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Published: September 3rd 2009
Though being only an hour before midnight, Xi’an’s train station was heaving with people waiting for the arrival of family and friends, or engaging in the Chinese pastime of lounging upon the large public areas in front of major public train stations. I could make no sense at all of the illuminated train departure board, and so after asking the helpful Information Officer, I was directed to the Soft Sleeper Waiting Room for my train to Beijing. The ultimate travelling sensation of being the only foreigner in a place came upon me again, for the rest of the people in the waiting room were Chinese, and so it was when I finally boarded my train - not another foreigner in sight.
Fourteen hours later, I arrived in Beijing, and to my pleasant surprise, it was far less warm and humid than at the corresponding time last year during my Olympic visit, and it remained this way for the remainder of my time in the city. During the Olympics, the city was bulging with people, but this time, the whole place seemed more relaxed and even more courteous. Once, when boarding a subway train, a frail, old lady with greying hair
Smoke shrouded worship - Lamu Temple, Beijng, China
This was the 10,000th photo taken with my Nikon D300 since its purchsae in February 2008!
and a small wrinkled face, stood to offer me her seat when I lumbered aboard with my backpack - and of course, I firmly but politely declined. This visit to Beijing was punctuated by such touches of courtesy and consideration, and it made the city itself so much more memorable.
Beijing is a modern city in every regard, and though it does have its more traditional parts, they seem not as obvious as they do in Xi’an. However, its attractions verge on the exceptional, and I again toured one of my favourite places in the world - the Forbidden City. During my previous visit
, I described the Forbidden City as “an immense area that was far bigger than my imaginings. The cloudy weather on this day gave a sense of gravitas to the place, which for so long was the centre of intrigue and machinations for obsequious, scheming officials and eunuchs. The large ochre coloured buildings were lined in disciplined formations around expansive quadrangles, where tufts of grass sprouted through the uneven paving stones. Though the City was dour when compared to the other Beijing attractions, I was captivated by a place where the imperial family isolated themselves from the
outside world, and wondered how a person could live their whole life within its monumental walls.” Being too lazy to construct another description, my previous effort will have to suffice.
I arrived on a sunny morning at 10:30, two hours after the opening of the City, and to my dismay, one of those horrid large tour groups with their ridiculous flags were already leaving. How can someone possibly see all of the highlights the City has to offer in only two hours? I spent a full six hours roaming the City on this day, and still could not see everything. What an absolute insult to rush tourists around this enormous place (one kilometre in length and almost as wide) in such a short time - it is not only tiring, but one cannot possible see even a quarter of what is on offer.
But this was not the only encounter with these groups, as they often cluster together and confined themselves to just a few main sights, and so when a plague of tour groups (my descriptive noun for them) descended upon an area, I quickly made my escape, and returned once they had passed. Thankfully, with the
Forbidden City being such a large area, it is easy to find a place away from the crowds by moving to one of the long ochre coloured passages or small courtyards away from the major tourist attractions, to enjoy some solitude and ponder the reasoning that went into the construction of such a place.
It was here on the periphery of the City, away from the impressive major halls and palaces along the central axis, that housed some wonderful displays such as the Clock and Watches Gallery which contained the best collection of timepieces I have ever seen. At one point, four of the clocks were wound up to chime for the small but eager crowd - metallic flowers spun, turrets rose into the sky, figurines twirled and music wafted through the air - all very quaint and impressive. Other places contained an array of gold, silver and precious items used by the royalty, and there was even a display on Piyi, the last emperor to reside within the Forbidden City, which included such items as his study books from his English tutor and his modern spectacles that caused much consternation amongst the more conservative elements.
Train timetable - Xi'an, China
I could make no sense of this at all.
time I departed the Forbidden City near to closing time, the late afternoon sun was casting a feeble light upon the mighty edifices that were now almost devoid of people. It was sublime experience to amble past the lambent buildings and terraces that looked even more imposing and majestic without any people milling around them, with the only discernable noise being my footsteps as I gently trod upon the marble and stone paving.
Whilst in Beijing, I also visited the colourful and smoke-filled Lamu Temple where the Wanfu pavilion contained a massive statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandlewood totalling 26 metres in height. More importantly, and for the first time in Beijing, I was able to see the city through the eyes of a local. This was thanks to Cheryl, a solicitor from Beijing who I befriended during the Olympics last year - it is amazing what sort of people you meet when you paint your face green
;-) The very generous Cheryl wished me to taste foods new to my well-travelled palette, and given the high number of quality eating establishments in Beijing, this was a most enjoyable task.
For three consecutive nights we
dined at various restaurants - all different in style but all similar in the high standard of food we ate. One had a large array of teas on offers; it was the equivalent of a western wine list - complete with different ages and origins of the tea - and with a price tag to match. Some teas cost more than 600RMB (over $100.00!) and when I exclaimed the high cost of such teas, Cheryl calmly explained that these teas are only reserved for very special occasions. I could not ever conceive an event worthy of spending $100.00 on tea, but I am probably not thinking hard enough.
As my time in China came to an end, I ruminated on a discussion with an expat Australian called Lisa back in Xi’an. Whilst we exchanged perceptions on this country, she proffered the opinion that whenever China turns its attention to pursuing a course of action, is inevitably surpasses all previous attempts. This concept was encapsulated by my final evening in Beijing, were I stayed at the Hotel G. The terms ‘chic’ and ‘funky’ are usually associated with western stylish concepts, but here in Beijing, Hotel G takes these words to
a new level. In amongst the chocolate patterned rooms, a life-size monochrome canvas of a lady adjusting her stockings within a setting of Grecian statues stands to one side. Whilst I am writing this, Fi (who has joined me on my final night in Beijing for our impending journey to North Korea) is playing different sports games on the Nintendo Wii with varying degrees of success. At night, it is possible to adjust the lighting the borders the outside windows to differing hues - red, green, with our particular favourites being the purple and the blue. Not only does this bathe the inside of the rooms with an atmospheric glow, but from the outside, the hotel’s windows are a rainbow of colours. This definitely has the most character of any hotel I have ever stayed in.
The genesis of an idea - that of a strong unified nation - which commenced with Emperor Qin near Xi’an had now turned into a colossus. The land of China that deliberately isolated itself for centuries and was slowly pried open with the forced signing of the Treaty Ports almost two hundred years ago (to allow access to foreign merchant ships) has now
expanded into a monstrous economy that one day will be the world’s largest. Yet despite the western influenced commercialism that has now saturated this country, it strongly retains its cultures and customs that have so influenced most of Asia, but will soon receive greater recognition across the world. China is a country that has increasingly impressed me the longer I have stayed, and with each passing day I am left with a growing sense of awe of this incredible nation.
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