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Greg & Karen's Life Adventure Karen and I, in love, in life ; following our bliss


CHINA | Wednesday, 23 March 2011 | Views [629]


We screamed into Beijing on a wing and a prayer;  well on a bullet train doing 250ks anyway. As good management would have it, our agent Sonia met us at the station; on foot!  So we walked a ways, rode the subway a ways, took a bus a long ways and walked some more `ways’,  to our `International Youth Hostel’ that she had arranged for us. Fantastic! Until we realised that they didn’t speak English – OK – not so International.  Sonia smoothed the way and we called this home for our first week here until we could stand it no longer !!!  Why, you ask? It was great – nice place;  well situated downtown;  friendly, helpful staff;  shared bathrooms were ok;  Internet in the room;  refrigerator out on the window sill ( learned this in Harbin – Still -5 degrees here guys ) and very cheap –about $30 NZ /night. What could be wrong?  Now both Karen and I are pretty easy going but this finally got to us:  the store across from our window blasted the passersby with a 15 sec.  audio advert all day, every day,  from 9 to 9.00; in Chinese. We’re pretty  sure the store owner’s ancestors must have  invented  `Chinese torture’.

We still had to pick up our luggage from the airport, so we hailed a cab and somehow communicated this fact. All went well and we later proceeded to the agent’s office where we were asked to give an impromptu 10min teaching demonstration for the staff. That was fun !  Time to explore some of Beijing. What a surprise! This was nothing like our imaginings. Where were the crowded sidewalks, the pollution, the car-choked streets and the noise? Yes, the five ring-roads that ripple out from the` Forbidden City’ carry continuous, fast flowing traffic but elsewhere, we  cautiously crossed over wide avenues without waiting for signals. The air was reasonably clear, the shops bright and festive  and the pedestrians were few and far between. There were many western style eateries and that night, we found a Chinese foodhall in an underground mall within walking distance of the Hotel. Beijing is a huge city, but very spread out – the streets seemed  almost deserted as we made our way back. Weird !!!

One of Sonia’s  colleagues  works part-time as a tour guide and booked us into a very cheap tour to the Great Wall the next day. We were not quite ready for that one yet but, not ones to let a chance go by;  we climbed happily into the pick-up van that next morning with adventure on our minds. Our companions were the driver ( no English ) Lily,  the guide (very young and delightful personality) and two guys from Algeria - Hassan, a helicopter pilot and Muhammad, his co-pilot; both in the Algerian Airforce) They both spoke English and were in Beijing after a training Course in China.

We were soon to learn why these tours are cheap my friends. Before the `Wall’ we stop at a Jade Factory – file inside and are treated to a short history and lesson in Jade quality. Now we are free to browse this huge display of exquisitely carved Jade `everything’. We quickly learned to avoid the constant pressure to buy, while filming these masterpieces of intricate design and workmanship. 45 mins here, slipped away in awe of such skill and beauty:              I would have bought any number of them if I had had a `fixed address’ and an unlimited bank account.

We drove on to the Tomb of the 9th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty ( one of 13 around the city outskirts) which left me somewhat underwhelmed – much feng shui and symbolism everywhere but dusty and drab during the Winter.

The drive continued through some of the poorer outer suburbs of Beijing along a valley floor to a settlement at the narrowest point; and there people; flowing up both slopes, was the monument to all monuments. You’ve seen the pictures, watched the movies and heard the myths: well it’s not enough – you really do have to climb the mountain guys.  Did I say climb the mountain? – well that’s what we set out to do – this part of the wall runs straight up and there are no cable cars here `Gungadin’ –( travellers log 1-31B- it’s what they don’t tell you in China, that’s important:  Like, the thousands of steps are variable in height, from 5 to 50cm)                                                                                  The climb was harsh but the ever unfolding view was spectacular – as we ascended into heaven on that cold and sunny day, we marvelled at the realisation of a dream to visit this iconic site. Across the valley, the continuation of this defensive wall, snaked up and along the opposite ridge, punctuated by crenelated forts and hundreds of mostly Chinese visitors. The buildings below us in the valley were the garrison town, created to guard the pass through this steep mountainous region from the ingress of barbarian Mongel  Hordes;  who incidentally, led by Ghengis himself, merely circumvented these barricades elsewhere; since contrary to popular belief; the Wall is not continuous )                                                                                                                  Like ants, we tourists  flowed pass each other, occasionally stopping to exchange pleasantries or catch one’s breath. As we broached each milestone fort, a new section of the Wall would reveal itself – who were these guys? How did they build this? Finally, after many photos and film clips, we turned back down just one section short; satisfied and satiated, we had run out of time and still had the tortuous descent to make. Hope you enjoy the photos friends.

After a  wonderful local lunch, provided in the nearby town; we soon arrived at a silk factory; another wonder to behold. First a tour through the silk production from egg to worm to silk thread to woven garment – fact: one cocoon yields a mile of fine, continuous silk thread and they wind 8 of these together to make a useable silk thread. It seems that quite often one gets double cocoons which cannot be unwound; so clever as ever, they boil  them, after the worms are out; and stretch them over several , increasing diameter racks, until they are the size of large plates. Then they ask a visiting group to all hold on to the edge and they stretch this out to the size of a queen bed. I wouldn’t  have believed it. They layer up some 38 or more of these and they become duvet inners. We were so impressed with the product that we bought one for ourselves; light and warm, it is. I’ll quickly gloss over the showrooms of exquisite silk clothing of iridescent colours and timeless craftsmanship, since we were not in the market, unfortunately.

