Having now left Beijing I can say for certain I need to go back one day and do it again. It’s a fascinating place.
We spent our first night there in a double room in the Far East International Youth Hostel to recover from the train journey, it was much needed. A really powerful shower and large comfortable beds were a dream come true at that time. Though weirdly Martyn juddered when there was a noise outside, just as we did on the train. The hostel is about 600m from Tiananmen Square, located on a traditional Hutong with street food stalls and haggling galore. Straightaway the atmosphere was unlike anything we’d experienced before. Everyone was so friendly with shouts of Ni hao (hello) from all the children and constant stares of interest. Being 6’2″ I towered over the majority of the Chinese and Martyn is no dwarf either. In fact on the second day we strolled up to Tiananmen Square and whilst I was sat reading a woman sneaked up behind me and got her photograph taken surreptitiously with me. As soon as we noticed what was going on they asked if they could have more pictures, which of course we agreed to. It was really really strange with people flocking from all around to have their picture taken with us. Celebrity status for nothing in particular. This must be how Big Brother contestants feel… So, highlights and must sees of Beijing: Great Wall: Jinshanling (sp?) to Simatai Great Wall trek – absolutely incredible! Although we left our hostel at 6.40am and reached Jinshanling at noon without breakfast, and although the trek was almost vertical at times it was an exhilarating few hours. The Wall is an absolute must see. The stretch we trekked along was about 11km (6 miles ish) and full of the most beautiful scenery. Seeing the Wall snake off into the horizon with towers atop all the hills was one of the things I’d most wanted to see on the whole trip. We got to the Simatai end and there was a cable slide costing 30Y from a boring stretch of path, over a green/blue lake to a jetty where a ferry took us to the village. Though the Lonely Planet says it’s not worth it I completely disagree, and as there are so many faults with the guide (It is two years out of date but for example it says the walled town of Pingyao is 200m long, I now know they’ve missed a zero from that) as a whole I think I’m entitled to disagree. It was a really nice way to end the trek. Summer Palace: You’ll need a lot of time to take in the splendour of the lake and it’s surrounding buildings. You can catch a boat from the Exhibition Center to the Summer Palace, via a few changes of vessel. This includes your entry fee and a return fare. The ferry drops you off at the south gate, on the rim of the lake and you get a beautiful humpbacked bridge to start off a day of idyllic views. We spent about 3 hours here and ended up having to rush to the ferry pick up before the last trip at 5pm. The ferry back was a normal slow river bus until we reached a lock, then we were transfered to a speed boat. I now want a speed boat, and a canal to play with. We zoomed along it attracting yet more waves whilst the elderly Chinese lady at the back whooped with adrenalin, excellent finish to this trip too. Other highlights are the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The Forbidden City was being slightly renovated so sadly we missed out on the two most famous halls but instead we spent a lot of time wandering around the peripheral courtyards and gardens in the north. Another place to spend a bit more time next visit. The Temple of Heaven is a really nice park/temple area well deserving of a lot more time too. We reached the Lama temple at 4.30pm so we had half an hour to explore the place. Luckily we managed to get to the furthest structure in time and found a huge Buddha with his head up amongst the rafters. The other main highlight of Beijing is the food. You can find excellent ordinary Chinese restaurants and Beijing Duck places everywhere. Just look for the usual signs of quality such as a lot of locals enjoying the place. We ate extremely well throughout our time here. Though duck is pricey due to it’s reputation. Unfortunately I also got my first bout of Travellers Belly in Beijing with it cutting short a meet up with people from the train. Mats was staying near us so we saw him everyday prowling the Hutong trying to work on his haggling skills. For example, he managed to buy a whole new outfit for 100Y when the original cost had been 300Y. Not too bad but the idiot was out on the razz the night I wasn’t and somehow reverse bartered. He bought a woolen Communist great coat from a tiny Chinese bouncer for 30 US Dollars when the guy had already said he wanted 200Y for it. Therefore he paid 40Y more than he needed to. Mats was a quirky guy though so it fit well. Needless to say we also drank very well and took full advantage of 2 yuan (13p for 600ml!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) Tsingtao beers whenever we could. An oddity of travelling is that neither Martyn nor I seem to get hangovers out here. Instead Martyn snores like a dragon whenever he’s even a little drunk. I suppose that’s why ear plugs were invented? We left Beijing in a flurry (understatement). Our train left at 7.03pm and we were on the other side of the city at 6pm eating a large meal. We cabbed across town as fast as possible and after picking up our packs raced via another cab to Beijing West Station. Sprinting through the station we got on the train at 7pm :o/ As we left the station dripping sweat and embarrassment the Chinese looked on and laughed. We made friends with a couple of women and taught them the card game Speed, well sort of, and when the lights flicked off at 10pm we just collapsed to sleep exhausted. I will be back in Beijing in the next few years. I really want to see what the Olympics of 2008 will do to the city. There was a lot of construction work and stories about how the authorities have displaced the residents are rife. I just hope so much they don’t turn large chunks of the city into facsimiles of the so called ‘Cultural Street’ we saw, it was rubbish. Nothing but tat. Anyway, the train chugged south east to Pingyao, our next destination. I’ll write about this when I can. I’m now in Xi’an and a little behind the blog but bear with me, I’m doing my best!