Palyondong post office started the proceedings in befitting style by shutting earlier than promised and thereby rendering us unbelievably, excruciatingly laden for the first part of the trip. We arrived sweating at the post office to see not-so-friendly-looking roller shutter doors and cursed the fact we would have to start 'backpacking' with backpacks plus three heavy boxes, meaning our total weight was up to 70kg. We took the first challenge in good spirits (or at least we tried) and grimaced our way up to Seoul.
We managed to relieve ourselves of the boxes in the more reasonable Seoul post office which doesn't just slope of for a lie down whenever it feels like it. After a couple of days in Seoul we boarded a ferry bound for Qingdao, China. Our communal room with 'up to 50 beds' was not the stuff of nightmares that my subconscious had been enthusiastically cooking up. We had bunks right at the end of the room facing the side of the boat and the window so we had almost complete privacy. After ditching our packs we spent a few hours roaming the ship marvelling at the Korean-ness of it all; only a Korean boat
would be decked out with a GS-25 convenience store and a load of Noraebangs (private sound-proofed karaoke rooms). But to a Korean, what is a sea voyage without ramyeon (instant noodles) and karaoke with friends?
We were taken aside on our arrival and our passports were whisked into a separate room but no full body search followed and we went on our merry way into China. We were slightly surprised (but still merry) when we arrived at our guesthouse to find the place in an impressive state of disrepair and the owners speaking not a word of English. Not a problem we thought and engaged our finely tuned actions skills. The merriness started to slip somewhat when we went onto the streets of Qingdao and found it looking more than a little war torn: rubble everywhere, buildings knocked down, the streets deserted.
Qingdao is hosting the sailing for the Olympics and it seems that they are having a little bit of a 'spruce'. As with any tidying (or at least any I have engaged in) things have to get worse before they get better - in Qingdao's case it looks like bombs have been raining on the
city. We did find some nice areas; Qingdao's biggest draw is the German influenced architecture, the clean air and its location at the seaside. None of which are really what you're looking for on your first stop in China.
We were ready for real Chinese streets, jostling crowds, honking traffic, pollution, people...we were ready for Beijing. So we decided to hop on a bus to Beijing (as much as you can hop on a bus which takes over 10hrs). It was a sleeper bus, which consists of bunk beds so on you get, off come the shoes and you tuck yourself up in bed under the thick duvet and lie there feeling semi-ridiculous being driven through the streets at 7:30pm, in bed, in full view of everyone. I was right at the front so when we picked up some more passengers there I was in bed mumbling hello as the locals grinned down at me.
Beijing didn't disappoint. We found ourselves in Tiananmen Square at 6 in the morning watching the PLA go through their morning drill. It was almost devoid of tourists at that time and we wandered around enjoying the morning stillness in what is, at
all other times, a seething mass of 'my party this way.' We wandered through backstreets and enjoyed the other-worldliness of being in a new, exotic country with its lanterns, calligraphy, early-morning hawkers and impressive number of bike-based vehicles.
My favourite sight in Beijing was the Summer Palace. We scrambled over rockeries, walked though courtyards and outside passageways; temples, halls and pagodas at every turn. I overheard a tourist saying that she found the Summer Palace 'far more interesting' than the Forbidden City. I think she actually meant to say that she found it 'far more fun.' The Forbidden City was impressive in size but it does start to look all the same after a while. I wouldn't suggest that the ancient Emperors and Imperials lacked imagination but every building is pretty much identical. Of course, they all served different functions, but how excited can you get over seeing the hall where the Emperor used to receive middle-ranking officials, then the hall where he received high-ranking officials and then the hall where he thought about what he might say to such officials and the one where he thought about what he had said and what he might say in the
future. Yep, for non-historians the Summer Palace wins with its lakes, bridges, pavilions and tangle of passageways.
Somewhat predictably, the best sight of all was the Great Wall. We went to a quiet, unrestored part which the hostel questionably labelled the 'Secret Wall.' We trekked from a small village where we picked up our elderly guide. Just one look at the 70-something year old with her tiny height and stature, 'inappropriate' clothing and shoes, and broad smile and we just knew there would be more than a small bit of humiliation involved in the 2-3 hour walk. Thankfully the walk was not as hard as other backpackers would have us believe and the humiliation was minimal. The walk and wall were stunning. We had perfect weather (or at least as perfect as it's going to get in smoggy China) and could see the wall stretching on for miles. We walked for a mile or so and got to climb up onto the ramparts, pretending to be Mongols and generally enjoying having the place to ourselves.
We finally made it to the last rampart before heading back to the village and as we scrambled up we were greeted with
'Hello! Welcome! Welcome!' and there was a beaming Chinese man with a small, rickety table full of souvenirs. It seems that even the 'secret' wall has to have at least one hawker - it just wouldn't be China otherwise.
That night we got drinking with some lovely people in the bar of ultra-sociable Leo's Hostel and what started as a few beers progressed to shots of snake and rice wine and ended in searching the streets for an open bar or club when the hostel chucked us out of the bar at two in the morning. We ended up banging on the doors of a closed bar where the staff could be seen mopping the floor and asked them very nicely if they would be so kind as to reopen their establishment to business. They seemed to find this reasonable and on went the lights and music and the drinking continued with new vigour. I found my first victim to practice Spanish on, learnt some Finnish (just in case), and got my dancing feet out: all in all an excellent start to the adventure.
(the photos are lower quality than I would like but I
have been struggling to upload for days!)
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