Arriving into Beijing at lunchtime on 3 June we had no firm plans for China, except to the extent that we knew that we had to be in Hong Kong by 28 June. That’s not to say that we didn’t have a rough idea of where we wanted to go. We knew that we wanted to visit the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai, to go to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, Hangzhou for West Lake and to travel to Huangshan and Guilin for the beautiful landscapes that they offered. However, in terms of how long we would spend in each place, or even how we would get to and between them, that much was up in the air.
Stepping out of the station we immediately got the sense that we had arrived in a much richer country. There were people everywhere, selling everything. Shops and shopping malls. Loads of restaurants and multiple outlets of McDonalds, KFC and PizzaHut.
The other thing that we instantly felt and appreciated was the warmth. All the way across Russia, through Siberia and Mongolia we had looked at the Beijing weather forecasts with envy. Now we were here it was good-bye to jumpers, jackets and thermal layers and it was hello to shorts, flip-flops, t-shirts for Rich and vest tops for Claire!
Having found the Beijing metro, the first thing for us to do was to get across town to the hutong area to the west of Houhai Lake. The hutong are old style Chinese courtyard houses. For the most part these are still occupied by local residents, but a number have been converted into hotels and hostels – such as ours, the Red Lantern. At just over £20 per night for an air-conditioned private double en-suite, it was really was great value. And at 50p for a large bottle of Tsingtao, the courtyard also proved to be the perfect place to relax in the evenings.
Checking in late afternoon for six nights, we spent the rest of the day doing practical things: laundry, shopping for warm weather clothes and planning what we would do with our time in Beijing. Flicking through the guidebooks, six days still wouldn’t be enough to see everything that the city had to offer but it would allow us to see the main attractions that we had cobbled down on our list of must see sights.
That evening we had the pleasure of enjoying the another thing that we had been longing to arrive in China for – delicious tasting food! Having spent the past 34 days in the culinary wilderness, the monotony of Mongolian mutton (nice alliteration) was behind us. For the most part we ate in local restaurants that didn’t have any English menus, but with picture menus we were able to point and smile. We didn’t always get what we expected, but a typical meal of one each of a meat, a vegetable and a rice or noodle dish along with some toasted peanuts and a drink each was never more than £8. Pepper beef; spicy chicken with peanuts; and stir-fried carrot, aubergine and potato were the pick of the bunch.
On the first day of sightseeing we decided to take it easy and attack the sights closest to us. Not quite as the crow flies: we walked past the Three Back Lakes, climbed the Bell Tower, strolled through Belhai Park and rocked up to Tian’anmen Square.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, the lakes and park are the top green spots in the city. Take your pick of ways to get around them – walk, hire a bike, take a rickshaw, a golf-buggy or your pick of boat rentals on the lake in Belhai Park. We went on foot and people watched along the way – people practising singing, some water calligraphers at work and one man honing his guitar skills on a rock under some weeping willows.
Close by in the same area are the Bell and Drum Towers, each containing the instrument implied in their names. A combination of beating the drums and ringing the bell at different times of day provided a time signal to the city until 1924. Out of the two, we opted to climb the Bell Tower and after ascending some incredibly steep steps we came face to face with the huge bell (it has nothing on our own Ben) and were treated to some nice 360 degree views of the city.
After that it was down to Tian’anmen Square which is not a great tourist attraction taken by itself – the main draw are the sights bordering the square and we would come back for these later. However, the day we visited it was 4 June and the 21st anniversary of the 1989 student crackdown, which made it an entirely appropriate day to visit simply for the reason that it was Tian’anmen Square. Given that it is still a sore point in Chinese modern history it is perhaps not surprising that there was nothing there to mark the occasion. But we were there…
One thing that we did see in Tian’anmen Square that day was a large group of people using wallpaper strippers to scrape chewing gum off the ground. Say what you may about China’s human rights record, but a bit of clearly visible community service probably wouldn’t hurt the UK. Given the size of the place, those people will no doubt think twice now before carelessly discarding of a bit of Hubba-bubba.
Rant over, the next day we headed to the Gardens of Nurtured Harmony – commonly referred to as the Summer Palace. 16km out of the city, it was designed as an imperial country retreat and is considered to be a miracle of landscape architecture. Palace buildings sit in beautiful gardens and along the north shore of Kunming Lake. Sadly, as it was so heavily overcast that day we did not manage to see it at its best, but we could still get a sense of the grandeur of the place.
Strolling around the lake for a view from the other side, we saw a couple of old men flying some extremely impressive kites. Nothing more than black bin bags stuck onto a simple wooden frame, they were attached to what must have been several hundred metres of line. When they were let out and caught the wind they just kept going and going until they were just dots in sky. Kite flying seems to be a very popular pastime in China (they are on sale everywhere) and these ones in particular drew large crowds.
