Beijing and the Great Wall

A very brief visit to Beijing

We have finally made the trip to the capital of China, where we spent two days. The main reason for going to Beijing was a visit to the Indian embassy to apply for our visas. Unfortunately they don’t accept postal applications and even more unfortunately the process of submitting your application is very slow with lots of paperwork required.

We rushed to the airport after David’s last class late on Tuesday evening to catch a flight from Xi’an to Beijing. The flight was pretty uneventful until we saw the many lights of Beijing from the plane. It is the biggest place I have ever seen or been to. The sea of lights seemed to go on forever. I simply find it extraordinary how such huge places can come to exist and how anyone would go though their whole life not knowing life in any smaller place. Võru is about the size of a street in Beijing. We took a taxi to town on arrival and to our surprise could see stars in the sky once we got off the taxi. I have seen stars in Xi’an about twice since we’ve been here and to see them in Beijing, which is famous for its horrible air pollution, was something like a small miracle. We were lucky with the air for both of the two days we stayed there. I believe the clarity of the sky and air also contributed to the bitter cold we felt.

We stayed in the hútòng area. Hútòng is a Mandrin word for a small lane and this is what the area is made of: small lanes crowded with little one or two floor courtyard houses. I found the area very charming with its little shops, street vendors and lanterns everywhere. The hostel we stayed at was quite nice, it even had a soft mattress. We had forgotten what it felt like to sleep on something soft, as majority of Chinese beds are very hard. IMG_2050

We instantly felt a very different atmosphere in Beijing to Xi’an. It is a lot more developed in terms of infrastructure and buildings, but also people’s mindset and general behavior seems to be a lot more cultured and familiar to us. I don’t think I heard the lovely throaty spitting sound that is so familiar in Xi’an once. People drive almost normally and the drivers don’t hoot at every opportunity. It just seems like people are more educated and generally more aware of the norms of society. This may sound a little harsh, but this is China for you. Xi’an is very left behind despite being quite a sizeable city with the world famous Terracotta Army and many other very important historical sights. They have a word here ‘wénhuà’, which means culture. Shaanxi Province people are often referred to as ‘méi wénhuà’ meaning uncultured and this makes me sad, because they had been forgotten for a long time before they found the Terracotta Army and decided to develop Xi’an into a big tourist destination.

If we had spent our year in Beijing or Shanghai we would have had a lot less ‘Chinese’ experience and our Mandarin would not be as good. Bearing in mind our aim of coming here I believe we made the best choice by deciding for Xi’an, however it would have been nice to have some more Western comforts at times.

Anyway, back to Beijing.

We woke up early the next day and took the metro, which also, compared to Xi’an, is a lot more civilized. We didn’t see a single kid peeing on the metro, we thought something must have been wrong with Beijing kids. We arrived at the India Visa Application Centre and got our queue number. It was our turn after about 20 minutes’ wait, which was not bad. It then turned out we had to get some documents translated from Chinese and have them faxed to Beijing by our school, so we decided to come back in a couple of hours when this would be done.

In the meantime we went to visit the Tian’an men Square. The security around the square was very intense and the atmosphere felt quite strange. They said the security had been tightened after a guy from Xinjiang province drove his car into a group of people in the square a few months ago.IMG_2069

We were soon standing in that picture we had seen so many times in books, news and films and it felt very bizarre to be standing under Chairman Mao’s watchful eye.IMG_2055

The events of 30, 40, 50 years ago seem so unbelievable now. The great Communist dream now manifests itself in all the fancy Western cars driving by, beggars pestering foreigners and Mao’s red book of quotations being sold as a very badly translated souvenir. Yet his portrait still remains and some people still believe China to be what he envisioned.

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The square itself is huge, surrounded by big Soviet style government buildings, all adorned with red flags and stars.

Behind the big gate with Mao portrait is the Forbidden City – a former home to the Emperor and his entourage. We did not have time to visit it this time, as we had to rush back to the Indian visa place that closes at 3pm.

Once we were back at the visa place we expected everything to go smoothly, but then their system stopped working and we had to refill some forms and in all it took us longer than 2 hours, so we ended up not seeing a lot of Beijing.

We had a little cold walk around the hútòng area we were staying at and then went to eat some Beijing roast duck. We couldn’t find the restaurant we wanted to go to, so we just went into another random one and it was not that great. I have had much better duck in Xi’an. One thing many people (including me) don’t know is that the original version of duck is served with cucumber, scallions, hoisin sauce and sugar. The sugar is very good for dipping the duck skin in. The duck here compared to the deep fried horribleness you get in the UK (which is still quite good) is much more tender, juicier and tastier. All the parts of it are served separately. First the crispy skin and then all the different cuts of meat, lastly followed by duck broth. It’s very good and I am now making myself hungry.

