Sorry I have been so delayed in updating my blog! Ever heard of the Great Firewall of China? Well that accounted for a couple of days of delay, but mostly I've been too busy doing the stuff that I'm now writing about... If I update the blog regularly, it shows I'm not being busy enough ;-)
So last Saturday evening, I arrived in Beijing, China, having crossed 9 time zones and the International Date Zone (meaning that my watch only said Saturday 1st September for about 40 minutes...). The first drama happened before I even left the airport! Our aircraft landed early and after a very efficient border control and luggage pickup, I caught the shuttle bus to the other terminal in order to meet Ann, a flute-playing friend of mine from Uni, who is teaching English in Chongqing for a year and came to meet me in Beijing. However, upon reaching the arrivals hall, the board said her flight was cancelled! I had her number and my international SIM card and figured that all the time I was being told that her phone was off, she must be in the sky, which can only be a good thing. Then an 'airport official' grabbed the paper I was holding, actually it was Ann's guide to Beijing including her number and that of the hotel, and started leading me on a goose-chase around the arrivals hall! I couldn't work out what he was saying and there was no way I could convince him I was there waiting for someone, rather than waiting for a plane myself, so he started calling random numbers on my sheet and tried to get me a taxi and generally being unhelpful. Eventually, he called Ann's number and started speaking to someone on the other end! I guessed it was Ann, took his phone off him, ascertained that Ann had now landed at Beijing, gave him his phone back and grabbed my paper and I ran for it! Clearly he thought he was going to get some Yuan for his efforts - fat chance, especially since I only had 5 Euros (long story) and 1 USD in my wallet!
Anyway I then phoned Ann on my own phone, Ann had recce'ed the route to the Airport in Chongqing and found it took ages to get there, got off work early and arrived at the airport very early. They put her on an earlier flight, but then sat on the tarmac for 2.5 hours while waiting for torrential rain to ease. Luckily her flight still arrived whereas the one she was supposed to be flying on was ultimately cancelled... I was much relieved when we met up so we bartered for a taxi to take us to the city centre hotel we had booked, eventually arriving at 2:30am...
The next morning, we woke early to be picked up for our pre-arranged tour of the restored Mutianyu segment of the Great Wall of China. We were picked up at 6:30am from the hotel we were staying at, hence why we booked it, and it turned out that it was just going to be us too and a guide! It was now pouring with rain in Beijing but we hoped that it would at least keep some of the other tourists away... The drive took about an hour and a half and we then found ourselves on a small chairlift from the car parking lot up to the wall itself.
Chairlift (it actually stopped here for about 10 minutes - lots of time for photos!) and on the chair behind is our guide Casper (yes, the friendly ghost). In typical Chinese fashion, everything is massively over-staffed so we had 5 men helping us onto our chair...
It was a wet old day, but at about 8am we were almost the only people on the wall and were shown some of the key features (the wall, the design, the guard houses, the bunk houses) etc by Casper. The wall, nearly 3900 miles long, was built to keep the Mongolians out of China and soldiers were conscripted to guard the wall for 2-3 years at a time under terrible conditions. This section of the wall was about 600 years old but had been very well restored. The wall is higher on the North-facing side, firstly so that it is harder to get up and also so that the rain water flows onto the South side, where crops were grown to feed the soldiers. I'm no tour guide - read up on the Wall here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Wall_of_China
It was soaking wet and we had all sorts of orographic clouds forming around us. Actually it was quite moody and interesting but the photos just look depressing! So we had the wall almost to ourselves. Casper then left us alone to explore so we firstly went to the East end of the restored section, which had some incredibly steep sections, and also a roof that was just too tempting not to walk along!! Though I then slipped, falling onto my camera (thankfully OK but big leg-bruise) and Ann had to come and collect my umbrella allowing me to continue on four legs...
Wet but un-perturbed.
It was so nice to finally share part of my trip with someone I knew so well, not having to explain what or why I'm doing (this) but just chat and relax and explore and joke. It was a lot of fun! Ann seems to be having a great time in Chongqing teaching English, though it is a very hot city (40 degrees) and there are many differences between it and Beijing, and even more when compared to the USA and the UK. So it was very interesting to discuss this comparison.
As the morning went on, we encountered more and more people. Here was a school group who we we offered to take a photo of for them, but I think that they misunderstood and got us into the photo!
Here's the top of the East section with the rest of the wall snaking away. It is stunning how such a structure was built on such mountainous terrain, and you can see how steep the wall is right here!
This photo shows how the wall slopes towards the China side, to allow water to drain. Also it shows Ann in her natural cheerful state :-)
Exploring one of the many guard-houses.
