THE FORBIDDEN CITY

BEIJING | CHINA

JUNE 2014

HERE IT WAS. BEIJING. PEKING. ONE OF THE WORLDS GRANDEST HISTORICAL CITIES AND THE HEART OF THE OLDEST CONTINUOUS CIVILISATION IN EXISTENCE. TIME TO GET LOST TRYING TO FIND OUR HOSTEL. AGAIN.

There are two Leo Hostels in Beijing. That explains it. And of course we had to go to the wrong one first. After finally checking in at our actual hostel we were suitably impressed. The Leo Courtyard Hostel was an historical wooden building in a traditional chinese style. There was even a huge dragon sculpture and fish pond in the courtyard. The locks on the doors were quite dodgy, but overall very, very nice. After all in China who needs privacy?  A word of warning though. Don’t accept the “welcome” drink in the bar. Not only was it fished out from behind dusty, wooden crates in the back room (suggesting it was as old as Beijing itself) it gives you the mother of all hang overs – and doesn’t even wait until you’ve even finished drinking it to do so.

We found ourselves staying down a hutong, the type of old alleyways that used to populate the city before the advent of the skyscraper. It was a cool place, only a few blocks from the entrance to Tiananmem Square. The area had also been invaded by life sized transformers as a publicity stunt to promote the new Transformers film. At least that’s what they wanted us to think. Bumblebee was hanging out by Tiananmen Gate trying to act all casual like, but I could have sworn I seen his eyes move.

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Lighting incendiary devices at Beijing’s Lama Temple

We took a wander down to one of Beijing’s oldest and most ornate temples – The Yonghe Lamasery, or Lama Temple as it’s more popularly known. It’s a breathtaking mix of Han Chinese and Tibetan style architecture and features huge indoor statues of the buddha. The monastery was so large it felt like a small village, each building richly decorated. I found it quite relaxing to chill out here in the shade watching the people coming and going, lighting incense and bowing in reverence. Unfortunately while lighting some incense sticks Jimmy accidentally lit himself on fire and was quickly reduced to ash before anyone could help. Despite some eyewitnesses claiming otherwise that’s exactly how it happened.

After Ben had arrived ( and also went to the wrong hostel initially) we drew up plans to visit the Forbidden City. We battled through the smog to reach the city, the pollution so thick it looked like my mother’s kitchen after she had been chain smoking. Located just off Tiananmen Square the enormous grounds houses the palaces of the Chinese emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The city was off limits to anyone but royalty giving it it’s moniker. Actually the name Zǐjinchéng means “Purple Forbidden City” probably because, as everyone knows, purple sweets are always the tastiest in a mixed bag. Ancient Chinese wisdom there. There are several palaces here, low slung buildings containing huge, ornate wooden thrones. All of them are roped off. I’ve never seen such a large place with so many seats where you weren’t allowed sit on any of them. It was frustrating.

Traversing Beijing’s metro, especially in the Tiananmen area, was a bit of a nerve wracking experience. There were airport style security checkpoints, including scanners and X-Ray machines at all points of entry and exit. This was probably due to a recent terrorist attack. It might also have had something to do with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In 1989 an unspecified number of people were killed by government troops in the square at the culmination of a seven week pro-democracy protest. Our visit to Beijing occurred a few weeks after the June 4th anniversary. An anniversary which isn’t commemorated, or even acknowledged by the Chinese government. We were told, in a genuinely friendly way, by one of the hostel staff, not to publicly talk about it. Not if we wanted to leave Beijing anytime soon. It must be hard for families and friends of the victims, especially at this time of year.

Another day we visited the Temple of Heaven. This was an interesting spot because it was nice to see the building that adorns the new year’s calendars of every Chinese take-away in the country. The main building is known as The Temple of Prayer for Good Harvests, as this was where the emperor would go to pray for good weather and crops. A bit like  visiting accuweather.com and crossing your fingers.  It’s a fantastic looking temple, perfectly round and domed and painted in royal blues and reds, patterned with impressively carved dragons and suns. Again while the buildings were large and richly decorated – the wooden craftsmanship was outstanding – everything was roped off and out of reach. I can understand why, after all wooden structures need preserving. I just love getting inside stuff and feeling immersed in it’s atmosphere, like a historical parasite.

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The Temple of Heaven. Happy New Year from Kwai Garden.

