Some days ago now, Valentine’s Day actually, I started what I know is going to be a pretty swell trip. That’s when I met Pat, my bestie, in the Capital International Airport here in Beijing, China. I arrived in the city the day earlier off the ferry from South Korea, a short distance away across the Yellow Sea. Pat had further to travel. He arrived from Ireland, home for both of us. It – home – is also where we’re headed. Eventually. And all overland too, insofar as we can. Maybe that’s being a tad too unnecessarily ambitious. Yeah, we’ll probably take a flight (or two) but for the most part we’ll have our feet on terra firma. We don’t really have a itinerary. We’re just going to head west, in the direction of Europe, and see where it takes us. It’s going to be epic. It’s going to be, as I said, a pretty swell trip. I know that because, and even though as I type the trip is only into its fifth day, it has been swell already.
Tiananmen || Wasting Time Looking At Nothing
Chairman Mao watching his subjects pass through the 1420 Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, the entrance to the Imperial City, which is the location for Beijing’s famous Forbidden City. I might have suggested to Pat at some stage over the past few days that maybe we were not utilising our time in the city to its fullest. I might have even gone so far as to suggest we were “wasting time.” But Pat says it’s not possible to do that when you’re on holidays. That’s a fair point I guess – Pat has always ha a way of making sense of things. On this particular day, Pat’s first full day in the city, we took a leisurely stroll up Tiananmen Square, dodging art students and Great Wall tour sellers as we went. And when we couldn’t dodge them we played along, offering to sell them a tour to the Great Wall or a painting nobody wants. It was fun, for us and them. It was in Tiananmen Square, in full view of the famous, not to mention massive portrait of Mao Zedong adorning the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Pat proclaimed we were here “looking at nothing,” meaning that a square, by its very nature, is just an open public space and thus there is typically nothing to see, even if the square in question happens to be one of the biggest of its kind in the world, which Tiananmen is. It’s hard to impress some people. Beijing (), China. February 15th, 2008.
Us in the Sakura Café contemplating how we’re going to feel in the morning (not good as it turned out). This was where we spent most evenings in the city, a traveller’s café that wasn’t here when I was last in Beijing two years ago. It, Sakura Café, is a little bit of Thailand in the Qianmen area of Beijing that we called home – a dark, smoky western hangout with cheap beer (although-ultra expensive by Chinese standards), wooden benches, Bob Marley on repeat, walls decorated with national flags & the scribbles of past patrons, and a menu offering the travellers staples of burgers, pizza, banana pancakes & milkshakes. Most nights in here ended with us being thankful our hotel was only a short walk away. The only night this place didn’t get our custom was the night prior to our Great Wall hike – we thought better of it given our stupid o’clock 5 a.m. start to that day. But we made up for it last night, our final night in the city. We went in to bid all adieu only to end up leaving at 3 a.m…. or was it 4 a.m.? It was a weird night. Earlier we were treated to an Argentinean quartet playing squeeze boxes & violins and the night finished when the café staff turned off the lights & went to bed, requesting we let ourselves out. Sakura Café, Qianmen, Beijing. February 15th, 2008.
The Olympics & ‘New’ Beijing
The Olympics are being held here in Beijing later this summer. Everyone knows that. Changes are afoot in a frantic bid to get the city ready, but I doubt you need to come to Beijing itself to know that. However, being here you’d need to have a severe sight impediment not to notice certain parts of the city missing, hidden behind massive billboards showing how the new district behind them will look once the spruce-up is complete. The historic Qianmen district where we’re staying is one such area. It’s mass reconstruction, Chinese style. We piled into a taxi and went to take a peek at the new, super-bouncy-looking National Aquatic Centre and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, a.k.a. The Bird’s Nest. Not a very up-close and personal peek but a peek nonetheless.
A view of Beijing’s new Olympic Stadium, a.k.a. The Bird’s Nest, from a nearby road. This is quite the tourist attraction if the numbers of Chinese lining the road, just like us, to take a look was any indication. The upcoming Olympic games are the window that will be used to showcase the ‘New’ China to the world and this stadium is the centrepiece of the whole show. It certainly is an impressive structure, even from afar. However, the surrounding area, the Olympic Park itself, still resembles a building site & is far from ready. Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China. February 16th, 2008.
Call us the skeptics we clearly are, but we don’t think Beijing is ready for the Olympics, or that it will be ready. There are clocks all over the city counting down the days to the start of The Games of the XXIX Olympiad, due to start on August 8th of this year. 171 days is the current figure but to us mere mortals on the street that doesn’t look like nearly enough time – everywhere you look the Chinese are frantically building, rebuilding, cleaning and modernising, but there just seems to be too much work left to do. Amid all the new high-rises and fancy buildings, the city is still a jumbled mass of confusion, pollution and noise. The Metro system hasn’t been cleaned or modernised in any way – they still use paper tickets that you buy from one member of staff only to walk 10 yards to hand to another guarding the entrance to the platform. It’s old school. Dated. But this is China after all and underestimate them at your peril. The games are their chance to showcase the ‘New’ China so we reckon that regardless of how things seem now they’ll pull it off in 171 days’ time. Pat, who is way more skeptical about all things China than I am, reckons all the fancy buildings they are throwing up seemingly overnight will fall down in about 5 years’ time. Maybe. Maybe not. But something tells me the Chinese wouldn’t be bothered if they did, they’d just rebuild them anyway. Just as long as they don’t fall down before the Olympics finishes. Beijing, China. February 16th, 2008.
