Beijing! We’ve spent the past few days visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. Everything here is huge. Twenty million people live in this one city (two thirds of Canada’s total population). Everyone here has been just as friendly, but we no longer have the same foreigner caché as we did in other places in China. We’re nothing special here.

Our train trip from Datong to Beijing was perfect. We were a bit nervous about taking the for first time in China. Train stations, or any major transportation hub, really, are stressful places. Especially since you don’t know the system, where to go, which numbers are the car number vs seat number vs platform, etc. And we can’t read signs. Or ask for directions.

We visited the train station in Datong the day before. It took us about an hour to get there. Things are deceptively far away in Chinese cities. We took in the city sights as we trumped along the wide boulevards and roundabouts jammed with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Scheduled to leave Datong at 8:30am the next morning, we wanted to go inside the station and figure things out while we didn’t have our big backpacks on. However, major train and bus stations in China have police security checks with metal detectors at the entrances, and Datong is no exception. You can’t enter the station without a valid same-day ticket and passport. So, we just stared at the place and resigned ourselves to doing the figuring-out in the moment the next day. As a dear friend of ours always says, “What to do?” The correct answer is, “nothing.”

A police officer approached us and asked if we needed help. She must have noticed our perplexed and disappointed faces. Why else would someone just stand at the entrance to a train station and stare, pointing and looking around, while people were running into the station to make their trains. She was very nice and explained everything to us, including which number on our ticket was the car number, and which the seat numbers. She even explained where our waiting room would be. It was better than trying to go in and figure it out on our own.

The next day we knew exactly what to do, showed our tickets and passports to the police officer at one of the entrance gates and went in to the station, found our waiting room and went right on to the platform and our train.

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We found our car but couldn’t figure out where our seats were. Assuming that the seat numbers didn’t mean anything and were used instead to count passengers, we just picked two empty seats and sat down. At exactly the stated time — 8:33 AM — the train lurched forward and slowly left the station. Not long afterward, the car conductor approached us and asked for our tickets, then pointed to the other end of the car and tried to make us understand that we were in the wrong seats. We followed her to the right ones.

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We ended up seated next to one of the sweetest people we’ve met. Ever. We never got her name, but she was a young woman traveling from a city in Shanxi province (a bit further away than Datong) all the way to Fuzhou in Fujian province. About 26 hours in total. She was sort of sleeping when we joined her, but raised her head as we (Scott) banged around clumsily trying to step on the seats to put the backpacks in the overhead rack.

We sat there quietly listening to iPods for a little while, then pulled out the tasty Chinese potato chips we like. Scott gently touched her shoulder to offer her a chip, which she politely refused. But she was smiling widely now. When the treat cart came through, she waved the man over and, rooting around on his cart, purchased some snacks, including a bag of sunflower seeds which she opened and offered, putting a little pile in front of each of us and a plastic bag in the middle of the table for all of us to use. We spent quite a while silently trading smiles, trying to pry the shells loose from the tasty seeds (which were flavoured inside the shell, somehow…).

 

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Well into the trip, and enjoying the countryside — even spying some very decrepit sections of the Great Wall here and there — we stopped at a major station and quite a few passengers got on. Several male passengers boarded the train and stopped at our seats looking confused. There ensued some hub bub among the surrounding passengers which we didn’t understand, but could tell that it had something to do with the seats we were in. We figured out that, though we were seated together by the conductor, and despite being assigned seats 4 and 5, our seats weren’t actually next together. Seat 4 was by the window on the left side of the train, seat 5 was on the aisle on the right side of the train. So, of course, one of us was sitting in a young man’s seat. But everyone was too polite to tell us.

Our young treat-sharing companion did some explaining to some of the new passengers who were meant to sit in our section. When the conductor got back on the train she explained everything to everyone, and the young man sat next to Scott across the aisle. Scott turned and thanked him, “Xie, xie.” The young man said, “no problem,” and smiled. He spoke English!! Thus, ensued a long conversation with Yao Jun, a young man from Datong, who lives in Beijing. We really enjoyed speaking to Yao, his English is superb and he very patiently answered all of our questions. We hope we didn’t come across as too starved for conversation.

