Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Beijing (again)

After a heavy night of cocktails with Malva and Merel in Chengdu I stumbled to my early morning flight back to Beijing. For domestic flights you only have to be there 45mins in advance, rather than 1hour for a train journey, which was a little strange but I wasn't complaining for the extra time in bed, coaxing sambuca out of my pores. I had agreed to meet the girls again in Beijing in a few days and immediately started to feel better, knowing that my 2h30m flight paled into insignificance compared to their 30+hr train journey.

When I landed in Beijing, I headed to Jingshan park, north of the Forbidden City. The park includes a man-made hill dating from the time the capital was moved to Beijing - the area around the palace is essentially flat, so the hill was built to comply with Feng Shui principles.

After 3 weeks on the road I was glad to catch up with friends who, like I, had made the trip over to China for Guru and Lihua's wedding. I saw Manuel and Matt that evening before they headed north to Chengde and we swapped tales of our travels so far in this fantastic country. Relaxing with beers in the sunshine, on a roof terrace of a traditional hutong is certainly a great passtime.

The following day Ross arrived and we prepared for a daytrip to the Great Wall. We trekked along a 6km stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai about 80miles north-east of Beijing. It was a long journey to get there but every mile further from Beijing means fewer touts and tourists sharing your part of the wall. The few touts that bother to make the trip here are incredibly patient, making idle chit-chat for several kilometres before trying to guilt-trip you into buying some piece of tat.

The views into Inner Mongolia were magnificent:

What impressed me most was that the 5,500 miles of wall were built atop the ridges of the mountains, as if the physical barrier of a mountain wasn't enough to deter armies. The truth is that the wall didn't stop the invaders - sections were incomplete and some parts were destroyed over time - but really the wall is a statement of power, rather than a physical barrier. And no, you can't see it from space... just like you can't see other objects that are 9 metres wide.

Back at the hostel, Ross and I met up with Malva and Merel again and got chatting to Jake, taking his gap year before university. By some coincedence Jake happened to live on an adjacent street to me in Clapham and worked part-time in the music shop on Northcote Road (it was only after I'd left Beijing that I realised he took my order for a Prokofiev piano sonata that never came). We all went out for cocktails, Peking Duck (when in Rome etc...), and made good use of the cheap beers in the hostel (Dutch drinking games are punishing!).

The following afternoon we all took a trip to the Forbidden City, the imperial palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. It's amazing to think that this complex of almost 1000 buildings was only opened to the public in 1925, 500 years after its construction.

After searching (unsuccessfully) the tourist shops for a novelty Chairman Mao bottle opener, which had become an obsession for me, we headed to Tiananmen square, the largest city square in the world. Plenty of monuments glorifying the worker and a huge LCD screen playing patriotic scenes and rousing music (obviously no mention of the protests of 1989). Mao himself lies in state in a mausoleum on the square but I'd have to wait until my next (!) visit to Beijing to see him. We had a sleeper to Shanghai to catch...

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