I'm back in baking old Beijing. I got back last Friday after a journey that lasted 15 hours. First there was the bus to Haikou through a quite mountainous and thickly wooded interior, which was, at one time, virgin rain forest but has now been largely cultivated and built on. Heavy rain in Haikou meant that, once again, no taxis were available so I ended up on the back of a motorbike rickshaw, buried under my mountain of luggage. Quite how the motorbike made it all the way to the airport without conking out, I don't know, but I arrived on what was, effectively, the back of a lawnmower!
A violent storm as we were about to take off delayed us by about half an hour, making me half an hour late in reaching the hotel in Beijing. As I had not let them know (being the only person in the whole of China, and I mean the only person, without a mobile), my room had gone. It was, by this time, 1 o'clock in the morning and I had no possibility of finding a room anywhere else, so I settled down in the lobby for the rest of the night. Eventually it was suggested that I sleep in a bed in a dorm with some other girls. I don't suppose I was wildly popular when, at 2 am, I fetched up in their room and woke them all up! They didn't seem too upset, however and it's all probably part and parcel of dorm sleeping, of which I'm, thankfully and blissfully, ignorant!!
The next morning I was up and out by 5.30 am, hoping to get an early train to Chengde. Beautiful scenery all the way through the mountains, odd views of the Great Wall and we arrived at midday. It was the weekend and the holidays, so everything was full. But I did find a gorgeous hotel which had been an old court-yard style house. It had peacocks in the garden and the house was a series of rectangles with rectangular gardens in the middle and pretty covered passage ways running along the sides.
I spent the afternoon at the summer residence of the Qing Emperors. The palace was a surprisingly modest series of courtyards with fir trees, growing and shading the surrounding rooms. The garden was less a garden and more a prettily wooded mountain which I explored from the back of an electric buggy. The Emperor and his entourage of 10,000 used to take a week to get to Chengde (also thought to be Xanadu) and one can see why they came. The weather was perfect. It was sunny but never too hot and mostly with a very pleasant breeze.
The next morning I visited 3 of the 8 temples on the outskirts of the town. The first was a beautiful Lama temple with lamas in residence, gongs and chanting and the largest wooden statue of a Goddess (Guayan - the Goddess of Mercy) in the world! She is over 22 metres high and has 42 hands, which is most impressive! (I must have covered all the Buddist superlatives in recent weeks!). Despite the crowds, the atmosphere in these temples is always very serene and gentle. The next temple was a mini-facsimile of the Potala Palace in Tibet. It was very splendid - a huge square red building built on the side of a mountain and silhouetted against the deep blue sky with all the usual stupas and arched gateways, wooded pathways, prayer wheels and flags fluttering in the breeze. The last temple was a small, quiet, circular ediface, built again on the side of the mountain and beautifully decorated (as were all the temples) with delicate and intricate pictures and patterns. Then it was back on the bus for the return to Beijing, the trains all being full.
This time, not only did I have a room, I also got custardy of my rail tickets!! So this morning, bright and early, I went to the Russian Embassy and, guess what, I was given a visa!! Just like that. No, (well only a few), questions asked and they certainly didn't want to see any rail tickets!! Such is the fickle finger of those who bestow visas! The other change from a month ago was that payment was to be made in Chinese currancy, not US$. That meant a mad dash to find an ATM that accepted foreign cards and was working. Well, I did it and I pick up the visa tomorrow, then it's round to the Mongolian Embassy and, who knows, I might yet make Tibet!!
It seems strange to think that I'll be back home in less than a month - 4 weeks today, in fact and 3 weeks today I leave China!! There's an awful lot to fit into the next 3 weeks. I'm not entirely sorry to be going home; China has been, at times, exasperating and very frustrating. My lovely travel agent in China, Ian (Ford) - he who 'lent' me (a total stranger) over 100 pounds for an air ticket - he booked the ticket before I was able to get any money to him. It then proved impossible to send him any money, so he waited for a further 3 weeks until I was able to pay him in cash! Anyway, Ian told me that I would (some day) look back and laugh (at the trials and tribulations). Well, it won't be long before I'm looking back. The laughing might take a little longer! It is not an experience I would have missed for the world, however! Bye for now.