Trip Start Aug 03, 2007
134Trip End Aug 01, 2008
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The Red Wall hotel was right next to the Forbidden City. In our room was a collection of interesting condiments next to the mini-bar including vibrating condoms and a cream that purportedly prevented both pregnancy and all possible diseases, including HIV, if used according to the shockingly explicit instructions. Its amazing that this cream hasn't become popular in the West! The bathroom was poorly made so that the sink leaked and when used, the shower flooded the floor, which being marble became treacherous. A sign next to the shower advised of the risk of Landslide - so we were fairly warned
We'd bought the recommended tourist map at the train station and walked to Wangfujing Dajie, a mere two blocks away. It was then that we discovered the massive scale of the city, where each block seemed to be about a km in length. The street was full of large department stores and crowded with shoppers. We took a tiny side alley that was packed with curious stalls and tried fried scorpions on a stick. Back on the main street, we walked to its end and then on to Tian'anmen Square and the entrance to the Forbidden City - another mammoth walk. It was grey with haze and full of police, soldiers, special forces and security. All to oversee massive crowds of May Day holiday Chinese. We decided to come back the next day. We took a train to the other side of the Forbidden City where there was another large shopping street but as Louise was unwell decided to head back to the hotel. We were told off by a soldier for attempting to take a photo of a pretty lake, as on its other side were some government buildings. After another long walk around the back of the Forbidden City and past old men fishing in the moat, we made it back to the hotel. By now we were getting used to the smoking, hoicking, foul toilets and other charming Chinese behaviour. However, that evening, as we had a salty hotpot in a restaurant close to our hotel, we were mortified by the antics of the Chinese surrounding us - copious spitting and nose blowing right onto the carpet
The following day it poured with rain and we had breakfast in a cafe situated within a restored Chinese home, down a side-street close to our hotel. It was a cute and friendly place. For the remainder of the morning we convalesced in our hotel but eventually had to leave to get food. We saw a big restaurant, with a courtyard at the front and a large central area but we were led into a small wood-panelled side room where the staff and some customers were all gambling. We were given a tiny English menu and watched the gamblers who proceeded to spill food, beer bottles and cigarettes all around the table. It was fascinating. We then took a cab back to Tian'anmen Square, which was easy thanks to a card with a set of locations printed in Chinese that we had been given at the hotel. We looked at Mao's mausoleum and were amazed by the scale of the place. The square was windswept and icy cold. On every lamppost were security cameras pointing in all directions and police vans, cars and officers cruised the square. We found it sad thinking that we knew what happened here in 1989 but most of the Chinese surrounding us would have had no idea.
We then took an underpass and arrived at the front of the Forbidden City. We hired audio guides and entered the massive complex. While it was amazing, it was still underwhelming, especially since the two main temples were covered in scaffolding. The city definitely looks better from a distance.
In the morning, we paid for breakfast in the hotel, which was an expensive mistake as they clearly made little effort to cater to their western tourists. What was available was virtually inedible, so much for this cities great culinary reputation
At the exit to the Temple of Heaven we tried to catch a cab to the nearby Liulichang area. At first we were told it was closed, we said we didn't care and then we were outright refused. We walked out to the road and caught a cab there instead. The Liulichang area is a tourist street of antique shops and was, of course, open. But we were just using it as an access point to the old hutong behind. These narrow alleyways were fascinating and a real taste of what old China used to be
We then took a train to the Olympic Stadium. Well, that line is still under construction, so we arrived at a nearby station (several kilometres away). Naturally there were no directions or signs pointing to the Olympic area. We got lost, found a nice park following a stream and then walked for about an hour alongside a busy, dusty and polluted expressway. We finally arrived at a viewing area opposite the Bird Cage stadium. We were separated from the stadium by a wide carpark, a lake, gardens and a huge wire fence. Soldiers stood on guard on the inside, but as there were soldiers guarding everything in this city, even shopping malls and car parks this didn't faze us. Despite the distance the stadium was impressive, as were the other Olympic sites in the vicinity. There were crowds of people all there to look at the complex.
After another long walk and crowded metro ride, we arrived at a cafe strip close to the Friendship Store, where Western food can be bought. We took a wrong turn and about 2km later came to the first road sign and discovered our mistake
The following day we took a trip to the Great Wall. We'd heard about the tourist traps full of thousands of people, cable cars, touts on the wall, safety barriers and so on. We decided to do something different and had found a local driver a few days before. That morning we were met by the driver and an Australian couple, Sue and Howard, who were also taking the trip. Howard, a doctor, diagnosed Louise's cough as bronchitis, a secondary infection from her cold in Malaysia and prescribed some strong antibiotics which he then gave to us at the end of the trip. We took off into fascinating countryside. At one point we drove along the bank of a river and lake which was becoming a major holiday destination for Chinese who wanted to go fishing. All manner of tacky hotels were being built, there were horse rides, fish farms and so on. We pressed onwards through wild hill country and eventually turned down a dirt road passing a very large sign that said "no public access"
We stopped at the base of a narrow dirt track that wound steeply up a wooded hill until suddenly, there it was, the wall. This was the real thing, not some recent reconstruction, and as such it was in quite a state of disrepair. At a ruined section we climbed up onto the structure and discovered that we were on a high ridge. In front of us the wall stretched out, at first down, then up a steep ridge to a fort perched on the peak of a jagged hill. The wall continued along nearby ridges with more forts at their peaks. Behind us the wall climbed up steeply to another peak. There was only one other person on the wall, a local farmer who came up to us, shook our hands and then left. We climbed up the peak to an old viewing area on the wall where we had our lunches and admired the awesome sight. From the peak we could look over a valley with a village far below and on the other side of the valley the wall continued. Near the peak was an old fort and it was possible to climb inside where there were vaulted brick rooms, tiny windows and old passages. This was a truly magical experience and we were all amazed by the atmosphere. Eventually, we had to leave and as we departed, the valley below began to fill with the grey haze that is so common in China. After returning to the city, we stopped by Howard and Su's hotel room where we swapped photos, had a beer and Howard gave Louise her medication
That night we visited the night food market, a collection of stalls along a busy road that sold all manner of snack foods. From the normal pork and chicken to cockroaches, scorpions, centipedes it was all there. We bought some tofu, bun bao and so on. Franz also tried a stick of snake, which was a little undercooked and tasted unpleasant. There were a lot of beggars hanging about searching the bins for scraps to eat and one got the remaining snake.
We left Beijing with mixed feelings. Certainly the food we ate was unpleasant but the people were relatively friendly and the sights well worth seeing. The city was vast, almost too expansive in many places and yet comfortable and almost claustrophobic in others.