Monday, 23 May 2011

Arrived in Beijing

Monday 23rd May 2011

7 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: When you were young – The Killers

Weather: Smoggy, hot but with a cooling breeze.

I awoke to an array of colour. A lady, from the carriage next to mine, must have been unable to decide what colour suited her the best. I sat up within my bunk and allowed my eyes to adjust; she had green boots, purple leggings and a multi-coloured top on; she was also displaying a red and yellow hand bag. Her attire was certainly interesting, but I wouldn't have said it was attractive. I looked at my watch to find 5:30am displayed on its face; my body reluctantly did what my mind wanted and I found myself, ready, fifteen minutes before our scheduled arrival time.

I was flicking between the view outside, and my watch, when I noticed that the trains arrival time had been ... and gone. The view outside was mainly rural therefore I wondered just how far away from Beijing we were; on closer inspection the sky was a dirty white colour, and the smog hid the trees from view. I knew that, with this amount of pollution, we must be close to a city but it still took another hour to arrive. At 6:45am I finally departed the train. This wasn't good; an hour earlier and I would have missed rush hour but now, with a lot of luggage, I would have to fight with Beijing's thousands. The first problem was finding the underground; this is the capital of the second biggest economy in the world, plus I stood in the largest train station in Asia therefore, I was confident, of finding an underground station nearby. I went to the local information centre - where the lady had to fetch someone who could speak English – to ask for the location of the nearest underground station; my mouth opened and a look of surprise was slapped, unintentionally, across my face when I was informed that this train station didn't have an underground link. I looked at my hostel directions; they only explained, getting to the hostel, via underground and, as I was starting to worry, the attendant calmly stated that bus '22', for three stops, would deliver me to the closest underground station.

It's the first time that I've had to pay for my luggage on a bus, but at 10p I didn't argue. The bus was packed and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get off at my required stop. As we pulled away from 'stop two' I turned to the bus conductor who gave me a reassuring nod that the next stop was mine. The doors swung open and, for a split second, no one moved; I started to panic and then, almost as one, the passengers woke up and most alighted heading the same way as I. Once in the underground I was presented with a ticket machine similar to the ones in Shanghai; I had to press the 'touch screen', until my fingers broke, to select my required stop but I was surprised to find that the cost was only two Yuan (20p). I put my bags through the underground scanner and made my way to my platform.

By this time I was already hot and I regretted putting my coat on; my rucksack was starting to hurt and yet, as the train approached, I knew that there wouldn't be any rest for quite a while (it would appear that Beijing underground stations have no waiting seats). The first train arrived and each window had a 'China man', or two, pressed against it. I felt it was too full and yet, after a run-up, more Chinese managed to throw themselves on-board just as the doors closed … it was a work of art. I watched train, after train, after train go past with, what seemed like, the same Chinese people plastered against the windows. None of them could have held me, and my luggage, and so I waited realising that I might have to wait, on the station platform, for rush hour to be over. It was then that an underground attendant, and a female Chinese student, walked in my direction. The attendant looked at my bags and babbled something in Chinese; fortunately the student could translate for me and, basically, the woman was saying that I would be unable to board the train, that I required, with my luggage (tell me something I don't know). I noticed that the student had a large suit case of her own and we found ourselves in the same predicament. The first suggestion, the attendant came up with, is that we both shared a taxi; we walked over to a large underground map where we both pointed to our desired terminus. Unfortunately the student and I were heading in different directions; in the end we crossed platforms and alighted the empty train heading the other way. We traveled back, two stops before the end of the line, before crossing the platform, once more, and catching the train back the way we'd come; this allowed us to by-pass the crowds. The train was already full when we arrived back at the underground station we started at; and yet Chinese people were still lunging themselves inside. The girl and I chatted for most of the trip; she too had come from Louyang and she was here for a university meeting. As well as her enormous suit case, she had an old fashioned wooden basket full of cherries, which she offered to me.

Eventually we arrived at a station where we both had to change trains; as soon as the train doors opened the passengers burst onto the platform and we followed them up the steps to 'line 2'. This train was full, but not anywhere near as bad as the one I'd just been on. Unfortunately, as the first train came in, the student got on but I failed to; as the doors closed I waved her goodbye and waited for the next train, which was only two minutes later.

I eventually arrived at my desired terminus; for this whole period I'd had my rucksack on my back, my coat on and my armpits pouring with sweat. I traveled up an escalator and, as soon as the sun light hit me, I found a small stone seat lying vacant. I stumbled as I walked over to the seat and sat down with a large sigh of relief; I drank what was left of my water and read the rest of my hostels directions. 'The hostel is 300m south of the underground station'; pulling my aching body onto it's feet, I walked the final steps to my hostel. Check-in went without incident and I was glad to find that my bed was ready. Once within my dorm I noticed that it was full of 'bog standard' travelers; this was good on the one hand, but it wasn't half messy. I also noticed that all eight lockers – for an eight bed dorm – were taken, which was highly annoying. Being 8:30am people were still asleep and so I quietly went through the process of unpacking. Due to the squeeze on the underground I went through each and every souvenir – making sure that they had made the journey (they had) – before collecting my laundry into one bag.

