In a vague attempt to catch up on the last 3 months, I’m going to keep this one brief as possible 😉
I’ve arrived from Kashgar in Beijing which is a jolt to the system. It’s been 24 years since my last visit. The waves of bicycles have gone, replaced by horn blaring traffic, but it’s not the congested smog-infested megalopolis I’d braced myself for. Don’t believe everything you read in the news. Sure it’s grown vastly over that time, but somehow it has a small city feel to it still. To Beijing’s infinite benefit, the metro system runs everywhere, is dirt cheap and runs like clockwork – if they could just do away with the airport bag scanners at every station it would be near perfect.
I’ve got 6 days to kill while I wait for my Mongolian visa to process (one extra thanks to the clueless taxi driver who got lost and delivered me to the embassy 2 minutes after it closed), so I throw myself into some of the many tourist traps on offer. 24 years ago there was next to no domestic tourism, and hardly any foreign tourism. I’d enjoyed many of these sites almost to myself at the time – I’m guessing this time around I won’t be so lucky, but a bit of stealth planning, hitting sites early, going to the less known sites in the weekend, it’s not too bad all things considered.
First stop, the 18th Century Lama Temple, a jumble of temples and overlapping ornate rooftops, huge frescoes and smoking incense cauldrons. Inside the temples are some imposing statues including an 18 metre high Tibetan Buddha and a wildly colourful lamasery draped in a rich rainbow of prayer flags and banners. The smoky, incense leaden air and dark interior is a blissful retreat from the heat and noise of the chaotic street outside. Taking time out here it’s easy to forget you smack in the middle of one of the world’s largest and most modern cities.
Down a small street from the Lama Temple is another sanctuary from the wild streets, the Confucius Temple where an atmosphere of impassive tranquillity greets you the moment you step through the ornate archways. Some of the buildings here date from the 14th Century, the timelessness seems to permeate everything. Towards the back is a forest of 190 stelae with each of the 13 Confucian tomes inscribed using over 600,000 characters.
Standing on what was the outskirts of Beijing in ‘92, the Summer Palace is largely unchanged, though the painted walkways along the lakeside are looking a little worse for wear. I have fun memories of trying to find my way out this place back in the day, now it’s a short 20 minute metro ride from the centre of town. The biggest change (apart from the mass of tour buses parked outside) is the proliferation of ticketed entry gates within ticketed entry gates – user pays rules supreme in modern China. The Summer Palace was built as a retreat for the royal entourage to escape the cloying heat of the city but I’m not noticing the benefit today – it’s a hazy, humid day (or is that smoggy?) but still great to wander around. There are crowds here but it could be worse and with a bit of effort it’s easy enough to find some space with relatively few people, particularly up on the hill where it requires a bit of legwork to get to.
The day I choose to go to the Forbidden City turns out to be scorchio, one of those days that the heat feels blinding. On the plus side, it keeps the crowds away, and as an afternoon heat shower passes through, what people there are run for cover in a panic as if the sprinkling of water will burn like acid … actually, now I think of it, maybe they were wiser to Beijing atmospheric conditions than me and were wondering what the stupid guilo was doing out there in amongst it all … maybe that’s what turned his hair white. Outside the gates I’m approached by two women running one of the oldest hustles in the books: “we’re students wanting to practice our English, can we walk with you?”. “Uh, yeah, sure. Say, is that scam I see written on your forehead?”. Sure enough, 10 minutes later they invite me into a café where I insist on seeing a menu first and see that a pot of tea costs $20. Nice try. I wander off and find an ice cold beer for 50 cents, follow that up soon afterwards with another ice cold beer for 50 cents and come out of the deal $19 better for it.
I manage to lose a couple of days wandering the Hutong districts – medieval blocks of maze-like alleyways filled with funky bars, cafés and boutiques, and the usual melange of Beijing streetlife, narrow enough that you wouldn’t expect to see traffic on though of course the local drivers have other ideas … Sights, smells, good food, rooftop patios, easy to become intentionally lost here.
A climb up Jingshang Park hill offers a very hazy view across the Forbidden City and nearby Behai Park just off the is another blissful retreat from the noisy and clammer of the Beijing streets.
Just enough time to soak it all in before grabbing my Mongolian visa and get my stuff together for the train up to Ulan Bataar … Mongolia beckons but there’s a few days in hand for an excursion north to the Great Wall, the old royal palaces of Chengde and a loop out to the coast. And a chance to sample some of the Beijing specialities …