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Beijing- History, pollution, strange food and one long wall

sunny 23 °C

The Air China flight landed into Beijing Central at 12.40am and once had walked about 2km through the terminus, collected my bag and ignored the lying taxi drivers (said no public transport about even though had an airport guide in my hand saying otherwise) took the bus to the Railway Station where I was quoted obscene amounts of money for the short distance to my hostel. I went over to the deserted concourse then back over another iffy feeling walkway where picked out a guy who spoke little English and had to phone the number to figure out where to go. He put the meter on, stopped by a mobile police unit for some verification and a couple minutes later was outside Beijing Leo paying only 16 Yuen compared to the ‘quoted’ 50-80. The bar was 24 hours so before had to find a spare bed in the dark drank a nice cold beer glad to be in the city I visited nearly a quarter of a century ago (sound so old as was just after the Student Riots and the man in front of the tank).

Clearly half asleep still I rather stupidly paid top dollar for the biggest breakfast on the menu then found there to be a supermarket two doors away where could of satisfied my hunger for a fraction of the price. Thinking the hutong’s would be really interesting and somewhat cultural I partly followed the basic map they gave me and went in no real direction just seeing drab concrete buildings and people going about daily normal lives. I must of been a faster walker than thought as ended up two metro stops away from where I wanted to be giving me a perfect opportunity to sample the subway network which was good value (2rmb), fast, modern and efficient but no a/c so on hot days could be unbearable like London. Unsure where Tiananmen Square actually started I past Mao’s Mausoleum and the National Museum to the Revolution Monument with guards all over the place. The Square itself is huge but relatively lifeless and besides the fact it is the centre of the city and has history there is nothing there of interest, no entertainment and it’s just not pleasing to the eye. With nothing to sit on I parked my butt on the floor to one side facing the entrance to the Forbidden City and Mao’s Portrait and ate some tasty cookies receiving weird looks from passers by probably confused as to why a foreigner would be doing that.

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I headed back to Leo and at 2pm met Sarah so we could go along Dazhalan Xijie and do some free tea sampling. A lady went through the motions of making the three different types and pouring into tiny cups with us trying them and giving feedback; not a tea person and found none to be of my liking but good at bullshitting. She invested alot of time so was glad Sarah did buy some before I nearly got hit by an ultra slow moving tourist tram and had strawberries covered in syrup on a stick.

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We took the metro a few stops and one interchange south to the Temple of Heaven which covers many acres and as a Sunday was full of local people simply enjoying themselves. There were groups of friends everywhere playing cards or checkers, singing songs to a conductor, using rackets and practising musical instruments with one old man seated on his own the thing that sticks in my mind the most. He produced some lovely music, appreciated the crowd, posed for photos and never once asked for anything- his wise, weathered face could tell a thousand stories and if I knew any Chinese would of definitely tried conversing. Now at the main circular temple itself my main aim was to take photos with no one else in them and surprisingly succeeded even when on the best side for the afternoon light. We got amongst the multiple tour groups each wearing hats of varying colours imagining some sort of war about to break out Gangs of New York style but unfortunately never materialised. Once seen some weird going’s on by a 500 year old tree (people reaching out in a trance) we visited the underwhelming Echo Wall and a three tiered structure that looked as if half finished with a random stone in the middle that is slightly raised and apparently of some significance; stood on it as everyone else was. Our legs were tired by time had gone through the parkland to the subway and we separated on the metro as her home a good hour away the second last stop on line 1. That evening I ate eggplant with rice and stayed in the restaurant listening to the music videos they play all day long and planning the next day as well as seeing my VPN work for the one and only time meaning could chat to people on Facebook and check messages/notifications. I spoke with American Med student Arjun (so many of them) as he would be joining me tomorrow then about midnight the Kentucky foursome arrived unexpectedly as thought they were not coming anymore. They went to bed as I talked to a guy about how to make the most out of my Kindle then at 1.30am went up to my hard mattress.

