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Entries in China (2)


Beijing and home...

The Great Wall of China

In the morning we went to the Great Wall of China, at Mutianyu. The mountains alone were worth seeing, heavily forested and with sharp ridges. The Wall itself seems rather excessive in places – what crazy Mongolian would try to ride ten thousand horsemen over the razor edge of a mountain? Since the wall really became Great during the Ming period (when they joined up the smaller walls), I guess there was a large PR/fear factor involved, saying “hey, we defeated the Yuan dynasty, and the Mongols aren’t coming back”. The Great Wall is 3750km long, and contains 10 000 battlements and watch towers.


We went up the cable cars to the wall, and then strolled along a 2km section, through a handful of towers. Still feeling rather ill from the night before, we didn’t exactly run to do everything, which is just as well, because it was hot. Amazing views though… We caught the toboggan down the hill, which was lots of fun, since it was so long and windy. My time was 2 minutes and 15 seconds, Luke was slightly faster :)


The Forbidden City

Back to Beijing, and we went to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Feeling a bit seedy, we reached Tiananmen Square. It is the largest square in the world at 44 hectares, and can fit over a million people when it is packed. It is flanked by towers from the original Beijing city wall, and was decorated with flags on the day we went. It felt rather humbling to be at the site where Deng Xiao Ping ordered tanks to break up a student protest, with an official death toll of 600 (more likely, thousands were killed). At the centre of the Square was Mao’s mausoleum.

At the northern edge is Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. We walked across the Square and through Tiananmen to reach the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built in 1406, taking only 14 years as it used the labour of a million labourers and a hundred thousand artists. Twenty four emperors ruled from here. We passed through Tai He Men, the Gate of Supreme Harmony, to enter the outer court. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was the most important building in the Forbidden City, as it was where the Emperor held court. We walked through enormous courts and passed many buildings to move from the Outer court to the Inner court, where the Complete Harmony Hall and the Preserving Harmony Hall are located. We saw only a fraction of the Forbidden City, which contains 9999 rooms to house the Emperor, his eunuchs, and 3000 concubines.

The Forbidden City (the Winter Palace of the emperors) is huge, at 72 hectares, although the Summer Palace is actually four times larger.

The Forbidden City is no longer forbidden, or a centre of power. The 1911 Guominang movement toppled Sun Yat-sen as emperor (he was three years old at the time, after working with the Japanese during WWII he was imprisoned as a war criminal, under the communists he eventually died working as a gardener at 61 years old). In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek declared the Republic of China, which lasted until 1949 when Mao Zedong overthrew government to declare China a communist state. During the last stages of this battle, Chiang Kai-shek took all the riches from the Forbidden City, and took them with him when he sailed out to set up China in Taipei (forming Taiwan), which is why most of the rooms are now empty. Our guide said that to the west is the “new Forbidden city” – communist party headquarters.

We passed signs saying “Forbidden city – made possible by VISA” and a Starbucks – Mao would be proud. Finally we reached the emperor’s gardens, designed for his leisure and as a place to study and play Chinese checkers. At this point I was barely conscious, and couldn’t listen to anything our guide said. Somehow we got back to the hotel, everyone else went out for the final dinner, and I went to bed. After three or for hours sleep I thought I would be able to make it out to get something to eat, but collapsed in the hotel lobby, violently ill. The staff were not happy, and when I stopped they told me to go to my room. I guess they just thought I was drunk, but still, they could have asked my room number to get someone to check if I was still alive later that night…

Homeward bound...

As much as I enjoyed travelling, when it was time to go, I was very ready to be back home. I had spent the night feeling completely trashed and drinking iced tea when I could force it down. Luke came back at around 3am, I slept through the whole thing. In the morning I slowly packed, in pain, then had sad farewells to John, the Irish girls, and Angela. They really helped make the whole trip a bucketload of fun, and it is sad to see them go. I’m glad that I’ll be seeing John once I move to Seattle.


Mongolia to China

We caught the train (our last for the trip) to Beijing. A few hours of Mongolian steppe before we hit the beautiful Gobi desert. The Mongolians say there are 30-odd Gobi deserts, and we saw a few - arid pasture (where we saw camel herds), sand plains and sand dunes.

At the end of the Gobi we had to cross the Mongolia-China border. It took seven hours (from 7pm to 2am), so much faster than Russia-Mongolia. Especially considering they had to change the boogie of the train, due to the slightly wider gauge of the tracks. Surely it wouldn't be that hard to design a multi-gauge boogie?

I woke up this morning to see the cultivated rise terraces of China going by. Then the mountains lined by the Great Wall, and into Beijing. Tonight we saw the amazing China National Acrobatic Troupe. It was better than watching the gymnastics at the Olympics, they were simply stunning. From the little boy on the slackwire with a ladder and a unicycle (which he rode on his head), to the boys running through hoops and up poles, to the girls being able to balance pots while doing contortions balancing on each other, it was great!

Afterwards we went to the Donghuanmen night market for dinner. There were dozens of small booths selling so many different foods. There were scorpians, silk worms, octopus, cockroaches, various meats, and things I couldn't pinpoint. I had a vegetable dumpling (which was great), a bizarre thing that looked like a pizza (but tasted like fried semolina covered with herbs), tofu fried in sesame, and a fried bdndnd.

Two years of studying Chinese when I was young has left me with about the same level of communication as I have in Russian after two weeks travelling there - I can say hello, goodbye, thankyou, sorry, and a few other basic words only.