Eventually he got it and entered it into his sat-nav and off we went. He did speak a small amount of English (very unusual amongst Chinese taxi drivers) and we chatted with him during the journey. Because it was the middle of the night, he had a bit of trouble finding our hotel, his sat-nav seemed to be taking him down all the small back streets and when he stopped in the narrowest, darkest ally-way you have ever seen and announced it was our hotel - we nearly died!!!!! They were just ram-shackled buildings with no sign of a hotel anywhere, we certainly didn't relish the idea of being dumped here in the middle of the night!
Luckily, there was an old vagrant lurking about in the ally and the driver asked him where the hotel was. It turned out that we were round the back, so the cabby had to squeeze his car through the smallest gap to actually get us to the main entrance and how he made it without taking both his wing mirrors off is beyond me! At last! We had arrived and two of the weariest travellers you have ever seen trudged up to reception. We were about twelve hours late, we should have checked in at lunchtime and it was now after midnight. We hadn't slept in twenty four hours and we were like a couple of walking zombies! When we got to our room we threw ourselves into bed without unpacking so much as a toothbrush and slept for the next twelve hours.
This was the closest I ever got to a rickshaw ride!
When we eventually woke up and had chance to inspect the place that was to be our home for the next six days I have to admit I was rather disappointed. It was a basement room with hardly any window and it was a bit small and cramped with very little hanging space for our clothes. However, determined to make the best of it, we unpacked, showered and set off to explore our surroundings. It was well into the afternoon by this time so our first priority was to find food and then to find a cash exchange. After eating in the hotel, the receptionist directed us to the bank, which turned out to be at the bottom of the main shopping street, so we wandered around the shops getting the feel of the place.
One of the things that first struck us, apart from the volume of traffic in Beijing, was the cleanliness of the place. You didn't see so much as a cigarette end in the street and if some one did throw one down, it would be whisked up in no time by one of the army of street cleaners that were working every few yards up and down the road. There were litter bins everywhere and the people used them, they rarely littered the streets. Oh how I wish the Turkish people in North Cyprus were so well trained - the Chinese could certainly teach them a lesson or two in caring for your surroundings. The main shopping street was mostly pedestrianised, with brightly lit malls and street stalls selling everything from genuine fake watches to strange looking Chinese snack food, but down a small side street was an authentic Chinese covered market which was a completely different type of shopping experience! You entered through a beautiful ornate archway into little narrow alley-ways lined with shops selling brightly coloured clothing, gaudy looking tourist gifts and some very strange looking foodstuffs! One of these delicacies, which will stay in my memory for a very long time, made me feel quite ill! It consisted of long skewers, on which were impaled – about three large beetles that looked like cockroaches, a couple of scorpions and to finish it off - stuck at the top, was a seahorse! Seeing that was bad enough but when I looked more closely at the arrangement, I noticed that all the beetles and the scorpions were still ALIVE! Their legs were moving and the scorpions were wriggling! The only dead thing was, of course, the seahorse. I watched some customers go to a stall and order one and the whole lot was plunged into a deep fryer and eaten with relish by the locals! I was almost sick on the spot!!!!! The ultimate in Chinese fast food eh? Did we try one, I hear you asking? – well what do you think? DEFINITELY NOT!!!! UGH!!! I shudder to think about it even as I write this. Apart from the bugs on sticks, we quite enjoyed wandering through this original Chinatown, it was very atmospheric and far more interesting than the endless modern shops, selling the same designer label clothing that you would find in any mall anywhere in the world.
I soon got the hang of this chopstick lark!
Later that evening, we had our first experience of authentic Peking Duck. The restaurant we had been recommended was very sumptuous, beautifully decorated in the usual red and gold and very, very busy. It was a huge place, but in spite of its size, we still had to wait for a table. They specialise in Peking Duck and when we finally got to order, the young waiter suggested that we just have half a duck to share. So that's what we had along with two dishes of fried rice and a dish of greens. As we were waiting for our food, it was fascinating to watch families sharing this very popular dish along with lots of other weird and wonderful foodstuffs. The duck was wheeled out on a trolley, by a chef, to each table and carved up onto a large platter which was placed in the middle of the table, then everyone dives in with their chopsticks, filling the little pancakes and rolling them up with the sauce and the greens. I have to admit that I find chopsticks a bit of a challenge and would much rather eat with a fork, but it didn't take Michael very long to get the hang of it and by the end of that meal he was using them like a local. The duck was very tasty and we really enjoyed our first authentic Chinese eating experience.
