A Travellerspoint blog

Day 27

We reach Xian

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Getting the train at Bejing West Station was chaotic enough, but that was nothing compared to the experience that greets us at Xian Station. As we step off the train onto the platform we are greeted by a young man. We get the usual patter “ Where are you from?”, “Have you a hotel?”, “Where are you staying?” “You need a car?” And on and on and on. Polite dismissals get us nowhere. He is ultra-persistent. He follows us out of the station to watch us deal with the bedlam that is getting a taxi in Xian. There is no queue, as there was in Beijing. No organisation, as there was there. There is a free-for-all. Even when we get the attention of a taxi driver, we have problems. Nobody wants to take us to the hotel. It is too close and not worth their while. To escape the madness and our persistent friend, we decide to leave the station and try our luck in the streets outside. We are generally ignored until at last one driver strikes a deal. He holds up four fingers: forty Yuan. I agree. This is about £4, and probably four times the usual fare but to us, its well worth it.

When we get to the hotel, it is a haven of peace and tranquillity – and luxury. Once again we are upgraded for free, one of the benefits of travelling off-season. We breakfast before launching ourselves on Xian. Xian is famous for its Bell and Drum towers, its Muslim Quarter and its huge city walls. But people don't come to the city to see them. They come to see the Terracotta Warriors. Monica asks the concierge about tours. This is the start of a heavy sales pitch. In essence, the hotel offers one for about £80. You get your own driver and guide. We say we'll think about it.

Having seen enough of Jade factories, and Herbal Medicine Centres to last a lifetime, we are keen on a more do-it-yourself method. Monica consults a Canadian couple at the next breakfast table. Their approach has been to hire a taxi for the day: they struck a deal for about £40. They have a baby and so need to be flexible. We later find out from the Tourist Information Centre that a local bus runs from the station, the scene of this morning's misery, directly to the site. We decide to take the bus tomorrow.

The Bell Tower stands at the centre of a crossroads in the heart of Xian. It was originally built in 1384, rebuilt a couple of hundred years later, and restored in 1739. This is the version we visit. When you buy a ticket – for a reduced fee you can also see the Drum Tower which is about three hundred yards away. In the Bell Tower there is an exhibition of bells, great and small. We are just in time to observe two photo-shy Chinese dressed as warriors banging the giant bell on the lower terrace.

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The Drum Tower has a collection of drums. On the eastern side there is a long row of drums that used to be banged at dusk, a complement to the bell in the Bell Tower that was rung at dawn. These various sounds indicated to people that the city gates should be closed or opened, or they should be in bed etc. This was in the era before mobile phones.

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After the excitment of the musical towers, we head south to see the Small Goose Pagoda - we were in the neighbourhood, picking up rail tickets for the next stage in our journey. The pagoda closes on Tuesdays so we have to settle for looking at the outside from a small adjacent park. It's too far away to distinguish much detail, but we're close enough to take a blurry photograph.

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When we get back, I phone our next hotel to arrange a pickup. They ask which flight we're on. I explain we're coming by train. There's a silence at the other end of the line as this news is digested. I get the impression that they've never picked up any customer from the station before. There are no first class compartments on the thirty hour journey from Xian and Guilin. This could be interesting.

Posted by mikemonica 03:16 Comments (1)

Day 26

Last day in Beijing

We check out early, and then walk the short distance from our hotel to the twelve storey CITS building on the corner of Dongdan Beidajie. We are going to pick up our rail tickets from Ms Zheng Yunjing. The China International Travel Service looks after inbound tourism to China and Zheng tells us there are 900 CITS people working in this building. I ask, out of interest for my VisitWales friends, how many there are in the whole of China? She doesn't know. Very many, she suggests. Now I know where VisitWales has been going wrong: not enough people.

The plan is to visit Mao's tomb in Tiananmen Square. Michael told us yesterday that there was some debate about whether the body was real, or a waxwork. His view was that it was real. Chinese scientists had 'wrapped the organs in herbs' and this served to mummify the body. Maybe something was lost in translation. Having seen Lenin's embalmed body, we are eager to compare notes. The mausoleum is about thirty times as big as Lenin's. Our Rough Guide warns of possible two hour queues. Security is still tight in vetting access to the Square though we pass through quite smoothly. It is their own people that the authorities are concerned about. We are invisible.

