My diary / blog of my stay in China 2004 - 2005
Daylight outside, we are flying over the Gobi Desert. Some beautiful natural sights, very few signs of human habitation / presence e.g. roads, railways, settlements. Nearer China the terrain become more mountainous and more populated, there were wide highways but very little traffic and the occasional railway line.
Beijing International Airport is only 30kms from the centre of Beijing but the city couldn’t be seen when landing because of the haze.
Arrived Beijing at 10:40, +2 hours late. Through immigration okay and then onto baggage reclaim, 1 bag eventually came but no sign of the other. Waited until the conveyor stopped before heading to the lost baggage office. One bag was still in Amsterdam, enjoying the delights of that city no doubt or maybe wanted to go on it‘s own holidays or maybe it didn't fancy China too much.
My first contact with staff speaking only a little English. I filled in a missing bag form, and was promised it would be delivered to the hotel by lunchtime tomorrow. I was given an official KLM ’Apology folder’, I made a joke about there being no compensation / money in it and the woman understood the joke and laughed. Still no money though.
Out into the arrivals hall - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no thanks;………….
Found a bank to change some travelers cheques, 8.2Rmb to 1$, 14.5Rmb to £1 - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no thanks;.............
The Holiday Inn Lido courtesy bus due at 11:30 so I only had about a 10min wait, - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no; - want a taxi, no; - want a taxi, no….
Once outside, I was immediately hit with the heat, the humidity and the pollution and oh, the taxi touts, - want a taxi, no thanks; - want a taxi, no; - want a taxi, no; - want a taxi, no; - want a taxi, - want a taxi, - want a taxi, I am learning, pretend not to speak English.
The bus took about 20 mins. to cover the 16kms to the hotel using the Airport Expressway. I checked in and before having a well needed shower, I decided to follow the instructions as to how to make a cup of chrysanthemum tea. It came in the the form of a small ball the size of a marble, I made the tea and went for a shower and when I came back the tea cup was full of flower petals and leaves. I thought I had messed up and started to filter all this vegetation out of the cup before drinking it. I later saw the Chinese drinking this tea with all the vegetation floating in it.
Missing bag delivered to the hotel about 12, don't know if it was too pleased to be there!!
We reached the Dongzihmen metro station and took a 3Rmb train ride to Tiananman Square. Although not new, the metro was fast, clean and quite comfortable. We found out later that it was opened in the 1980’s and initially foreigner‘s were banned from using it. There was also apparently some restrictions as to its use under the Forbidden city.
Tiananman Square is big, very big and surrounded by imposing and grand buildings but due to the mist / pollution the resulting photographs were terrible. We wandered around a bit looking at the various buildings and some impressive sculptures and murals. There were a lot of hawkers selling everything - water, postcards, watches with Chairman Mao’s picture, The Red Book with his thoughts, kites, etc. There were quite a lot of kites being flown in the square some looked very good.
Next on the itinerary was Beihai Park so we headed up a road that ran along the outer wall of the Forbidden Palace - we decided to save visiting the Forbidden Palace for another day. About 20 minutes into the walk, along a tree lined avenue and, unlike most of Beijing‘s roads, only wide enough for one lane of cars in each direction, we had just reached the end of the Forbidden Palace and with just a few hundred metres to go the sky turned BLACK.
It was 16:40.
You have the picture of the location and the time.
Then the rain started, then the thunder and then the lightning overhead.
We had one small umbrella with a steel shaft, t-shirts, shorts and trainers / sandals, and with our cameras, passports and ironically a bottle of water in a small rucksack.
We managed to shelter under the eaves of a building but it only gave a bit of shelter. Five minutes later the road was flooded and the water on the road was now at pavement level. Give it 10 minutes and it will be finished and we can carry on. Ten minutes later it was worse, it is scary using a steel umbrella and standing about 3 metres from trees in a thunderstorm. We waited another 10 minutes and another 10 minutes before deciding to give up and get a taxi back to the hotel. Empty taxis would not stop, we discovered later that they are very reluctant to pick up people when it is wet - strangely when it is dry they are forever tooting their horns trying to get your attention and business. One hour later it was still raining heavily but the thunder and lightning had mainly moved off although there was still the occasional flash and roll of thunder above. We walked back towards a tea house and went in for shelter, their air conditioning was on at full blast and we were soaking wet, it was too cold so it was back outside to the warmth and the rain. We sheltered for a while but eventually we decided that if taxis wouldn’t stop then we would have to walk the 20 minutes back to Tiananman Square and get the Metro at least part of the way back to the hotel. So almost 1½ hours after the rain started we headed back wading through ankle deep puddles, flooded roadways, dodging between cars and buses which were now traffic jammed in the chaos, back to the Metro. We got there, fortunately the metro was still operating, and so it was back to the Dongzihmen station. Back on the surface guess what- it was thunder and lightning all over again !! Taxis were stopping here and we managed to stop one and get back to the Lido. Two rain sodden individuals walked past the concierges and squelched our way through the huge reception area leaving a trail of water behind us on the marble floor. Strange as it may seem we both wanted more rain falling on us but this time in the shape of a hot shower.
For the record the thunderstorm lasted 3 hours and it rained until well into the next morning albeit latterly as showers. The newspapers reported that it had been the worst thunderstorm in over 10 years to hit Beijing and the worst affected area had been - you guessed it, Tiananmen Square with 106 cm of rain in the 3 hours.
We didn’t go out that night, sorry to disappoint.
My first attempt at haggling in China, it is far too hot for trainers so a pair of sandals are required.
So I managed to get a pair in the market for a haggled 100Rmb, also got a DVD for 10Rmb and a CD for 10Rmb - Nora Jones, Feels Like Home. All genuine, genuine fakes.
The temperature is very high, in the mid 30°'s C during the day and only a little less overnight. The humidity is reportedly almost 100%. I am drinking litres and litres of water but my body is like a watering can hose, I am sweating from places I never knew you could sweat from. The visibility is extremely bad, is it a haze, is it pollution or is it both but with no wind it just hangs there.
I took the Lido shuttle bus to the Oriental Plaza, with all the traffic, it took about 45 minutes to travel the 16 kms. there. I walked back a little bit to the main railway station then south and came across a section of re-constructed city wall approx. 1.5 kms long. Even reconstructed it is an impressive piece of construction. I then headed towards the Temple of Heaven stopping off at the New World shopping plaza for a cool down in the a/c and to see what they sold.
The entry fee to the Temple of Heaven park was 10Rmb but there was a similar fee to get into each of the buildings. As it was already about 1pm and I was getting tired because of the heat, I thought I would wait and come back another time. So I just wandered about the park viewing the buildings from the outside. The park was really nice, the buildings from the outside were impressive - I love the roof decorations including the eaves and tiles.
Moved into an apartment in the NE of Beijing in the Chaoyang District. The spec. was for an apartment away from the expat community and she certainly succeeded, we are the only foreigners for several kilometres around. The apartment was only part furnished and we still needed to buy bed linen, towels, kitchen stuff etc. The landlord managed to give us directions to a local store which sold these things. So late saturday afternoon we follow his directions and imagine my surprise (shock / horror) when I saw the bright orange letters of B&Q. Yes the same B&Q as we have in the UK except bigger and better. What a range of stylish products they have, e.g. bathroom suites, kitchens, ironmongery etc. but you still have Fred from Bolton looking down at you from the posters. Staff everywhere, one at each end of an aisle, glance at something and they are at your side to help - pity we can't communicate. In the following weeks we notice other B&Q's in the city as well as an Ikea.
Monday 19th July
I am let loose to find a supermarket to fill the fridge.
I find a big supermarket and make a start. Very, very little packaging has any English on it. I succeed in buying milk because the carton has a picture of a cow on it, other similar cartons, I later discover contain yogurt or soya milk. Salt was a major problem, eventually successfully buying something that appeared to have the right texture. At least I didn't mix it up with washing powder and yes, I did find that too eventually, so the washing wasn't done with flour, dried milk etc.
Fruit and veg were much easier. We have noticed already that a lot of the fruit is seasonal. They have wonderful lychees and so incredibly cheap - about 75p a kilo, they are so good. We tried the Chinese gooseberry aka the Kiwi fruit but it was so bitter I had to spit it out. We have to buy the NZ version at 10 times the price. Currently mangoes, water melon, apricots, peaches and bananas are in season. Oranges are expensive and would appear to be imported.
So far we have been unsuccessful in finding a full set of cutlery to buy. We can buy forks and spoons but no knives. I wont go into detail, but we have an assortment of un-matching cutlery courtesy of Air China.
Thursday 22nd July
Out with work colleagues to a lovely restaurant - South Beauty, in the Sanlitun area. It is part of a chain and each restaurant is decorated differently. The food was delicious and the service excellent. We were then guided to one of the numerous bars in the Sanlitun area - an expat area with many embassies, and listened to a Fillipino group doing cover versions. Then it was onto a rooftop bar for more drinks before going onto a disco, although it was a thursday night, it was mobbed. After about half an hour the disco music stopped and some dancers came on stage and performed for the audience. Home late.
Saturday 24th July
It took a couple of buses to get to what was once a royal park, Beihai Park, which is just to the north of the Forbidden city. We first walked around one of the lakes to the north of Beihai Park, wandering through some of the lovely, but commercialised, hutongs.
We walked down the west side of Beihai Park and visited the pavilions, the botanical gardens and saw the wonderful 'Nine Dragon Screen'. It is a long, double sided wall of glazed ceramic tiles depicting dragons at play. In the botanical gardens they had a large variety of water lillies on display, some of the flowers were beautiful. For whatever reason there was a choir practicing at the lake edge and it was interesting to hear them, but off to the left there were two men, also practicing, who tried to out sing the choir. We left the east side of Beihai Park, the white pagoda etc. for another day. From there we walked past the northern end of the Forbidden City to the Jingshan Park and climbed the hill in there to see the view over the Forbidden City rooftops towards Tiananman Square.
Sunday 25th July
Went on a day trip with the Chinese Culture Club - Boy George has nothing to do with it, to the village of Chuan Dixia 90 kms to the west of Beijing. It is a Ming village as was Beijing of old so the layout is (was) the same. We got a commentary from the mayor about how the location of the village was chosen, how the houses were laid out in relation to each other and then the actual layout of each house around it's own central courtyard. Many of the villagers have opened up their houses to visitors and provide a restaurant service in their tiny courtyards, in many cases it is a '1 table' restaurant. We had a bland bowl of sweetcorn soup, a huge plate of spinach and garlic, a scrambled egg and tomato concoction, corn bread and green tea. It was a nice lunch and to shake that lot down we climbed the surrounding hills and got some lovely views of the village and the valley.
Some of the countryside on the way was very scenic, rivers, valleys lots of greenery etc. but nearer Beijing it became very industrial with a huge steel works on the outskirts.
Saturday 31st July
We left the apartment and walked to the Line 13 Metro station at Wang Jing West taking about 45 minutes to walk there. We could have saved at least 25 minutes if we could have walked ‘as the crow flies’ but there is no river crossing so we had to do loop to get there. There are 3 metro lines in Beijing - Line 1, Line 2 and Line 13, why the jump from 2 to 13 - no idea.
We managed to make ourselves understood, pointing at maps etc. to get through tickets to Beijing Railway station for 5 Rmb each. We found out later that this line had opened in early 2003, was about 45 kilometres long and looped along the north of the city between the 4th and 5th Ring Roads.
At Beijing Railway station we wandered around first going to the ticket hall, it was absolute bedlam and for us nothing was written in English. Train numbers and times were recognisable but the destinations were all in Chinese. It was the same with the maps. We went through airline ‘style’ x-ray security to enter the departure area and found the ‘Foreigners’ ticket booking office located off the VIP waiting room. The waiting room was old, large and had a colonial style/feel to it with big couches and chairs in neat rows, no bench seating in here. In the booking office a chart on the wall had both English and Chinese train information with prices for hard seat, soft seat, hard berth and soft berth.
We managed to find out that trains went from Beijing West Railway station to Hong Kong, it takes about 28 hours and 600+ Rmb - for hard seat probably.
We then walked to the Oriental Plaza along Jianguomenhei Dajie passing lots of very imposing and architecturally wonderful buildings. We were very surprised at all the very expensive international shops at the Oriental Plaza - Audi, Volkswagen, Rolls Royce, Lamborghini (coming soon) and that was just the main street stores. Inside there were the upmarket clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelers etc.etc. It was very busy but also noticeable that there wasn’t very much buying going on. We had a fruit smoothie each, mine was just about drinkable using a straw but the other was too thick, half way through she used two straws to eat it chopstick style, we are adapting well.