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I met Arjun at reception at 8.10am to begin our epic Beijing day with the smog levels above 250 which is basically a health hazard...great planning! We bought things from the supermarket and wondered over to the entrance of the Forbidden City where used expired student ID’s to get cheap entrance tickets and passed under Meridian Gate seeing that there is a lot of repair and paint work that needs doing. Amongst the dozens of co-ordinated tour groups (very few individual’s or couples on their own exploring) we went over one of the Inner Gold Water Bridges (not the middle as Emperor’s only), through the Zendu part of the Gate of Supreme Harmony and saw just how bad the light was today plus significant scaffolding on some of the major buildings. Not really knowing a great deal of history of the world’s largest palace complex or what each area represents enabled us to be quite ignorant and leave the main axis to be away from the hordes of tourists so better photos and can appreciate bits more. We looked around the yellow roofed, ornate smaller more intimate temples & buildings where the royal family lived, studied and held meetings alongside the concubine’s residences seeing the male and female lion statues adorning most openings (representing power and fertility) and getting slightly disorientated at the sheer scale (9,999 rooms- one short of the ‘perfect number’). We briefly rejoined the crowd by the Preserving Harmony Hall to see a 16 metre long stone carving of a dragon then was amazed at the Imperial Gardens with grotesque rocks everywhere completely out of symmetry unlike the rest of the complex with one pile about 30 feet high and a temple atop.

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Only 1.5 hours after entering we left via the North Gate and climbed the man made hill (the ground dug up to make the 50m moat built it) in Jingshan Park for a limited view of well anything because the visibility was atrocious; never seen anything like it...how could any westerner live here I don’t know. At the bottom we forgot to take a photo of a map we saw and so walked a long way to Xisi Station (used his translation book) and changed from Line 2 to new Line 8 to reach the Olympic Park. Although it was cool to see the Bird’s Nest, Aquatics Centre Water Cube and other sites from the 2008 games the cold, grey air and inability to see more than a kilometre meant we were soon on our way again back to Beijing Leo to meet up Matt, Ryan, Ed and Will. We somehow failed in finding a cheap noodle place (in the capital of China?!) and spent 45 minutes on Line 4 to get to Beigongmen and the Summer Palace.

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With enough time on my hands I should of chosen a different day as to be honest I didn’t find it that amazing and certainly couldn’t appreciate its beauty besides the intriguing 700 metre Long Corridor that was fascinated by with its thousands of painting’s and abstractness. Being slow and posing for photos (not unusual) I nearly lost the guys by the lake (couldn’t see the other side!) before we exited and made our way to Qianmen and found Chinese pizza for only 4 Yuan- naan bread with tomato and basil sauce smothered evenly over.

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I had a beer from the shop and at 7.30pm met Sarah and introduced her to everyone so she could take us to Line 1 and Wongfujing for the famous night market. Just off to one side of a wide pedestrian road lined with office towers was a brightly lit alley full of all the weird and wonderful things you could think of so got right to it and ate snake meat on a stick with chilli, ok chestnuts, lots of squid (tentacles and body), a dried up tasteless insect Sarah ripped the head off Ozzy Osbourne style, bits of beef for some substance and spending 15yuan on a big black Scorpion that was tough to swallow (pincers could barely be digested) but something you just have to do. Being with a sweet set of people, drinking cans of beer at the same time and everyone sharing their delicacies made it quite the experience; a bakery was throwing out leftover goods and shockingly tried to not let us have any even if was bound for the bin and not the millions of poor. We mulled over Great Wall options extensively (came to a sensible decision not to stay overnight), played Asshole in the ever unlively bar, took a look at small Bar 98 a couple minutes away (met two nice Irish girls who are Occupational Therapists in Singapore) and made sure didn’t have too late a night.

