So I had one of the best weekends I’ve ever had.
Saturday morning saw us all stumbling out of bed, bleary-eyed at 7am, in time to catch the coach to Mount Tai in the morning as part of our ongoing ‘cultural education’. As ever, we set off about an hour or so after the designated “assemble time” given to us, what with people forgetting their passports and needing a wee and other less discernible reasons. Eventually we set off and arrived at the mountain about two hours later, all raring to go, mostly for the want of getting off the bus. Much faffing and another bus up to the starting point later, we began the trek – or at least some of us did; some people chose to take the cable car (filthy cheaters). Admittedly it was less of a mountain, more a gigantic staircase, but there was still challenge in it – there was definitely skill involved in avoiding the hundreds of elderly Chinese walkers if nothing else. It took us just under an hour and a half with a few short breaks to make it to the top and lunch. The most difficult part of the whole trip was finding the place we were supposed to be having lunch – we were met at the top by one of the organisers, but his only instructions were “up there”, and “up there” went on for about a mile with hotels every few feet.
We made it in the end anyhow, and had the most welcome beer of the trip so far (and it was actually chilled! There is a tragic shortage of cold beer in China). After stuffing out faces in a most impolite manner (it was an all-you-can-eat buffet, what do you expect?), those of us who were due to catch trains that evening to Shanghai or Beijing hotfooted it back to the meeting place so we could get on the earlier bus back to the campus – though as usual out promptness went unrewarded because we had to wait for others (ahem, Keir), and were guideless for a good while so kept walking in a purposeful manner towards what we thought were the right places for our descent, only to be told we were going the wrong way and having to be told to retrace our steps.
To cut a very long story short, the so-called “half past two bus” actually ended up being a “going on 4 o clock bus”, resulting in a great deal of stress for the people who were having to catch trains imminently after we got back. Holly, Keir and I were booked onto the 7.37 to Beijing, so did have a schedule to keep, but were nowhere near as concerned as the Shanghai group, whose trains were at 10 and 20 past. Louise (who I was sitting next to) announced to the bus just before we pulled up that people who weren’t on their train should remain seated because she was planning on running straight out to collect her stuff (and she was as good as her word).
To the best of my knowledge, all desired trains were caught with no mishaps, though varying degrees of stress. The three of us in my group were relatively relaxed, arriving at the train station with enough time to spare for Keir to get his regulation McFlurry before boarding the train.
Trains in China are possibly one of my favourite things about travelling in the country: they’re spacious, relatively comfortable, super-duper fast – it feels more like you’re boarding a flight than a train. It was an easy hour and a half journey to Beijing, and we even managed to navigate the metro with relative ease. Stories and pictures of hundreds of people cramming themselves into each carriage, noses squashed up against the glass, elbows in faces, all seemed to be a bit of a myth – at least for that particular time of day.
I’d printed out the hostel directions so we knew where to go, and on arriving at the street it was on we knew we’d made the right choice. The hunting district of Beijing is everything you want from China: streets lined with market stalls selling tat, clothes, jewellery, pretty trinkets, anything you could want, and backing onto shops filled with more delightful temptations. By the time we reached the hostel itself, which was some way down the street, we were laden down with bags full of scarves, postcards, notebooks – and Keir also for some reason bought a crocheted rose for 50p, a decision which he did later question.
The hostel itself was wicked too – quite apart from being near enough as clean as the university hotel we’ve been staying in for the program, there was a common room just as you walked in with a fridge full of beer just next to it, and the walls were covered in the graffiti of hundreds of travellers who had passed through, documenting their time there. It was a really cool place, and a shame we were only staying there the one night. If (when) I go back to Beijing I’ll definitely go back to Beijing Downtown Backpackers.
By the time we got there and got sorted out it was past 1am, so we decided to go to bed and catch a few hours sleep before our early start to the Great Wall the next day. 6am dawned far too quickly and it was a struggle to get out of bed, but we managed a relatively swift turnaround, interrupted with a quick altercation with a dreadlocked roommate of ours who seemed really excessively keen to shower at the crack of dawn when Keir was busy sorting out his hair (I think alcohol may have been involved). We hit the streets of Beijing by half 6, and made our way to the bus stop, having decided the bus option was superior to the crowded trains. After about a minute’s wait for the number 5 bus, we rashly decided that it would be quicker to walk to the main bus station – it didn’t look very far on the map. In fairness, it wasn’t very far, but after being passed by about six number 5 buses in quick succession, we were more than a little bit disgruntled.
Catching the 877 to the Badaling section of the wall turned out to be surprisingly easy – we somehow managed to rock up and be ushered straight into.a bus, despite the sizeable queue of Chinese people lined up alongside it (you can never tell whether things like this happen just because you’re western, or whether it’s just a coincidence). We filled the last three seats, and I was sat next to a very well meaning but excessively chatty elderly Chinese man, who took it upon himself as we approached the wall, to try and explain to me the significance of the places we were passing. At least that’s what I think he was doing: he didn’t speak any English.
Awkward bus passengers aside, we made it with no real hassle, and before we knew it there we were climbing the actual Great Wall of China. I’ve heard people say “oh it’s just a wall” when talking about their experience of it, but I’d have to disagree. In the same way as Machu Picchu, it is just so impressive to think how those people built something on such a massive scale so many years ago. We had a brilliant time there, wandering along the wall and having our photo taken with whoever wished it (i.e. at least one person every twenty feet). However I’d have to say that one of my favourite parts of it was the descent: on our way back down we decided walking it wasn’t enough fun, so we made a beeline for the “sliding cars”. Essentially what the wonderful people of China have done is build a very very slow roller coaster to taxi people down from the heights of its Great Wall. I think it’s brilliant, though had it been faster it would have made the experience even more entertaining.
Great Wall done, we browsed the tacky tourist stalls and bought some cheap chopsticks and purses and bits and bobs (I bought a hat with a panda face on, look out for that on the next night out in Durham) and then made our way back to the bus and Central Beijing.
There was a bit of a lull in the trip at this point, lunch was beckoning and we had to get cash out and logistics were just bogging us down, but the mood was soon rescued by a trip to a Chinese bakery where Holly and I bought baguettes and we all consumed various pastries, a cashpoint was located, and we headed for the temple of heaven park, whose peaceful atmosphere was just what we needed. We chilled out there for a little while, munched on our baked goods and watched people do tai chi, wandered around and saw people dancing and singing and playing instruments ( did I mention that I love china?) before heading out to try and did a market. We ended up going to Hong Quiao pearl market, as it was just opposite the park, and had a wonderful time buying crap and haggling with (aka probably still getting ripped off by) the stall owners. After we’d had our fill of shopping (during which time Holly and I had a rather unpleasant run-in with a very angry lady who seemed personally affronted by the fact that we wouldn’t pay £75 for her ‘I heart BJ’ tshirts), we headed out to try and find a place to have dinner.
Usually I’m not one for adhering to what guidebooks say, but in this situation the one that Holly had brought was invaluable: we found an incredible Peking duck restaurant in a mall and ate for a mere £6 each – total bargain for one of the best meals I’ve had here!
We managed to allow ourselves plenty of time to catch the train (be proud mum) and and had a rather relaxed trip home, making it back to campus for about half ten. All in all, a very successful weekend – especially compared to to those people who got stuck in Shanghai because they missed their train (though it sounds like they had a great time regardless of mishaps).
If (when) I come back to China, I’ll definitely be spending a bit more time getting to know Beijing. Great city, great vibes, great weekend.