Friday, 2 November 2012

Beijing - National Holiday Madness

For the National Holiday on 1st October the hostel arranged a special evening – lots of food and all the beer you could drink for 60 yuan (£6).  The menu sounded delicious, and included chicken, pork and beef dishes along with roast duck. We reckoned we would get our value for money in beer alone whatever happened (beer was 50p a shot!).  We decided to splash out.

There were only about a dozen people from the hostel who took up this generous offer:  a young Sweden couple, a German girl, and an Australian lady (both travelling alone), and a few French and Belgians.

The food did not disappoint and there was lots of it.  The plates were piled high with traditional Chinese dishes, and there was enough to feed about 4 dozen people – easily.  We chatted to the Swedes, the German and the Australian as we ate and drank free beer.  The conversation took place entirely in English.  The French and Belgians pretty much kept to themselves at the other end of the table.
Mooncake Day/National Day Feast

The banter between the Swedish couple and the German girl was amusing.  Our European friends could speak perfect English, and we still find it incredible that people use their second language with such skill. The Swedes teased the German girl quite a bit, in the way that Welsh, Irish and Scots will tease the English.  Their command of English was so good:  they were fluent and witty.  Throughout the course of the evening, we learned that German TV is rubbish, Denmark is really southern Sweden (or, if you are Danish, or southern Sweden is really northern Denmark – it depended whether you believe the husband or the wife!).  We also learned that Norwegians are weird because… apparently they don't have ovens and they just eat sandwiches all the time.  That makes them weird.  We are assured you will never find an oven in a Norwegian kitchen.  Not according to a Swede anyway.
The steep climb

And Finnish people speak really quickly and are a bit strange too although they were less convincing with fewer arguments on this point.  This is all according to a couple of Swedish people of course.  You had to be there but it was very amusing to hear how our European cousins view other Europeans (particularly from a Scandinavian viewpoint).  We also learned that the English have a reputation for drinking tea all the time and being a bit stuck up.  We put paid to that myth and refused tea at every opportunity and I don't think anyone can accuse the Wooky of being stuck up!

The beer flowed (we all drank more than our share in the time allotted) and it was a great evening.    

The next day we headed to the Great Wall which had seen from afar on the train journey from Ulaanbaatar.  We went on a trip organised by the hostel – it is possible to make these trips independently but often it is just as cheap and more convenient to take advantage of the organised trips on offer.  Sometimes, with no or limited Mandarin, you won't always get the information you need to get the best out of a trip.  You can pay just a little bit more and get private transport and an English speaking guide saving you lots of time, hassle.  Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and admit defeat! 

The wall snaking off through the mist
Of course, some people prefer to tough it out alone, take public transport and save a little money along the way, but it is often just a few pounds and they end up spending twice as long and actually getting less out of the whole experience.  We prefer to get where we want to go as quickly as possible to see what we want to see, spend some time there, and then get back with as little hassle as possible.  Call us lazy…..

Anyway back to the Wall.  Chinese tourists tend to sleep late (it would seem) so it's always good to head out early to tourist attractions before the tour buses arrive.  We left for the Great Wall at about 7.30am and were at the Mutianyu section of the Wall just before 9am.

We shared our taxi with a Canadian girl also staying at the hostel.  She is living near Xi'an teaching maths and science at an international school but had a week off school so was using her time to visit Beijing.  She was very sweet and very interesting (and very brave, we thought, to commit to a year in a country she had never set foot in before).
The wall as far as they eye can see

The Mutianyu section is less touristy than the Badaling section but still full of souvenir stalls and busy with tourists from mid-morning onwards.  We rode the cable car up to the Wall itself - not an enjoyable experience for us being terrified of heights but the views were incredible, if we could just stop thinking we were going to die any minute. 

Once at the top, you head east and walk to the furthest part you can reach in that direction, up steep, ladder-like steps which are exhausting.  However, the views are incredible and the scenery beautiful. All you can see from there are tree covered mountains and you really feel that you are out of the city although the reality is that it is just out of sight.
One of the many signs where the English translation
left a little to be desired.

When visiting tourist hotspots in China, what you have to understand is that their tourist industry is geared towards their biggest market – domestic tourists.  Travel in China is considered very prestigious and racing around as many tourist attractions as they can in as short a space of time as possible, having their photograph taken at various stages along the way (evidence that they have been there) before heading off to the next place as quickly as possible is what they do.  

And they do it in packs.  And packs of Chinese tourists are a sight to behold.  Often they are wearing matching hats (orange is a favourite colour), following a guide with a flag on a stick and a loudhailer (sometimes a radio to which they are all attached by radio earphones but a loudhailer is preferable).

