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Published: July 30th 2010
I considered taking the easy option and getting the direct train from UB to Beijing but I couldn’t resist one last budget border crossing adventure. First step was a hard sleeper to Zamyn-Uud on the Chinese-Mongolia border. As soon as you get off the train there are dozens of taxi drivers shouting at you offering to take you across the border. It could not be easier. The border crossing was really quick and the Chinese border staff were the friendliest I’ve seen in the world. Having said that they were performing random checks on laptops. If they’d checked mine and found the facebook unblocking software I’d downloaded I’m not quite so sure how friendly they’d have been.
I was a bit anoxious about just arriving in a town in China on the edge of Inner Mongolia but straight away a woman came up to me and asked me in English if I was going to Beijing! She said it cost 200RMB in a minibus taxi which seemed fine because I’d heard about 180RMB for a normal bus. They dropped a few of us off at a restaurant to grab lunch while they waited for the bus to full up. As
soon as I opened the menu I realised it was a Mongolian restaurant! Just what I wanted...
The minibus travelled pretty solidly at 120kph so it didn’t take anywhere near as long as expected. The roads seemed new but every few miles there were roadworks patching up mistakes. There were also an incredible amount of toll booths. I can’t remember where toll booths were mentioned in Mao’s red book. Passed through a few dozen Chinese cities on the way each uglier than the last. There are constructions sites everywhere, a complete mishmash of tacky architectural styles. Then once we reached the outskirts of Beijing the roads were literally clogged, not with cars but massive trucks carrying cargo containers. You quickly remember what’s paying for the new apartments.
We arrived quite late in Beijing but the bus dropped me more or less right in the centre. I’ve been travelling long enough now that I can figure out public transport systems, find a supermarket and get to my hostel with my eyes closed. There was one woman on the minibus who spoke English and seemed absolutely convinced that because I didn’t speak Mandarin and was travelling alone I’d be dead
as soon as I left the taxi!
Successfully having found the subway (alive) I was standing waiting for the train and I overheard an American guy talking about me to his friend. They were debating whether I was American or Russian (again haircut). Then he asked me where I was from. Now I’ve this trip has changed the way I think about so many things but when I see a middle-aged white guy with a very attractive young Asian woman I only think one thing. Anyway the 3 of us we were chatting for a few minutes and it turns out she was a very friendly prostitute and explained to me exactly where we were and to be careful on the subway. There are all sorts of criminals around!!
If you don’t think overpopulation is a serious crisis then spend 5 minutes in central Beijing. If anything China’s one child policy was overly generous. Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City are the most crowded places I’ve been in my entire life. The air is choked with smog and there are people everywhere like insects with digital cameras and umbrellas they. You shove into them and they
don’t even react. It’s like they’ve lived there entire lives in such crowed environments, personal space is an alien concept. The Forbidden City is one of the most beautiful places in the world but visiting in August is torture. I genuinely think the entrance fee should be raised significantly to reduce numbers plus there should be an enormous surcharge for bringing in umbrellas. There were at least half a dozen occasions where I nearly lost an eye.
After a few painful hours in the Forbidden City I escaped into a nearby park. There were probably a few thousand people there but it felt completely peaceful in comparison! Beijing’s famous Hutongs (alley ways) are quite close to the Forbidden City, again very calm in comparison.
I spent the afternoon in the Temple of Heaven. I was absolutely dreading going in, the whole subway ride I was having flashbacks to the Forbidden City! Thankfully there’s more space for people to spread out and it’s not visited quite as much. After all those historical sites I went for something totally different and headed to Silk Street and enormous mall filled with every type of fake designer good imaginable from watches and electronics
to baby clothes and towels. I genuinely needed some stuff but ended up buying a lot more. It’s all pretty cheap and most of it comes from the same factories the legitimate goods come from. The haggling is hard work though the start price is generally 10 times the actual price, so it’s the same tired routine over and over.
I considered organising my own transport to the great wall but after the epic journey from Moscow I decided it was time to take a break and join a tour! There are various sections of the wall you can visit. I went to Jinshanling which I’d highly recommend. It’s relatively undeveloped and you can easily walk for 5 minutes without meeting a single other person. If you start in Jinshanling and hike to the section at Simatai which is currently closed you literally have to place to yourself. It’s a genuinely breath-taking sight unfortunately the wall was shrouded in dusty fog while I was there!
That night I thought it would be quite cool to check out the Olympic stadium all lit up. I stupidly thought this was an original idea. When I arrived as with everywhere in
Beijing there was the equivalent of the population of an average Irish city all taking photos making peace signs. Still not much can take away for the buildings. The lights on the aquatic centre constantly change colour and patterns.
The last morning I made a visit to Beijing’s busiest attraction the summer palace. It was 37 degrees and incredibly humid. When I reached the temple at the top of the hill I genuinely thought this is it “I’m going to die in a Buddhist temple in Beijing”. A Chinese person even came up to me and asked me was I alright! It’s worth mentioning how kind and helpful most Chinese people are. It’s just easy to forget that when you’re in a single subway carriage with 12,000 of them.
After me near death experience I went to see one last building in Beijing the state media corporation building. Seemingly lacking a sense of Irony it’s officially called the CCTV building. It’s not quite finished yet but still very impressive: two individual towers connected by a seemingly impossible L-Shaped bridge.
In spite of my constant complaining and heat stroke I did think Beijing was a fantastic city. Probably best
avoided in August though!
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