My first 24 hours in Beijing seemed more like days. Without really having begun our Beijing experience, I felt as if I already knew the city intimately – and I was none too fond of it so far! Having applied for my visa, Jo called me from the hostel and we decided to meet at Tiananmen Square, neither of us wishing to exert ourselves on that first day; the heavy police presence there stood as a reminder of the terrible associations attached to this place. We weren’t able to see Mao’s embalmed corpse, which lies in a large, garish mausoleum slap bang in the middle of the square, because it only opens in the morning – we weren’t too bothered if truth be told. The rest of the day was mostly spent eating and getting used to the area around our hostel.

Our first (proper) full day in Beijing was mostly spent at the summer palace. Rather than an intriguing exploration of the Chinese emperors’ pastime pursuits, the palace was rather an extremely pleasant stroll around the exceedingly well-kept paths that circumnavigate the palace’s lakes, which were littered with pedalos. I have learnt from my time in Guangzhou that China does lake-based parks particularly well. There were largely uninspiring, but perfectly restored temples and palace buildings towards the end of our walk. But they were so overcrowded it was it wouldn’t have been practical to shed any light on their significance, thereby incurring horrendous congestion. We had got to the palace by boat through the zoo (we saw no animals) and various nice-looking parks. We were unfortunate to miss the return boat by a matter of minutes, but it probably saved us time having taken so long in the morning,

On our return to the hostel, taking advantage of the free Wifi, I wrote up my journey to Beijing and at the same time got in a good dose of Test Match Special. That evening we ate at the same street stall at which I had eaten, beleaguered after my hostel-hunt on my first night in Beijing. The woman recognised me instantly, addressing me as ‘teacher’ and a rigorous trial of my Chinese ability was resumed where it had left off that first night. I was glad to have witness this time! The fact I was able to enter into a real conversation in Mandarin showed to me what I had been missing out on from living in a Cantonese-speaking region. If I continue to work at my Chinese, a lot of credit will go to the owners of that food stall who convinced me that I had actually learnt something during my time in China.

The following day on which we visited the great wall was, to my mind, the highlight of our stay in Beijing. Even China’s insistent preference for immaculate restoration over painstaking preservation couldn’t inhibit one’s enjoyment of one of the world’s greatest wonders. We set off early from our hostel in a full mini-van so as to avoid the ever-increasing deluge of traffic. The 1 1/2 hour drive took us to the site, carefully arranged in order to allow maximum exposure to the state-owned souvenir shops – the unofficial drinks sellers dotted all the way along the wall told us that there must also have been an unofficial entrance. Already having paid our entrance to the hostel, we decided we might as well pay full whack for the cable car up and the toboggan ride down. This decision wasn’t really the thrill seekers in us coming to the fore, but a desire to get in as much time as possible on the wall.

The three hours we spent on the wall were shared between panting with exhaustion because of the relentless steps, gawping at the stupendous views, and pinching ourselves at the thought we were standing on the Great Wall of China. On returning to our starting point from trekking up in the shorter portion of the restored wall (having gone a little further beyond the sign saying ‘do not pass’, we saw from a distance a decrepit, but far more beautiful, section of the wall), we parted ways as I kicked on, setting myself the ambitious target of reaching the other end within the allotted time. Getting there within the time wasn’t a problem, getting there and back was another matter. Having reached my target at a brisk pace, I found myself having to run to stand a chance of making it back for lunch in time. I failed miserably, but I did see yet more staggering defiance of nature in the form of masonry.

With much of the day left we decided to hurry to Beijing’s Lama temple (Yonghegong) before closing time only to find that they weren’t admitting any more visitors so close to closing time. Disappointed to have only just missed out, we settled for second prize – the Confucian temple down the road. Like much of what we saw in Beijing there was little in the way of enlightening information for the casual tourist (the Buddhist place wouldn’t let us in!), only a few wives’ tales desperately eking out significance from trees and rocks within the complex. More interesting was the adjoining university. The whole place bore a strong resemblance to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, most probably because they were both based on the original Confucian temple whose name and location escape me.

