After discovering during our flight delay that the ‘International’ in Wuhan International Airport actually means ‘some of our staff members have Google Translate on their phone’, we made it to Beijing and our hostel at 3am. One of our dorm-mates left at 5am, and the cleaners came in to change her bed at 7am. This set the pattern for most of the nights here, so not much chance of a lie-in. But that didn’t matter too much – I didn’t purposefully choose a hostel based on the fact that it offered breakfast, only to sleep through it. On the first morning, I went downstairs and tucked into toast with real butter, jam and peanut butter, and got chatting to the other hostellers to find out how best to spend the day.
This was Chinese New Years Eve, and most things, it turned out, were shut down. But I got a handy tip off that the National Museum of China was open, and entrance is free to anyone brandishing a foreign passport – presumably to lure us in through the front doors in order to remind us what hardships we’ve inflicted upon China over the past 200 years. The museum forms one side of Tiananmen Square, and the sheer size of the white stone building tells you that a lot is gona go down inside. The first exhibition you come to is a 10ft x 30ft carved wall depicting a timeline of atrocities and hardship committed against the Chinese people, but ends happily with a picture of the Olympic rings and a highspeed railway track. We then move onto the Opium Wars, and artefacts with plaques reading things like ‘Knapsack used by a British soldier to kidnap a Chinese worker’, and paintings of various massacres where Chinese lay helpless under the weapons of the Japanese, British, Americans etc. We end our tour (3 hours later) with the Revolution, which was, according to another plaque, an ‘earth-shattering event’. A very Mao-centric collection, but since it’s placed about 20m from the great leader’s frozen glass cased body, it’s expected.
It was cool to be at Tiananmen Square, but as far as iconic locations in world history go, was a little underwhelming. I can tell you that it’s very big, and very full of tourists. The road where the anonymous Tank Man famously blocked soldiers from proceeding is just a normal road, with cars sailing up and down, possibly totally oblivious to the significance of the concrete beneath them. Across from the Square is the entrance to the Forbidden City, where the Ming Dynasty emperors lived with their various concubines, offspring and governors for over 500 years up until the Revolution. It’s a compound of exquisitely decorated outhouses, big and small, with names like ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’, ‘Palace of Earthly Tranquillity’ and ‘Hall of Mental Cultivation’. This takes a good few hours to explore, and we took advantage of the automated headsets to guide us around. The walls of the compound are so high, and the palaces so beautifully decorated, that it’s easy to get a feel of how isolated but elevated the occupants’ lives must have been.
Other sightseeing included the Olympic Park. Even though I had no particular interest in seeing this, I’m glad we did, because it killed an hour before we went to the pub for New Year, and also it was very pretty in the dark. With shame I have to admit that I’d never heard of the Birds Nest until that day. In the summer of 2008 I was too busy juggling 8 different crushes and Googling how to make friends at uni to be watching the Olympics. It was nice to be there though; the park was illuminated and eerily quiet, and we could see fireworks twinkling in the sky arond the city.
We walked around for a little bit then went to a bar called First Floor. Most Chinese people spend New Year with their families, so it was packed full of foreigners. Fireworks had been going off all day, and at midnight we all piled outside where it really kicked off. There was no organisation to it, no 10m safety zone, just crowds of people and randomers setting off fireworks all along the road. The noise was deafening, and I had to mostly turn my face away to prevent firework schrapnel from blinding me as it fired in every direction, but it was mental. That’s the only word I can use. I took a few photos but they don’t nearly do justice to the show. The government banned official firework displays in Beijing this year due to the pollution, but they can’t control all of the small individual displays, so I don’t think they bothered to try and enforce it. Everyone chin-chinned eachother and greeted eachother with ‘Xin nian kuai le’ – Happy New Year – and is the most important phrase I’ve learned so far.
The next day, I was feeling fit and sprightly and so I spent the day wandering around the city by myself. The streets had been littered inches deep with red paper and remains of fireworks, but by the next morning, all sign of the party the night before had vanished from the city floor. I started off by walking up to the Lama (Tibetan) Temple which was a 20min walk from our hostel. The road leading up to it was cordoned off by police and military barricades, and a huge crowd was gathering. As I approached, I could see it was a slow moving queue. Ever British, I joined the queue, and an hour and 30RMB later I was in the Lama Temple with a handful of incense along with thousands of Chinese people. Inside were smaller temples with Buddha statues and prayer stations, and the incense is to light at each stop in worship. Given the sheer volume of people packed inside, this turned into something of a choking hazard, and it looked oddly like everyone was on fire. Every statue, painting, every conceivable surface had offerings left by visitors, from baskets of fruit, to notes stuffed into picture frames, bags of crisps, anything going spare. They’d bow deeply at each shrine, and praying mats were laid out so that people could kneel and bow and worship. I was pushed from one shrine to the next along with the crowd, and before I knew it I was out of the other end. To me, it was just another tourist trap, but I could see that to most of the Chinese people in there, it was a deeply spiritual tourist trap. My idea of spirituality involves a lot of peace and quiet, but I guess in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, you have to learn to be a little more flexible than that.
