February & March’s posts 2015


8 Feb 2015

One year has passed.  You’re not forgotten, far from it.  You’re no longer a memory, but a spirit inside us all.  Where you lived, we will live, where you watch, we will be watched.  How can we move on from having you in our lives?  We can’t.  We live with you always in our lives, always and forever.  Some feelings are meant to pass, love for you is not one of them.  I miss you Gran.  We all do.  Keep shining on, and we’ll do our best to be better.  The sky is not a limit, just a place you can watch from.  I promise to have an oven-bottom with smoked ham and salad followed by an egg custard, alongside a warm milky tea on my return to the UK.  I’ll look at the views of Lancashire and beyond, the beyond you so encouraged me to explore.

Thank you for the memories – and thank you for life, support and encouragement.

This blog will go on… in your memory, and for my memories.

Back to school with personal reflections of Qīngdǎo

3rd March 2015

Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello,

Xīn nián kuàilè (Happy New Year)


With a sudden clobber, life returned to normality, or the closest form of familiarity and routine that my awareness allows.  Monday morning featured frantic timetable changes, a school opening ceremony for Dao Ming Foreign Language School and heaps of sitting around.  The waiting game.  Anticipation is not something I enjoy.  I have eagerness and hope by the abundance, coupled with keenness and positive expectancy.  What I lack is the ability to switch off the negativity button.  The negation of such a skill may be natural, but like a dedicated cyclist who falls off their bicycle, I want to get back on sooner rather than later.  I do not enjoy waiting.  I dread that first moment of class after any lengthy break.


First up for Monday, class 803, situated on the 5th storey of the Middle School building at the north-western axis of school, hidden away.  My office sits in the 1st storey ground floor, once again occupied by Mr Wan Hei Fae (Chinese Teacher), Mr Yang Wenbo (Maths Teacher), a plethora of mosquitoes and I.  The flights of stairs upwards are gruelling and punishing usually, but after this Spring break I feel more than prepared.  On entering class, expectation of me was high.  Excitement dampened down, as the toll of new homework and class demands arose.  Whilst I don’t set homework, this was their second class of the day and the students already had a duo of homework sheets for mathematics.  The usual sneaky attempts to complete said task went noticed and extinguished with just a glance.  Each student knowingly in the wrong hid their work away.  The class plundered on like a freight train gaining momento before a crescendo of point scoring using a board resembling a dartboard and some Velcro balls.  One team had five marks so they got five throws to determine their points, whilst other teams had two to four marks.  On the colourfull Velcro board lay points from 5 to 100.  Team one scored 10 points from 2 throws, team two’s five attempts gave them 30 points, team three converted their 3 throws into 70 points holding off team four’s four throws and 10 points.  The game went down a treat.  Time to think of new ideas and then deploy more things to look forward to.  Later in class 804, the game was also a success.


On Sunday, I spent hours with teachers essentially creating my class timetable – and in an odd state of coincidence, we’ve collectively recreated last semester’s timetable, give or take a few minor changes.  So classes 601-607 get one lesson each.  701 to 704 all get two lessons.  801-804 get one lesson apiece.  VIP classes, the teachers’ classes and a few other matters have yet to be arranged.  For this week I have a standard nineteen periods lasting 40 minutes each.  Although, due to an extended flag-raising and school opening ceremony, class 603 fell by the wayside.


A month away from Houjie seems like a lifetime in some respects.  In others, the memories are as fresh as yesterday evening’s cooling drizzle.  Leaving Houjie on the 31st of January, by way of a 300RMB taxi from the Sheraton Hotel to Shenzhen Airport (Terminal 3, domestic departures), was to leave 12°C relative warmth and coolness.  This week, the temperature lows have been 16°C and highs of 24°C.  After departing the taxi and passing through security, where the female security officer tickled my feet in the body search, Costa Coffee’s cappuccino and panini was had.  Flight Shandong Airlines SC4682 (costing 951.5RMB a seat) departed and three hours later landed in Qingdao.  The inflight apple peel snack wrappers dropped into a bin as a further 300RMB taxi (Qingdao Liuting International Airport is 22km away from the hostel) was boarded (it being late at night and no buses were to be seen).  On arrival in crisp, cool, icy winter air (-4°C) check in was completed at the Qingdao Huayang Youth Hostel for 360RMB per person over 4 nights.  Hostels opposite majot hotels like Holiday Inn, are easy to find.  The tower block is No.2, Xuzhou Road.  Looking from the Holiday Inn, across the road, it was certainly easy to locate.  Getting beyond the security gate required a call to the hospitable proprietor.  On arrival you’re made to feel at home.


