Apr 27, 2007 in China 2007
Apr 24, 2007 in China 2007
Aug 07, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My day started brutally early at 4am, and I finished packing with a hint of dawn in the sky. I left my flat for the last time at 5am, walked along to the East Gate and found a taxi. I was worn out by the time I got there, and regretted having bought so much stuff, which I would have to carry eight thousand miles home.
I watched the blocks of sky scrapers go by. As we drove along Chang’an, the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the flag was being raised in Tiananmen Square. I got to the station in plenty of time and found my way to the waiting room. I got on the train at 7am, and found my way to my compartment. It seemed unbelievable to think that it would be my home for the next six days.
As we started to pull out of Beijing Station at 7.40am, I was feeling something like butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation of what this journey would be like. I watched as Beijing gradually melted away into the surrounding hills, and after a couple of hours we were in rural northern China. A few scattered parts of the Great Wall occasionally appeared on the tops of hills.
Tired from my early start, I slept a bit during the day, but mostly I was just watching the scenery go by. By 7pm, we were a few hundred miles from Beijing, and we were in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An amazing sunset was the last thing I saw in China, and a couple of hours after nightfall we reached the border with Mongolia at Erlian.
We spent five hours at the border. First of all, all the wheels on the train had to be changed, because the tracks in Mongolia are wider than the ones in China. Then we had passport and customs checks from the Chinese, a long slow rumble over the border to Dzamyn Ude, and then more passport and customs checks from the Mongolians. The Mongolian entry forms were printed in Mongolian and English only, and so I made many Chinese friends in my carriage by filling in all their forms for them. I had offered the favour to my three room-mates, not knowing that they had about twenty friends in neighbouring compartments. My wrist was aching by the time we left Dzamyn Ude at 2.30am.
Aug 06, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My final day in China dawned amazingly cool and fresh. I had lots to finish so I was up and about early, and my first task was to take some photos of the campus. I headed out at 6am, and spent a couple of hours walking around, enjoying Chinese park life. A couple of times I’d been across here early enough to see all the communal activities that take place in Chinese parks early in the morning. What I liked best was the ranks of people practising their taiji moves. There were also people practising plays, speaking English to each other, jogging, and all sorts of other things. It seemed like a very friendly atmosphere, and I was sad to be leaving this.
In the evening, I went out for a meal with Xiaowei, some other professors in the department, and a few of the students. We went to a place near the campus that did Peking Duck, and although I’d largely lost my sense of taste due to a head injury two years previously, I could taste enough to find it absolutely delicious. In the usual Chinese way, a constant stream of food was brought out, which twice as many people would have had difficulty finishing. Tasty dish after tasty dish arrived at the table, and I was bloated and waddling by the time we left.
I said goodbye to everyone, went for a last walk around the campus lake, and then headed back to my apartment on Chengfu Lu to pack up. I’d had a fantastic six weeks in Beijing, but now I was looking forward to a long journey home.
Aug 04, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
It was my last free day in Beijing. I got up at 5am because I wanted to go to Shidu, but again I was thwarted – the weather was horrible, with rain lashing down. I stayed at home until 10am or so, by which time the weather was nicer but it was too late to think about going to Shidu.
I decided instead to go to Xiang Shan – the Fragrant Hills. This would be my greatest triumph on the buses – I went to a nearby bus stop, and after only half an hour of staring at the map in a deep trance of pure concentration, I worked out that I could get the 332 to Yiheyuan and then the 737 to Xiang Shan.
As I got off the bus and walked towards the park entrance, a guy walking along beside me started talking to me. His name was Yanlong, and he turned out to be an engineer in the People’s LIberation Army, and he was doing one of his three-times-weekly climbs of Incense Burner Peak, the highest point in the park at 557m high. I had been thinking of getting the cable car up there, but felt now that that would involve a serious loss of face. So I said I would be happy to walk up with Yanlong, and up we went.