Famished after a long day, we stumbled upon one of Beijing’s more trendy areas on which we selected a restaurant named ‘Veggie Table’ – I think you know by now what a bug fan I am of good punnery! The food, ambience and service were exquisite, despite the lack of meat.

That evening coincided with Andy Murray’s big moment at Wimbledon. I was delighted to find that Beijing Sport was showing the match. I had read a quote from Greg Rusetski claiming that the winner of the first set would go on to win the match, so I feared the worst when Murray made it through a close opening set. My lack of optimism and desire to sleep forced me to bed just as The Fed levelled things.

There was much to do on our final day in Beijing. Unfortunately, most of it involved tasks that were dull but necessary for the continuation of our journey back from Asia (i.e. picking up visa and tickets, changing money, finding chargers/plug adaptors, etc.). But first on the agenda was far from dull. We decided that early on a weekday was our best chance of seeing the Forbidden City unperturbed by heaving crowds – it turned out there was no such thing. Tour buses pouring out droves of Chinese tour groups had anticipated our arrival at the entrance opposite Tiananmen Square. We were surprised to find that there was practically no queue for buying tickets – an indication of the high proportion of visitors who were with a tour group. Also an indication was the number of people wanting to get a picture of the foreigners, because tour groups to Beijing are more likely to come from areas of China where foreigners are a novelty.

Jo, having been to the Forbidden City once before, remembered well that the English audio tour had been spoken by none other than Sir Roger Moore. So it was to our dismay to find that the audio guide had been replaced by a tacky piece of machinery specifically designed to hurry through tourists as quickly as possible. The audio guide over which we had no control excepting the volume had on it a simple map with LEDs to represent each point at which there was an explanation for us. Each sound bite was triggered merely by our vicinity to its corresponding location within the City. Most often our guide would jump the gun and describe things out of sight, and other times it wouldn’t play at all. The guide’s worst moment was when it starting telling me that I was standing in the Emperor’s personal theatre as I entered the toilet! The Forbidden City was on the while a bit disappointing. I suppose that’s mostly because the expectations were so high. The place was very crowded and the main buildings all had a throng of tourists outside madly waving their cameras and jostling for a view into the dimly lit and almost empty rooms.

For lunch we went to a rather touristy looking place in Beihai Park in the absence of anything else in Beijing’s main tourist area. The staff were only too eager to sit us down on a table overlooking the lake, slapping down an English menu in front of us. The whole thing reeked of ‘rip-off’ and I was almost ready to get up again, but I asked for a Chinese menu with the suspicion they would not be exactly the same. True enough, the menu new menu contained dishes more familiar to me in content and price. Even then one of the waitress did not give up her cause, insisting that the rice dishes we had ordered would not be sufficient. As it turned out they were delicious and just what we needed. If only we didn’t have to go through so many hoops to get what we wanted.

A fitting conclusion to our stay in Beijing and indeed my time in China was a good Peking duck, which we gobbled up greedily under the curious gaze of the restaurant staff who had already put their feet up after a hard day’s work. For those who are curious as to how an authentic Peking differs from a good old Chinese takeaway, it doesn’t. Only in that you have more of it and that your duck is sliced in front of you rather than shredded in a foil contain. The next day we packed our bags and headed to the station to catch our first Trans-Siberian train…


Hasta la visa!

If my arrival in Beijing was troublesome, the next morning was a train wreck of self-loathing, despair and mental torture – normal service resumed at the visa application office! The visa in question was the one for Mongolia, which I needed in time for our train from Beijing only two working days later. I was forced into this tight time schedule by the scarcity of Mongolian consulates in the Guangdong area. There was in fact an embassy in Hong Kong, but I discovered that it only served Hong Kong residents. The Internet, that ever-wavering fount of information, assured me there was a same-day Mongolian visa service in Beijing …not so. I called the embassy the day before to find that the fastest they could manage was a one working day service, which meant entrusting my passport to the embassy over the weekend. It also meant that my decision to allow myself one day to spare proved most prudent!

