China Part Five: Beijing
“Diary Entry – 16/10/11
We started our day early with breakfast with Mr Wong at a street food place – the only street food we’ve had in Xi’an. We bid our final farewells, and went to the airport. Our arrival in Beijing was of sunny and beautiful weather, apparently due to an international marathon being held that day. By the time we were at the hotel, Yean’s ankle was so swollen it was hard to remove her shoe, so she elected to stay in that night, while we headed out to watch the Rugby World Cup Semi Final of New Zealand vs Australia. I’ve never realised how many kiwis and aussies there are living all over the world – the local Irish bar was pack full of them. From there, we headed to dinner with some of Kuang’s old friends. The restaurant was a renown hot pot restaurant that was so popular, we had a 1 1/2 hour wait for a table. It turns out hot pot is rather similar to steamboat, but with a far more spectacular coal burning chimney setup.”
With only two and a half days in Beijing, we weren’t wanting to take anything slowly. By this stage of the trip, our tourist muscles were well and truly flexed, and we were set to take on the city at large. One problem – Yean’s ankle was not looking good. In her usual stoic manner however, she had an evening off (hot pot night it turned out), and was up the next morning, ankle swathed in bandages, and backpack on. We were out of the door at 8.30, headed for the Forbidden City. Once there, we were reacquainted with the now familiar tourist crowd, and we jostled for position for a few minutes to get pictures with the main entrance, the guards, and the best angles of Tinnamen Square. Once inside, the crowds not so much died down, but started moving in the same direction, a nice change to the general swarm of Jiuzhaigou.
There’s one thing that stands out the most in the Forbidden City. The size. We were walking at an average pace for a decent 2-3 hours, arriving in the Imperial Garden somewhat disorentated. On studying the map, we had just walked straight through. With the shape of the Forbidden City being almost square, we had covered a very small portion of it. Exploring a couple of blocks off to the sides, we lost our stamina for pagodas and curvy eaves, and decided to head up the hill.
Jingshan Hill rises up just across the street from the back gate, and it’s a fairly steep climb. Arriving at the top, however, makes it completely worth it. The Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing spread out around you, and much time can be spend spotting the landmarks of tourist worth. Unfortunately, my camera decided to run out of battery at this point. I’m still trying to get my hands on some of Yean’s photos from this part of the walk. By this stage, thanks mostly to the uneven tiling in the Forbidden City courtyards and the strenuous climb, Yean’s ankle was back to being immovable again, so we both opted to call it a day, keen to spend the afternoon relaxing and catching up with our diary writing (you’ll notice not one entry was made for Xi’an).
It just so happened that that day was Angela’s, one of our traveling group members, birthdays, so during the afternoon I went on a solo excursion to find a birthday cake. Up till now in the story I have not made much mention of language. I’ll say it now. There is very little English spoken in China. So little, even the little things are hard to do when you’re off the main trail and out of the central city. Walking into the cake shop, I was about to find out just how difficult life can be without knowing the spoken language. Pointing at a cake I asked ‘how much?’ this was replied with a hand gesture to the pricing chart. Easy enough so far. The price seemed fair, so I said ‘I’d like to buy this one.’ A flash of concern goes across the shop attendants face. Her reply came in fast mandarin. Fortunately in my failed attempt at learning mandarin previously I had picked up a few handy sentences. The one I used next wasn’t one of them – in rout learnt and almost perfect Cantonese, I asked ‘do you speak English?’ No reply. Realising I wasn’t speaking mandarin, I resorted to the stupid-westerner-in-foreign-country approach of hand signals. I made a motion of picking up the cake. A flurry of hand signals from the shop assistant, and more mandarin. More grand hand signals from me, accompanied with slow English. Even more grand hand signals from her, with louder, slower mandarin. Eventually I gave up. Saying ‘I’ll be back’ in my most clear voice, I exited the bakery, returned to the hotel, picked up Yean, and returned to the bakery. It turns out she was trying to tell me the cake was a display cake, and it would take 30 minutes to prepare the real thing. I vowed right there to restart my mandarin studies again.
That night we had Peking duck, that beautiful Chinese meal involving slivers of roast duck skin, served with thin wraps and an assortment of vegetables to offset the oily duck. The cake was served, Happy Birthday was sung, and we carried on drinking Tsingtao beer for another couple of hours.
The next day was another early start, waiting at the door at 6.30 for our taxi to come and pick us up. This was going to be one of those days that you wish your child self could have seen. Today we were going to see the largest man made structure ever made. The Great Wall of China. On the van driver’s recommendation, we chose to head to the Mutianyu portion, which is slightly further away than the more popular Badaling section, but just as spectacular, and apparently less crowded. I’m not sure how long it took to drive there, all I know is that I had some very numb legs by the time I could unfold myself from the rather cramped minivan. We took the gondola up to the top of the wall, and there we went our separate ways – Kuang and Angela choosing the rugged looking, unrestored wall to the west, and Yean and I taking the more ‘injured ankle friendly’ restored wall to the east.
It was an incredible day, walking along that wall. Knowing even just a portion of what it represents, what it means, and what it’s been through makes the walk a journey into mankind’s eastern history. It takes about 2-3 hours to complete, as there are some pretty rough patches that can be tricky for people with injured ankles. The wall is constantly rising and falling, following the ridgelines as much as possible.
Once we were at the end (I recommend taking the toboggan/luge down, it’s suprisingly fun) we waited in the cafe for about 3 hours for Kuang and Angela to finish – it turns out the west route is a lot more involved than the eastern one. Rather lethargic from the long wait, we hopped in the van and one by one fell asleep. It wasn’t until we were close to the city that the driver woke us up and asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel. Seeing as it was already night, and knowing it would be a 1 hour round trip to get back into the city, we elected to get dropped off in town, near the night food markets. This is the place the tourists tell you about, and it was fun. Kuang and I ate deep fried scorpions, which turns out taste like, well, deep fried crispy things. After taking a stroll through the markets, and a quick stop off at a handy Häagen-Dazs for ice cream, we headed back to the hotel, where we collapsed on the beds and were asleep within minutes.
Yean and I left the hotel early that morning, intent on making up for the afternoon we had taken off a day before. We decided to head for the Olympic Green, due to a distinct lack of other things to do at 7am in Beijing. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics becoming a fairly distant memory, the buildings were showing it too, with corrosion, crumbling, and dirt starting to move in on the grand buildings. What was impressive was the size of the area. It’s huge. We merely did a walk around tour with an automated tour guide in our ears of the main buildings like the Birds Nest and the Water Cube. Remarkable architecture and design went into those buildings, alas it doesn’t look like they were built to last – a rather stark contrast to the Great Wall of the day prior.
After our walk, it was a quick taxi back to the hotel, a speedy checkout, and a rather hasty trip to the main rail station, there to hop onto the Beijing – Shanghai bullet train. With only a few months history, the trains were in impeccable condition, much more comfortable than aeroplane, and, in contrast to our China Eastern flights, the train left the station at precisely the stated departure time. We settled in for our return to Shanghai, a comfortable 5 hours away.