just 20 million people, take or minus a million
28.09.2012 - 05.10.2012 26 °C
We arrived with so much excitement into Beijing. We had done the trans-mongolian train, actually done all 8115km of it! What a fantastic experience. I had an absolute ball and am so glad to have completed one of the world's greatest train journeys and the best thing of all is that I still love travelling by train and am lamenting having to take a plane soon. We met Tina our honcho at she guided us to our bus to take us to our hostel. We would of got mighty lost otherwise. On the bus ride some people were so excited by the sights and sounds all around them but for some reason I found it strangely familiar, perhaps because I've been to Kunming before or because there is such a large Asian population back home but I didn't find it shocking, or strange but weirdly comforting.
After freshening up in my own private room (score!) we met Tina and she took us to a Peking duck restaurant around the corner. We shared duck and some other vegetable and meat dishes which were nice and very cheap. Afterwards we caught the bus with Tina and went to a kungfu show. This was the weirdest thing I've ever seen. There were bus loads of white tourists everywhere and I couldn't shake the thought it was an exploitation for tourists of a great art. I think I totally had the wrong mindset about it, but it was more like a tacky, way too serious musical, with bad voiceovers and far too much choreography instead of kungfu tricks. I held it together through it until the neon lightning started and I couldn't stop giggling. Really sad as the few tricks they did were very impressive.
We caught the bus back towards our hostel and went to visit the Donghuamen night markets, the famous food markets where they sell silk worms, scorpions, spiders, starfish and other grotesque things on a stick to eat amongst noodles and dumplings and candied fruit. We walked along the street in disgusted awe at all the strange things. Then we headed into the craziness of the market stalls selling every type of souviner possible! It was an hilarious and fascinating time although I wasn't tempted by any of it! Afterwards we wandered lost for a little while trying to find our way back to the hostel.
We started very early the next morning as we were going to the Great Wall today. We boarded our bus and drove through Beijing, stopping to get some food for breakkie and then napping the rest of the way to the JinShanLing section of the wall. It is supposedly the furthest section away in the Beijing area that you can visit, Tina had been scaring us that it would take 3.5 hours to get to but really only took 2. It was an absolutely stunning day, we could not ask for more perfect weather, and so 8 of us set off on the path to the wall. It was everything I had imagined and more, the landscape was stunning, the wall was magnificant and incredibly impressive. There were other tourists around but not you could still get photos with no people in them, and what I really enjoyed was that some sections of the wall had been repaired, but lots of it was very rundown with the path and stairs being really rough, walls in varying states of collapse and in some parts not ramparts, just the path to walk on. This section of the wall is the youngest, at only 600 years old but it apparently one of the most beautiful parts. It definitely kept me in awe the whole way. I couldn't help but think about some Bogi our mongolian honcho had said. It is a great people that build the wall but it is an even greater people that was the reason for the wall. It just seemed like such a crazy decision to build this amazing structure and yet they did! 3.5 hours and over 200 photos later we came off the wall, having walked a few kilometres of it's total 7000km ish length.
We napped in the bus on the way back to Beijing, getting caught in the infamous traffic for over 3 hours. Once we got back, we went straight to an early dinner at a hotpot restaurant. Basically the concept is a boiling pot of hot water in the table and you dip raw meat and vegetable into it for a minute or so until it is cooked and then eat it with sauces. It was a very very messy but fun and highly interactive meal. We even got to make our own noodles by stretching the dough into a noodle shape and then cooking them. It was delicious and after our exhausting day we definitely needed it. At night a bunch of us headed out in search of a bar and this turned into quite an exhausting effort. We walked aimlessly towards Tiananmen Square with no luck before deciding to get a cab to the bar area. Getting a cab in Beijing is harder than it looks. There are lots of taxi's around but lots are full and then I don't know if it's because we are so obviously tourists but lots do not stop and then later on at night when trying to get home they all blatenly try and rip you off by not putting the meter on and charging an exorbarant flat rate even though this is illegal and although we know it there is nothing we can really do. Anyway so 2 cabs took us up a bar area around a lake north of the forbidden city, but the two cabs dropped us in completely different places so we spent quite a while trying to find each other while also wandering around gorgeous lake and seeing all the bars around it. We eventually ran into each other and sat down to a beer (of which Chris has managed to haggle down the price). The bad thing about beer in China is that is pretty weak and some taste like funny water. We headed back to the hostel a few hours later absolutely exhausted from our massive day!
