Beijing 18th - 20th December 2010
Magical & fantastic, followed by earth shatteringly bad.
I wrote the beginning part of this Blog whilst I was there, and jotted the rest of the notes down just after I got back.
Beijing turned out to be horrific, not through any fault of its own, but due to events happening in the UK.
Beijing is my last destination before heading home, and I've had very mixed feelings about coming here. The Pro's are I've wanted to climb the Great Wall of China since I was a child, especially when I found out it is the only man made structure that can be seen from Space! I've also been fascinated with the Forbidden City since I watched 'The Last Emperor' and 'The King & I'. Trying to get my Chinese visa whilst in Thailand almost cost me my sanity, so I want to make the most of the experience, and I've been reading quite a few books on Chinese human rights and the Communist regime, so that I couldn't wait to get out there and actually see what it was like. On the other hand, I'm beyond absolutely exhausted, the longest I've stayed anywhere over the past 5 months is a maximum of 4 days and feel like I could seriously do with hibernating for 6 months, and I've had a really bad feeling about getting home (which turned out to be completely justified!) Also, just to make sure I get my moan in abiout the cold - it's so blimin' cold here that everyone is wearing Russian style fur hats, well everyone apart from me.
So back to the beginning - as the flight from Hong Kong descended to Beijing we passed through what I thought was a thick cloud. It wasn't until we had landed and were taxi-ing along the runway that I realised the whole airport was covered in smog, and it was so bad it looked like a sandstorm was rolling in & I could barely see past the terminal building. I can honestly say I wished I was on a connecting flight where I didn't even have to get off the plane. I know I've only got 3 days here, but the air quality is so bad that I'm sure the smog is going to take 10 years off my life!
The hostel where I was staying was in bit of a rough area but it was nice enough, and was just off a large square where they had a food market every morning. I had to be really careful with my money as I had 2 nights / 3 days here and when I landed I only had £45 left. I couldn't get any more money out as the famous Thai cash point had eaten my card. All the excursions & accommodation had been paid for, so the airport transfers would be £10 each way for a 30 minute journey - bargain, so that left me with £25 for food and any souvenirs that I needed to cover. In China, that is just about doable.
This place has a really strange energy about it. It feels so isolated, yet there are people everywhere. No-one seems to talk on the streets, and there are groups of men standing around bin fires on what seems to be every street. They're not talking, they're just taking it in turns to warm themselves near the fire. I can't work out if this is a social thing or if it's actually possible to think that it's warmer outside, than it is inside their homes. Towards the end of my stay I visited some inner city slums, and I came to realise that it was unfortunately the latter of the two options.
After a walk around the square, I grabbed some dinner in the hostel bar (which randomly had an American diner theme) and then got an early night in preparation for my crazy 'Beijing in one day' tour. Can't believe this is the last full day travelling, and tomorrow will be on my way home from this whirlwind adventure.
I met the tour guide in reception at 7am, and as I'm here in the middle of winter the tourist season is virtually dead. It turned out that it was just the tour guide, driver, me and one other tourist, so they hired a taxi to take us around rather in a big coach. This was great - the lady was from Holland and spoke great English, and so we got a private tour of the city for the whole day and even got him to take us to some more unusual places.
We started off with Temujin Square and it was very surreal. The sun was just starting to rise, and it was surrounded by huge stone buildings, all very symbolic and steeped in history. The square is guarded by guards in a green and black military uniform, which is made up of almost full length coats, huge fur hats that come over their ears and down their neck, massive black gloves and then if they're lucky they get to stand in a heated box to help fend off some of the biting cold. Take all this history, and then throw into the mix a couple of huge panoramic LCD advertising screens. They looked so out of place, and quite surreal against the dark sky.
After our guide had told us some of the history about Temujin Square - mainly focusing on the Human Rights protests, we walked over the road to the Forbidden city. It was just after 7.30am so it wasn't open yet, and there was also no-one in the queue for the tickets. We waited around for a while until it opened and I just stood there staring at the impenetrable giant red walls in front of me and the moat surrounding the outer wall which was frozen solid. I couldn't believe I was actually about to go in. The guide eventually came and found us and we had the first tickets, so we made our way as quickly as we could to the main gate. I had waited to see to this place for 20 years and the scenes that lay before me were some of the most magical sights and experiences of my life. The sun was still really low in the sky, the coldness was fierce, but I didn't care. I just ran around with no-one else there imagining what it must have been like for the previous inhabitants who lived there. To be able to see it with no one else there - honestly I had to pinch myself. I never in my wildest dreams would of thought that I would have had a private tour of the Forbidden City. I grabbed my camera and started taking some very unusual photographs, of an empty Forbidden City! (My friend saw my pics after I had been back about 6months and he couldn't believe how lucky I had been. He had the same photos but there were tens of thousands of people in his) One of my favourite picture I've ever taken was inside here. The sun was still really low which was casting really long shadows, so I took a picture of the main square and my gigantic shadow, with no one else in. Just magical.
