The light snowfall and minus -5°C weather of Beijing felt like summer on the beach compared to whence we came. Most of the tour group Andy and I had been travelling with caught flights back home immediately, but Chas stayed on another day to visit the Forbidden City with us – a palace in the heart of Beijing. The ‘forbidden’ part of the name is misleading, referring to a time where no one could enter the palace without the emperor’s permission. Presumably, somewhere along the way the emperor decided that the place should be unrelentingly packed full of people as frequently as possible. Comprising of nearly a thousand rooms, the ‘city’ part of the name is quite accurate though. We decided to stop short at about a hundred or so rooms to grab some food.
For those of you who don’t already know, Chinese food is wildly different to what we call Chinese food in the West. I found this out when I ordered a ‘chicken noodle’ dish feeling I’d made a safe choice. ‘Bone and skin in spicy water’ would have been a more appropriate name for the meal. I don’t really eat chicken anymore.
Another prevailing memory of China was the noise. On the streets, barely five or six seconds would pass between each hock, as a nearby pedestrian announced to everyone within a fifty-mile radius that they were loosening phlegm from their throat in preparation to discharge it unceremoniously onto the pavement/train carriage/post office floor. I actually got used to it after a while.
She then spat it out with a long dribble of nonchalance.
We visited Tiananmen Square. There were no protests, so it was just a large flattened area with huge screens stretching round the edges and little else to do, so we went to the train station to try to buy tickets to part of The Great Wall. We queued inside behind a mother trying to deafen the infant strapped to her front by bringing as much sputum from her throat into her mouth as possible. She then spat it out with a long dribble of nonchalance, giving it a cursory wipe with her shoe before stepping forward to the clerk. When we were called forward, we managed to find out through much pointing and a few diagrams that the train was the next day.
We visited the night markets where all manner of strange animals were being fried up in a melting pot of vegan nightmares. ‘When in Rome,’ I thought, and began munching on a coiled goat’s penis. It was chewy.
We now only really cared about seeing The Great Wall before leaving Beijing and heading further south to continue our journey, so we booked an overnight train to Xian the next morning before temporarily heading north to look at some bricks. When we arrived, we were unable to find a way onto the wall, and wondered around a small town for a while, before finally figuring out that the wall had been closed for the day due to ice. Unable to discern when it would reopen, we abandoned tourism for the day and headed back to Beijing to pack our stuff.
In Xian, as far as I was able to tell, there were three things to do, the first and easiest of which was to visit the market. It was good. Eclectic. Full of strange food and useless bric-a-brac. The kind of place that’s fun to walk around for a while as a tourist, but ultimately useless unless you know what you are looking for and where to find it. The second thing on the list was to rent bikes and ride around on top of the city walls. We didn’t do this, but it looked like great fun, so if you’ve done it before, I don’t want to know. The final thing to do in Xian is to go and look at some old clay.
The night markets were a melting pot of vegan nightmares.
The Terracotta Army is part of a massive necropolis covering almost a hundred square kilometres. In the tourist area, there are four pits to visit with warriors, chariots, horses, and other non-military figures in varying condition. One of those hotspots where, unless you have specific historical or archaeological interest, you spend five minutes walking around, then everything blurs into one and you feel like you’ve seen it all. Then you spend another hour there because you feel like you have to before going back to the hostel to shoot some pool. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. Right?
We had come a considerable distance without taking a flight, but English-speaking tourists were few and far between, so we had little chance to brag about it. The evening we were due to leave, a man from Kent strolled into the hostel bar and ordered a beer. Andy and I exchanged glances and seized the opportunity, immediately feigning interest in friendship in order to gloat about our Odyssean adventure. This guy, as luck would have it, had spent the last ten months cycling from the Garden of England through Europe and central Asia, arriving in Xian just in time to make me feel like a fool. A damned lazy fool.
We’d learnt enough Chinese to buy train tickets by now, so we left that conceited traveller behind and headed south in search of someone who would find our story impressive. We arrived in Yangshou, where, we were told, the Chinese go for their vacations. This was a different China: a karst landscape with hiking trails and river cruises. The weather was also a blistering eleven degrees, so we chucked out the gloves and boots and bought some canvas shoes, then rented a bamboo boat and drifted down the river in T-shirts. I’d recommend this place to anyone visiting China. A tourist town, but foreign and beautiful enough to make you feel like you’re exploring. From here we hopped on a bus to the nearby town of Xingping, a smaller version of Yangshou with an easily accessible mountain to climb. In truth there was nothing in Xingping, but it was an opportunity to walk around some genuine Chinese countryside past paddy fields and orchards.
This bus was particularly unpleasant; a smoke-filled tin can, riding along a battered and beaten road.
By now it was Christmas Eve so we hopped on a bus back to Yangshou to get drunk. Everyone smokes in China, so this bus was particularly unpleasant; a smoke-filled tin can, riding along a battered and beaten road for a few hours. We celebrated Christmas Eve with a few beverages and proceeded to have the least Christmassy Christmas Day ever, not leaving the hostel room except once to buy some food. It was kind of refreshing. We spent another day or two relaxing before deciding it was time to move on. We really wanted to go to Chengdu to look at pandas, but it was a little too far out of our way, so with an overnight stop in Nanning, we ventured into Vietnam…
Pick up next month’s issue of The Gibraltar Magazine for part 4 of A Traveller’s Diary, or head to issuu.com/thegibraltarmagazine for parts 1 & 2.