After a tiring non stop flight, with little sleep we set off across the great expanse that is Beijing. The sheer number of skyscrapers not even in the city but on the outskirts is incredible. Makes new york seem like lincoln. The place is astonishingly big. We saw a decent amount from the express train until we got onto the underground. Which, take note London, costs 20p for any single journey. However the downside to having 15 million people is its busy. Despite this we got to our hutong area, a hutong is an old part of Beijing, quickly. However due to tiredness struggled to find our hostel. We walked for nearly an hour greeted by the kind noises of people spitting and snorting their noses on the street. A Chinese delicacy. To help greet us was the unbelievably strong bitter wind which ripped into our faces. Hutongs don't have many intersections so it meant one long road at times. When we eventually found our hostel it was closed for refurbishment so we were being moved to the sister one. One very wrong turn later and we got there. We were greeted by friendly staff but our room was bitterly cold. 2 heaters later and it's fine. 6/10 would be 7 in summer.
The next day we explored the nearby attractions. For us this is the largest public place in the world, Tianenmenn Square. It's an amazing area which was surprisingly quiet, as were most of the sights we have seen. A pleasant surprise from a country of 1.4 billion. Compared to India where it's billion people seem to want your attention all the time, China is much quieter. Even the token hawkers ignore you after two no's! T-Sq is an impressive sight, and iconic with its hanging picture of Mao and the gate, however more impressive to me was via a quick cross of the road as we entered the Forbidden City. An incredible space where back in the day entry for non guests of the Emperor was death. Now its just £4.
The large walled palace complex ranges from the big, able to hold 100,000 people, to the small and enclosed. Once again it was virtually empty. Many of these grand areas were quiet and peaceful. It was nice to walk around, however we were never far from the Beijing wind and its relentless blow. From behind the Forbidden City we climbed up the hill of a park. At the top is a Buddhist temple which gave stunning views of the city and especially of the Forbidden City and its classic Chinese swooping roofing.
The next day we explored the incredible park that is home to the Temple of Heaven. It was where the Emperor used to pray for good harvest. Again the sheer tranquillity due to the lack of people, and the spitting that usually follows made this impressive sight all the better. At the other end of the park is the Round Alter which gives you the feeling of everyone worshipping you as you look across you kingdom. It is an amazing area with a real grand feeling about the place. And the lack of spitting and the people that come with it only made this more apparent. There is a slightly amusing section where you see a load of photos of past Presidents and Heads of State who have visited the Temple. The only one most people would know was Regan (which dates it). The others which demanded the same space on the wall were the President of Macedonia, Armenia, Norway. Only the Ayatollah of Iran was remotely recognisable. The park area was also nice with the few people there playing hacky-sack with an enlarged badminton shuttle cock, plus a man with a bird that did tricks. No reason.
FROM THIS POINT ON IN THIS POST, I WROTE IT AND IT DID NOT SAVE - SO EXCUSE ME IF I AM SHORT IN PLACES, OR IF I GO INTO MORE DETAIL TO COVER UP THE FACT!!!
After a gentle ease into things, Vanessa and I decided to take on a real adventure. Due to Harbin being a no goer due to no tickets thanks to Chinese New Year, we set out to find this elusive Longqing Ice Festival just outside Beijing. The hostel ran an expensive tour to it, which we did not really want to pay and we found ourselves after some Internet research up at 6:30 to catch a tourist bus that goes to Longqing Gorge. However this bus did not exist. However after much pointing and finger waving at my Mandarin phrase book we managed to take one tube ride, and then catch three different local buses including one that lasted for an hour and a bit (with the bonus of our first glimpse of the Great Wall) right into the sticks. We went past a decent sized industrial town called Yanqing??? At which point we got on the final bus and was told to get off here, in the middle of nowhere. All that was in front of us was a large empty carpark and one small wall made of ice. We wandered into the car park and went across to the entrance. We still could see no ice at all. After a 10 quid entrance free we entered into one of the strangest, most eery sights I have ever seen. The park was open, but there was literally noone there bar a few members of staff. The Gorge itself next to the park entrance was a breathtaking sight. Its huge expansive river cutting through the Gorge was frozen solid, with some of the largest cracks of ice I have seen. After going further into the park behind a large building we finally saw a few ice and snow sculptures. Next to them was an ice bar, empty, in part of a mini theme park. The park was in full swing with music blasting and all its decorations up. Only thing missing was people. Then we saw a small child playing on an ice slide. Fun, but this was no Harbin. We laughed as this place was clearly not the Harbin substitute we had hoped and all that journey had came to nothing. Do people really want to travel from Beijing for two hours for this?