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I gave myself a mere 15 minutes to be ready and in the minivan b 8.15am on a near record pollution index above the 300 mark (children advised to stay inside) we drove out of the city many kilometres north seeing only the smallest of changes the weather until the other side of a long tunnel was like being in another world. Although not that far from the primary sightseeing spot of Badaling we appeared to be in a lightly visited section where dropped off by a handful of cars which was a very good sign. Initially it was clear much restoration work had taken place but as we were now hiking on the Great Wall of China no one seemed to care, that is until the first watchtower played Michael Jackson and Justin Beiber from the speaker- surreal isn’t the word! As very steep the wall progressively became more and more authentic/degraded/in need of repair the further up we went and only four other humans were seen the entire time which is exactly what we wanted although wind and drizzle were not. The highest point was the 6th half still standing watchtower (used Gorillapod so all of us in a photo- perched on stone at risk of falling) and where the sun came out making everything look so much better as myself and Ed, who were at the back, kept stopping and to take in the remarkable structure and making sure the fallen bricks didn’t twist any ankles as by now the sides were almost nonexistent. Nearly at our destination the route became so dangerous it was safer to be on an adjacent path as the wall descended to a valley floor and up again the other side with a mini fortress out of sync probably because is a weak spot and enemy could exploit (damn Mongolians!) so needed a second line of defence.

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The moment we left the wall gusts of wind and stinging rain attacked us on way to the van (didn’t want us to leave) for the 2 hours to central Beijing getting cramp in my legs as watched more BB meaning could think of little else when at the hostel. Matt and Ryan found yet another stinking Dorian fruit (obsessed) to mull over as we couldn’t communicate with the old lady for more ‘pizza’ as the chef was unavailable and so settled for one piece to share then sampled some sugary pastries with different jams on top. I got very stressed with the wifi connection being nigh on unable to skype (was heard swearing and shouting), paid 2.60 yuen each for two beers (have to save somewhere) and when the Americans, Irish, Israeli Noah and Argentinean Tervesa ready quickly went towards where supposed to meet Sarah.

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Already late we not only couldn’t figure a way across to the corner of T Square but when we got there I realised got my East and West mixed up meaning she had gone by time we arrived so ran back to the hostel and phoned finding she was already on the subway home but persuaded her to turn around as the reception gave us an address to the Peking Duck restaurant in Chinese symbols so could get ripped off in two taxis (carrying 10 people) a short distance to Li Qun which is perhaps the most famous place of its kind in the city. I apologised to Sarah for the mix up then when called inside found we had our very own room with a round table and soon numerous dishes began arriving including 3 roast ducks cut there and then by the waiter so no fiddling about, a whole fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, two Eggplant dishes (Shizu blew me away), duck heart, wings, vegetable dishes, rice and tortilla wraps to hold things in; could only order this much with so many people to kudos to me for getting everyone together. The food was perfection personified and due to it being somewhat of a free for all the only way I was going to have my fill was using a fork as not well enough yet with the chopsticks. This enabled me to literally pick up the fish and eat its face bit by bit swallowing everything including the brittle bones, eyes, skin and gills which was near equal to the duck in my mind (savage). The 143 per person bill made it my most expensive meal ever outside of a western country and although hard to stomach was justified by a fantastic culinary once in a lifetime experience. There being no toilets we were forced to use the very open public ones, where guys are taking a crap right next to you with no walls or barriers of any kind, then located an activity area on the way home with unbroken exercise machines and one that can only be described as a ‘thrusting device’ all us guys had to try out. Now quite late a few of us had cheap tequila shots & tequila sunrises, played the stupid American version of Shithead and as enthusiasm waned for going anywhere else plus music being of a terrible quality I called it a night.