The hostel features a very personal touch.  It doesn’t have a restaurant inside, but it does have a shared use kitchen.  You could even have meals cooked by the owner.  There is no end of welcoming.  A tennis court can be used, wi-fi is strong enough to listen to BBC Manchester’s football coverage online, there’s a washing machine, a fan, proper water-piped central heating, and a good strong shower.  The shared lounge features board games, a book exchange, cosy sofas and much more.  Location wise, it is right by the bus routes for many areas nearby.  The hostel is a short stroll to the Olympic Sailing Center (1.7km), Zhongshan Park (3.2 km) and as such very close to the city centre, seafront and many regional attractions.


The first full day, and first day of February was spent walking the coastline.  The skyline of Qingdao is exceptional, modern skyscrapers interlope with western style buildings many years old from Germanic, Russian, and other occupied or shared histories.  Amongst them new, old and occasionally communist style Chinese buildings spring up.  The beaches are clean, although at this time of year pockets of ice could be found littering them!  The walk south from the hostel involved views of the majestic Olympic Sailing Bay, an old naval base now museum, Xiao Qingdao Island (well worth the ¥15 entrance fee), views inwards of the oddly placed St. Michael’s Cathedral (Tiānzhǔjiàotáng), and the concrete pier Zhànqiáo (you can see this on bottles of Tsingtao Beer in the logo).  The pier pavilion houses a sadly dull aquarium and tourist stall area, making the 5RMB entrance questionable at best.  The evening’s 12” pizza meal (137.5RMB per head), alongside mash, garlic bread and calamari ended a thoroughly relaxing jaunt.  A bus back costing 1RMB saved the flats of the feel for another day.


Beginning the 2nd day where you left off is easy, diving onto the number 316 bus, alighting at the pier sets you back 1RMB.  The coast can be followed around further bus does end at a naval base, effectively forcing you to turn around.  Here the number 217 bus can get you to Xinhaoshan Park (Signal Hill) and for a further 13RMB you gain entry, after a few steep steps.  The rotating teashop within the old German signalling station is dated, but the view is fantastic.  Whilst the smell of vending machine coffee and strawberry teas wafts by, the seats on the outer rim look out on fantastic scenery.  The grounds are worth an eyeball, lofty pathways take you past fountains, many Jays flutter by or forage along the pathways, and the views are again very good.  From here, boarding the 217 bus allows you to visit the market areas surrounding the Qīngdǎo Píjiǔchǎng (Tsingdao Brewery).  In this area you can eat chealy and drink even cheaper.  Sweet potato fried, egg wraps surrounded by shredded vegtables and various western influenced drinks are plentiful.  Beer is sold by weight, rather than by the bottle. 500g, or half a litre is served to you from a plastic bag. 


Bus 104 from nearby the nearby Hong Kong Middle Road costs 3RMB.  The journey to Láo Shān highlights how big a city Qingdao is and how big it shall be one day.  The journey takes around one hour.  The Qingdao Laoshan National Park entrance demands you enter it by bus.  The ticket is ¥130 (Tàiqīng Gōng/The Temple of Supreme Purity is a further ¥20).  There are many walks through the beautiful mountain scenery featuring caves, ancient gates, ridges, valleys and temples.  The granite landforms are spectacular set against the backdrop of the sea.  The cypress trees, other flora and natural landscaping make for a wonderful scene.  Some places are meant to be hiked.  This is one such gem.  The view from the Taiping Lion’s Rock of the fishing villages below providing a spectacle.  Coaches protect the park from far too many cars entering it, and as such you can be ferried from the feet of many mountain climbs easily to further valley hiking areas.  The air temperature does drop drastically with sea mist.  Endure the cold, see far more.