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A woman came through the car with packages of strawberry ice cream (or frozen yoghurt, we’re not sure). The young woman across from Karen eagerly called her over and bought one. Karen looked at the tastiness and decided a sweet, frozen strawberry treat could not be missed and pulled out a 5 Yuan bill. Scott took a pass. The young woman was utterly delighted that she and Karen were both eating the treat together and asked Scott to take their photo with her camera. It was very sweet, indeed. She watched Karen offer Scott some of her strawberry ice cream, and Scott again made a face and passed. So, cheekily, she called the ice cream man over and bought another, sort of pretending it was a second helping for her. But Scott had a funny feeling, watching her smirks, that she intended to mug him with it, instead. Yup. A few minutes later, she made a gesture to say she was full and then laughing, plopped the ice cream in front of Scott, who reluctantly smiled and, feeling compelled by politeness, started to peel back the paper covering and gingerly dipping the wooden spoon into the cup. Mmmmmmm. It was very entertaining for her. And for Karen. Hardy har har har.

Scott and Yao continued chatting as the train rolled through beautiful mountain valleys, coming in and out of tunnels carved in the mountain sides. At one point in the conversation we pulled out our laptop to show both of our new friends some of the photos we took in Wutaishan. The young woman knew a lot about the area because it was close to her family home. In fact, looking at our photos, she knew we were there around March 23 because she saw the snow. Karen did her best to explain the photos with hand signals. She seemed so happy to see our photos. With Yao’s help I told her I wished we knew more Chinese and that it was silly we didn’t learn more before we came. She smiled and said, if she came to Canada she would only be able to say “yes” and “no.” And then smiled and laughed, making us feel better.

When the fruit cart came down the isle the young woman again waved him down and bought a whole package of Strawberries – a real treat. And then handed all three of us (Yao, Scott and Karen) two strawberries each. Refusing to let us pay for anything. It was very generous. We suspected she was returning from a visit home and now going back to work in a factory in the southeast. She wouldn’t make very much money. We were humbled that she chose to spend her wages on two people she didn’t know and who couldn’t even say thank you properly.

It was about six and a half hours before we arrived in Beijing Xi (Beijing West) station, the same station we will be leaving for Lhasa from. Our young female friend had very little time to transfer to her next train, so we said goodbye with a wave and then waited for everyone else to get off before unloading our packs. Yao was very kind to hang back and make sure we got off and knew where to go. The station is quite large, probably about as big as the Vancouver International Airport. Yet, it’s only the second-largest train station in Beijing. China’s a big place.

Yao explained where to get a taxi, then made his way to the bus for another two hour journey home in north Beijing. We were so grateful for his kind help. We are keeping in touch with him by email and hope that one day he’ll come to Canada where we can show him around.

Beijing is massive. It’s not quite what we expected, lacking the soaring high-rises of Hong Kong. Instead, it’s a rather low-built city, and extremely spread out… more like Los Angeles. It’s gigantic. It’s also quite polluted, but not as bad as we’ve heard. A lot has been done to improve the air quality in recent years, especially since the Olympics are set to begin in just a few months.

Our usual habit of walking from place to place is futile here in Beijing given the distances. On our second day, we easily figured out how to use the Beijing Metro, a fast, cheap (2 RMB), modern subway. Must be one of the world’s largest. It gets tiring using the phrase, “world’s largest,” but in China it’s often the only description that fits.

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Luckily, our hotel is about 25 minutes walking distance from Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Needless to stay, these were our first stops. Tiananmen Square is stunning. You can’t get a sense of the scale and spread of the place without visiting it. It’s awe-inspiring. Helping inspire the awe is the equally massive police and security presence. It’s a bit discomfiting at first. The Palace Museum (Forbidden City) is equally impressive. But there are droves of people, even in low season. We just couldn’t imagine this place in the busy season. We’ve spent our time in China with many sites almost to ourselves. And if not alone in human company, we’ve been for the most part the only foreign tourists. Not here. “Throng” takes on a whole new meaning. Crowds here are an order of magnitude bigger than anywhere else. However, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are must-see destinations for anyone who visits China. The image of Mao on the side of the red gate in Tiananmen Square defines iconic.

