Friday, 24 August 2012

A week in Beijing and a train to Shanghai.

After my expensive early education in Beijing, 'Introduction to China 101: Trust nobody who talks to you in the street' I felt I was much more prepared for dealing with China's capital. I was approached dozens more times, mostly by attractive women, trying to strike up conversations with me. Now, I know what you're thinking, but in this instance it wasn't my wide-on inducing good looks but the fact there may have been a few notes in my wallet that was the attraction. I actually began to enjoy toying with them a little, stringing some along and directing the conversation to deliver my rehearsed punchlines, which entertained me but simultaneously confused and seemingly offended them. Some looked very offended when they latched on that I was wised-up to their intentions, which is pretty perverse really. I'd often be asked 'Herrow mistah - where you fwom, you speak Anglish?' - I asked them if they spoke Chinese, and suggested they go and invite a Chinese person for a $200 cup of tea, they have a billion of them to choose from and they'd probably have more in common than they would with me. When they said they only wanted to practice their English, I complimented them that their English was actually pretty good, but it was their morals that they ought to be working on. The encounters I took most pleasure from was when I stopped as if to engage in conversation, but just stared them blankly in the eye, responding to nothing they said, but just gawping like a lobotomised mouth-breathing ITV viewer. They really didn't know what to make of me.

Wanfujing shopping street.
Side street markets.
Downtown Beijing. 
A busy junction near where I was staying.
Fun with tea-muggers (or tuggers, and not to be confused with the happy-ending masseuses) aside, I enjoyed Beijing but was perhaps slightly underwhelmed by lots of things in the city. I really enjoyed wandering along the little hutongs, the alleyways of old Beijing, where you could observe little communities and catch a glimpse into a way of life, which from the outside seemed calm and leisurely. Old people sat out, waiting for dinner or death, children played simple games in the street, mothers hung out washing and dads tinkered with engines. Like crickets in the countryside as the constant background aural accompaniment, the sound of Beijing was the hack-put of people clearing their throats and projecting white balls of lung juice anywhere they fancied. 

The things for tourists within the city, and although old, culturally and nationalistically important, I found a little uninspiring. Tiananmen Square is world famous, but having been there it's clearly only famous for the events which took place there rather than for anything currently within it. In fairness, when I first emerged into the Tiananmen area, with the square on my left and the entrance to the Forbidden City on my right, I felt the might of the Chinese state pressing down on me from the architecture I was enveloped by. The scale of the site was huge, and it seemed to yell of it's own awesome might and the insignificance and irrelevance of my puny individual power. This was certainly the impression it left on me, and I'm sure that was the intention of it's creators. Inside the square is very little, apart from tens of thousands of Chinese tourists affirming their national identity, like taking communion, by attending the cathedral of the state and buying their children little flags to wave so they don't forget who they are. 

The entrance to the Forbidden City which faces Tiananmen Square. Mao's still watching over his people.
Chinese stars in their eyes.
Cleaning up in Tiananmen.
A guard stands to attention in front of Mao's mausoleum.
They have McDonalds in China too.
The Forbidden City is a huge complex in the heart of Beijing, built for Emperors to live and play in without having to mix with any mere mortals the other side of the walls and moat. I went on the Sunday with two friends I had made in the hostel, Cornelia from Switzerland and Justin from Canada, and the crowds of Chinese tourists slightly choked the enjoyment of the site, but generally I found it a little uninspiring. I felt the same way about the Taj Mahal in Agra some seven years previously. We wandered through the Forbidden City, and whilst the scale was very impressive, or gratuitous, depending on your perspective, and many of the buildings were beautifully decorated with impressive detail, it was a much-of-a-muchness for me, and my companions felt the same. Perhaps our ignorance was a hindrance, not fully understanding what we were looking at, but I prefer to wander and explore places myself than be led by a guide or be bridled by headphones. We spent an hour or so exploring the avenues to the east of the main drag, to avoid to bulk of the crowds, having still laid eyes upon the main sights. There were little museums in some of the small buildings in pretty courtyards, displaying sceptres and jade trinkets and various symbols of wealth and power.

