13.11.2012 - 19.11.2012 6 °C
Our flight to Beijing unsurprisingly did not run smoothly, we don't seem to have the best of luck when it comes to airports. We arrived at Chiang Mai airport early for our 3pm flight, only to be told it had been pushed back to 7pm, meaning we would miss our connecting flight to Beijing and have to stop overnight in Kunming. We were told that we would be provided with accommodation and put on the same flight to Beijing the next day. This was however not as simple as you might think. Arriving in Kunming to a huge airport where no one spoke a word of English meant it wasn't the easiest task trying to explain our situation. We eventually were taken by a minibus to an enormous, unfriendly hotel and told we would be picked up at 6 o'clock the next day for our 8 o'clock flight. We assumed, as we had been told that we would be put on the same flight as our previous flight, that this meant 6pm. We assumed wrong. We were awoken at 5:45am the next morning by a loud banging on the door and a man who didn't speak any English, loudly shouting something incomprehensible before walking off down the corridor. Shaun, half asleep and completely bewildered, stood in the hotel corridor in nothing but his boxers is not a sight I will not forget anytime soon. After about five minutes it suddenly clicked that we were supposed to be downstairs and waiting for the bus. By the time we eventually made it on to the plane we were asleep before take off.
On arriving in Beijing, it didn't take long for us to realise that the culture and customs here are so completely different than anything we'd ever experienced. One of the first things we noticed is that everyone spits, and I mean really clear their throat and phlegm everywhere; in the airport, on the streets, on a bus. It's perfectly acceptable. Also, farting. Big stinking farts are let off in most public places, and no one even bats an eyelid, never mind laughs. Also burping and blowing snot onto the floor seem to be deemed acceptable... but if you stand your chopsticks up in your rice, now that's rude. Maybe we're too reserved about our bodily functions back in England, but I think for now I prefer it that way! People do tend to come across a little abrupt here and queuing is nonexistent. There is however a lot of pushing and shoving. But I guess with a population on 1.3 billion, being overly polite won't get you very far. Another thing that shouldn't have shocked us but did was the fact that no one spoke even a little English. People also quite reasonably expected us to be able to speak Chinese, and couldn't quite comprehend the fact that we couldn't. When we looked blank and confused as they talked at us in Chinese, they tried to write out the Chinese characters for us instead, which were even more alien to us than the language. This did make it difficult to get around and order food, but with a lot of gesticulating and pointing, we usually managed. Another thing we found strange is that for reasons unbeknown to us, young kids walk around with a split down their trousers and their bare arse on show. Strange. But probably the biggest shock to us was that you couldn't access Facebook. We definitely felt very far from home.
Beijing is huge, and there is so much going that you have a complete sensory overload just walking down the street. Inanimate objects talk at you, music (predominantly badly sung power ballads) is blasted from shops, people shout at you from market stalls, the traffic is unbelievable, the crowds are immense, the smog is thick and it was so cold! Not long after arriving we quickly escaped the madness in a quiet restaurant where we tried the famous Beijing roast duck. It was probably the most delicious thing we'd had so far on our trip, and put us in a much better mood to go out and explore the city.
One of the first things we did in Beijing was visit the Great Wall. It was a little touristy, and Shaun wasn't keen on fact that the easiest way to reach the wall was by cable car, and the easiest way down was by toboggan. He thought it didn't really feel right to be tobogganing down one the wonders of the world, but I thought it was fun. The heavily restored part of the wall was also lined with angry Chinese women trying to sell us overpriced drinks and souvenirs, but once you walked to end of the typically touristy part to the un-restored, dilapidated section that was crumbling and covered in trees, it was quite peaceful and you could start to appreciate the magnitude of it. It really does look impressive snaking its way across the majestic mountains. It took over 2000 years to build and around 1 million people died building it. We spent 3 hours trekking along the wall and I was taking pictures every few feet. Shaun didn't seem to see the point in this as he said that once you'd seen one part of the wall, you'd seen the wall, and if he was in charge of the camera he would have taken 2 pictures: one of the wall, and one of him on the wall. Sometimes I feel like I'm travelling with Karl Pilkington.
When we arrived back at the hostel, we found that they were having a dumpling party, where you get to learn how to make your own steamed dumplings and then eat them. I don't think we really grasped how to make the dumplings as the girls teaching us kept laughing at our attempts, but they tasted alright and it was a good way to meet people!
The next day we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I'm not sure Shaun wanted to walk with me as I was wearing my anorak and listening to an audio guide. We then walked to the top of an artificial hill that was made from the earth excavated from the moat around the Forbidden City, to get a good view of the whole thing (or as good a view as you can get through the smog). We then went to the food markets that had every type of delicacy you would wish for, and some that you wouldn't. Sea urchins, live scorpions, whole baby ducks, toads. If they could fit it on a skewer it was for sale. Shaun tried the snake, and a kebab. I stuck to fried dumplings and noodle soup. That night we went to a traditional Chinese acrobatic show that had a not so traditional finale of 5 motorbikes whizzing around the inside of a metal ball. We also went to the Temple of Heaven Park, where people were practicing rhythmic gymnastics. Out of the 3 of us (me, Shaun and an Australian girl called Taryn) Shaun was the only one who could actually do it. One of his many masculine talents. We went to the Silk markets, where you can buy any piece of 'designer' clothing you could wish for. And if you bargain right you usually only have to pay 10% of the original price. We both treated ourselves to Jumpers as we were extremely unprepared for the freezing temperatures of Beijing. That night we went out for a meal with a friend of Shaun's dad who has lived in Beijing for 5 years. His wife and 2 beautiful children also came and they took us to an amazing restaurant just outside of the city centre. Because, unlike us they knew exactly what to order it was the best meal we'd ever had! Duck in pancakes, duck meat stuffed into hollowed out bread rolls, prawns, egg, tofu and a whole fish that they brought out alive to show us before it was cooked to make sure it was the right size. They were such a nice family and we had a lovely night getting to know them and playing with their kids. On our last day in Beijing we went to the summer palace, which although is magnificent, I think Shaun had reached his tolerance limit of ancient Chinese architecture, and we left early to go and find some food. I think we both agree that one of the best things about China so far has been the food, the majority of the time we haven’t actually known exactly what we've been eating as we've just pointed at pictures or at other people's plates, but we haven't yet tried anything that we haven't liked!
Beijing has been incredibly hectic (and after experiencing the Beijing subway I will never again say the London underground is overcrowded), but although we're now completely exhausted we've thoroughly enjoyed our time here and met some really nice people. Despite the culture shock I think we're really embracing the experience and I wish I had more time here. On saying that I think Shaun is definitely ready to get out of the city and head down to the more laid back Yunnan province in the South of China.