- Old and new Beijing
- Strolling on the Great Wall of China
- A 2200 years old identity
- The centre of the world
- Positive aspects of a socialist regime
- A 3000 km train ride
- Bamboo rats and yellow cars
- The journey goes on
I am now in Guillin, 2200 km south of Beijing . We took a 28 hour train to get here and are now in a completely different setting than the one we witnessed in the capital Beijing and the Great Wall of China.
Old and new Beijing
Beijing was an interesting experience. It is very different than Shanghai, a city that has lost its Chinese character. Here the ruling of the Communist Party is tangible everywhere. The city does not show off with skyscrapers, but with monumental party buildings which are spread all over the centre. Moreover, Beijing was the capital of several dynasties and as a result many historically important sites can be found in it. However, the vast majority of temples and ancient walls was destroyed after 1949 and replaced with wide highways and new buildings. The structure of the city is quite noteworthy as well. It is built in squares of increasing size with a strict west-east and north-south pattern of roads.
The city has changed a lot apparently since the 2008 Olympic Games, when China invested billions into the modernisation of the city. They built dozens of tube lines, electric buses, cleaned the rivers, got rid of most of the street vendors, made the city greener and generally more sustainable to show to the world what a modern Chinese city might look like.
The last time I wrote to you we had just visited the Forbidden City. This vast square complex hosted the emperors of China for several centuries. It is composed by 2200 different buildings, all within a compound surrounded by a water channel. It is very nice to walk through it, although its dimensions might seem intimidating.
We spend the rest of the day in the very comfy hostel and went out to eat on the streets in one of the many little restaurants. They are usually quite alright, but nothing special. We have our one or two standard dishes that are always quite good, but whenever we tried to take others it didn’t go too well. But its quite cheap, usually 5 euros for 3 people, including rice and maybe a beer. But now we are in the south anyway and it should be different.
Strolling on the Great Wall of China
So on the following day we went to the Great Wall of China. I mean this is a must on any tour to China and exactly because of this chances are high that you end up in a completely congested bit of the wall where you will see more souvenir sellers than bricks. As I have already written many times in previous news, I firmly belief that too many other tourists can destroy the atmosphere and energy of every historical site. For this reason all we wanted was to find a more remote part of the wall and had picked one that the guidebook advertised as well maintained but not that touristy, namely Simatai. Unfortunately this bit of the wall is closed now for restoration and instead we decided to book a tour through our hostel to a supposedly even more remote part of the wall. It was very expensive and it was more touristy than I thought, but still totally worth it.
We went to Jinshanling, which is 3.5 hours northeast of Beijing . They picked us up at 6.20am and along with 30 other tourists we arrived there around 10. As there are not that many nice bits of the wall close to Beijing, the government is trying to expand the accessibility of these sites and even in the fairly untouristy bit the first thing we saw was a cable car to avoid the stairs and souvenir stalls everywhere. We decided to walk instead and once you passed the very well maintained, fairly flat beginning bits it turned into exactly the picture that I had in mind. Rough mountains and this endless 7×7 metre wall, which climbs every peak with stairs up to 70% steep and towers every 200 metres. We were quite alone there and walked along the wall for hours.
The Great Wall was meant to protect the Chinese from the Mongols, who lived in northern territories and were considered nomad savages. The first attempts to build it dates back more than 2000 years but what we consider the Great Wall today was built in the Ming dynasty around 600 years ago. Using thousands and thousands of slaves it was constructed in only 80 years, a wall more than 7000 km long. Using thousands of towers they could transmit messages about movements of the enemy to the capital in a very short time by lighting smoke signals which were passed on from one tower to the other. I mean I have heard about it, but when we went there it was just awesome. Once we had left behind the 30 tourists which came along, we had this incredible monument to ourselves. With the great help of our new best friend “Titty the Tripod” we managed to get the best pics ever.
