I woke before YJ, but not before our guest. I sat for a minute before checking my clock, hoping it was before our symphony of alarms would be set off.
“You have many alarms.”
“Yes. Sorry about that.”
“No, problem. I think you need some more.”
At least she took it well.
As we overslept we have no time for breakfast. We packed essentials and hoofed it to the train station, having to pass through Beijing’s blisteringly inept security policy and catch the train. Subway trains in Beijing are incredibly frequent. The 10 or so trains so got in Beijing were either waiting for me at the platform or were there within a minute or two. The stations are clean but retain a nice sense of old fashioned mustiness and gloom. About on a par with the London Tube.
We arrive at the station with 5 minutes to spare, hurrah! After the high fives and back pats with find out that the train is full. Sunken, we line up for the next train, hoping it won’t be 4 hours later. With some luck it is only an hour away at 9:05. We get the tickets, pass through another security check and wait around with half of Beijing. Since we have 50 minutes to spare I decide to grab a coffee from KFC (capitalist pig dog!) and by the time I get back there is a somewhat chaotic queue forming.
“What’s going on? We have 40 minutes before the train goes. Why are we lining up?” I testily ask the other.
“You think I chose this? It’s group mentality. One lined up and the rest followed.”
After pointlessly lining up for 20 minutes they opened the doors to the platform. Perhaps I haven’t explained yet that Beijing is big. On top of being big, it’s long. The buildings are big and long and so are the trains. Not only was our train big and long, but they decided to park it a big, long way away from where the tracks come to an end, rather conveniently by the door. A Good 300 metres from it.
Now, as we went through the door a sort of malady came over the passengers. Out of nowhere and nothing, every single one of them down to a man legged it. Full speed ahead towards the completely empty train full of seats, sans haunches. Now, what is one to do when in Rome? Or Beijing? We shot off. It was the most useless exercise of my life, but I ran. Like the wind I ran. I felt like Ian Charleson in ‘Chariots of Fire’. All we needed was Vangelis in the background and a nice sea view and it would have been a very convincing remake. My coffee went bloody everywhere. We bounded aboard the completely empty train and all sat down, out of puff but very much pleased with ourselves. My wife, who is allergic to exercise was less than pleased.
“This country makes no sense!”
I read that the train was the way to get to The Great Wall: It’s cheaper, infinitely more comfortable and faster. It also a great big paned windows which give you a tremendous and extensive view of the wall up to Badaling, the town in which we would stop. It was a 50/50 guess as to which side would get the goodish views. It may or may not surprise you to learn that we chose the wrong side. Maybe those Chinese had a point in running their socks off.
Once we got our first glimpse of the wall it was hard not to get all excited like a little boy. I mean, it’s the Great Wall of China! That and The Pyramids are the big ones. Every piece of wall I saw, like snakes slithering over dunes, I let out a squeal “WALL! Youngja there’s the wall! Did you see the wall?”
Once we arrived in Badaling we scrambled off the train and made our way up to the entrance. There was the usual tat being sold outside: ties with walls in them, hats in the shape of a wall, the best one I saw was a T-shirt on which a picture of Ronald Regan was printed and under him was written: “Not This One!”. I had to give it up to the Chinese for that.
We got tickets, skipped the use of the cable car and hiked up to the wall. As we were going up Youngja gave me some information about the wall. Then she hit me with the death blow:
“They have reconstructed a lot of the wall because it’s so old. This part was rebuilt quite recently.”
“They rebuild it because it’s unsafe and falling to pieces.”
“So, it’s not old?”
“It’s old but some of it is new.”
“How new?” I eyed here suspiciously.
“I don’t know, maybe twenty years.”
“What!” I was flabbergasted “So this wall I have crossed oceans to visit is twenty years old? The wall that holds my house up is older than that!”
“Don’t be cynical.”
Cynicism aside, it’s an incredible feat of engineering and willpower. Tens of thousands of kilometres long. Built long before Baby Jesus was around and finished long after he was gone. It was built as a fortification against northern enemies, principally Mongolia and Manchu. A fun fact about the Great Wall: although the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty is said to be somewhere between 6000-9000 kilometres (3728-5592 miles), if you were to combine the length of all the fortified walls built over the many Dynasties it would be over 20,00 km, with present knowledge agreeing on 21,296 kilometres (13,232 miles). Another way of measuring that is if you were to travel as the crow flies from Mexico City to Paris, you could still pop up to London and back before you equalled the distance the Great Wall(s) achieve.
Age notwithstanding, I was extremely impressed by it. Seeing these huge walls spread over the whole landscape, and knowing that this isn’t even a fraction of the total was humbling and inspired. Walking on the wall you had a feeling of touching history. For centuries it has stood tall and proud and seen countries born, kingdoms fall and all manner of life come and go. Even the KFC at the entrance didn’t sway my judgement. China being what it is, I’ll always be happy I came because of that wall.
We walked a few miles of the wall then walked back. On the way back I noticed there was a toboggan which slides you down to the bottom. Somewhat out of place I thought, but it looked fun.
After we got back to Beijing YJ went to a Hong Kong fruit bar and I went to a Japanese fast food restaurant. It was just easier. We then hopped off to Tiananmen Square, and passed through a lot of security for the privilege. You’d think a country this heavily secured would make you feel safe, but in reality it’s nonsense. I feel it’s just another way to flex their muscles. You shouldn’t need to have your pockets checked before going to a public park.
Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world, more than half a mile in length, enough to house 60 football fields, and has been the centre of many important events in Chinese history, such as Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China and multiple protest movements. The iconic image of a young man standing in front of a procession of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests remains one of the squares most famous images, even if it isn’t actually on the square but just off it. Now that was a brave fellow. I asked one Chinese girl about this at the hostel and she incredibly seemed apprehensive about talking about it. To live with such a society and have the courage to do such a thing takes a special kind of human being. When we went there it was bustling. We looked round but decided to come back tomorrow and see Mao’s Mausoleum and the Forbidden City which is located opposite the square.
For dinner we thought we’d scrap our budget and get some Peking Duck. With a little help, we found the restaurant we were looking for. It’s an enormous place, 5 floors of duck. While checking the menu I noticed they didn’t let anything go to waste. There was duck brain, duck, heart, duck liver, kidneys and feet. We plumped for half a duck. It was very nice, the skin was extremely fatty but the meat was wonderfully succulent and tender. All in all it came to about 20 pounds for the duck, beer and sides. Won’t be breaking the bank but I think that will be on the high side for food on this trip.
After dinner we decide to get back to the hostel and try and find information about getting the bus to the Mongolian boarder tomorrow, or getting as much information as Chinese internet security will let us. Using the Internet in China can be tricky. Wi-Fi speeds are not setting the world on fire and when you finally do get online you’ll have to do without Google, Gmail, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and scores of others. MacDonald’s yes, Chanel, of course but Facebook? Not on your life. This is ostensibly conducted to censor websites that would possibly corrupt the general populous, which is a wafer thin excuse to implement national censorship. China has by far the largest number of print and we journalists behind bars for ‘anti-patriotic’ statements, also read as ‘Saying what they feel like online or in print.’ There is reportedly over 2 million police officers in China specialising in Internet censorship.
This is what happens when a country has newfound trillions in the bank coupled with a workforce who will work for peanuts. There are workers everywhere: cleaners, guards, security, police. There were 4 workers on a local bus I was on. You don’t need 4 employees on a bus. They take up space. Couldn’t all this newfound wealth be put to better use?
Our roommate had left us for the Swedes so we were alone in our hole. We packed everything for an early exit and went bye bye.