As an introduction to East Asia, Hong Kong could not have been a better first city. While English is not universally practiced its very close to that, with the language spoken by plenty of the local people and sharing some space with Chinese characters on many of the signs. This helped us to get around no end, but we both knew that what was coming next would be a very different story. We were warned that mainland China, including Beijing has little to no English. Even in McDonald's and KFC, those champions of globalisation, you will not find any English at all. Instead it's back to the old tried and trusted point and smile routine!
We were taking the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, which at 25 hours non-stop would make for our largest single continuous journey on this trip, unsurprisingly.
We booked a soft sleeper for the journey meaning we would have a bunk bed each in a small cabin that we would share with two other people. Despite all our thrifty tendencies we did not fancy 25 hours spent on an uncomfortable, un-reclining chair as some of the locals brave. We boarded the train to find one other man in our cabin, a local who spoke no English but was more than willing to gesture for basic communication. The beds were comfortable and the cabin clean so we were satisfied. We set off on our epic journey through China's interior towards the nations capital, Beijing. The landscape was ever changing, with countless rice fields for hours at a time being replaced by huge industrial centers, giant chimneys and monstrous machines pouring out smoke into China's already over polluted atmosphere.
(8 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in China). The journey was straight forward and as without incident as we could have hoped, our only stumble being over the food on offer in the trains buffet car. Chicken's feet soup did not sound that inviting to us, so instead we settled on an omelette each that nearly ripped my stomach out, whatever delights were in there. We quickly learnt the sad truth about Chinese food, that the grub they pass off as being of Chinese descent in our Chinese restaurants back home is not in fact Chinese at all, with our personal favorite dishes like sweet and sour chicken and black bean beef all being of Thai descent and nigh on impossible to find in China. There goes my dreams of living on sweet and sour dishes for breakfast, dinner and supper for the next few weeks! By around 4 the next day we were pulling into Beijing's west station, 25 hours after departing but feeling none the worse for our huge journey.
We exited the station and taking the advice given on our hostels website we caught a bus towards our accommodation. The bus was noting short of crammed, with the aisles so crowed that passengers were being pushed on top of those sitting down. Personal space is not considered an issue in China, but when you have 1.3 billion living in your country, I guess you cant be too fussy! The city itself has some 16 million, so this was to be expected. We arrived at our hostel 25 minutes later to be told by our hostel that we could not stay in the same dorm we had booked, since they were separate for male and female. When I protested that we had booked for a 'mixed' dorm, as the website said, she was told that this meant a mixed nationality dorm!! Does that mean, as it suggests, that there are hostels in China that will not let some nationalities stay together?? Crazy, but a private room was still quite cheap so we checked into one of those, which was really stunning for the price.
Our location was perfect too, we gathered from our guide books map, just a subway stop from Tian'anmen square, so we set this as destination number one on day one.
After a hearty breakfast from McDonald's (we know, no criticism please, the local food is awful!) we got the busy subway to Tian'anmen, that world famous square that has seen celebrations and tragedy alike. Covering more than 40 hectares its the worlds biggest square, but it didn't seem like this at first glance as they decided to build a big ugly building at its center during the seventies, a mausoleum that houses the pickled body of their revered chairman Mao. The body is actually on display to the public, with large crowds filing past each day in reverend silence, but some construction work means this treat is off limits until September.
What a shame. There appears to be a strange view of Mao in China, as he is both hero and villain all in one. He is undoubtedly the man responsible for freeing China from over 200 years of civil war and foreign invasion, which we in the West are largely responsible for inflicting. Yet once he achieved this impressive feat, he manged to taint his divine like status by implementing bizarre government policies, like taking away the land he had given back to the people to set up huge commune like super farms, or setting up a red army police squad to control the state and then very quickly outlawing and killing millions of them once they became too powerful!! Whatever your opinion though, you had better keep it to yourself here, as opinions are an dangerous thing here in communist Beijing.
There were sellers doing a good trade in Mao watches and memorabilia, so as not to upset any of his supporters we kept our questions to ourselves.
We strolled the length of the vast square in wonder of the amount of Chinese clearly here on holiday or for a brief visit, with Westerners like ourselves being in a very small minority. So small, in fact, that my now very blonde hair became the focus of some very intense interest. What started as people 'pretending' to take a picture of the background behind us to get a sneaky snap soon turned into people outright walking up to us and asking if they could get a picture of me with their children or family. Daunting at first but it was all good natured curiosity and I was happy to oblige, even if Ifelt awkward at my new found celebrity status.
By the time we reached the top of the square we could see the famous portrait of Mao on the gates leading to the Forbidden city, our next stop, and so we set off for a look around Beijing's second greatest Hillman world wonder, ranking behind only the nearby Great Wall.
We paid the entrance fee and started walking around its vast interior, taking hours just to get from one end of the vast structure to another. The Forbidden city, or the Emperors palace as its also known, was once the home of the emperor of China. Ordinary citizens were not allowed into the city, only servants and the emperors 1000 concubines could share his residence. And the poor old servants had to have their nuts chopped off to be allowed to work in the city, so that any children born of the emperor would be unquestionably his! Theres a job description for you!! The remarkable structure, which is miles of temples, palaces and open courtyards, was made open to the public in the 1920's and has been a huge draw ever since.
The place was fascinating and lavishly decorated with Chinese architecture and symbols, drawing my eye in. After reaching the impressive gardens at the end, with its man-made hills for overlooking the entire structure, we headed again for the exit, our legs complaining of being overworked from the day. We had planned to head for another revered site, the temple of Heaven, next, but we bumped into some very friendly locals who spoke excellent English and after a brief chat and a stroll we were heading for tea. While alarm bells started ringing in my head, John was, for once, slow on the uptake of the risk of a potential scam. Once inside we were shown a price list for a tea ceremony, where a lady was going to make around six different types of tea for us and were told of the different benefits of each.
The price was reasonable, just a few pounds each for the entire ceremony and all the teas, and so we enjoyed an hour of trying the various teas and learning their different medicinal properties from our very professional host. When it came time to pay, I thought the bill looked a little 'out', and on questioning it was told by our host that a service charge and room charge had been added. Since we hadn't been told about this previously I was ticked off, but when one of the ladies who had taken us to this tea room came over to explain things to me and had a totally different reason for the discrepancy, I was downright suspicious. The smart thing to do was to shake the 3 people who had brought us to the tea room, as we had a fair idea by now that they were in on the scam, and their perfect English meant they could argue any point with us.
We quickly lost them outside and poured over the bill, and sure enough, once we worked out all the odds and ends, they were overcharging us for the service. Perhaps overcharge is an overstatement, when you think that they tried to charge us a whopping 80 Pound for the hour!! Yes, 80 Pound sterling, around 120 Euro!! Needless to say we were right back up the stairs to complain, and after a ten minute conversation in which I threatened them with the Police, the British consulate and the Irish army if they'd believe it, we had a full refund. They didn't even try to charge us for the copious amounts of tea we did drink, being so afraid of what the Communist Police would do to them for trying to rip off foreigners!! So I guess alls well that ends well, and the only damage is to my pride since I feel like an idiot after having survived 11 months of attempted scams to fall for this one.
All and all it was an excellent first day in the most polluted city in the world, Beijing. Apparently a day in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes that day! After day one for us we think it was worth it!