|Spicy BBQ chicken wings, perfect beer food!|
We were expecting Beijing to be a bit of a culture shock. I think we had expectations of it being ridiculously busy, noisy, polluted and smelly, with lots of traffic and that this would probably take a bit of getting used to. So it was quite odd to be greeted at the railway station by two very friendly girls from the hostel, hop on to the well ordered metro and then wander down the street along with the light traffic toward the hostel with, well, no problems or hassle at all!
Beijing is a funny city, so steeped in history and yet sometimes it felt that there was something missing. It's frustrating because we're unable to vocalise what that 'missing' thing is, but it was something we felt while we were there, despite really enjoying our time there. It's a big city, so it takes a long time to get around, but it does mean that there is just so much of it to explore! I think we came expecting the usual buzz of chaos that we have experienced in other Asian cities, but I think there is a different feeling here, likely because they have a pretty well organised government. Having said that, we definitely grew to love it in all it's intricacies and contradictions.
One of the main highlights of our time here was the day trip that we did out to the Great Wall. It was called a trip to the 'Secret Wall' and despite being near to the touristy restored section of Badaling, it was off the beaten track and pretty quiet. At times the wall was crumbling and looked very sorry for itself, and it was great fun walking up and down the at times incredibly steep sections between watch towers. Our calves ached for days afterwards and we can understand why they take the coachloads of OAPs to easier parts of the wall, in some places it even has cable cars! When you're walking on it it's difficult to comprhehend that you're standing on a wall that's actually about 4000 miles long. The history is incredible, with so many men dying whilst building the wall, and the irony that it was built in order to keep the foreigners out and now attracts so many tourists every year.
We also visited the Forbidden City, which was somewhat of a disappointment. We felt the most impressive aspect of it was its scale (it's huge!), but aside from that it's just a lot of very similar looking fading building that you aren't allowed to go in! I guess when you imagine a city for emporers to live in you may imagine some lush greenery and real grandeur for them to enjoy, but we didn't really see this at the Forbidden City. It felt quite desolate with it's wide cobbled avenues and conservative colour scheme. It is said that the Summer Palace was built as a summer retreat when the heat of the Forbidden City got too much (it must be horrendous in summer as there is no shade), as it's just outside the city and with lots of greenery and trees for shade. We spent a pretty glorious afternoon at the Summer Palace, exploring the temples and pagodas, walking around the lake and shading beneath the trees. It was much nicer than the FC and we can see why they'd like that as their summer retreat! Within the city we also visited the Lama Temple, a beautiful temple that still survivies within the city, with lots of worshippers each giving three incense sticks to each of the Gods. Ticking off our second waxwork-alike of the trip (the first being Lenin), we took a peek at Mao in his mausoleum, along with lots of flower bearing Chinese tourists. Again, pretty weird, pretty anti climatic. Just a small dude with a bit of a screwed up face, as if he's about to burst into tears. Strange. Apparently as they weren't sure how succesful the preserving process would be, they had a waxwork made up as well. Each night Mao's body is lowered into his tomb, where the waxwork is also kept. So who knows whether it was even the real Mao we saw!
We were in Beijing when it was the national holiday of 'Tomb Sweeping Day', a day to honour the dead by leaving them food and drink, cleaning up memorial patches and burning fake money that has 'Hell Bank' printed on it. Tasteful! This led to lots of newspaper articles about death and honouring the dead, in particular highlighting the lack of space that there is in Beijing for cemetry plots. Although lots of people are now cremated, the families still want to bury the deceased's ashes in a plot so they have somewhere to go to remember and honour them. People often have to pay over a years worth of income for a tiny plot as space is just so scarce, and Beijing's population has had to have been warned against pre-buying plots, as this raises prices even more. It seems a shame that they put so much emphasis on the physical location of the deceased, it would be so much easier for them to scatter the ashes in a place that the person wished. Although maybe if that happened, Beijing would seem dustier than it already does! ;)
We were really surprised at how many people seemed intrigued by us. It's not like Beijing doesn't attract white tourists! Perhaps the people who wanted their photographs taken with us were out of towners to whom seeing a white folk was really unusual. At the Summer Palace, reclined by the lake with a beer, we had people hiding in bushes to take photographs of us, and some bolder photographers hoohooing at us to attract our attention. Another thing we discovered the Chinese are very open about is toilet arrangements. The hutong (backstreet) public toilets are just a row of holes in the floor, with no partitions between them. Charlotte attracted the attention of a toddler who had accommpanied his mum, and delightedly came over to say hello whilst she was having a wee, much to his mother's consternation. He also had to be returned to the toilet after attempting to follow Charlotte out of the toilets and down the road. Fun times! We loved exploring the hutong areas, the one story residential areas that sprawl all over the city. Most don't have running water, hence the plethora of public toilets. We bought some good snack food from these places and enjoyed some very cheap beers! There is a great communal atmosphere here, but unfortnately these communities are a dying breed as more and more are knocked down to make way for skyscrapers and blocks of flats.
The food was something that we particularly enjoyed about arriving in China, after far too long eating lots of meat and broths with very little vegetables! There is fairly little in terms of 'English Chinese takeaway' style stirfrys, and much more barbequed food that we'd imagined. We found a brilliant student rooftop terrace bar near the Drum and Bell Towers which serverd brilliant chicken wing kebabs coated in chilli and tongue numbing aniseedy Sichuan pepper. There are lots of stalls selling greasy tasty flat breads and cheap snack foods. Our favourite food on the go has to be a pancake which is coated with egg, sprng onion, coriander and three different sauces, all painted on with a decorators brush, before being wrapped up with a big crisp thing inside it. Yum!
The final change from the norm for us was having to haggle. Liam's first go at haggling didn't go particularly well, it has to be said. Lots of bars use these distinctive wrestlers mask type bottle openers, which he had had his eye on. We saw them at a market, and the seller tried to sell it for the equivalent of £6. Liam got her down to £3, bearing in mind we were still getting to grips with the value of the currency, so immediately after handing over the money realised that despite seemingly bargaining down by half, he had obviously still ripped off. A clever trick on there part, a general rule of thumb seems to be that they will start at about 10 times the fair price in some of the touristy places. A few days later we saw them in a shop, looking much newer and complete with pouch... 3 for £1. Fail! So we learned our lesson on something pretty low value and were much more prepared for tackling the Silk Market. Despite liking his purchases of some new Converse and a t-shirt, Liam hated the whole palava of the shop girls threatening to burst into tears (and indeed at times very much looking like they were going to burst into tears) at the price he was willing to pay. Charlotte found the whole thing pretty amusing and enjoyed haggling a rucksack from £30 to £5.50.
So these are our thoughts on Beijing, and China thus far. Qingdao next!