We left via the main shopping street - WangfungDajie, but we decided to leave shopping here for another day and we headed instead for the street market at Dazhalan Jie at the south west end of Tiananman Square. We walked through the square again, this time the visibility was much clearer and we remembered the thunderstorm that enveloped us the last time we were here - my first weekend. We re-took the same photos again, hopefully these will be much better, and also took some on a digital camera, so between us we hope to have some good pictures. At the southern end of the square we walked straight into street market stalls and after a few minutes we were completely in the thick of it. We wandered in roughly the direction what the map said was the market area, stopping to buy a red dragon t-shirt, sampling Olong tea’s in a couple of tea shops (they tasted mediocre compared to what we had bought previously) before eventually finding a lovely, older looking tea shop with lots of containers filled with all sorts of teas. The lady spoke some English and we had some fun smelling the various teas, always being told what the best teas were and surprisingly they were always the most expensive. The President drinks this one - an aromatic black tea at about 400Rmb a kilo. There was black compressed tea in blocks - you just break a piece of to use it, there was a very sweet smelling black tea - for young people we were told !!, and some of the flower teas e.g. Jasmine wouldn‘t have been out of place in a pot porri they were so strong smelling. So many wonderful teas. We were also told and shown how much tea to use and how often it could be re-used - enough tea to just fill the centre of a cupped hand, brew for between 30 seconds to a minute depending on the strength required and use for up to 5 or 6 times. Oops, we had used far too much Olong tea in our experiments. We bought 100 grams each of some black tea, 35 Rmb and green tea 16 Rmb. We tried them over the following days, the black tea was really nice, strong flavoured tea.
Continuing our wanderings, we bought a few snacks from bakery / food shops in the market - a plain dumpling and a herb filled flatbread, they were delicious and freshly made. We then saw what appeared to be a very thin, about a metre wide, giant omelet being made on a revolving hotplate, it was then filled with herbs and sauces. We were too full to try, saved it for another visit.
The market eventually fizzled out and we decided to turn back, it was already about 7pm. Later, when we looked at the map we realised we hadn’t even scratched the surface of the market, it goes on for quite a distance and over several lanes.
Back in Tiananman Square it was decided that we would take a rickshaw to Beihai Lake. We managed to make ourselves understood, showed the driver the map and where we wanted to go, we agreed a price of 10Rmb (surprisingly considering the distance) and off we went. First we went in the right direction, then we turned south - No, then east - definitely No. We were almost back to where we had started, albeit on the other side of the road, when we managed to stop him. We were outside a restaurant, he was pointing in its direction trying to make out ( I think) this where we wanted to go, no chance and with no money given we got off and got a taxi. Twenty minutes later and about 17Rmb for the fare, we arrived a the north end of Beihai Lake where all the bars and restaurants are - where we had been last Saturday during the day. If we had been coming by rickshaw the driver would have been knackered and I am not sure if he would have been here before the bar’s closing time. Now it was almost dark, with lots of lights from bars and the boats on the water.
We went to a lakeside bar and ordered a couple of Chinese beers - 60Rmb, the most expensive yet, but it was a beautiful location. We watched as the boats, especially the older boats, resembling Venice gondolas but bigger, weave about the water then we noticed that they had Chinese ’harp’ players playing in the bow and the occupants were placing lighted candles on floats onto the water’s surface. Then we saw the full moon rising above the trees, it was beautiful.
At the narrow bridged section of the lake, on both sides, there started a long line of brightly illuminated bars all competing for your custom, some with live music, some busy, most not.
To eat that night we did have braised almonds as a one of our dishes. Slippery braised almonds, the Chinese variety of almond are smaller and seem to split in half naturally, now try using chopsticks!! One at a time, most of them shooting free in all directions. The energy involved in eating these things probably resulted in us loosing weight.
Sunday 1st August
We went to a nearby department store and a supermarket in the late afternoon. We were surprised how well stocked this local department store was, there was a lot of well designed, good quality clothing. At the supermarket we bought a toaster and a pair of trousers. When leaving the supermarket we set off the alarms and we were surrounded by staff and security - no one speaking English. We were both smiling through gritted teeth and being co-operative. I opened up the rucksack, out with the toaster, it get checked - no security tag. Repacked the bag and out we go. Alarms off again, went through the other bag, the trousers still had a security tag on it!! Smiles, gritted teeth and a few Chinese English sorry's (where did the English suddenly come from) and we were on our way again.
All the supermarkets in the area produce their own fresh noodles, tofu, bakery products etc. So on the way back we stopped at a smaller supermarket which also had an attached fruit and veg market with lots of stalls. We bought roughly 500g of fresh noodles for 1Rmb. We also bought some miniature apples, yellow skinned lychees and some apples resembling Coxes. These yellow skinned 'lychees' tasted as though they were fermented, we have no idea as to what they actually are.
There are still plenty of mangos, peaches, water melon and bananas available but sadly very few apricots and lychees now. Grapes, these miniature apples, yellow skinned lychees, plums and apples are now replacing them.
Beside the Hutongs we saw the three ducklings again, they were gorgeous, all yellow fluff, also saw three older ones nearby. Peking Duck on the hoof.
Dinner tonight was a stir fry using the fresh noodles, they were delicious..- the noodles not the ducks!!
Sunday 8th August
We have signed up with the Beijing Hikers, www.beijinghikers.com to see some of the countryside surrounding Beijing. So after a 2 hour bus ride out of misty Beijing we did some walking in the China countryside. We traveled to an area called Minyu & Pinggu which is to the north east of Beijing. We walked for about 4-5 hours, through some lovely countryside but near the beginning there was a 45 min. climb to the top of a hill which left us all dripping with sweat, T-shirts absolutely sodden. Unfortunately the mist spoiled the views, the temperature was still +30 even with the sun misted out and the humidity was very high. The walk downhill took us through fields of corn and millet and through orchards of peach trees dripping with fruit and obviously they had to be tested, they were wonderful. Finally we were taken to a nearby reservoir for some snacks and drinks and we were told we could have a swim in what is one of Beijing's water supplies. So with lots of ughs a few of us waded through the calf deep mud at the waters edge and started to have a swim only to be told to get out a few minutes later as swimming had now been banned. Strange how women will pay large amounts of money to have 'mud treatments' but confronted with the real thing they go all squeamish. For the record the mud treatment didn't improve anybody's skin. We met a lot of interesting people on the bus, all sorts of nationalities, doing all sorts of things including a woman from the Clyde coast who has been teaching in a primary school here for about a year now after similar stints in Japan and Australia.
Monday 9th August
Today, I have to try and get a haircut. Problem is a lot of hairdressers, especially in the expat area, are 'fronts' for 'massage parlors' and any solitary foreign male passing gets accosted by scantily dressed women with 'you want massage' - if I go in and ask for a #4, as I usually do, what would I get !!! I hear thunder in the distance, maybe the haircut waits until tomorrow. In a motorway underpass, among people repairing bicycles, fixing shoes etc. I saw a guy cutting someone's hair - maybe that would be a safer option.
Tuesday 10th August
I didn't get my haircut yesterday, the rains started about 2pm so I didn't bother going out. I went to the supermarket this morning and on the way I spied a hairdresser within a department store - I thought this might be a safe bet.
No English spoken, so it was sign language for clipping hair, shaking of heads and pointing to washbasins, more sign language for clipping hair, more pointing to washbasins. I relented and got my hair washed and a massage - my head!! Then it was into the chair, now you know that I am now seriously follicly challenged, well the guy managed to find enough hair to clip for more than 20 mins and I now have the equivalent of a very good #3. Then it was more gestures and back to the basin for another shampoo and massage, then back into the chair for a blow dry - the length of my hair and they blow dry it!! Cost, 20 Rmb, about £1.30.
Wednesday 11th August
Today, I decided, was to be a day for some culture so I took the bus and metro to the Lama Temple and the nearby Confucian Temple.
This Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple is beautiful, the many temple buildings, the roofs, the decor and so many Buddhas, the biggest of which is 55' high. The air was full of the smoke and smell from the incense sticks being burned by the many Buddhists who were there - they weren't helping Beijing's smog problem.
In stark contrast, a few hundred metres away down a hutong, is the sadly, somewhat neglected and dilapidated Confucian Temple / Imperial College. For me though this had a lot more charm because it was so much quieter, there were areas to sit amongst the beautiful, very old juniper trees that were dotted about the courtyard, a place you could contemplate in as Confucius would probably say. Inside the biggest temple, the structure itself was impressive, there were lots of relics but unfortunately no information describing them.
I left early because the rain had started and the skies were getting a bit dark. After the experience of Beijing rain on my first weekend, we decided that if the sky started to darken - FIND A TAXI FAST.
Thursday 12th August
My plans for the day are scrapped. It has been raining most of the night and it is still raining quite heavily. A day for reading and drinking tea.
Friday 13th August
Took a bus for a magical mystery tour, well I knew where it went for a large part of the route and had a rough idea of part of the rest. I got off where I hoped the bus would go - the intersection of the 3rd Ring Road and Jianguomenwai Dajie, if you thought that was difficult to read try pronouncing it. If you follow Jianguomenwai Dajie west it eventually leads to Tiananman Sq although it changes it name a couple of times on route. I walked west and passed the massive China World Trade Centre, with it's equally big accompanying hotel. There is a gift trade fair / exhibition on at the moment. I re-visited Xiushui Shichang commonly known as the Silk Market not that there is much silk sold there nowadays. I managed to get another pair of sandals for 85Rmb and a Camel shirt for 100 Rmb. The traders are not as friendly here compared to the Lido Market, at times it was verging on the aggressive, but I think the range of clothes for sale is greater here. Looking at the map I saw I was quite close to Ritan Park where we are planning to visit very early tomorrow - 6am ish !!! so I thought I would have a quick look. Ritan is a small park but it is one of the loveliest I have seen so far. It has a massive walled circular area with a central platform where the Emperors would sacrifice something to the sun god. Among other things, it also has a small lake crammed full of water lilly's some of them in flower. Time for a bus home so it was a short walk through some side streets until I came to one of the main roads and I there I found a bus stop with a bus number I hadn't used before which, according to the list we had made up, passed the apartment. Ah well I'll give it a go at worst I can only get lost or go in the wrong direction. About one hour later I was home and almost immediately I got a phone call saying would I like to go out for dinner. Food, very quick shower and I was back out on the buses again. We joined Louis, Dominick and Robert and went to a row of Chinese Restaurants. Which one to select, they were all busy so that was a good sign to start with so eventually the most 'Chinese looking' was selected i.e. lots of red lanterns!! Just inside the door were the usual tanks of live fish and shellfish but this one also had a tank of large frogs. There is absolutely nothing you can do, you just have to accept it. I have seen live terrapins / small turtles trying to clamber out of their tanks in supermarkets, for me it is a very sad sight.
We were given a table and a poor unsuspecting waitress. The menu had some pictures but no English text and none of the staff spoke English. I produced my bit of paper with Chinese text saying feed me only vegetables so I was shown the page with veggie dishes. The carnivores chose my dishes from the pictures !! They wanted chicken, no picture of a chicken so one was drawn it was becoming like a game of Pictionary along with sounds. Meanwhile another member of the group was going around other tables and pointing to dishes and getting these ordered as well. My food was good, albeit I lost a large amount of it to the carnivores.
Saturday 14th August
Got up about 5:30am, I think I ate something, I think I showered, I know we got a taxi driver who ignored my map directions to take us to Ritan Park via the motorways and drove us the route he wanted to take along the slower main streets. Anyway with lots of growling and scowls from both me and the taxi driver, (fortunately these guys drive within a cage, it is open to question as to for who's protection) we got to Ritan Park. It was about 6:30 am and the park was very busy. Why were we here at such an early hour? well last week on the hike we met a Scottish woman who, when asked, had recommended this park for Tai Chi (?). Sure enough the place was busy with all age groups of Chinese doing all sorts of sporty stuff. It tired me out just watching, but it was all very interesting to see and a certain person rekindled her interest by joining a group and participating.
In parks throughout the city we have seen all sorts of brightly coloured pieces of street furniture and at first we didn't realise what it was for. It is gym equipment that has re-designed and simplified to it's most basic form. For example two supported v shaped pieces of metal are attached to each other with a swivel joint, you put a foot in each of the v's and walk with the largest strides that you wish, or a pivoted 12" metal disc that you stand on and swivel back and forth on keeping your upper torso steady. There are lots more examples and the equipment is being used, it is almost a social thing.
Sunday 15th August
Out with Beijing Hikers again today, this time to Zhi Hui Gu - Intelligence Valley, will it have a rub off effect on me? It is about a 2 hour bus ride to the north of Beijing, initially along main roads then for the last ½ hour or so along narrow winding roads, climbing up and over steep hills. We drive through several villages and the bus brakes sharply once again. The reason this time, 5 white ducks walking towards the bus in the middle of the road waiting until the last moment before moving onto the verge. We see in the distance a section of the Great Wall, the first section I have seen and it looks impressive. The road eventually follows a river valley and the bus finally stops at a bridge that it appears unable to cross. We all get off and a few of the local villagers appear and decide to let off some extremely noisy rockets then they try to sell them to us. We troop off alongside this small meandering river and the first crossings are easy - walk over paving slab sized stepping stones set into the top of the dammed river and then onto a paved causeway running alongside the river. This is easy walking but not for long and a regular has commented he hasn't seen the river this full of water before. The causeway stops and we are onto gravel path, there has been a lot of rain and the river has re-claimed its flood plain. Now we are only talking about ankle to knee deep water in places but when it is covered in vegetation and the paths are also overgrown with vegetation it makes for interesting walking. Squelch, the water is up over the top of my boots and my socks are sodden. Its squelch, squelch, squelch for the next few hours. Today's hike has been classed as a grade 2 - easy, so there are families out today thus making it a large group, about 45. Where crossings have to be made across the main stream then queues are forming to hop, jump and wade across. It is a lovely valley, with huge rock formations and all sorts of plants. Twice we see extremely well disguised preying mantis in the vegetation. We stop at the Dragon Pool for lunch but as we have now walked into a designated park area it is crowded with people that have driven and parked nearby. A few brave souls go swimming but the water is freezing. A short walk later and we are back at the bus, more exploding rockets and its onward back to the city with further views of the Great Wall on the way.
