Six months in Asia travel blog

Tianamen Square

The Forbidden Palace

The Lama temple

Ming vase

Hutong door

Temple at the Summer Palace

The Causeway

The Great Wall

Me on the Wall


China is a place of superlatives. It's the most populous country in the world. The Great Wall is the longest man-made structure on Earth. I've met some of the kindest people ever who go out of their way to show you directions and also the rudest when travelling on the metro. It's the most challenging destination so far. Oh, and the cuisine is the most disgusting and unappetising I've ever experienced.

I crossed the border into Shenzhen by metro happily leaving Hong Kong behind. The train station concourse was vast, reminiscent of Communist East Europe. Using a phrase book I ordered some lunch which was surprisingly tasty, but that wasn't to last. I found my train, carriage and seat number. This is more difficult than it sounds when nothing is written in English. I was facing a journey of 24 hours and had only brought snacks, hoping there would be food on board. I was alarmed to see that most people had brought pot noodles with them. I tried to learn the word for restaurant car, but just as I'd memorised it, a trolley came along so I pointed and got something edible.

I slept okay but was happy to reach my destination. However, finding my hotel proved another challenge. It was situated in a hutong, a small lane and nobody seemed to be sure of the address. After walking for 30 minutes I eventually found it, just 100 metres from where the taxi dropped me off. It was a very atmospheric area. The hutongs were laid out in a grid after Genghis Khan sacked Beijing in 1215 and those that have survived the government's attempts to modernise provide a welcome refuge from the huge roads that drive through the rest of the city.

They seem to like building big in China. The roads are huge. Tianamen Square is the world's largest public space. And it's not just recent modern building. The fabulous Forbidden City, the old Imperial Palace, is immense. Sadly, it is overun with tourists mostly locals, who seem to enjoy being herded around in large groups and shouted at by an amplified guide. They're all given coloured hats to wear to keep the groups separate. Security is the heaviest I've encountered. To get into Tianamen Square you have to queue and have all baggage checked.

Another day I visited the new National Museum which is the size of several cathedrals. There's a great gallery charting Chinese history with some beautiful Ming and Qing vases. There's a hall devoted to Chairman Mao and an interesting exhibition of treasures from around the world, objects given by visiting heads of state and diplomats. It's also an opportunity for some propaganda since a notice states that these riches are "a testament to the brilliant success of our country's diplomacy over the past 60 plus years". Amongst the wonderful objets d'art on display are a rather lacklustre silver plate and engraved cigarette case given by Thatcher to Deng Xiaoping when she was negotiating the handover of Hong Kong in 1982.

I spent Saturday out at the Summer Palace, another enormous place, but again swamped with visitors. There is a huge lake and a lovely path that winds across a causeway and is lined with willow trees and peach blossoms that had just come into bloom. On Sunday I caught a bus out of the city to visit the Great Wall and en route met a local guy who said he was going to a very undeveloped un-touristy part and invited me to join him. I'm glad I did. It's one of those serendipitous moments that make travel so worthwhile. You meet someone, change your plans and have a great experience. It was a difficult trek, however, as the wall has not been restored there and you have to climb almost vertical parts and scramble down precipitous slopes. But the views made it all worthwhile. We walked all the way along the wall, up and down, passing through decrepit old guard towers, to Mutianyu, the place I had originally intended to visit, where the wall is very much restored and souvenir sellers are quite determined.

All in all, my stay in Beijing was good despite some cloudy weather and hazy skies caused by pollution. But the biggest problem has been the food. Nobody speaks English. There is rarely a menu in English, and when there is, the translation is appalling and doesn't make anything sound appetising. What to make of, for example, "the elbow spends the sauce incense" or "donkey stewed in soy sauce"? Or on the drinks menu I found "a fair and modest maiden" and "a phrase used to praise a pretty girl". I think they are types of tea, but it sounded a bit silly ordering something like that. Other items like pig faces, sheep spine and bullfrog seem quite prosaic in comparison. On my last night in Beijing I decided to splash out on duck, which is, after all, the city's signature dish. What could go wrong? Well, it was okay, but I've had duck which was just as good from a takeaway in the UK. And cheaper!

One thing I've noted is that there is a huge amount of money being spent on rebuilding and renovating. In Beijing there are huge new shopping centres, not quite as bad as in Hong Kong, but I didn't expect to find all the top designers in town. Clearly, there are a lot of rich people around. It's also not a budget destination. And from the evidence of beggars on the streets, it would seem that the redistribution of wealth also isn't going quite as well as hoped.



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