THE ESSENCE OF CHINA: BEIJING, WE ARE READY
It is not until the train from Xi-an grumbled into Beijing West train station that you begin to realise the enormity of the task still facing the Chinese before they host the 2008 Olympics.
It is not the colossal amount of building work still to do. They will sort that out because they can, of course, throw unlimited labour at it. And, the Olympic stadium is almost finished and very impressive as I found out.
It is not even the much discussed vile levels of pollution. The Chinese government is all powerful and can, as it plans to do, simply ban all cars from the city for a month beforehand without anyone batting a eyelid.
Nope, the real challenge is, as I have mentioned before, the people. People who, while capable of being individually charming, are on mass a challenge to every Western sense of decent decorum.
Beijing West is one of the busiest train stations in the world with over half a million people coming through there every day. For some reason, there were only two small gates through which we could exit and, the Chinese being what they are, there was no sense of order with every single soul trying to get through at the same time. We had, by this time, gone quite native and were pushing and shoving along with the best of them. I am not proud to say that, with the help of Big Red, I must have knocked a number of people to the ground as I fought my way to the exit. Otherwise, I would still be there to this day.
The Olympic big wigs will never see this sort of thing of course, but God help any poor ordinary person who comes into Beijing by train. Welcome to China.
Also, god help them if they try, as we did to get a taxi. The local authorities have put in a queuing system to try and bring some order to the chaos but, the locals just seem to ignore it. As we stood patiently waiting for a cab people jumped in front of us, tried to push us to one side or even grab our bags and throw them out of the way.
Again, none of our group would be particularly proud of the fact that we had to become quite aggressive and almost physically move people out of the way until we forced ourselves into a couple of cabs and gave the driver the instructions to get to our hostel.
Ah, the cab drivers, there is the next interesting rub. The Beijing authorities have, apparently, given the local cab drivers lessons in English with nearly 100 basic phrases so they can help visitors for the Olympics. That is all well and good. First they have to persuade the cab drivers to actually do any work. They are, if truth be told, the most pathologically lazy, useless gang of layabouts I have ever encountered. Once you can actually get a cab (usually only by going to a hotel ) trying to persuade them that taking you anywhere is worth their while is painful in the extreme. They feign ignorance of the destination, they gesticulate wildly for you to go away. Oh, and of course, the spit a lot.
In the end, we soon learned, that you have to get in the cab, if and when you are lucky enough to find one, and stay put. Don’t move just keep repeating the destination and show them a map with the name written in Chinese script. Eventually, and we could be talking fifteen minutes later here, they will figure out that it would be easier for them to stop spitting and smoking, do a few minutes work and then get rid of you in exchange for cash.
The Chinese have an official anthem for the Olympics which gathers pop stars from all over the country, Hong Kong and Taiwan who sing optimistically “ We Are Ready” All I can say, on my introduction to Beijing is “ No, You’re Not”
By the time we got to the hostel we were all exhausted and pleased that our rooms were ready and we could freshen up. I was tempted to go for a long sleep, but, instead decided to go for a stroll through the local neighbourhood of our accommodation close by Beijing’s other main train station.
The air was surprisingly clear, primarily because there had been five days of continuous thunderstorms just before our arrival which had served to clear the pollution. But, the heat was still well into the 90o’s and the humidity made sure that I was drenched again about five minutes after leaving the hostel.
Looking for some shade, I dipped down into one of Beijing’s legendary hutongs. These are rabbit warrens of small alleyways and passages where communities were formed around wells (the word derives I am told from the Mongolian for well)
Many of them have disappeared and more still are under threat from the incessant development, but some, like the one near our hostel, now have protected status and give a glimpse into Beijing’s past with their street vendors, store front restaurants and, of course, the noise and the smells.
After an hour or so, I was shattered and headed back to the hotel to do some writing and have a kip before we headed out for our first meal in Beijing, Beijing duck.
Now, this is one of those dishes we have all tried at home in our local Chinese restaurant. The ones I have had in London have been quite good. But, nothing compared to this. There are different levels of restaurant serving this dish in Beijing from the very high end to more family style places.
I was pleased that our first experience of it was at one of the latter. A casual local restaurant where two ducks were soon demolished by our group before we saw the chefs come out to enjoy a soup made out of the remains.
After a relatively early night, we were all up at the crack of dawn to head out to see, well, what else but the Great Wall of China.
Again, I am not going to go into detail about the history, you can look it up. Suffice to say that the notion that it is visible from the moon is total and utter bollocks.
It is well over 6000km long and much of it remains in disrepair from when farmers stole rocks and foundations to build walls over the centuries.
Some sections, primarily Badaling, have been repaired to pristine delight and are, of course, filled with tourists following flag waving guides. It is impossible here to get any sense of what the wall would once have been like.
Fortunately, we had chosen to visit two more remote sections, Jinlangshing and Simitai, some three and a half hours drive from Beijing and, after being dropped off by our driver, we began what turned out to be the best part of five hours hard slog along sections of the wall that were in almost total disrepair.
It was worth it though. There were almost no other people on The Wall apart from elderly old women who popped up every now and again with the offer of “water, Cocoa Cola, Beer” and for big chunks of my time on The Wall I was almost totally alone.
It is one of those all too rare “pinch me” moments and I have to admit having a slightly teary moment when I recalled that my beloved mother always said she wanted to visit. I am glad I did and I did it for her as much as for me.
By the time we reached the end of the journey we were, unsurprisingly, all dead beat and the bus on the journey back to Beijing was filled with the sound of snoring.
A magical day.
That night, I had decided that I had already had quite enough of sitting on beer crates eating noodles and had planned to head to The Peninsular Hotel for a meal and a couple of cocktails. A few of my group decided to join me being equally in need of a bit of pampering.
The food was good, the cocktails were not. But, as I sat there, in a comfy leather chair with a cocktail in one hand and my other deep in a bowl of nuts, I realised that this is my world and there is nothing wrong with it. The more seasoned travellers in my group may have helped me through some of my more troubled moments ( particularly on the boat and the train journeys) and I may now be able to weild a rucksack with the best of them, but here, in the swathe of luxury that was The Peninsular's bar, I was really at home. So there.