Departing Qīngdǎo, as my Grandad once did in the mid 1940’s, I hoped it isn’t another 70 years or so before an Acton sets foot there again.  The taxi on return was metred, the driver did stop half way for a toilet break, but 83RMB seemed like great and fair value for money.  The taxi even included onboard computer games.  I set a highscore on Crazy Golf.  Hainan Airlines HU7253 departed ontime, landing only and hour and a half later.  At 1006.5RMB per ticket it was expensive but saved on the 13 hour train journey time, in a period where tickets were unavailable.  After a slightly longer than necessary walk from the airport bus drop off point, check in was completed for 630RMB per person (for 7 nights) at the Hash International Youth Hostel.  Now drugs in China, are massively frowned upon.  If the drugs don’t kill you, the death penalty will.  So, to stay at a hostel sporting a leaf of a banned tetrahydrocannabinol narcotic seemed odd.  The room featured no windows, a very hot radiator and had many places to bang your head, I doubt consuming drugs would help your stay.  After a lavish western style burger slider meal and yoghurts totalling 154RMB for one person, you’d have thought I was on drugs.  The freezing conditions outside in the days to come would be testing…

“Ahhhhhh…. ahhhhhhhhhh….. We come from the land of the ice and snow…”

6th March 2015

Hā’ěrbīn has many variations written in the romanized style, Harbin, Haerbin, Ha’rbin.  The city sprung up on the banks of the Songhua River as a byproduct of railway engineers maintaining the famous Trans-Siberian Railway living in the few villages of the 19th century locality.  Oddly the name哈尔滨translates as a place for drying fishing nets.  The city has since been hugely influenced by White Russian émigrés, Estonians, Lithuanians, Polish, Germans, Jewish, Ukranians, Tatars and may other immigrations of history.  The Japanese invasion of 1931 gave rise to the presence of Kempeitai, the birth of the infamous Unit 731 (the museum is located at Qīnhuárìjūnde 731 Bùduìyízhǐ)  and many other atrocities.  Thankfully, few reminders are present.  The city is a hive of life and activity.  In more recents Harbin has persisted to progress.  Industry has thrived, winter sport games have been held frequently and the world famous ice and snow festivals can be found on Sun Island (太阳岛; Tàiyángdǎo), Zhaolin Park (Zhàolíngōngyuán) and at the Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界).


For just 10RMB, Jílèsì (极乐寺; The Temple of Heavenly Bliss) can be explored.  The large and mostly active – even in extreme cold – temple houses some amazing structures and sculptures.  During February flakes of snow gave it an eery winter atmosphere.  There is a subway station nearby to Dōngdàzhíjiē and a much more eery fairground closed for winter scattered around remains of old Russian churches.  After visiting there 59RMB at Hans restaurant (金汉斯啤酒烤肉), a Germanic themed joint seemed good value, and included large beers.  Sadly, the Bavarian ditties on the television sang by hairy men accompanied by large breasted ladies does take away any element of relaxation.  In some ways the videos looked like an Englishman’s stereotypical view of Germany, shattering the real culture of such a modern wonderful country with just one set of lederhosen.  February the 7th also seen some snow flurries, so the restaurant served as good respite from the elements.


The food also ended my tortuous taste sensation, having purchased a cheesecake earlier.  Why was the cheesecake 28RMB?  What was the lady in the bakery continually asking me?  It was durian fruit!!!!  Durian fruit, for those unknown to it, smells like the worst body odour you have ever smelt, a sewer full of rotten detritus, decaying corpses, and pretty much every bad smell you have ever experienced all at the same time.  The first taste is like licking a sweaty armpit.  The second taste is gloriously over-sweet and sour, yet delightful.  The tastes thereafter are like tasting the best unsweetened custard you’ll ever be blessed to try.  Sadly, the after taste resembles the first taste and it can make you want to urinate far too much.  As a raw fruit, you always smell it, before you see the spiky mega-melon.  Just be warned, it is better as a food component than a raw fruit.  That is an entirely more unpleasant story.