The subway in Beijing was done up especially for the Olympics in 2008, so it was so easy to navigate and I was hopping on and off all day. The closest station was on the main street, about a 10 minute walk from our hostel. The hostel was in one of the old hutongs, the maze of tiny streets and lanes that make up Beijing. The city is a wonderful mix of old tradition and modern technology working together. Wuhan and increasingly Harbin are being engulfed by skyscrapers, but not so in Beijing. There are some pretty big buildings, and the outskirts look to be more and more modern, but you can see that the traditional style in the centre have been preserved, where in other cities it’s just been ploughed through in the name of modernisation. You could spend days wandering around the hutongs, seeing houses and shacks squashed up against eachother, with traditional Chinese rooftops, bicycles chained to the road, occasionally a wooden doorway has been replaced with a white PVC double glazed fitting. These people aren’t anti-modernisation, they’re just not as easily seduced by it.
The main shopping street is called Wanfujing Street, and there’s an avenue coming off it called Snack Street. I had met up with Tom earlier in the day, and we went to try some snacks. I was happiest with a giant spring roll (my first spring roll in China, can you believe it?!) but Tom went for snake, lizard, and an assortment of roaches. I got a little more adventurous as we walked through, and went for fried shrimps on a stick (they still had eyeballs so that makes it a little more wild). We finished it off with banana cake dumplings which were too good for words.
On the final day, I paid to go to Great Wall on a coach trip. At 8am, a group of us from our hostel went out to the main road, and joined a coachload of other foreigners from other hostels on the 2hr drive to Mutianyu. This is a small village at the foot of one of the sections of the wall that’s been restored. The construction of the various sections of the Wall began over two thousand years ago, and was maintained and expanded throughout that time. The Ming Dynasty in the C14th were the ones who seriously took to linking the sections of the Wall together and restoring them to their original glory, and we can see the result of their work today. It’s incredible to think that an entire nation could be so single-mindedly dedicated to one end for so long. I wonder if, at any point, any of the emperors stopped to say ‘hold on, remind me what on Earth we’re doing?’ It was built on the backs of prisoners, the poor, and conscription – every Chinese man, for almost the entire construction period, had to spend time building, advancing or restoring the Wall. There’s no knowing how many men died under collapsing earth, tumbling boulders or at the whip of their merciless masters, but it’s estimated that up to a million were killed just in those early days 2000 years ago. We learned these things on the journey, and were all primed and set when we reached our destination.
Off the coach, we took a perilous cable car up to the top, and as my cart rose above the trees and in line with the Wall built onto the mountaintop, I was feeling a little nervous but mostly in awe. The sky was clear and blue, and the early morning sun reflected off the stone trail as far as the eye can see. Despite being the biggest tourist trap on earth, this section of the Wall was pretty quiet because it was so early. When we reached the top, most of our group started walking left along the restored wall, but following another tip off at breakfast, me and a couple of others took off in the opposite direction. Here, we walked along the Wall and through 5 neatly restored watchtowers, until we came to a sign that said, ‘No Admittance’. Beyond was a wilderness, and on we went. The pathway was overgrown, the sides of the Wall crumbed and decayed, and the steep cliff edges were just feet away. Stood at the edge and looking out over hundreds of miles of mountains, I got a sudden feeling of the scale and magnitude. It was a fleeting feeling that was gone in a second, but it was there, and I walked the rest of the Wall with my eyes wide open. It’s a feeling everyone should feel. If you can’t get to China though, don’t worry, I took lots of pictures. I pocketed a little section of crumbled rock as a memento, and started back towards the main section.
The Wall crowns the top of mountain ridges, so it was pretty up-and-down most of the way, and most of the footpath is made of uneven steps varying from 4” to 2ft, so after three hours of marching, I was glad to take a toboggan ride down to the bottom. In true China style, health and safety was scarce – it was little more than a plastic seat with a handle careering down an aluminium slide. It was the only gimmicky thing about the Wall, and it was a fun way to see more of the mountain and get to the restaurant at the bottom, where a feast was awaiting us.
Back at the hostel in the late afternoon, I relaxed in the common room. Someone was playing Bob Dylan from his laptop, we were sat round a table playing cards, talking about our travels and doing the usual cliché hostelly stuff to while away the evening. I met some really good people there and I was glad of the time to sit back and talk to them.
So that’s my trip to Beijing in a nutshell. The city made such an impression on me. The people there so used to foreigners, so I was stared at much less on the subway and in the street. In a good way, I felt like I blended into the cultural mix of the city, rather than being a random and temporary addition dropped onto the landscape. I didn’t feel that way about Harbin before, and being back, I don’t now feel out of place, but by comparison, Beijing felt closer to home for me. Warm and compact and strongly traditional, but global in people and mindset. I’ll definitely be back.