This was our chef disecting our duck.
When we woke up the next day it was pouring with rain and we couldn't even get out of our hotel for a few hours. However! Us being intrepidly British - we decided to brave the elements as we had brought waterproof coats with us. We headed for the Forbidden City which was about ten minute's walk from our hotel. The Forbidden City is in Tian'amen Square and as we approached we were overwhelmed by the number of people who were all heading for the same place as us.
The majority of the visitors were Chinese and we stuck out like a sore thumb as Westerners. We followed the crowd to the entrance gate of this absolutely amazing place. The Forbidden City is so huge - with ornate buildings surrounding courtyards and everything you have ever seen about it on TV or films is perfectly true. It is ornate, opulent and absolutely breathtaking! Some of the buildings house specialist museums and the one that Mike made a bee line for was the clock museum. He loves anything that runs by clockwork - especially old clocks and believe me, there were some very grand old clocks in this place. Ranging from massive towering things to tiny little ones - there were clocks of every shape and size that you could imagine. We could have spent many hours in the Forbidden City but because we were a bit late in the day arriving we didn't manage to get round all of it. They close at 5pm and started shuffling people out at about 4-30, but what we did see was amazing and I think it will probably be best to let the pictures do the talking for me.
It was very easy to picture the little boy running down those steps in the film "The Last Emperor". So atmospheric!
The next day we had to be up very early as we had booked trip to the Great Wall and we were delighted to find, once we had emerged from the dungeon of our room, a warm, bright, sunny day greeted us. The bus picked us up at 7-30 and after battling through the horrendous traffic of the Beijing rush hour to pick up other passengers in various hotels, we were on our way!
As is always the case with these organised trips, they had included other things in the itinerary, which we really didn't want but had no say in the matter. The stops included a Jade museum and factory, which was actually very interesting, a health establishment, where we had our feet massaged after the walk up the wall, a silk factory – again, very interesting and to round off the day – a visit to the Olympic village. After the jade factory it was straight on to the Great Wall and as we pulled into the parking area I wondered how on earth our driver would get the bus in - it was chaos! Heaving with buses, cars and people, but he found a spot and we all gathered around our guide to get our instructions. Our guide was a little Chinese girl called Nicki and she was extremely bossy! Anyone who didn't pay attention to what she was saying got a severe ticking off, which in a way was for our own benefit, after all, the last thing you would want to do is get lost amongst the heaving masses. Nicki gave us a little history lesson about the wall and then, after making sure we knew exactly what time and where to meet up, she sent us on our way to begin the long, long climb up the steps to the watch towers on the wall. I can honestly say, I have never climbed as many steps in one go, in my entire life! Not only are there hundreds of them, they are very steep and very high. I had to use the handrails at the side to hoist myself up because my little legs could not cope with the depth of the steps. It was a real battle because there were thousands of people all trying to do the same thing and it was very hot, but when we reached the first watch tower and I turned back to look, it was worth all the effort! I only hope that my photos will convey to you the scale of this amazing feat of construction. It is like an endless snake writhing across the mountains for as far as your eye can see and you can only wonder at the skill of the ancient builders who created it. As we rested at this first tower, we noticed a large group of Chinese ladies taking pictures of each other and I foolishly offered to take a photo of them all together. BIG mistake!!!! If there is one thing the Chinese love, it is blonde hair and fair skin and I was then the centre of attention. They wanted both me and Mike to pose with them, not only as a group but each one individually. They were a lovely, jolly lot so we couldn't refuse, but it took us ages to get away from them and it was only my pointing frantically at my watch and pointing upwards that made them realise we were on a tight schedule and had to go. We left them with hugs and goodbyes just like old friends we had known all our lives. Fantastic!!!
On the great wall! Ready to start the marathon climb up all those steps! The tower you can see at the top is only the first one! I made it to number 3 but Mike managed all the way up to number 7!