Train to China. Chinese train to China, to be precise. Which means spitting bowls are distributed as soon as we board the train. Thank Heaven I have Americans and a Brit in my compartment, but there is some military personnel next door, and I can assure you that I have never heard anything nearly as disgusting as the sounds coming from that compartment. Welcome to China. The ride is otherwise uninteresting, except for gauge changing at the border and the fact that the train is full of Czechs.
Arrival to Beijing at lunchtime. I forgot to download the VPN, therefore nothing seems to be working. I don’t actually care about Facebook, but I have no access to my Gmail, where I have all the flight and train confirmations. Oh well. Usual exercise: withdraw money, get local SIM. This is not going to be an easy month: no one speaks any bloody English (in the capital, imagine elsewhere). Oh, I am sure they all have top grades in English, as they probably learn the entire Merriam-Webster by heart, but they are not able to put the words into actual meaningful sentences. I think it comes down to the character of their language. They don’t create words, unless they know the ideogram (by heart, of course), they are unable to read the word. They memorize everything since they are little, and in my opinion, this is the reason why they are so good in copying basically anything, as opposed to actually coming up with something out of their own initiative, having any kind of imagination or esprit. Or being able to actively speak a foreign language. Plus, the People’s Government is probably quite happy to keep the People ignorant and unable to read western media. (There are exceptions, of course. And I may be wrong about the language, of course. I don’t think I am though).
I dislike Beijing instantly. It’s all bright and shiny, big, opulent. Everything is brand new. Everything. The hutongs, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City… there is not a single brick left with any historical value. Imagine tearing down the roman Colosseum and rebuilding it from scratch as it used to be 2000 years ago. A massive Disneyland. London’s Chinatown is probably more historical than anything in Beijing. And there are too many too rude people. And it’s boiling hot.
I manage a visit to the Temple of Heaven, which makes me feel like I’ve had my share of chinese sightseeing for the lifetime, then walk through the hutongs (which is more fun) and have dinner in a lovely Taiwanese restaurant (gloria in eccelsis Deo, they have an english menu), which would make a good impression in Shoreditch. It’s meant as a compliment. Actually, to be fair, London’s chinese food is pretty authentic, even the Sichuan restaurants in London were not different (or milder) to the local food in Chengdu.
I force myself to do some more sightseeing. The choice falls on Lama temple. Now, every temple I have so far seen has a largest-something Buddha. This one houses the largest sandalwood statue in the world. It actually is rather impressive, as is the whole temple complex. It is not too crowded and the air is fragrant of incense burning everywhere, which is a welcome alternative to the usual smelly smog.
Lunch: I walk into a random place, and they give me the menu in mandarin. No photos. I start laughing, and i gesture that I will eat anything. At least that is what I think I gesture, not necessarily what the gentleman understands. However, I get a bowl of noodles with something that tastes like chicken, so it goes well. Some more sightseeing: Drum Tower and Bell Tower, that were for centuries used to announce standard Beijing time. Drum at dusk, bell at dawn (or vice-versa, I don’t remember, google it. I cannot, because of the Great Firewall of China). There is also an interesting museum about development of measurement of time. I spend the rest of the afternoon walking through the winding streets of the old (-looking) town (hutongs), and then relax at a random teahouse by the lake, which is probably the most enjoyable part of the entire stay in the capital.
Wake up at 6.00 am, and half an hour later I am picked up from the lobby to go on a day trip towards an unrestored bit of the Great Wall of China. Advice: don’t go to Badaling (unless you enjoy packed places), and if you must, Mutyanyu is preferable, but if you have time, go see the quieter parts of the wall. Remember: if there is no cable way to the wall, chances are the place will be completely deserted.
Anyway, I opt for a hiking trip that starts from Gubei Water Town, and under normal circumstances would be a walk from A to B, but there had been a landslide or something, so part of the wall is being restored (more likely rebuilt), therefore the hike is over 10 watch-towers and back. We have an “english speaking” guide. His knowledge of english goes as far as knowing the Wikipedia article by heart, and he has an annoying habit of saying “this” instead of “the” and adding a “ha!” to the end of every sentence. He sounds like a chinese imitation of a rapper. “This wall – HA! – was built by this emperor – HA! – to protect this empire of China – HA! – from these foreign invaders HA!”. Time to plug my headphones.
Gubeikou is 3 hours drive away, and when we arrive, it’s pouring rain. The town is thoroughly fake. If you expect some kind of chinese Venice, think again. The guide, I believe his English name of choice is Ron, tries to force us to use “this” cableway (it is accessible from towers 6 and 8, which is the only bit where you meet some other people), because apparently something (we are not quite sure what) is dangerous. Now, everything in China is somewhat dangerous, according to the guides. Just ignore them. Yes, the hike is steepish, and it’s raining, but if you wear sensible shoes (unlike some local ladies in needle heels), you’ll be fine. The weather makes the hike more pleasant compared to the Beijing heat, and the mist rising from the valleys offers exquisite vistas. I feel like a celebrity (or a freak), because people continuously ask me to take pictures with them. The only problem is that we are all soaked and the driver doesn’t turn off the aircon, so I get myself a spectacular cold.
I have half a plan to wake up early-ish and go to the Forbidden City when it opens, but I end up skipping it entirely. You may think it’s a sacrilege to be in Beijing and not pay a visit to the Forbidden City, but I just cannot force myself to face 80.000 chinese (that the daily cap on sold tickets) in a palace that has been built a few years ago. I spent an hour sitting on Tien An Men square watching people, then walk a little through the old town and have my lunch in peace (this time they have a picture menu, so for a change I know what I’m ordering).
Afternoon bullet train to Xi’an. It’s modern and comfortable and very european-like. In fact, it’s very probably an exact copy of some european model. They are showing some documentary in loop (unfortunately subtitled in english, so I end up seeing it like 6 times during the 5 hour journey), about some geology professor, who dies because he is so dedicated to his service to the People, that he postpones his cancer check-up until it’s too late. The weird thing is that they present it as an example to follow, instead of a warning.
Xi’an – I don’t know why, but I like the city almost instantly. I arrive to my hostel quite late, and ask where I can still eat (it’s about 11pm). They send me to a place around the corner, where we agreed by gestures – my mandarin vocabulary consists of “hello”, “thank you” and “tsingtao” – that it still is possible to have dinner. The guy brings me a bowl (for soup) with two pieces of flat bread inside and nothing else, and he keeps saying something, which I have no clue what may be. At the end he takes the bowl away and brings it back full of noodle soup with the bread torn into little pieces (which is I guess what he was trying to tell me before). I suppose it was an attempt of maintaining hygienic standards, but looking around, him touching my bread is the last of my concerns. Plus the soup is so spicy that I am probably safe.