Agra town, India

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Beijing - breath of fresh air??

Our opening comment at the Leo Hostel following our admission of taking the slowboat from Korea was 'Oh! so you're the masochistic variety of backpackers, are you???!'
The person uttering that immortal line is an intensely fat man, a yank who looks as if his
usual mode of travel involves limited use of limb and sinew. I'm feeling a warm glow, he screws his cheeks up amazed we haven't flown in from Seoul.
Fucking flashpacker.

The ferry is to some (fatter-walleted) travellers a last resort, or certainly the least sophisticated mode of transport between countries. You can see their logic, for one it takes a bloody long time - 26 hours on an overnighter. I on the other hand, would argue if you're travelling on a tight budget and you have precious time on your side, the boat is prime. Cheap: 120 quid for the 2 of us, fun and very much an experience in itself; the sunset was magical, worth the fare alone.
We were the only western kids on the boat; basically it was us and 300 touring chinese geriatrics. Strangely enough they were visiting Korea to pick up electrical gadgets and beauty products, boxes of the stuff! Customs was great, when we weren't being gassed by the cabbage-tainted farts from the recent lunch service, our ankles were being hacked off with said boxes.(this early run in with the chinese tour group would prove essential primer later on..)
They were fantastic though, very affable. Having no surviving grandparents, I wanted to adopt the job-lot.

Post-boat, my sea-legs took a little too well, my middle ear was swaying on the crest days after our arrival in Beijing.

A quick warning. Be sure to carry some currency with you over the water. There is nowhere, I repeat NOWHERE to change Pound/Dollar Travs Chqs around Incheon on the Korean side or Tang-gu on the Chinese seaboard. Also just to totally fuck you over, no ATMs. This was the second time we were caught with our troos about our ankles and not a single rooble of exchangable currency in our pockets. The result? A long hot walk from the port to the nearest collective of shops and a lucky hustle with a Travellers Cheque. The two trainee concierge were convinced it was a $100 note we were exchanging for Chinese RMB, we bloody legged it before they could make sure.

So to may be wondering about the title of this blog. Well after the cultural/historical vacuum that was South Korea, catching sight of the towering Zhengyang gate outside Tianenman Square sub station was enough to know we'd hit the motherlode. Hellooo China.

Beijing is a great city in which to start your Sino odyssey. We spent the quickest week here during in which we scooted round some of the more famous in-city sights; Tiananmen, Forbidden City and some of the outer-city sites such as a certain Wall.
Unusually for a capital, there's still an awful lot ancient about it. Beijing has (for now!)retained it's traditional hutong. These are the warren-like narrow alleyways which intersect large parts of the city centre. Get lost off any main road and you'd think you had stepped back in time and furthermore into a different city. Here the Beijingers are happy to take the weight off their feet and gab into the night with their neighbours. You will notice men young and old but mainly rotund in my experience..:)exposing their midriffs in the summer swelt, gambling with cards, dominos or wooden tablets on mah jong tables (a flat, baize covered table). The females gather in groups around low stoops or lounge in decrepit deckchairs and chat. Getting off the tourist trail and amongst life in the hutong is one of Beijing's most pleasurable activities, don't let anyone tell you any different!

A couple of days in we hired bikes, again we used our excellent hostel, the Leo but as the awful Melua woman warbles you won't be stuck. We paid three pounds a day and hared round the centre like loons.

We did Tianenmen. Twice. The paranoia hit us the second visit. All of a sudden you'll become wary of sitting too close to strangers just in case they're memorising key words. Endless security checks in and out of the square, a spirit sucking police prescence and a stark joyless atmosphere overrun with reams of flag-following chinese tour groups. It made me first want to scream then run amok chanting 'Mao, the original ring-head' until arrest and tongue-removal. As OTT as this is, I wouldn't give it too much of your time.

If you like markets, I would eagerly recommend the Donghuamen night market just off Wangfujing's main shopping arcade. Operational between the hours of 5pm to 9pm, the 20+ stalls are an 'ooo', 'ahh' and 'erghhh' gallery very much for the tourists, selling off the wall, unusual snackage for those hungry enough. Most likely to hear: "Sir you like penis?". Least likely to hear: "I'll take one for the road". Treats include: Starfish lollipops, bbq'd sheeps penis and a whole pantheon of creepy-crawly kebabs. Scorpion, silkworm, spider and seahorse(!***!)...
Enjoyably spleen-wrenching.

As to the quality of it's air, the Beijing summer is typified by a sweat-inducing suffocating fog. A heinous combination of ever increasing exhaust fume, intensive industrialisation/manufacturing and seasonal humidity its maker. Hot stormy nights follow hot stuffy days. Four out of the seven we stayed we drifted off to a torrent of water beating the hell out of our tin-pan roof.

Beijing fabulouso... HIGHLIGHTS!!!!
HUTONG!! Lose your bearings and your troubles in the city's lively hutong.
With the thinking that two wheels is better than a footful of blisters. Hire bikes and whizz round Beijing's city centre, no pressure to hum along to Monsieur Distel.
Getting to grips with Chinglish menus: 'the international friend partial to the vegetables' roughly translates as sweet and sour pork with veg. Other dishes we encountered were the sinister 'fries the liver' and my fave 'explodes the stomach'.
Avoiding the armies of domestic tour groups around the big sights. I'm convinced the greatest hazard in Beijing and perhaps all of China is getting mown down by their 'take no prisoners' approach to sightseeing!
Donghuamen Night Market - maybe have your tea beforehand...
Go see the Wall - Nuff' said.
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