The heat and humidity made it a difficult climb. People coming down the trail were soaked from head to toe, and I felt like I probably would be too. Yanlong said his best time for the climb was 28 minutes. I thought we’d be lucky to get up in less than an hour. But Yanlong set a rapid pace, and we ascended at speed. Occasionally he would permit a moment’s rest to drink some water. We reached the top in 45 minutes, and I felt shattered. “You did very well!”, said Yanlong, but I’m not sure he really meant it.
It was hazy, but the views from the peak were pretty awesome. I chatted to Yanlong while looking out over the outskirts of Beijing. I was sad that I would soon be leaving: in six weeks I’d started to feel quite at home here. Just as I was getting the hang of the place, I was running out of time.
We ambled slowly down the hill again, passing more sweaty people coming up. At the bottom, I said goodbye to Yanlong. I was glad I’d met him – I might not have climbed the hill otherwise. A decent hike up a hill with a good view was a good thing to have done on my last weekend in Beijing.
Aug 02, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
When I first arrived in China it had been viciously humid, but not too hot. Then the humidity dropped and the temperature rocketed, and after a few days I decided I quite liked 40°C temperatures. Over the last couple of days the temperatures had dropped a little bit, but the humidity shot up to 90%. Today was even worse than yesterday had been at Huanghua. I was exhausted by my five minute walk to work, and after twenty minutes outside at lunchtime I was starting to look like someone had thrown a drink over me. I stayed in my air-conditioned office until late. I spent a little while looking up equations for how to convert a temperature and a humidity into what it actually feels like, and for today’s conditions the answers were between 53 and 60°C. I was massively relieved at 9pm when it began to thunder.
Aug 01, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
Visiting the Great Wall was one of the first things I’d done in China. At Simatai, the setting of the wall is spectacular, but although it’s not as touristy there as other restored parts of the wall, I fancied visiting a more remote part of the wall. I headed for Dongzhimen bus station, and got a bus to Huairou. At Huairou, there should have been a bus to Huanghua, an unrestored and little-visited part of the wall, but I had no map, no idea of where the bus stop might be, and a crowd of taxi drivers telling me there were no buses anyway. Rather than wander aimlessly I decided to go with the taxi plan, and soon afterwards arrived at a hamlet by a reservoir, from which the wall snaked away over the hills.
The weather wasn’t great. It was warm and extremely humid, and mist was draped over the hillsides. Huanghua clearly wasn’t so remote that no-one went there – a small restaurant in town had a sign saying “Mentioned in Lonely Planet! Only restaurant at Huanghua!” on it. But as I set off up the wall I was quickly out of sight of anyone, and enjoyed the solitude.
The wall was crumbling and overgrown here, and it was quite a strenuous hike up it. Soon I was sweating impressively, and after half an hour or so I looked like I’d jumped in a swimming pool. The mist made the scene quite atmospheric, and I was not unhappy that it wasn’t sunny like it had been at Simatai.
I plodded up the wall for three hours, and met two foreigners and five or six locals along the way. I walked up to Gaping Jaw, a valley into which the wall plunges down Sawtooth Slope. The slope was as steep as anything at Simatai, and I would have walked down it, but that would have committed me to probably another hour of walking before another path back to Huanghua unless I wanted to retrace my steps, and I was running out of water. So I headed away from the wall, taking a forest path which led me back to Huanghua village.
I wasn’t sure what I’d arranged with my taxi driver. Due to language difficulties, I had no idea if I’d hired him to take me back to Huairou or not, but when I got back to the village he was there waiting for me. He wasn’t much impressed with how I looked after three hours of hot, humid hiking, though, and he looked like he was going to tell me to bugger off and get the bus. But grudgingly he drove me back to Huairou, and I got a bus back to Beijing from there.
Jul 29, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I went to Tiananmen Square again this evening. For a few days the weather had been grim but today was much sunnier and hotter. I left work at 3.45pm, and got a disastrously slow bus down the road. It took about two hours to reach the centre, and first of all I went to the Friendship Store to get more cheese. Since my first batch ran out I’d been getting serious cravings. I had no idea how much I’d missed it.
