So as I’m putting the final preparations into my big trip to South Africa I’m thinking back to my last brave trip three years ago when I went to China and I thought I would do a three parter on my experiences because there was too much to fit into one post.
As with South Africa, I went on an organised tour on my own. Last time I was bricking it to be honest but this time, because I know what to expect, I’m not nervous at all. Well maybe a little.
China was a place I’d wanted to visit for ages and I was so nervous and excited to take a step out of our world and into a completely different one. How often do we actually get to do that?
Our first stop and this post focused on Beijing. Like most of China it is a fusion of old and new but with Beijing the focus is definitely on the new. I’m not sure whether this is because of the Olympics in 2008 but the amount of skyscrapers and infrastructure is awe inspiring. With a population of around 21 million, no amount of roads stop the inevitable traffic jams and believe me, they are traffic jams to end all traffic jams.
We landed in the morning and presumably because the hotel wasn’t ready for us, we were shipped straight to the Summer Palace. After a 10 hour flight and finding yourself in a group with a load of strangers, a trip around a park isn’t that high on your to-do list and it was a bit of a shame as I didn’t really take in all that the Summer Palace had to offer but what it did do was convince me that I was definitely in China. It is beautiful and if you find yourself in that neck of the woods with time to spare, I would recommend a good mooch about. What is bonkers is Suzhou Market Street, a sort of full size model village with all sorts of shops so the Emperor and his concubines could feel they were walking around in the real world, their court were recruited to play shop keepers and other customers to give it an authentic feel.
The next day, I was more rested and ready to take Beijing on. We found ourselves in the Temple of Heaven Park and this was truly a moving experience. Not because of the Temple which was incredibly impressive and beautiful but because a lot of the elderly residents of Beijing have adopted the park as their social club. They were there in their hundreds doing all sorts of activities that they love to do from mah-jong, to belly dancing to knitting. Life in Beijing is hard with the overcrowding and no-one has any outside space so they take to the parks to spend time in the sunshine. We could learn a lot from this, OK we don’t have the weather but I can’t imagine an elderly person dying of loneliness in this place.
Before we could get caught up in a game of Mahjong we were in the daddy of all public squares, Tiananmen Square which can hold up to a million people. The place is famous to us for the Chinese student facing off a tank but we are warned on the coach that we must not mention this in public and that most of China don’t even know about it. Scary.
Adjacent to this is the Forbidden City. This is what you think of when you think of China and it didn’t disappoint. The entrance is lined with armed guards, woe betide anyone who tries to take a picture of them, and a huge portrait of Chairman Mao.
Inside the austere entrance it is vast. There are some 9000 rooms and square after square. You can only imagine how intimidating it must have been for someone to approach the central Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Emperor hung out. The Emperor even had his own ramp that only his anointed feet were allowed to touch.
The Palace used to be the centre of Beijing with everyone living around to enjoy the trade and employment such a vast complex would provide. Things haven’t changed all that much, there are still tons of markets around the Palace, one such food market sold scorpion, snake, spider and centipede for your culinary pleasure, pick a critter and have it barbequed before your very eyes. Sadly we had a dinner reservation so I couldn’t partake.
Of course no trip to Beijing or even China is complete without a trip to the Great Wall. It’s one of those iconic things that you have to do. We had a big drive to get to it but that was brill because it felt like the first peek at real China. Beijing, like any major city, has a sort of man-made uniformity but getting out into the countryside you really see how a country ticks.
The wall was good and I’m glad I experienced it but, I’m probably going to be controversial here, I would imagine it is more impressive from the air. Once you’ve clambered up the hillside, survived the cable car and done battle with the hoards of tourists to even get on the wall, you’re met with a narrow walk way that stretches for as far as the eye can see both ways. We had a good hour and a half where half an hour would probably have been sufficient. You can only walk through so many guard stations.
Back at Beijing and we got to meet a resident and see her house. I don’t know how I feel about this kind of tourism. Yes its interesting and I understand it is a good source of income for locals but there is a degree of discomfort sitting in someone’s living room and nosing at their things. I’m still toying up whether I want to do this or not when I go to South Africa as there are a couple of township tours that are optional.
So that was our whistlestop tour of Beijing before we packed up and headed off for Xian for another of China’s awe inspiring treasures.
Have you been to Beijing? If so, let me know what you liked or didn’t like in the comments below.