And the Chinese domestic market like their major attractions restored.  Sometimes to death.  There are very few parts of the Great Wall of China which remain as they were originally built and many places you cannot visit, simply for safety reasons.  Often the original wooden structure has rotten away, or the bricks have just fallen down and the Wall simply collapsed.  The Great Wall stretches as far west as Dunhuang on the Silk Road route and it never was, as I believed, a continuous structure – where there was a natural defence such as a steep mountain ridge, they would miss a bit out, and sometimes it splits into two. 
Why build a wall here?

There are many places in China you can visit the Great Wall but the most popular is Beijing.  And in most places there has been a lot of restoration carried out.  In other words, it has been rebuilt, sometimes apparently from scratch.  Lots of foreign visitors complain that with over restoration the Wall loses a certain something and seek out "authentic" areas which have been untouched by restoration attempts, but the domestic market love it, and when you visit China it is so obvious that the number of Chinese domestic tourists far outstrip the foreign visitors so they cater for the vast majority.

Much of the restoration was carried out in the 1980s but this certainly doesn't take away the wonder you feel when you visit the Great Wall (restored or otherwise).  As we had arrived early it was relatively quiet to begin with.  We stood up there on the Great Wall of China and looked either side and wondered why on earth they bothered to build it.  It appears it was built along the highest natural ridge of various mountain ranges which begs the question:  if the mountain range wasn't going to keep the Barbarians (the Mongols) out, then nothing was.  And as history tells us, it didn't.  It was really more a flexing of their imperial muscle and you have to hand it to the Chinese, it was an incredible feat of engineering.

Apparently, the First Qing Emperor (he of Terracotta Warrior fame – his name escapes me and I don't have access to Google - started building it (around 200BC) but most of the building was done in the 13th to 15th centuries.  Much of the earlier building was wood and so the original structure is lost but much of it remains, much has been rebuilt, certainly enough to fascinate the Chinese people and foreign visitors alike. 

I couldn't believe I was actually walking along the Great Wall of China – it's such an iconic structure and I never believed I would ever visit.   However, it is a myth that it is visible from space – if that was the case then all motorways would be as they are much wider!  Makes sense when you think about it!

It is still an amazing place nonetheless, all the more so because we visited during National Week and it became incredibly busy after mid-morning.  We managed the first eastern bit in relative peace but when we traced our steps back and headed west along the longer, less steep stretch of wall, the crowds started to manifest, and the place became a chattering mass.  There were lots of people, families, and tour groups, many asking us for photographs, lots of people calling out "hello" to us, and just a general good natured mayhem going on.  It is difficult not to get caught up in their happy mood and enjoy that side of it as part of the whole experience.

Three hours was long enough though and we soon headed back.  Luckily (for us) there was an alternative to the cable car.  They have built a toboggan run from the top of the Wall, down to the main entrance and it was great fun.  Obviously, there will be lots of people who will be horrified that this exists at one of the great monuments in the world but I would say to anyone who would be offended by that sort of thing, don't come to China!  The toboggan was great; it took about 10 minutes to whizz down and was much better than a scary cable car.

Our next experience of National Holiday tourist attraction mayhem was the Forbidden City.

The day after our visit to the Wall we had ventured into Jingshan Park, directly north of the Forbidden City.  We were told that there were amazing views from the highest point in Beijing City within the park.  Obviously, visiting the park involved yet another entrance fee but it was a lovely green space and not too busy, all things considered. 

We climbed up to the pagoda at the southern end of the park which overlooks the Forbidden City and also affords views over the whole of Beijing.  After posing for dozens of photographs with lots of Chinese (once one person summons up the courage to ask, they all ask but they are incredibly good natured about it and it's really quite funny - I do wonder how many pictures of us there are on Weibo - China's Facebook?)  We then sat down for a little rest?

As we sat there enjoying the views across the city, we could hear the traffic down below on the main road but we could also hear something else.  We could hear a chattering noise.  We looked at each other at the same time and realised that it was the thousands of tourists milling through the Forbidden City down below.  You could clearly hear the sound of talking and laughter and it was quite odd.  It drowned out the traffic noise, and there is a lot of traffic in Beijing!  It was a very strange noise indeed.  The following day, we experienced all that up close and personal.

With 1.4 billion inhabitants, it isn't any wonder that China is an expert in crowd control.  We knew we had to visit the Forbidden City so we bit the bullet and headed out on the Thursday.  I'd like to report that it was everything you expect it to be, amazing treasures, beautiful palaces and temples, and incredible architecture however all we could see were the crowds. 

