Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Beijing, 21–28 December 2010 - Part Three - The Wall, The Lama Temple, Acrobatics and Christmas Frivolities!

Christmas Eve, The Great Wall and Party Time

Christmas Eve was upon us and what better way to spend the day than a visit to The Great Wall of China. Our hostel organised trips to the wall everyday but the cost was far too much to even consider it when you could go to the bus station and get a ticket to the wall for practically nothing. So June, Karin, Sam and I hopped on the subway and headed over to the bus station. We found the station easily and there was a sign pointing towards a line of buses that should take us to Badaling and the wall. I say 'we' found it easily but really Sam did and I just followed. We stumbled onto the bus and were greeted by the bus driver's rejection who said that there were no more buses that day. A man outside with a red armband was there to assist us and luckily Sam spoke some Chinese so she could communicate with him. He told us that there were no buses after 10am and that we would have to go tomorrow OR we could pay him some money and he would take us to the wall in his car. SCAM ALERT we thought and moved on to try the next bus along but we were greeted by the same rejections and another man offering to take us. The girls and I gathered in a conference huddle to decide whether we should either try again another day or just pay a little bit extra and go ahead as planned. We decided to go for it. So we got in the man's car and made our way towards the Great Wall of China via the great whole in the wall to get some money out to make a greater hole in my pocket!!

After an hour of weaving through traffic on the immaculately smooth highway and an extensive conversation between Sam and the driver was exhausted we approached The Great Wall of China. Driving through the hills you can see the wall wind it's way into the distance. We soon arrived at the tourist welcoming centre and said goodbye to our driver who had asked for no money yet but was going to wait for us at the bottom for as long as it took us to climb up the wall and fall down again. We entered and began to climb the greatest wall on earth which was originally constructed over 2000 years ago when China was unified under Emperor Qin and he connected existing walls that were there protecting the Northern provinces from roaming nomads. Of course the wall never protected China as it fell victim to bribery and Mongolian troops over ran it easily. It was however perfectly suited for transportation of goods from one side of China to the other and was part of the Silk Route at some points.

The climb was long and the steps were awkward to navigate as they were varying shapes and sizes. The angle of climb was also changing which sometimes came as a relief and sometimes came as an attack on the legs! From the bottom of the wall we were all very confident that we could climb it easily and in a short time but the further we climbed the more it became apparent that it was a lot further than we thought. Just as we thought we were near the top, new sections of the wall opened up around every corner and we wondered whether we were about to walk along the entire length of the wall right across China. We reached the top and relaxed for five minutes enjoying the stunning landscape that had been cut with the wall that stretched out as far as you could see. The experience of being on the wall is different to what I expected, I think when you have finally clambered to the top you are too exhausted to enjoy it fully. The wall had been restored and was looking in good shape for such an old thing. I think I would have liked to see the unrestored sections of the wall so that you could compare as the tourist parts are full of souvenir shops and it made it feel a little fake.

The wall stretching off into the distance
After we paused to enjoy the scenery, it was time to do the dreaded descent back to our driver. I never look forward to descending as it's quite strenuous on my old knees. After descending half way Sam stopped as her legs were physically and visibly shaking mine were trembling but not that bad! We carried on regardless to catch June and Karin, the crazy Scandinavians, who had ran off ahead again as they did on the way up. As we got near the bottom of the steps we passed a young girl who was walking up. She must have only been five years old at the most and I couldn't believe her parents were dragging her up there. There was a celebration as we reached the bottom and Sam and I rejoined Karin and June who had already got their sandwiches out which we bought earlier from the hostel. Sitting there in the cold sunshine eating a sandwich, followed by a compulsory ice cream felt so good. We found our driver and headed off back to Beijing where Sam was about to meet her parents who had flown out to meet her for Christmas after waiting in the airport for a week due to the unexpected heavy snows across Europe causing flights to be cancelled.

Once we got back into Beijing Sam and I decided to go for a celebratory Hot Chocolate and Baileys across the road at 365 Hostel where Tom and Hannah had moved to because it was far too cold over in our hostel. Sitting there, I was hearing the coffee machine preparing delicious drinks but all I could think about was it sounded like people were hacking up and ready to deposit the phlegm on the floor. I will never understand how the Chinese people think it's socially acceptable to spit everywhere, including restaurants. Prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the government had implemented a no spitting law which stated that if they were caught, they would be fined a substantial amount of money. Unfortunately the habit has been a way of life for the Chinese people for too long so the law failed and the spitting continued stronger than ever. If any Chinese person is reading this please stop the incessant spitting, it's disgusting and it's wrong and I don't want to hear it when I'm trying to munch down my Peking Duck!