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Of course, there is no queue when we get there. No one is prepared to risk such a large gathering during a sitting of the People's Congress, and while insurrections are happening in the Middle East. We have to settle for photographing the exterior.

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We take a break in a small park adjacent to the Forbidden City - seated on a piece of bronze sculpture: two chairs facing a stone table. This park, like everywhere in Beijing is scrupulously clean. There are two cleaners designated to this small section. Monica and I eat a couple of Danish pastries that she had liberated from the breakfast table. Inevitably, some crumbs fall on the ground, and I am ashamed.

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The rest of the afternoon is spent widow shopping in several of the large malls on Wangfujing Dajie, each bigger and grander than the last. We end up in the Oriental Plaza Mall. This one alone makes British efforts look puny and shabby by comparison. In none of the Malls we visit do we buy anything. We feel like 'Third World' visitors. Everything is aimed at multimillionaires, and there appears to be no shortage of customers. Monica points at a pair of red sparkly flip-flops in a shop window that cost £450. Inside, Chinese women are trying on elaborate footwear. This part of Beijing may not be typical of the rest of the city, or indeed China; and the people who shop here are not typical of the average Chinese. However, it is evident that there are many very rich Chinese – a small percentage of 1.3 billion can still produce a very large number. This disparity of wealth is what the People's Congress is trying to address.

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Before we leave. Monica is captured outside Ireland's greatest export: the Irish pub. She stands beside a replica of the Grafton Street statue, Molly Malone, or the 'Tart with the Cart' as she is affectionately known – Molly Malone, that is.

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We get a taxi to Beijing West station. Most of the way we travel though the city on a twelve lane highway - six lanes each way. Periodically, we cross similar roads. All around, the multi-storey buildings that line the roads are neon-lit. When we get to the station, it's like a scene from the movie 'Blade Runner', a mix of the high-tech and the primitive. The station is relatively new but appears to be buckling under the mass of humanity trying to use it. The passenger system mirrors that of airlines. People are directed to a particular waiting room, and then when the train arrives, everyone descends directly onto an adjacent platform.

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We find our carriage and compartment. It is similar to our last cabin save this time we have our own toilet. Our attendant gives us each a plastic card printed with the numbers 1 to 4 accompanied by sentences of Chinese symbols. We ask, what is this for? The attendant shrugs. She doesn't speak English. We speculate. Breakfast options? Health and safety advice? Buddhist mantras? We may never know.

Posted by mikemonica 03:08 Comments (0)

Day 25

The Great Wall

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It's easy to get to the Great Wall. Everyone runs excursions. Every Chinese is on commission to sell a tour. You are stopped by charming young girls with impeccable English who invite you to see their paintings, and then when you decline ask: have you seen the Great Wall? It's the same story in the Forbidden City, young men approach: do you want a guide? No. Have you seen the Great Wall? We lie. Yes.

Our hotel offers a tour but first we explore alternative options. All tours seem to be the same. Yes, you get the Great Wall, but also the Ming Tombs, a visit to a 'State owned' jade factory, and on many, a visit to a traditional herb research centre. That's what our hotel offers, and that's what we go for. It is possible to get there by bus and train, but that's for the more intrepid.

It's an early start, first breakfast and then down to the foyer to meet Michael, our tall personable tour guide. We're both 'Michaels', he says, greeting me. Did you know that Michael is a very popular name in China? I didn't. He references Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. Were they Chinese? I never knew. Our small mini bus picks up other tourists, and then we're off. First stop, the Ming Tombs. Like the Pharaohs, the Ming emperors were fond of building magnificent tombs for themselves – thirteen in all. We visit the most dramatic of these. It has the usual traditional Chinese gates and halls leading up to the tomb which is a complete palace buried beneath an artificial mountain. We don't get into that. Michael explains that this is to do with the Chinese respect for the dead.

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On the way to the Jade Factory, Michael gives us a litany of the history and virtues of jade, how to tell real from fake, the benefits of purchasing at source, and so on. The factory is really just a huge sales outlet. The carved jade ornaments and jewellery are very beautiful but very expensive. Who can afford these things? Apparently, we can. Monica buys a couple of small pieces of jewellery. We have our 'Imperial' lunch and then we're off to visit the traditional Chinese Medicine Centre. On the way, Michael tells us all about the wonders of Chinese medicine. The message appears to be: you may be sceptical about it, but it really works - nobody in China needs operations. We wonder what they can be selling. We soon find out.

