Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beijing part 3 - The Great Wall

It was my last day in Beijing and I had only one goal in mind - to visit the Great Wall of China. Afterall, that was the main reason that I went and I couldn't leave without seeing it. From Beijing there are 3 sections of the wall that you can travel to. The 2 closest and more popular are Badaling and Mutianyu and then further away was Jinshanling. The jinshanling section is more rugged and is better for the hiker and more adventurous sort and I heard that Mutianyu wasn't as scenic as Badaling, so my decision was made.
There are many companies offering tours to the wall, most of them were expensive and included stops at shopping districts and other attractions that didn't interest me. With the guidance of the people at my hostel I opted to find my own way there. Keep in my mind it was a 2 hour bus ride away but it seemed easy enough to find that bus.
I headed out early in the morning, hopped on the city bus over to the bus station where I was told to get on bus 902. Well, when I got there, there were about 30 buses in the parking lot all with the number 902. After asking a few people I finally found the 902 bus that I needed, got on and sat down. Slowly people started to get on but it wasn't too busy and I thought this will be a nice 2 hour bus ride. We stopped at the next staion and more people got on, and more people and more people until eventually the bus was so crowded that people were practically hanging out the windows. Many of them looked at me strangely as I was the only foreigner on the bus. All I could say was that I was thankful that I had a seat. Eventually we arrived and I disembarked with the other cattle and followed the crowds up to the front gates. I had to walk past all the tacky souvenir stands selling the t-shirts saying I climbed the Great Wall and I couldn't resist buying a memento.

I could see the wall off in the distance and it was exactly how I expected it to look, a crumbling stone wall meandering through the hills for miles into the distance. It was beautiful. I climbed the steps up to the wall (about 1000) until eventually I was standing on it. I couldn't believe that I was there. I started walking and at times it was very steep but I was motivated by all the old people running past me. I stopped often to take pictures, more to catch my breath than anything else. The place was very crowded but not so crowded that you couldn't appreciate where you were. The view were stunning and the weather was perfect. I climbed for about for 2 hours before deciding to head back down and try to find my bus home.

I knew where I had gotten off the bus but I wasn't sure if that was where I got back on. There were many people standing there and andit seemed that there was a continous stream of 902 buses coming but nobody was getting on them. Then I noticed on the side of the buses was a sign with the final destination on and I knew the name of the staion I wanted to go. Eventually a bus came with that station written so I took a breath, climbed on and hoped it was the right bus. I wasn't lucky this time to get a seat and had to stand in the aisle jammed in with half the chinese population. I start looking out the window desperate to see something familar so that I know that I am going in the right direction. Slowly people start getting off at various stops so after about 45 minutes I am able to get a seat. At this point I have seen signs indicating that I am headed back to Beijing so I figure evenn if I don't get to the rights station I will at least be in the city and can find my way home. I didn't need to worry as I arrived back to where I started exhausted but relieved. It had been a great trip to Beijing but I was ready to go back to Korea.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beijing - Part 2

Having arrived at my hostel I was now faced with the dilema of what to do with my time. It was late afternoon, so too early to call it a day, and yet I was exhausted from the early flight and the stress of finding the hostel. However I felt the need to make the most of my time in Beijing so I sucked it up, headed back out the door and walked towards Tiananmen Square. Halfway there I came upon an entrance to a park, Zhongshan Park and decided to spend some time wandering through it. It turned out to be a really beautiful park with some lovely gardens and these giant rock formations. On top of that it wasn't very busy. It was a peaceful and tranquil spot in the midst of a bustling city. At one point I could hear the screams and shrieks of children and as I wandered towards the noise I found myself at a pavillion with kids riding on bumper cars. It was a little strange in the middle of this beautiful park but it reminded me of my childhood at the local fair. I wandered the park for an hour and exited to find myself on the edge of Tiananmen Square. I decided not to enter the square and save it for a day when I was less tired and could appreciate it more. I headed back to the hostel figuring I would spend the evening poring over my lonely planet making plans for the rest of my adventure.

