Transsiberian Part 13 - Beijing
Beijing! The capital of the People's Republic of China and the last stop on the official route of the Transmongolian (well, as official as it could ever be I guess). For us, it's our first stop in China before we depart for the South. Our train winds into Beijing Station, past skyscrapers, residential blocks, highways and all manner of industrial buildings, giving us a small glimpse into this immense city. The station itself has back-lit adverts, LED signs and shiny floors; all clues to the fact that this is a modern, and above all, rich capital city (and one that has embraced consumerism whilst remaining communist).
Exiting the station, you are assaulted by the sheer busy-ness of the scene! Huge TV Screen, massive signs, gargantuan buildings and hordes of people. It noisy, crowded and already you can taste the smoke and smog that Beijing has become famous for. It's not too bad today, but combined with the cloud and mist, you can only just make out the skyscrapers looming not too far away, in the gloom. We hunt for an ATM (not easy) and a taxi (even harder) to get to our hostel.
Our hostel is located in the area of Beijing famous for it's Hutongs - classic Chinese housing, like you see in the movies, made up of squat compounds with courtyards and tiny streets. The rooftops are your classic tiled affair that is oh-so-Chinese. Hutongs used to be all over the city but many have been cleared. The ones that are left are loved by tourists and have become quite affluent in places. In fact, the area is basically like Hoxton or Shoreditch in London; designer jewelery from porcelan shards, hipster Chinese kids, improv bands playing in cafes and of course, craft beers!
For the first time on this trip, I get a taste of home in the form of a delicious dark, craft ale! So far, the beer on this trip has been passable, being either imported Belgian beers or local lager. The place we've come to is called "Great Leap Brewing" (great name!) and is run by, surprise, surprise, an American with a trendy mustache! The beer is lovely though. The setting is wonderful but the place is definitely one frequented only by expats...sorry, I mean immigrants. The brewery does a golden IPA, spiced with Sechuan pepper! Very tasty!
Near the hostel are the Bell and Drum towers. We are treated to a drumming performance and some views of the city. Given the pollution and cloud, we can't see very far at all and city actually doesn't look too big. Like other cities, the historic centre is quite flat. Dominating the southern view is the north end of the Forbidden city, with it's imposing gates. We buy some overpriced, yet tasty tea, having treated ourselves to a short tea ceremony/tasting session. Again we have to fight off people offering us tours, taxi rides and plastic tat.
I finally meet the Great Firewall of China! Trying to access Facebook, all I get is a time-out. Using obfsproxy and OpenVPN seems to work fine, with Katie reporting that both standard OpenVPN to my server, and to Cambridge University appears to work. Reports of the Great Firewall doing naughty, deep packet inspection to block OpenVPN traffic seem to be exaggerated thus far. I've not checked Tor yet, but I probably will before the trip is over. The hostel's connection is a bit slow but passable.
As predicted, we gorge ourselves on vegetables, greens and tasty fish at one of the restaurants in the hutong, having been deprived for much of the trip. Chinese cooking varies quite a bit across China, as you'd expect, with hotpot and Peking duck being classic dishes in Beijing. This meal is a set feast in the Yunnan style and is certainly nothing like any Chinese take-away anyone has ever had. That said, you can still find that sort of food here at some of the outlets nearby. Vegetarian food is becoming a little harder, oddly. Many things have meat added just as a garnish. The Chinese don't really believe chicken is a meat (for some crazy reason) but this area is pretty affluent and full of tourists, so the restaurants are getting used to the idea.
The Forbidden City (actually it's called the Palace Museum - I guess because it's not verboten anymore) is huge! It's almost impossible to get around all the rooms in one day. Not only that, it's swarming with people. Most are locals, but there are plenty of tourists like us. The sheer grandeur of the place is designed to humble any visitors before they meet with the emperor or his agents. It certainly does portray that feeling. There are some amazing pieces in the collection, some wonderful gardens and squares and terrific architecture. It's not so dissimilar to the Hermitage in terms of wow factor.
