My overland trip through Central Asia was going to have one major difference from the rest of my travelling – I was going to be on a tour, travelling with a bunch of other people. After travelling solo for so long, I was actually quite excited to be returning to some sort of a schedule where there was a little less uncertainty at the beginning of each day. I was also going to be going through some countries where English is not as common as it is in places like Thailand and Vietnam – in that sense, they’re not places I’d be able to visit at all unless I was under some sort of guidance.
When I arrived back at the hotel after my trip to Beijing Zoo, I was greeted by our guide, a Chinese woman whose English name was Snow. She led me into another room where some of the other travellers were waiting, so I took a seat and waited for everyone to arrive. There were thirteen people in our tour group – two girls from America, two couples from the UK, and then four girls and two guys who were Australians. Snow briefed us all about the Chinese part of our trip, and talked to us about what we wanted to do. The tour I was on was a little different to most – there was no strict set itinerary, and each individual was allowed to chose whatever they wanted to do, and decide how they wanted to fill their time in between the train journeys between cities. However, there was a unanimous vote to see China’s most popular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China.
The following day was supposed to be quite cool and overcast, so we decided to hold off on our journey to the Great Wall until we had better weather. So on our first morning as a group, we met Snow at the hotel and then walked to Tiananmen Square. We were told it was the largest city square in the world, and could hold at least one million people. There’s also a flag pole where a flag raising ceremony is held at sunrise every morning – Snow told us we could attend it tomorrow morning if we wanted, but I decided that after Angkor Wat I had already played my “awake at sunrise” card for this month. The square itself was an interesting space though, not dissimilar to places like Martin Place back home in Sydney, although exponentially bigger – I was informed that the vast space in front of us was only half the square, and that it continued on the other side of the central monument, a memorial dedicated to the people who died in the Chinese Peoples Revolution, and the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, which has thousands of visitors every day, coming to pay respects to the former leader. However, I was surprised to find that many Chinese people still don’t know about the fatal student protests that happened in that very square in 1989. For me, it was a shocking example of just how much censorship the Chinese government imposes on its population – and here I was thinking how terrible it is that they block Facebook!
After having a wander through Tiananmen Square, we crossed the road to the Forbidden City. The name sounds more intimidating than it really is – it simply comes from the fact that the Forbidden City was former the home of the Chinese Emperor, and therefore the common people were forbidden from entering. Snow took us through the City, pointing out some of the finer details in the architecture and design, and telling us stories about the history of the buildings and the people who once resided in them. The Chinese royalty haven’t lived in the Forbidden City since 1912, and it was opened to the public about a decade later. I also noticed that many of the buildings had scaffolding around them, indicative of reconstruction and repairs that were underway. It reminded me of places like the palaces in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the temples at Angkor Wat. When you see pictures of them, they look like impressive buildings that have withstood the test of time, but in reality they are in a constant state of upkeep and conditioning, something that you can only really see if you visit the places for yourself – or see amateur photographs that don’t make it into the advertisements or guidebooks.
After spending a couple of hours wandering through the Forbidden City, Snow took us to a garden behind the city called Jingshan Park, where there was a tower from which you could have a wide, panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing. From that vantage point we could see just how bad the city’s pollution really is. Part of it may have been due to the overcast weather, but there was still an undeniable thick smog that clogged the horizon. It was still an interesting view in its own weird way, and didn’t diminish the enormity of the city – buildings and civilisation stretched on in every direction, as far the eye could see.
After lunch, we caught the delightfully efficient subway system out west to visit the Summer Palace, another ancient building that housed different members of Chinese royalty throughout history. We walked along the banks of the artificial lake while Snow told us stories and explained different aspects of the landscape and buildings. Within the Summer Palace was a building called the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a large tower which also provided us with spectacular views of another area of Beijing. Even though the air was thick with clouds and smog, we could still see quite far into the distance over the lake, and the weather gave the whole place a sacred and mystical feeling.
