Archive for August, 2011

The Great Wall Of China – Part 2 of 12 Hours in Beijing
August 9, 2011

My second day in Beijing, and I had a flight back to Malaysia scheduled for 4pm that afternoon.  I was hell bent on seeing the Great Wall (whichever part I could!) and after some question asking, plus the fact that I had an international flight later that day, I decided on booking a private car, through the hotel, the night before.

And I booked him for an early start – at 7am, we set off for the wall.   Apparently, there are three good viewing options from Beijing, and I was headed to a part nearest to me,  the ‘Mutianya’ section in Huairou district – north of Beijing, one hours drive away from me (at the airport hotel).

The Mutianya section of the wall was restored during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) with the original from the Qi Dynasty (built 550-557).

We arrived at 8am and there was a throng of stall holders setting up for a days selling.   One woman got me on the way past, waving an ugly t shirt in my face, which I declined, she promised me whe would remember me, and that Id buy said t shirt on my way out  (she did remember, but I didn’t buy).  My driver took me up to the booking office – and that this stage, Ive still not even grabbed sight of the wall.  I had two options for heading up from that particular part – to walk (around 2 hours) or take a chair lift (about 5 mins) – my driver was going to wait two hours for me so I paid for the chair lift.  Wow! It’s a 550m trip up, climbing the whole way over thick green forest.  It was peaceful, I was the only person on a chair.  And it wasn’t until we crested over that first big hill section that I finally saw my first glimpse of the wall.  There it was, ahead of me!  It was daylight, and I knew there was a sun somewhere above me, but it was barely penetrating the thick mist, fog, low cloud, greyness  and smog but what an amazing silhouette of the wall.  Talk about breathtaking!

I disembarked at the top, and set off. I didn’t even really look at the map Id been given with my ticket – where the chair lift ends is one of the middle towers, so my plan was to head left, and then double back and go right – believe it or not, there was not time! My two hours seemed to fly by.  This Mutianya section is said to be 2.5km long, it looks longer, but its amazing how slowly you seem to travel along it.

I entered into one of the ‘towers’ – the way to get onto the wall from the chair lift. It had two levels, and you go upstairs to get onto the wall.  The staircase was very steep more like a thickset ladder, and made from metal, it was black but left horrendous, sticky, brown stains on my hand after touching the hand railing.  The towers are not so big, but are completely barren, devoid of anything, but yourself and history.  I stepped out onto the wall and set off.  It was wonky, leaning downhill to the right, and it was hard to walk, but it did soon right itself.  I had a lightweight jacket on but not for long. I felt like I was really high, but was only around 530m.  But the air was dense, warm and heavy – you could almost feel the moisture in it, but infront of and behind me, the wall snaked its way away, disappearing into the heavy mist and hills.  Atmosphere!

Ive made my way along what I estimate to be about half of the section, through half a dozen or so smaller ‘towers’ (they’re situated about every 100m) and a couple of bigger ones, getting plenty of photos on the way, and taking in as much as I can.  The views from the wall are just amazing.  Green, rolling mountains, that heavy misty are, and a snaking wall across the tops of some of the climbs.

I get to a cable car, which Im going to have to take back down, cos when I look at the time I’d been almost two hours.  I had to buy a ticket for the return journey – my other options are to walk down or double back and take the chairlift or go on a luge – none of which I have time for.

Where the cable car ends, is the start of the souvenir stalls, and in China, the sellers are a lot more ruthless than any other country I’ve been to – I have to pry one woman’s fingers off my arm, so desperate is her sales plea. The walk down to the carpark is short, it takes about five minutes, and much like any markets the world over, all the stalls sell the same things and all the stall holders want a sale.

I find my driver and show him my unused portion of my ticket down – for the luge.  He insists, I go back to the ticket office and get my money back, I insist, he comes with me to do the talking, and I’m pleased, because the ticket girl pays me back, but it comes with reluctance and a choice exchange of words between her and my driver.

 

Whichever way you get up to the wall, if you have the time to see it all, you’re going to be doubling up on your steps, to get back down again.  Id have loved longer – and would recommend turning right when you start on the wall, and then doubling back, going left and taking the cable car down.

 

On the way back to my hotel, my driver tells me, we can stop at a local hand craft factory, not my usual thing, but I figure, what the hell.. sure! Actually, im pleased I did – what I got is a crash course in the ancient art of handmade Chinese porcelain and it was really interesting!  Its about a 6 stage process (and a dying art) to get the final products.  What a craft!  I bought some of the best souvenirs ever – hand crafted chopsticks!  What easier thing to carry than those!

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Kuala Lumpur
August 1, 2011

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia

 

Kuala Lumpur, or KL, which translated means ‘muddy confluence, estuary or city’ (the ‘muddy’ goes in front of each description) is the largest city in Malaysia – its also the capital, and even though I had only a week there, it left a good impression.  Perhaps, after nearly three months in Thailand, the biggest thing to strike me is how clean KL is, infact, the whole of Malaysia is very green and generally seems ‘tidy’, especially the city, for city standards.  Tall, beautiful, clean skyscrapers, clean streets and organised with its free flowing traffic, taxi ranks and energy.  Let there be no mistake, Malaysia is on the ‘self-proclaimed’ up-and-up, even including itself in the lucrative ‘medical tourism’ market.

