Another sleeper train from Xi'an to Beijing. The beds are hard, you might get an insect bite or two, but they're otherwise kinda fun. Everyone takes a big cup noodle from the store and they have a hot-water heater that you fill up from. They always seem to wake you up an hour before you get there though (to make sure you don't go past your stop) so I was always tired when we got in and pretty damn keen for a shower.
We waited in the train station's taxi queue for a frustrating and hot hour. As usual when we didn't have someone meeting us, the taxi drivers couldn't read the address nor understand the map, so we ended up calling the hotel and getting them to talk to the taxi driver, which generally works pretty well.
We had an enormous lunch at a restaurant near the hotel, oily but delicious. The Peking Duck was only ok, but the green beans with chilli, garlic, green onions, ginger, and some kind of porky meat were amazing – I'm trying to recreate the recipe at home. The fried crepe-like things with leek inside them are good too. The fried rice was much more like it is at home, ie. brown and oily; the Sichuan restaurants had a much lighter style which we thought was better.
Luther and I wandered around and finally found a drycleaner place after a lot of failing to find some launderettes on the map. I had to run back later when I realised I'd left something in one of my pants pockets and got absolutely soaked by the warm thunderstorm that swept across the city – all the locals thought I was crazy for staying out in it and kept calling me to shelter, but it was actually really nice.
We sat inside and watched the lightning off in the distance, and I tried out some tasty Baijo from the supermarket – a very strong white liquor, with a fruity taste.
The Temple of Heaven park was just a block away from where we were staying and we went through the next morning. Locals can go in free and there were little groups of people doing various styles of dancing on the paths, some doing tai chi, a few playing something like hackey-sack with large shuttlecocks. The whole place had quite a relaxed feeling and it was really nice in the sun.
The core buildings look really cool – great Chinese architecture. They were quite busy with fellow tourists (mostly Chinese, as usual where we went, but a lot more westerners than earlier in the trip), but you can just wander around the site and sit down by the grass and relax. It was pretty hot in the middle of summer and the shade was welcome.
We went on to Tiananmen Square where the main attraction turned out to be us – lots of people wanted photos with Pen and Sarah.
It's just like you would imagine from the photos – Chairman Mao's picture up on the wall at the end that meets the Forbidden City, his mausoleum at the other. Sculptures of the Red Army winning battles. Big red flags – plain, not with the Chinese national symbol on them, interestingly. The flag of Mozambique was flying too, curiously – apparently they're an important trading partner.
There were policemen and armed guards, but very few. One of the policemen had a little Chinese-designed Segway-like thing to tootle around the square on.
We'd left it too late to get into the Forbidden City – ticket sales stopped at 15:30 – so were back a couple of days later. (In between we went to the great wall far out of Beijing, but that deserves its own blog.)
Nothing like what I expected. Spatially it's more like another big temple complex, whereas for some reason I thought it would be more like a dense little town with narrow corridors with people whispering and hundreds of little wooden rooms for courtiers to stay in and civil servants to work in.
In fact though there are quite a number of buildings, they're mostly halls of various sizes and with big courtyards between or inside each group. It's not at all cramped. There is a lot of decorative detail – ceramic sculptures and carved wooden panels. There were also big impressive gold-plated lion and dragon sculptures and pots – though I suspect they've had a bit of scraping in their life as they have had to patch them a little.
We chilled outside for a bit before I dragged the guys down to a restaurant for some seriously tasty Peking Duck pancakes.
These would have to be the only guys I saw in China getting hygiene right – note the face mask and the gloves so his hands don't touch the duck.
Generally food hygiene seemed really bad in China. The worst example was in a big supermarket we went into: their meat section had portions of raw unwrapped chicken just piled up on a table and people were just rooting through it with their hands. It was immediately next to the fresh fruit and vegetable section. It was also immediately next to the toilets. I had an upset stomach for a fair bit of China.
We went for a wander to find a taxi and made our way home.
On our last day in Beijing we went out to the Summer Palace. It was really hot and we were feeling pretty tired out especially after a paddle-boat around on the lake, so Pen and I just relaxed by the water and lotuses while Tim and Sarah braved the heat and humidity and climbed the steps up to one of the buildings.
Again we became the major attraction – as soon as one family asked if they could take a photo of Pen or I with their kids, all the other families got in on the action too. I have an entire album of us with random Chinese people!
Next blog: our side mission to walk along the Great Wall.