Both slightly hung over, the early start was pretty painful but we managed to get to the airport with time to spare. Burger king for breakfast before boarding the plane, the plane was a bit disappointing with the absence of individual TV monitors. I managed to finish my first audio book - Dan Brown 'lost symbol' - pretty good and thought provoking but a bit analogous to his other books.
Freezing cold and snow covered, we touched down in China collected our baggage and headed to the basement to catch a taxi. We wrapped up putting on our fleeces and base layers but still the cold was painful; I've been lucky enough to snow-board a number of times and trekked on the Annapurna range in Nepal but nothing could have prepared me for this temperature. Cold winds sweeping down from the Gobi desert and the wind chill factor amplified the bitterness. A number of years ago Beijing started a tree planting program, 125km belt of trees were planted around the city (costing 12 billion dollars) to provide a wind / dust barrier however the trees mustn't be big enough to accomplish this yet.
We struggled to find our hotel (Wangfujing Dongdan Yindi) with our none speaking English driver. Once we found it and checked in we headed straight to the hotel's restaurant. I was so hungry I could have eaten a scabby donkey and sure enough it was on the menu. It wasn't scabby it was delicious, we both tucked into the donkey and half a duck. It was far from the Chinese restaurants at home, they left the head on the duck and the portions were far bigger. Both full up after our exotic extraordinary meal we retired back to our warm exceptionally clean bedroom for some serious sleep.
After a lie in and a quick study of the map we set off to explore Beijing, meaning "Northern Capital". Tiananmen Square seemed to be a good place to start and it didn't seem too far away, we'd been walking some time and asked a few people where the square was, but nobody spoke English. Eventually a young couple pointed us in the right direction and asked us if we'd like to visit their art exhibition, we declined and told them we would meet them on our way back. The closer we got to Tiananmen the more English speaking students approached us asking us would we like to go for coffee or an art exhibition or could they organise a tour for us. Alarms bells were now ringing, I know a few people who've been ripped off by young couples, normally the couple ask if they can practice their English on you, once befriended you go to a coffee shop for a couple of drinks, the young couple disappear and you get a bill for £50 plus. It was quite disappointing because it seemed the only people who could speak English in this brash capital were con artists.
Surrounded by high risers traversed by four lane motorways Beijing seemed to be endless, however we eventually made it to the large square covering more than forty hectares. The square was pretty impressive and must rank as one of the greatest public squares on earth. Even though the square was built as a space for mass declaration of loyalty, it had a chilling feel about the place, probably because of all the bloodshed here over the last century.
After lunch we spent the whole afternoon wondering around the Forbidden City (20 Yuan about £2 with our STA issued student cards). We'd both read about the city along with the various Chinese dynasties which reined here, however we were still mesmerised by how big the place was. For five centuries of the cities operation, through the reign of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace.
Later that evening Lloydy ordered a plate of some kind of meat and noodle dish which came on what looked like an inverted bin lid; my dish arrived in what looked like a minature sauna bucket. We ate as much as we could before heading back to Wangfujing Dongdan Yindi.
Back to Tiananmen stopping off for breakfast, meatballs, strawberries and seahorse, it seems like a funny combination when writing this but at the time we were hungry and it seemed to be the norm. The meatballs were delicious, the strawberries were freezing and the seahorse tasted a bit like a pork scratching.
Just south of Tiananmen is Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall, home to the pickled corpse of the architect of modern China. Mao himself wanted to be cremated but a power ploy by his would be successor, Hua Guofeng, had decided otherwise. We visited Mao along with many other Chinese tourists, overlooked by guards and had to stand in an orderly, regimental queue; nobody dared smile.
The Museum of Urban Planning was our next stop; here we could look down at a scale model of the city. It was pretty useful; the scale model combined with our map helped us get our bearings before heading back out into the cold again.
We wanted to visit the acrobatics that evening so on the way to the Temple of Heaven we tried to locate the Theatre. After an hour searching for the Theatre in sub zero temperatures we gave up and headed to the temple. Again the temple grounds were bigger than we'd anticipated; we walked through the large idyllic grounds before reaching the main attraction. The temples and building here were the centre of imperial ceremony and symbolism for more than five centuries.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped off at the train station to book our onward journey, everything seemed to take a lot longer than we'd expected and the language barrier wasn't helping.
We mastered the subway and managed to exit the tube on our road, we ate in a nearby restaurant - about ten pigs' ears and pig belly soup (we ate the lot).
Got up really early to visit the Great Wall and caught the subway to the bus stop. We didn't want to take a tour to the Great Wall because I'd read that you always get taken to a number of shops on the way and after a high pressured sales pitch your forced to part with your money in exchange for some Chinese medicine or a crap piece of pottery.
Independent travel is the way forward for us Brits, or so we thought. We were fifteen minutes late for the 919 bus and consequently had to rebook our train ticket and accommodation enabling, us to visit the wall the next day. I'm not going to go into detail but the rest of the day was a struggle sorting things out.
After a bit of hard work we were back on the road to recovery, we'd even managed to book an acrobatic show for the evening.We watched the amazing performance at Chaoyang Theatre and had VIP seats, watching the professional acrobats perform super human acts, whilst eating Magnum ice-cream was a good way to reward ourselves for the hard day we'd had.
Great Wall adventure take two, this time we set off even earlier wrapped up in our eight layers. We were soon on the 919 bus heading to Badaling where we could walk along the Great Wall. 8.30am the bus pulled over and after a small walk we were on the Great Wall and the best thing about it was there wasn't a tourist in site; we'd beaten all the private buses. The climb was extremely steep and the temperature was so cold my tash froze, we hadn't eaten but we didn't care we felt like we were on top of the world and celebrated by drinking half a bottle of brandy, the brandy quenched our thirst and warmed us up a little. On our decent tourist buses pulled in and the site became less aesthetic. We strolled towards the West of the wall and saw a different side to this astonishing feat of engineering; the wall here had lost some of its charm as shops and touts waited at the bottom and there was even a ride which you could take down to the car park.
After a salubrious walk we travelled back to Beijing and caught the subway to our hotel where we indulged in duck tongue and jelly followed by chicken with roast nuts. The chicken was lovely but the tongues weren't brilliant. All in all our best day in Beijing primarily because of the Great Wall and the fact that we got there on our own - eventually.
In the morning we would head west to Datong which is in the province of Shanxi (The Yellow River).