Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Time really does fly when you're having fun!

Wow, where does the time keep going? The last few days have raced by, and with so much to say, I apologise for leaving this so long. I did mean to write this up last night to be honest, but our hostel common rooms have a habit of becoming flash points for impromptu parties. You understand, I'm sure.

So, I'm currently typing this out on my phone while zipping through the Chinese countryside on a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai at about 300 kph, listening to an Armin Van Buuren essential mix. These guys have got the whole train thing down pretty near perfect: fast, comfortable and yet still affordable. Lacking wifi though, what's up with that?

Right, so last time I typed I was one day in, and that night one of the aforementioned parties occurred. If you visit Beijing, this is the hostel you want to go to. It's called the Lucky Family Hostel, and it's hidden in an old traditional hutong in the North East of the central part of the city. The atmosphere is wonderful, the area vibrant yet quiet, and the people working there are friendly and helpful. The only catch I can think of is that because of the area it's in, the taxi drivers can't find it. Ask them to take you to the nearby subway station instead and follow the directions provided by the hostel. Much easier than having them drop you on the far side of the block and stumbling through a maze of a neighbourhood at stupid o'clock in the morning.

A group of people from other hostels came over (all telling us how much of an excellent choice we had made in our sleeping arrangements), and the beer started to flow. Beer is so cheap here, it slightly runs away from you. £1.50 for a pint, and it's buy one get one free. So you buy one, and get the other afterwards, or "buy" one for a friend. Of course, the worst part is when you realise you have a free beer waiting for you. You just don't walk away from a free beer, it's like walking away from a car crash, or ignoring a house fire; it's just not done. Note of advice for anyone else however, don't drink several beers the night before you go climbing the Great Wall; you would think I would know that.

A group of us naturally formed; an English guy called Chris, Candice from New Zealand, and Yael from Mexico. I provided photography services (of course) and the girls mercilessly mocked Chris and me for our failure to drink sensibly. The Great Wall is breathtaking. I always expected it to be incredible, but it's beyond words just how incredible it is. We visited the section called Mutianyu, riding up via cable car and wanting to ride down via the toboggan (sadly closed due to rain) ; which incidentally is where Michelle Obama and her daughters visited a couple of weeks back. The pictures don't really do it justice, though sadly the weather wasn't particularly decent; low clouds tinted with smog hung around the mountains which was a shame, but still couldn't detract from how impressive the Wall is. Highly recommended.

That night the group of us, topped up by Eddy from another hostel, a couple of French guys we had met at the party, and Sindra, a Norwegian who speaks basically every language under the sun, all headed out for Peking duck. After stuffing ourselves silly, we waddled slightly over to Beihai North, where a collection of bars are perched on the side of a beautiful and serene lake. I had managed to leave my camera charging at the hostel, so sorry, no pictures. But believe me, the view was extraordinary and if you're looking for a nice walk in the afternoon or a drink in the evening, this is the place to go. This time it was the girls on the drinks and me being designated driver a la get everyone home in one piece person, which, due to my head still feeling the effects of the night before, was fine by me.

The next day I was originally planning on leaving Beijing and heading to Datong, but I utterly underestimated the number of things to see and do in Beijing, how long it would take me to get to Datong, and how far from Datong all of the cool things were. Simply put, it wasn't feasible as a day trip, and due to jetlag on Sunday I hadn't yet seen Tiananmen or the Forbidden City. So I cancelled it and decided to stay in Beijing another day. In addition, in true traveller fashion, a couple I met urged me to ignore everything else and visit the Summer Palace. And I'm glad they did, because wow. Good call. If you, dear reader, ever find yourself in Beijing and can only visit one thing, pick the Summer Palace. Yael and I headed off there first, after wishing Candice the best of luck at her Kung Fu school (she's off to live with the monks for five weeks and learn how to beat things up. She was quite excited about getting a letter allowing her to bring ninja stars home for training purposes). God help whoever she trains with.

After the Summer Palace, which I lack the vocabulary to do justice here (though which I hope my pictures can somewhat convey) , we found a little local restaurant in a tiny back street, and in my broken Mandarin, assisted by some pointing at pictures and other people's food, we managed to get a couple of plates of gorgeous food and proceeded to utterly stuff ourselves again. I've always been a bit nervous about ordering, as I can read the Chinese characters for lamb, pork, beef etc, but lack the ones for kidney, skin, feet and brain. Still, to be honest, it's all part of the adventure.

Then, after a brief tour through Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City, I was promptly assaulted by the rickshaw touts. Hah, these guys have got nothing on the Indians. Just ignore them and they give up after a few seconds. I remember near Ajanta, I had one Indian guy follow me for 15 minutes, telling me about his dying baby sister and how by me buying some stone Buddha I had foolishly idly glanced at I could solve all his woes. I still have that accursed idol on my desk at work. I dodged the majority of them, being saved by a German expat who happened to be walking by, who kindly guided me to a subway station.

And that nicely brings us up to now. I'm sure I've forgotten things, but I can't tell all my stories here, need to save some for sitting in the pub back home and reminiscing! As before, I've written this on a smartphone, so I apologise for brevity and disjointed paragraphs, I've done my best to proof read.

I'll write again from Shanghai or Hangzhou. Thank you for reading!

Andy

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