Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beijing and the Great Wall

Let us start by saying, we were spoiled in Japan. There was no culture shock whatsoever in Japan, but Beijing is definitely giving us a new experience. Cars have the right of way, everyone horks on the street everywhere, stores sweep their garbage onto the street, and its every man for himself. And we're now constantly solicited at the tourist destinations. Also, the tourist destinations themselves are not maintained very well.

That being said, we've still managed to experience Beijing to the fullest and are reasonably satisfied. Our first morning, we woke to a guy playing guitar and harmonica while tapping his foot on a tambourine. He was being filmed by CityTV who were doing a story on traditional hostels. The musician was a guest from England. We were interviewed while having breakfast, so we might end up on Beijing TV! How exciting. :) Continuing on with our day, we tested out the subway system by taking it to Tiananmen Square. The subway was packed to the gills, but we managed to shove on. Tiananmen Square is huge. Lots of tour groups and solicitors. Then we carried onto the grounds of the Forbidden City, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace where the huge picture of Mao is hung. We left the Palace Museum for later and carried on around the Palace Moat, past Beihei Park, and back to our hostel.

Saturday was a definitely highlight. The hostel arranged a driver for us and 5 others to take a minivan up to the Great Wall of China! Four of us were dropped off Jinshanling section of the wall while the other three carried on to Simatai. Dan and Es (from England) and us hiked the 10km from Jinshanling to Simatai. Fantastic! This stretch of the wall was not very touristy and it was a beautiful day. We took lots of amazing pictures. Breathtaking (figuratively and literally) the whole way. Quite an arduous hike as the wall scaled up and down along the mountain ridge. Incredible. We had a great time. Definitely worth the 3-hour drive. We managed to hike the whole 10km in about 3 and a half hours, which was meant to take 4, and we even had a nice stop for lunch. :)

We took it easy the next day, only visiting Beihei Park and the Lama Temple. Beihei Park has a nice lake to walk around, with many interesting attractions such as the Nine Dragon Screen and Round City along the way. The highlight is the White Dagoba on the hilltop of the Jade Islet, with a temple at the bottom and many stairs to walk up. It yielded a decent view from the top. Then we carried on by bus to the Lama Temple, Beijing's most colourful temple, and the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. There were many nice buildings, one housed the world's largest sandlewood statue: a 55ft high Maitreya Buddha! It was huge! That evening, we attended an acrobatics show. Children of all ages did some pretty crazy stuff! Balancing acts, bicycle acts, tight-wire acts, etc. Very entertaining.

We got up early the next morning and headed down to the Temple of Heaven. We entered from the south of the park, walked over the Round Altar, around the Imperial Vault of Heaven with its surrounding Echo Wall, and up to the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Definitely a recognizable symbol of China. Then we carried on exiting at the north of the park and heading to the Forbidden City. This time, entering the Palace Museum. Unfortunately, main Hall of Supreme Harmony had scaffolding all over it and was closed to the public. We carried on past many of the halls, looking into what was inside. All not very well maintained. Dirty and in disrepair. And hords of people everywhere. Not the most enjoyable experience, but at least we can say we've been... We returned to the hostel and then Jason carried on to check out the CRTV Tower. It is the 6th tallest tower in the world at 405m (1329ft). No glass elevator, but it had a decent outdoor view from the skydeck. The city was hazy and the sun was setting. Jason hurried back to the hostel in time for us to head out to see the Chinese Opera! Quite an interesting and unique show. Lots of face makeup, crazy music, and fun acrobatics.

We got up early again this morning to take the bus an hour and 15 minutes to the Summer Palace grounds. The grounds contain a large lake and many halls and temples. We first walked down to the 17-Arch Bridge and Dragon King Temple. Then walked up around the lake, down the Long Corridor the Cloud Dispelling Hall at the base of the main Palace. We didn't have time to hike all they way up, so we doubled back and caught the bus back to our hostel in time to check out at noon. Then we took the bus to the main train station and took the train to Tianjin. The bus to hour hostel took almost an hour but we made it okay. Seems clean and nice. It only just re-opened though, so some services such as wireless internet are still missing... We're here for a couple of days before carrying on south.


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