 

KL was a stopping off point before our trip back home to Australia.  After some quick research in LP and on the internet, we decided to stay in ‘Chinatown’ – it sounded exciting, authentic and interesting – and thats one distinct aspect that is truly Malaysian – its blend of  peoples, culture and the bringing of the two together.  I picked a small hotel called ‘Chinatown Boutique Hotel’, it was clean, tidy and recently renovated.  I was warned through my sources that the entrance was hard to find, but the taxi driver had no problem. Theres a gaggle of street stalls right outside the door, and the entrance is down a short alley way, but the building is really, very hard to miss.  It sits on the outer edge of Chinatown itself – over the big intersection right outside is Starbucks, McDonalds, Nando’s…. Go within the ‘Chinese limits’ and your food choices are a little more authentic – with an array of eateries, restaurants and, of course, street vendors.  There was a guy right outside our door who had, amongst other delights, toads. Big and fat, they resembled the Queensland cane toad, only with lighter skin, and no, we didnt!  Actually, we were after something with lots of fresh vegetables, and a nice protein – we ended up eating at Nando’s one night, a restaurant in a hotel the second night (with an impressive buffet) and on the final night – we tried a restaurant that, although incredibly basic, served up a great meal.  You choose what you want off the menu, and it arrives bubbling and steaming table side, in small clay pots.  After four months in south-east asia, I wasn’t going so hard after ‘street food’ – so I was happy with the choices we made.

 

I loved Chinatown.  It’s a hustle and bustle of activity that goes on day and night.  Be warned – the street sellers are some of the most ruthless I encountered!  Unluckily for them, it was the end of my trip so I was over the harassment – I actually had some good bargaining clout and didnt once feel pressured to buy something only to walk away and wonder why I had!   There was the usual assortment of items – bags, belts, dvd’s, watches, glasses… I reckon it was more hardcore there than anywhere in Thailand – even MBK!  Seriously, stall after stall of exactly the same things and everyones got a bargain! Tucked in behind these fronts though, are some great surprises, which for me were, foot reflexologists and a Chinese medicine clinic with amazing acupuncturists – who teach their trade as well.  I had two sessions, with two different practitioners, for around $10AU all up!!   And the reflexology was a treat, its all throughout Malaysia, they really have a thing for it – its offered everywhere, so soak it up when and if you can!

 

Our first full day we set off for that most famous landmark – the ‘twin towers’.  Neither of us clicked when the driver told us we probably wouldnt get to the top, but on arriving, we saw… he was right, there was no way in hell we could get up to the top!  The deal is this, each day 1800 ‘passes’ are handed out for people to travel up to the top of the towers.  We arrived not long after 9am – and they’d been out of tickets for over an hour!! So, if you do want to head up there, you literally need to be standing at the ticket kiosk (along with the other 2000) waiting for it to open.. However, theres always the ‘KL Tower’ which has better views anyway!  Its about 5 mins by taxi from the twin towers, there was no queue and the views are a 360 degree panorama of the city.  You pay to enter in the lobby, take an elevator to the top and then get given a personal headset to use on your way – theres a commentary that takes you around the top. Im a little too impatient to wait for and  or listen to a recording.  Really worth the trip up though – and from up here you’ll really see how beautiful a city KL is.

 

The airport at KL is nice, no doubt – but its situated an hours drive from the city itself, so be warned!  Also, its illegal for a taxi driver from the city to tout for custom at the airport, so go with the taxi rank that is situated at the airport.  Which is unfair, because it meant out taxi driver that took us back to the airport had to then return to the city with an empty car – not very environmentally friendly either..

24 Hours in Beijing – Part One, the First 12 Hours
August 1, 2011

A scheduled night in Beijing and a canceled flight the next day? I couldn’t believe my luck! I had had two weeks in China, not in Beijing though, because I was there for my ‘other life’ – massaging for a cycling team at a huge, ten day race in Qinghai province.   After the race, the teams were flown to Beijing, put up in the airport hotel, with departing flights for the next day – and who was the only one whose flight back home (actually, KL) was cancelled – score! We flew to Beijing from Lanzhou, and I was so keen to get to the Forbidden City and /or the Wall – not realizing just how huge Beijing was, that the sun would have been set by the time we arrived, that Id be tired and that Id resign myself to the fact that I wouldn’t get to see these great sites..

However, lady luck shone down – and the next day, the organizer broke the ‘bad news’ to me.

So, for that afternoon, I opted for a visit to the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square.  I could have easily gotten a taxi, but I opted for the more adventurous route – free hotel shuttle to Beijing airport, airport train to the city and then tube to the Forbidden City. 

Which all went well, but let me forewarn you about the Beijing metro / tube system.  Take London tube, times the people by about ten (but don’t make the stations or the tube trains bigger) –and that’s not even during peak times and normal ‘give way’ rules don’t apply.  For the first time in my life, I was shoved into the train by a guard so that the doors didn’t close on my bag- and once inside I was ‘rolled’ around, by the throng pushing past me to get right into the centre of the carriage.  Lesson 1 in being ‘Beijing ruthless’ – don’t wait for a line to form to get on the tube, and don’t think people will wait for those disembarking passengers to get off before they begin the push to get on! 