Monday 16th August
The walking boots are still not dry.
Tuesday 17th August
To the Forbidden City. Up to a few years ago it was still forbidden to enter and I have heard that when the metro line was built under it then only certain people could use that section of the metro. Maybe it's an urban myth.
When I got there it was already very busy and this was a weekday. So through the Gate of Heavenly Peace - no comments please, decorated with Chairman Mao's photo and through a couple of courtyards until you come to the main entrance and ticket booths. I thought the crowds may have thinned out after this point but they didn't.
This was home to 24 consecutive Emperor's from 1368 - 1911 and it appears that each built their own palaces, courtyards, gardens, etc. Apparently there are over 10,000 rooms and believe me after about an hour your mind, sadly, becomes numb / overwhelmed by all of what you are seeing and all these palaces start to blend into one. At first I felt a bit cheated that so much was closed off for renovation but latterly that was probably a a godsend.
So it was through the 'Supreme Harmony Gate' then across the massive courtyard to the 'Hall of Great Harmony', across another courtyard to the 'Hall of Central Harmony' and across another courtyard to the 'Hall of Preserving Harmony'. There was obviously so much harmony back then, then there is the 'Palace of Earthly Tranquility'........Aagh!!!
Most of the palaces you had to peer into through open doorways or through glass so you didn't get to experience the scale or grandeur of the internals of these buildings unlike at other sites I have visited in the city. However, externally the buildings are magnificent, the roofs I love - the shape, the tiling and the colours of the tiles.
At the NE end of the Forbidden City there is another section you pay again to enter and this had much fewer visitors. You were also able to get inside more of the buildings, it
was so much nicer there.
The temperature has eased back quite a bit, it is now in the mid to high 20°'s C during the day and mid 20°'s C overnight. The humidity is a lot lower and so the climate is a lot more comfortable. The thunderstorms we were having every second day have stopped - hopefully not the famous last words. The visibility has improved too, a very light breeze has been enough to shift the haze caused by whatever.
The swallows that were swooping about in the surrounding streets have mysteriously gone, heading south so soon - that is a bit ominous. There is quite a lot of waste ground around the area we are staying in and with all the heavy rainfall and the high temperatures a lot of greenery has grown very rapidly. This has attracted lots of insects, and probably hence the swallows, and we have also big dragonflies buzzing about all over the place.
Thursday 19th August
Today it was back to the area around the Forbidden City. Back through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (again !!) and up to the main entrance to The Forbidden city, no change from tuesday, it is still very busy. I headed west to see the Palace Moat and came across a lovely little park - Zhongshan Gongyuan, running alongside the moat. This park, like Ritan Park, had a circular, walled sacrificial area but this time the Emperor performed sacrifices here, if I remember correctly, for the harvest.
I had hoped to visit what I think are referred to as the Back Lakes - Zhonghai and Nanhai, just west of the Forbidden City. However, this area is sealed off and heavily guarded and I suspect is the area used a government / presidential residence. You can get a view from the north side of the lakes and it looks as though it would be interesting to visit. It is today's Forbidden City.
Onward up the street we had walked that first saturday, THUNDERSTORM Street. Strangely it seemed rather demure today. It is a 'traditional' unspoiled street with Hutongs going off towards the Back Lakes, lots of little shops and restaurants along it's route.
I went into Beihai Park from it's south entrance, passed a wonderful wall map of the park made up from individually painted ceramic tiles and headed for the White Pagoda on Jade Islet. The White Pagoda was originally built for a visit by the Dalai Lama in 1651, you pass the small Drum Tower and Bell Tower before climbing the steps to the base of the 36 metre high pagoda. On the way up caverns have been carved into the hillside and inside there are buddha's and wall paintings and access is, surprisingly, totally unrestricted. The visibility was not too bad today and there were some nice views from the White Pagoda's base including one of the Forbidden City.
Back down from the White Pagoda I went to the Painted Gallery. From the north shore this looks like a substantial structure but up close it is an elaborately decorated, double tiered, covered passageway. Okay that description doesn't give it justice but that is what it basically is. From there I took the ferry across to the north side and re-visited the Botanical Gardens and the Nine Dragon Screen.
Friday 20ht August
We have arranged to meet a Chinese lady at 7:30pm under Mao's portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (yet again, coming here is becoming a habit) and then going on to a tea house.
We are running late so, to get there on time, we get a taxi from the office. At first the traffic moves quite freely on the motorways but then with only about 5 kms. to go we hit a solid wall of stationary traffic. After about 5 mins. of no movement, we abandoned a rather displeased taxi driver, hopped over a barrier and headed for the nearest metro station.
We were now 20 minutes late and there was no sign of the Chinese lady, but she phoned and we eventually met up. She didn't know where this tea house was!! So it was a walk around a rather nice, floodlit Tiananman Square and, after asking numerous people, we eventually arrived at the tea house having walked about 3/4's the way around the square. We were now about 30 mins. late for our reservation.
As we climbed the stairs we were met by life size sculptures of George Bush (not W) meeting the owner and walls covered in photographs of celebrities who had visited this place. What is this place? It's the Lao She Tea House, it is meaningless to me, the philistine that I am, and it doesn't appear in my bible - the Lonely Planet Guide book. They still had our table and relieved us of 100 Rmb each, £7 for a cup of tea !!! We were escorted to our table through a hall full of Chinese watching a cabaret. We had arrived midway through!! So while we drank tea and nibbled on the nibbles we were entertained to singing, musicians, a juggler, a magician and a couple of comedians - sorry I cannot remember any of their jokes! They finished at 9:20pm and the room quickly emptied leaving the three of us drinking tea and finishing the food as the staff cleared up around us.
Saturday 21st August
To the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This +2 km. section of the Great Wall is about 70 kms north of Beijing and was originally built between 386 and 581, and was restored between 1368 - 1644.
From the car park you climb steps up the 500 metres (elevation) to the wall itself, there is a cable car option for those that need it. The wall here is 7 - 8 metres high and 4 - 5 metres wide with parapets on both sides, to be standing there is an absolutely stunning experience. The wall follows every contour of the summit, if the summit goes up by 1 metre the wall goes up a metre, if the summit falls 20 metres in a short distance the wall follows. Some of the inclines involve leaning back or forward just to balance yourself, sometimes by more than 45°, it is a weird experience. Then there are the 100's of steps up some of the steepest inclines.
We walked, stepped and scrambled to the end of the reconstructed section, probably about 1.5 km, and there the wall disappeared into the distance with the path between the parapets overgrown with vegetation but the condition of the wall itself looked remarkably good, I had expected mounds of rubble as has been reported at other sections of the wall. Here we were also able to see a cross section of the wall which consisted of substantial brick and stone outer walls infilled with rubble, a huge amount of material had been transported here, an amazing feat in itself. From where we stood, we could see the wall snaking its way across the tops of the surrounding hills with watch towers at regular intervals along its length.
It was such a great experience.
Sunday 22nd August
Out with the Beijing Hikers again, this time they are following a Pilgrim route up a mountain starting in an area called Men Tou Gou which is about 1½ hours drive to the west of Beijing. It is a route that eventually leads to the Miao Feng Shan Temple.
From a walking point of view (in this climate), it is fortunately dull and overcast but it is still +25°C. It is an 1150 metre climb following an ancient path paved, in places, with huge slabs of rock. About ¾ of the way up the mist starts to clear and we start to see where we had come from in the valley below. The valley is a perfectly flat plain disappearing into the distance, the hill that we are climbing is part of a chain that rings Beijing to the west and to the north, and rises steeply from the valley below. There are so many plants and flowers in bloom that the ruins we should be seeing have 'disappeared' into the undergrowth, these ruins include those of old tea houses that provided refreshment to the pilgrims on this arduous climb. It is a shame they are still not there, they would have had some business from us today. We reached the summit it in about 2 hours, and like the rest of the group , are very hot and sweaty.
After a stop for a picnic lunch and with the sun now shining, we continued for about another 1½ hours walking along the ridges connecting several summits and through some lovely scenic countryside with lots more plants and flowers. We then dropped a few hundred metres to a village with the Mia Eng Shan Temple now in sight about 1½ km. away on top of another hill. So what was it to be, the temple or a 'refreshment or two'? There was not enough time to reach the temple and back before the bus left. So very sadly, the heathen that I am, I took the 'amber nectar or two option' before getting on the bus back to Beijing.
Where we stay there are Chinese restaurants everywhere, along all the main roads there are strings of them, a short gap, an occasional one, then another sting of them. This goes on for miles, so we are spoiled for choice as to where to eat out.
A new Sichuan Chinese restaurant has opened nearby so we decided to give it a try. Sichuan is a region of China which is infamous for using the red chilli in its cuisine.
There is no menu in English, no menu with photos and no staff speaking English. Out with the bit of paper with the message that I am a veggie, that is understood and a column in the menu gets pointed out. So what to choose from 20 or so dishes in that column, I was getting ready with the pin to blindly choose a couple of dishes when help arrived. Barbara had 'taken' the waitress around the restaurant on the tried and tested method of seeing what other diners were eating and to point to dishes she liked the look of when one asked if she could speak English and offered to help. He kindly interrupted his meal and choose several dishes that he thought we might like.
A divided cauldron was produced, with a gas bottle and ring to keep the contents bubbling, one half of this cauldron had a clear vegetable stock and the other half had a fiery red stock full of various spices. Then a huge plate of wafer thin slices of lamb was produced along with plates of mushroom, a large green leaf vegetable like a lettuce, very thin clear noodles, a sweet garlic bulb and two bowls of marinade. What to do next? We put some of the noodles and 'lettuce' into the clear stock and let them bubble for a minute or two and then tried to get them out. We were being watched, an exasperated owner / manager came and took over. She fished about in the cauldron and got the overcooked noodles out into the marinades, stopped us from getting the mushrooms and 'lettuce' out and proceeded to demonstrate how the noodles were cooked. Meanwhile the rest of the staff (8 of them) were standing around the table enjoying the spectacle. We had got the hang of it and were about to continue with a leisurely meal when one of the young waitresses was handed the tools and, I think, told to cook for these idiots and get them out of here fast. From then on it was a production line of food being cooked and eaten. It was delicious food, the spicy stock was a bit fiery but not overtly so. Our poor 'cook' was embarrassed, she was being teased by her colleagues for what she was having to do but she was all smiles. We were back on the street within about 20 minutes, fast food whether we wanted it or not.
All that entertainment including a large beer - 39 Rmb (£2.75), a cheap night out - so I paid!!.
The next morning when I was passing the same restaurant, there was a member of staff brushing the steps. When he saw me coming he stopped and smiled, he must have been one of the staff members on duty last night.
Thursday 26th August
Barbara booked us on a Chinese cooking evening at the Chinese Culture Club. Is this a hint she is getting tired of steamed broccoli and soy sauce every night?
The group consists of 9 women and 2 men, a Chinese chef who speaks no English and has a translator, two Chinese assistants who speak no English and 1 veggie – me. The work areas are already laid out with the ingredients and it is quickly obvious that the advertised veggie option includes chicken, shrimp and pork.
My ‘meat’ disappears and I am left with a bowl of flour, well not quite – a small piece of shallot, a small bowl of scrambled egg and a small bundle of green cabbage.
The tv programme ‘Ready Steady Cook’ would be seriously challenged with this lot.
Anyway, we prepare our fillings for wantons and dumplings before getting to grips on how to make the pastry. The chef was talented and there was nothing serious apart from the cleavers, fortunately there was no extra meat in anyone’s fillings. We got shown how to make the pastry, how to roll it and how to cut it. No real problems there. Then it was filling time. The chef filled and sealed the wantons, by hand, in a complicated but artistic way leaving a striped sort of pattern along the seal. He then went around and individually showed us how it was done again. His assistants followed, one student behind, and shaking their heads to say this is not the way it is done and filled and sealed them in a completely different way. It was very light hearted and it was fun. All this food got cooked and we feasted on our efforts and thankfully, with no after effects. Would I try cooking this at home, no you are all safe, I would buy them from the supermarket, so much easier but certainly less fun.
Friday 27th August
Dinner tonight, steamed broccoli and soy sauce.
Saturday 28th August
We got some really bad news today, I was visiting the Lido market this morning and was told by one of the stallholders that it is being closed down from the 26th of September on Government orders. I thought it may be something to do with the governments attempt to crackdown on fake goods. This opinion was later supported when we were told that the the government is coming under international pressure to act against fake goods.
So some serious retail therapy coming up sometime very soon.
I spent the afternoon in the Oriental Plaza then onto Wangfujing St – the shopping street. I wandered in out of some wonderful department stores; I will save the serious shopping for a cold / wet day.
Near the end of the street I came across a narrow lane with some Chinese stalls lining it, I wandered over and discovered a small warren of streets with some market type stalls but predominately fast food / hawker stalls with animated staff shouting at the public to buy their food. So many things you can buy on a stick, squid, sea horses, bugs, frogs etc. and as one menu put it ‘the innards of a goat’.