We went shopping on this day (man shopping – razor blades & stuff) in the Wangfujing area of the city. It’s also changing, just like every other part of the city. The city’s famous Silk Market, for the longest time one of the city’s big tourist draws, is now not only housed in a new custom built, 4-storey building (it used to be open-air) but the building budget even stretched to allow for this for-the-tourist sign at its entrance. The sign somewhat hilariously lists both ‘Recommended’ & ‘Forbidden’ words and phrases to be used when haggling for purchases. I’ve always loved haggling but doing so in here is especially fun; it’s a great place to hone & perfect your haggling skills especially now that Silk Market powers that be are helping out with some essential words & phrases. Silk Street Market, Beijing, China. February 16th, 2008.
The Jinshanling Great Wall
On our third in the city we headed to an area called Jinshanling, about 130 kilometres from Beijing (a 6-hour round-trip), in an attempt to get to an as authentic as possible section of the Great Wall. I visited a (very) touristy section of the wall at Badaling some three and a half years earlier and had tried, and failed, to get here to Jinshanling two years ago on my last visit to the city. Although the sky was blue on this day, it was a slight disappointment that the surrounding landscape wasn’t blanketed in snow, especially considering the south of the country is awash with the stuff. However, the 10 kilometre walk was great. While this part of the 2000-year-old, 6400 kilometre long wall has undergone some restoration work, it is considerably less developed than other areas of the wall that are accessible in a day trip from Beijing, such as the aforementioned Badaling. We hiked along the stony and, in parts, steep wall for about two and a half hours, walking from watchtower to watchtower & trying to avoid sprained ankles & vertigo as we went. And when we were finished we were in agreement that yes, it is indeed a great wall. Jinshanling, China. February 17th, 2008.
He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.
– Mao Zedong
We had to drag ourselves out of bed at 5 a.m. on this morning, meaning we had a quiet night the night before. Yes, the Great Wall may not have kept out the invading Mongol hordes from the north, as it was intended to do, but it kept us out of the bar for one night. A section of the Great Wall at Jinshanling (), China. February 17th, 2008.
In c. 220 B.C., under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defence system against invasions from the north. Construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure. Its historic and strategic importance is matched only by its architectural significance.
For someone who hadn’t been to Beijing before, Pat didn’t arrive armed with any kind of a to-do list. He said he’s not that type of traveller, the type who has a list of things to see and goes around ticking them off the list. That suited me; I’ve been to Beijing and reported from here in the past so my Beijing to-do list at this stage is understandably small. However, we did both want to see the presently under construction Olympic Stadium and take a hike on a remote, non-touristy section of the Great Wall. And now that those two boxes are ticked we have our sights on locations further afield, namely Xi’an, central China, our next stop. Today is our 5th day in Beijing, longer than we expected to spend here. But we’re leaving the city in a few hours to spend the guts of 13 hours on an overnight train, one that’ll deposit us in Xi’an. Pat’s looking forward to the train trip. He says there’s something “romantic” about overnight train travel. Umm, I best keep an eye on him.
· Pigeon Irish
We both wish we had concentrated harder in Irish class. Sometimes, when in the company of others, we’d just like to be able to get a private point across. Enter pigeon Irish, our bastardised version of what is, officially at least, our first language. Pat reckons by the time the trip is over we’ll have it (our vocabulary) down to a tee. But won’t that be too late?
· No Set Itinerary
We’ve already stared to make this up as we go, and we haven’t even gone anywhere yet. Although we didn’t really get up to much during our 5 days in Beijing, we seem to have ambitions to get to other places that might just turn us into proper camera-wielding, guidebook-reading tourists. Pat told me yesterday that he wants to go to Varanasi and Chandigarh, both in India and places we/I didn’t initially plan on going. Not that that’s an issue of course as we don’t really have a plan per se. We can pretty much, & within reason, go where we want. That’s a hell of a way to travel.
For all the tourist numbers here in Beijing (admittedly there are not too many around this time of year), westerners are still a curiosity. Pat was taken aback that a few locals requested to have a picture taken with him as we were walking around yesterday. I wasn’t and told him to be thankful that they don’t stare as much here as they do in the lesser tourist-orientated Chinese cities.
· The Great (Fire)Wall
The Great firewall of China is working. The Chinese are stopping us accessing the BBC website. And Wikipedia.