10 hours. Curled up on the ground, right in front of the driver’s cabin. Truth be told, couldn’t find a better spot. Even then, our gluteus maximus were tortured massively. Somewhat slept through the journey till Beijing greeted us with its scorching heat.
Single Serving Friends
Checked into the youth hostel to two sleeping roommates. One was an Austrian who had recently resigned her job to travel for two months and another Australian painter. Both were uber friendly. A good sign.
Didn’t get to speak much with the Austrian, she only stayed a night. The older Australian went by the name Patricia Preston. She was a mother, an artist and a traveler. She brought no mobile or laptop with her. She talks about everything from painting to ayurveda. She hopes to pick up calligraphy when she is back at home in a small town near Sydney.
The other Australian backpacker I met during my trip was Pascal Roth from Perth. He has been around China for a month now and hopes to return again. He has been to most parts of the world which would explain my surprise when I realized he was only 19. And he rears a snake in his backyard. Aussies!
The other serving was a Chinese lady called Fang. She hosted us for a couple of days. I met her via Couchsurfers.org. She had immense love for travel but due to lack of resources, time and perhaps capital she chose to hosting backpackers instead. She does this on a regular basis.
Quoting Edward Norton from the film Fight Club,
“Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.”
These were several such individual servings.
On my way back from visiting the Olympic sites, I was almost chutney-fied by the Chinese crowds in the bus. One had her arm right before my face, another had a child near my leg. Any one sudden brake and I would have broken my nose and probably be held responsible for breaking several other commuters’ bones.
To quote Roth, “a billion is like grains of sand. You can say there are a billion grains in a handful of sand but to REALLY comprehend the value of a billion is just something else” on asked about China’s population.
Forbidden City was no longer forbidden. Public were now allowed to visit the lounge areas and private rooms that once belonged to the Emperors of the Ming & Qing dynasties.
There was this particular room that I was fascinated by. This room was smaller than the rest and also had a translucent veil that divided the room into two halves. In one half, sat a large throne, a tad larger than the King’s. This belonged to the Emperor’s Mother. Apparently, she oversees the meeting that goes on in the other half between the Emperor and his close associates. The Mother held the power of veto.
Tackled the North
We visited the famous Gardens or Parks of China. Personally, I felt these parks were the results of bored Emperors who were often carried around in carriages. Hence, the vast size of their home grounds and recreational grounds.
This park was bombed during the Anglo-French war and the revamped one was smaller than the previously large park. Still huge if you ask me. The revamped garden took us 3-4 hours to walk around, take in beautiful sites; creatively constructed maze like pathways and massive amounts of lotus flowers.
The “small” garden’s original size happens to be about 300 hectares or more.
The subways had a flat fare of 2RNB (0.20USD) to anywhere within China regardless of the distance. It was funny we still had to choose our destination on the ticket buying machine. I don’t see the point. It was gonna be 2 bucks if I get down at the next stop or at the far end of Beijing. Strange.
Peking University and Tsing Hua University, ranked first and second respectively in the Middle Kingdom. I thought my campus was massive enough but the visit to these institutions made Fudan University appear like Singapore on the World Map. And began another round of walks around smaller parks in the form of Universities. Either locations held the typical gardens, a lake if not a canal running across. Lots and Lots of greenery. Did I mention people? Yes, loads of them!
Parents in particular were with kindergarten going kids.
Parents to kids – “child, this is where you are gonna study in the future. You gotta start working your ass off beginning NOW! Alright, will you now post in front of the sign that reads blab bla University? We might have to frame the photo and hang it in your room for inspiration.”
It’s all about “moulding” the future.
The Great Battle
Qin Shi Huang, one of the Emperor’s of Ancient China used to be my hero because I was in love with the whole idea of the Terra Cotta Army. To have someone’s paranoia actually materialize on a massive scale was simply amazing. I was floored. My love affair with Qin Shi Huang began.
Today, it ended! He was the reason behind The Great Wall of China. Reasons for the wall were perhaps valid. But, using free labor to perform the tedious task is just plain ruthless. Many died. I almost plunged to my own death. Ok that was an exaggeration, but hey!
We decided to climb the Remnants of Badaling, a particular section of the wall. Perhaps the most nerve wrecking one amongst the many other sections of The Great Wall. Positive note about this area, it was not as famous as the tourist sections hence the absence of half a billion Chinese.
Being highly ambitious, Jan and I embarked on the trip with twenty others, predominantly whites from varied nations. Perhaps an Arab. Not too sure. He had the symbolic beard. He looked white and was from Israel. One tiny regret though, I didn’t ask him how his Palestine mates were doing. Or perhaps how was Israel maintaining ‘friendship’ with them. On second thought, small talk on Gaza flotillas might not exactly be the right way towards a budding friendship with my first Israeli acquaintance. In the end, I never spoke a word.
The climbing began. This part of the terrain was made up of both high altitudes and steep slopes. Some with handles by the side and others with sandy grounds. Wearing pink sneakers, Nickelback jamming in my ears, I attempted the climb. This path also housed the 9 towers from which great views of the snaking Great Wall could be observed from. Soon enough the guide realized, my pace had slowed. Obviously! I confessed to being a recreational climber and not a professional one. Hence the pace. I will finish the length in maybe say 5 hours.