When you are up there you can imagine why no one managed to conquer this wall for hundreds of years. I mean, imagine a very steep hill with rough, thick vegetation and then on top of these mountains 7 metre tall walls with soldiers who have already set hundreds of canons and bows on your head before you even reach the wall. Incredible. But we did have to walk up and down I would say 1000 steps and my calves are still swearing at me for it.
A 2200 years old identity
At this point it might be necessary to mention some historical facts that I have ignored so far. The reason why the Chinese built the Great Wall is that for many centuries all emperors (and I would say the ruling party as well) have tried to maintain a very tight, centralistic, nationalist order with contempt and hostility towards all foreign people. I find it really amazing that a country the size of the US and with an incredible demographic diversity has managed to maintain its borders and culture for roughly 2200 years. This was done by the first emperor by introducing a common language, customs and currency (which was used until the beginning of the 20th century). Along with the predominant “religion” Confucianism (it is more a code of behaviour as it does not entail any deities), the Chinese have always regarded foreigners as inferior to them. This was also the reason why they did not agree to any colonial agreements with the English and French in the 19th century. The answer by the Europeans: they started flooding China with opium, which in turn created vast addiction and negatively affected productivity. The emperor saw himself forced to stop it by confiscating all opium and burning it, which in turn gave the English an apparent justification to bomb all eastern ports of China for 2 years until they surrendered and handed over certain territories to them (the so-called Opium Wars). But the mentality and attitude didn’t change with this. China is bound together by an ancient history which has shaped this nation state and formed, in my eyes, the perfect grounds for a communist revolution.
Concerning the centralism today, fun fact: China has one time zone, Beijing ’s. This means that if you were to walk across the border in the far west and go to Kazakhstan, the time would be switched back 4.5 hours…
The centre of the world
As I said, Beijing was the centre of the empire and therefore the centre of the world and in the city, the Temple of Heaven and one special round platform in it was considered the centre of the world. We went there. It is the place where the emperors went to sacrifice animals in order to get a good harvest and entertain their gods (which are different from ours, they are more like spirits of nature).
It is a very remarkable compound which is built according to Ying and Yang, so you would have a square compound (squares are a symbol of the earth) and in it they built round temples (circles are the sign of heaven). It looks really pretty as Chinese imperial architecture is very colourful and they didn’t use any nails to build those temples. It is set in a vast park area in which Chinese retired people just go to chill, dance (looks ridiculous), sing, play cards, relax. Moreover, they have the main square, which is a big square with a three layered round platform (the first represents humanity, the second earth and the third heaven). On the last they have a round stone which is the centre of the world. So you would get all these Chinese fighting to get a picture on that stone. Looked really funny and I have to admit that this square had a strong energy, once you went down on the other layers where nobody else went it was a very unique and special place to be.
Positive aspects of a socialist regime
After we got our dose of culture we thought of checking out some of the more residential areas of Beijing and at this point I really have to say that, despite the 1000s of things that I could say now about the style of governing here but I won’t do so due to security reasons (nothing to worry about, it is just safer not to do so from here), the mentality of having a collective good leads to the government spending money on very necessary and unexpected things. Ever since we got to China, everywhere, you can find public toilets. But good ones, every single one, even in a quite remote part of Beijing, was far better than any I have ever seen in Munich or London. All for free, new, well maintained and everywhere. Moreover, all pavements in all cities we have been to have a layer which has another surface than the rest for blind people to be able to walk along these streets. And this is everywhere, even in the smallest streets. I mean these are small things, but I find it interesting, you wouldn’t expect it.
We had our last night in the very nice hostel we found, and at night Raphie and I had everything organised and down at the lobby they connected a stream to the TV for us and at 2 am we watched the most important league game of the year FC Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund downstairs. I won’t further comment what happened that night and I wish no further enquiries on this subject…
A 3000 km train ride
So next day, 28 hour train ride ahead. We thought of getting going 1.5 hours before departure, easy. Well not in Beijing. We pulled off a last minute classic. Took the tube to the stop where we were meant to change into a cab. Everything easy. Then we stood there trying to get a cab, no cab coming, all full, no one stops. After 5 minutes (thank god we didn’t wait any longer) we went to the bus stop, Anne managed to find out which one to take, got in, and it was literally another 10 km with that bus. We got there just in time, so important. I mean, if we missed that train, in China you can’t just take one the next day, and I felt really restricted and down because of Beijing and just wanted to leave it (despite all the nice things, it created a feeling in me that I cannot describe here now but it was not nice and the omnipresent power of the Chinese state in this city did not alleviate my paranoia).