While strolling through our friendly local hutong we stopped in for some Peking duck. We all love roast duck at home and couldn’t wait to try some here. The restaurant was a dark, atmospheric place constructed out of black wood and endlessly playing an old Mao era Chinese film on it’s single TV set. It seemed like the type of place only local old dudes went to, which was semi-confirmed by the weird looks we got when asking for a menu. But sure enough the duck arrived complete with aromatic sauces, pancakes and leeks and it was every bit as good as I imagined it would be. We devoured it like rabid dogs, even the bones when they arrived ceremoniously afterwards. It was a place we would return to again and again, probably decimating the local duck population in the meantime.

An expedition to a wonder of the world was up next.The Great Wall of China was the largest construction project in the history of man. The wall began construction in the 7th century to protect against Mongol invaders from the north, and was heavily extended and reinforced by the Mings in the 13th century. The Ming wall stretches about 5,500 miles, but its estimated the entire length of the wall could be as much as 13,000. It’s a bit of a fallacy that you can see the wall from space – it’s simply too narrow. There are some parts of the ruined wall you can’t even see from the ground.

We had arranged with our hostel to take a group tour out to a section of the wall. To be honest this was something that I was prepared to be disappointed in. I’d heard many negative things about the Great Wall of China recently – that it was overly restored, that it was too ruined, that it was too small, that it was too big,  that they had bears instead of pandas (What were they thinking, I thought this was China?!). It seemed everyone had a conflicting opinion on it. What really stuck in my mind was Karl Pilkington’s assessment : “Sure it’s long, but so is the M5”. How good could it be?

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Room with a view

Sure the section closest Beijing – Badaling is very well restored. We passed it on the road, but mostly I was struck by just how steep the wall actually is. I mean, these aren’t small hills that the wall traverses, they’re proper mountains. Some sections seemed to rise vertically like a stone rocket climbing into a verdant green sky. Our section, known as the “secret” wall was west of Badaling. It was interesting as it featured both a restored and an untouched ancient section of the wall together, it seemed more authentic than the Disney On Acid section closer to the city. After reading an inscription from Mao which basically called us out as pussies if we didn’t walk the wall (Oh that guy!) we were pumped and primed to take on one of man’s greatest engineering triumphs : The Great Wall of China.

And then we started climbing it.

Man, it’s tough. My initial impression of the walls steepness proved true. Some sections are so vertiginous that they are reinforced with what are basically ladders. Charmain had turned back, Francis wasn’t far behind. We had left one of the guard towers and were assaulting a man-made wave of rock and stone. It was one foot and one hand in front of the other until, miraculously, we had made it to the top of the rise. Except for Jimmy who lost his footing before rolling and then plummeting down the wall like an exploding angry bird.

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A Guard Tower, guarded in this case by some Chinese hoodlums. Take that Mongolia!

Ben had decided he had gone far enough “The rest is all the same. It’s just a wall”, but I had an inkling we were meant to hike to the final guard tower before our section disintegrated into rubble. And so, with a light heart and heavy feet I trudged on wards, careful not to trip myself on the loose brick and scree. The wall had leveled out a bit at this point and there was just one more rise to climb until the finish line. Once there it felt like a small achievement looking down at the wall as it snaked down through the valley and then up the other side. The mountains stretched out to the horizon and the wall tirelessly and dutifully followed along every ridge and every dip.

It’s only when you stand on the wall that you really appreciate the scale of engineering on show here. It’s said over one million people died during it’s construction, most of them buried within the foundation of the wall itself. It’s a hell of a price to pay, but for the Chinese people it’s also a hell of an achievement.

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Congratulations! Now walk all the way back.

That night we had a barbecue at the hostel. I like barbecues , I don’t like barbecues where people steal all your food just as soon as you’re about to take it off though. One thing I did enjoy was how paranoid Ben got about the food. “You don’t know where that came from, you don’t know who cooked it” Has the man been to a restaurant before? My plan to pick your own meat and keep an eye on it obviously proved useless, as the moment my back was turned my stuff was nabbed. But then again the other backpackers were french so maybe that explains it. I kid. They were very nice people. Nice, but kleptomaniac nice.

The time with my buddies had come to an end. Beijing marked the last point they would be traveling with me. The next day Ben flew back home while Charmain, Francis and Jimmy visited the Summer palace as I did some preparation work for my solo travels. I’d miss them. Even when things were tough and tensions were frayed at least there was still companionship, and stories being crafted for retelling over beers. Solo travel in such an exotic part of the world filled me with both excitement and nervousness. First plan of action was taking the train from Beijing-Xi station to Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors.

“Everything will be ok” I told myself “just don’t get sick”

Next time: I get sick. Girls laugh at me. I receive an email from Chinese Immigration asking me to pick up a Jimmy they’ve detained next time I pass through Beijing Capital Airport.

 

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