Fiona MacCarthy


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Sights: Tian’anmen and Forbidden city

Tian’anmen Square in early Sunday morning and with less than 16 hours in this capital city, was quickly filling with bus tours of Chinese tourist marshalled by keen flag (unique to each group) waving leaders into picture posing position. Yes we were even asked to move so that a group formed into 2 columns could step forward to be photoed in quick succession. Its a big day out to this symbolic square with the mausoleum of Mao opposite the Forbidden city and the National Museum and National hall on the other 2 sides. Only the square and the Forbidden City were on our agenda (due to time). I liked the flowers as in my pictures as well as the pose-perfect military personnel whose only support was light shade as the heat of the day gathered.

We had got to the Square that morning by public bus, clean-clean and with the voiceover as to next stops in Chinese and English.

Entering the forbidden city on foot through the  arches sets the tone that one is minor and quite insignificant in comparison with the political home of many and the last emperors. We were carried on a river of humanity stepping aside at times to regroup. Only getting access to the inside of a couple minor buildings detracts from this as a crowd would gather round doorways to snap the interiors. I’m glad I visited but the Summer Palace experience as below was more personal.

After about 3-4 hours or so between Square and City we adjourned for an early lunch and for time to reflect on this our first introduction to a very big City. The heat as contrast to where I had come from in the UK, the numerical insignificance of European tourists to Chinese and the sheer numbers were a lot for first morning.

After lunch we had free time to explore Jingshan Park (entrance Y2) with its singing groups, musical groups and dancers exercising their talents as amateurs and citizens. It was not as busy as the earlier sights, more personal and the hilltop provided views of the cities both “forbidden” and not.

In the evening we went to a show “Legend of Kung Fu” at the Red! Theatre and produced by China Heaven Group. At 280Y (approx. £35) it tells in 7 scenes about a young monk arriving at a monastery, being separated from his mother and embarks on a learning curve in becoming a man and of iron. Female parts in this story besides the mother are given over to temptresses to the young monk. He resists (real man yeah) and eventually becomes a warrior monk overcoming tests of strength and pain endurance before finally becoming the Abbott. The deputy Irish ambassador said “more energetic that River Dance”. I was disappointed to see the central isle seating largely empty as it had a higher seat price than the 2 side isles (where our seats were). How discouraging for performers. More significantly it was a good simple introduction to some themes but very glossy and superficial in treatment. Perhaps it was because it was non verbal and perhaps the music was too glossy simplistic. At half the price it might have been value for money and we were to see a far better show later in the tour for same price.

Beijing Food

I arrived at the hotel just before 6pm (Beijing time) on the Saturday in time to attend a quick meeting info sharing at 6pm before we went to a local dumpling speciality restaurant for our first taste. The tv screen did not show drivel but rather the cleaning of the kitchen all in Live mode.  Liked the attitude to transparency. Tasty dumplings too which with a 500ml beer cost less than £2.

First hotpot on Sunday evening was good and became better when I started to be guided by how Chinese diners were handling the bowl of vegetable ingredients. Cooking the thinly sliced meat was easy but some of the vegies were strange. I think that meal cost about4-5£ excluding beer which seemed to be costing the same as the first night at about £1 for 500ml lager.

Monday lunch in the Hutong which is a traditional layout home although in our case the courtyard had been developed was a good opportunity to eat a home cooked meal before being tempted to buy the glass bottles / jars as painted from the inside.

Monday evening meal was a glorious Peking duck based dinner in a restaurant without tourists from the west. The meat and other dishes and the rice wine delicious: okay this was not a smooth rice wine. Learning the joy of dipping strips of duck skin in sugar was something very new to me.

Beijing: The Wall

On the Monday (2nd full day) we took our bus along a motorway busy with getting people into the city as we headed out 70km to Mutianyo great wall. We had the option of walking up from the base of the hill but our wall time and the gathering heat made the ascending by cable car the wiser option. I regret not taking the tobaggon back down as that was enjoyed by others. At the top there is an awful lot of wall interrupted by look-outs. This version of the wall was from the mid 16th century although the concept and reality dates back 2500 years. It hugs closely the rising – falling crest of the landscape and is most impressive. I enjoyed background reading as to its purpose. I think its more regulatory like Hadrian rather than a significant defensive mechanism. Protecting the Confucian mindset from outside casual contact.

Beijing Summer Palace

The Tuesday (3rd full day) was identified as a free day; however our guide Francis proposed an outing to the Summer palace to the north west via the citys very clean Metro (also with English announcements). The temperature was much cooler when we got there demonstrating the logic behind its location. In comparison with the Forbidden city it was much easier to see inside the various living and working quarters of this summer retreat. The lake setting is beautiful and the atmosphere much more relaxed that at the City.

Later in the day and after the Hutong lunch we saw the Drum and Bell towers before taking a walk in a redeveloped street area with many small touristy shops and bars along some canals which marked the end of the ancient canal connecting Beijing to the South of the country

Beijing departing

After a busy walking day of over 22,000 steps (im told by my phone) we collected our bags and headed for one of Beijing’s train stations for our 12 hour overnight to Xi-An. The station was like a 2 storey block build over the railtracks. The main concourse can be entered from either end and is packed with food options. Off the central walkway are short routes to large square shaped seating areas where one awaits ones train. Over a dozen of these areas thronged and pulsating with people readying to travel. OI loved the organisation and general cleanliness. The toilets and nearly all squat could have been cleaner.

Beijing overnight train to Xi-an

The 6 berth hardsleeper is off putting to many westerners. We generally value and treasure our privacy. We were a group of 6 plus a tour leader and had been allocated an open compartment of 6 beds (2 sets of 3; lower, mid upper), I climbed into my allocated upper and it was cramped in that one could not sit upright but had to contort myself. Lessons learnt from India was prepare first and then get into bed. The newness of everything, my innate curiosity meant I did not sleep well but the early dawn energised me and we made it to Xi-an at about 8am. The 2nd hardsleeper journey was easier and the 4 berth soft sleeper (mattresses are the same) easier too. For 2019 the train journeys on this Tour will be all bullet trains and so this more gentle travel in terms of visual contact with the landscape, station stops and eye and non verbal communication with other travellers will pass into history.


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