Me being a Capricorn, I suddenly lost my appetite.
Next I headed towards Tiananman Square hoping to get a better view of the sunset flag lowering ceremony we had seen a few weeks ago. I found a spot with only 3-4 rows of people, most of them a little shorter than I was so I could see over their heads. I managed to see the squad of soldiers goose stepping from the Forbidden City across to the flag pole at the north end of the square. The flag was lowered and then was folded up in a extremely over-emphasised manner with quite rigid, violent arm movements. The flag carrier was then escorted back across to the Forbidden City and that was the flag away to its bed for another day. I am not getting up before dawn to be in Tiananmen Square for the sunrise and to watch them raising the flag.
Sunday 29th August
We took our local metro all the way to the other end – Xishimen / Beijing North railway station, it is routed mainly to the north of the Fifth Ring Road and on either side of most of the route there is major construction work going on. The whole of Beijing is one huge construction site, everywhere you look building work of some sort is going on.
Most of you will know that I am not a great believer in zoos and I had heard that Beijing zoo is bad. However, I was asked to go and I did want to see the pandas too. In some cases what I had heard was true but there had been / are attempts being made to improve some areas. The pandas themselves were wonderful to see, they were behind thick glass and protected from the noisy public but their conditions were not very good.
The three pandas inside, in three separate cages, were asleep most of the time although one did wake up and started to eat bamboo. Outside there were another two pandas, again separated, and again their conditions were not great. We have heard of and seen photos of a panda sanctuary and their living conditions appear to be very good, I think we may try to visit there.
Monday 30th August
No phone, no internet. The landlord hasn’t paid the bills as he is contracted to do. We learn today that bills are not sent out, what you do is go to the bank and pay money into an account based on your phone number and this payment is done in a set period of days per month.
I went to the Lido market in the afternoon and discovered 2/3 of it was closing tomorrow night the remainder closing, as I had been told last week, in the middle of September.
I start my 'retail therapy' !!!!
Tuesday 31st August
I went back to the Lido market getting there just after 12, a digger / bulldozer was being manoeuvred into place next to the market plus there were security personnel all around.
I spent about 2 hours of retail therapy but it was really sad, some of the stallholders have nowhere to go to carry on their business, some were reducing their prices to a pittance to sell off their stock and still some buyers were trying to beat them down. I made some pointed comments to two women who were told a small decorated wooden box was now 8 Rmb, they offered the stallholder 1 Rmb. I told them that 8 Rmb was less than $1 and that many of the stallholders would now be unemployed. I don’t know if it had any effect.
The bulldozer was due to start it's work at 4pm.
Wednesday 1st September
Went back to the Lido Market, 2/3 rd’s of it has been demolished, not much rubble either; the recyclers have been over it picking out the bricks and other bits.
Thursday 2nd September
An 8:30am start for the Summer Palace, and almost 2 hours after leaving the apartment I reach the Summer Palace’s North Gate.
The first thing I visit is the Suzhou Jie, a Venice like conglomeration of touristy shops clinging perilously to the algae green waters edge with only about a 1 metre wide pavement all around. I think on a busy day they would do a roaring trade fishing people out of the water.
It was then on up some steep staircases that zigzagged up Wangshou Hill passing some lovely pavilions on the way and the views to the north and west were excellent – not much by way of mist / smog today. At the top I had a panoramic view to the south over the rooftops of the temples and pavilions and out over the lake to South Lake Isle and its 17 Arch Bridge. So after a bit of viewing I descend more zigzagging stairways to the lakeside passing on the way pavilions containing relics of various Emperors and Empresses but it was a ‘noses against glass job’ to see anything, the relics were locked up gathering dust where they had been left.
The buildings themselves have some exotic names – ‘The Benevolence and Longevity Hall’, ‘The Cloud Dispensing Hall’, ‘Hall of Endless Consciousness’, ‘Hall of Prevailing Virtue’ and how about for a garden – ‘The Harmonious Interest Garden’ and they are but a few.
I walked a section of the 700 metre+ ’Long Corridor’, which has scenic paintings on every one of its roof beams, to get to the infamous Marble Boat. This ‘extravagance’ was built in 1888 by the last Empress using money, reputedly, destined for the dilapidated Chinese Navy so, instead of getting some new boats, they got a marble monument and shortly later they got defeated by the Japanese Navy, at least this boat wasn’t sunk.
A long pleasant walk around the north and east shores of the lake took me to the South Lake / Nanhu Isle and the lovely marble 17 Arch Bridge. On the isle there was an exhibition about the last Empress – Empress Dowager Cixi, and some great views across the lake to the main buildings of the Summer Palace. Then it was back to the North Gate via various lily filled lakes including the ‘The Harmonious Interest Garden’, which is a very apt name for such a beautiful setting.
Friday 3rd September
We are going to a tea house again tonight, a friday night and I am drinking tea!!! Not a Becks in sight.
Well that is what I thought we were doing, however we joined up with a group of friends and were taken to a Hutong courtyard that has been converted into a restaurant that serves ‘Emperor style food’. Hutongs are the narrow alleyways off which most Beijinger’s once lived and they are being progressively demolished to make way for new roads, new housing, new offices etc. etc. A Hutong courtyard was originally surrounded by the living quarters of the extended family and this particular one has converted these rooms into a series of private dining areas and a small communal dining area. It was a lovely setting albeit it was down some very dark and dodgy looking alleyways!! If I was an Emperor I could only describe the food as an interesting experience, expensive and not very inspiring and that seemed to be the consensus of the group.
After dinner it was onto the Sanlitun area for a beer or two and to listen to some ‘not very good’ cover versions being sung by the resident band.
Saturday 4th September
A lazy day.
We walked to an indoor market that I had found during the week and had a wander about. It has a huge fresh fruit and vegetable section, a fresh meat section and an even bigger section selling everything else from clothes to electrical equipment. I think you could buy almost anything here.
Sunday 5th September
Beijing Hikers to the Pinnacle tower and as they describe it –
A wild Wall walk, the view from the high point is stunning. It seats on the “Big eastern mountain” in Huai Rou County north of Beijing.
The walk starts from a valley followed by a mountain trail going up to the Wall. When we get on the Wall we will follow a nice trail that runs through the middle of it. The high point would make a perfect spot for lunch. A panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and other stretches of the Great Wall is breath taking. On the way to the top tower we have to use the rope at a little difficult part to go down. We finish the walk at a quiet park that is also a secret to most people’.
It was wonderful.
It was almost a 2 hours drive to the north of Beijing before we got to the foot of the hill.
This section of the Great Wall hasn't been restored as in other places like Badaling and you have to climb up to about the 900 metres level using a rough and steep path to get there so there were no tourist buses, etc. there. This was a brick and stone built section dating back to the Ming Dynasty 1368 - 1644 but it was in great condition all things considering. The walls were pretty much all intact, a few sections of parapet had collapsed or were leaning a bit and the track on top was overgrown with bushes in most sections but it was still walkable albeit slowly and with a bit of scrambling here and there on the very steep bits. Where we had lunch we could see the wall snaking from the west to the north, then south to where we were, then further south then east and so on until it disappeared in the mists of the surrounding hills. The walk back down was nice in its own right; down through a lovely valley with a temple in a cave, following a stream in places with lots of plants and flowers. It was a wonderful experience. More of the same next weekend!!
Monday 6th September
I have noticed that Durian's have started to appear in the fruit & veg markets, but I didn't expect to see them in the supermarkets, I smelled them before I saw them!!
For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, see what the Smithsonian Institute has to say about them , politely!!!. In Malaysia and Singapore it is illegal to take them on public transport.
Saturday 11th September
Beijing Hikers Weekend / Overnight trip to the Silver Pagodas and Huang Hua Cheng Great Wall.
All 44 of us on the bus have a lovely picnic lunch at one of Huilin’s houses (one of BJ Hikers owners) in the village / hamlet of Hua Guo Shan (Flower and Fruit Mountain). The Moon Cakes that Huilin bought on the way here were delicious, and they were the best Moon Cakes yet. Purely in your interests and to the detriment of my waistline, I will continue researching for the best mooncakes and I will report back in due course.
She has renovated this house and is trying to rent it out for weekends / weeks at a time. The house still has the attached shed for the donkey including built in feeding trough. I don't think a donkey is included in the rent, but then again this is China!!
The area around the village seems to be particularly fertile with lots of fruit trees and various vegetables being grown – we saw pumpkin, aubergine, zucchini / marrow, corn, millet, chestnuts and various berry trees. In some of the villages we drove through, sweet corn had been laid out at the edge of / on the road to dry in the sun, huge piles of the stuff; we also saw the prickly protective husks of chestnuts being treated in the same way. Then on a bridge, straddling a gorge, we saw them working with millet, they seemed to have separated the grains from the stems, roughly ground it with what I don’t know and were tossing the result into the air. I think they may have been utilising the wind / breeze blowing along the gorge to blow away the husks.
Onto the ‘Silver Pagodas Loop’ walk, it starts off reasonably easily for the first couple of hours and initially we walk through a sand and rock quarry area before reaching some nice countryside; we pass through a village and some orchards. Eventually we start up a steep slope that starts as another quarry road then quickly turns into a dirt path leading up to the summit lookout. Hazy but great views from the top, we can see the ‘Silver Pagodas’ in the valley below standing there like rockets waiting to take off. The path down on the other side is paved but still steep and quite difficult. When we reach the valley floor we round a corner and we are confronted by this weird, surreal, alien type sight of these huge pagodas standing there in front of us. There is an information board that tells us that this site dates from 1145 and that there used to be a temple here with these 7 pagodas inside it, the temple must have been huge not only in surface area but in height. All that remains are the stone foundations and low walls but they give no real impression of the physical presence that this place must have once had. Two of the pagodas are of a different design from the rest and they are Lama Pagodas the other 5 are ‘eaves pagodas’. They are truly spectacular to see.
It was then back to the bus for about a half hours ride to our hotel nestling in a valley and close by there was a section of the Great Wall running down either side of the valley hillsides. The location was called Huang Hua Cheng , it was quite a setting.
We had dinner on the rooftop terrace and as dinner started about 7pm there was still enough light to see the Great Wall as a backdrop. What a dinner, so many plates of food and most of them were veggie. A bonfire was lit and we all stood / sat around talking with the occasional person doing a ‘turn’. A great day and a great evening.
Sunday 12th September
Breakfast at 8am, the hordes are in before 7:45am and the food is disappearing fast.
Nine o’clock saw us crossing a wide stream, coming from the dammed lake, on a very wobbly wire bridge with a deck made from wood that looked as though originated from pallets. There were a lot of people on this bridge at one time and it wobbled!! Then it was up a very steep dirt track to the second tower where we managed to get onto the wall itself. The planners and builders of this wall certainly didn’t want to make it easy for anyone to get onto their wall, intruders and tourists alike, sometimes it feels like there is no differentiation.
This section of the wall at Huang Hua Cheng is currently being renovated so parapets, walkways, towers etc. are being worked on. It is an example of Ming Great Wall and is apparently one of the best examples. If this section is being renovated for the hordes of tourists then they had better be fit to come here.
It was a very steep climb upwards with the new paving slabs giving much less grip than the original bricks that had been used and that were evident later. We reached the top to be confronted with the wall dipping down into a small valley then rising even more steeply at the other side and to a point higher than we were at the moment, then coming back down the same hill but more to the east, maybe only about 1 km away, before rising up from the next valley and onwards. I was exhausted just looking at it. Down we went into the valley to have a look at this next section, it was steep, very steep, at least 65 – 75° and at a rough guess the top was maybe about 500 metres above us. The brave and the fit continued, the wimps and the unfit didn't.
We returned to the last tower that we had passed and exited onto a path that crossed over to the section of the wall coming back down from this mountain. The guide we spoke to reckoned they would take about 2 hours to go to the top and back down to where we were headed. More like 45 minutes – 1 hour for the first of them to reach us. Before that though, we crossed over to this section and had a look at it. At one point the wall stopped, there was a sheer drop before it continued so there was no through route along the wall.
When the bulk of the group arrived it split into those wanting to head back to the hotel and those that wanted to continue onto the next section of the wall. So the wall junkie that I have become expended even more sweat climbing the slope up to the next section of the wall. This section hasn’t been renovated so the top was overgrown with bushes although a path had been driven through it. There was a short level section before it started to rise at about 45° so we clambered up the remnants of the brick walkway for a short distance before stopping, the views from here were wonderful.
We headed back down the path then along a dirt road passing a farm and more chestnut trees being battered by farmers with long bamboo poles trying to dislodge the nuts from the trees. We got back to the hotel to find the first group were well into the lunch food and with the second group probably not due back for about another ½hr we were put on the table with the most food left but it was sufficient plus with a bottle or two of beer I was happy.
It was another nice drive back through some lovely countryside before reaching the manic traffic of Beijing.
Next section of the Great Wall please.
Thursday 16th September
Today I went to the Pearl Market and re-visited the Temple of Heaven.