After I found myself sat within reception with a giggling, but very nice, receptionist facing me. I asked her many questions and she answered them all; she was lovely and, where she felt I might have to ask a local for help, she wrote my query down in Chinese. The only downside was that the section, of the Great Wall, I'd planned to visit was under reconstruction. She gave me directions to another part of the wall and said that it was just as beautiful. I thanked the receptionist and walked out of the hostel. Yesterdays pizza had done it's work but, now, I found myself hungry. Being 10:40am it was an annoying time; too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. I decided to grab lunch anyway as that would free up the afternoon for sightseeing; as I sat I planned my final days traveling:

- Today: Laundry, souvenir shopping and Yonghegong Lama Temple

- Tuesday: The Great Wall

- Wednesday: The Forbidden City

- Thursday: Jingshan Park, Tian'anmen Square, Temple of Heaven

- Friday: The Summer Palace

- Saturday: Photograph the city

- Sunday: Clothes shop plus acrobatic show

After realising that I had a full itinerary I quickened my eating and walked back to my hostel. First of all I inquired about a good place to purchase souvenirs. The good news was that there was a street, close-by, that sold all sorts of souvenirs; the bad news was that it was located just where I'd dined for lunch. I walked back the way I'd come and stumbled across an old, but fake, Chinese street. I browsed through the shops quickly almost getting hit, on the head, by a huge piece of concrete from the roof above (seconds away from possible death). Eventually I found the souvenir, that I was after, but the asking price was ridiculous; after a short while I managed to lower the price to 10% of its original sum. That price was still over the odds but time was short, and I felt it wasn't worth bargaining any further; now happy I walked back to my hostel with the final parts of my souvenir shopping completed.

Annoyingly, with only one week to go, I had to do laundry. I'd put a load on – in the worlds smallest washing machine – before I'd gone souvenir hunting and, once back, it was ready to dry. The receptionist said that, due to Beijing's warm and dry climate, a tumble drier wasn't necessary and that I could hang my clothes on the fourth floor balcony. What she failed to mention was that there were no washing line and so, after a year of travel, my washing line became handy. The time was 1:30pm and, with my laundry drying, I decided to start my Beijing sightseeing. Looking at my map I noticed that a temple – which my guidebook had in its '31 things not to miss in China' – was within walking distance. I left my hostel and walked for twenty minutes before reaching the 'Yonghe Gong Temple'; along my chosen walking route I bumped into three tour coaches, spilling out Chinese people wearing the same coloured baseball hat. I hoped that they weren't heading in the same direction as I, and I was reassured when, looking at my map, their coaches had dropped them off quite far from the temple.

As I approached the temple I struggled to find an entrance; I'd just found a sign, indicating that the entrance was 150 meters further south, when a short white woman, with sunglasses, asked if I knew where the entrance was. I pointed south and she walked with me; it turns out that she was Israeli and, though she was nice to chat to, she did have an annoying habit of apparently knowing everything already. We chatted continuously - much to the shock of the local Chinese, who searched to find the source of this alien language – until we reached the temple entrance. My guidebook had described the 'Yonghe Gong Temple' – 'Tibetan Lama Temple' – as touristy, but a must see. I'd say that the guidebook had got the information the wrong way around; the temple was interesting, with it's many wooden buildings all painted red, but I wouldn't say that it was any different from any of the other temples I've seen within China. The Wanfu Pavilion, on the other hand, was worth the twenty-five Yuan entrance fee alone; an eighteen meter-high statue, of the Maitreya Buddha, was erected high in the middle of the main temple building. Built from a single trunk of Sandalwood – a gift for Emperor Quianlong from the seventh Dalai Lama – the wood was Tibetan and it took three years to ship to Beijing. Both of us gazed up at the Buddhas face, deciding that the temple must have been built around the statue, as it just fit. I've seen many Buddhist statues in my travels but this one was different; the way it was carved gave it so much life and it was a shame that photography was forbidden (though, of course, you could purchase a photo of the statue). The Israeli and I, walked around the temple, for around an hour diving into its many rooms of worship whilst chatting about this and that. She, of course, was always right but it was interesting to hear that she was returning to Israel, in two months, after four years working in Macu.

Once out of the temple we went for a drink before splitting up; she was going to see an acrobatics show whereas I needed to buy supplies for tomorrows planned trip to the Great Wall. Once completed I went back to my hostel to surf the internet – which I have to pay for as the wifi, yet again, isn't working for me – to find out the latest F1 results and to check my flight details. I brought my washing, and my washing line, back into my dorm and had a shower before going to sleep around 9pm. I'd been up since 5am and so I was shattered, plus an early start was needed tomorrow for my trip to the wall!

Toodle Pip!

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