Writing to you from our first Chinese night train which is currently whisking us towards Shanghai. So far don't think it's as bad as first expected (apart from the ridiculous music which plays throughout the entire train) but we're only 90 minutes in with 12 and a half hours to go so this could all change. Best train snack though are Chinese pot noodles which are gigantic and delicious!!
Lot to update as we've both had a ridiculously busy few days in Beijing. We met our tour group on Monday night which we were both a bit apprehensive about. Obviously travelling with a group of strangers for 17 days is a bit of a daunting prospect. Thankfully, so far they've proved to be really nice! We're travelling on a GAdventures tour which is less structured than the typical tour group and designed for younger backpackers. We all met in the hotel bar and the only negative was our tour leader Sabrina's incessant use of words like 'YOLO' (you only live once) and 'spreading happiness' in a non-ironic capacity.
We went out for our first group dinner (after some ultra-embarrassing icebreaking introductions) which was really good. The group has a really good mix of nationalities- British, American, Australian, Brazilian and German. Ordering for a group is great in China as it all goes in the middle so we got to try loads- sweet and sour, Kung po prawns, broccoli, aubergine, rice and beef and potato all on a lazy Susan! Only down point of the meal was noticing a cat sat on the extractor fan in the kitchen just as we finished....was pretty funny though.
After dinner we went for a couple of drinks but not that many because we had to meet at 7.30am (ouch) for our following days excursion. The early start wasn't too bad because it was for something we had been waiting to do for a while- the Great Wall of China. We got the bus to Mutianyu which is one of the sites and walked up a small market at the base of the hill leading up to the wall. The group split as we got the cable car while some of the others walked (we weren't in a trekking mood so early). The cable car was ridiculous as instead of braking it just crashed into the floor to stop. We did arrive safely though and saw the Great Wall which is huge! It stretches for 8800km and when you're on it it goes as far as the eye can see on both sides. It's pretty impressive and walking along it is cool especially navigating the steep staircases. We took some ridiculous tourist photos and walked a few kilometres along meeting a crazy Chinese lady called Linda who took about 25 photos with us!
After our walk we decided to take the funniest route back down, the toboggan!! Essentially an utter genius has installed a big metal slide which you can ride down on a toboggan with a handbrake- so weird but cool. The ride was awesome although we were slowed down by a few timid people in front. Unfortunately, when we reached the bottom all was not so good as there was a guy lying there who had seemingly suffered a heart attack and paramedics were trying to revive him. Not so nice to see and we both hope he was ok.
We headed back to the bus and were proclaimed 'heroes' by Sabrina (another annoying term) which was followed by an impromptu Chinese lesson/drill. Neither of us can grasp mandarin whatsoever and it seems to be a very complicated language!!! A quick rest stop at the hotel and a much needed shower later and we headed back out for another dinner. This was different style Chinese food and it was much spicier. Also encountered chickens feet which were absolutely disgusting! Another few quiet drinks in a local bar and another early night as another busy day was looming the following day!!
The next day we hit some of the most famous Beijing attractions including Tian'anmen Square, The Forbidden City, the Hutongs and the Bell and Drum Towers. Quick synopsis of each below-
1) The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is a huge palace complex which was founded in the Ming Dynasty. It is vast and it takes a good two hours just to walk through it. For such a huge tourist attraction, I was pretty disappointed. Some of the stories surrounding the emperors harem of concubines (we did initially think the guide was talking about porcupines) were quite interesting but a lot of the palace was very repetitive and each courtyard was the same as the last.
2) Tian'anmen Square
Tian'anmen square was interesting to walk around particularly with the ultra-high levels of security everywhere. We really wanted to go to the Mao Mausoleum but Sabrina forgot to tell us we needed to bring our passports so we weren't allowed entry.
3) The Hutongs
This was probably our favourite part of the day! We took a trishaw ride around the Hutongs which are the old streets around Beijing where a lot of people still live. We looked at two completely different houses set around courtyards. The first was owned by the government and rooms are rented to families on welfare for less than £2 a month! Several families will live in an incredibly small space though. Next door, the house was privately owned by a retired Beijing Opera singer and this was a huge contrast. It was really spacious and per square metre it was worth £20,000!!!
4) The Bell and Drum Towers
These are set in the Hutong district across a small park from each other. They were built as a way of waking people up for work (5am) although they obviously aren't still used for that! We walked up the steepest flight of stairs in the drum tower and watched a drum show which was pretty cool!!
During the course of the day we also had instant noodles sitting on the pavement (starting a trend amongst the locals) because it was the only food we could find, listened to several more irritating 'Sabrinaisms' and met this guy.....
After another taste of Peking Duck (not as good as the first time) we decided to all head out to the Wang Fu night market. Rob, Olly and Sam (2 of the other guys we're travelling with), got lost on the streets of Beijing. Cue Rob's adventure story:
"We were initially with the rest of the group, albeit at the very back, walking down a huge street towards the market. After quite a bit of chatting we noticed that those ahead were becoming less visible, a few minutes later we looked up again and they were totally gone! We figured they must just be further up the street so we ploughed on some more, until it became very clear that they had turned off somewhere, nowhere to be seen. All we knew was that we needed to get to the night market, but couldn't remember it's Chinese name. Reaching a huge crossroads there was a policeman on the left who was chatting up some girl and I thought I'd brave asking for directions. When miming eating a skewer I accidentally made another gesture which signals something a bit rude. The policeman looked incredibly startled and tried to keep a straight face while Ollie was chuckling in the background. After ringing Rebecca and asking another passerby I asked again adding the words Wang Fu and scorpion to the mix, this time Sam and Ollie noticed the faux pas and couldn't stop laughing. Needless to say, we never made it to the night market. Stopped off for a 40p beer on the way back to the bar"
But I found the market and it was crazy. Dog, cat, starfish, insects, crickets......every animal was sold deep fried. The absolutely vile smell put me off trying anything but I did hold a live scorpion and Emily (another travel companion) ate a gross-looking cricket. Very strange experience particularly with the various street vendors making animal noises.
After the night market and finally finding the 3 guys we had a bit of a messy night involving a lot of beer, some 3am dumplings which a Chinese family cooked us and eventually getting to bed at 4.30am (the only time I've ever seen Beijing relatively quiet!!)
Today was our last day in Beijing, and after a much needed lie-in and some greasy burgers, we headed to the Silk Market which was huge and sold everything....electronics, clothes, shoes, fake bags, fake trainers, fake everything in fact. The vendors were all a bit mental and came out with some classics such as 'nice face lady'. After a few impulse purchases, and having to walk around with Ollie and Sam looking like this......
.... at which point two hysterical chinese girls cornered us, we headed to the train station and that pretty much brings us up to date. The train is jolting loads and I'm on the top bed in a 6 berth cabin (so essentially very high) which is slightly concerning. The toilets are vile (essentially a hole above the tracks) but apart from that I'm pretty comfy. Hitting the hay now and will hopefully wake up in 8 hours nearly in Shanghai! Good night!!
P.s. now posting this on the hotel wifi and needless to say my 8hour plan wasn't very successful :(