I decided that I should aim to get to the Mongolian embassy for the start of its opening hours (9-11am). This afforded me little sleep given the night before. I checked and double-checked that I had packed absolutely everything I could possibly need for my visa application. Just before leaving I decided to take advantage of our hostel’s included breakfast. I was slightly delayed because I had to check us in before they’d let me have any breakfast. At last I left for the metro station, whose location I knew well given the previous night’s wanderings. I experienced the horror show that is Beijing’s rush hour. I reached Beijing’s diplomatic quarter, almost a city in its own right, shortly after nine. As I approached the embassy I once again checked by bag for everything I needed. When rummaging for it, it took me a few seconds to realise, to my dismay, that my passport was sitting on the reception desk in our hostel.

Trying not to panic, I immediately reached for my phone and the number of our hostel with the intention of asking Jo to bring my passport to the embassy, allowing me to maintain a place in the queue. Another problem struck: my phone credit had dipped below 10 yuan, forbidding me from making any calls (I had tried to top it up the night before to no avail). Having reached the embassy, I asked in stuttering Mandarin if I could use the phone of the person in front of me in the queue. She obliged, responding to me in English …no reply. Not wanting to ask too much of the helpful person, I left the queue in search of someone else whose phone I could use or a place that sold credit. I found another person with a phone I could use …I was told I got the wrong number and I needed to call a different number. Starting to panic now at the time that I was needlessly losing, I eventually managed to top up my phone …I finally got through and explained my predicament. They told me that Jo wasn’t in her room, which I thought strange considering her firm intention to lie in that morning (I later found this to be false).

With no other option left to me, I made my own way back to the hostel (which I could have done immediately), calculating that I had just about enough time if the metro took the same amount of time as before. On the way back to the station I saw a couple of taxis and, in a moment of insanity, I supposed it might save time to catch a taxi to take me to the door of the hostel, wait for me and bring me straight back. I explained to the driver in Mandarin what I wanted and that I was in a hurry. As the appalling Beijing traffic thickened, it dawned on me how grievously I had underestimated the efficiency of Beijing’s metro system as compared to its roads. With me sitting in the passenger seat, the driver witnessed almost total breakdown as more and more precious time slipped away. Biting my nails and repeatedly checking the time, I realistically contemplated the total disintegration of our meticulously planned trans-Siberian trip. In a fit of desperation I called the embassy to see if there were any hope of getting a visa in time. The Mongolian officer at the other end of the phone was reluctant to speak English, so I did my best to find out what the situation was speaking in Mandarin. To my surprise, he told me that the visa department, contrary to all available information, did not close until 12. Suddenly, the trans-Siberian trip was back on. But the taxi ride took so long that even an additional hour was only just enough. I was the last, or perhaps last but one, person to hand in their visa application, by which time I was emotionally spent.

I picked up the visa the next Monday having gone to a nearby bank to pay for it – straightforwardness is an elusive quality in visa departments the world over, The matter-of-fact nature of the hand-over belied the turmoil that I went through to get to that stage.

Nine Nights, Six Cities

It seems so strange now to think that just over a week ago I spent a restless last night in my bed before saying my farewells to Shimen Experimental Primary School and Shishan. Just like that, the teachers, the children, my apartment, Tick’s bar, English King, Aloft Hotel, moto taxis, the family who ran our noodle restaurant, who were affectionately known to us as ‘the noodles’, in the blink of an eye have all ceased to be a part of my daily life after 8 months. I’ll try to keep in touch with some of the teachers but, apart from that, it’s all history.

It’s been an exhausting few days since then! My first night away was a stopover in a GZ hostel. I won’t quickly forget lugging my extremely cumbersome, 28kg suitcase on the metro to the hostel. That night was an opportunity for Simon and I to see a couple of good friends for a farewell dinner together. Amy, pressed for time on account of her summer job back in Cambridge, alighted her train to Beijing that very evening for some eleventh-hour sightseeing. That last evening, among the best I’ve had in GZ, put the question of a future visit beyond any doubt.