The Pearl Market is an indoor market over 3 levels with only the top floor set aside for a variety of mainly ‘stone’ jewellery. What struck me, when I wandered through the stalls, was the quantity of pearls on offer, there was an unbelievable amount in such a small area. If, as you are led to believe, these pearls are all real there must be a huge industry somewhere ‘farming’ these pearls. I learned later that a single string pearl necklace could be bought for around 200 Rmb - £14.
The other two floors of the building had areas selling the usual ‘genuine’ designer clothing, some antiques and a large area devoted to electronics and mobiles.
A short walk later I arrived at the Temple of Heaven Park again; this is the site where Emperors would perform sacrifices and rites to heaven.
I re-visited the ‘Seven Star Rocks’ and the ’72 Long Corridors’ before entering the walled area containing the ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests’. Even though I have seen so many temples, pagodas, halls to this and to that and, on occasion at some sites, feel I am suffering from temple overload, I am still in awe at these beautiful structures. The ‘Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests’, originally built in 1420, is a circular hall 30m in diameter and 38m high with a blue tiled roof capped by a golden sphere. It is constructed without nails or cross beams and only 28 pillars support the magnificent arched ceiling. Unfortunately you are not permitted to enter and you can only see the interior from an open doorway.
The Danbi Bridge is a wide elevated walkway that leads to the ‘Echo Wall’ that surrounds the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’. If you whisper at any point on the 65m diameter ‘Echo Wall’ a friend can allegedly hear that whisper at the diagonally opposite side, but considering the crowds there …
A little further is the ‘Circular Mound Altar’ and, like a lot of other things here, features more than you initially realise. Odd numbers were considered heavenly and nine, being the highest single digit odd number, was classed as the Imperial number nine. This structure was originally constructed in 1530, is made of white marble in three tiers and everything else is in multiples of the imperial number nine. The top tier has nine rings of stone with each ring composed of the appropriate multiple of nine stones, i.e. ring 9 has 81 stones, the number of stairs and balustrades are also multiples of nine.
I had a look to see if the Imperial #9 bus went anywhere near Wangjing where we live, it didn’t so I had to resort to the non Imperial metro and a bit of certainly non Imperial walking!!
Saturday 18th September
Today we headed out to Liuichang Street, me to re-visit and Barbara to visit for the first time.
We went into a couple of the bookstore – calligraphy shops, what a huge range of items. One thing that intrigued me was a big selection of books which were entirely of ‘inscription rubbings’, they were encyclopaedia like and they were printed on very thin matt paper which made it look as though they were originals. There was no accompanying text; it was just page after page of ‘inscription rubbings’.
I hadn’t a clue about all the artists’ materials on offer, but what a selection of brushes and inks.
Further along the street there was a small tea shop where we stopped to look at mugs. We were invited in for a tea drinking ceremony and, as it was time for a cuppa, and it was free, who was I that was going to turn down such an offer.
We were seated on a low couch and we watched as this lady went through the ritual of rinsing the tiny cups, warming them with water, emptying them and more rinsing. It was the same ritual for the teapot before it saw any tea leaves.
We were told that very few Chinese drink black tea – it is fermented tea, whereas they drink green tea, olong tea, jasmine tea etc. Then there are the teas you drink if you have a particular ailment, sore throats, stomach problems, etc. there is a tea for everything. We sampled two green teas, both quite different and an olong tea. Here, the more you pay the better the quality and the better the tasting / flavoured tea you get. So we left with some green tea and some olong tea to try ourselves, I think we may be back for more.
Oh, I went twice round the 3 teas that were prepared, I reckon 6 small cups = 1 mug, and no I didn’t ask for milk and sugar.
Later we visited a bigger tea shop; it was quite an old shop and looked as though it had been around for a long time. The female staff were dressed in nurse like uniforms portraying a healthy sort of image. A good sign was that the shop was busy with Chinese buying their supplies. However, what was surprising was the price of some of the tea on sale – the most expensive I saw was 2600 Rmb for 500 grams., that is over £170.
For part of the month I was back in Scotland then we had a visitor for a week, so I had no opportunity to write up a diary. If I have time in the future I will try and fill this gap.
Saturday 6th November
Our weekend trip to Chengde.
Awake and up at 5:30am, we took a taxi to Beijing Railway Station – it took about 20mins compared to the usual 10hrs 15mins and 10secs because the roads were so quiet.
We went through the airline style security (x-ray luggage and metal detector for humans) and then went up the escalator to the 2nd floor (1st floor to Europeans), through to the section for ‘Soft Class’ passengers and then waited at the specific gate for train number N211. The gate was opened ½ hr before the train departed and it was back down a level with the stairs ending at the ‘soft class’ section of the train. The train had about 12 carriages, 2 appeared to be for freight, 8 for ‘hard class’ passengers and 2 for ‘soft class’ passengers.
Hard class coaches conjured up thoughts of the wooden bench seats as experienced in Europe in the early 70’s but no, the seats were upholstered. Soft class coaches had white heavy net – crotched curtains, white tablecloths on the ½ tables and a narrow carpet running along the length of the coach. Each coach entrance had an attendant checking the tickets of those boarding and these same attendants were present in the coach throughout the journey.
The train left, as timetabled, at exactly 7:16 am and we headed first towards the east through the misty suburbs of Beijing before turning north east towards Chengde.
The coach now had 4 – 5 dedicated staff, we were offered tea or coffee, thinking it was gratis, as no money was asked for, we accepted. About 15 mins later they returned and relieved us of some money. Then they came round with guide books for Chengde, then it was packs of postcards for Beijing, then several visits with a variety of souvenirs, then food, then silk ties, then bottle covers fashioned as Chinese dress and so on and so on.
I think travelling by train gives you a different perspective of a country that you do not get travelling by road, in many cases you are travelling through someone’s back yard especially in the suburbs of a town or a city.
The countryside was grey and drab not only due to the cold mist but also because we were now in the dry season and there has been no rain for weeks. Eventually we left the plain that Beijing lies on and started to climb up into the mountains that surround it. At one point in the distance we could see a section of the Great Wall, we travelled through some lovely valleys, then in the next valley there would be huge factories / coal mines / cement factories belching huge amounts of smoke, then it would be into another valley sometimes with small farms. Maize (sweetcorn) appears to be a staple crop in this part of China; the remnants of the stalks are everywhere and for weeks now we have seen sweetcorn drying in the sun on any available ground space. Now they are in stacks on roofs, verandahs or anywhere that there is a little bit of storage space.
We arrived in Chengde exactly on time – 11:16 am, 4 hours and 225Km from Beijing.
Chengde is an 18th century imperial resort and has, supposedly, the remnants of the largest regal garden in China. The total area is twice the size of the Summer Palace in Beijing and it took 89 years to complete. A Chinese website describes it –
as an important location of wonderful scenery and pleasant climate. Grand palaces, delicate temples, peculiar mountains, exquisite pavilions and tranquil waters are full of beautiful things in your eyes’.
So there, we had high expectations!!
The emperor responsible, Kangxi and his descendants promoted, for their own control agendas, Tibetan and Mongolian Lamaism which is why the area has so many monasteries and temples.
The train was met by a wave of hotel touts flashing brochures of the hotels they ‘represented’. The deal is you agree a hotel, you agree a price, and the touts take you to the hotel and the touts get commission from the hotel. We agreed a price of 180 Rmb. for a hotel across the street from the entrance to the Imperial Summer Villa. Our tout and his female accomplice tried to bend the rules. First we were ushered into her taxi, the meter wasn’t used and less than 10 min. later we were at the hotel. 20Rmb. was asked for, a firm NO, 10Rmb. an equally firm NO. Into the hotel, the room rate was now 200 Rmb. with 20Rmb going to the touts, no way. We were starting to walk away when suddenly it was 180 Rmb again, so it was up to the room and now there was no key available.
A key was found. The tout left but the taxi driver wouldn’t leave the room, she wanted to drive us to the temples, after a few minutes of No, No, NO and more NO she was unceremonially bundled out of the room, I had had enough. Peace now ensued.
Off now across the road to the Imperial Summer Palace, it was cold but sunny – a nice late autumn afternoon.
We paid our 60 Rmb each entry fee and collected another colourful ticket to add to our mounting collection of colourful tickets. Using the map we had, we decided to walk to the west of the lakes and then have a short walk in part of the woodland and hills that are there. At the first path into the woodland there was a sign, in Chinese only, and a security guard, he wouldn’t allow us through; it was the same at the next pathway and at all the subsequent pathways. We were none too pleased. The next day we found out that all the woodland area had been closed due to the fire risk because everything was so dry.
So it was a wander around the lakes and visiting the various buildings around it. It was not to be our day, the Yongyousi Ta pagoda, which towered in the NE corner of the park, was closed for restoration.
The lakes and the trees were beautiful; we took some wonderful photographs especially of reflections in the water, with some it is difficult to identify what is the reflection and what is real.
Apart from one other couple, we were the only non-Chinese in the park that afternoon.
At one building there was a group of Chinese schoolgirls, they wanted to have their photos taken with us, 10 – 15 photos later I was jokingly asking for 10 Rmb from each of them, then other tourists joined in, they wanted their photographs taken too!! Worse was to come, about 10 mins. later we came across two policemen who were taking photographs of each other and of the buildings. One of them started to talk to us in basic English, then he left, but he was back minutes later, he wanted a photograph of him and us. Now what do you do !!! I keep well clear of the Police at the best of times, I hope I am not now in a most wanted poster.
Sunset was about 5pm, the already low temperature plummeted and with the light wind the chill factor made it feel below zero. We decided to have an early dinner so we walked to the area suggested by the Lonely Planet as to where there were some restaurants. There wasn’t much to choose from and, as it was now quite cold, we ventured into what appeared to be one of the busier restaurants. They obviously hadn’t come across many non-Chinese before; there was a lot of giggling amongst the young female staff – none of whom could speak any English. Needless to say the menu had no English either. So with a bit of looking about, a bit of pointing and some very basic Chinese we ended up with some veggie filled steamed dumplings, vegetable fried rice and steamed beans and garlic, oh and a bottle of beer, all for 35Rmb. The meal was delicious. We wandered a bit after dinner but the cold eventually forced us back to the hotel, en-route we bought a bottle of Great Wall red wine, a cheeky little number, which helped defrost us when we got back.
Sunday 7th November
We packed up and left the hotel early and took a bus in the direction of where most of the temples were located. We ended up near the Puning Si – Temple of Universal Tranquility, so we decided on visiting it.
No nice big colourful ticket here, for our 30Rmb each entry fee we were given small cards with a magnetic strip. This was like going into a London Underground station not a temple. At the turnstiles a flunky took the ticket and put it into the turnstile for us, obviously these foreign types didn’t know how to work these new fangled machines !!
We walked from the modern into the ancient in an instant, into a courtyard where worshippers were burning incense sticks and praying. We visited and walked through several temples before climbing the steep steps up to the main temple – Mahayana, and to see the huge golden statue of Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy. She was a big lady, 22 metres high, has 42 arms with each palm bearing an eye and each hand holding e.g. a lotus. We paid an extra 10Rmb and climbed the stairs to the first gallery to get a closer view and it was worth it to see the handiwork and appreciate the huge scale of her, if that was needed. Outside there were a group of Tibetan (?) musicians playing which added to the atmosphere. It was quite an experience.
We walked up some stairs to the back of the temple where we were confronted by a very strange sight; there was a level paved area about 5 metre or so wide before the path continued up a hillside to a small temple on the top. The paved area and the path up the hillside was lined by a single strand wire fence, the wire was completely hidden by padlocks, thousands and thousands of padlocks. Even the huge incense burner was covered in padlocks. It was a very strange sight, there was even a lady with a stall selling a variety of padlocks.
To get out of this temple complex we had to walk through an area of ‘traditional’ stall holders in ‘traditional’ dress, sadly their wares was mainly typical tourist stuff and their insistence on getting you to look had the opposite effect and we departed quickly.
Yesterday we had seen a very strange looking rock sticking up into the skyline in the far distance, after a bit of guide book research we found out what it was – Club Rock, and we figured we had enough time to go have a closer look.
We took a bus to another temple – Pule Si which was supposedly close to this rock, and started walking along some dirt paths guessing what the Chinese signs meant and eventually we came to a closed park entrance. It had a big painting with all the features of the park on it including Club Rock and also another rock called Toad Rock, so we were at the correct place. Suddenly the park was open !! - someone appeared with a book of entrance tickets, so we paid up, the gate was opened and we were in.
We reckoned we had a max. of 2½ hours to get to the rock and back to the entrance. It was a lovely park with some lovely scenery, lovely views and gentle hiking. We made it to Toad Rock at the top of a hill, from a distance it did look like a squatting toad. To me it appeared to be made of a natural, concrete looking stone, how was it carved? was it glacial, was it historical water erosion – no idea. No time to hang around, it was down a steep stepped slope and up a steep stepped arriving, somewhat breathless, at this very phallic Club Rock. It was made of the same material as Toad Rock but how? At both sites, the Chinese had placed the stalks of plants in an upright position against the base of the rocks in some sort of symbolic gesture to stop these rocks from falling over.
Sitting at the base of Club Rock we had a brief picnic lunch with some lovely, somewhat misty views of the surrounding countryside. Then it was back the way we had come and we had enough time to spare to take some photographs of the Pule Si temple which has a similar pavilion to that of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Then it was back by bus to the hotel to collect our bag and where we decided to walk the few kilometres to the station, gathering some street food from the stallholders’ en-route.
