I had only been in China half a day but I’d already covered so much (read about it here). After a trip to Beihai Park , Wesley (my coachsurfing host) and I rode the bikes back to Wesley’s neck of the woods (Jishitan) and went for lunch at a local place just round the corner. There was no English menu so I left it to Wesley to order for us. We had bao (known as circular dumplings to us Brits), cold noodles (which to me tasted like vodka) chilli garlic green beans and preserved eggs, a local delicacy which contain lead so you can’t eat too much. Most spicy food in Beijing is made Mala style which is a very distinctive flavour that makes your mouth tingle and go a little numb. Mala is not to my taste and neither are the chicken feet it appeared the entire restaurant were eating.
I asked why Wesley wouldn’t eat the rest of the dishes even though I had said he could have the rest as I was full. He explained that there are many “loose rules” in Chinese dining and if sharing with others one mustn’t take from the side nearest the person they are sharing with. You should also clash a persons glass when saying “cheers” lower than them to give them respect and authority, unless you of course are doing it with your son or employee.
After lunch we went to the supermarket which is one of my favourite things to do when visiting a foreign country. Wesley bought me a beautiful painting which was on sale at an astonishing 5p (!) and we also found 241 milk bubble tea. Winning. I cannot explain how many things you can buy in a Chinese department store, particularly in the food department which was full of all sorts of weird and wonderful goods. Best of all I could try most of it as sampling is a huge thing in China and you are allowed to take a crisp, grape and most other things to try. There’s no clear rules about what you you just know“. I guess taking the giant chocolate chip cookie I had my eye on may be pushing it.
After our bubble tea and a million samples we literally couldn’t move so we went for a cycle around Xihai Lake, Houhai Lake and Oianhai Lake which come alive at night with live music and karaoke. We walked down the main tourist strip called Nanluoguxiang Street which is lined with shops and trendy food/drink brands from Thailand, Korea and Japan, popular with the younger crowd. I wanted some more bubble tea but it took forever to be made which made us late for the iconic flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square. We had just 15 minutes to cycle there, go through security and get our spot. Tricky. We peddled as if our lives depended on it and my takeaway milk tea, which I had placed in my front basket, burst and went all down my leg. Gah!
We finally made it on time and yes, it was a good experience but I can’t say I felt any emotion like the majority of spectators are said to do. To be fair, Tiananmen Square was a bit of an anticlimax for me but it’s history means it is definitely worth a trip. I was surprised to see SO many people there especially locals and also so many cellphones, I’m pretty sure no one saw it through their own eyes. The sun had set and we cycled on to the new tallest building in Beijing which is still under construction. By this point it was about 2am for me, New Zealand time, and after a night on the plane and another on the floor of Auckland airport I was utterly exhausted. I cycled on wanting to make the most out of my short time in Beijing but boy was I feeling it. I finally admitted this to Wesley and declined a drink at one of the lively bars by the lake. It was time for sleep.
My five hours of sleep was interrupted a number of times. At 3am I wanted to go to loo which was located at the end of the street. Frustrating. The alarm was set for 5:30am as Wesley had work so I quickly got myself up and ready to go. When he saw how tired I looked he suggested I go back to bed and he would leave me with the key but after getting dressed and ready I was wide awake. I made my way to the local police station to sign in. This is something transit passengers (me) are required to do within 24hrs of entering the country. I had been in China over 30 hours and had yet to do this. Of course once you arrive in a country as manic as China there’s not always the opportunity to take the time to try and find a police station especially when you are only there for two days. After getting on the wrong subway line and then getting semi-stuck in the lift I had no time to go to police station. I tried twice more throughout my two days in Beijing but the station was either close for lunch, closed for a tea break or the officers claimed to speak no English. It was the most ridiculous, stressful and time wasting rule I’ve ever come across.
