Beijing’s Disparate Charm

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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.

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Bowen’s Primordial Paradise

fullsizeoutput_277The wildfire smoke has been problematic over the last few days – eaking eastwards with the stagnant weather. It has cast a moody and somewhat grainy aspect to the landscape both urban and rural, with islands, high-rises and mountains alternately looming and disappearing into the haze. Bowen Island has not escaped and the bus ride to Horseshoe Bay got steadily more grey. I guess it might look somewhat tropical under a clear blue fullsizeoutput_274summer sky, but as it was today it could be something out of Lost. A grey blue triplet of peaks encompassing the harbour. After waiting for 50 minutes for the 257 Express, and having to stand all the way, the ferry over was a breath of fresh air – but not literally because there are an inordinate amount of particulates in it at the moment. But it was lovely to be sea-borne – there’s nothing like it.

fullsizeoutput_27cSnug Cove, the harbour area,  despite having a slight connotations of a Pirate theme park to it, was very welcoming and I had to try hard to resist all the little sea-side bistros and cafes (but not the market stall with the gluten free muffin, though) and to push on into the island depths. I had a late start so knew I wouldn’t be able to it all, but a coffee was a good start. I headed out to or should I say up – this is very hilly place and I was glad of it – to Artisan Square, a chocolate box cluster of art outlets and a restaurant. But it took 4 minutes to look round and 30 mins to consume a coffee under a shady tree and study a map.

I decided that the Killarney lake expedition would be the most doable with a return ferry in mind and it being a Sunday. I began walking up the Main Road ( think Wrong Turn or Insomnia) which has no traffic. Ironically Bowen Island has signposted legal ‘Lift” stops where you can hitch a lift. I wouldn’t hold your breath though – not on a Sunday anyhow. Quite suddenly as you round a bend after a couple of km, you meet the picnic area of the lake. Its breathtaking – and there begins the prehistoric adventure. The trail hugs the lake at first with pretty little accessible beaches and an abundance of different dragonflies. Trying to snap dragonflies is always a trial but I could not get over the exquisite beauty of these eight spotted skimmers and was disappointed I could not get one under the macro. They were too damn quick. The trail then becomes a little more rooty and natural fullsizeoutput_275until you reach the boardwalk which takes you right out into the swamp. You are transported into ta strange carboniferous desolation and primordial luxuriance if I can hyperbolise. It is just silent and beautiful. The trail then rises well up above the lake and becomes quite technical until you drop down again to meet the Killarney Creek main path that heads back to the harbour. There were not many people on this trail unlike Ladybower back home. Everything was older, bigger and more natural.

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I took a detour to Angel Falls which was more like Angel Fails unfortunately as it was dry as a bone, but the trip down past the lagoon and Deep Bay was worth another leg.  I had walked about 8 miles in all and was glad to get back to Snug Cove and it’s quaintness. This island has a population of just about 3000 and it seems like it might be a perfect place to live, picturesque, clean, unspoilt –  if you like that Stepford kind of vibe. I may go back to see more – it’s lovely.

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Hamilton – you surprised me 

Imagine having stayed in Sheffield for a bit, and then you decide to have three days in Rotherham before you go home . Well I really did feel like that was happening to me. The bus journey from Toronto was unremarkable but whizzing through the town centre I thought it looked promising. That bit disappeared when I boarded the local bus and disembarked in a distinctively dodgy area. After walking a couple of blocks past piles of rubbish bags stinking on the heat, broken down verandas and myriad auto body repairs, I found the Hamilton Guest House. I thought –  I’m staying here?  It smelt when I went in – the sort of smell a house gets when an old person has been living there a while with no help.

But the building was quirky, the staff were nice – but oh did it need a good clean. But in a way,  it was a third of the cost of the HI Toronto hostel and you pay for what you get.  So I’d seen an open mic on th Internet at a place called Zyla’s. It looked not far – so I thought I’d do my intial walkabout thing to check it out.  I walked down Cannon – thinking I’d come to the back end of nowhere . But then I hit James St. It was like walking through some kind of a portal. Suddenly there were bistros, coffee shops and all things I like. Zyla’s was open at 6. I turned back on to Barton and here we were again in Rotherham . Weird. 

I went back for the guitar and a cuppa in the very scary kitchen and off I headed. Well what a night!  I played a full set and how quickly Zyla’s went from demure ladies’ birthday dinner to a really lively buzzing music bar with everybody spilling onto the street in the nicest possible way. A full four piece funk band – Monkley Cascade were a tip-top professional outfit and in such a small venue were less noisy that some guys with acoustics at open mic night!

Had to do a bit of bridgespotting before I left, and the next day I took the number 1 bus towards Burlington to see the Thomas McQuesten. It felt great jumping a fence to access the now closed staircase that goes underneath it. Some fine old ironworks on this Scottish design steel arch. And later I hopped on the number 2 and 11 to get to the Beach Boulevard area to photograph the Skyway though arch build. Got footage of the canal bridge going up and down – superb!  Click here

And then there was the beach. A  strange Costa del Hamilton – folks bringing their own little ecosystems of music and bars – not a destination for the affluent. But a thin sliver of really soft forgiving sand and the warmest of water adjunct to the cycle path. Very pleasant when you find a spot of your own.

Despite the strange lack of suitable accommodation for backpackers – I’d go again.