Train number N212 left precisely at 14:40; again we had opted for soft class. There were some familiar faces in this coach, some were here yesterday. Yesterday we had no companions around our table, this time we were seated opposite a Chinese couple who could speak some English. He was an engineer who knew about the Scottish (?) companies Howdens and, Babcocks and she was in HR for guess who? B&Q, she had been to the University of Durham for 1 year. So we had an interesting ride back to Beijing getting answers to lots of our questions that we had been storing up for some poor unsuspecting Chinese.
It was the same routine as yesterday with the attendants, tea or coffee, snacks, postcards, ties, scarves, every ten minutes or so it was something else and it was only the foreigners that were getting targeted with the souvenir stuff. About ½ hr before we arrived in Beijing, the tablecloths were gathered up, the carpet and floors were swept; the floor was washed with a big mop – shoes as well if you weren’t quick enough with lifting your feet. All this for 122Rmb (£8) round trip, where else could you get such entertainment for such a cheap price !!
We arrived in Beijing exactly on schedule at 18:40, again only one stop en-route. It had been a very busy train; the hard class carriages had been full, the platform was crowded as was the corridor leading to the main exit where we managed to create a log jam trying to find our tickets when we were confronted by a senseless ticket check to exit onto the street. There was no point sitting in a taxi for nn hours so we got onto the metro system, went as far as we could – Wangjing West and took a taxi home from there.
Saturday 13th November
I didn’t fancy it much but relationships are about doing things that you don’t necessarily want to do – on this occasion visit Chairman Mao.
We have now got into a routine about what is the best and quickest method of getting from A to B, so for Tiananmen Square it is a taxi to the metro station at Wangjing West, take the Line 13 metro to Dongzhimen and then change to the Line 2 metro to Qianmen (south Tianamen Square), travelling time is about 1 hour from the apartment.
We got to Tiananmen Square about 10:30 and made our way to the entrance to the Mao Zedong Mausoleum and tried to join the queue, we got rejected - we had bags with us. A tout pounced on us and dragged us away, me reluctantly and suspiciously, along the square then across the road that surrounds the square to a building where we were to deposit our bags. After reading the signs - to the tout’s irritation, we deposited our bags and headed back to the queue. Needless to say he wanted money; I offered him a small amount which was refused so he got nothing. He muttered loudly to the Chinese around us, I can only guess what was said but he still got nothing.
The queue grew quickly then suddenly it moved en masse through the gates to the next ‘staging point’ where we again waited for a few minutes. There was a small portacabin type structure selling bouquets of fresh flowers and they were being snapped up by numerous Chinese.
Then we moved again, this time all the way into the building with the queue tapering down to single file once inside. We entered a large hallway with a full size statue of Chairman Mao sitting in an armchair, those with flowers placed them on a trolley in front of the statue. Where did these flowers go afterwards? Not very far I suspect.
Then it was along a corridor and then into a room where his body lay inside a glass case. We were quickly ushered along so we only got a brief view of him, very white faced, dressed in a grey suit and covered up to his chest with a red cover.
The way out was along another corridor leading to souvenir stalls selling all sorts of stuff related to Mao – photographs, posters, tea, key fobs, t-shirts, cigarettes, coins, postcards, jewellery, you name it it was being sold. On the steps leading back onto the square, more souvenir sellers selling even more stuff. What would Mao have made of all this?
We rejoined our bags, time 11 o’clock, and all that in 30 mins.
We walked to the Forbidden City, sat beside one of the moats surrounding it and had a picnic lunch in the sunshine.
Next we headed for the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Centre at the south end of Tiananmen Square.
We had seen this place advertised in one of the expatriate’s magazines and there was one thing there that we both really wanted to see, it is a 3 dimensional model of the city of Beijing. The room’s floor was an aerial map of the whole Beijing conurbation and the central area – about 16 km. in radius, was this 3D model. The model itself was cordoned off but you could wander around it walking on the surrounding map. We managed to find the district we live in, the key sites there and eventually some of the surrounding apartment blocks. Our apartment hadn’t been built yet, neither had the new motorway to the west of us, nor the Line 13 metro and there were still a lot of Hutong areas which have since been demolished - the map was probably about 4 years out of date. Even still it was very interesting. The central 3D area was fascinating; we managed to spot many now familiar landmarks and some landmarks that we haven’t yet visited – there was a lot of ‘ah that is where that is’. The perspective we got was that of a passenger in an aircraft flying over Beijing and when we went upstairs to the viewing gallery it was even more spectacular. We were also surprised about how big an area that is still occupied by Hutongs.
Sunday 14th November
For all of you that are already 'overdosed' with the spirit of Christmas - I choose my words carefully!! at the ‘Habitat’ style shop near the Holiday Inn Lido they were delivering a large artificial Christmas tree, the very first token of Christmas we have seen here.
Wednesday 17th November
It was time for another haircut; some friends have recommended a hairdresser near their office so I go there.
I arrive, no English spoken, so what is the worst that can happen – I get mistaken for a Buddhist monk and get a shaven head.
It is 10 o’clock, I get directed to a chair and a young woman pours a clear liquid onto my hair and starts massaging it into a lather. I was getting a rather nice, gentle head massage and so it was for the first few minutes and then she gradually started to work her nails into the routine. Her nails weren’t long, but they were long enough, you know what I mean guys!!
Relax, how could I relax, she was sending shivers down my spine!!
This lasted for I don’t know how long, maybe 10 mins. or so. I was then led into an adjoining room containing two couches, sorry to disappoint my male readers, but they were for lying on while your head rested in a basin and your hair was being washed. I was then led back into the main salon, put back into the same seat and she continued with my head. My head got squeezed, my closed eyelids were massaged, my eyebrows were massaged, my temples were compressed, my ears were pulled and stretched in every direction and then she started on my neck. I was beginning to suspect as to whether this was a hairdressers, I had been here for ½ hour and not a single hair had seen a scissors. My neck got pummelled, then my shoulders, then my arms, my hands and then my back as my head rested on the table in front of the chair. Then she stopped, what was left of me was directed to another chair, what next?
Ah a haircut.
I put some of my hair between two fingers and indicated that the hair sticking through was what I wanted cut. No chance, I got what he wanted to do – about 5mm length of hair left, but meticulously cut. At 11 o’clock I paid and left, the cost of all of this 20Rmb – about £1.30. I am wondering how to get my hair to grow back quickly so that I can get another of these massages, maybe I should just go back next week and go for 2.5mm and the following week 0.5mm.
Saturday 20th November
I am progressively getting through the list of the places I want to see / visit in Beijing and today I decided on the Bell and Drum Towers.
I took the bus to Dongzihmen then walked to the Drum Tower, it was a nice walk; it was cold but sunny with a slight wind. The Drum Tower was originally built in 1273 and marked the centre of the old Mongol capital, this version was built in 1420. To get to the drums you have to climb a very steep set of stairs in a dimly lit corridor. The view from the balcony was excellent and you could see for quite a distance today – to the north the Bell Tower, to the south Coal Hill, south west to Hou Hai Park etc. Inside the drummers had just finished their session when I arrived. A supervisory sort of lady saw me videoing and went and got them out again and had them redo their routine while I filmed them. At the end I rewound the tape and played it back to them, they seemed to be impressed with lots of laughter and talking amongst themselves. There were many drums on display, all barrel shaped with hide ends and all lying on their side.
There was also interesting information on some posters about when the coldest and hottest times of the year are. After the winter solstice - December 21st - 22nd, in a Chinese calendar there are 9 x 9 day periods of time, beginning the 3rd period the coldest period starts (around 8th January) and by the time the 5th period starts (around 26th January) things have started to warm up again.
The Bell Tower is only a short distance away from Drum Tower and dates from the 18th century, the original, dating back to the same age as the Drum Tower was burned down. It is similar in construction as the Drum Tower but much smaller in floor size, again steep stairs up – I counted 65. It has a big solitary bell in an old wooden frame. Not much else I can say about it, interesting to see, but ...
I walked to Hou Hai Park, it is now very quiet with very few people about, unlike the summer when you could hardly move but the rickshaw drivers were still there trying to get you to take a tour of the surrounding Hutongs. The boats have gone, the lilleys have all died back, the restaurants are practically empty but it was nice without the crowds. I continued to Coal Hill Park – Jingshan Gongyuan and just after entering I was entertained by a group dancing to music, some were dancing together in a type of waltz and one lady was dancing by herself with no particular technique, to me it looked more like an exercise routine. There is always something unusual to see in a Beijing Park.
Sunday 21st November
I went with the BJ Hikers on their hike named ‘A long way to walk to pray for rain’. There were 3 minibuses today - maybe about 45 people, apparently a big bus wouldn’t be able to get under a rail bridge en-route. Today’s walk is to the SE of Hi Yun reservoir about a 2¼ hrs drive and just outside Beijing there is evidence as to how cold it was, the water in the ditches was frozen. Once off the main roads the drive becomes rather nice with some lovely hilly scenery. At a village we turn of onto a very narrow road, through a very narrow tunnel under a railway line then drive for a while on dirt track before entering a gorge and driving for some distance before coming out at a hotel that is closed for the season.
The initial part of the walk continued on the same dirt track with a gentle gradient upwards before we passed through a set of gates which were supposed to be the park entrance. We walked for a bit before veering off up a slope, and then as we walked on a narrow path along the contour of a hillside, from the road below, we got stopped by shouts from two men.
They were supposedly chicken farmers; even from this distance they were very well dressed for chicken farmers!! After some shouting too and fro it became apparent they were after some money, Huille had already paid money to cross this land and it seemed at least one of these two was not happy – about the amount? or lack of a cut of it? Anyway, we now couldn’t use this route because of bird flu, their chickens etc. I guess a threatened phone call to the agricultural / health authorities would have shut them up – mention bird flu and the chickens are dead, the area quarantined etc. etc. the authorities take this issue very, very seriously. One of them was very loud, very animated with arms waving and very angry, the quieter one came up and after a discussion with Huille we turned back for a short distance before he led us up another path straight up onto the ridge of the hill.
The walk on this ridge was actually very nice because we could see down into two valleys at once, we walked for quite a distance before rejoining the point that we should have reached from the other route and where we were to have lunch. Ironically some of the walkers had chicken sandwiches for lunch. The countryside was very dry and very brown but it was rather beautiful. It was a very sunny day with blue sky and in the sun it was actually warm, some were walking in t-shirts and we were all sweating. The afternoons walk was more uphill, downhill, and uphill again with lovely countryside and views, then it was through a hamlet before the final descent through old, long abandoned farmed terraces. Now, because we were out of the sun, the temperature plummeted to what it really was – near freezing. A final walk through a village then just beyond were the minibuses and our afternoon refreshments, tea, coffee, beer, cookies, nuts etc. Then it was into the minibus and the long drive back to Beijing and a snooze en-route.
Monday 22nd November
I'm off to Xian tonight by train from Beijing West Railway Station. It took about 2 hours to get to the railway staion and I arrived there just before 6pm. There were only a couple of soft class sleeper coaches, the rest were mainly hard class sleeper coaches and a few hard class seat coaches, I was in car 14 with about 3 more coaches in front, it was probably a 17 – 18 coach train.
The Hard Class seating coach was mobbed, there were 4 seats around a table on one side of the corridor and 6 seats around a 1/2 table on the other side, there were no spare seats, all the seats were reserved and it was incredible to watch all the luggage got stowed and mainly in the overhead racks. There were covers on seats, towel rails on the windows - towels were hung there to dry in the morning after the morning ablutions, the train’s final destination??? some where in China, but wherever it was, it was not due to arrive until 15:00 the next day.
The train left on time, very slowly at first until it’s momentum built up, the dot matrix information screen, at either end of every coach, displayed alternatively in Chinese and partly in English the coach number, the date and time, train number, next station and time of arrival, the temperature outside – could have been inside because there was no heating or very little and finally the velocity of this projectile, not speed but velocity. The velocity reached 138Kmh at one stage; I didn’t see it getting any higher.
There were at least two crew members on each coach with an open plan ‘desk’ at the end of the coach with a stack of box files that were processed throughout the journey. About every 2 hours they would empty the metal trays containing rubbish at each table, then the floors would be swept and just before arriving in Xian the floor got washed. Hot Food trolleys went through, souvenir trolleys went through, snack trolleys went through, and fruit trolleys went through. The loud piped music continued until 10pm, my neighbours opposite had bought a new mobile phone, he spent the whole night testing it, ring tones, alarms, all the beeping functions. The first stop was about 10pm, 1/3rd of the passengers in this coach got off and were replaced, again I am amazed at the amount of baggage and that it all got stowed. The next stop was just before midnight and at least 1/2 got off but this time not many people got on. The next two stops were in close succession at about 3am then it was non stop to Xian. I managed to sleep / doze but it was very uncomfortable, my back was sore and stiff, then it was mobile boy or loud snoring from some surrounding passengers or someone would decide to eat and they would head off to the end of the coach to fill their big pot noodle container with hot water and then let the smell waft through the carriage and so it got repeated throughout the night. As daybreak broke, the near identical wash bags appeared and a steady stream of Chinese then went to the end of the coaches to the 2 open plan sinks where they washed and brushed their teeth and then they hung their damp towels on the towel rails at the window by their seats. I was surprised washing lines weren’t strung between the seats.
