Beijing Bites Back

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
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Trip End Jul 25, 2011


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Friday, October 8, 2010

We left Beijing under a cloak of smog. We re-entered it... under the same damn cloak! It will hardly be news to you that Beijing has a real pollution problem. Well, one Beijinger told us it wasn't to do with pollution at all, but a product of dust from the Gobi desert in the north mixing with the warm winds from the south of China, but the 3.15 billion tons of coal China looks to burn this year alone, must also play a part. For the first two of our 4 days in Beijing, we couldn’t see more than two or three hundred meters ahead.

The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo -sadly we couldn’t recommend any of these to friends because we couldn’t see them. The Summer Palace, in particular, is probably spectacular, and the outline was sometimes viewable as a cameo, but it was like walking around in the dark. Boats hired by the lake-edge would drift into the mist and eerily disappear behind its smoky veil, loved ones looking on from the pier in dismay as they attempted to photograph their vanishing pals. Opposite the exit to the Forbidden City we climbed to the very top of Jingshan Park, emerging breathless at the highest pagoda, ready for our panoramic views of the city, only to be greeted with thick swathes of smog, running up to meet us.

Then, on the third day, as we were coming home from seeing the Chinese Acrobatics, it rained. Biblical amounts of the stuff pummelled down on our flat hutong guest house roof, emptying the sky for hours. We fell asleep to the sound of it thrashing the window pane, and woke up the next morning to the bluest, cloudless skies. All it needed was a good wash! Apparently, during the Olympics, Beijing fired controlled explosions into the sky, which dissolved the humidity, making it fall as rain. Crazy as this sounds, apparently they are still using this method now.

Whatever the reason, cobalt skies were the backdrop to our trip to the Great Wall, which is truly awesome. Every now and again we will be sitting on a bus or in a station forecourt, and we have to remind ourselves, "We’re going to see the Great Wall!" or “We’re about to get on the Trans-Mongolian Express!”. You normally look forward to one of these things all year as part of a holiday, but now its happening daily (I know, hard life!).

We went to the Mutianyu part of the wall, which is slightly less touristy and involves a cable car ride to the top, then climbing the steep steps to the right. The views of the wall trace along straits, up and down the most challenging mountain ranges (some more than 75% incline), making up a wall that is over 5000 miles in length. Built to protect China against the invading nomadic Mongolians (and any other enemies threatening from the north), it took thousands of years to complete and -our guide told us- for every foot built a Chinaman lost his life. What price for security, hey? Apparently, in the end, it was a bribe to a gatekeeper that was the wall’s downfall, letting those marauding Mongolians through to wreak their havoc. Damn that bad apple!

To top off the experience, we could toboggan down, which I had seen people film on Youtube. Wooshing down from the Great Wall, feeling very childlike was a highlight of China. We got some of it on video, but we’re going very slowly because Stef was worried about losing the camera on one of the slants.

It’s funny, our roles at home are only amplified here. Stef is good at looking after things, keeping things safe. He still has his playing card tin from his first travelling trip ten years ago, and his precious Ray Bans complete with unblemished safety case and cleaning cloth. I am adept at breaking things and losing things. Lost items to date include our small digital camera (Stef still has his big one), Lonely Planet China (en route to Mongolia). Broken items include the door handle off Ugi’s beloved Russian van (I thought it was stiff, not locked) and the saucepan handle off the only saucepan in Khongor Guest House. But on other roles we switch. I am good at researching places, making sure we know a bit about where we’re going, speaking to guest houses/tours/other travellers and getting the best deals and Stefan is good at letting me do all that while he sets about fixing things (often, that I have broken), charging batteries, printing off important details and things like that.

So, what did we think of Beijing? The size and magnitude of it is awe-inspiring and sometimes overwhelming. Like when you’re trying to cross a road which has 5 lanes of traffic going each way, or when you really take in that this city, somewhere on the other side of the world has 20 million people jostling for space in a ballooning economy, generally speaking no English nor being in any way reliant on, or necessarily interested in the West as they build their own very Asian superpowerhouse. In some ways its pretty refreshing, but it also makes you feel rather insignificant and gives you an idea of how the world is changing and power is shifting perhaps from west to east. The shopping malls are vast and stocked with every brand and model of product, the young people are obviously becoming more experimental with fashion and style, and I’ve really never seen anything like the size of the roads and the height and quantity of skyscrapers.

Still, there’s another side to Beijing which still embraces its old traditions, where you can go to experience life as it maybe used to be. The low-slung, flat-roofed hutong district sums this up pretty well, lined with trees that bow over the narrow streets, leaves brushing the rooftops. Walking down these to get home each night, we  saw food-sellers dishing out the last of their dumplings to neighbourhood friends, the odd game of cards being played on an upturned food cart by the light of the old street lanterns, women bringing in their washing from the makeshift lines outside their shops, while the last bicycles weaved their way home through the mist, ringing their bells.

The young people of Beijing were also something of an inspiration. Much friendlier than older Beijingers we noticed, and often speaking shards of English, which was a godsend, they seemed to be really positive, ambitious people. Our brilliant guest house (Qingfeng-Xisi Hutong Guest House) was owned by a Chinese guy who was friendly but businesslike, but it was really run by three 20-something Chinese kids called Holly, Bruce and William (their English names of course, given to them at school) and the guest house’s miniature poodle, Mao Mao (named after the Chairman, of course). Courteous, friendly, endlessly helpful, they really made us feel welcome in Beijing. My lasting memories of the city will be of sitting in the little guest house reception with them in the evenings, watching the street vendors wheel by with their food carts, William making Mao Mao jump and do tricks for us, listening to their stories about moving to the city for work, their pride in their country and their amazing, rather ruthless knowledge of world history (“You’re from England? Ahh! Yes, England used to be a very powerful country from 1500 to 1939” -that told us!).

On 12th October we boarded the train at Beijing West station, a huge building with the most imposing frontage of any train station I’ve ever seen. Hard sleeper for 3 days to Lhasa in Tibet, and our cabin of six on three bunk levels was completely full. This was going to be fun!
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