Haws, Hāěrbīnhóngcháng (Smoked sausage), Chuàn’ér (meats on a stick), Russian breads and Chūnbǐng (Spring rolls) could be found frequently in the city.  Dōngfāngjiǎoziwáng (Oriental Dumpling King) demanded two visits.  It was cheap (48RMB one time/60RMB the second time) and delicious, located just below the cobbled pedestrian streets of Zhōngyāngdàjiē (中央大街;middle central big street).  The long old road runs from Jingwei Jie to Stalin Park at the river and is completely surrounded by an old quarter of European style buildings.  Plaques adorn each interesting building reading of their illustrious pasts, whether they are Baroque, Byzantine, Jewish, French or more recent.


Staying at Hash International Youth Hostel meant one thing.  Unlike most restaurants or bars, where cool air seeps in through busy ever-swinging doors, the hostel was a veritable heat trap.  The rooms are spacious, simple, and effective.  The reception has plenty of information, in English, Chinese and a little Russian.  The location is spot on for exploration.  A bus (many choices, 88, 64, and 94 pass most of the central and river areas with the former bus crossing over and being close to the snow world, Polarland and tiger park) from the road behind the hostel can be taken easily.  There is a well-priced bar and the surrounding neighbourhood features restaurants, and a huge western style shopping mall (200 metres away, with food in the basement floor and top floor).  A good bathroom with a very good shower.  Outside on the main road it was easy to get a taxi, the city seems to be thriving on short-distance taxi journeys.  The hostel promoted my trips and excursions but it is possible to do them yourself for far less, and with fewer time limits.  The downside to the hostel was the room had no window, poor ventilation as such and the food menu ends very early.


The river Songhua freezes for a large fraction of winter.  At which time, the horse rides, sleds, dog sledges, ice-buggies, ice-tanks, skis, sliding devices and ice-zorbs pop onto the river.  The word play to the Chinese becomes a requisite demand rather than an option.  The riverbank from the town side looks towards the Sun Island with the large railway bridge to your right.  On foot, the distance over the frozen river must be close to one kilometre.  The gondolier/cable-cart is a quick chilly option to pass over it and admire the sunkissed icy tundra below.  However, the foot option is the most exciting, if not testing.  Protecting the body from bitter glacial disdainful breezes is a necessity.  -22°C and windchill factor are not great friends to hang around with.  Having experienced frostbite in my nose on a return journey across the ice, I can vouch for that!


One evening, Tatoc (established 1901 complete with original interior and furnishings), a Russian restaurant was tried and at 87RMB per person the food is okay, however the cool air chilled the food far too fast.  The Borsch was excellent.  Throughout the stay in Harbin, Costa Coffee (there are several branches) was an essential calling point for breakfasts and coffees.  One day an American former Policeman/UN Peacekeeper strolled in, talking rather overzealously about his teaching experiences and subsequent exiled state in Harbin.  Americans as expats can either be so loud they are annoying or so passionate it will inspire and excite you, or in this guy’s case, a teller of tall tales.  Anything is possible, but surely not everything?!


On the 8th day of February, one bus ride in heavy traffic later, a pair of new gloves purchased (and ripped within an hour), the third crossing of the frozen river heading to the northbank and a short stumble by Russia World (it may have been called that, it resembled Jurassic Park but full of Russian cultural exhibits, dancers, sculptures, Russian handsome men and beautiful ladies.  It looked awfully tacky) the destination of the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair was reached.  230RMB was given to the kiosk staff, entry was gained.  My new gloves were replaced by my old gloves.  The air temperature during that day was floating between -18°C and -22°C (Most nights in Harbin it dropped to -32°C).  The park was amazing with scultures ranging from Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Minions, animals, Disney characters to landmarks and famous cultural scenes.  Afterwards a taxi back cost 120RMB to travel the short distance back.  The cold weather being too much to brave the river crossing under the cover of darkness – and a convenient lack of buses.


The Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair (太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会; Tàiyángdǎo guójì xuědiāoyìshù bólǎnhuì) makes up one of the three main components of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.  One of the other two chunks is the huge area that is the Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界; bīngxuě dàshìjiè), again in the northbank of the river, but west of Sun Island by around 2km.  The smaller Ice Festival, Zhaolin Park (冰雪游园会, 兆麟公园; Bīngxuě yóuyuánhuì, Zhàolíngōngyuán) is located in the centre of the city on the southern bank.  The smaller park is fantastic to see smaller sculptures, lanterns and is set in a rather quaint park.  ¥200 entry does seem a little much in comparison to the bigger parks, but when you’re exploring and enjoying it, why not?!  The larger park costs 300RMB and requires much more time than one evening.  There is a disappointing indoor ice and dance show with a cast of Russians – I personally was annoyed to have queued up for that.  Outside there are hundreds of scultures, many slides, ski slopes, bars and cafes amongst an utopia of frozen creativity.  The number 88 bus stops by the park gate and cost 1RMB from the city to get there.  Afterwards you just don’t want to leave!  For 130RMB you can enter Polarland, an indoor polar wildlife park towards Sun Island.  If you like seeing squashed in Polar bears, Beluga whales and sad looking Artic foxes then this the place.  Chinese zoos and wildlife parks lack animal welfare and are sadly so far backwards, I can never see myself going to visit such a place out of curiousity ever again.


For a relaxed final day, a wander to St. Sophia Cathedral (圣索非亚教堂; Shèngsuǒfēiyàjiàotáng) seemed to do the trick.  I’m not massively into churches and strongly not of the religious irk.  However, a stand alone chuch, cathedral, synagogue, mosque etc stood amongst other buildings does strike at the heart.  Be it defiance or strength of beliefs, I respect how religions hold their own sometimes in societies not indoctrinated to such worships.  As Orthodox churches go, it was quite interesting, costing just ¥20.  The slightly ran down interior houses the Harbin Museum of Architecture, in essence a collection of old photographs of bygone days.  Later that evening the cold, following an hour riding an ice-sled (made from old school seats) demanded the sampling of a local specialities, hot sausages on sticks.  With respect to the hot Coca-Cola… give that one a wide berth.  I’d imagine that is the reason old sailors drank urine on long journeys… it was that or hot Coca-Cola.


On the next freezing morning, the 100RMB taxi departed very early, drove along almost empty roads before reaching the airport.  The catchily coded flight 3U8859 departed and in just over an hour landed at Mǎnzhōulǐ, Inner Mongolia.

“Wǒ ài Mǎnzhōulǐ”

March 6th 2015

Mǎnzhōulǐ isn’t particularly exciting, it isn’t dull, it isn’t very plain and it isn’t very bold.  This is a city that lives in shadows and is far more functional than attractive.  Getting deep and far on the plains of Inner Mongolia in Winter is nigh on impossible, and practically a request to commit suicide.  The night temperatures are far too extreme with −40°C not unheard of.  The daily mean average temperature for the period of time from the 11th to the 14th was a relatively warm -20°C.  No snow happened throughout this timeframe.  Oddly, as the airplane neared landing after flying from Harbin’s covered snowscape all the way north over mountains, hills and fields of snow, a few kilometres prior to landing and the snow covered surfaced ended abruptly.  A vast frozen lake, Hūlún Hú, sat just south of the city (and was viewed from the aircraft), but for this journey remained off target to explore.  The extreme cold switches off nature in this region, few animals would be seen.  The lake being surrounded by plains meant few trees and little mountainous habitats.


