Beijing, China (12th Dec 2007)
We took the overnight sleeper train from Xian (same as we usually do) and shared our cabin with two Chinese guys who spoke absolutely no English what so ever and showed absolutely no interest in us at all and even one guy sat outside the cabin, which was fine with us and meant we got to have a nice and peaceful journey watching one of our many new DVD's!
We pulled into Beijing station exactly on time at 7:30am and decided that the best option was to just join the half mile long queue and get a taxi. To our surprise when we arrived to the hotel, we found that not only did we have a brilliant location, but we were also allowed to check in straight away at 8:30am rather than the normal 11am. Our room was as expected, big, clean and with a huge TV and free internet!
The First thing that we needed to do in Beijing was to book our over night train tickets to Shanghai as they apparently sell out fast and it is advised that you book a few days in advance. The Beijing Metro is huge and serves every corner of the city and by this time next year will be even bigger as four of the lines are being extended for the Olympics. The Metro is also excellent value for money, as a flat rate is applied across all routes and it is a mere 2 Yuan (12.5p) one way to anywhere. Getting our tickets was easy, the counter was less than a hundred meters away from where we got off the Metro and the staff spoke good English which was a real shock. When we had our tickets sorted we headed for another traditional dinner of Big Mac and Chicken Nuggets at the McDonalds close by.
After a couple of hours wandered aimlessly around the city, getting our bearings, we decided it would be best to refer to the Lonely Planet to see what boxes needed to be ticked in order to say you have truly been to Beijing. It seemed to us the logical option was to head in the direction of Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City as we were already close by and they were kind of on the way home for us. Two stops from the train station, where we were, and we arrived at the bottom end of Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen Square is the large plaza near the centre of Beijing, named after the Tiananmen (literally, Gate of Heavenly Peace) which sits to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. It has great cultural significance as a symbol because it was the site of several key events in Chinese history and now houses the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and the Monument to the Peoples Heroes; and unfortunately for us, both were closed when we got there as they only open for so long each day and let in a limited number of people. We were both most disappointment about the Chairman Mao Mausoleum because it is said to be a brilliant attraction filled with lots of China's history; never mind, we'll see it next time maybe? Outside of China, the square is widely known for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when hundreds of unarmed democracy-activists were slaughtered by the People's Liberation Army.
The square itself is absolutely massive and according to a brochure we picked up it is the largest open-urban square in the world. The Square is lit with huge (20M tall) lamp posts, which also sport multiple video cameras and it is heavily monitored by uniformed police/army men who are everywhere, but seem to just blend into the background. Walking across the square was an event in itself, the locals and other foreign tourists alike all really seemed to fancy a bit of Kara, and we saw more than 10 people taking not so sneaky photos of her on their cameras and some even came and asked permission to pose with her, which to Marks amusement she did for a few lucky people. Another thing to note was the amount of people, both young and old alike who were flying kites of all shapes and sizes.
After what seemed like a couple of hours (20 minutes) we finally had walked the entire length of Tiananmen Square and were in front of the Forbidden City. Rectangular in shape, it is the world's largest palace complex and covers 74 hectare, surrounded by a six meter deep moat and a ten meter high wall. The wall has a gate on each side. Opposite the Tiananmen Gate, to the north is the Gate of Devine Might (right near to our hotel). A huge picture of Chairman Mao hangs above the ornate Chinese gate, which serves as the Forbidden City's Southern Entrance.
Since yellow is the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant colour in the Forbidden City. Roofs are built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace are painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground are made yellow by a special process. However, there is one exception. Wenyuange, the royal library, has a black roof. The reason is that it was believed black represented water then and could extinguish fire. The palaces construction lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers to finish it to its amazing standard and it seemed that when we arrived the builders were still there; many of the larger builders were covered in scaffolding as they are being restored to their former glory, most probably in time for the 2008 Olympics as Beijing wants to put its best face on for the foreigners.
As we walked around we were, again, amazed by the architecture and the magnificent looking buildings and we wondered why nobody would ever make buildings so grand anymore when now it must be much easier than it was back then? After about an hour inside the complex we reached the northern gate, which led to our hotel. Looking back the Forbidden City was incredible and really impressive as you step through the huge red wooden gates into vast squares surrounded by stunning painted buildings and palaces. It is a huge place and you can jostle with the crowds or side step into one of the many narrow passage ways and explore smaller squares and older faded elegant buildings that you get a real sense of their history from. They have lots of exhibitions in some of the rooms here ranging from opulent jewellery, priceless porcelain, weapons, uniforms and incredibly elaborately decorated mechanical clocks with elephants who walk when it chimes.