As it was Christmas, the very kind and hospitable staff in Leo Hostel put on a party for us in bar so I headed back across the road to change my clothes and get ready for an evening of fun and games. When I arrived at the hostel I was greeted Caué who had finally arrived from Ulan Bator. He followed the same route as me but managed to get a bed as it wasn't full (lucky git) and he got a train instead of the bus, which got him in later than the bus.

Club House, somewhere in BJ
The party started early and the staff had prepared a series of party games for us to enjoy. It was like we were all six years old again, playing musical chairs and pop the balloon with your bum but my full respect goes out to the staff who pulled out all the stops and made it a thoroughly enjoyable evening. After many bottles of beer, Yves decided that it would be a good idea to go and buy some Baijo, which is an extremely potent Chinese rice wine that you can buy from the local shop for practically nothing. The rest of the night was a huge dance off and a few of us ended up going to a club called 'House' returning back at the hostel early the next day, perhaps around 5.30/6am, not really sure but Yves and I managed to get in a local restaurant and get some very delicious dumplings before heading to bed.

Christmas Day

Not really a hutong but still a side street in BJ
Merry Christmas everybody! Waking up at 10 and heading down to have a fry up with a strong sugar filled mug of western tea was the best idea ever! I'm not really sure what the others did that day but I headed out to explore the hutongs of Beijing. The hutongs are the maze of small streets that wind their way around certain areas of Beijing with traditional Chinese courtyard housing. Unfortunately these are slowly but steadily being raised to the ground to make way for new modern buildings and roads. It is a big issue at the moment because people are being removed from their homes which their family's have owned for generations and relocated in the apartment blocks. The hutongs are wonderful, you can just walk about the peaceful streets past people's houses and small shops which are dotted around.

On my Christmas Day stroll I came across a small music shop and thought that I'd check out the indigenous instruments and the prices. The shop was run by a middle aged grey haired Chinese lady who greeted me and proceeded to give me a music lesson, showing me all of the different instruments and how to play them. It was a very enjoyable experience trying out these weird instruments that I had never been able to play before, some of them like the Erhu make such a racket I cannot believe they still exist but then I suppose every instrument has the possibility of sounding beautiful when the right musician is playing it. For instance the violin, I made an awful sound with it but Nigel Kennedy is something quite different. I decided that I wanted to buy myself a Christmas present and so I settled on a price and walked out happily with bamboo flute. Before I walked out I asked the lady about Peking Opera which is something that I really wanted to see whilst in Beijing. Beijing Opera is a style of opera that encompasses music, dance, mime and singing but can be enough to destroy your eardrums from the obscure sounds and noises that are created. When you listen to the erratic music you wonder whether the Chinese people actually have any sense of tone or timing.

I headed back to 365 Hostel as I felt like I should have a soothing Baileys and Hot Chocolate and rejoice in my new instrument. When I arrived I found Thom and Hannah sitting there having a quiet drink and so I joined them and showed them my new instrument. The next half an hour turned into a flute off with all of us trying to get the best sound out of the instrument. Surprisingly Hannah was a flautist but was the last to get a sound out of it, which caused her great pain and anguish, nevertheless she would not be beaten and persisted until the flute sprung into life. We went back over to the Leo Hostel and met up with June, Karin and Caué and went to Chinese for our Christmas Dinner. The drinks then began to flow and we geared ourselves up for another fun evening of drinking.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day activities including getting up around 10am again, having a fry up and heading over to the Lama Temple. When I got there I paused for a minute or two as I wasn't totally convinced whether I should go in or not as it was 'just another temple'. Whilst in Munich our guide would refer to churches as 'ABC... Another Bloody Church...' and it's true, why do we have the inherent desire to go into every church and every temple in the world when the majority all look the same? After procrastinating for a couple of minutes I decided that I should go in, I was already there so I might as well see what it had to offer because I might have missed something really beautiful and only regret it later. The temple was what I would call, a working temple, it may be a tourist attraction nowadays but it still has its monks and pilgrims burning their inscents which created a thick layer of sweet smelling smoke hanging over the temple. The temple also has the world's biggest Buddha carved from a single tree. Yet another example of superlative China. I enjoyed wondering around the temple and soaking up the atmosphere, I even discovered a hard revelation about myself. As I was walking down some steps I tripped and fell flat on my back, a pain shooting up from my left buttock made me realise that I had been drinking too much over the last few days and had too little sleep to recover!

