and the daughter of the man who began collecting the fragments after the revolution (he has been setting them into boxes for the last 25 years) was very happy to let me browse amongst the cabinets. I bought some of the smaller boxes and absolutely love them... After that I did spend most of the afternoon in an air conditioned coffee shop before catching the metro back to our guesthouse area. I took a wrong exit though from the metro and ended up in a large pedestrian mall which was only a few hundred meters from our tiny narrow street. This mall was the reason why our area was so busy - both of us had wandered what the attraction was - as it was lined with shops selling all manner of souvenirs (particularly tea, moon cakes and dried fruit in expensive packaging), dozens of shops selling jade, restaurants and some high end shops like Zara and H&M from England. Side streets were full of tiny restaurants and the main wide pedestrian street had a couple of reproduction trams driving along it as well of dozens of large bronze statues depicting early Chinese traditional life. We were to see these types of statues in many other areas - they were beautifully detailed and actually quite classy street art. It was a restored area though many of the shops, particularly sone of the silk shops and those selling the finely embroidered fabric shoes (they are so pretty) have been in the same buildings since they opened at the beginning of last century. There was also a movie theatre - the first one in China and over a 100 years old. The whole area was a surprise and not a totally unpleasant one and I enjoyed mingling with the crowds until I met up with Jerry later on.

That evening we had booked a table at a restaurant next door to the guest house. It was renowned for it's Beijing duck and had constant queues of people waiting for tables. And it was a great meal. The duck (we ate a whole one between us) is served finely sliced on three plates. The first plate contains only the super crispy skin (delicious if you forget about cholesterol), the next tender morsels of the meat and the last a combination of both. We enjoyed it wrapped in fine pancakes, dipped in what was probably a soy bean sauce but tasted like chocolate, and a big plate of snow peas.

The next part of the blog is written by Jerry

"I had a Boy Day Out and visited the Chinese Aviation Museum at Datangshan about 1 1/2 hours north of Beijing. At the end of one of the subway lines, I hopped on a bus for the hour long drive to what seemed to be a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. I walked across the road and saw I was close to the 1 km concrete runway that the Chinese Air Force once used. There was no entrance fee and for about 2 hours I virtually had the place to myself. Somewhere in the distance was a live firing range and there was constant small arms fire and the boom of explosions. I wandered around rows and rows of Mig fighters, Russian and Chinese bombers, helicopters galore and a vast amount of anti aircraft guns and missiles. A lot of the museum pieces were in reasonable condition and one row of aircraft was being restored, but there were many sorry sights around this huge area especially off the sealed area. One missile site I found amongst a clump of trees. If only I had my multi tool with me I could have found some nice souvenirs! The old hanger that goes into the mountain has been turned into a magnificent hall with many more well restored or replica exhibits . You can actually walk through to the other side and the old dispersal area.The majority of the aircraft at Datangshan are military but there is some civilian stuff too. A small entrance fee to this and to go inside Chairman Mao's plane was the only cost though there were other buildings that I did not go in to..Another hour wandering through the place and decided that the buses bringing hordes of noisy school kids would be a bit much much. An amazing place and well worth a visit"

We had purchased train tickets from a small office just down from our guest house to visit the walled town of Shanhaiguan which is where the Great Wall comes out of the hills to greet the sea. We also wanted to visit Jiumenkou Great Wall, the only section of the wall that was built over water which was only 15 kilometres from Shanhaiguan. We left early next morning for Beijing Railway Station luckily only a couple of metro stops from our guesthouse. Chinese city train stations are gigantic and very daunting. Thankfully we've travelled from them many times but am still slightly overwhelmed by their size and the thousands of people who travel through them each hour. The square in front of the station is always full of people sleeping on their luggage, playing cards, chatting - anything to fill up the hours. Many are immigrants from the countryside - identifiable by their clothes, the big denim back packs they carry and their bedding roll wrapped in big plastic sacks. Usually they carry a couple of plastic washing bowls and some big thermos flasks as well.

Security meant that without a ticket and photo ID you cannot even enter them so long lines form before each Xray machine and entrance gate. Once through that the next challenge is to find the waiting room for your platform. We travelled second class so had a different waiting room to the hard seat travellers. Hard seat waiting areas can be enormous and crammed with people. The fun really starts when your train number is called, usually only ten minutes before departure time, and an entire train load (there are never empty seats) swarms through the narrow passage towards the platform. Somehow or other they depart on time! It's pretty crazy...

The trains and stations are clean though station toilets are still pretty smelly and full of wet squat toilets. The train though was immaculate, the rubbish was constantly being collected and the toilets were clean. Thankfully the train trips of 2005, where by the end of a trip, the floor was a garbage tip may be now history. Two hours later, just on dark, we arrived in Shanhaiguan to be greeted with by a group of taxi touts waving brochures at us. We ignored them all and set off to find a hotel room. We could see the huge city walls looming in front of us but it wasn't until next day that we realised just how big they actually were. It was dark - very dark - as for some reason the town had virtually no street lighting, before we found a room. We had been turned away from cheaper hotels - either they couldn't be bothered or weren't allowed to take foreigners as guests. A lovely room at a four star hotel for the same price as our tiny guesthouse basic in Beijing eventually rewarded our search.