But yeah we got it, and what a train it was. They have 6 different categories, this time we got one of the “worst” categories. Just so nice. Everyone had his own nice bed, with blankets and pillow, nice Chinese ladies underneath who would feed us with sunflower seeds 24/7, nice temperature, enough toilets, just top! I mean once you get used to the constant burping, spitting, snoring (yeah Chinese do NOT consider it impolite to do all these things), it was just the most chilled train ride ever.
To get the real experience, we stocked up ready made soups (there is one brand and one brand only, and everyone eats them), which you fill up with boiling water, wait 5 minutes and have your awesome meal. I think that we slept for at least 18 hours of the train ride, so nice to chill. As you can imagine, we were the main attraction in this train, as I do not think that they usually get white people there. Once this child came up with his mother and spoke the few words he knew in English and when he went back all of the others in the corridor were so proud of him and congratulated him, was really cute.
The train ride was as we expected it, for the first 20 hours the classic Chinese scenario: 6-7 floor soviet buildings and newer 30 floors cube buildings, everywhere. Simply no smaller houses. Then after that, when we woke up, the limestone mountains of Guillin started emerging and ever since we are in very lush, green vegetation characterised by the Li River and the limestone formations it flows through.
Bamboo rats and yellow cars
We booked a hostel on the internet and it is really cool (you get insane discounts on the internet and we pay like 3 euros per night per person which is quite good for China I think). This city is just perfect after Shanghai and Beijing. Small, less traffic, quite green, surrounded by two rivers and with limestone mountains in the middle of the city. It is famous for its weird food. They have restaurants with cages and buckets in front. In there they keep all sorts of fish, crabs, turtles, bamboo rats, different birds, snakes, frogs. Weird stuff. But I don’t think we will do it, because it is quite expensive.
Concerning that, I have to cut it down. During this trip my workload was reduced and I have less money than I thought, so now I have to cut it down. I mean we manage to eat for very little, accommodation is alright, transport is what it is, but even then there is not a lot left over if you want to stay under 15 euros per day. China is more expensive than other countrie in Asia, such as Laos or Nepal.
Today we have just been strolled around the city, along the river, and went to all the sites of the city which unfortunately were all double the price in our guidebook, so we didn’t visit any, and plan on spending that money tonight on food. And yeah, we have a new favourite game which I learned from Cecilia: yellow car. So you slap the person next to you every time you see a yellow car. It is meant for car journeys in Europe, where the amount of yellow cars is not very high. Well here, there are a lot, a looot. But just enough to keep the game funny. And then the discussions unleashed by a slap after the sight of a blatantly golden or orange car…. Good stuff.
The journey goes on
Tomorrow we are heading on to Jangshuo, which is supposed to be a very beautiful small city right at the Li River and surrounded by breath-taking limestone mountains. It is also very very very touristy (the notorious Chinese middle class) but the surroundings should be very cool and laid back. So we are thinking of renting some scooters and just cruise around for a couple of days. To get there the best way is taking a bamboo boat down the river while passing stunning scenery. It does cost 22€ though, and I will have to pass. The guys are doing it, but I will take a bus and meet them there at the hostel. First, it is just too expensive; it is a one and a half day budget just for the ride and second, I have already been on many boats across south East Asia passing amazing limestone formations (Mekong north of Luang Prabang and especially Kong Lor Cave in central Laos), so for me it is ok to skip that.
Tonight we are checking out the night market, but my expectations are too high I think after Laos set the bar for night markets very very very high…
Well guys, I am happy we escaped the most densely populated urban area I have ever been to and reached a place where the colour green is not just a myth, it actually exists!