After a shared taxi (100RMB) with two other travellers, check in was completed.  The Super 9 Hotel (249RMB/person for 3 nights) staff are friendly, helpful, and their communication is great.  The winter ice sculpture festival was brilliant to explore (even if it had closed and was left derelict – with the song “Wǒ ài Mǎnzhōulǐ” on loop).  The local food is great (37.5RMB at a local restaurant/75RMB at a cafe/87.5RMB at an Italian style pizza place) and it is very easy to avoid fast food (there are three KFCs, a pizza hut and McDonald’s, for the latter you must go to the northern part of the town and the large Wanda Plaza).  Buses are cheap but there’s only ten routes so getting lost is quite hard.  The Russian doll plaza, and border museum (the museum was closed to non-Chinese people but the entrance features a steam train and airplane as well as great views) are north of the town, near to a mausoleum on the aiport road.  There is a stadium and what appears to be an opera house upon high too.  There are many local parks and sculptures scattered throughout the city are worth a wander.  Stray camels and donkeys aren’t unusual.    The visit was during Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) meaning Manzhouli was practically a ghost city.  Very few Russians were present and the many stores and shops that sell to the visiting Russians remained closed.  As did most restaurants, street-markets and hotels.  The main squares with full of hawkers flogging fireworks and Chinese New year related paraphernalia.  The city is full of taxi drivers eager to cash in on foreigners and a 70RMB return taxi journey to the airport soon became 70RMB each and then 200RMB as the taxi driver and other taxi drivers became confrontational.  That sort of thing leaves a bitter taste.  The durian fruit of people.  Like most people who know of the city, I think it is only worth passing through, not staying.  Manzhouli has charm, a style unlike any other area in China or Russia, but with extreme winters, I couldn’t live there.  On Valentine’s Day flight HU7116 (Hainan Airlines) departed Manzhouli soon after, destination:  Beijing.  Flight time:  2.5 hours.

“The New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” *

22nd March 2015

“To survive a war, you gotta become war.” John James Rambo.  The doors of our carrier opened out wide.  Chris and I took the first wave of impacts to our chests.  Luckily neither of us was injured.  In scenes resembling the D-Day landings of Saving Private Ryan we alighted the bus, seeking shelter from incoming jets, mortar fire, aerial assaults and full blown frontal attacks.  The enemy had sighted our party of seven westerners and two Chinese translators (fānyì).  Unarmed we quickly sought munitions.  One ammo store wanted 80RMB for something resembling a weapon from Men In Black.  We could not negotaiate so fled as we took further hits to our torsos.  Face shots rained through the bushes from our left as we ducked along the still cars flooding the road.  The apocalypse had began.


A blue cannon gun was purchased, charged with ammunition and my co-fighters Chris (Hartlepoole where they hung a monkey), Josefine (Denmark), Nikki (Cornwall), Liane (Bedfordshire, U.K.), Tina (Russia), Cliadhna (Ireland) flanked by our translation squadron Crystal and Selina set off along the roadside.  The battle of Dongkeng (东坑) was well and truly under way.  The Water Splashing Festival and Labour Selling Festival takes places annually and if your body is entirely covered in water, it is said to bring you a year of luck.  That is until you get the water bill.  Along the long stretches of road, hundreds of businesses, from powertool sellers to restaurants to hairdressers all stock water pistols, waterbombs, buckets, balloons, inflatable hammers, ponchos, and allow refills for your gun at 1RMB a go.  Some give out free water.  Some assist you and bring bottles to top your weaponry up.


From alighting the number 76 bus from Dongcheng bus station prematurely due to gridlocked traffic to the main square of Dongkeng, wave after wave of gangs assaulted to yells and shouts of “lǎowài (old outsider or foreigner).  Every so often one or two gangs would surround us holding their hands in the air to signal to others, we fell under their protection.  The onslaught would abate briefly until we advised we had been split from our group and needed to reconnect soon after.  Our experience lasted over two hours.  Nine of us set out, eight returned.  Josefine became lost and due to wet phones and the risk of further damage, calls were not an easy option.  Even in waterproof pouch my passport and phone, alongside some money was swamped.  Standing underneath people’s apartments to make calls wasn’t an option.


Zài jiàn


*We_shall_fight_on_the_beaches excerpt.


The year of the goat emerges

22nd March 2015

Běijīng (北京, north capital) is huge.  Second to only Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China by way of population.  On Valentine’s day the flight from Manzhouli followed an experience 200RMB taxi to the aiport.  Prior to that further exploration of the area had been done.  Now the capital of the most populated country in the world was under my feet.  The digs was to be the value for money Beijing Feelinn Hostel costing 525RMB for 7 nights.  The location in the hutongs is right within reach of The Forbidden City.  The hostel featured a standard bar and restaurant in the reception area with plenty of advice for tours, walks, places to see.  The rooms were warm and simple with a little wallmounted television.  The bathroom was so tiny that legroom wasn’t possible whilst enthroned on the western toilet.  A short walk from two subway stations and inner city bus routes would bring you to this hostel.  Nearby plenty of restaurants, snack markets and shops open late nearby and its side street location ensures no traffic noises interupt your shut eye.  As city centre locations go, this was perfect. The shower practically over ther toilet wasn’t great but needs must.


