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Beijing and the Great Wall

Written on: Friday December 12th, 2008

I boarded the overnight express train for Beijing with mixed feelings - sadness for leaving my friends and eagerness to explore a new place.  After all, I just spent twelve consecutive days in the same location, something that hasn't happened since I started this travel endeavor.  The train was packed, the people loud and I the only white person aboard.  So naturally I was stared at with every step I took.  Eventaully I made it to my upper berth in the six bed open section of the car and I realized, wow, this is going to be something.  I stored my baggage and headed to the dining car for a bite; after all, there was nowhere to sit in the car on which I would later sleep, and I couldn't communicate with anybody.  So I ate some shrimp soup and stalled for a couple hours before returning to my bunk and falling into a not-so-deep slumber.  Chinese men stayed up late playing cards and drinking, showing little if any consideration to the masses already undercover, desparately trying to supress the noise.  By 6:00 the next morning, the mandatory Chinese radio came on, offering unavoidable, ear-blasting Mandarin to everybody in the car.  Yikes!  And one little word of advice: don't get the upper berth in row 12 in a car on the overnight train from Xiamen to Beijing: the speaker is directly in front of your bunk and earplugs have little effect on the decibels penetrating your skull.  I even stuffed my pillow in front of the speaker in an attempt to dampen the noise, which worked a bit, allowing me to drift off for a few more hours.  But eventually I slid out of my bunk and joined the others in the narrow hallway.  One gentleman spoke a little English, so I was able to communicate a bit with the crowd that quickly formed around me when my words could be translated into Chinese...I am 39 years old.  I am from United States.  I like Obama.  I am not working in China.  I am not married.  Yup, it was pretty simple, but at least the groundwork for trust was established, and I felt more comfortable leaving my bags where they were while I read in the dining car all afternoon. 

After a second overnight in the train, I arrived in Beijing's West train station, a mere 33 hours after departure from Xiamen.  Heading outside I was greeted by cold air and flurries.  What the heck?  I didn't want to see any snow this trip...and here I was in China, freezing and completely clueless as to where I would spend the night (no, I don't expect any sympathy from all the folks in MN and WI who have been getting dumped on already this winter season).  After being guided onto the wrong bus, twice, I decided to hoof it to the nearest hostel from my current location.  Fortunately, as I laid out the map, I saw the Peking Downtown Backpackers was only about 1k away.  So I made my way there and was fortunate enough to get a room in a four person dorm.

The traffic in China is ridiculous; rules and consideration do not exist.  Cars, busses, bicycles and pedestrians go where they want to regardless of right-of-ways; traffic lights are often voluntary as well.  As soon as the opportunity presents itself (and often times even when it doesn't), an individual will do what is in his best interest, regardless of how it affects others.  With this in mind, I rented a bicycle from the hostel shortly after checking in...I wanted to explore a bit of the massively spread out city, and although it may not have been the wisest way to take in the sights, I was psyched to pedal.  After entering a few caches into the GPS, I set off to the Confuscious Temple.  It was my first introduction to the fascinating history and culture of former Peking.  After the temple was toured and the cache bagged, I continued on to nearby Lama Temple, whose prized posession is the world's largest wooden buddha....it's even in Guiness!  It was cut from a single white sandlewood tree and is quite amazing.  Another virtual cache existed here, so I claimed it as I went through.  Next on the list was Ritan Park.  This was a nicely landscaped city park near all the foreign embassies.  It was a bit strange seeing nothing other than Russian writing on all the businesses for blocks, but hey, it was still my first day in the city...how did I know what was normal here?  

After the park I was ready to check out more famous destinstions: The Forbidden City and Tian' anmen Square.  The first thing that struck me about the FC was its sheer size...this place was massive!  The buildings were magnifiscent and the complex too large to view in a single day.  Much can and has been written on this one-of-a-kind destination, so I will not duplicate the effort; I'll simply write that walking through the cobblestone streets and admiring the 600 year old construction felt like a priveledge...one that made me happy to have travelled to Beijing. 

Outside the main entrance to the FC is an enormous painting of Mao Zedong.  If you follow his eyes across the road you'll see Tian' anmen Square, the symbol of Beijing since the 1400's.  On my visit today the square held only a few hundred people walking about and taking photographs, quite the opposite from the famous 1989 massacre where 100,000 protestors filled the square for seven weeks before the government forcefully removed them using soldiers and tanks, resulting in the deaths of more than 2000 people.  For me, three hundred people were enough; after all, even with so few people, danger still existed.  Tian' anmen is also famous for a notorious scam, one where a couple, or two ladies, or even a small group of folks will befriend the solo traveller.  After the groundwork has been laid and trust has been developed, the individual is invited for tea at a local place.  They all go and drink some tea...maybe order some food.  When the bill arrives it is over-priced by at least a magnitute of 10!  Of course your new 'friends' didn't realize this place was so expensive, and they'll be happy to split it with you.  So you are forced to pay 100USD for two cups of tea and a sandwhich.  If you refuse, there is a mass of six healthy men outside the door ready to change your mind for you.  It seems like it would be easy to spot this scam as it is happening, but I met two people in my time here who got burned by it.  Fortunately for me, I was warned prior to my arrival, so when each of the three couples approached me to initiate the scam, I was wise to them and basically said piss off!

The next morning I woke early; I was headed for a hike on the Great Wall of China (GW)!  This is THE reason I took the 33 hour train ride north from Xiamen.  I felt as if this was one of those 'must do's' in life, and although it wasn't originally on my itinerary, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that I had to experience the GW.  I took the tour offered through the hostel.  With me were seven other hikers/travellers, including Florian, my new friend from Germany who spoke with an Irish accent.  We deprted for a less visited section of the wall that was 9k long and boasted 30 towers.  This was so unbelievalbe cool!  We walked and gazed in awe of the sheer magnitude of this structure.  Every turn presented views more incredible than the last.  As they day progressed and the morning fog lifted, a little sunshine even made its way onto the scene, improving both the spirits of those hiking and the quality of the photographs begin taken.  The hike lasted 4.5 hours, after which we had a feed in the local restaurant before returning to the city.  Florian and I went out for a couple drinks, but soon felt the fatigue from the day and became content to crash back at the hostel.

The next several days were spent chillin'.  I had to wait for my Vietnamese visa to go through, so I would be stuck here for another five days.  So I toured the town by bike, tried the local delacasies (the famous Peking duck included), saw a couple more temples, sipped tea, practised English and learned some Chinese with locals and drank beer and shots with Florian and the gang at night. 

I definitely overstayed Beijing and was anxious to get back to the south.  I was sick of the cold, sick of the rudeness of the people and sick of not being able to communicate with anybody.  Nonetheless, I was glad that I came here.  I experienced one of the most fantastic places on Earth in the Great Wall, and had a taste for what it is like to live in the world's most populous country.

 

 

From Br Joe B on Dec 22nd, 2008

Awesome pic and what an experience even if the locals didn't take to your natural charming self. Have a Very Merry XMAS Bro if we don't see an entry from you before then!