Last stop on the way home was the Olympic Stadium, known locally as the `Bird’s Nest’. Here we were all treated to a hot feet soak and a foot massage – now you just know there’s a `kicker’. Well they brought in the same Tibetan doctors who worked with the athletes at the 2008 Games and they proceeded to diagnose our ailments; which would be miraculously corrected with 8 little bottles of Tibetan `snake oil’ at the giveaway price of 8000 yuan;  each, no less. I have to admit that their pitch was great; innovative and very convincing – we bought some of the foot-bath herbal mix and some cure-all linament  ( which smelled a lot like furniture oil and most of which got spilled in Karen’s  luggage) but resisted the`Tibetan herbal medicine and the little bottles of `Love Potion No9 –(herbal Viagra) which were offered to me on the side.

During our stay in Beijing, we visited many of the iconic sights: Tiannemen Square with it’s imposing Imperial City Gate; it’s vast  expanse  with central monument to `Mao’;  two of the largest video screens, side by side showing incredible vistas of China’s countryside and the ring of imposing Government buildings flanking the` Square’.

 Just over the road, stands the incredible `Forbidden City’ which absorbed a whole of one day. It occupies an entire square block in the middle of Beijing city; is surrounded by a 40m wide moat and a 5m stone wall. If that’s not enough in itself, there are 999 buildings of Imperial Chinese style inside this enclave, including temples and palaces which repeat themselves in grander style, the deeper you penetrate this extraordinary place. We wandered the exhibits and filmed one spectacle after another;  this was the` other half’ and this was how they lived back then. Most Chinese had never seen inside the Forbidden City until it was opened to the public after Mao and the People’s Liberation Army took Beijing during the Struggle for liberation, circa 1959.

One place deserves special mention; that being the Summer Palace which was located near enough to our Hostel, that we walked back from it that night. Here was the quintessential palace, designed with the `feng shui’ elements of water in front and hills behind. Only this was on a grand scale; they dredged and extended the original lake, walled and landscaped the entire area and built a small resort town along one side; complete with grand temple on the hilltop. Again, we spent the day, exploring the extensive grounds and the multitude of historic buildings; along with hundreds of Beijingers, enjoying the holidays. History tells of the then, dowager queen who commandeered funds to re-build the navy; to build herself a suitable palace for herself and her court. She did however, build one boat; a carved stone monument in the shape of a ship.

We walked along Houhai Lake at sunset, filming the gaily-lit bars and restaurants; we visited the Confucian Temple, the Temple of Heaven, the Drum Tower and the Emperor’s Highway. We walked for miles through Beijing streets and original `Hutongs’ (closely packed, residential areas with narrow winding streets and back alleys) We ate in local restaurants and delved beneath the surface to the opulent malls and shopping areas, sprawled  in all directions below the streets. On occasions it was necessary to come to the surface, just to figure out where the hell you were.

Right on New Years Day (Chinese ) we moved to a `courtyard hostel’ in one of the Hutongs, mentioned earlier – we had some time before our Course started, and after trawling online, this seemed to be suitable. What we didn’t know (could fill a library; yes, I get that) was that Beijingers are seriously disturbed – they are firework junkies – totally crackers, you might say. It started just on dusk and by midnight, there was a full scale war going on outside; and I mean just outside. The noise was deafening; the night sky was lit up by flashes, bangs, booms, exploding fireworks and seriously, heavy artillery fire. Now imagine this on every street corner all over Beijing – it was unbelievable;  boxes of `rocket launcher’ type fireworks stacked by the roadside; gleeful people lighting 8 ft strings of very powerful crackers that sounded like machine guns at close range; cars negotiating exploding munitions and falling fireworks, through the intersections; now controlled by noise crazed demons, lighting ever larger rockets in competition with the surrounding  intersections.  Paper rained down upon their heads unnoticed, car alarms wailed in unison with each new concussion, police sat in their cars nearby and the people frightened ever dragon/demon away for another year – oooooh noooo!!! it takes at least 15 days to do that, as we were to find out. 

Enough noise had subsided by 1.30ish to allow us a semblance of sleep; only to be woken around 8.00 next morning by re-newed gunfire just outside the hostel. – give it a break guys !! a cry which echoed from my lips many times over the next two weeks. Some nights were relatively quiet and others just as crazy; culminating in a frenzy of firework mania on the last night of the New Year Festival. By now we were quartered on the 9th floor of the `Foreign Experts’ Building  on the 4th ring-road, north; engaged in out TEFL Training Course. We went out to dinner and experienced a spectacle, not to be missed;  they had saved the best for last and on every intersection around us, these delightfully crazed people were making sure those dragons would not come near their town. This was a  fireworks show in 3D – everywhere one looked, impressive displays of brilliantly coloured lights, exploded outwards into the dark; often combining with their neighbours in a canopy of magical extravagance . Mere words cannot capture the continuous, shocking noise and the visceral, visual impact of this unique Chinese tradition.

Our last day in Beijing started at the office of the PSB (Public Security Bureau – they who shall be obeyed) – yes, our Visas would expire tomorrow and no we could not stay in China – OK, we were out o’ there. On the return to the hotel, we took the time to visit the Olympic Games site and the `Bird Nest’ mentioned earlier. This building is the Main Olympic Stadium and does indeed resemble an over-sized bird-nest with it’s criss-crossed outer supports of steel tubing. Also impressive ,is the Aquatic Centre; called the `Cube’ by the locals and constructed of blue, waved plastic panels, which resemble the surface of water. The whole site is immense and was designed to impress; that it does people.

 Next morning, we jumped on a plane to Hong Kong with mixed emotions and by mid-day we had left China; not knowing whether we would ever return; We had enjoyed our month in Harbin and Beijing and had felt very comfortable there  with the people and their `Confucian’  philosophy of life.

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