Arrived late Monday morning. Our hotel, the Jin Ya, is in a good location in one of the Hutongs and seems to be in walking distance of the centre and main sites. It's a traditional Chinese style building with the rooms set round a courtyard - all red lanterns and coloured lights. The staff (all young women) are very nice but their admin/registration system is pretty quirky with lots of seemingly unnecessary form filling - in triplicate - and if you are due change from paying cash (only Chinese card accepted) you have to wait while they run off to some secret stash of cash somewhere else in the hotel. Spent the remainder of Monday settling in and wandering around the local area.
Found a restaurant with really helpful staff. With a combination of pointing at what other people were eating and advice from the friendly manager, we ended up with a delicious meal of spicy (very) pork ribs, in a hot bubbling korai/fondue type pot, and a huge plate of pak choi and 'fungus'. If we were supposed to drink the remains of the spicy sauce from the ribs, well we chickened out. Back to the hotel very satisfied with our first day in Beijing.
Tuesday, we ordered a Chinese breakfast. We were ushered into a private dining room with a large round table and a lazy Susan set with lots of small dishes of Chinese fare. Half way through tucking in we realised we'd been eating the accompaniments (a bit like eating the ketchup, malt vinegar and pickled onion before the fish and chips arrive!). Interesting meal but not really satisfying to our palates. Set off for Tian'anmen Square at 10.30 with a spring in our step and got there seven hours later -------- because we found the main shopping drag!! Having been starved of consumerism for an interminable six weeks we just couldn't resist. Within the space of 100 yards we'd bought two pairs of specs, pair of trousers, bag, watch and a new hand-held computer/mobile! Withdrawal symptoms over, we move on. Too late for the Forbidden City, but had a quick recce round Tian'anmen Square taking in its vastness. It was heaving with people, floral displays (one marking the new railway to Tibet), fountains and cartoon style mascots for Beijing Olympics 2008.Wednesday, started the day with real purpose – we shall go to the Forbidden City. Beijing is so huge and places so far apart that we had to abandon our original intention to walk and ended up taking the subway and taxis everywhere (fortunately pretty cheap). First paid a visit to the Mausoleum in Tian’anmen Square to see Mao Tse ‘Tomb’. Huge queue, but it moved quickly and soon we were passing what is claimed to be Mao himself, embalmed and frozen (until they find a cure for death!). Have to say we remain unconvinced about whether this is genuine. But it’s amazing to see the reverence paid to him by so many people, placing flowers and genuflecting at his statue, especially since China’s prosperity didn’t come until after he died. Made it to the Forbidden City as planned. What a fantastic and fabulous place, full of colourful palaces and huge courtyards. The scale of it is immense (even with the huge number of tourists it didn’t ever seem to be packed) and our photos don’t do it justice. Glad we’ve got the pictures in our memory. It was a fine, warm day so stopped for a welcome ice lolly in the gardens before continuing north to Jingshan Park (meaning Coal Hill) which was formed from the excavations for the Forbidden City. Although not especially high it gives a great view over the Forbidden City and around Beijing. Rounded the day off by ordering our rail tickets to Xi’an (couldn’t get soft sleeper so had to take the more expensive supersoft sleeper) and negotiating a deal with a taxi driver to take us to the Muckle Dyke (Great Wall in English). Walking back to the hotel later at night we noticed that many people were still working eg hairdressers still cutting and styling, shops and supermarkets still open. On the spur of the moment I (Margaret) decided my hair could do with a tidy up so popped in for a haircut. Caused quite a stir for the locals who probably hadn’t had a westerner in the salon before. Nobody spoke English so sign language was the order of the day. Was plonked down in seat and had my hair washed sitting there in the chair in front of the mirror with no basin in sight. I was getting myself into a right lather wondering how they were going to rinse it off and having visions of having my head dooked in a bucket of water. Thankfully not. Was taken through the back to a row of basins same as we have at home. Can’t imagine why they don’t wash the hair there too. The chap did a decent job of the haircut but clearly was phlummuxed about how to dry wispy, wavy, western hair. Still, the cut was the main thing and that plus the entertainment factor for a whopping 18 Yuan (just over £1). Worth it at twice the price. No more Toni & Guy for me, from now on it’s Chang & Lee! Thursday was Temple of Heaven day, another vast park in the city with various temple buildings (see photo album). This is where the emperors came to pray and make animal sacrifices for good harvests. The main temple is make entirely of wood without a single nail. Building was completed in 1420 but it had to be rebuilt in 1889 after being destroyed by lightning. The official explanation is that this was divine punishment on a sacrilegious caterpillar which was on the point of reaching the golden ball on top of the roof when the lightning struck. Someone must have had good eyesight to have spotted it!! In the afternoon, headed north of the Forbidden City to the Bell and Drum Towers which were used to mark the hours of the day and night. Climbed up the very steep and high steps of the Drum Tower. Knackered when we reached the top, but worth it for a display of drum beating and different, but hazy, views of Beijing. Friday – very hazy day with poor visibility, and slightly cooler. Moved rooms in the hotel as couldn’t get the same one for all five nights, then off to the Summer Palace by boat along the canal. Thrilled to be put in a high speed motor boat, only to be disappointed to find that this only took us to the main boat stop half a mile away. After a leisurely trip with a few changes of boat, arrived at Summer Palace. Another extremely large park, consisting mainly of a large lake surrounded by walkways, causeways and bridges. Very peaceful and a great asset to have in a city of this size. Got back just in time to head off to the theatre for a display of traditional Chinese acrobatics, juggling, contortionist, martial arts and dance. Good to see live and at close quarters. Saturday – and one of the days we’ve been waiting for. Likely to be the one of the main highlights of our whole trip. Taxi picked us up at 7am to take us to the Great Wall. Outlook gloomy as visibility again very poor, but as we reached Simitai it improved and the sun came out – hooray!! After breakfast of a ‘farmer’s corn cake’ which turned out to be an omlette, took the cable car to avoid a very long and very steep climb to the wall otherwise we’d never have made it. Still lots of steep climbing to reach the wall, and on the wall itself to reach the furthest accessible point. Views of the Great Wall snaking its way over the hills were fantastic. It was a magical experience to walk on such an ancient and formidable structure, marvel at the feat of engineering and think about all the lives lost in the building of it. Back at Beijing were dropped off at Beijing West Railway Station, a massive new complex well away from the centre and in a less cosmopolitan area. Boarded the train for Xi’an to find, as we’d thought, that our supersoft sleeper gave us a spanking new twin bunk cabin with armchair, wardrobe, and our own toilet! This is a new high speed service, all very posh and efficient. As the train pulled out we left to the strains of Auld Lang Syne playing over the station loudspeakers. Before turning in for the night, a few beers, some food and a chat to some folk, in particular a middle aged Australian couple who were on their first visit outside of Oz and having to cope with the culture shock of China.