On the smoggy afternoon of the 15th of February, the surprisingly quiet Forbidden City became the destination for exploration.  At 40rmb for the entrance ticket, and a further 40rmb for a foreign language headset represented good value.  Many words can be said for the experience but for this day no words shall be written.  Some places have to be experienced for yourself.


Mùtiányù was the next destination.  For 260RMB a return coach journey, lunch and entrance to a large section of the Great Wall was an absolute bargain.  Prior to arriving in China, every image of media, TV, movies and aerial shots shows how long it is.  Until you see it, it cannot be comprehended.  When looking in two directions, seeing ramparts, turrets and fortified walls jut in and out of mountain ranges and straddle ridges as far as the eye can see.  This section dates as far back as the mid-6th century during the Northern Qi.  In the distance at Jiànkòu you can see the esceptionally steep watch tower known as “The Eagle Flies Facing Upward” (鹰飞倒仰 / 鷹飛倒仰).  The walk to the wall took over 4000 steps and umpteen pints of sweat.  A set of stairs one shop worker carried up 4 crates of water and 24 bottles of Coca Cola.  I struggled.  He breezed it.  The wall, the feeling of freedom, the cool breeze on the skin, the sunlight in your eyes gave the feeling of magic to the Great Wall.  A truly wonderful wonder of the world.  Beyond the wall on both flanks lie streams far below in thick forestry.  After a murky day in Běijīng here was inventiveness, abandon and candour that a city setting will never ever provide.  The main area of 2.2km can be walked, some of the ruined sections had to be accessed by passing a sign that said, “do not pass.”  It had to be done.  The wild and unrestored sections are as deeply interesting as the perfect 7-8.5 metres high sections spanning 4 to 5 metres.


That evening’s pub quiz at The BookWorm in Běijīng where I met a fellow City fan and our team won a bottle of wine could not compete with the emotions experienced at The Great Wall.  The following days would teater on spiritual at places such as the Lama Temple; exceitment and pride of seeing British medal winners engraved on the walls at the Olympic Park; seeing the nationalism at the flag closing ceremony in Tiān’ānmén (天安門) square with the Gate of Heavenly Peace as the backdrop; exploring the temple fairs; resting in Costa coffee; eating in the side streets of Guǐjiē (where Bĕijīng kăoyā – Beijing duck – had to be sampled); enjoying the light displays of the Performing Arts Centre; walking through snowfall at the Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán) whilst admiring the traditional ceremonial shows (in toal around 70RMB well spent); and so much more.  With the last day a perusual of Xiùshuǐjiē (beautiful water street; or Silk Street!) demanded a 100RMB Indian food meal.


For the 18th – of the eve of Chinese New year – Hòuhǎi lake was the destination.  Liam joined with half a dozen hostel stayers and we convened at several bars around the lake, particularly over an ancient bridge.  Liam had with him a guy called Chris who lives and works in Běijīng.  He advised that this was the place to see fireworks, around the Silver Ingot Bridge.  Intially we disbelieved this as display after display went off in every direction many kilometres away but none within our purlieu.  Soon after box after box of firework was laid down, one after the pther, firecrackers were alight at your feet, bangers were here and there, many flashes and bangs happened here, there and everywhere.  You couldn’t just watch these dangerous and yet beautiful explosives go off, you were part of it.  Held hostage by no way out.  Every path spelt danger.  The Police assisted local and expatriate patrons alike with lighting the rockets, the pyrotechnics, varied volatile materials that produce so many colours.  After many an hour the fireworks died down dramataically and soon enough cleaners cleaned up the mountainous piles of debris and detritus.  The year of the Goat emerged long before.

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