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But of course everyone thinks of the Great Wall when they think of China, which brings us to yesterday’s adventure…..

We wanted to see the Great Wall at Jinshanling. This was a little trickier than we thought. Probably because it’s still just the end of low season. We asked Ian for advice after we met a couple of dead ends; he suggested the best way was using a taxi and having them wait for us at the site. Jinshanling is a long way out of Beijing, about three hours’ drive. But the alternatives are quite developed and consequently see thousands of tourists each day — a lot more throng than we want. Jinshanling is still developed, but because it’s far away, it sees a lot fewer people. Having been to the Forbidden City and experienced crowds, with a capital C, we wanted to avoid them if possible.

We decided to contact CITS in Beijing and at the last moment they came through with a private car, driver and guide that cost just a little more than a taxi would, so we went with them. Plus, it included a lunch.

Our day at Jinshanling was utterly spectacular. The weather was clear for miles, largely due to the unusually high winds lately, the sky was blue and cloudless, and we were actually alone on the Great Wall for a couple of hours. Incredible. It was definitely worth the cost and effort to get here. We were picked up by our guide, Lou, and a driver at our hotel very early (7AM), and it still took over an hour to get out of Beijing on a Saturday, due to traffic.

On the way to the wall, we watched the scenery and chatted with our guide. But every few seconds we noticed a strange noise emanating from up front by the driver seat. A sort of buzzing sound that would start up slowly, and then go for a few seconds before dying away. It wasn’t car noise. Maybe it was a mobile phone? But why didn’t someone answer the thing? Karen thought maybe it was the driver’s watch, because every time he raised his arm a little, the sound got louder. It was remarkably similar to the noise a cricket makes. But obviously, it wouldn’t be that.

Scott finally had to ask about the noise. Both the driver and the guide made no signs of even hearing the sound. So finally Scott said, “that noise sounds just like a cricket.”

“It is a cricket,” said Lou. “The driver has one as a pet. I thought it was a cell phone.”

Sure enough, in the driver’s jacket breast pocket, was a little carry case made of dried gourd with a carved wooden top. Inside, a large cricket, or guo guo in Chinese, chirped happily away! Pretty neat. Turns out the driver feeds him carrots and carries him around in his pocket always. We asked if he had a name. The driver said his name is “Happy.” A good name, indeed.

In about three hours, we reached the wall. There are no words to describe it. The photos don’t even do it justice – but we’ve given you a lot to look at anyway. :-). The Great Wall is truly a “Wunduh”, as the Idiot Abroad would put it. Mao once said that, “until you reach the Great Wall, you’re no hero.”

Nixon said, “only a great people, with a great history, could build a great wall.” Indeed, Tricky Dick, indeed… Everyone should visit it at least once. We’re just glad they weren’t there when we were.

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It’s our final day in Beijing. We leave in an hour or so. Up until a few minutes ago, we weren’t sure we’d be getting on our train to Lhasa. We had expected to hear back from Tony about our Tibet permits days ago. Each day we heard nothing, we got a little more concerned. He had been so responsive up to now. But suddenly we were getting nothing from him.

Almost literally at the last minute, we received an message from Tony. He had a list of five people whose permits were approved. And a list of dozens (if not hundreds) more whose applications were denied. We were among the five. For whatever reason, we got lucky. The good Tony has come through for us.

If all goes as planned, we will leave for Lhasa tonight. It will take 44 hours to make our way across China aboard the highest train in the world. According to TibetTravel.org:

“In a conclusion, Tibet Train is such a train full of caring, known as the best Train exploring on the roof of the word (sic).”

Obviously, we’re excited!

We are not sure how much internet we will have in Lhasa – we may not be able to write or email until we cross the overland border into Nepal sometime after April 9th. So, don’t panic if you hear nothing from us again for a little while.

 

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