The Bird's Nest
On my way back to the hostel I decided to stop over at the Olympic Park and take a look around the complex. As it was nearing dusk I thought it would be perfect to see the Bird's Nest with the lights on. Back in 2004 when the Olympics were on in Greece, I made a vow that I would get on the Trans-Siberian train and get to Beijing in time for the games of 2008. As you know, this never happened and I was still a Prisoner of Mother England as the Australians would like to call us! Nevertheless, I made it, a little late but I got to Beijing and managed to see the park where it all happened. The Bird's Nest is an absolutely amazing piece of architectural engineering. Although I was impressed by it, I was also disgusted by it when you think about how much it cost and the hundreds of people that had to be relocated from their homes so that this complex could be built. My next plan is to be in London for the games in 2012, let's see if that happens...

When I arrived back it was time for yet more drinks as Hannah and Thom were unfortunately leaving the next day for Japan and Sam was leaving on a jaunt round China with her family. So we began drinking again at 365 Hostel and although they were adamant they were not going to have a late night because their flight was early the next day, they managed to stay up well into the next day. We played a few drinking games but the most popular and easiest by far was a drama game Hannah and I taught the group where the group have to take turns counting but in no particular order and if two people count at the same time, they had to drink. I had never played it as a drinking game before but with a large group it was good fun. We even made Hannah and Thom race to pack their suitcases which caused great hilarity. Later we were joined by other people an Australian guy and Natalie, an English girl living in Hangzhou learning Chinese and between her and Sam I had learnt some very important sayings, Happy Christmas, Happy New Year and Terracotta Warriors.

27-28 December 2010

BANG BANG BANG, my head was hurting, my stomach was cramping, all of my body stiffened as I got up from the bathroom floor. The last three nights of heavy drinking, eating and lack of sleep had caught up on me and I was officially thoroughly hungover. I went down to the bar and consoled myself with a steaming mug of tea which the lovely Summer had graciously made and delivered for me. The only thing I did that day was go to the train station with June and Karin to buy our onward tickets to Xian for the next day and eating a McDonald's as a hangover cure. Even though my hangover had hit hard, it didn't stop us going for another drink, but this time in our bar.


At some point during my stay in Beijing, Thom, Hannah and I went to see the Tianqiao Acrobatic Company which is notably one of the best acrobatic performances in Beijing. The performance was awe inspiring and the technical difficulty that the troupe showed was spectacular. We just sat there throughout the performance gasping each time a performer jumped of their high perched and landed safely. This was the only piece of performing arts that I managed to see in Beijing and I was content as it was so good.

Leaving for Xian

Our last day in Beijing was a write off as I was completely shattered and all we did was sit around talking and watching films until we had to leave for our train. As we were leaving we had a huge problem trying to get a taxi to take us to the train station. There were plenty of them but they just refused to take us and we are still unsure why that was. We finally managed to get one after Karin smiled sweetly at the driver and got to the train station with plenty of time to spare.

As June, Karin and I boarded the train heading to Xi'an I had a smile on my face as I thought back on my time in Beijing, how great it and the fantastic people I had met. June and Karin, Thom and Hannah, Eric and Justine, Sam, Caué, Yves, Natalie, the German guys, the Russian guys and even the strange Irish guy who we couldn't understand. Without those fabulous people, Christmas wouldn't have been so good. We had so many laughs together it is hard to remember them all and it is incredibly hard to express the fun we had in this blog. Spending our days floating from the Leo Hostel to 365 with friends made it feel like home. So thank you for making it a great experience and memory!!

That's it for Beijing. There are so many things that happened whilst I was there I cannot possibly write them all down for you but it was perhaps the best part of my trip so far. Stay in tune for more on China.... Thanks, Andy.

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