Unfortunately, due to these same large crowds we didn’t manage to get too much of a sense of the peace and tranquility that might have been felt at the Summer Palace in years gone by. Ten to the dozen would not begin to describe the number of Chinese tour groups that there are. They really are absolutely everywhere and seem to have an inherent ability to ruin tourist attractions for everybody else. Troupes of people wearing different coloured caps or t-shirts follow after their tour guides who lead the way with a flag in the air, shouting through a megaphone and often blaring out music to boot. We challenge anybody not to find that annoying…
Having said all of that, the next day we joined a tour group to visit the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall, with stops at a jade factory and a silk factory. Collected at 7:30 from our hotel, we listened all the way to the jade factory about why the attractive qualities of jade, how this factory produced the best jade in the world and how we wouldn’t find it cheaper anywhere else. Funnily enough, no mention of our tour guide being on commission – weird that!
With only the Australian pensioners being tricked into buying the cheapest and best quality jade in the galaxy – we headed to the Ming Tombs. The last resting place of 15 Ming dynasty emperors, the location was chosen for its powerful feng shui as it is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Although it was another UNESCO site to add to the list, truth be told it was a rather disappointing affair. Only two of the mausoleums are open to the public, with the Dingling tomb being the main draw. Admittedly impressive in size (three rooms over 20 metres in length) and being buried over 20 metres underground, the inside is quite spartan. A consequence of grave-robbers and looters, all of the worldly possessions that were originally buried in the crypt have been stollen and the original sarcophagi of the emperor and his empresses destroyed. Replaced with plain red boxes, it did leave you wondering a little about what the attraction was.
The same of course cannot be said about the Great Wall of China. With the choice of three parts of the wall which are within easy striking distance of Beijing, we chose a tour that went to Mutianyu. Boasting supposedly the best scenery of the three, Mutianyu also has the benefit of being a little bit further away from Beijing (70km) which means that it has the added attraction of being a bit quieter.
With the wall snaking over the mountains, you approach the site from the valley below where a collection of stalls have established themselves to sell t-shirts and tourist tat to anybody willing to depart with their money. Amazingly they are still selling the same rubbish that Rich bought 16 years ago whilst on a Year 6 school trip to Beijing. Obviously still encouraged by that surge in demand in spring of ’95, there are still plenty of the same gold painted, concrete replica models of the Great Wall filling the storefronts. Out of the five or so that Rich brought home, only one still exists somewhere in the Allum household – now acting as a rather hefty doorstop.
Ignoring the shops and walking past the Subway (even if you did want a sandwich, it still ruins the scene), we clambered aboard a cable-car and ascended the mountain to where we were able to climb onto the wall. With only two hours to explore before the bus left we did not have time to do any extensive hiking of the wall, but it was enough time to walk a few kilometres, pose for some photographs and admire the scenery.
Admittedly some parts of the wall have been reconstructed (Mutianyu included) and what you see at the main sites is only a prettified version. Regardless, taking into account the size of the wall and the gradients that it scales, you still appreciate the absolutely monumental task that it must have been to build it in the first place. In some places it was so steep that we might as well have been climbing the steps on hands and knees. Add to that the fact that what you see from any one point, the wall weaving over the terrain all the way to the horizon in both directions, is only a small fraction of the entire length of the wall and it only adds to the awesomeness of the feat of engineering. In every sense, it is fair that it is a wonder of the world.
Descending via a rather dodgy looking rope-way (sadly the toboggan we wanted to slide down was closed due to a light sprinkling of rain as we were leaving), we left the Great Wall and headed back to Beijing via a silk museum that was, funnily enough, selling the cheapest and best quality silk in the universe. It was interesting to see a little bit of the silk making process (up to 3000 feet of silk thread can be collected from a single cacoon), but as this was the last stop on the tour we decided to decline the offer of the lift back to our hostel and instead walk to another nearby attraction – the Olympic Park.
The location of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games (of course), we wandered around the tidy grounds surrounding the main venues, entertained ourselves with more amusingly translated signs and ended up standing in the square between the Water Cube and the Birds Nest Stadium. They truly are impressive structures to look at, and with the mascots still walking around – who could turn down a cheesy photo opportunity?
The next day, both feeling a little bit under the weather, we took it easy. Needing a bit of comfort food and after five days of non-stop noodles and rice (no matter how good) we craved a bit of western fare. Trip Advisor suggested Grandmas for the best brunch in town – which we duly hunted down and enjoyed a plate of pancakes, a sandwich and some fries. Post brunch we hit some shops and found an English language cinema to watch Pirates of the Caribbean 4.
Walking back to the hostel that evening the heavens opened on us. With no umbrella and no rain jackets we were soaked to the skin within seconds – all we could do was smile and laugh whilst the thunder and lightning went off around us. Strangely enough, this was the same reaction as the countless bus loads of people who drove past us. Since starting our trip we had only had two days where rain interrupted play. This was a spectacular way to end that run of good fortune…
With the sun shining at its absolute brightest and hottest, on our final full day in Beijing we hit the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City. Entering through the Tian’anmen Gate, adorned by the huge portrait of Chairmen Mao, this was another site that had to be shared with the masses. Originally built over 600 years ago, this has been the home to 24 emperors. The Forbidden City is at the centre of the Imperial Palace and got its name as nobody was able to enter at their own will, only being able to access it at the command of the emperor.
