Beijing’s Disparate Charm

w%%sEQtJTWmAfqYPc6aXbA_thumb_21c7

Beijing has by far the most comprehensive subway system on the planet. You just can’t go wrong on it. Every station has all the stops along that line displayed near the platform and on the train. All the station names and numbers are in English and they are announced in English on the trains. The complete map is posted everywhere. It is also huge! I think I read that this is the busiest subway system in the world. It must be, because sometimes one train is almost shunting the one in front out of the way. Somewhat annoying is the distance between some of the transfers – about a kilometre, so not so good if you are dragging you’re luggage.

But the upshot of this is that it is quite easy to find your way about if you stick to the subway, because Beijing is enormous, covers an extensive area and is a real higgledy piggledy mix of the old, the new and the dreadfully dull.   I was staying in a pleasant enough hostel in the Dongdan district. I only had a week, and if you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll realise I don’t like crowds and clamour. So here is my week.

I visited Longtan Park which is not anything distinctive but a place where locals go to sing, dance and do exercise, and grandparents bring their grandchildren. But it was a good, non crowded place to start. And I found the local activities interesting. The impact over the week of Beijing’s traditional treasures was somewhat affected by the quality of the sky. But the Temple of Heaven was still exceptionally striking even on a hazy day. it was also not very busy as it lies in a very spacious, rather ordinary  park and is probably not so impressive as some other attractions.

Xt9lMNxFQqaxm7VDcKihMw_thumb_2062I was so lucky the day I went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu – the perfect weather and conditions. It was an adventure – the subway to Dongzhimen, and then a 70 minute bus journey up the expressway on the 916. When I got off at Huairou, I was immediately swarmed upon by locals offering lifts to the Wall. I was adamant I was not getting one, but then  a woman offered me a ride in a minibus for 5Y. And I thought, hang on this is actually 50p. As there was a couple of other Europeans we decided to take a chance on safety in numbers. True to her word the woman dropped us right at the entrance to the visitor centre and showed us where to get the cable car ticket . I got the cable car up/toboggan down ticket doe 265Y . Worth every penny and much better value than Capilano suspension bridge which cost about the same. The scenery was breathtaking – but I was not prepared for the actual terrain of the wall. The gradient of the slopes and steps is incredible even on this well maintained section – and the stair risers are about 2 feet high in places. But this is one of this experiences that is truly once in a lifetime, and you can forgive the tacky tea/coffee/water stalls – they are quite tasteful hidden beyond the confines of the actual wall. The same woman gave me lift back to the 916 bus stop – but this time she wasn’t going lower than 10Y – maybe she got wise to my maths.


The Summer Palace is probably next on my list of unrepeatable experiences. Again the sky made a difference – there was a little haze, but it was a warm and sunny day with beautiful lake views, and although there were a lot of tourists, they tend to centre round the Hill of Longevity (which is quite a steep climb). The temple on this mount with its distinctive golden roof tiles reminded me of something from a picture of  Thailand or Malaysia ( since I haven’t been yet). Once I got to Suzhou St and around to the West Causeway there were far fewer people. And not surprising. It’s a big lake and takes about 2 hours to walk round at my pace. But it is very pleasant indeed with all the little bridges and walkways, including the Jade Belt bridge and the Seventeen Arch.

m0k2Fwz5RH2z6CPzm8ExXA_thumb_2162The 798 Artzone, although famed,  was just too big and bewildering for me, I think it was an ‘off’ day. And what do you do in these places if you can’t eat the food and you have no money to spend on art. However, I inadvertently wandered into 751, some kind of disused foundry which you can climb up and explore. This provided the best fun of the day. Reminded me of my childhood days when I used to play on abandoned quarry machinery – not something I would advocate obviously, but in the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t think Health and Safety were high on anyone’s agenda! On the way back from that rusty playground I decided to try and find a second imaginary gluten free cafe. It became a farce, of course, as on the first day when I went looking for the imaginary Marks and Spencer’s that purportedly sold GF  bread (and walked 9 miles).

However, I did discover a very spectacular, shopping centre called Parkview – which at first I thought was a modern art museum. The pictures above should explain why. I didn’t get the artwork but that’s not unusual for left-brained me. But it was worth a quick gander. I mean, coming from the North of England, we have Meadowhall and this is the largest shopping centre in the area. (There is no modern art there, but there are certainly some travesties to observe.)

jxvdN3gLRC+DdqavpjRhSA_thumb_2199I had one weird day visiting the Temple of the Sun Park. Actually there isn’t really a temple as such, but it was a very nice park. Again, one where locals go to have lunch and practise Tai Chi. I spent an hour or two snaking round its beautiful crafted stone and water gardens, and found a couple of nooks where I could practise my Sil Lim Tao.

uTQjeDWCRVqKxcvgArbgBQ_thumb_2164I had quite an enjoyable day wandering round Shichahai, an area reputed for its ”hutongs’, quaint back streets and touristy tack. You know me – I don’t like spending unless its some kind of experience you just could not get anywhere else. Getting there cost me 2Y on the public bus, about 20p. I got off somewhere north of the lake and walked down. The area near the footbridge is the most popular, but once you stray away from there, it’s just like rambling round people’s lives really.