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At the Centre we are introduced to two 'professors' of Chinese Medicine, and offered free consultancy. Monica is diagnosed as having poor blood flow to the stomach and brain and the remedy on offer is a month's supply of pills to treat each problem at £92 each box. I decline an interview. With my medical problems the professor would have a field day. Our conversation with him is conducted via a lovely young acolyte, also in a white coat, who prefixes every statement reverentially: “The professor says......” Nobody buys any pills, and we leave for the bus. We still haven't got to the Great Wall.

Finally, we reach the Badaling section of the Wall in the mountains outside Beijing and take a cable car up to a high part of the wall perched on a mountain. From here you can see it snake for miles in either direction. The poor devils who built the Wall had to climb up here carrying huge stone blocks on their backs. Michael says the Chinese call the wall the world's longest cemetery. Surrounded by mountains, it is as you would expect, breathtakingly dramatic, and impossible to capture in photographs though we try. The wall is crowded with Chinese who did not use the cable car to get to our position. They're out for a Sunday stroll, and most have come by bus and train. We see them again in long queues for the bus as we make our way home.

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On the way back, we pass the 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium beside its blue partner the 'WaterCube'. Michael offers to drop people off here though they will have to make their own way back home. It's easy, he says, just take the metro. Nobody takes up the offer. Photographs from the bus suffice. It takes two hours to get back to our hotel - just in time for Happy Hour.

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We finish the day with Monica photographing a wedding couple posing outside one of Beijing's grander hotels, before making our way to the Night Markets, again. Neither of us is tempted by the live scorpions on a stick, though I do succumb to spicy noodles which I eat inexpertly as we make our way home. Monica pretends not to be with me.

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Posted by mikemonica 02:17 Comments (2)

Day 24

The Forbidden City

If you have only a few days in Beijing then there are two things you must do. You must visit the Forbidden City and see the Great Wall. We start the day by walking to the Forbidden City along pleasant, clean, tree-lined boulevards. This takes around twenty-five to thirty minutes and leads us past hotels on Dingehang'an Jie. There is a heavy army and police presence here, and the hotels, which are close to Tiananmen Square, are cordoned off. Nobody can get in without passing through a military checkpoint. We learn later on the BBC World News that three thousand delegates have gathered in Beijing to approve the latest five-year plan. This takes place in the Great Hall of the People. The security fallout from this event is evident everywhere.

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There are thousands of people going into the the enormous seventy hectare grounds that comprise the Forbidden City. The area is so vast with so many palaces and courtyards that they are easily absorbed. Once the centre of the Chinese Imperial court and off limits to 'ordinary people', it is now open to all. There are 999 buildings in the complex – 9 is a lucky number for the Chinese. Initially, we wander through some side gardens with temples popular with wedding photographers. Monica has struck gold again. She is now an expert at photographing brides and grooms.

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We hire audio guides and wander through the various courtyards and halls. Our guide fills us in with the minutae of the lives of the emperors, and empresses, the concubines, the intrigues, and the triumphs. The only men allowed in the Forbidden City were eunuchs, to ensure the authenticity of the emperor's offspring. The lives of the emperors would serve as Mills & Boon plots: poor but beautiful concubines catching the eye of worldly emperors, evil dowager empresses conspiring against them, and so on . The drama of the tales is matched by the stage set of the beautiful buildings and courtyards. The Gates and Halls have striking names: the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the Heavenly Purity Gate, the Earthly Tranquillity Palace, the Palace of Longevity and Peace, the Respect Auspiciousness Pavilion, and on and on. We spent the day there. Without eating.

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Before heading home we crossed over into Tiananmen Square, navigating the security checks on the underpass – there's a six lane highway separating the Square from the Forbidden City. We photograph each other as well as soldiers, passers-by in front of Mao's Tomb, Great Hall of the People, the the Monument of the People's heros, etc. The Square has a wonderful display of heroic sculpture commemorating the Chinese revolution, and (I presume) the Great March of Mao and his followers. Everyone takes the same shots we do – there are no wedding couples here.

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We are starving by now. Let's return to the hotel and try that Happy Hour, says Monica, they said on reception there'd be nibbles. Happy (two) Hours offers free drinks: wines, beers, cocktails, soft drinks, and a veritable smorgasbord of of Chinese cooked and cold delicacies. You're supposed to help yourself. We do.