Having done my shopping I headed for the square. As night fell, it was an incredibly pleasant place to be. It was full of families, people playing football and badminton, people flying kites, rollerblading, skateboarding, and generally socialising. The atmosphere was friendly and I stayed for a while, taking a few night photos and liking the vibe a lot.
Jul 27, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
Today I tried to go to Shidu, a scenic area about 100km from Beijing, but when I went to Lianhuachi, where the long distance bus station was supposed to be, I couldn’t find it. This was an unexpected obstacle, and it seemed ridiculous, but I wandered the area for a while and there didn’t seem to be a bus station here. Bemused, I rethought my plans, and headed back to Tiananmen to finally make my acquaintance with Mao.
The skies were heavy and as I found my way to the back of the queue for the mausoleum, it began to rain. I queued for about half an hour, getting wetter and wetter, and so it was quite a disappointment to finally reach to mausoleum only to be rushed through with barely a couple of seconds allowed to glance at the orangey features of China’s ambiguous hero. There were people by the glass case whose job it was to rush us through, and before I knew it I was out the other side, in a tacky souvenir shop. I passed up the opportunity to buy Mao cards, Mao lighters, or a copy of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.
After Mao, I got the metro to Jianguomen, and visited Beijing’s Ancient Observatory. It sits on top of a watchtower which used to be part of the city walls, and although the surrounding buildings are much taller, the views are pretty impressive. Not exactly aesthetic, but good for getting an impression of the kind of pace Beijing works at, with traffic pouring by and skyscrapers all around.
The Friendship Store was nearby. For years, entry to the store was restricted to foreigners only, excepting maybe a few elite Party members. The opening of China had long since made the concept of a foreigners-only shop redundant, but the Friendship Store still survives. It’s a very easy place to buy souvenirs – more expensive than any market, but plenty of people are willing to pay that premium for a less frenetic shopping experience. I just bought postcards, before heading down to the supermarket in the basement. For me, this was a fantastic place. As well as typical Chinese food – including an entire shark’s fin that could have been mine for just a couple of thousand pounds – it also had things that foreigners like. Cheese is not a big part of Chinese cookery and they certainly didn’t have any in the shop on the university campus, but here they had a huge selection. I suddenly realised how much I’d been missing cheese, and bought a block of edam.
I left the Friendship Store and got the metro to Junshibowuguan station. There was a bus from there to the University and I was determined to work out how to get it. It was actually more straightforward than I’d expected – the information in my guide book was for once not out of date, and it was the number 6 bus I wanted. I knew the characters for ‘Beijing Daxue’, so it was easy to check that it did indeed go to the university. I paid my 2Y fare and vowed not to get a taxi in Beijing again if I could possibly help it.
Jul 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The first time I went to Tiananmen Square I was too late in the day to see Chairman Mao. Today I went back to try again, but I couldn’t find the left luggage office to drop off my bag until it was too late. Instead, I chilled in the square in the hot sunshine for a while, only encouraged to move on by the frequent attentions of ‘arts students’. Every time I went anywhere near Tiananmen Square, it would only be a matter of time before I was accosted by someone who would turn out to be a member of a group of arts students from some remote province of China, visiting the capital and with an exhibition near by. The first time, I thought this sounded quite cool and went along to where their exhibition was, saw some moderately interesting art, refused to part with wads of cash to buy any, and went on my way. I realised there was more to this than met the eye when another arts student started talking to me only half an hour later in a different part of town. Almost every time anyone started a conversation with me, they would turn out to be an ‘arts student’. Sometimes they’d give me the spiel straight away; other times we’d chat for quite a few minutes before the truth came out.
As I wandered south with no particular plan in mind, one particularly persistent arts student walked with me. He was quite a bit too old to be a student, and probably, where all the others were only partaking in the mildest of scams, he was actually trying to rip me off. I walked into the narrow streets around Dazhalan, and managed to shake him off in the crowds.