This is another site that is impressive for its sheer size – the complex has 980 buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers an enormous 720,000 square metres!! Much of the palace is still off limits to the public, but you can still walk around for hours. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go into any of the main buildings so we sadly couldn’t get much of impression of what it must have been like to live there – but there was still plenty of scope for walking around marvelling at the outside of the buildings.
What we also failed to realise was that there was another main attraction at the palace that day – us! We had noticed it on other days, but here more than anywhere else – people like looking at us. If we had one yuan for every time that we have been asked to pose for a picture with random strangers then this whole trip would have paid for itself by now. Trying to find a reason for this, a google search dubiously suggested that blonde hair and hairy arms could be a reason. So, obviously, Claire’s hairy forearms and Rich’s golden locks make us prime targets. Wait, is that right?
As one of our final views of Beijing, we climbed Coal Hill for views back across the Imperial Palace – the city’s premier view point. 44 metres high and constructed using the soil excavated to create the moat around the palace, the view was a fitting end to our stay in Beijing.
The next day we prepared for our journey to Xi’an. Having spent a couple of evenings researching the various options we had bought a couple train tickets. Despite our epic train journeys to date, we are not yet sick of the sight of them. However, this journey put that to the test.
Having booked all our train tickets all the way from St. Petersburg to Beijing months in advance, we left all of our internal travels within China to be booked on arrival. Despite many people’s warnings we found no difficulty in booking tickets at the main stations. However, like the eagerly awaited release of any new Apple product, these things sell out fast. As it turned out, the only class of travel still available was hard seater. And there is no class lower than that…
The classes in China go upwards from hard seater, through soft seater, hard sleeper (third class on the Russian trains) and ultimately soft sleeper (second class equivalent). The hard seater seats are not actually hard, but comfy isn’t a word that springs to mind either. The carriages are set out like UK commuter trains (banks of three facing each other on one side, banks of two on the other), just with less legroom and with more people squeezed in – if you can believe that! On a 12 hour overnight train, some people had standing only tickets! However, at £15 each for a ticket we couldn’t grumble too much.
Needless to say, neither of us slept well that night. It was therefore nice to be collected from the station to be taken to our hostel when we arrived in Xi’an. However, only giving ourselves one day before heading to Shanghai this meant that we when we got there we needed to have a quick shower and head straight out to see the main reason anybody visits Xi’an – the Terracotta Warriors.
Yet, it was on the way to the hostel that we had a stark reminder of one of the main problems in China that we trying to get to grips with – dealing with the traffic. To drivers, red lights only appear to mean something if they are going straight after the lights. Similar to a number of other countries, you can turn right on red. In China, you can also turn left on red.
Add to this the hierarchy of road users – bigger is better. Trucks win over buses, buses over cars, cars over bikes and bikes over pedestrians. Who gets right of way doesn’t change at the side of the road either – it’s the same on the pavements. If you’re walking along the pavement and a car or bike (yes, on the pavement) wants to get by you then you will be beeped and beeped again until you oblige and get out of there way. Sorry, my mistake – was I walking on the pavement again?
The little green man might as well give up at this point. When he does flash up you still need to look every which way and stop every few paces as you cross the road in order to allow all the turning vehicles to beep past. It’s therefore not surprising that people don’t always use the proper crossing, and so it was thus that on our way to the hostel that we saw some old man completely wiped out by a car. His wife, crossing with him, strangely reached to pick the mobile phone out of the road before checking if he was okay.
Anyway, after the aforementioned quick shower, we jumped on another bus and made our way out to see the Terracotta Warriors. Of international fame, the warriors are the army that the first emperor of China had built to guard his mausoleum in the afterlife. He instructed the army to be built when he ascended to the throne at the age of just 13. Unfortunately, the entire complex never got finished as just three years after his death in 207 BC his dynasty was over thrown. After this the rebels plundered the grave site, smashed the terracotta figurines and set fire to the whole place. Lost over time, it was not re-discovered until 1974 when a couple of local farmers digging a well came across one of the pits containing the warriors.
Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits. Given that each warrior is unique and smashed to pieces, the task of putting all the pieces back together is an unenviable job. It must be like doing an enourmous jigsaw without having a picture to work off and knowing, that in all liklihood, you don’t have all the pieces anyway.
Even with the huge hoards of tour groups (which probably outnumbered the army) the chance to visit the Terracotta Warriors lived up to expectations. After so many amazing sights, you do start to run out of superlatives to quantify the experience – but is is definitely one of the top highlights to date. If you can, you should make the journey to go and see them. They were definitely a superb fitting end to a great first week in China…