I had booked an overprice tour to see The Great Wall of China which I was a little hesitant about. I hate organised trips but I only had one day left in Beijing and people had said that the wall was difficult to reach by public bus if you don’t speak Chinese. I was tired. The thought of getting on a number of buses and then having to wait inline for a ticket to the wall did not excite me one bit so I hopped on an organised coach leaving from Downtown Backpackers. The countryside outside of Beijing was very dull in terms of the landscape and near identical grey buildings. Lots of old people hung out in the streets playing cards and gossiping. This was a reminder of the ageing population.
The non-touristic (as advertised) section of the Wall called Mutianyu was incredibly touristic with a Burger King and Subway. I also had my first encounter of touts pestering visitors to buy water, banana pancakes or tacky souvenirs. I was the only one on the coach who decided to walk up the wall rather than take the cable car or chairlift/toboggan. Despite my feet still sore and swollen from the flight, my legs chafing from the humidity and a heat rash that was getting worse by the minute (I was a mess!) I needed exercise. I had endured a few days sitting in airports/planes and I was about to do it all over again
It was incredibly hot but I survived and actually enjoyed saying “ni hao” (Hello) to every Chinese tourist I past and pointing to the sweat dripping down my face and laughing. They would laugh back as if to say “we are all in it together“. Like the Chinese tourists I see hiking some of the popular tracks in New Zealand, a lot of ladies were wearing high heels and dresses. Madness. The wall was pretty impressive and absolutely huge. My photos don’t do it justice because of the fog/smog but I could see it spanning for miles over the mountain ranges.
I got talking to a Polish guy who was on my coach and walked with him to the end of this particular section of the wall. A couple told us that if we climb through one of the windows we could reach the original part of the wall in which entry was restricted. It was quite a drop down. We took a while deciding whether to risks our lives for something we weren’t really meant to be doing but I was only here once so I took the plunge and climbed out of the window. The Polish guy followed. Here we had the original unrestored wall to ourselves and it was amazing to walk through green trees and shrubbery which over time have grown over the wall’s path. This was by far my best memory of the wall, seeing it in its original form without any tourists about. It was magical. I was going to walk the whole section but I couldn’t help but think a wall is a wall (like Ayers rock is technically just a rock) so I suggested to the Polish guy that we head down early and go for a cold (ish) overpriced beer. Why not.
The coach party reunited and we shared a “traditional” Chinese lunch on huge spinning tables. Pretty sure I ate most of it. It was nice but to me it all tasted like the sweet and sour dishes we get back in the UK and I’ve never been a major fan. I needed something to soak up that beer mind. Driving back into the city I passed a street with lots of restaurants on. The clock struck 5pm and it was obvious that it was opening time because the staff of each restaurant, dressed in matching uniforms, stood outside in a regimental fashion. What appeared to be their managers spoke to each team before they marched off like a scene from military camp. To me it was an incredibly bizarre way to start a work shift but it did not surprise me in “communist” China.
As soon as I stepped inside Beijing airport I went from thinking how lovely people in this world can be to how horrible some arses are. Passport control made me sweat for 30 minutes after walking off with my passport. Not a word was said they just kept pointing for me to follow them then they would signal for me to stop and repeat. I saw them place my passport on a table and after 30 minutes they gave it back to me without even opening it. It was merely a way to say “we have power over you” and in my opinion “we are dickheads”.
Despite the controlling authorities my 46 hours in China was a positive experience mainly thanks to my Couchsurfing host and new friend Wesley. As you may have gathered I do like to explore new countries, one of the reason being I am interested in finding out whether the stereotypes I’ve grown up to believe are correct. In China a lot of these stereotypes are spot on. Chinese people are not only good at making money, they are good at spending it too and love to shop. Buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff is normal.
I did notice many Chinese passengers were wiping their cups and bowls from the plane’s meal service with paper tissues and putting them in their bags which just goes to show that the Chinese do love a good freebie. Instant noodles are a staple part of their daily diet. How the nation manages to sustain enough nutritional value to live beyond 70 years, as they often do, beats me. I could go on forever about the strange things I witnessed in China and how the Chinese lived up to their global stereotypes but I’ve run out of photos so I must leave you now. Next on the blog I’ll be across the world in Portugal. Speak soon.