Beijing is really big. I probably didn’t see much of it . I do a lot of wandering, and then when I get back to the hostel, I know I have really experienced something – but it’s not always easy to say what.  It seemed to me a strange mixture of super-modern shopping developments, very moving and obvious poverty, lavish cultural  heritage, political pomp and a kind of desperation to be acceptable to tourists. I found it heavily polluted and dense, but not like the South. That’s my two penn’orth for what it’s worth.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_21bc

 

 

The Orient – but not express!

xUioq7JpSAylL3yJ+k4QTw_thumb_21feI thought I would share my experience of traveling on the overnight train from Beijing to Wudangshan, as I know there are a few articles out there on the subject which might be off-putting, and some rather more matter of fact ones. In any case, the latter turned out to be pretty much accurate. Why was I going to such an obscure place in central China? As an erstwhile practitioner, or should I say ‘dabbler’ in Chinese martial arts, I have had romantic notions of this place for many years. It would have been odd to go to China and not see Wudang Mountain, and yes, I could have got a plane to Shiyan, but what would be the fun in that?

I booked my journey on a soft sleeper many months prior to my trip, through China Highlights. It cost about £70 as opposed to the plane which was over £200. I arrived at Beijing West Station with over an hour and half to spare, and went straight through the ticket gate with ease. This was seeming far too straightforward. I do confess to cheating a bit and picking up my ticket the day before.  The queues for checking tickets were confusing but not very long and, sweeping though the station, I had to find the correct waiting room for the K507. ( you have to go specific waiting areas in China, depending on your route.) There are many waiting rooms, more than a dozen, and of course I couldn’t see the K507 on any of the notice boards . There were hordes of staff present and they directed me to No.3. Now this looked like a bottle neck – and I wasn’t wrong. After chaotically, and with much jostling, getting through the ticket checking, there followed what was probably the worst bit of the trip. The waiting room was so overcrowded,. people were just sitting on their suitcases or lying on the floor. Why I didn’t go to the toilet in the main building still haunts me. I don’t quite know how to say this tactfully, but the waiting area was clearly full of  people of an unrefined nature. There was a disheartening queue for the one toilet, coarse ladies smoking in the washroom, and the state of it was quite shocking to me. A desultory attendant was doing nothing about the smoking and would not watch my massive bags while I negotiated the narrow space. The experience was unpleasant at best, and after I extricated myself, I just found a small place by the wall amongst the heaving masses.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_220cThankfully this crowd thinned out as one of the other trains started to board. And boarding the train was very straightforward – my ticket included the car no and the bed number – and I was relieved to have a top bunk. I’ll explain why in a minute. There was a woman with a small child, a man and a fashion conscious sharing the cabin. I couldn’t see a single Western person anywhere on that train, (probably because they were on a plane), which was just a little intimidating.  The soft sleeper did not live up to my expectations of luxury. And this is where the learning part comes in. Because, to everyone on that carriage, this WAS luxury. So first you have to introduce yourself to your fellow travellers and share some food. I shared my teabags, because my GF sesame coconut crispy rolls and green tea marshmallows were too precious. And to be honest this was an interesting and enlightening intercourse.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2205
winter dates

I had some long liquorice like substance made of hawthorn, some delicious small apple-like fruit (winter dates) and some kind of chewy peanut toffee. The gentleman had sunflower seeds still in the shells which he continued to eat all through the night. The lady with the child wanted me to call her Helen, and had a little English. I thought what a strange name to choose if you’re going to be English. I managed to ascertain that her husband was a headteacher and worked in Xiangyang. I also learned that for many, many families this kind of separation is necessary because of economics, and that families have to live apart. A day’s travel apart. When I became tired form the usual travel stress, and trying to communicate in different languages, I was glad of the top bunk. If you are on the bottom bunk, I guess you have to wait until the top people go to bed as everyone sits on the bottom, socialising. And there is zero space.

F5Taw78QQdmFWSLuzE0y7A_thumb_2208
Helen and Annie – my soft sleeper companions

I retired up to the top bunk after visiting the toilets. There was a western toilet at one end of the car, but somehow this was either locked, or someone had fallen asleep in there. The squat toilet at the other end was also locked. The I had to go on search through the train for a toilet. The toilet situation is not a good one – and the stench is something we are not used to. There is no toilet paper anywhere in China – you are expected to have your own – so stock up and always have some in your bag or pocket. But, you know, we service these things – it’s part of seeing the world.So did I sleep? Well yes actually? There were a few things that disturbed me, attendants shouting the station names, a baby crying in the next room, some disconcerting jolting of the train. And the man cracking the sunflower shells. But really it was just like a moving hostel dorm. I had about 7 and a half hours sleep which is a good part of the trip. My charger didn’t fit the socket well and I had to prop it up with my washbag. Other things to remember are a flask for boiling water as this is the only water you will get on the train. There were various food trolleys coming round occasionally including plenty of fruit, but I read the advice and brought my own.AsL5V4BOR+yIW+7sRhJ1FQ_thumb_21fb

In the morning it seemed that many people must have left the train. The aisles were quiet, there was less smoke, and the toilets were accessible. I sat in the aisle so I could watch the scenery, but many people found me fascinating and wanted a picture taken with me. Funny. So actually the day time part was very comfortable, and passed quickly. My compatriots left me at Xiang yang and I had a couple of hours alone.

The verdict; completely bearable with a few grim moments.

VWljWccFTRier0g6x2Wx+w_thumb_21fc