Golden Triangle Pt.1 (Beijing - Xi’an - Shanghai)
25.09.2014 - 28.10.2014 28 °C
After saying a fond farewell to Japan we spent a large part of the day travelling on Thursday flying 5.5 hours to Beijing, China.
Immediately we found the atmosphere and interaction with the locals worlds apart from what we’d just experienced in Japan. Not too many smiles (even when we smiled), lots of staring, next to no English is spoken here (which we’d expected) so we were about to test our communication skills to the full.
Test one - make way to the nearest taxi queue and take taxi to city centre (around 45 minute drive). Simple as this sounds, it actually became a very stressful experience. Showing the address - in Chinese - to the taxi attendant (who stroked my arm twice (!?) until I firmly asked him to stop) it was apparent that we were at the mercy of human nature here - ushered towards a taxi driver with people carrier by our over-tactile taxi attendant who subsequently decided to charge us (we found out later) 5x what we should have paid (50 quid rather than the usual 10!, not a big deal, but a bit underhanded). Not the best of starts.
We had hired an Air B'n'B apartment in East Beijing and met Vivian who set us up in comfort. A long day had by all, we headed to the local shop for some groceries, made dinner, played lego and crashed out for the night.
Day 2 (Friday) we decided to take a long walk, from our apartment through the local park (Temple of Sun Park) and on to Tiananmen Square (after a stroll around the perimeters of the Forbidden City). We covered many miles by foot this day and had our senses awakened for many reasons.
You really do see people doing Tai Chi in the parks in China, we saw this everywhere, as well as open-air dancing. However constant staring continued (still with no smiles, or giggling at our curious child carrier like in Japan) but straight faced staring - we have absolutely no idea why this happened. Chaos on the roads and pavements - driving and bike riding are a law unto themselves here!
Seeing Tiananmen Square (the largest public square in the world) was an impressive if not mildly intimidating experience. Strict control/search of all that entered, no queuing as such just an ‘everyman for themselves' even if you have a child, whilst crossing the police/army stations. Anna and I had switched from our laissez-faire Japanese vibe to fully focussed, eyes open and pay attention mode. We’ve uploaded some photos which may/may not paint a vivid picture of what we experienced here - hard to fully put it words but one thing is for sure you know who is in charge here and the people of Beijing (seem to) know this too.
The rain clouds set in and gave us a perfect segue to take the subway back to our digs for a debrief…we obviously followed this up by building a lego football stadium, watching Despicable Me 2 and eating pasta; part of Ollie’s new nightly routine! A fascinating and somewhat grounding 24 hours.
The following morning we arranged for a local tour guide (Dawn) to take us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. We met early on Saturday and headed off on a 1.5 hour drive North of Beijing. We soon clicked with Dawn and were truly excited about seeing the wall. This did not disappoint, an awesome experience (again hopefully our photos can do this some justice), the open ski lift on the way up was frightening but the toboggan on the way down was incredible...Ollie drove mine and did not want to brake at all...no fear!!
We were also able to get some insight into life in Beijing from Dawn who is (aged 22) studying tourism, and lives with six other girls in a 30 square metre apartment. This plus overt state control of the activities of tour companies and tourists sadly confirmed some of the perceptions we had of China.
After an intense couple of days we had a very lazy Sunday packing ready to pick up our train at 5.30pm from Beijing West train station onto Xi’an. We had not anticipated the Beijing traffic on a Sunday being so heavy and subsequently arrived at said train station 15 minutes before our train was due to depart.
Now.....how to describe the train station. Like Kings Cross on steroids, mixed with the same amount of security and customers as Heathrow Terminal 1. Chaos….absolute carnage. We’d arrived too late and kind of knew in our hearts that we’d missed our train…(not good when there is me, Anna, Ollie, two large bags and a buggy to manage!). Nerves were getting slightly frazzled. Leaving Anna and Ollie safely at a security desk I headed to try and switch our tickets for another train (walking through some pretty sad scenes, begging, glue sniffing, countless people clearly in a tough place). The ticket attendant confirmed that the last train had left for the night and next was 10am in the morning. Reunited with Anna and Ollie we sprung into survival mode as day turned to night and made our way to the nearest hotel (not a good one at that..hassled en route by people trying to sell us various things....and even offered massages !! wtf!) our sense of humour had (almost) faded at this point...we checked in, slept for a few hours before returning the next morning to make our way out of the capital.
We made our way to the station and platform early and to finish off our experience, saw families waking up in the walkways to the train station. This is the first time we'd ever seen children sleeping rough. No words can do this scene justice, guess we now understand a little of the the shell-shock people describe visiting places where kids live on the streets.
To be very honest, a huge sense of relief was felt by both Anna and I upon leaving the capital, which was mostly testing or at least in an ‘on-edge’ state of awareness. We hoped that our next stop in Xi'an would lift spirits a little and prove that Beijing doesn't represent wider China. In the interest of balance, we should say that we met and travelled to Xi'an with a kind American couple, who maybe sensing our stress levels pretty much walked us to the train, helped us get seated and disembark in Xi'an. They had experienced no such trauma, reporting a great time in China, starting with a business visit then switching to vacation. So maybe we struck out of luck??!!