I walked randomly, buying the occasional street snack from a vendor, until I ended up on Qianmen Dajie. I walked down this main road until I got to Tiantan Park, and went to explore the Ming temples in there. Most of the park was very relaxed and pleasant, but the main sight of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was probably the most crowded place I visited in Beijing. I got caught in a flow of visitors and swept through rapidly. I escaped from the crush and headed over the Bridge of Vermillion Stairway to quieter parts.
I headed north again, and walked to Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s oldest shopping streets. There was an excellent night market here where I bought some great food, my favourite being deep-fried octopus. Once I’d filled up there, I headed home. I’d been getting taxis everywhere so far, as they were cheap and very convenient, but I decided it was time to get acquainted with the public transport system. I got the metro to Xizhimen, the closest metro stop to the university at the time, and got a taxi home from there. My next target was to work out the buses.
Jul 20, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The Old Summer Palace was only a short walk from the university, but it was still hard to find. There was an extreme lack of English signage to it, and I hadn’t yet learned more than about 15 chinese characters, so it took me a while to find the entrance and work out where to buy a ticket.
Once I was in, I found it quite a strange place. It was very quiet and tranquil, but with a slightly spooky atmosphere because all the lakes were completely choked with reeds and looked slightly threatening. Inside, there were more English signs than there had been outside, but unfortunately most of these were only to remind me that my forebears had been a bunch of cultural vandals of the highest order. Together with the French, in 1860, the British had destroyed this place, and frequently there were signs marking the spot of some former building which had been one of humanity’s most glorious achievements, only to be torn down by the British and the French.
The palace grounds were vast and maze-like, and I got totally lost. I was still somewhere in the grounds when night began to fall. I was probably only a few metres from the exit, but in the end I had to retrace my steps over the entire route I’d followed to find my way out. I emerged into the city again just as it was getting properly dark.
Jul 14, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
It had been unbelievably hot ever since the fog had lifted, a few days after I arrived in China. I’d never experienced anything like it before, but living in an air-conditioned apartment and working in an air-conditioned office made acclimatisation easier. Today it was even hotter still, breaking 40°C. I decided to seek higher altitudes, and thought maybe it would be cooler at the top of the CCTV Tower.
It’s an unfortunate acronym: it stands for China Central Television, but a tower overlooking the entire city being called the CCTV Tower certainly has a bit of a Big Brother air to it. I got a taxi down the road from the University to Gongzhufen metro station, near the tower, and walked the short distance there with the assistance of a couple of litres of cold water that I’d brought with me. The heat was more bearable than I thought it would be, but I drank stunning quantities of water without even trying.
At the tower, I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom at the bottom. This was unfortunate because I was carrying a lot of camera gear. I went into über-tourist mode, draping a camera and two lenses around my neck, and filling my pockets with film. I left my now-empty bag in the cloakroom, and headed up to the observation deck, 238m above the city.
What hit me first was the wind. There was plenty of it up there, and it was hot. It was like standing in a hairdryer, and I felt like all the moisture was being sucked out of me. I’d never felt anything like it before. The next thing that struck me was the view, which was incredible. The tower is in the western part of the city, and looking east I could see nothing but city. A forest of skyscrapers stretched away into the distance, with the flatness of the terrain only interrupted by Jingshan Park a few kilometres away. I was staggered at the number of highrise buildings – London has very few. Beijing probably has more in every central city block than London has in total. Looking west it was a different story. The buildings were getting lower and the Western Hills rose beyond the city limits.
I spent a few hours up the tower, waiting for sunset. When it came it was spectacular, with the lights of this vast, energetic, changing city shining from everywhere, while Venus set into the blazing twilight skies over the Western Hills. I didn’t really want to leave, but I’d run out of water and I couldn’t afford more than one coke in the rotating restaurant. Eventually I had to come down, and in the slightly cooler evening I walked back up to Chengfu Lu.