Today was mid-autumn's festival (or something like that), which is basically a full moon festival day and the start of the national week long holidays. It is highly recommended not to travel to China during this week as there is soooo many people and getting transport tickets can be difficult and more pricey and so this was the week I was to spend in Beijing. This morning we had a Chinese brunch in an awesome underground food court area and then broke off into different groups. Vodkatrain was now over and we could do whatever we wanted. Roel, Steve and I decided to tackle the big one first, there seemed no best day to visit the Forbidden City so we thought we may as well get it over and done with. We first headed to Tiananmen square with all the millions of other people doing the square. It is absolutely huge and actually quite different from what I imagined. I didn't realise Mao's mausoleum was in the centre of the square. After ice-cream while wandering around the square we then crossed through to the Forbidden city. It is absolutely massive at approx 1km deep x 650m wide, and inside is a huge endless collection of temples and palaces, massive and small courtyards, and thousands and thousands and thousands of people. It didn't take long to get tickets but wandering through the place took quite a bit of time due to the crowds. The boys got over it pretty quickly, I sustained slightly longer but after a few hours of looking at the temples and wandering around we were absolutely exhausted and totally over it. We kept thinking, how could there be some many chinese people seeing these sites, and then reminded ourselves there is 1.2 billion of them, most of them actually haven't been here before!!!
Slowly I exhaustedly made the move to the my new hostel, a cute little courtyard hostel down a hutong (an alley) and then after that met up with everyone at our pre-arranged spot by the lake. When we met we wandered around the lake and then to one of the most famous hutong's in Beijing, Nanluogo hutong which is filled with restaurants, shops, bars and food stalls, decorated with lots of lanterns and packed with people. We had a great dinner on a roof top terrace enjoying the full moon and the last night we would all be together. We then spent the rest of the evening wandering the shops, with all the girls buying things they definitely didn't need!
October the 1st is national day. It is a massive day in China and Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are at the centre of it and so Steve, Roel and I decided to meet at the National Centre for Performing Arts, which is next to Tiananmen Square. Possibly the dumbest decision ever! We had decided to meet there as I especcially wanted to see the modern egg architecture but I really really regretted it as soon as I stepped on the metro. It took so long to get there, being stuck like a sheep in the metro tunnels and then the Tiananmen stations were closed so I had to walk a fair way with what felt like a million other people all heading to Tiananmen. Supposedly 1 million people were to be in the square that morning! I eventually made it to the egg, but the boys were also having a hard time getting through all the people and we didn't meet up for ages! We had lots of requests while admiring the egg to have our photos taken with chinese, something that is still really strange to me.
We then set off on the metro to the Olympic Park, hopefully with a few less people entow. It was quite a sight coming out of the station and straight away seeing the two showpieces - the bird's nest and the watercube, and even though I saw nothing of the Beijing Olympics I was quite excited to get to go into them, plus it was a clear sunny day and that makes all the difference in China. The Birds Nest was first and was really cool, we spent ages looking and sitting inside the stadium, all 3 of us were impressed, it felt much more intimate than Sydney Olympic Stadium but fits about as many people, while the outside nest structure is really showy and pretty magnificant, if a little dirty. Walking up and down the stairs in the "nest" allowed us great views of the watercube and the olympic park, and also the strange IBM tower just next to the site. As we were walking around though you could feel and see the famous smog descending all around us, our views became dramatically less from the time of entering the olympic park to leaving it.
After the Bird's nest we had lunch in a big temporary food tent, with endless options of cheap Chinese food to pick from which was delicious. Then it was on to the Watercube. The outside of the stadium is truely cool, and I was proud it was an aussie design! But the Bird's nest and the watercube sit opposite each other and I don't think you could put two more opposing structures facing each other! It was a strange and slightly uncomfortable siting, I think it highlighted how opposing they are. Inside the watercube looked slightly worse off. The place looked used, and for a building only 4/5 years old this is kind of sad. The Olympic pool side did look impressive but the waterpark and central space felt rundown, the plan to have shops and restaurants inside the facility hasn't worked and they sit abandoned and the clear tensile fabric walls look grubby, but to it's credit the waterpark looked like heaps of fun and the boys were sorely tempted to give it a go in there undies or come back another time!