A park I went through on the way to the Forbidden City.
Entrance to the Forbidden City.
Much of this type of thing - but I wasn't particularly moved by any of it.
The Forbidden City - we were allowed in though if you paid £6.
Brightly decorated and clearly very restored.
Afterwards we took the metro to the Olympic park, site of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I actually enjoyed this more than the Forbidden City in many respects. Again it was full of Chinese tourists visiting from the sticks, but there was a semi carnival atmosphere and felt lively and vibrant, even though the party had finished over four years ago. We had to pose with Chinese families who wanted to take their picture with us, particularly Cornelia who has long blond hair. I guess these families from rural China don't get to see many Europeans, and we were almost the only foreigners there. Many children were flying kites outside the famous Birds Nest stadium, which along with the other buildings were starting to look a little weathered, with a coating of dust and pollution, and plastic rags blown by the wind snagged in the eaves. Will, my friend from London who is spending ten days with me in China after just holidaying in Thailand before heading back home, bought a kite and flew it with much delight, his imminent 28th birthday no obstacle for simple childhood pleasures. We spent a few hours at the site, soaking up the atmosphere and walking around; I'd only wanted to see the Olympic park, I didn't expect to enjoy it so much. 

Beijing metro - clean, modern and efficient.
Roller bladers in the Olympic park.
Will - flying his kite.
The famous Birds Nest stadium at dusk.
Olympic park
Kite flying - with LED attachments seemed to be very popular - the boy racers of kiting. 
On my Monday in Beijing I visited Jingshan Park, which sits at the north end of the Forbidden City, and is actually an artificial hill which towers over the Imperial complex, and was constructed from the material excavated to create the huge moat which surrounds the site. After a sweaty climb I reached the top to find a large pavilion housing a big golden Buddha, with many Chinese giving offerings and bowing their heads in private prayers. The views from the top were great, you could really take in the scale of the Forbidden city, and take in lots of other Beijing sites too. I could see an area called Beihai Park which surrounds a large lake we had visited a few nights previously to sample the nightlife, but no way could I see the city limits, partly due to the scale as at 20 million people Beijing is one of the world's biggest cities, but more due to the fact of a heavy haze which hung over the city, disappointingly restricting sight to a mile or so.

Jingshan Park.
The hazy view to Beihei Lake. 
The big gold Buddha.
The view down onto the Forbidden City.
A woman photographs roses in Jingshan Park.
Later that afternoon I walked for an hour or so to check out the Temple of Heaven, another of the sites of old Imperial Beijing. My walk took me along the western edge of the Forbidden City, down to the super modern, alien egg-like Beijing National Stadium, before walking along a pedestrianised shopping street south of Tiananmen Square; which was full of western chains or shops aimed at tourists, before diving down a bustling backstreet full of tat-vendors and Chinese restaurants which was more more interesting and unsanitised. I then walked through neighbourhoods where clearly not many tourists venture, as everyone I passed gawped at me with curiosity. Eventually and with tired legs I made it to the Temple of Heaven. The site is situated in a huge park that is nicely kept and was relaxing to walk around, even if my thighs were beginning to long for a rest. The temple itself, again was pleasing on the eye and highly decorated, but again slightly underwhelming - I think I demand too much these days. I struggled to see inside the temple building, hordes of Chinese were jostling at the fenced off doorway for a glimpse of whatever lay inside; I had a peek on tiptoes but decided whatever it was wasn't interesting enough to fight with the crowds. I wandered through the park looking for the other part of the site, I saw one bit was closed for refurbishment, so assumed this was it and decided to do my legs a favour and leave in the direction of the subway. What was being refurbished may not have been the second part of the Temple of Heaven, but my legs were grateful and that was more important.
There really are a lot of Chinese.
Beijing National Stadium.
Back street shops and restaurants.
Bustling markets selling nick-nacks and tat.
Chinese tat
Park around the Temple of Heaven - Chinese men like to flaunt their bellies.
The Temple of Heaven - I'll hope for more when I die.
Will, Cornelia and I.
On my final day in Beijing, we took a trip organised through our hostel to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, which is about 70km out of Beijing. I was slightly reticent about taking an organised trip but I'd spoken to someone who had done it the day before who sang it's praises and decided to trust their judgement. I was surprised to see we weren't on a huge coach but a much smaller minivan with just nine of us onboard. I dozed on the way to the wall having had to get up early and not got to bed early the night before, and on arrival I realised it was a baking hot and near crystal clear day. We took a cable car up the wall, the climb would have taken up too much of our limited time and fitness, and I was pleasantly surprised that there weren't too many people at all. There were still a fair few, but at least half were foreigners, the huge packs of Chinese tourists were not here, I think they elect to go to the section of the wall a bit closer to Beijing. I had dreamed of getting a misty dawn photo of the wall with no people on it, but I don't have the will or desire to go to such lengths to reproduce something done by thousands of people before - instead I would make do with waiting for a moment or angle where I could hide the tourists from view. We had a few hours walking along the wall, taking in the surrounding lush hills, and enjoying the cool shade of the watch towers every few hundred metres and listening to the sound of cicadas, like alien dial-up modems whirring in the trees. I really enjoyed the wall, it was probably my favourite tourist experience of Beijing, and after a pleasant three hour stroll we made our way back down to the hustling hawkers below via toboggan. I'd never been on one before but it was really good fun and it made a nice little bit of video too. 