Then I saw a decorated door at the end of a path with a few ice sculptures mixed in with some paper cartoon animals. We went through, and were blown away. After feeling utterly let down by our great adventure spanning three buses and much pointing, we entered a covered ice zone. Incredible detailed carvings, with neon lights inside lit up. There were many different carvings in terms of theme and size. It was impressive and worth the journey, however the next room blew us away. Inside this "room" was multiple full size buildings and temple each decorated with neon lights inside the structural elements. Some were multiple storeys high and many colours. It was truly epic. This was a mini Harbin.
The whole arena is actually built on the frozen dam, and at the end there was a huge ice formation with cherry blossoms stuck in. Was stunningly beautiful. After this you get to climb up one of the worlds largest escalators, in the shape of a dragon. It goes up the side of the damn and gets you to the very top. We crossed the Dam and went through some tunnels down the cliff face in true James Bond style. After avoiding detection from the enemy we left the area and went back to Beijing happy in our adventure.
Upon arrival we decided to check out the Olympic Stadium aka the Birds Nest. Even upon approach on the freeway you can just tell that it makes a mockery of the embarrassment that London 2012 will be. The stadium is unbelievable close up too. As you walk around the spirally cage, you see all sorts of memorabilia to do with the Olympics like the drums from the opening ceremony. They were holding a kids Snow Festival there which looked fun. Pushing someone in a chair on ice skates inside the greatest Olympic Stadium ever built anyone? Being an Olympic venue only certain food outlets are allowed to be there, so this means hitting up the Arches. Big Mac fans will be pleased to know that with a normal meal you get large fries and five Chicken Nuggets for free! Trust me you dont need the Nuggets! The Arches were next to the impressive swimming pool which looks like a load of bubbles. We couldnt go in but its warm glow looked superb as the sun went down.
Today we took an arranged tour with our hostel to The Great Wall of Badaling. But unlike the area where 99.9% of tours go, we went to a place called The Secret Wall. It is technically in the Badaling area, but it is hidden down a dirt track. By pure chance we were the only people on the tour, so the only people we saw all day were two random Chinese tourists out for a walk. The area of the wall was varied, starting in an area that has been rebuilt a bit to areas that have never been touched. The views as you see the Wall snake across the mountains is truly spectacular. You get a real feel for the technical accomplishment, followed by coarse icy last of wind in the face. Thanks to no fewer than five thermal layers we were warm-ish, but our faces took a beating from the wind at times. At a much needed stop for water after a particularly steep climb the short period of time the bottom was out in the open, ice had started to from around the lid and in the bottom of the every emptying bottle. the outside of my snood even had a few icicles. We walked across four of the towers, with the final one half broken and leading up a steep hill of broken rubble more than wall. The valley views were incredible and every view of the wall following the impossibly steep hills was amazing to see, with not a Mongel in sight. However I feel the need to quote Karl Pilkington. "Dont call it The Great Wall, let me decide that. Call it the Alright Wall of China, let you decide if it is great or not." Sure it is large and covers across a great deal of the country, but so does the A46. At least that has a use. The Great Wall was a failure for protecting China. However it is technically superb achievement although at huge cost.
The Wall was my third Wonder. It is seriously impressive dont get me wrong but it doesn't grab you the way the Taj or the Pyramids do. Its more of an achievement of man over the landscape. The Very Impressive Wall of China it is then. By the way those who know, my red t-shirt did make it for one pic. It has been to all 3 official wonders, and Angkor Wat.
The next few days we will be leaving Beijing after seeing the Summer Palace, if the Chinese New Year train timetable lets us, and we will be going to the Ancient capital of Xian and its Terracotta Warriors. Cannot wait.