Jul 13, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
After a couple of days back at work it was the weekend again, and time for me to set out exploring once more. My first target was the Summer Palace, one of China’s most impressive imperial treasures. It’s only a couple of miles from the university, but I thought I would get a cab as the temperatures were nearing 40°C, and I thought I might die of dehydration if I walked. But in the end, there was only one cab by the East Gate of the university, and he wouldn’t take me. With my Mandarin still not even reaching appallingly basic, I couldn’t even begin to understand why. I decided to brave the heat and walk it.
I didn’t actually look around the Palace itself: I didn’t fancy being indoors on such a hot day. So I just spent a few hours walking around Kunming Lake, and over the famous 17-arch bridge to a small island. I frequently passed stalls selling ice cream, and I frequently gave them business. I spent quite a while sat on the island, enjoying being in the middle of a tranquil lake, surrounded by the Western Hills.
Jul 10, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
In my second week in China, the department was organising a three day trip to Qinhuangdao, 200 miles from Beijing on the coast of the Yellow Sea. It was partly a mini-conference and partly just a holiday, and as well as most of the department from PKU there were also some people from Shanghai Astrophysical Observatory. We left Beijing at 7am on the Monday morning, and had a pleasant four hour journey through fields and mountains to the sea.
We arrived at about midday, and the first priority was lunch. The emphasis was on sea food and I had all sorts of things I hadn’t tried before, like jelly fish. After lunch I went to the beach to play football with the other students, having an extraordinarily strenuous game in 40°C heat. After twenty minutes of getting burnt from all directions – sun above, sand cooking our feet below – we decided today wasn’t the day for football, and just relaxed on the beach instead.
On the Tuesday we had three hours of talks in the morning. Most of them were given in Chinese, so I didn’t take a whole lot away from them. I gave a talk but spoke much too quickly and so many of my audience probably didn’t take a whole lot away from mine either. After that fair exchange, the work part of the trip was over, and we headed back to the beach for more games of football in the stunning heat. Later in the evening I went for a walk with a few of the students to a nearby night market, and then we sat on the beach and relaxed under the stars until late. It was my 24th birthday.
The next day we went on an excursion to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea. It was staggeringly full of tourists, so that it was quite difficult to move around, so I found the end of the wall more impressive in concept than reality. I hoped one day I’d visit the other end at Jiayuguan, over a thousand miles inland from here.
On the way back to Beijing, I was dozing in the bus when I became aware that we’d developed a vibration. A regular, rapid thudding had started, and it was gradually getting worse. After half an hour or so it was becoming intolerable, and then suddenly, the tyre right below where I was sitting exploded. We careered along the motorway and slid to a halt. Luckily all the passengers were intact, and the only damage was to the bus. The head of the department made some calls, and we waited on the hard shoulder. About an hour later, a minibus arrived, and ferried us to a nearby service station. We got some dinner there, and then about an hour after that, another bus arrived to take us back to Beijing. We got back safely at midnight, seven hours after we’d left the coast.
Jul 06, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
By the weekend, the mist had disappeared, and temperatures were into the high thirties. Early on Saturday morning I left my flat to head for the Great Wall at Simatai. I went to Dongzhimen bus station, where I spent some time trying to work out which bus I could get. It was kind of obvious that I would be heading for the wall, and one hopeful tout told me it would be 100Y to get there. His dishonesty was impressive – there were no direct buses to Simatai, and the bus to the nearest town at Miyun was only 6Y. I got the bus to Miyun, and from there got a taxi to the wall at Simatai. I had fun haggling over a price by pointing at numbers in my Mandarin phrase book, and once the deal was settled we headed off.
It was nice to be out of the city, and the countryside around Miyun was impressively rugged. After an hour or so, I caught my first sight of the wall, snaking along the top of a serrated mountain ridge, and soon after, we arrived at the base. I set off eagerly to walk up the wall.
Simatai is an incredibly steep section of wall, and in fearsome heat I set off slowly. For the first twenty minutes or so I was tailed by an incredibly persistent old woman trying to sell me postcards, but after a bit of acclimatisation to the conditions I was able to put on a burst of pace and shake her off. I walked a couple of miles along the wall, to a high point with amazing views over the surroundings. The wall snaked off into the green hazy distance, and I was impressed at the thought that it went all the way from here out into the Gobi Desert.