We were exhausted and ready to go after many hours in the park and so made our way back on the metro system towards my hostel. After encouragement from Steve, Roel and I decided to go see the acrobatics show at night, and so basically criss-crossed the city via metro to get there. I have seen a lot of acrobatics and circus tricks in my time and wasn't particularly keen on paying to see some more, but Roel really wanted to go and the theatre was next to the CCTV building so we got to kill two birds with one stone.
We saw the CCTV building first and it is enormous, absolutely monolithic, what a ridiculously unneccessary but impressive structure. I was really thrilled to have seen it, after hearing lots about it during uni. It takes over an enormous block and can also be seen in the skyline from the high points of the Forbidden city! After picking up my jaw and taking some horrendous night photos (so wish I had a tripod) we then headed to the acrobatics show, which I am glad to say was no where near as cheesy as the kungfu show. A lot of tricks in the show I had seen but several were pretty cool, like the partner ballet, where the girl stood in ballet point shoes on top of the guys head, also the finale where they had a circular cage with 8 motorbikes at the same time riding around doing tricks! Some very impressive skills by the whole cast!
Afterwards Roel and I had dinner at a restaurant down the hutong from my hostel, spending a few hours sitting there eating (the Chinese really know how to make spinach mouth wateringly delicious!) and chatting, and by 11 the restaurant wanted to close and I could barely keep my eyes open. Yet another fun filled day!
Roel turned up unexpectandly and checked into my hostel the next morning and then the two of us and Manu who was also staying at the hostel made our way to the Temple of Heaven park. It is an enormous and I'm sure beautiful park but the crowds, as with the forbidden city ruined the peaceful atmosphere and lessened the impact of the temples. We wandered through the park to the main temple which was gorgeous but dulled by the smog and then proceeded along the main boulevard in the park, getting gorgeous vista's back towards the temple and then saw two other smaller temples before leaving the park, we spent approx 2 hours there but the crowd made us feel like we'd been there for 2 days!
Manu left us and Roel and I made our way via the metro (which is concidently really easy to use, efficient, clean and cheap) to the Silk markets where we met Steve. The three of us then decided to tackle bargaining in China. I bought the first thing and in hindsight I really really really could of haggled much harder, but it's all practice. The silk markets is actually quite a nice shopping area but it's all the sellers and there relentless tactics and calls that make you exhausted and desperate to leave soon after. Over the 5 levels of goods, I did manage to pick up a few things, most excitedly 2 new pairs of ski googles! fingers crossed they are ok and don't break on the first day! Roel had the most restraint and proudly bought nothing! But after 3 hours we really couldn't wait to leave; it had been yet another jam-packed Beijing day.
Roel, Manu and I had dinner at down the hutong at the restuarant next door to the other night and had a great little meal of chinese pancakes and noodles. Then it was back to the hostel where Roel forced (easily) push ups and situps upon me!
My last day seeing the last of the vodkatrainer's as we all move our separate ways. Roel and I walked back towards Nanluogo hutong were we met Chris, Renee, Steve and Emma and the 6 of us had a western breakfast together at a normal western looking cafe. It was quite a nice change to have a little bit of (skewed) normality. Then we split up again, everyone doing their separate things. Roel, Steve and I walked through some hutong's, talking a Chinese math teacher as we walked (I am seriously meeting a proportionally high amount of teachers in China so far) and through the streets to the Yonghe lama temple. This temple complex was absolutely gorgeous and although quite crowded it was far more respectful and peaceful here. There were lots of people coming to pray and give offerings and everyone was very calm around it. I was able to appreciate the stunning architecture so much more here. The temple is famous for having the world's largest buddha statue carved out of one piece of wood and it is incredibly awesome at 26m tall.
We felt quite relaxed and calm as we left and Steve and I headed by taxi to the 798 art district. We didn't quite know what to expect but this area was amazing. It is a huge dis-used factory, power plant area that over 10 years has transformed itself into a district for contemporary art, cool shops and great little restaurants and cafes. It was of course packed with people but it didn't bother us. We walked around seeing some amazing art, housed in some fantastic old factory buildings, like melted copper artworks, and some instillation artworks in and around an old power station. This area really enhanced both of our views on Beijing. It was a great city, but this gave it intelectual capacity and curosity and instead of just existing with some gorgeous building's around. What I enjoyed the most was how provoking a lot of the art was, really making us think or explore and discuss. We had lunch at a cute little cafe and spent several hours exploring not even 20% of the shops and galleries.
