This blog is now running two countries behind my actual location. I’m in Russia now, writing this in a yurt on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal; who knows when and where I’ll post it. Before Olkhon we spent twenty-four hours in Irkutsk, and before that was Mongolia.
Beijing already seems like it was months ago. Over on Chris’s blog you can read about his hellish morning spent trying to get a Mongolian visa, a nightmare I was blissfully unaware of at the time. While Chris was dashing back and forth across Beijing I was asleep at the Red Lantern House, recovering from my horrible flights the day before. I woke up late, had a lovely hot shower and had just started work my last blog post when Chris burst into the room in a dreadful panic, updated me about his visa tribulations and galloped back off again.
We met up a bit later, after his passport was safely handed over to the Mongolian embassy, and went to Tiananmen Square. It was much as I remembered it, although it had a more relaxed feel. This was it for that day. Chris was experiencing an emotional hangover from the stress of the morning and I was still full of cold and recovering from the aforementioned flights; we took the rest of the day off.
The next day we went to the Summer Palace, a place I strongly remembered from my last time in China. It certainly lived up to my memories. In the heavy heat haze the place looked incredibly beautiful as views across the lake appeared and disappeared out of the mist. We spent most of the day walking around the lake, then had to get through the crowded palaces at quite a clip when we realised that it was almost time for the last boat back to central Beijing; in fact we ended up missing the boat, which left at a stupidly early 4pm.
That evening Chris and I went to a street stall for dinner that he had already visited when he first arrived. It was run by a very friendly couple who recognised Chris as ‘the English teacher’ as we approached. We sat down and I was astounded to hear how well Chris could speak Mandarin. We stayed there all evening, drinking tea and gossiping like old friends – or rather, with Chris talking and me nodding and occasionally miming things.
The following morning we got up early to visit the Great Wall; we were booked on to a tour organised by our hostel. I had quite dim memories of the Wall from my last visit – all I can really remember was the surreal experience of being mobbed like a minor rock star by Chinese tourists who had never seen a Westerner before. People would shove their well-wrapped babies at you and take a photo of you holding them. When we were at the Forbidden City this time round people were still trying to take photos of Chris and I, either overtly or by rather unsubtle covert means. But last time on the Great Wall it happened far more often.
We arrived at the Wall and decided to take advantage of the cable car up to the top, which was pretty expensive but left us with more time on the Great Wall itself. Again there was a heavy heat haze that obscured all but the faint silhouette of the Great Wall, up on a ridge above us. It was such a familiar sight it was difficult to realise that I was actually there.
Up at the top, the Wall stretched away endlessly in both directions. We picked one section and headed off up the steep, uneven steps. Chris skipped off ahead, as sure-footed and sprightly as a mountain goat while I panted and trembled along in his wake, feeling terribly unfit and convinced that I was about to lose my footing. After a while I grew a bit more confident and began to take in my surroundings, though it was still difficult to believe I was walking on the Great Wall of China. We had been taken to a slightly more distant section so it wasn’t as crowded as other parts can apparently get, especially towards the beginning. The crowds had begun to build by the time we left.
By the time we had been to the end of the first section and back my legs had stopped trembling out of fear of falling off the wall and started trembling with exhaustion instead. Chris still looked fresh, so I told him to head off on to the next section without me and we arranged to meet back by the toboggan run, which was to be our means of getting back down from the hillside. As soon as he’d bounded out of sight, muttering about ‘testing himself,’ I began to doubt whether he would be back at the time we had arranged and mentally moved our meeting time back by half an hour, accepting that we would be late for lunch.
Meanwhile I went for a far more gentle stroll along the other section of the Wall, taking a good many photos. I found a particularly good vantage spot and sat down, feeling like I was waiting for something other than Chris, though I wasn’t sure what it was. About ten or fifteen minutes later I worked it out – I was waiting for myself to realise that I was on the Great Wall. The realisation came at the same time, and I asked a passing tourist to take a photo of me to mark the moment. After that I sat there for a good while longer, soaking it in.
My estimation of Chris’s lateness proved to be fairly exact. He arrived looking apologetic and soaked in sweat, almost half an hour late. I genuinely didn’t mind as the humid heat had destroyed my appetite for lunch, and he looked really satisfied at having run to the point he had set himself as a target and back. We got the toboggan down the hill – I had been a bit nervous of the idea at first, but it was brilliant fun, although you couldn’t go very fast as there was quite a lot of traffic on the run. There was still plenty of time to have lunch before we got back in the minivan, and we got to know the other people in our group – a lovely English family who lived in France and two other women, one of whom had been teaching in Nepal.
When we got back to Beijing there was still quite a lot of afternoon left, so we went around a Confucian temple – a very atmospheric and serene place, although I am none the wiser about Confucianism for having been round it. Then we went on to dinner in a street that seemed to be Beijing’s answer to Dalston – full of hipsters and good but bloody expensive trendy restaurants. We ate in a brilliant vegetarian place with a great short menu from which it was almost impossible to choose your dinner as everything sounded so good. It was strange, though perhaps not terribly surprising, to find that hipsterdom is uniform in its expression across the globe. Although I liked the restaurant, I didn’t like the weird feeling that I could be in any trendy part of any town around the world.
The next day we went to the Forbidden City, where I was supremely disappointed to discover that the old audioguide tour, voiced by Roger Moore himself, had been replaced by a crap new one narrated by a Chinese woman who didn’t really inject any sense of life or personality into the palace. I was completely knackered and so was Chris, so we walked around in a bit of a daze. I bought a jade bracelet – I’ve decided to get a bracelet from every country I pass through on this trip. The afternoon was taken up with various dull-yet-important bits of preparation for our first Trans-Siberian train. In the evening we went for a late dinner at a Beijing roast duck restaurant where we were both pleased to discover that it wasn’t too different from the duck you get in Chinese restaurants in England, although it was far juicier than any I’ve had at home, and far less expensive.
Thus went my second trip to China, in a blur of sightseeing, eating and bureaucracy. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, we went off to the station to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar. I left the country in a less than stylish manner. My stomach has always reacted to extreme humid heat with sudden bouts of sickness, and this finally hit home at the station, just as we were about to get on the train. While Chris worked out which carriage we were in I threw up several times down the gap between the train and the platform, then got on the train, then jumped straight back off to throw up again right in front of our carriage attendant, who gave me a sympathetic, wary look every time he saw me after that. The last bout made me feel a lot better and I sat back in relief as we pulled out of Beijing, wallowing in the excitement of being on my first Trans-Siberian train.
Ahead lay Mongolia, wild camping, the Naadam festival and days of horse trekking, but that will have to wait for another post.