Tuesday 23rd November
It was a foggy morning, the visibility varied the nearer we got to Xian. It was unusual scenery that the train passed through and there were lots of random headstones / shrines dotted about the countryside. The train arrived in Xian about 15 mins late, according to our dot matrix info board ‘track late’ – I can only guess that there were late running track repairs.
Xian station was very busy with hotel touts on the platform; I went through the ticket barrier check and then ran the gauntlet of even more touts. I told them I had a reservation, where? The reply would be change, we have cheaper, I cant I’ve paid. The cheapest seemed to be about 180rmb but for what.
My hotel was at number 132, I arrived outside the Hyatt at number 134 and there was another hotel at number 130, but there was no 132 and no hotel. I tried walking around the block, I couldn’t, it was barred part of the way round, so back to the Hyatt where there was a small lane running down the side onto another cross street with a different name. It looked more like offices but there were some suited men standing outside a nameless building, I tried talking to them in English, no response, showed them my bit of paper with the hotel name on it and after a moment or two, I was gestured inside passing a sign in English saying ‘Proper Attire’ – me, I was unshaven, in dirty denims, scruffy Timberland boots, baggy blue North Face jacket and a rucksack – proper attire for me anyway, they didn’t argue anyway. I was led to the reception desk where they spoke a little bit of English, the conversation ran along the lines of - I have a reservation, I was asked to write my name, I am not registered on the computer, I show them the name of the company who made the reservation, how much had I agreed, 208Rmb, the manager is phoned, she spoke some English, who had I made reservation with, how much was agreed, everything was Ok’d, I paid 500Rmb deposit, did this include breakfast? breakfast???? Another phone call to the manager, breakfast? Breakfast is not included, but would I like Chinese or Foreign, I haven’t decided yet.
What sort of hotel doesn’t put their name up on the door – ultra exclusive I think, oops. They put me on the 15th floor, out of sight of their more respectable clients.
I had a shower and a shave and then went out; I wasn’t much more respectable than I went in. It was very misty; the visibility was only a couple of hundred metres. I walk to the Bell Tower which is, sadly, now isolated in the middle of a huge roundabout and can only be safely accessed via an under pass. I paid the entry fee and entered; the views were not great especially with the intensity of the mist. Then it was back through the underpass, through a very upmarket shopping centre with some exclusive shops that wouldn’t look out of place in the fashionable areas of London, Paris, NY etc. and on to the Drum Tower. Away from the traffic this was far nicer, inside there were some students rehearsing a drum and dance type routine which was good and good to see. They also had a large drum collection outlining the history of the drum in China.
On then into the Chinese Muslim quarter and onto a street of stalls and shops selling all sorts of things – fruit and veg, candies, nuts, clothes, hot food etc. you name it and you could probably buy it somewhere in here, there was everything a community needed, this was old style China. An alleyway leading off looked like an Arabic Souk of stalls so I headed down it, it appeared short until it turned a corner, it wasn’t short it was long. I experienced very little hassle – no looky looky evey 0.5 secs. as in Beijing, a lot gentler with their looky looky – it was every 30 secs. There were some interesting things, but lots of the usual repetitious tourist souvenirs but very little by way of fake clothes. There were very few foreigners about; I counted a handful at most today.
I stumbled across the Great Mosque which is one of the largest in China, the current building only dates back to the 18th century but the site itself is probably much older. It is built in Chinese style with a lot of garden area surrounding it.
I walked the remainder of the ‘Souk’coming out just south of the city wall, I walked a bit further and came to the North Gate but I couldn’t figure out the way in / up to the tower, the traffic used the tower as a traffic island and there were no crossing points. I walked through a recent cut in the wall made for traffic, I walked to the west no way up, I walked east no way up – these Chinese still didn’t want people climbing on their walls. So I continued walking east at the foot of the outside of the wall through some nice gardens all the way back to the railway station.
I got stopped by a woman who made a circle with one finger then put another finger inside, what did she mean !! I walked down a side street which ran parallel to the main street heading to the south gate, ‘you want massage’ – I was in the red light district of Xian, this isn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet!!.
Wednesday 24th November
I got up just after 7am., it is cold and it is raining – Glasgow style.
I found the 306 bus as mentioned in the Lonely Planet, asked ‘Terracotta Warriors’ and the Chinese bus conductress answered in English! The bus was crowded but I found a seat over the wheel arch and the bus left a few minutes later at about 8:35. About 10 mins later I realised I was being burned – the engine exhaust pipe was being used to heat the bus and although it had a metal box covering it was still too hot to touch and it had been routed from near the floor up over the wheel arch to where my elbow was before heading back to the floor.
The bus took a new motorway; the toll booths were en site but were not yet opened, all the way to the next town before making its first stop - at Lintong, because of the steamed windows and spray I couldn’t see much of the countryside enroute. The bus arrived at the bus terminus = Terracotta Warriors at about 9:30, it was too early for the stallholders; they were still setting up, so there was not much hassle before reaching the gate where there was another 10 mins. or so walk through the landscaped grounds to the ticket booth and then the entrance.
There is an entrance fee of 90Rmb to get in, I follow a group then get stopped by a guide, would I like a guided tour? - No thanks, the same guide then directs me to a specific building but I end up doing the tour the wrong way round! I start with the building containing the really impressive, ½ real size pair of bronze chariots and horses which are so exact in every detail and which are in wonderful condition considering their age. I progress to the excavations in building 3, then 2, then 1 then the Circular Cinema. If I had done it the correct way round it would have made a little more sense. Maybe it was the guide’s revenge for not hiring him, but no worries.
Building 3, and building 1 for that matter, have still a lot to be excavated and, latterly, I realise the concave dips running the length of the excavation are collapsed roofs covering the pits that are still to be excavated. Building 1 has the most warriors on display; there is excavated pit after pit full of warriors, an amazing sight. These 2000 year old, life sized warriors, stand guard, with their horses, over the nearby tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuang. Over 6000 figures have been recovered so far, and they stand or stood, facing east in battle array. The organic material such as wood has long disintegrated but the poses the soldiers are in indicate what weapons they once held. There are soldiers carrying a variety of weapons – crossbows, longbows, spears, dagger axes, there are horse drawn chariots and there are officers.
At the entrance to building 1 there is a large model of the surrounding area showing that there is more to this area than I realised, there were other sites for officers, others for animals, another for the emperor etc. Few, if any of these sites have been excavated. It begs the question, how much more is there out there that has yet to be discovered. The archaeologists, it is reported, sense there are bigger finds yet to be made. The site was first discovered in 1974 – 30 years ago now, and even I sense they have only scratched the surface. The circular cinema, projectors projecting re-enactments on separate screens around the room, gave an insight of the history of the site, how and why it was built, how it was part ransacked and destroyed, how it was re-discovered.
If this site is not amazing in its own right, there was also something else amazing that I learned today. The 2000 year old bronze swords were chromium plated to make them resistant to corrosion, the coating is microns thick. This coating technology was lost to the world and was ‘re-invented’ in Germany in the 1940’s.
Today there were a lot of soldiers touring the site, one, part of a group of three, stopped me for no apparent reason, he offered and gave me some Polo mints. Was my breath so bad that he smelt it in passing? No it was just an impulsive act, he spoke no English but lots of smiles and my attempts at thank you in Chinese were sufficient.
I left the Terracotta Warriors at about 12:30, it was now sleeting and I had to run the gauntlet of souvenir sellers. No, no and no to a miniature set of Terracotta Warriors with the price dropping by ½ each time I said no and the further away I walked from the seller. An awaiting bus whisked me back into the now cold and rain sodden city of Xian.
As it is not possible to buy return train tickets I have to buy one for tomorrow back to Beijing, so using the Lonely Planet’s instructions I failed to find the ‘Foreigners’ ticket office at the railway station, up darkened stairs to nowhere, into the departure lounge as in Beijing, no sign of it. I had to abandon the guidance of my long trusted ‘bible’ and brave the chaos of the mobbed ticket hall. I went up to a window with no queue, there was a sign above the window but I didn’t know what it said and the clerk was counting bundles of notes. Not wanting to wait in another queue to be sent elsewhere, I risked it – ticket for Beijing tomorrow please, she stopped counting the money, keyed something in the computer and up came the T232 17:31 train, how about the Z20 19:23 - only soft class sleeper at 400+Rmb, okay the T232 Hard Class sleeper at 274RMb, there was a train the T42 at 18:02 which would have been about 20 mins quicker but I daren’t risk her loosing patience and sending me to another window. I paid up and turned to leave, there was a massive queue behind me, what had I done!!
Outside it was now continual rain and sleet in a light wind, regardless of the weather I decided I had to do at least a section of the city wall. I found an entrance walkway up on to the wall; I paid the 10Rmb entrance fee and headed up. It was deserted, was it any wonder, the weather was miserable. I walked to the North Gate which was about 1.7km and never met anyone else on the way.
Wall stats – a large square 14km long, 12m high, top 12m wide, bottom 15m – 18m wide, with gateways and associated towers at several locations but mainly at the centre of each side. Xian is one of the few Chinese cities still with a wall. Air raid shelters were hollowed out during WWII when the Japanese bombed the city and during the Cultural Revolution caves were dug to store grain.
There is still a lot of resentment towards the Japanese even amongst the young; the China Daily newspaper has frequent references about Japanese school history books ignoring WWII and the Japanese actions / atrocities here. A sign above a club near my hotel – No Japanese.
I stopped at the North Gate defence tower and went in, it was full of souvenir stalls, the staff were not expecting visitors today - some were playing badminton across piles of carpets that were for sale. I climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor and got out onto a balcony and managed to get some photos of the rain soaked, misty city. I tried walking for about another 10 mins but reckoned it would take me about 40mins – 1 hour to reach the next gate and the first probable exit. I was now soaked and cold – I gave up and turned back to the North Gate and exited.
I walked back through another part of the Muslim Quarter this section sold very fresh meat – so fresh it was still alive and also fruit and vegetables. There were huge pile of cabbages, pickups laden with loose mandarins, live fish in shallow large tanks, chickens in small cages, butchers chopping carcases with the meat laid out uncovered, there were no chill cabinets – it was cold enough anyway.
I bought some food including some delicious hot mushroom filled dumplings and then headed back to the hotel to change into some dry clothes; there was no hot water so sadly no shower.
Thursday 25th November
It is cold, there is about 40mm of snow on the trees, bushes and parked cars, there is none lying on the streets. I walk to the East Gate of the City Wall which is only a short distance from the hotel. There is a film crew filming at the entrance as I walk in, will I be appearing in something – no one racing for my autograph though.
I pay another 10Rmb and climb the steps up onto the wall. There have already been a few walkers up here; you can see their footprints in the snow. It is rather strange to see the pagoda roofs with a covering of snow; in fact everything up here has a dusting of snow. Looking over the parapet on the outside of the wall, at the gardens that seem to accompany the wall all the way around, the broad branches of the juniper trees are cloaked in snow and look really nice. I walked south to the corner tower then headed west until I eventually came to the south gate. It was a lovely walk, I wish I had more time to try walking as far around it as possible – the northern section around the station is closed while work (renovation?) is carried out but the rest I think is open. There were some good views of life in the city from up here, a market, the congested traffic on the outside, some lovely buildings, the city skyline etc.
I got off the wall at the South Gate and headed south then west to the Little Goose Pagoda. Little Goose Pagoda was built around 707 AD to house Buddhist scriptures and is composed of 15 progressively smaller tiers. I can vouch for this as I climbed up narrow staircases with low stone ceilings – no hard hats provided, eventually to squeeze out of a very small trapdoor which led to a small viewing platform on the top.
From the Little Goose Pagoda I walked back to the South Gate and just back inside the city wall I got briefly distracted by a small ‘touristy’ market before I continued up towards the Bell Tower. I revisited the Muslim market and then attempted walking towards the West Gate but the main street was a series of new buildings on one side and mainly a construction site on the other – a big new shopping plaza. I quickly gave up and turned around and headed back towards the hotel, stopping on the way to buy a few more of the steamed dumplings stuffed with a chopped mushroom mixture, they were delicious, filling and just what was needed on a cold day like this.
I headed to the station a little early and as I got near it started to get very busy with army personnel, what was going on? There were trucks, buses and jeeps everywhere, there were troops of all rank including MP’s and a lot of what appeared to be new conscripts heading into the station. It wasn’t quite the send off I had expected – it is not everyday you get a military escort out of town!! But then again I did get escorted out a wooded area in Honduras earlier this year by a rifle wielding soldier who didn’t speak any English and my Spanish didn’t extend beyond ordering a couple of beers.
I was returning to Beijing in a hard class sleeper, so I found my coach, then berth 20 but berth 20 had three bunks stacked one on top of the other, there was no numbering or whatever on the bunks or on the ticket – that I could make out anyway, so I took the bottom bunk and hoped for the best. It was all very open plan, there were no doors and no partitions to the corridor and fortunately the bunks were about 2m long, surprising considering the average height of a Chinese person, so my legs weren’t sticking out into the corridor.