To cap off our first day of sightseeing in the city, we decided to stay close by to the hotel since we are staying very close to the historic Hutong areas that are a maze of narrow alleys full of local homes, courtyards and little restaurants that make it a vey atmospheric place to pass the time. Eventually we settled in a small place that could seat a maximum of 15 people, that was very homely and this was reflected in the decor and was covered in little trinkets and other bric-a-brac that just seemed to fit with the building perfectly. The food was excellent and also really cheap so we left feeling very happy with ourselves for finding this gem among all these little back alleys.
The Great Wall of China
After sleeping for two hours on the bus from Beijing, we arrived at our first stop along the Great Wall at Juyongguan. This is a slightly more remote section with less visitors due to the steepness of the climb. We knew the Chinese liked to do things big, but this was just too far. We were finding it difficult walking up to it on a set path, let alone get an army up there.
This section of the Wall is in a valley surrounded by mountains and has long been a military stronghold, where many fierce battles were fought. As well as being a military stronghold, it is also a beautiful scenic spot where from the bottom of the valley you can see the Wall snaking across the landscape and over the top of the mountains. The land around the wall offers very raw views, with expansive plains stretching for as far as the eye can see with small patches of lifeless trees scattered all around.
We knew it had snowed a couple of days ago, and therefore went up fully kitted out, gloves, scarf's, coats, hats and all; Mark even bought a new jumper (total tourist item)to keep the wind chill at bay, as it was already minus 10C. However by the time we reached the top (503 Steps) we had built up so much sweat we had to take off some layers just too cool down again. The views from the top were spectacular, and we could see it winding on for miles over every mountain top.
The second stop was only a few short miles along a mountain pass road that took us to the most popular spot for tourists to visit the Great Wall, Badaling. There are two reasons why this is the most visited site of the entire wall portion of the Great Wall:
1.It has quite a large a military outpost there and this reflects the location's strategic importance.
2.Badaling has undergone heavy restoration, and has seen significant development, including hotels, restaurants, and a cable car all which of course are there to charge way too much and empty your pockets, in the typical tourist trap style.
It was here that President Richard Nixon and his wife, visited in 1972, during his historic journey to China, where he exclaimed, "This is a Great Wall" and to be honest it is hard to disagree, the sheer scale of the wall is mind boggling as it stretches over approximately 4,000 mile from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west, along an arc that roughly runs along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. The Great Wall is the world's longest human-made structure and is also the largest human-made structure ever built in terms of surface area and mass.
The steps that form the Great Wall are very steep and tall in some areas and like many other people we saw along the wall it doesn't take long for the exhaustion to kick in and we only ended up climbing the wall and walking no more than a couple of miles in total, over two hours.
It has been estimated that somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 million Chinese died as part of the centuries-long project of building the wall and it's not hard to believe when you feel the blistering cold wind, walk up the near vertical sections and look over the edge to sheer drops down the mountain side. It's hard to even comprehend how they could have made such a structure so many centuries ago with the technology they had available to them.
After much reading in our Lonely Plant book and from stuff we have found online, the main purpose of the wall was to withstand the attack of small arms such as swords and spears; and also to protect the empire against the advances of the Xiongnu people from the north. From what we can find about the walls actual construction it seems that the walls were made mostly by stamping earth and gravel between board frames.
Before the use of bricks, the Great Wall was mainly built from Earth, stones, and wood, but during the Ming Dynasty, however, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime, and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. Additionally, bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth.
One final thing we found out about the Great Wall is that IT IS NOT VISABLE FROM SPACE. The old wives tale was finally put to rest after the first Chinese astronaut went up into space in 2003 and said that it is definitely not visible, not even when using binoculars. All in all, the trip to the Great wall was one of our highlights so far and was better than we could have hoped for and well worth the £5.50 each it cost to go!
After two days of full on sightseeing, we decided that our last day in Beijing would be a lazy one, starting with us not leaving the hotel until we had to check out at dinner time. We had about 5 hours to kill after we checked out, so we put our big bags in the hotels storage room and headed to the centre. We ended up at the Silk Markets, 4 stories of wall to wall market stalls, all selling pretty much the same, clothes, shoes, DVD's all from questionable sources and of equally questionable authenticity; regardless of this fact we still managed to spurge all our left over money on yet more stuff that we don't really need to be carrying around in an already overflowing pair of backpacks!