I ended up getting off a station too early, which still surprises me, because I was watching the electronic map above the doors, each station to my destination being crossed off.. and I exited to early!?  Lesson 2 – communication. Don’t believe the Chinese people that tell you ‘everyone’ in Beijing speaks English!! It’s not true!

So when I did get off at the correct stop, what a sight to behold when you exit from the tube – I was facing the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square was behind me!   Ok, time to explore! Now here’s where it got interesting..

I entered the main entrance into the Forbidden City (Tiannamen Gate) – once through the gate, you’re ‘in the walls’ and following the throngs of other people.    

Also referred to as the ‘Palace Museum’, the Forbidden City was the imperial palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties.  Its construction began in 1406 – so its history is almost 600 years, and 500 of those saw 24 emperors ruling from within the walls. 

Its pretty much a fortified castle – its moat not only incredibly wide, but almost 4km long, the perimeter walls of the city 10m high – all protecting 9000 inner halls and rooms! So the lay out is: there are two parts, and outer court, where emperors handled court affairs and where different ceremonies were held, and the inner, where the emperor lived and handled day to day affairs.  There’s also the Imperial Garden, entered from either inside or outside the walls – I didn’t get a huge look around the garden (more about that in practicalities) but it does cost 2 yuan to enter!  Lesson 3 – making a mistake, id not knowing I needed a ticket to enter the gardens, went down like a lead balloon with the ‘ticket officer’ at the garden gateway.

Once you enter into the Forbidden City, you walk the first couple of sections free,  (the outer city) then you pay to go into the ‘inner city’.  And a lot of the sections look similar, if not the same – a big, central hall separates them, with a huge courtyard in between, and each side mirrors its opposite, with only slight, if any, changes.   

Entry is 60RMB, and my first mistake was lining up to buy a ticket and then realizing a) I didn’t have enough local money and b) I had forgotten to change my USD while I was at the airport!  Which is how I ended up in the Imperial Garden, thanks to a friendly security guy! He understood, I needed an ATM so I was to go to the ‘main gate’ of the park.. which I eventually found, but the ATM machine wasn’t having a bar of my card – no cirrus logo on it! L 

I almost cracked!  I went back to the tube station and was going to head to the famous Silk Markets instead of FC, but no one I asked could understand what I was asking directions to – and the huge tourist map in the tube station didn’t have the markets on it!  But, what I did find is that the police in the blue uniforms DO speak English, and there was a police office in the metro station.  And an ATM machine!  This was 3pm, and the FC museum closes at 5pm – so off I went again, this time I would get a ticket!

There was a hawker selling FC maps to people queuing at the ticket office, for 5RMB, which I highly recommend!

As you are walking through the FC, you are headed towards ‘Jingshan Park’, which is a man-made hill that over looks the FC.  Perhaps most famous more recently, for being the place where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty ‘ Chongzhen’ committed suicide in 1644, by hanging himself.  Apparently his loyal aide followed suit.

The hill is only 45m high, but there are two pagodas on the way up, plus another at the top, and the one at the top is more like a religious building, housing a huge Chinese Buddha, and there was no shortage of Chinese up there counting their blessings and saying their prayers.   The purpose of a manmade hill? Its good feng shui – as all other dynasties were situated south of a hill, so when the capital was moved to Beijing, a hill had to follow.  It’s 2RMB to enter into Jingshan Hill. 

I didn’t move through the FC too slowly, as I was conscious of the time, but I think 2 hours is plenty of time to take in the sights and sounds of the FC plus Jingshan Hill.

If you are going to FC by tube, the station is clearly marked on the tube map (so don’t ask how I made a mistake! Really!) – and when you exit the station, you will come out on the FC side, to the Tiannamen Gate, and Tiannamen Square is across the road.  I did go over for a quick look – there’s not much there – a 38m Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and of course its history – the worst being that of the ‘Tiannamen Square student protests’ in 1989, which saw the death of hundreds of students.  However, TS has also been the site for various political events and student protests – not just that lethal one of 89. 

Going back to my hotel was interesting.  I decided on a taxi, from the bottom of Jingshu – which is a heaving mass of buses, cars and taxis – but none of the taxis were stopping for me! (even the empty ones).  A guy pulled up on the Chinese equivalent of a ‘tuk tuk’ and told me id never get a taxi from there, (id been told by two other Chinese guys that I would) and that he, for 20RMB could take me to a taxi.  His price to get me to the airport hotel? 150RMB – too much! When we got to his taxi stand, there were no taxis, so I agreed to pay him 150RMB, but then he had a problem with the engine on his bike, so he eventually found me a taxi – and charged me an extra 10RMB on his 20RMB ‘finders fee’ – however, he was helpful so it didn’t bother me paying him the extra.  The total taxi fare was 50RMB.

 

Stay tuned for part two – The Great Wall.