We knew we had to meet everyone again for the last time and so was time to head back but this turned out to be a harder task than imagined. We had easily and affordably got a cab to 798 but now it was peak hour and we could not get a cab back. Although we hoped into a couple they either claimed they could not see, definitely glad I didn't stay in that one, flately refused, which is illegal or tried to charge us off meter at exorbant prices which is also illegal. No one would be fair and give us a ride and even though we know it is illegal for them to do all of this and we are increasingly yelling at them so, they don't understand us and so we had only 2 choices - to pay the crazy price or find another way. We chose to find another way, by asking a guy at the bus station if he spoke english - yes! and then can he tell us which bus to take to get to a metro so we can get back to the hostel - yes! so we caught the long bus back into town, with the bus attendant laughing at us along the way and then the metro a few stops back to the hostel, with the whole thing taking so long, we only had time to slam down a beer before taking the metro back a few stops to meet up with everyone from breakfast again! busy busy busy!
We had dinner in a famous area of Beijing called Ghost street. It is anything buy ghostly and I still have no idea why it is called this. It is a huge street decorated with red chinese lanterns and with massive crowded restaurants. We had dinner at a huge place where there was lots of crazy things on the menu like pig's intestive and rotten garlic but we managed to find safe and normal things to feed us all, but to my disappointment we did eat like westerner's with one dish each. After a really enjoyable meal and also 3 weeks together it was time to say goodbye to Chris and Renee and Emma. It is such a strange thing that you spend all this intense time with people and then part, although with good intentions, probably never to meet again. I then had to say goodbye to Steve which was really sad, he has been such a good travel buddy, instantly clicking from day 1 back in St Petersburg. We said goodbye with both of us doing the macarena as his metro train disappeared from the station!!! I felt so much more alone again now, and something I realised I was quite apprehensive about again. I have spent all this time by myself and was nervous about travelling with people and now I am nervous about going on my own again!
I had to say goodbye again the next day with Roel leaving to set off on his trip again. It was yet another hard one and I was keenly aware of being alone again. The two boys have been such good guys to hang around with! And so by myself for the first time in weeks I set off dangerously to go do some shopping! No boys to keep me from spending my money or make me hurry up. I went to a lesser known but still massive market called Yashow, hoping I could get better deals than at the more famous and popular Silk and Pearl markets. 5 hours, and a manicure and pedicure later I got back to my hostel, ladden with stuff - mostly clothes in prepartion for canada and no idea how I would fit it all into my bag! It was crazy, the 5 stories of markets had stuff everywhere with bags, clothes, electronics, makeup, chinese souviners, beauty shops to get manicures and so and so on. It was expensively exhausting but I actually had far more fun here than at the silk markets and I think got some good deals!
At night, back at the hostel, as I contemplated packing I knew something was not right, and without all the details I basically spent the night incredibly sick in the bathroom and with a temperature, and struggling to sleep from aches and pains. No idea what happened but all I can think is maybe food poisioning! It was horrendous but thankfully in the morning I felt better, or at least able to actually pack my bags.
The first task I had to do the next morning was go the post office and post a whole heap of my souviners that I will not be needing in Canada and of which my bag now needs the space to fill with stuff I have bought to use in Canada! The post office was a funny process, but thankfully I had got the woman at the hostel to right out what I needed in Chinese otherwise I doubt I could have done it. They bubble wrapped everything and I had to insist on packing it myself which they thought was strange, and then after several forms and strange communications my stuff was off. Hopefully it all turns up back home!
I then headed off on the metro to the Summer Palace. This huge complex, of which 70% is a lake is on the outskirts of the city and was a residence of the emporers. It was very hot and once sadly once again swarming with people! I walked around the massive complex looking into a few of the temples and enjoying the pretty vista's over the lake before climbing up the most famous point, a temple overlooking the whole palace and indeed most of Beijing's skyline. If there wasn't the sheer number of people I could calmly sit here for hours taking it in, but after a few hours in the complex I was more than done and couldn't wait to get back to the hostel. It was beautiful but the chinese traditional architecture is all blending into one.
Back at the hostel, I chilled for a 2 hours, chatting with fellow travellers and saying goodbye to Manu before heading off on the metro to the Beijing West railway station. It took a bit of time to get there and it was packed with people as expected but eventually I got onto my train and comfortably set up for the night trip to Xian! Beijing had been lots of fun but I was definitely ready for the next thing and felt quite at home moving on on the train!