Back at the hostel there were a few other patrons wandering around so I sat at one of the tables, ordered some noodles and started making some plans. Within a few minutes 2 older women sat down with me and we started chatting. It turns out they were 2 sisters who were on a 6 week journey that had taken them to India, China and then Singapore and Australia. We ordered a bottle of wine and sat there late into the evening laughing over stories of our various adventures. By the time we said good night we had made plans to spend the following day together and I went to bed feeling exhausted but happy.
The next morning came early and I woke up excited about the day ahead of me. After a hardy breakfast I headed out the door with Sherry and Carol, headed for the Beijing Zoo to see the Pandas. We decided to take the local bus and I was a little apprehensive about what the buses might be like in China but figured they can't be any worse than the ones in Korea. They actually turned out to be much nicer, the bus was hardly busy and the drivers were very competent and respectful. It was very different from Korea, where you sometimes feel like you are risking your life every time you step aboard. After about 20 minutes we were there and we followed the throngs of people into the zoo. It was holiday in China so everyone with a child had decided that a day in the zoo was in order. My only concern here was to see the pandas and I had no interest in the other animals so we headed straight to the panda pavillion. It was packed with people but we manged to fight our way to the front of the crowds and peer through the glass. It was worth it, they were so adorable. We spent about an hour here, taking pictures and staring at these cuddly creatures.
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We finally decided to head off to our next location - the summer palace. I had been told by many people that this was a must see in Beijing and it definitely is. This was the summer hideout for the those at the Imperial Palace seeking refuge from the summer heat. Located on the shores of Kumming lake it was like a giant park consisting of temples, palaces, gardens and pavillions. Of course today it also consisted of thousands of people but that didn't take away from the beauty of the place. We wandered for hours marvelling at the architecture and the scenery. At one point we climbed high atop a hill to the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, which was about 1,000 steps up but worth it for the views. After a few hours wandering here it was late afternoon and we were all exhausted and felt it was time to head home. We made it back to the hostel, changed our clothes and headed out to the night market in search of food. When we hit the night market we all knew that we would not be eating here as the smell alone was enough to make you vomit. The night market consisted of various stalls selling a variety of snack items like, octopus and scorpions on a stick, bug larvae and giant shishkabob beetles. It all looked yummy. It was fun to wander and look at all these interesting foods, knowing that never in a million years would I eat any of it. After a while here we headed to a normal restaurant and had a lovely meal of duck and rice. Day one was finished and I hit the bed, thoroughly exhausted.

The next morning I woke, ready for another day in Beijing. I headed out alone this time and decided to visit locations closer to the hostel ie. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I hopped on the bus to Tiananmen Square and emerged from it to yet again, giant crowds of people. I made my way through the security checks and stepped out into the square. The square itself had little to see but was still impressive as it was surrounded by 1950 style soviet buildings - communism at it's best. It was an overwhelming feeling to stand in that square and think back to the events of 1989 and the bravery of those people who stood up for democracy. Unfortunatly the crowds here were stifling, which made it difficult to appreciate the significance of where I was standing.

I slowly made my way across the street to the Gate of Heavanly Peace with the giant picture of Mao and into the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was given it's name because it was off limits to commoners and foreigners for over 500 years. It is the site of the Imperial Palace where at one time the Emperors ruled the country. I followed the crowds through the main gate and walked and walked and walked. I kept looking for the ticket booth but somehow missed it. I started following a tour group, went through a turnstile and ended up in the main courtyard. Somehow I had gotten in without buying a ticket. I found out much later that the tickets were rather expensive and the security was fairly tight - you needed to show your passport to buy your ticket. Somehow I bypassed all this and got in for free. The place was huge and the avid enthusiast could spend days exploring it. I did it in 3 hours. It was overwhelming, filled with courtyards and temples and gates. I had rented an audio guide so I was able to hear what the various buildings were used for. It was definitely worth the money to get that. After 3 hours of being transported back into history I exited the Forbidden City and made my way to my next locaton Jingshan park.

Once again this was a small but peacefuly park at the the edge of the Forbidden City. The park sits on a hill which was created from the earth that was excavated to make the moat around the Forbidden City. Legend has it that the park was built to act as a shield for the palace from evil spirits and also as a barrier to the dust storms from the north. In the center of the park was another pavillion with about 1000 steps up to it. I made the climb and was rewarded with fantastic views over the Forbidden City. The park was peaceful break from the crowds and at one point I came upon a group of older people practicing Tai Chi. I left the park feeling refreshed and ready to face the crowds again.

From Jingshan park I headed over to Lake Beihai and Beihai park. This place was mostly filled with picnicers and families. There were people on the lake with rented paddle boats and at one point I even saw 2 men swimming. At this point a kindly old lady approached and in very poor english asked where I was from. I said Canada and she said that she lived in Australia but was from Beijing, then she gave me a big smile and walked away. It was very sweet. I stayed an hour in Beihai park before heading to my final destination - Bouhoa bar street.
This area is a long street that runs along the edge of the lake and contains over 200 bars and restaurants. I had been going all day with very little to eat and thought I might find something here. Most of the places that I passed were either very busy or looked really dodgy. I had been prewarned about the cleanliness of restaurants in China and was reluctant to enter many of them. After another hour of walking I gave up on finding somewhere to eat. I was tired of being constantly harrassed by the rickshaw drivers and I was exhausted so I made my way back to my hostel where I knew the food would be good and there would be someone to talk to. I had a lovely plate of noodles and headed to bed early ready for my next days adventure to the Great Wall.