Since my last entry I have been seeing lots of exciting things, including what have to be some of the highlights of any trip to China. I have spent the past few days in Beijing and although there are some downsides such as a tickly cough from the pollution and having to occasionally fight my way through the crowds, on the whole Beijing is an amazing city.
I have been to the biggies such as the vast Tianneman Square with its dynamic revolution sculptures, impressive buildings and the huge picture of Mao hanging at the top end from the ornate Chinese gate. It was full of people flying kites and serious looking soldiers standing guard next to the monuments. Unfortunately the Mau's Mausoleum was closed so I could not visit there. As the Olympics are coming here next year, there is lots of restoration work being carried out for Beijing to put its' best face on for the foreigners.
I spent a day hiking the six miles along the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simitai, which was fantastic and definately one of those places you should visit in your life. It was pretty tiring as you spend the whole time going up and down stairs, but doing a long walk gives you a history tour through various parts of the wall and you see some really old parts as well as newer restored sections. You also get some perspective on the length of the wall as it snakes its way across the country and feel like quoting a classic clanger from one of the American Presidents who came here and on being asked to comment said he thought it was 'a great wall!'
I visited the Forbidden City, which again 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 porceilin, weapons, uniforms and incredibl elaborately decorated mechanical clocks with elephants who walk when it chimes. Some exhibitions were based on events from the life of some of their more colourful characters such as the meglomaniac crazy Empress Dowager Cixi who pretty much eliminated anyone in her way (including her own relatives) and the Last Emporer Puyi who had a special bond with his English tutor and who the Spielburg film was based on.
The Summer Palace was equally impressive with its huge lake and beautiful buildings fo the royals to pass their time in with theatres, galleries, long highly decorated walkways surrounding sections of the lake, pagodas and the wholly unecessary marble boat that Cixi emptied the coffers to construct rendering the Chinese army unable to defend itself against foreigners and contributing to the decline of the royal dynasty.
I have had the chance to catch up with some friends here who I met travelling and it has been great to spend time with them. Two of them live here and showed me around some of their haunts with some great bars, cafes and galleries that I would otherwise not have known about. Beijing also has great markets and lively street life. In fact I am staying in one of 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.
I will be leaving tommorow to catch a flight to Kunming as I am going to explore the south west region of Yunnan before travelling overland to Laos and am pretty excited about that. The countryside will be quite a change to being in the capital city.
To update since my last entry, I left the lovely little historical walled city of Pingyao to go to the very ugly polluted modern city of Datong. Apparently this is where China gets most of its coal from and it has a permanent grey sky and dirty stained buildings. Unsurprisingly I opted to only spend one night there in order to do a day trip to the fantastic Hanging Monastary and Yungang Caves. The monastary hangs off a cliff face and is a wooden structure that feels pretty rickity when you walk around. You just have to tell yourself that if it has held for this many years, then it will probably hold your weight too. The caves were the most impressive sculptured caves I have visited in China and filled to the brim with Buddhas and other effigies.
I then caught a bus to Hohot in Inner Mongolia where I spent an night out in the vast grasslands in a yurt (traditional tent) and enjoyed a day riding one of the nippy little racing ponies that they have there. I also got to try some of the traditional Mongolian food such as the tasty roasted lamb and the not so tasty sheeps liver, stomach and lungs as well as pigs trotters! Strangely the Mongolians drink tea the same way as us English, only they add a bit of salt instead of sugar and it is surprisingly ok.
Anyway, I will update again soon.