One thing I began to notice, after having it pointed out by some of my other companions, was that Chinese people just love to get photos with white people – whether or not they have your consent isn’t really even an issue. As I stood at the top of the tower, looking down at the scene beneath me, a noticed someone standing a couple of steps below me. She was a Chinese woman who had been standing next to me just moments ago – she had repositioned herself and was now holding her camera up to take a photo of herself, clearly angled to have me in the background. My reaction was one of both amusement and annoyance, and I rolled my eyes as I side-stepped out of the picture. It wasn’t the first time it had happened – sometimes they’re even quite direct and simply approach you and ask if they can have their picture taken with you. Sometimes I oblige, other times I can’t be bothered, but I found it kind of rude to try and take pictures like that without even having the decency to be discreet about it. The local Chinese tourists love to pose and have their photo taken in front of everything – from the biggest landmarks to the most basic and insignificant details. I just wondered how they would react to one of us coming up and shoving a camera in their faces and calling it a holiday snap.
Our second day in Beijing would see us headed to the Great Wall of China, which is about a two hour drive out of the city. There are a lot of different locations where you can visit and climb the wall, but Snow had suggested we go to an area called Mutianyu, which was a little further than the other more popular tourist section of the wall, but was supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots. All I can say is if Mutianyu wasn’t the most popular section, I’d hate to see how many people were at the bigger tourist area. There were lots of groups of Westerners, but there was also huge amounts of domestic tour groups from other parts of China, including a massive group of school children.
There were two options for getting to the top of the Great Wall – riding a cable car or climbing the steps all the way to the top. Most of the group wanted to get the cable car, but I kind of wanted to walk. “I want to be able to say ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’, not ‘Yeah I took a cable car to the top ’cause it seemed like a lot of stairs'”, I had said, and luckily Kaylah, one of the American girls, had shared a similar sentiment. So the two of us set off to climb the stairs while the rest of the group piled into the cable car. I quite enjoyed the walk up with Kaylah, because it was the first time I’d really gotten to get to know someone from the group one on one. Since we had an uneven number of people in our group, I had ended up being by myself in my room at the hotel. While I loved the little bit of privacy, it meant that I’d only really interacted with my group members in group situations. I hadn’t really made new friends or gotten to know anyone since meeting Laura back in Cambodia, so it was fun to talk to Kaylah and get to know a little more about each other, making jokes here and there and motivating each other as we made the steep ascent up the hill to the Great Wall.
Snow had said it would take about half and hour, but together Kaylah and I managed to conquer the steps in just under twenty minutes. We thought it was an impressive achievement, regardless of how out of breath we may have been once we reached the top. We stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and take some photos of the magnificent view. It was completely different from the kind of views we’d had back in Beijing – the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and you could see the Chinese mountains and countryside stretch on in all directions. The wall itself was an interesting structure – after the trek from the ground level up to the top, I hadn’t expected there to be more stairs. But as the wall snaked up and down the contours of the hill, there were old flights of stairs going up and down, made even more peculiar by the fact that many of the flights tilted either left or right, as well as having vast variations in steepness from flight to flight. It made for an interesting and somewhat challenging walk along the wall, though the real challenge was trying to take a photo without a horde of other tourists in the picture.
We walked along a section of the wall, enjoying the views and taking photos, until we caught up with the rest of the group who were on their way back down. Kaylah and I continued on until we reached the highest major outpost that was accessible to tourists, and then made our way back to the bottom of the wall. However, instead of walking down, we decided to take the fun option and ride the toboggan down. It was a similar set up to theme parks in Australia like Jamberoo – a metal half-pipe tube that snaked down the mountain, which you rode down on a toboggan with a single lever to control acceleration and breaking. It was a fun way to reward ourselves after all the walking we’d done on the way up, even though we were slightly stifled by the Chinese tourists who weren’t as enthusiastic about gathering speed as Kaylah and myself. We just laughed it off and puttered along behind them, enjoying the fresh air, amazing views, and the fact that we’d just walked along one of the great wonders of the world.
The last stop of the day was the Ming Tombs, a huge mausoleum complex where thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. We went down into the tombs to see the coffins, and visited the several exhibitions and museums, before piling back onto the bus and heading home. While we’d had two full days of sightseeing in Beijing, looking at maps and guidebooks and seeing all the other things we didn’t see made me realise just how huge a city Beijing is, let alone the enormity of the country of China. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences, but on the whole my visit to Beijing was interesting and enjoyable. Despite that, I definitely felt I was ready to get up early the next morning and begin our trek to Mongolia.