At the highest watchtower that I reached, there was a man with a cool box selling coke. I wouldn’t normally have wanted to buy something so foreign while walking up the national symbol of China, but in the baking heat I decided to relax my principles. The coke was so cold it had ice in it, and it tasted spectacular. My principles would never be the same again. I headed down, met my taxi driver at the bottom and headed for Miyun, Dongzhimen and home again.
Jul 05, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
On Monday I started work at the university. In London I lived 45 minutes away from college, but here I was just five minutes away, which was awesome. The only problem was that Zhongguancun Beilu lay between my flat and the university. Only in the very small hours was this vast highway anything less than pounding with traffic, and so every morning and evening I had a real life game of Frogger to get across. Some mornings there was a policeman to coordinate the flow of people and cars, and I always breathed a sigh of relief if he was there.
During my first week, the mist which rendered the city grey and threatening gradually lifted and the sun appeared. This instantly sent temperatures rocketing into the thirties. I spent my lunch breaks wandering the campus, slowly getting to know my way around. One evening I walked over to the West Gate of the university, outside which there were apparently a lot of bars. When I got over there, all I could see was a vast expanse of brownfield land. The area had been demolished, to make way for new buildings. The pace of change in Beijing was so frenetic that three or four places mentioned in my recently published guide book had disappeared in this way.
At the end of week one, I made a quick trip into town to buy a very important thing: my ticket to Moscow. I wasn’t sure if this would even be possible, as I wanted to travel in the middle of August and had heard that tickets could be sold out months in advance. But I was in luck, and got hold of a ticket for the very reasonable price of 1602 Yuan – about £125.
Jun 30, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
My base in Beijing was a very comfortable apartment on Chengfu Lu, a few minutes walk from the university. Having sorted out various administrative things on Friday, I then had the weekend to started getting acquainted with this massive city. I spent Saturday walking around the vast and beautiful campus of the university, and a few of the nearby parts of the surrounding area of Zhongguancun. It is about five miles from the city centre, but as China’s technology hub it is far from being a distant suburb.
by Sunday I was recovered enough from jetlag to head for the centre. I walked down Zhongguancun Beilu, found a taxi rank and tried out some Mandarin. “Tiananmen Guangchang”, I said, but my tones were clearly way off and in the end I had to point at my guide book. We set off through Beijing, and the scale of the city that I was seeing for the first time took my breath away. Eight lanes of traffic sliced through forest of giant buildings, and construction was everywhere. China’s economic boom was evident.
After half an hour we arrived at Tiananmen Square. The air was thick with mist, and with the temperatures in the high twenties the atmosphere was quite oppressive. From one side of the square I couldn’t see the other, which really brought home the point that it’s the largest city square in the world. I walked around, taking in the atmosphere.
One vital point of reference here is Mao’s mausoleum, but today I was too late to go in. Instead, I walked north, through the Forbidden City, ending up at Jingshan Park. Jingshan is an artificial hill, built to the north of the Forbidden City for feng shui reasons. It’s an excellent place for views over the city, and even in the mist Beijing looked awesome.
The world cup final was on this evening, and I thought that Sanlitun, Beijing’s main entertainment district, would probably be a good place to go. It didn’t look like it would be too far to walk, on my map, but I was totally underestimating the scale of the city. About an hour and a half later I reached Sanlitun, and found a bar with a big TV screen to watch the game. A large number of German ex-pats were around to see if their team could beat Brazil, and as Germans do, many of them had arrived very early and marked out the territory which they wanted to occupy later. A fight almost broke out shortly before kick-off when someone strayed onto someone else’s turf, but once the game started, all eyes were on the screen.
Germany were despatched 2-0, to the disappointment of most people in the bar. I’d been an entirely neutral observer so I was quite happy. And I was very happy when I got into a taxi, said “Beijing Daxue Dong Men” and got taken straight away to the East Gate of the University. Perhaps I would be able to make progress with Mandarin after all.