The Great Wall of China.

I had neglected plenty of other tourist attractions in Beijing, I hadn't set foot in a museum, I'd turned my back on plenty of temples and old Imperial monuments and spurned bustling markets, but I felt I'd had a pretty good taste of the city however, and all at my own pace. I had sampled the nightlife on quite a few occasions, and it was surprisingly quiet and disappointing for a super city of it's enormity, finding busier nights back in the drinking dross of Peterborough, but perhaps in Beijing we'd gone to the wrong place, at the wrong time. The Saturday night was our first attempt at a big night out. We'd researched a little online and plumped for the area around Beihai lake, described as a hip and up-and-coming area with cool bars, live music and popular with Beijingers, rather than the soundingly garish and neon lit Sanlitun Road area. We took a taxi to the lake after originally trying to make it on foot. The location was quite beautiful, with plenty of nice bars clinging to the shore of the tranquil lake, and there was enough of a buzz in the area to suggest we'd found something good. We popped into a few of the bars and looked at the drinks menu, and were slightly surprised to see bottles of beer costing around £5, and one menu had my favourite Guinness advertised at £12. After a quick rethink I suggested we find an alternative method to lubricating the wheels of the evening, so we found an open convenience store and bought bottles of the local 46% rice wine and some mixers - all for under £1, and walked around the lake drinking our own cocktails until finding a bar with pumping music and a dance floor to exploit. They seemed desperate to get us into their establishment, so let us bring our own booze in, before we ordered a home-priced beer from the bar. Thanks to the rice wine it was only a few minutes before we were up on the near empty dance floor, but without bragging it seemed that we were the injection needed to bring the place to life, as soon after more joined us and the atmosphere was cranked up a few notches. Within a minute I had a Chinese girl throwing herself around my waist. Now, as already discussed my aphrodisiacal affect on women is well documented (for those who don't know me - my tongue is placed firmly in my cheek as I write, not up my own arse) but I was of course immediately suspicious of this dance-limpet; was she a whore, was she trying to rob me, or was she fucking bat-shit mental? Well, she never asked for any money, I kept aware of my phone and wallet at all times and she never went near them, but she did tell me she loved me about five times - so clearly she was some kind of nut-job. I don't know if she just waits in there, hoping a western man will come in and will offer her, whatever it is she is hoping for. Who knows. In truth she kind of terrified me, I'm never comfortable with anyone throwing themselves at me, I always think they're unhinged and I'd rather be rejected by someone of my choosing, than have to try and slink away from some sexed-up nutter constantly trying to shove her twitching steak of a tongue into my mouth. Call me old fashioned but where's the romance? We're not 15 anymore. Well maybe she was. Bonus. 

The following night we thought we'd check out the other place we had read of, Sanlitun Road. One side of the street was packed with bars, most of them empty save for the musicians and singers performing to crowds of threes. Our main intention of heading out was to find somewhere showing the football, and we managed to catch the second half of Manchester City v Southampton. Our hostel companion Cornelia didn't get much attention for 45 minutes, she didn't seem to mind though and half decent singers sang Chinese pop on the stage. We eked out one pricey beer over the half before having a little explore of the area and heading back home. We knew it was a Sunday night but was this it - we thought. Surely in a city of nearly twenty million there must be at least a few thousand that want to have a party every night of the week. We consulted some contacts who live in Beijing, and discovered that actually, the liveliest area of Sanlitun is a backstreet situated between two super modern shopping malls the other side of the road, and only idiots go to where we had gone the night before to watch the football.