He train left on time at 17:30 and none of my companions for the night challenged my choice of berth, had I guessed right, was I wrong and they were too polite to say or was it first come first served? I had just started to read some of the Lonely Planet when I was asked in broken English where I was planning my next visit to. I had company until the lights went out at 9:30pm, it was an interesting evening discussing his work – he worked for SEW a German industrial gear manufacturer, life in China, his ambitions, football – Manchester United of course and then the tannoy system played Auld Lang Syne. I have frequently heard this being played here, as well as several other Scottish tunes. The Chinese have their own words for the song but I was told it had to do with friendship but he didn’t know the history of the song.
The lights dimmed at 9:30pm; there was a scurry to the washbasins at the end of the coach with lots of teeth brushing etc. before the lights went out at 10pm. There was a dim corridor light just above floor level but no lights in the berth so if you wanted to read it was a lie down in the corridor job and try to read using this dim light – not practical. Of all the things they sold on the trains, nobody tried to sell me a torch; obviously you were expected to sleep. Shortly afterwards the berth’s very own snoring choir started up, I’m quite sure I contributed but did I harmonise well with the Chinese, well I’m still alive so I couldn’t have been the worst. The lights came back on about 5:20am. - 1 hour before our scheduled arrival in Beijing.
More scurrying to the wash area for a quick freshen up but just after 6am we stopped at a station and didn’t move for at least 40 mins., meanwhile other trains whizzed passed. Were these the X category trains that seem to get priority or had we been running late and were now being punished. Regardless, when we did move it was another 40mins before we reached Beijing West railway station. I said my goodbyes to my Chinese companion and started on the walk to the metro. It was now well into rush hour and the trains were absolutely crammed full. I had no chance of getting on with a rucksack; I just had to wait until the worst was past. It was almost 9am. before I could get on a train and 10:30am before I was back in the apartment. A quick turnaround and I was out and down to the Lido for a swim, a Jacuzzi and a steam – absolutely wonderful.
Sunday 28th November
I head off to the airport just after 1pm, there is no taxi outside so I walk down to the main road.
As usual no English spoken but I make the sign for an aeroplane taking off, he repeats and we are in business but I have to point him in the direction of the 5th Ring Road as he was heading elsewhere i.e. the long way!! Just outside the airport more sign language this time from the taxi driver, plane taking off or plane landing, plane landing I reply. Thankfully he just drove to terminal 2 and didn’t bother asking me which terminal I wanted, I am not too keen at sticking two fingers up at taxi drivers in any language, let alone one finger. Maybe he sensed my unease.
Monday 29th November
I join some friends for dinner at the Sichuan restaurant. As usual it was a lovely meal although rabbit and fish were also ordered. Outside the Sichuan restaurant they have 6 real Christmas trees decorated with white lights, simple but beautiful alongside their big red lanterns. Afterwards we went across to the Holiday Inn Lido and saw their outside lights – a simple combination of red and green fairy lights on the bushes and a tall pole with strands of white lights coming down ‘maypole’ like. Inside they have a very tall tree – an artificial one, it has cards on it from children in a Beijing Orphanage with what they would like for Christmas.
The majority want a school bag.
The hotel management hope that guests will take a card and get that child the gift they want. The tree has only been up for a day and many of the cards have already been marked indicating a gift has been or is being bought.
Sunday 5th December
I head off to walk the length of the Dadu Old City Wall.
A bit of history from 'Beijing This Month'-
The great Mongolian warrior Kublai Khan established the new Mongolian capital of Dadu in 1267AD on lands now found in northern Beijing's Dadu Ruins Park. The Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) capital of Zhongdu had been so ravaged by war, and water was in such short supply when Kublai Khan entered the city in 1264, that the Khan ordered the new city built northeast of the former Jin capital.
It took 18 years to complete, but Dadu, a forbidden city, became a great city, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). At one point, Dadu had a population estimated at between 400,000 and a half million. This included soldiers, statesmen, religious leaders and traders from all over the Mongolian Conquest. One among those traders and adventurers was Marco Polo, who would fascinate European readers with his tales of Dadu's magnificence and the famed Silk Road, which reached its eastern terminus at Dadu's western gate.
Dadu city was surrounded by 28.6 kilometres (km) of earthen walls, 16-metres (m) high and 24-m wide. Water from the Xiaoyue River formed a moat outside the walls that still remain, and it fed into the Grand Canal that connected Dadu to Hangzhou and the high seas beyond.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which succeeded the Yuan, the capital was extended southward and the Forbidden City was built. Strong brick walls were erected around the city, partly overlaying Dadu's southern walls at present-day Dongzhimen and Xizhimen. The northern parts of Dadu remained outside the Ming walls. While the latter have disappeared, the older Dadu earthen structures, called tucheng have survived.
End of history lesson.
I walk to Wangjing West metro and take the train to Zhichunlu. The train was surprisingly very busy for 9:30ish on a Sunday morning. A young woman sat down next to me and a after a while decided to practise her English on me, she had only been learning for 6 months but she was actually very good. It is typical of the Chinese, they are not shy at approaching and speaking to foreigners, this has happened to me on several occasions as has being requested to pose for photos with them, the novelty of being a foreigner in China, how long will it last.
From the metro it was a short walk to the start of the wall. This end of the wall (the western) is more easily seen than in the east, it seems more pronounced and again you can walk along the top of it by scaling a rough path through the trees growing on the sides of the wall. There appears not have been any significant conservation of the wall itself, people are able to wander about all over it without any restriction. It is a strange feeling walking on this huge mound of earth knowing it’s history, you could let your imagination run wild and try to imagine how it was back in the 1200’s. The canal running parallel to the wall is largely frozen over but evidence of the polluted water can be seen close up, however the view along it with the trees on either side is quite beautiful.
The sun is shining but it is cold, nice walking though. Occasionally the wall is broken by a road so it means walking through traffic and rejoining at the other side. To the north I could see the Chinese Culture Park, from my view point I could see an open, car park like structure supporting a Chinese building façade, a giant Panda structure and various other things, I don’t like the look of it. I later read that it is China’s biggest theme park – enough said.
At one section of the park there is Beijing's largest open-air sculpture park. There are numerous sculptures of Yuan Dynasty's political, economic, military, technological and cultural life. The main statue is that of Kublai Khan and his wife. Among 19 other characters shown are Marco Polo and Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing. The sculptures are sculpted in a very angular style - long lines, not many curves, in a white sandstone like material. I liked them, their size, the style, they were very unusual.
Sunday 12th December
The BJ Hikers ‘Horse Prints’ hike started at a point about 1.5 hours drive to the west of Beijing. It was a lovely day, a totally blue sky but, needless to say, it was cold. At first it was a steep climb until we came out on a paved road higher up the mountain. Because it was so cold and clear we could see for quite a distance which made a change from the gloom in Beijing over the last few days. The hills were very brown due to the lack of rain but it did make for a few interesting photos. We continued to follow this road through one abandoned village and onto a smaller village but this second village still had a couple of elderly residents. Apparently these villages were abandoned due to lack of water. We stopped at the end of this second village and had lunch in the courtyard / farmyard of a ruined house and its outbuildings. A few minutes later we were joined by an old farmer that we had met minutes before on the way up. He happily talked away to the members of the group that could speak Chinese and I think he enjoyed being the centre of attention. There were lots of photos taken of him and before we left he entertained us with a song.
After lunch it was a short climb up to the ‘Horse Prints’. In, what appeared to be soft stone, there were ‘holes’ that were apparently made by the hooves of horses that had passed this way over the centuries. Some of these holes were 15 – 20cm. deep and it was hard to believe that they were created by horses, but hey, who knows.
Then it was time for the long slow descent back to the buses now located in the centre of a small town – where were the red ribbons to guide us!, for the usual afternoon refreshments - a well earned beer!!!
Saturday 18th December
We went to Tiananmen Square to see if there were any Christmas decorations or if there was anything to do with Christmas – absolutely nothing. It was sleeting and bitterly cold as we walked on to Wangfujing Street.
In Wangfujing Street, the ‘Oxford Street’ of Beijing some of the shops had decorations but not many, there were no street decorations to be seen. It is so unlike the rest of the world, I am missing the decorations, the parties, being with friends i.e. the festive spirit but not the commercialisation of it that begins as soon as the UK’s August Bank holiday ends.
We eat at a vegetarian restaurant which has an award for being the best veggie restaurant in Beijing in 2004. We didn't realise it at the time, it was the usual case of this looks nice so we went in to try it out. It had a large menu but it was mainly faux meat dishes i.e. some sort of fungus (I think) that it is made to resemble chicken, fish, pork etc. As a veggie. I don’t know why they bother doing this because the last thing I want to be reminded of is a chicken, fish etc. as for the imitation tripe or cow's throat!!!!!!!! The food was good though and the bill was £8 for the two of us and we walked out rather too well fed.
Sunday 19th December
We go to the Panyiayuan Antique Market, a bit of a misnomer the antique market bit, it has a lot more than just antiques and even then ‘reproduction’ would be a better term than antique.
It is bitterly cold today with a biting wind taking it to -9C and there is no shelter in the main section of the market which is really just a canopy over the stalls with no walls. I felt sorry for the stallholders they must have been suffering. So we only walk the length a few of the long passageways before having to abandon and head for respite in one of the ‘closed’ shops on the periphery just to get warmed up.
We take refuge in a shop selling turquoise stone that has been cut into all sorts of shapes and sizes and drilled ready to be strung into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. They have also another stone similar to turquoise in texture, weight etc. but it is a milky green colour. The walls were lined with brackets and hanging from them were strands of these stones, it made for a stunning - imposing wall of colour. As we arrived a foreign ‘trader’ was just concluding a bit of business, several bags filled with jewellery were bought for the equivalent of £150, how much was this going to be sold on for when he got home I wonder.
Monday 20th December
I have been going around the CD shops looking for a Christmas CD and only a very 'local' one had any. I think it was a copy but its label said it was Christmas Jazz music and the songs listed were the traditional sort of stuff. I got it home and played it, nothing to do with jazz just Crosby impersonators, Wizard impersonators etc. Ah well, it will do every 2nd day for 10 mins. We have ADSL / ISDN in the apartment so we stream German / British Radio stations and get some Christmas music that way but with the 7-8 hour time difference we get some obscure programming.
As for New Year, the same CD shop has 3 or 4 Scottish bagpipe CD's - all with horrendous translations of the song titles. I am tempted to buy one and invite the neighbours in on Hogmanay, the plan is to make them suffer, strangely, I think they may enjoy it !!
Why this CD shop should have Christmas & Scottish CD’s I really don’t know because the market for them in this area must be miniscule, the population is 100% Chinese minus 2 and I have no intention of buying except to make someone suffer.
A few things about Beijing life -
Very few people in Beijing speak any English apart from those working in the offices of international companies or in the hotels. So it makes for interesting supermarket shopping where everything is labelled in Chinese and only very occasionally is there anything with a bit of English.
You hope and pray they get you there, for two reasons -
1. the physical condition of some of them and
2. the drivers ignore where you point on the map and the route to take.
Buses are more fun and we are getting used to them and starting to figure out the routes. Initially they were journeys of hope, they have numbers but the destinations are in Chinese, maps are, to be generous, simplified to the point they are abstract pieces of art. (Christmas prezzie idea, maps of Beijing). Bus conductors speak and read no English so pointing at maps is useless. You get on a bus, pay your 1 - 3 Rmb and see where you end up, sometimes 100 metres down the road at the terminus or 16km away in downtown Beijing. But we are starting to piece the bus numbers together, bit by bit. We found one that leaves from near the apartment going almost to Tiananmen Square - approx 16 kms for the equivalent of 20p, that is the A/c bus, no A/c is cheaper about 6p.
The food here is wonderful, it is nothing like the Chinese food back in the UK. The food, veggie included, is unbelievably good and so cheap. About £1.50 a main plate, 2-3 plates for 2 people and you are stuffed. We ate out again last night, in a lovely Sichuan restaurant 50 Rmb for the two of us, no tipping allowed. A thunderstorm had started while we were in the restaurant, the staff went out in it, got us a taxi and escorted us under umbrellas to the taxi - all smiles, all part of the service. It's wonderful, the only problem is so few them speak any English, I have not a hope of learning to speak Mandarin, I have been told my English is bad enough!!
The main roads are wide, usually at least 2 lanes, often 3 lanes with lots of traffic. The ‘Green Man’ means nothing, traffic turns right against a red light but they don’t give way to pedestrians or cyclists and nobody gives way to pedestrians. At a crossroads a Green Man comes up when the traffic you are crossing against is stopped at the red light, the traffic on the other road is now at green and flowing in all directions. So how do you cross the road? Well first you follow the Chinese and then you become brave - you have no option. The secret is to spot a gap and fill it, spot a gap and fill it and keep doing this until you cross the road (hopefully safely), meanwhile traffic is whizzing past you behind and in front. The Rocky Horror song ‘Time Warp’ comes to mind when crossing a Beijing Road.
Several people have asked me for the address of the apartment, I don't know what it is. I tie a Paddington bear type tag around my neck with the Chinese address on it and just show it to the taxi drivers. I usually get home.
I will endeavour to get an English translation but the problem would be that nobody at the Post Office at this end could read it so it wouldn't be delivered and if you were to write it in Chinese then well what chance with the British Post Office - catch 22!!