But time was not on my side and fear of heights was on Jan’s side. This is why I hate organized tours. Sadly, tour was the only option for the Great Wall as individuals are recommended to not venture on their own for safety reasons. The guide didn’t provide much for my huffing and puffing and of course to console the petrified Jan who was having doubts about continuing till the 10km mark. Her exact words, “I don’t exactly want to die in China.” Eventually we retreated back to the start point for perhaps you can say “lack of guts to go on”?
I was rather disappointed with going back down but being aware that taking longer than anticipated will cause the rest of the group to lag made us return. I love heights so the retreat was a tough decision to make. We could have finished the length if we tried harder. This is one reason to say I will be returning to Beijing again to complete the hike!
The Battle continues…
Royal Families and Grandeur
If there is one thing I learnt about the Chinese Kingdoms and its Emperors was that, they lived a lavish life building themselves and their immediate family members a palace each, creating an entire city for the family alone.
The cash could have been put to some good use instead. I agree the one who rules should be pampers in return for the country’s well being, but why such grandeur?
The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace was restored sometime in 1902 by the famous Empress Dowager. Three quarters of the site embodied a large lake. I personally preferred the orientation of the Summer Palace compared to the Forbidden City. Besides the poorly drawn map which got us lost in the Longevity Hill, it was an amazing albeit tiring 7 hour walk. I appeared to be clocking in more than 10km of walking distance alone a single day. If you belong to the kind that detests walking, you are still welcome to visit Beijing but it wouldn’t be the same. Try cycling though. Highly recommended.
One of the famous Chinese snacks were these sugar coated fruits or cherry tomatoes. Fruits are cut into bite sizes and dipped into melted sugar to give an interesting sweet taste. I LOVED IT!
Dinner was at this Buddhist Restaurant. The closest I got to the famous Peking Duck was the vegan alternative.
Jan tried the real one at a well known restaurant for preparing the dish. Jan sat to order the ducks while I was all poised to shoot pictures. We were told that an entire duck had to be ordered and they do not serve the famous Peking Duck in portions. No choice there. She ordered a whole duck. The roasted duck was brought to the table by the chef who started slicing it in front of the diner. Each duck amounts to a hundred slices. The ‘Quack Math’.
A yellow custard looking pastry from the street side ripped us off by charging us 27RNB! The most expensive street food I have ever come across. On a good note, that one pastry lasted me for three meals for it fills one’s tummy with just one small bite. Its taste was that off a harder, stickier custard. I think.
Good thing about the Asian snacks were that, they were mostly vegan. Grabbed a few fried dough spirals that had a multitude of flavours from Chinese pepper, Black sesame and the originals. Tasted a couple of Chinese mochis that Jan bought. Me like mochis.
Jan tried the scorpions because I pestered her and we really wanted to know why on earth it is a Chinese delicacy. It took her so much effort get a bite but nevertheless managed to eat into it. I heard a crunch similar to crackers cracking away. She said it was crispy and actually liked it. They were first roasted and later rolled in chilly powder.
The Palace Royal Cheese was a famous Beijing dessert as well. It tasted very similar to yoghurt. Royals do have a strange palate. The original Beijing Yoghurt tasted like the Indian lassi. Neighboring countries do seem to have an influence on Chinese food.
Mao the God
Got up early in the morning to ‘pay respects’ to the Great Mao. Sadly, he wasn’t thinking on the same grounds as us. Visiting hours were strictly between 8am till 12am. By the time we accomplished stuff prior to Mao, it was one thirty in the afternoon.
The next day we got up earlier and presented ourselves at Mao’s somewhat Maosoleum at 8. What awaited us was this long queue; which might as well pave the pathway between Asia and Europe. Exaggerating of course. Thousands and thousands of people were queuing to catch a glimpse of Mao despite the sweltering heat. Half way into the shoving and pushing queues; the uniform clad men controlling the crowds decided to announce that visitors with bags will not be allowed to see Mao. The bags had to be submitted at an area that was across the street. When I say ‘across the street’ I certainly do not mean within walking distance. You had to battle the crowds at least a kilometer then cross the roads walk another ten to twenty minutes, submit the bag, retrace the bags and stand in the queue all over again.
First Mao was particular about the time when we would meet him and now, he doesn’t want baggage on. Oh wow! We gave up. We got out of the queue to explore better things.
I figured I didn’t have to “see” him to understand his power. I got the picture! He attracts the Chinese like a magnet even after his death. He’s a demigod and they worship him.
Interesting thing about the mochis were the brand on the wrappers. The literal translation from the Chinese characters would mean “donkey rolled on the floor”. Why? I wouldn’t know.
And menus have dishes with names that go ‘the old adopted mother returns to a pot of meat’ and ‘husband and wife lung slices’. I ain’t no idea how both the adopted mother and couple whose lungs have been sliced feel about this.
China has no lack of brands. Some are direct Imports and others are locally made. Some of the western inspirations would include; Cleo doodle from Crocodile and Kpapa from yes, Kappa itself. They carry the same logos as their western counterparts by the way.
In the End
Beijng felt like the Real China, if you get what I mean. It feels like China here, from the oriental infrastructure to the common Chinese men. Chinese culture was prominent in Beijing then the adopted culture that Shanghai portrays.
Every day feels like a Sunday in China. Every hour is peak hour. Do explore when you get the chance.