It was about 30 minutes before we saw another person in there. Our guide took us to see the Kings thrown, the gardens, main buildings, places of worship, and described in detail what it was like for the people who lived there and the types of ceremonies that they had.
After a couple of hours we got back in the car and drove to the Great Wall of China. We were going to a part of the wall called Badaling which took a couple of hours to get there, and I was so excited to be going that it took all my energy just to remain calm and sit still. As we approached the size of this thing hit me. I knew it would be high, but it was monstrously huge. The guide said to us that the wall was built by slaves, convicts and political prisoners. Men from peasant families were rounded up by gangs and taken to the wall to help build it. Even people who had only committed minor crimes were sent to the wall. The first parts of the wall were completed over 2000 years ago (around 200BC) and the last parts were added over the course of 200 years during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). What he said next really shocked me. He said that what most people don't realise that the Great Wall is actually the largest mass grave known to man. They estimate that between 2 - 3 million Chinese people died whilst constructing the Great Wall, and that if / when someone died building it they were either buried bricked into the wall or thrown into its foundation.
We spent about an hour and a half climbing the Great Wall, and it was absolutely exhausting. Most of the 'steps' were nearly knee height and there were a good couple of hundred steps in each section - butt crunches ahoy! ;) Ohhhh yeah, work those buns of steel!
All along the wall about ankle height, was a metal wire, covered in metal hearts all along the wall. It kinda looked loads of heart charms you'd find on a charm bracelet just bigger. I think they were for wishes, I never did find out, but it was very surreal. After climbing the great wall (and wondering how on earth people do treks along here for charity!), we headed back to Beijing. On the way we had a couple of stop offs, one to Dr. Tea and the second (and quite unexpected for the driver and guide) to an inner city housing estate.
We went into Dr Tea which was clearly one of those tours the drivers take you to in order to get a commission. It was blimin freezing and we didn't want to get out the car, but he insisted (we had also been to a Silk Factory earlier in the day), so off we went for our tea making presentation. It clearly didn't turn out as expected for the girl doing the presentation who was clearly following a script. Even when we asked basic questions about why she was doing things in a certain way, or about the types of tea she had in front her she didn't know the answers. This sent the Dutch woman into a laughing fit and she kept saying to the girl 'I can't believe you are trying to teach an English person how to make tea'. Maybe you had to be there, but we both found this to be highly entertaining.
Our final stop was when we decided we had done 2 extra stops for him, so he would do a stop for us, and we made him pull over by one of the local neighbourhoods so we could look around. He really wasn't happy and said we couldn't go in, but we'd had enough of the stupid tours he was taking us on and we wanted to see something of real Beijing. It was very bizarre.
All of the houses were actually just single rooms, in long blocks and the kitchens & toilets were all held in separate blocks roughly in the middle of each street. It had a campsite feel to it, where the facilities are held somewhere else, and even though it was hovering around 0 degrees, there were men sleeping outside in wheel barrows, children's size toy car and in armchairs (god that must have been soaking wet & freezing!) We walked around for a little bit, and then headed back to the car. On the way back to the hostel, the driver & guide to us for a quick detour to see the Beijing Olympics venue called the Birdsnest - it looks even stranger close up, but was great to see.
When I got back to the hostel I started packing all of my bits up and was planning on spending the last night of my travels walking around the night market, sampling local street food before heading to the airport the next morning. I had £17 left, £10 of which I needed for the taxi to the airport, but it was just about do able.
That all changed though, when I went to British Airways online check-in and a simple massage saying 'Flight Cancelled' appeared. No phone number to contact, no instructions on what to do, just 'Flight Cancelled'. What I very quickly found out was that all London airports had been closed, British Airways do not answer the phone to their stranded passengers, and there was a high possibility of me spending Christmas on my tod in Bei-f***ing-jing!