Needing to eat we left the hotel to be accosted by a cheerful taxi driver. Giving him a shake of our head and saying 'maybe tomorrow' we left to explore the restaurant scene behind the city wall. Inside the walled town it was pitch dark - very weird and unexpected - so we backtracked and ended up eating at a KFC, mainly because it was the only restaurant we found open. The few blocks back to our hotel were an adventure - the streets were unpaved, covered in rubble and litter and with no lighting. At one stage we wandered into a building site!

We walked out of the hotel next morning to be greeted by the smiling face of the taxi driver from the night before. Admiring his perseverance we asked his price to Jiumenkou - he replied 10 yuan (under AUD $2).... As it was far too cheap (a first!) we asked him to write it down. 10 yuan. Confused we eventually settle on 60 yuan to take us the 15 kilometres. He drove like a maniac but did slow slightly when we asked him to. The countryside was glowing with autumn colours and barren hills rose up in the distance. The fields were full of apple trees groaning under the weight of red fruit and the harvest were busy with groups of people picking fruit. Baskets of apples were for sale - we bought some later and they were crisp and really sweet.

As we got closer to Jiumenkou we started to see sections of unrestored wall snaking across the hills. The hills were dotted with watch towers. What an isolated barren region it must have been when the wall was originally built. The entrance to the section which goes over the river was complete overkill, particularly that day, as we were the only people there. The usual Chinese theme park entrance with statues etc and large parking area. Thankfully all empty except for a hopeful group of elderly people selling apples and after paying the entrance fee (about AUD $15 each - nothing is free here anymore) to enter the site we bypassed the statues and headed to the wall proper. It was a pretty amazing place - set in amountain valley the wall has been restored on one side of the river but the unrestored section was clearly visable winding it's way over the mountains on the other side. The section crossing the river is only 100 meters wide but has nine arches. There was no smog but the views were slightly obscured by a dust haze.

We started the climb up the restored section which gradually became steeper the further away from the entrance we got. We walked as far as we could - until we reached the unrestored section on that side. It was crumbling in places and I would imagine would be quite dangerous to go on. We were still the only people there though we passed two men on our return trip. A great experience! We saw the wall closer to Beijing at Simatai (before the restoration that has seen Simatai closed for a long time began) in 2005 and that, to this day, is still very memorable.

Back in the car park we asked our driver to take us to our next destination - Old Dragon Head - where the wall enters the sea. This part of the wall is 20 kilometres away and necessitated a trip through Shanhaiguan to reach it. We realised then just how big the city wall is - nearly all rebuilt just prior to the 2008 Olympics - it stretches for kilometres and includes dozens of watch towers. The Old Dragon Head was interesting but lost within an enormous theme park of pavilions, squares, statues and pseudo temples. The actual Dragon Head was a reconstruction as well, though it was done in the 1980's. I enjoyed the view over the coastline from there - the beach was clean with golden sand, and very pretty. I loved the Chinese style modern pier we could see in the distance. We enjoyed an ice cream as we watched groups of local holiday makers enjoy a five minute speed boat ride from the shore. Hardly a jet boat but their screams of terror (or pleasure) were infectious.

Last stop on our taxi tour was First Pass Under Heaven (the east gate of the city wall) is on a restored section of the wall studded with watch towers and only a kilometre or so from the railway station. The taxi left us at the ticket office after drawing up a bill for his services - he very carefully drew diagrams of where we had been with arrows and prices and handed it to us. The sum total of 100 yuan (AUD $18) for a long morning of waiting and driving. A bargain and he seemed concerned we would think it too high...

Despite being mostly rebuilt I do admit to enjoying our time on the city wall. It was high - 12 metres - and the principle watch tower stands another imposing 13.7 metres above the top of the wall. It also has 68 arrow slit windows.

Ignoring the touts renting pushbikes (which I'm sure you would need to circumnavigate the entire wall) we enjoyed walking along the wall. Fabulous viewpoints of the city - usual mess of high rise and derelict hutong houses. Leaving the wall we decided to explore the area within the walls. It was virtually empty and an internet search since has revealed that the whole rebuild is a white elephant and most of the shops etc inside have never been tenanted. That explains the lack of lights after dark and the unbuilt and sad state of the streets surrounding the walls. It was one Chinese theme park too many....

Realising that there was nothing to see we took one of the funny little metal enclosed motorbike taxis back to the railway station where we were able to change our tickets for an earlier train.after we arrived back in the Beijing smog we walked back to the guesthouse through the tourist area I had discovered a couple of days before. As busy as ever, it looked pretty after dark with all the red lanterns glowing.

Additional photos below
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5th November 2014

It's amazing that it doesn't topple over entirely .... great shot!

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