We were sucked in at the entrance and spat out at the other end.  While I have to admit that this was all organised with the greatest efficiency (the Chinese, if nothing else, know how to control and dispense massive crowds of people) we hardly saw anything of, what most people would call, "interest", except for the crowds themselves that we were part of.  There were simply thousands and thousands of people shuffling through, following some kind of recommended path, chattering and laughing the whole time, shouting out "hello" to us (and any other unsuspecting westerners), and taking photographs of absolutely everything and anything (including us).  We were simply enthralled by the crowds.  That was an experience in itself.  We have neither of us ever encountered anything like it.  We supposed that this was what people had warned off when they mentioned the National Holiday but we wouldn't have missed it for the world. 

When we were dispelled at the north exit, we found a space, stopped and just looked at each other in disbelief. Whilst we didn't see much of the Forbidden City, we had seen just how overrun Beijing is during National Holiday Week and experienced first hand just how efficiently they deal with the masses and how many people can fit in one place. It was amazing to be a part of that.  The only similar experience we could liken it to was attending a music festival back home, and in particular the queues to get in on the first day which can take hours.  The Chinese authorities know how to deal with massive crowds so much better than we do in the UK.  Figures showed that upwards of 90,000 people a day visited most of the popular tourist sites in and around Beijing – there was little hanging around, not much queuing and certainly no lost tempers.  How they do it is beyond me.

We also visited the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.  The Summer Palace is in the north part of the city which involved a metro ride, one of the most efficient systems in the world (and cheapest – 2 yuan a journey anywhere on the network).  Yes, it was crowded but not uncomfortably so and it had working air conditioning which made the journeys much more bearable.  It was warm in Beijing most of the time we were there so it would have been rather unpleasant without the aircon!

Both places were as busy as the Forbidden City so there were queues for tickets etc but both are spread out over acres of parks and gardens, temples galore and lots of pagodas so once you are inside you can lose yourself a little.  These places didn't feel nearly as claustrophobic and we were able to enjoy these at a much slower pace without feeling so crowded except in certain popular areas.

While we were in Beijing, we also visited the infamous Night Market in the main shopping area off Wangfujing Avenue.  This is a street market where you can get all sorts of weird and wonderful items of culinary delight, including scorpions on sticks (raw and still wriggling – you choose your dinner and they deep fry it for you!). 

Other delicacies included starfish, grasshoppers, millipedes, baby chicks (all on sticks), and various seafood in the form of squid and octopus – but nothing we were tempted to try.  Indeed, our appetites were rather dampened by what was available.  In fact, after seeing everything available we were nearly tempted to opt for a KFC or a McDonalds but settled for a hotdog when we got back to the hutong! 

The Night Market was also packed – you could hardly move and the Chinese tourists all seemed to enjoy many of the morsels on offer (although I didn't see anyone opt for a wriggling scorpion!).

At the end of the week we felt that we had at last experienced some of the crowding we had been warned about in National Holiday week.  But the hutongs, most of the streets and metro remained manageable – it was only the tourist attractions that felt particularly overrun.

During our stay we wandered around parts of the city and around the hutongs near the Red Lantern House where we were staying.  On one occasion I needed to answer a call of nature and there are toilets almost every 50 metres around Beijing.  One of the reasons for this, particularly around the hutongs, is because most of the hutongs do not have running water or are connected to the sewage system so people use public facilities.  It was a familiar sight to see people cycling past in their pyjamas with their washbags when we sat outside the Red Lantern House.

Anyway, I spotted a toilet and went to the ladies waiting my turn in the short queue.  It was tucked away so that the queue filed along the wall towards the door so you couldn't actually see inside until it was your turn.  Paul waited a few yards away and watched with some amusement when it was my turn to enter the room.  As I did so, apparently everyone else behind me crowded around the door to look inside.  I was unaware of this attention because I was too busy being horrified that I had to squat in what was basically an open plan room, with short walls (about 18 inches high) dividing each "cubicle".  

I was startled when I walked in and stopped in my tracks when I saw what the facilities consisted of but, being stubborn and too proud to run away in horror, I simply went to my allotted cubicle pulled my jeans down, did my business (just a tinkle) pulled my jeans up again, gathered my pride and left as quickly as I could.  Paul had guessed exactly what was going on and found it hysterical.  The Chinese women and girls also found it entertaining, given the fact that they were straining to get a good view of the westerner!  It was alright for Paul, boys are used to standing there having a wee and a chat, it's just not something I am used to.  And I certainly don't intend to get used to it so from thereon in I checked the facilities before I committed myself!.

We spent our last few days in Beijing just chilling out, wandering about and preparing for our next stop in Pingyao.  Paul had successfully booked tickets on a sleeper train, all in Chinese. English is not widely spoken outside the hostels and learning some Mandarin has been really helpful.  We were only able to get top bunks but we were lucky to book anything in that week as the whole of China is on the move!  After 10 days in Beijing, and acclimatising ourselves to China somewhat, we were ready to set off and experience our first trip on a Chinese hard sleeper.

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