We visit the old observatory and I learn a little about how the Jesuits tried to convert China to Catholicism through the use of superior astronomical devices. The theory being that if they could prove their science was better, then maybe their god was better. The emperor, while superstitious, was not stupid and just kept on receiving shiny toys for his astrologers. They are housed on the rooftop of this observatory. From there we find a small shop selling items made from shards of porcelain. For some mad reason, when Mao Zedong started his cultural revolution, all porcelain was banned (probably too decadent or something) and so it was often smashed and thrown away. Today, there is an industry in making use of such shards in things like boxes and jewelery.
We are having to adjust quite a bit since getting here. Gone is the Cyrllic; we have to focus on another language. The cost of things is basically the same as London; no barginous ruble exchange rate here. Finally, the weather has changed on us. It's warm but cloudy with occasional rain. Our arctic-style gear that we thought we'd need is now weighing us down so we've got some work to do in getting everything optimised.
Finally though, I get to try Peking Duck - in Peking (Beijing)! I'm very excited and the duck doesn't disappoint. We schlep out to a small restaurant in the east of town via the metro. The metro is fairly straight forward to use. Much like Moscow with it's one use RFID cards. However, unlike Moscow you pay different prices depending on the stations you are traveling between. Using a ticket machine makes it pretty easy though. As the train whizzes through the tunnels I'm amazed and shocked that they have persistance-of-vision based adverts. Despite the speeding train I can see adverts for some such product outside the windows. Advertising and LEDs have just got out of hand in this city.
I'm much more defensive and on-guard here in China than anywhere else on the trip. People here see foreigner and tourist and are on to you quickly in order to make a quick buck. The cliche of a separate menus in restaurants, one for Chinese and one for aliens is something I've experienced at home. I wouldn't not be surprised at all if it happened here. There is much in China I find fascinating but much that is alienating. The Communist Regime here is spooky and sinister; cute anime-style characters insisting you "comply with security bag search"; the great firewall giving you the silent treatment when you want to access certain sites. Like Russia, I've not seen much race diversity here so far.
We attempt to get into Tian'amen square but the queue of locals waiting to be security checked puts us off. We can just make out the square from the metro exit. I can make out the massive red star over the museum, some soldiers and no-one else. Seems as if it's basically closed off to the public. We decide not to bother waiting, especially as the roads are decked with Ugandan flags today. I wonder if President Museveni is visiting? Wouldn't surprise me if China and Uganda are cozying up to each other. In other countries we've been to, I feel that certain things have been imported from the West; advertising stock photos for one. There's none of that here. So many things are home grown here. Couple that with my earlier points and one gets the feeling that China is big, powerful and while not your enemy necessarily, it doesn't need your friendship.
All that said, I'm excited to be in China! There is much to learn and see here. If you've never been to an Asian city before it can be quite a shock to the system. We have a depressingly early 4:30am start in order to get all our gear packed in time to get to Beijing West Station for our next train. We are both keen to see as much of China as we can in the last stage of the trip. We've been hanging around cities for quite some time, so the next train takes us almost to the very south of China, to Guilin, in one day. This is where we'll get to see some of China's amazing countryside. It's a super-fast bullet train that puts any idea of High-speed 2 to shame.
Getting railway tickets in China is somewhat more complicated. You can book on-line through an agent (who charge a modest flat fee). You then follow their comprehensive instructions to collect a paper ticket from an English speaking lady at a special counter (after passing through a bag check). You then head up a massive escalator, through another bag-check and into the departure area. After you find your train on the board, you head to a waiting room for that section of the station. The train boards about 20 minutes before departure when you leave the waiting room and head for one of the platforms it adjoins. The whole process feels more like an airline.
The airline feeling is only re-enforced when we get on-board. The carriages are large, modern and contain hot water drinking fountains for tea. Screens are on the walls, showing adverts of course. I'm somewhat surprised there are no superfluous LEDs here and there. The attendants look even more formal and made-up than airline hostesses and the dining car, while clean and tasteful, pretty much serves food in the same way an airline does - with microwaved meals in trays. It's a pleasant trip, despite spending 10 hours in what amounts to something not so far removed from cattle-class airline travel.
For the next few days, we leave the cities behind and enter rice terrace and limestone mountain territory!