The next night we made amends and followed the directions we had been given, and sure enough we found a bustling backstreet filled with bars, street food, a flowing crowd and much cheaper drinks than we had seen elsewhere. It was a Monday night however, and it still wasn't packed. It was Will's birthday so we made the most of it - sat out at a table on the pavement drinking beer and chatting for a few hours before finding a near-empty bar with music to dance to and a floor to do it on. We had fun and again seemed to get the Chinese up on their feet and joining in. It almost seems like they are waiting for permission to have fun, either that or something to do with the face-saving culture and not wanting to be out-done by some foreigners. Anyway, it turned into a fun night, we had to make our own fun to a certain extent but we had certainly found the best place for it. 

The evening after was much more civilised, in part because we had to be up early for the trip the to Great Wall the next morning. We met up with a friend of a friend from London I'd met previously on a stag do, and who was living in Beijing working as an English teacher, which is a very common job for expats here. We went to a little local restaurant and had some excellent food, before exploring a pleasantly quaint and smart street with nice shops and bars on. We played out the remainder of the evening sat on a rooftop bar chatting away over a few beers until we were forced out by closing time. 

Civilised evening.
By our final night in Beijing, we'd assembled a little crew from our hostel, consisting of two Brits (us) a Swiss, an Irish, an American and a Taiwanese fella. We went back to the bustling backstreet and it was much busier than before. We spent some time in a decent bar playing really good music right to our tastes and none of the contemporary dance floor pop was in earshot. I'd arranged to meet Nora, the Mongolian pop star from the train to China I had met and got on with, and she turned up looking beautiful along with a work friend of hers. We spent ages chatting and I neglected my hostel friends, before we all moved on to a bigger place playing the usual lowest common denominator dance music. The hours flew by in there, and when it was on its knees we left to find some food with the Mongolians. I was a little drunk so anything would've tasted good, but the barbecued chicken was delicious, and I didn't even mind eating a snail which seemed to be part of some one-up-manship that I wasn't going to back away from. Will and I then left with the two Mongolians, our group having been severed somewhere along the way, to head to another club a taxi ride away. We arrived at the most garish Russian nightclub, filled with gold, ugly velvet drapes and nouveau-riche tastes, and you entered and exited this cavernous tasteless hole via escalators, a first in a club for me. The only people in there seemed to be prostitutes, a mixture of Chinese and Russian, but we showed little interest in each other, both wary of how it was an obvious waste of each others time. I had fun with my company though and spent the dregs of the night chatting and dancing, doing my best with Nora but I was beginning to wish she shared the values, or lack of values, of the Chinese girl who had pestered me on our first night out in Beijing. We took the escalator up into a blue dawn, and Will and I stumbled up into our dorm room at 6.30 in the morning, knowing we'd have to wake up at 9 in order to catch out train to Shanghai. 

I had to almost kick a still drunk Will out of bed in the morning, and we only just made it to the station on time to catch the high speed train to China's largest city. The train was super modern, nicely air conditioned and very comfortable. We only sat in our seats for two minutes of the 5 hour and 800 mile journey. The rest of the time we sat in the restaurant car, originally going to find some breakfast, but remained there for the remainder of the really enjoyable journey. It was a great experience, it was really impressive and puts to shame anything at home. We had great views of a good stretch of China out of the window, racing by lush and fertile farmland and silently streaming past huge megacities the size of London we had never heard of before. On the approach to Shanghai, which was the last hour of the journey, we were constantly in an urban sprawl, linking different cities and townships, but the scale of urban China was astonishing. Ginormous tower blocks and 15 storey housing estates were strewn for mile after mile, eight-lane highways shot under us every few kilometres, and the concrete jungle was only occasionally punctured by small patches of lush green, where crops were being cultivated in between the districts of this metropolis. We arrived in Shanghai station by 4pm, I was certainly feeling a little sleepy, and without too much difficulty in navigation made it to our incredibly central hotel which we had already booked.

Beijing South train station.
Boarding the bullet train.
Family has lunch aboard.
Arriving in Shanghai.
The best train ever.
Shanghai at night.

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