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In a space of a few hours the pollution dropped to a staggeringly low 29 making for one gorgeous, clear, sunny day (if looked at forecast would have planned my time better).Our aim for the morning was The Silk Market at Yonganli but as just a shopping mall you could bargain at, and besides a stone stamp (name imprinted on bottom), none of us particularly liked it so used Arjun’s map to guide us to the Embassy/Russian filled area and Yuxin Park to see green trees in a peaceful, uncrowded, untouristy space. In the Pagoda where able to see the CBD/downtown my Med Student friends had to go so gave them each a business card (should get in the habit of doing it as you never know what may happen) and after a large 7/11 meal (didn’t know they were in China) on the street went to Leo.

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Once rested I met Molly at 2pm by exit C, walked slowly about T Square and went on Line 2 to Yong He Gong and the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple that primarily was occupied by religious folk (no groups) lighting incense, praying and offering them to shrines or statues; used her student card to get in half price. The 26 metre high one piece of Sandalwood Buddha was the key thing to see and wow was it incredible to look at enclosed in a room where it practically touches the roof. Reaching the end of the complex we turned around, bypassed all the homeless, beggars, blind and disabled people (awful to see but not handing any money over) and went to NanLuoGuXiang which is an undestroyed Hutong area that has been rejuvenated into one long coffee shop, retro, street food, backpackers friendly street that originates in the 13th century. We followed it the full 1km length, ate at a very local place (used photos or order), talked and upon looking at my watch knew had to make a move so separated from Molly at the metro station. Sarah had been telling me about a club called Propaganda for a while but due to my extremely poor time keeping I was so late to the meet point (trains did take much longer than either of us estimated but no excuse) that she had already gone home which I didn’t realise till had spent 20 minutes looking for the place, paying the 50 Yuen entrance and being unable to find her. As was all you could drink I thought it rude not to stay for a bit so had some watered down LIIT’s, chatted to perhaps the only two white girls in there (unbelievably from Lexington, Kentucky like the guys) and left at 11.15pm in the hope would make the last train. I stupidly got on the wrong train and found myself on the 5th ring road out of the city with everything shut down meaning a 70 Yuen metered taxi was required to take me to within walking distance of the hostel- probably deserved it but what an expensive fail of an evening that was!

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My last full day in Beijing was taken up with writing my journal and completing the IELTS Research paper for Advanced TEFL (got further than anticipated) as well as emailing Amy and Veronika, getting acquainted with a map of Shanghai and Skyping- certain areas have better connection. Once sent the 8 page narrative to Stephen, showered and drank a warm beer I bought Chinese pizza which finished before I even reached Qianmen and despite two changes and 9 stops I was just about on time at the correct exit to meet Sarah- third time lucky! About ten minutes walk and we were at the Kro’s Nest Pizzeria and Bar (if not a local would of missed it as a big metal door with a button to enter) for Trivia Night with seemingly every foreigner in Beijing here as if in the West. Sat with her four gay friends in a team called the ‘Iron Ladies’ we ended up coming dead last in what was one of the hardest quizzes ever participated in even if did make a number of notable easy errors through thinking too much and changing answers at the last minute. After some curly fries and onion rings a Sicilian size half shrimp/half vegetarian pizza came out that although a monster in size taking up nigh on the whole table, given prior warning could of finished it myself just about; lucky for me no one was a big eater so had double my share anyway. Along with Thai Um and local Jay we shared a taxi to Sanlitan and Bar Street where on the top floor of a building full of bars on every level we enjoyed a beer overlooking some skyscrapers able to see the moon clearly, craters and all- not normal for such a smoggy city. I couldn’t say no to some tequila shots and glad I had something to get me through a visit to Kai Bar which was obviously a gay place with virtually no females about (those that were there were eating each other’s faces). Already uncomfortable the fact I was the tallest, most noticeable person there meant I resisted any type of dancing and stayed in a corner looking forward to leaving although her friends were a lot of fun and really cool to hang out with. A 32 Yuen taxi and a few minutes later I was fast asleep looking forward to the next destination.

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Posted by antony25 05.07.2013 04:02 Archived in China

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