Saturday, 12 May 2012

Beijing and the Great Wall, China

Coming into Beijing in the early afternoon, the train sluggishly pulled into the station and a load of backpackers piled out. Over the last 30 hours or so on the train with its limited stops, you get chatting to many people doing the same thing as you, and if you’re lucky, staying in the same hostel as you. I found three people heading in my direction so we took the more than efficient subway there.

Here in Beijing, the hostels were more like what I was accustomed to from travelling in Australia or NZ, a nice upgrade from the bunk beds in people’s living rooms which serve as hostels throughout Russia.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Beijing, I had never been that bothered about visiting the rest of the country, the lure of the Great Wall being the more interesting thing to me. However, I had a fantastic week in Beijing and soon realised that if China as a country is anything like Beijing as a city, then I am going to have to come back sometime in the future.

Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is huge, dominated by Mao’s Mausoleum in the centre and the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the north, separating the square from the Forbidden City. Similar to the Mausoleum in Moscow, you had to surrender you bags/ camera and had no more than a glimpse of Mao before you were ushered out of the building, the only difference being that this building was about tem times (minimum) the size of Lenin’s mausoleum.  

The Forbidden City complex itself is absolutely massive, it just went on and on, one more building after another. Usually that kind of thing would probably get old on me very quickly but I couldn’t get enough, the place was amazing. To the north of the complex is the Imperial Garden, full of different flowers and buildings surrounded by trees, if it weren’t for the throng of tourists you could imagine that it looked the very same all those years ago. 

Once outside the north gate, Gate of Divine Might, your immediate view is of the temples up on Jingshan Hill, a steep enough climb which offers amazing views of the Forbidden City and really helps you to appreciate the sheer size of the complex. 

Summer Palace

Again, another massive complex, the Summer Palace is mostly made up of temples and buildings dotted about Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake which is bordered by various buildings, gardens and bridges circumnavigating the enclosed area. The lake is actually man-made and the extracted soil is what makes up the hill.

Entering the complex from the base of the hill, you come to a narrow creek with a bridge over it, but at water level you are able to walk around on the narrowest of paths and go into the old waterside buildings that have now mostly been converted to souvenir shops and cafes.

Once across the bridge you come to the base of the hill itself, from here the only way is up as you arrive at various levels with what appears to be limited structure containing odd temples and building. At the summit you have a decent enough view out onto the lake but it still appears to be miles away. 

Zigzagging through rock paths and man-made steps you pass yet more old  buildings before reaching the other side of the hill and the paths following the lake's perimeter. You can go either way, but I decided to go clockwise around the lake, passing through plenty more builidings, halls and pavilions, all similar in acrchitecture to one another. 

There is a bridge connecting a small island where many people were just chilling in the shade of the trees, trying to avoid the crowds and find some quiet among the throng of people who had decended upon the complex for the day, busy busy with it being the day before Labour Day. 

The walk itself was very pleasant and takes a couple hours minimum to do if you are ambling along slowly taking in the sights and the atmosphere. Being a foreigner you get stopped pretty regularly for photos with people's wives and babies but it soon becomes common enough for you not to be bothered by it, ridiculous how often people will stop you for a photo.

There are a few different exits for those who want to make a swift exit but eventually you get back to the main exit by following the path round. An enjoyable stroll in the ever improving Beijing weather.

Great Wall

The Great Wall is one of those places you have to go to, especially if you are in the vicinity. I remember when I was in Cairns a few years ago and managed to not dive in the Barrier Reef. Not making that mistake again! 

Rather than take a guided tour and be shepherded around, I decided to do the trip on my own steam. As it was Labour Day, I was under the impression that there would be hoards of people all queueing up to get themselves to the wall so I made an early start to the day. Up and ready and at the bus station by 8am to catch the bus to Muyen, the town from which I was able to negotiate a taxi to the Jinshanling part of the Great Wall.

Once at the entrance to the Wall, you have the option of climbing to the Wall itself or take a cable car, I was feeling lazy. After exiting the car, there is only a short walk before you are on the Wall itself. I was a clear day, beautiful sunshine and the views were astounding as you could see the Wall going east and west for miles. 

I headed east, I had a few kilometres to walk before I reached the path I would have to take to get down to the car park where my taxi was waiting, I hadn't paid him' yet so I was fairly certain he would be there. Usually this stretch is about 10km and goes as far as Simatai but unfortunately that section is currently closed, I heard various reasons why from rock slides to general maintenance, so it couldn't be helped. 

Nevertheless, it was one of those places that lived up to expectations and wasn't a let down. The views were spectacular, I got some exercise for the first time in weeks, the expected crowds were non-existent, and it just happened to be the day of the Great Wall marathon. Choices of the 5km, 10km, half and full marathon along the Wall. No thanks. I saw one guy literally climbing up the steps on all fours, he was only doing the 5km. You can do it!

Once at the east tower, I carried on a bit before the Wall started to seriously deteriorate, then turned back and headed to the car park down the path. My driver was nice enough and seemed to know a bit about the area, how much was true I'll never know. Got back to the bus station where there was a ridiculous queue to get back to Beijing, and then an even bigger one to get back into the city. Still, the Great Wall was amazing, going to have to come back to do the whole Jinshanling - Simatai stretch one day, maybe even a 5km. Maybe not.


I couldn't go to Beijing and miss out on an acrobat show, especially as there were so many available and they were on somewhere in the city every day. Took a taxi to the theatre and once there, had a twenty minute wait before the action started.

There was the inevitable clown who was there comedic relief, unfortunately, and, I’m assuming, some historical storyline which I gave up on almost instantly. However, no such problems following what the performers were doing during there acts.

The first one was most of the male performers doing some form of dance which then led to them swinging around on suspended ropes, an introduction to what was to come.

This was followed by most of the female cast showcasing some of their skills, balancing balls, juggling and passing them with their feet while lying on their backs. One of the women actually balanced a 15ft pole with a hoop on the end on her feet and bounced a ball on five outstretched ‘branches’ until she put it in the net, impressive.

Following acts included two men putting on a power show and holding each other in ridiculously impossible positions and angles, there was a clutch of women, girls really, who were making lotus flowers with their bodies, contorting themselves into shapes that just made me feel a bit ill. Beyond flexible. There was a male/female partnership who were dancing on air with the aid of a rope, or so it seemed, and a magician who changed his appearance with masks in the blink of an eye. Male gymnasts jumping through hoops and landing in impossible positions and a balancing act involving two men, three girls, and a ladder.

However, as impressive as all that was, they saved the best until last with the cage of death trick. Usually just one guy doing 360s in a sphere metal cage would be impressive enough but they managed to fit in five of them, headlights on and horns blaring, full-throttling it around the cage and somehow missing each other. Awesome to see in real life, the crowds were loving it, and I heard after that in some places they manage to fit in six riders, madness.

Typically, as soon as the final act was over, the theatre was half empty and people rushed for the exit as the performers were going through their customary thanks. Nothing to worry about though because some of them even managed to get out before we did! Everyone is in such a rush these days.

There's plenty more from Beijing, but bearing in mind blogs aren't allowed in China I'm playing a bit of catch up and will subsequently add more in the near future, so rather than next stop, currently in Malaysia. More to follow.

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