The Great Wall of China

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We climbed it anyway. We are rebellious like that.

How could we live in China for a year and not visit the Great Wall? We couldn’t. We joined a tour organized by our hostel, which took us 3 hours away from Xi’an into the village of Jīnshānlǐng, from where we started a 6km hike on the Great Wall to Sīmǎtái. We were a group of 9 and there were no other people on the wall with us apart from two ladies, who followed us all the way trying to flog us souvenirs. They had two sales techniques: ass kissing and telling us they are poor farmers from Hebei. When we finally refused their persistent offers, one of the ladies tried to cry, but I guess she didn’t try hard enough, because we have no souvenirs from the Great Wall.

As you may expect, the Great Wall is a very spectacular sight. It seems amazing that such a project was ever undertaken. Although different kingdoms that then existed in this territory built the different parts of the wall, it still seems like a crazy thing to do. And it didn’t keep out the Mongols after all. The Great Wall is another wonderful Chinese miracle that people have only started appreciating recently. Chairman Mao once encouraged people to pillage the wall and use the material for buildings, which still happens today. Imagine the PM telling people in the UK that they should go and dismantle Stonehenge to build houses or the president of Estonia telling us to go get the cobblestones from the old town to use as bricks for our houses. The thought of it is just ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever, but it happened and people took note.

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The first part we walked on was restored and the second part was in quite a bad shape, built in Ming dynasty between the 14th and 17th century. We went through 22 watchtowers and very many tall and steep steps. I cannot imagine how people could fight on those steep steps. If a Mongol was chasing me I would just be too tired to run.

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The place we went to was very quiet and it really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The views were amazing all around and it felt like we were walking on a huge piece of history. People build some crazy things.

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It was also very cold and windy on the wall. So much so that the water in my bottle froze along with my nose, ears and 屁股.

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We headed back to Beijing after seeing the Great Wall, had a quick dinner in a very nice restaurant that serves decent Western food and then made our way to Beijing West train station.

The train station was like any other – busy. People sitting everywhere and lugging around huge suitcases, boxes of fruit, babies and so on. We are currently on the train, David has joined the snoring squad, the Chinese guy is winning at the moment. It’s 22.15 and they have just switched off the lights on the train. We arrive in Xi’an at 7.58 and David has a class at 10.40.

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Now we wait for our visas and take in the last of Xi’an.

Some observations

I want to tell you about a few things I have noticed in China and nowhere else.

Number 1

In China the main course is East-West and not South-North like most other places. When we say North East, for instance, that would be East North in China. I think this has a lot to do with the silk road, but also with the fact that Beijing is in mid-East rather than North or South like many capitals in the world.

Number 2

As you know it gets very hot here in the summer and very cold in the winter. People deal with the heat well – they go outside, open the windows and doors, put on air conditioning and sometimes even drink cold water. However, it is now winter and it is cold inside and outside. The heating inside may be on, but the doors and windows are wide open letting in all the cold. The public school I teach at once a week has heaters in every classroom on, but the windows are open and students wear heavy vests and gloves in the classroom. When I close the windows I get told off. The teachers don’t take their coats off, even in their office, because it’s so cold. I asked why this was and they told me it’s because it’s hot in the summer, so they should have many windows, which I agree with. They failed to explain why the windows should not be closed when it’s below zero outside. The kids don’t seem to mind, though. I guess they are used to it.

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Number 2.1

This has also got to do with winter and cold. As I mentioned, people here don’t believe in closing doors. So all the shops and supermarkets install a heavy curtain at the door, which should keep the dust out and keep the rooms warm. It does neither and it causes constant collisions with people going in and coming out. A new shopping mall that opened a few months ago next to my school built an extra plastic wall in front of every door in order to keep the place warm, so they now have two sets of these curtains at every door. Building a wall seemed easier than closing the door. Please can someone explain this logic to me?

Counting down

Today marks one month from our departure date. We are excited to be going to India and look forward to getting back to Europe. David can’t stop talking about the roast lamb that awaits him. Our job search in Estonia is now in full swing and we hope to find something before we get there, which may be difficult, but possible.

I must now get some sleep and join the snorers.

China is so big.

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