Our flight to Shanghai was early next morning, the people at the hostel incredulous at our decision to shell out £10 between us for a taxi rather than negotiate the metro, burdened as we were. My first experience of a Chinese domestic flight was completely painless, and made all the better by the fact Simon’s parents’ driver, ‘Mazdaman’ (I was rather disappointed to find that he was driving a Volkswagen!), was waiting for us at the other end. I had two nights in Jiaxing, a pleasant city not too far from Shanghai, where Simon’s parents live. There I was was spoilt rotten and it was great! The first evening we had a roast lamb dinner complete with roast potatoes and mint sauce – a million miles away from what I have . Simon’s parents were infinitely hospitable, doing their best to provide the creature comforts I’d been missing in Guangdong.

No time for hanging around, our next stop was Shanghai in anticipation of Simon’s flight back to England. This was an opportunity to get a perspective of Shanghai ten years on from my first visit with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. The city is virtually unrecognisable from its former self, but for the extremely distinctive Pearl T.V. Tower. There, were a couple of moments where a flash of the past came back to me. The next day, I waved goodbye to Simon and my back-breaking case. It’s funny to think I will next see Simon in the UK, having no real association with him outside China. He’s loved his year in China, and will be returning to teach English in GZ.

Now left to my own devices I whizzed round the Shanghai museum before catching my 20-hour endurance test from Shanghai station to Xi’an. Not anticipating such a rush for intercity tickets on a working day, I was unable to obtain a sleeper for this train. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the only foreigner in that train, packed to the rafters. Not only were all the seats and beds taken, but the aisles too! Not even managing to get a seat reservation, I was lucky to have somehow found myself in a seat that was rightfully someone else’s.

My time in Xi’an was brief, but fun. In two days I saw the Terracotta Army, I sampled the culinary delights of Xi’an’s vibrant Muslim quarter, I witnessed a huge and tacky water fountain/light display at the ‘Big Wild Goose Pagoda’, and along the way met many interesting people from around the globe. The obvious highlight was the Terracotta Army, which I did on a tour with twenty other hostellers. We were ably guided by Zha Zha (not sure about pinyin spelling) who provided not altogether intentional humour with her eccentric mannerisms and her direct delivery. The presentation of the army hardly did justice to such an extraordinary recovery from China’s distant past. Visitors were provided almost nothing in the way of background information and the three pits were set among some of the least remarkable buildings you will ever see. Despite this, the awe-inspiring wonder instilled by the grandeur of this frankly barmy undertaking was plenty enough to satisfy me.

My journey to Beijing, from where I am now writing this blog, was a small improvement on the train to Xi’an. And that has a lot to do with the fact it took half the time. The other redeeming feature of this train journey was that it was a high-speed train, allowing a reasonable amount of space for those few of us who weren’t able to get a seat reservation. Just like the first train I found myself trying to communicate in a mixture of English and Chinese with fellow passengers. In the past few days I’ve used far more Chinese than I ever did back in Shishan. This has mostly to do with the fact I have been travelling alone and I have left Guangdong far behind. The latter hours on that train were blighted by a few rowdy men in our carriage. They were quaffing cups of rice wine to the extent that the smell of it drifted through to our hovel at the end of the carriage.

My arrival in Beijing was miserable. After saying goodbye to my travel companion I headed to the taxi rank. The queue was so appallingly long that I didn’t even get to the end before I decided I’d be better off braving the thunderstorm outside the station in search of a taxi. I asked a number of taxi drivers, who didn’t even pretend to disguise their attempts to extort me. Eventually I found a decent taxi driver who put on the meter without me even asking. The map in my guide wasn’t completely clear so I decided not to trouble the taxi driver to find the door when neither of us had a clue. Armed with at least a vague map and the address of my hostel in Pinyin I thought it would be simple enough to find my way from the main street where the taxi dropped me off. This turned out to be a rash assumption. Already around 9:30 by the time our train arrived, I didn’t find our well hidden hostel until around midnight! I expected to find Jo, my travel companion until Moscow in three weeks, at the hostel. But with no Jo in sight and an empty stomach I went in search of food. My Chinese was again put to the test as I was able to acquire a delicious slap-dash meal just around the corner. Jo finally arrived at around 3am, heavily delayed by her flight. Drowsy, but in good spirits, we were finally united and ready to undertake our transsiberian adventure together.

Great North Run

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