By then we had arranged to meet our guide and return to the base of the chairlift. There is actually a toboggan run (alpine slide) down to the base, which looked like sooo much fun! But it's closed when it rains, so unfortunately we couldn't participate. However, taking the chairlift down had better views and allowed us to practice our 'ni hao' (hello) to those coming up the lift, always reciprocated!
As part of the package, Casper then took us for lunch at a fairly traditional Chinese restaurant. Ann had been telling my about Kung Po chicken the whole morning, so we were very happy when this was served! Also there was some sort of Cantonese Pork and, my favourite, a vegetarian dish of Eggplant (sidenote - pronounced Chexie in Pinyin and is what Chinese people say when their photo is taken!) and potato in a very nice garlic sauce. People were impressed with my use of the chopsticks. I was not!
After this, we were taken back to Beijing, for a real treat - a full hour of massage, shoulders, legs and feet! It was quite special, though I could not stop myself roaring with laughter as my feet were scraped... Feet feeling as smooth and soft as butter, it was a bit of a wrench putting them back into my sodden trainers...
So we were then taken back to the hotel to pick up our luggage (we had asked for it to be looked after while we were on tour. It had been left in the lobby with a net tossed over it!!!). The verdict of the tour was that we could have got it a lot cheaper if we'd booked it with an agency in China. But the guide was very good and it was a uniquely luxurious experience having the lunch and the massage and our own driver and having the whole experience just for ourselves. If you want to know more, check out http://www.partner.viator.com/en/3193/tours/Beijing/Great-Wall-of-China-Small-Group-Day-Trip-from-Beijing/d321-5262CNUD
While in central Beijing, we took the opportunity to explore the city centre. By this time the rain had cleared up, leaving quite a nice day for exploring. We trundled down the Wanfujing pedestrian precinct and explored some interesting shops. One large shop had a huge queue outside, so obviously we joined it and found ourselves in what must be a newly-opened department store. We were given a small red paper envelope as we entered, but it was empty and we could find no use for it, so were kind of perplexed!
Everyone was then queueing up for a free drink, obviously you would queue for half an hour to get anything for free! We explored the rest of the store and were intrigued by the Free Legendary Luminous Ball Exhibition. But all the signs seemed to point at each other with seemingly random numbers relating to the distance to said Exhibition so, sadly, no Free Legendary Luminous Balls for us :-(
We found ourselves heading towards Tian'anmen square and the Forbidden City. 'Why not explore' we thought. So we did. We wandered round, taking photos of things we thought were important, but in the absence of a guide / guide book / audio guide / effort it was more an exercise in strolling and absorbing than actually learning. But I'll go back before I leave! It was also too late to actually get into the Palace Museum.
As part of our rush-tour of the city centre, we spent some time looking around the gardens surrounding Tian'anmen and and Forbidden City. Many of them contain these exquisite Lotus rocks which, according to the plaque, turn pink when it rains and they get wet. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we weren't able to see this!
We continued walking and got around the back of the Forbidden City, which is quite enormous, and has this impressive moat around the outside.
A navigational error of mine led to us the Donghuamen night market, a street food market set up in 2008 as an attempt to regulate, sanitise and make consistent all the food sellers in central Beijing before the Olympics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donghuamen_Night_Market). As a result, is has virtually no character and inflated prices, plus some foods which are probably not that common as general Chinese delicacies, such as snakes and crickets and whole chicks and centipedes, all on skewers! But I was satisfied to see the food being cooked in front of me on a hot griddle (since I was still wary of food sanitation) so we got some steamed dumplings and Peking Duck - classic Beijing food. I had seen this market on one of Ken Hom's programmes I watched before coming (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lwkp3) so I was quite pleased to have stumbled across it entirely by accident! We were also very hungry by this point...
We walked back to the hotel just in time to be picked up and taken to the accommodation at the University of International Relations, where I would be staying the next two weeks and Ann for 3 nights. The accommodation here is dedicated to international students and is physically part of the Super 8 Hotel next door, though definitely not with the same standards of room, cleanliness and facilities! However, when we arrived, there was a group of fellow students sat chatting in English and immediately seemed like a really nice group - so I knew I'd have a good 2 weeks here!
My room, on the ground floor, had very grubby walls and mouldy bathroom. I later found out that the bed was quite bed-buggy as well, so I then had to apply insect repellant to my legs each night! If Ann's room hadn't been much better then I would have fetched some Mr Muscle at the earliest opportunity and sorted it all our. But Ann's room was clearly quite a bit cleaner than mine so I figured that I could put up with it for a couple of days, shower in her room and move into hers once she had departed... Lazy I know but, in a city where you don't even know where to to find the supermarket, nor how to ask for things like cleaner, or read the packaging when you do find it, I thought this was an adequate compromise!