Posted by mikemonica 18:18 Comments (3)

Day 23

First Day in China

We awake just after Datong to find the train travelling through a vast fertile prain ringed by huge mountains. There are small farms and villages dotted all along the route. The land is flat, and still frozen but there are paddy fields, and fields with the stumps of crops in stark contrast with the desert we have just left. Every fertile inch of land is seemly used to grow something, though is dormant in the winter cold. The brick-built farmhouses are clustered together, each with a walled courtyard. The main beast of burden here seems to be the donkey They pull carts and carry stacks of wood and hay. In the distance, at the foot of the mountains we catch our first glimpse of the Great Wall.

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This medieval landscape is interrupted every so often by vast steel works or coal-fired power stations belching smoke and steam. In contrast, we also see many wind turbines in the distance, and every block of flats and even the most basic village dwelling is equipped with solar panels – China's contribution to clean energy.

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After Zhangjiakou we pass an enormous frozen lake, with the usual posse of ice fishermen. The lake is the product of a dam. We discover several succeeding dams as the train follows the river through a narrow deep gorge. Huge mountains rise upon either side, and the train hugs the side of the valley wall as it descends towards Beijing. Sometimes the things you remember, are the things you were unable to photograph. Monica spots an old man waiting alone at a railway station with his cow. Are these allowed on Chinese trains?

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We take fifty minutes to pass through the suburbs before we reach Beijing station. The share scale of the city is overwhelming. Large factories and housing estates comprising multicoloured blocks of flats are soon followed by wide boulevards, enormous tower blocks, and people everywhere. This is a city of fifteen million.

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The square outside the front of the station is crowded with humanity. We make our way to the long taxi queue. Monica dissuades me from using one of the maverick operators who spot me as an easy mark, and who would fleece us, and probably lose us. It turns out, it is difficult enough to get to our hotel. I'd assumed the Park Plaza, which is not far from the station according to its website, would be sufficiently well known that a mere mention of its name would trigger a positive response in any taxi driver. Not so. We have to leave the first taxi in disgrace when we cannot communicate where we want to go. No amount of speaking loudly and pointing works. Addresses need to be in Chinese characters, or not at all. We get a sort of translation at the station and return to the queue. Eventually we are dropped off in the vicinity of our hotel, but it still takes some effort and consultation with helpful Chinese to get there.

The Park Plaza is the most luxurious hotel we've stayed in yet. We upgrade to Club service after a persuasive pitch from the receptionist. We're exhausted after our shennigans in finding the place: we'd agree to anything. She lists the advantages: breakfast included, larger room, better view, checkout at 16.00 hr, and happy hour from 05.30 to 07.30. Happy hour? We won't need that says Monica (remember those words).Our room has facilities we'll never fully exploit. And great pillows! We're on the twelfth floor with a superb view over the city. From our window, we can see old Beijing, small courtyard buildings with tiled roofs sandwiched between the skyscrapers.

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The hotel is located near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We spend the evening wandering along Wangfujing Dajie. This is a wide and spacious pedestrianised shopping street, popular with tourists – most of whom are Chinese, though there were some Europeans and Americans in the mix. After weeks when we were the only tourists, we are in a city with thousands of them. They are everywhere photographing each other in front of the sights, and buying souvenirs. And nearly all of them are Chinese, so they don't really count .

Wangfujing is awash with light from the shop windows, the enormous neon signs, and large advertising screens – a million miles from Ulan Bator. Monica needs to buy some light shoes. She'd been wearing her hiking boots since we left Cardiff. She won't need them here. We've been dressed like polar explorers for the past few weeks, and are still somewhat overdressed for the Spring-like climate in Beijing. It's a relief to be able to take a photograph without removing two pairs of gloves and risking frostbitten fingers. On a positive note, we've still not seen a cloud since we left Cardiff.

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We eat in an excellent restaurant just behind the Dong'anmen Night Market – a long row of food stalls, which Monica photographs unashamedly Our restaurant is packed with Chinese ordering huge quantities of food. We follow suit, and have a great meal for less than £11 including drinks. We return to the hotel to play with the gadgets in our room. Maybe being stationary for a few days is not so bad.

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Posted by mikemonica 06:51 Comments (4)

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