Another reading week and another excuse to travel! This time my friends and I ventured off to spend 9 days travelling around China, starting from Beijing and working our way back down to Hong Kong via train. Having heard stories from friends about being pick-pocketed and warnings of abduction via an overdramatic dad and grandma, unsurprisingly I was very apprehensive about the trip. Not knowing much of the language was also very unsettling for me, which is strange considering that I was pretty nonplussed about travelling to Japan knowing zero Japanese. I think living in Hong Kong can make it hard to ignore the anti-Mainland China sentiments, whether it’s against the Chinese government or the influx of Mainland nationals. Certainly, this did bias my view of China and despite how excited I was to visit its sights and experience its culture, I couldn’t ignore the vulnerability I felt as a foreigner. Where Japanese culture is held in high regard as being polite and hospitable, Chinese culture seems seemed to me a little cold and exploitive. But travelling China and being able to interact with the locals, I have discovered the complete opposite! The people I encountered were so friendly, helpful and generous, it has changed how I view the country and its people, putting me much more at ease with visiting again in the future.
First impressions? Gigantic! Everything from the roads, buildings and railway stations were bigger than I had anticipated and I could never get over how spacious the city is after being accustomed to the tight confines of Hong Kong. During our time here, we were able to visit Wangfujing Night Market, which was full of street food and where my roommate Astrid fulfilled her lifelong ambition of eating scorpions! Living to tell the tale, the next day we visited the Great Wall – Mutianyu section, which research told me was the best part to visit for great views without the competition of other tourists. Touring the wall felt so surreal! It was strange to be walking on this piece of history I’ve only seen in pictures before. Its sheer size and spread was breathtaking and the hike up its many stairs was enough to keep us warm against the cold. Passing watchtower 23, we were able to access the older part of the wall, which was the most interesting to see and also less littered with tourists. Talking about litter, it was really sad to see so many discarded bottles along the wall! Being granted such an opportunity to actually walk along this magnificent monument as opposed to viewing it from behind a barrier, it’s extraordinary disrespectful and selfish to throw your rubbish away so carelessly! I read a really great article recently about the negative impacts of tourism, which has made me more conscious of my responsibilities as a traveller and is something I hope is promoted more as it becomes increasingly easier for people to travel. (Srsly, check it out guys).
Moving on, we visited Hongqiao Pearl Market, which apart from the obviously huge offering of pearls, was pretty much like any other market selling merchandise for the tourists. After, we ate at a hotpot restaurant nearby that was astoundingly cheap (58 RMB) for how much food was given to us. Our final day in Beijing, we hoped to visit the Forbidden City, but found it was closed on Monday (what cruel fate)! Taking the subway to Tiananmen Square for a quick look, we were swept up by the one-way system and ended up at the Palace Museum. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go in, but another reason to return to Beijing at least! Instead, we met up with a friend (Alice!) for lunch and together went to the 798-art zone. Like the rest of Beijing, this place is HUGE and I could easily spend the whole day there exploring. As if people didn’t hate Monday enough, many of the art galleries were closed on this day but there was plenty open to keep us occupied nonetheless! With a train to catch, we were invited back to Alice’s house for a quick cup(s) of tea and were generously laden with snacks for the train journey as well as lift to the train station (on the way we were able to catch a glimpse of the Bird’s Nest Stadium – points for travelling efficiency!).
Arriving at the train station was overwhelming, again due to it’s sheer size and the amount of people travelling through. Major train stations in China are a world away from the ones I’ve experienced in Europe and so are its travellers! Here, you can observe a funny mix of local travellers, diverse in age, appearance and SES. Waiting rooms for trains are packed with people waiting to board, camped out in any space of floor available. They’re noisy and dirty with fruit peels and nutshells on the floor, but it all added to the colour and atmosphere of the experience! Eventually boarding the train, we were surprised by how many westerners were on board, later finding out our cabin mate for the night, a friendly Chinese man named Jean was leading the tour of 47! We had opted for the soft sleeper (4 people per cabin), pleasantly finding them to be comfortable enough for our needs and so, with a not so bad start to our trip; we were on our way to the next destination, Xi’an! Workload dependent, my next post on Xi’an should be up this time next week, stay tuned for part 2!