Day 361: Beijing, China 24/09/2012
Arrive in Beijing at around ten am, tired, greasy and bedraggled, with stinking hog breath and an emergence at a station different to the one advised by the stupid woman at the hostel in Pingyao. Manage to ring the hostel and arrange a pick up from outside the station and after a short minibus ride we are surprised to find ourselves at a Super 8 motel - not quite the small, independent hostel we expected the 'Beijing Dragon' to be. Shower, pull ourselves together and head out into the frighteningly big metropolis that is Beijing, China's capital and second most populated city.
A decent lunch sets us up for the afternoon ahead, though nothing could quite prepare us for the horrendous air quality amid the traffic strewn streets - the smog reduces visibility to less than a hundred metres and the first place we have really noticed it. No wonder Beijing is considered one of the most polluted cities on earth. After a bit of time trying unsuccessfully to get our bearings, we enquire into Great Wall trips before heading back to the room, both knackered after the journey to get here. After watching a DVD, we go out for dinner, discovering that crispy duck pancakes are not a myth and in fact taste better here than they do in any Chinatown....accompanied by a sauteed lotus root dish and some nice rice we leave well and truly stuffed. Worryingly close to the end of the trip.
Day 362: Beijing, China 25/09/2012
Today's goal is to get a few little gifts for those people we feel deserve a little something, so we head to the Pearl Market, which is lauded by the Lonely Planet. Well, we find it [i]eventually[i] after getting lost in a strange little sports shop district (some amazing tracksuits on offer here - think loud, think synthetic fibres, think 80s scouse with a Team China twist) and must say that it is a highly disappointing chavtastic tourist trap of an indoor market. About the only highlight was the food and a huge African man's ruthless haggling technique. Lots of idiot tourists and naming no names, the Russians and the Americans are the repeat offenders. Cue exit stage left to battle for a cab (some drivers trying to pull a real fast one) and a journey to the nearby flea market, which sounds deliciously tacky.
After paying about a pound to get here (some old lady cabbie quoted eight quid) we step out of the Hackney Carriage to have a million litres of water dumped on us as the craziest rain storm begins. Luckily, we have our jackets so we venture into the market, where most of the unfortunate stall holders have no such rain protection, huddling under parasols and draping polythene sheets over their wares to protect them from the elements. With a puddle about three inches deep around each and every item, there are bargains aplenty and a whole lot more interesting looking bits and pieces that in other circumstances may have demanded a closer look. Soaked to the core we take the 'short' walk to the subway station, traipsing and dripping for about twenty minutes in the driving rain to find a successful entrepreneur flogging ponchos to the hundred thousand people huddled under the station entrance. Looking like a pair of drowned rats, we expect the cold air conditioning of the subway system to make life miserable, being pleasantly surprised by the relative warmth of the subterranean den of the Beijing underground. After a soaking like that there is little to do other than dry off and eat.
Day 363: Beijing, China 26/09/2012
Sun is shining, Beijing is our oyster. A welcome change from yesterday's weather, we decide to take advantage of the sun, naturally heading underground. We take the subway to the Olympic Park, passing through some very shiny and impressive shopping centres (another successful Asian shopping mall food court lunch) and some rather striking - and clearly well funded - public open spaces and enjoying the improvements to the public realm clearly brought about by the 2008 Olympic Games.
We take a wander down the HUGE and intimidating Olympic Walk, flanked either side by the Bird's Nest Stadium and the strange, almost extraterrestrial, Aquatics Centre. A trip into the Bird's Nest reveals a seriously impressive stadium and it is incredible to think of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing some of the memorable moments of recent sporting history that happened here. After taking the self-guided tour and exhausting the stadium, we jump back on the subway to Tiananmen Square - another site of important modern world historical events and another one to tick off the list. Bar the thousands of people, huge Mao portraits and some soldiers doing a little march, we head back to the hotel after it emerges that Mao's mausoleum is closed. We have an evening out at the Great Wal-Mart of China and an uneventful dinner.
Day 364: Beijing, China 27/09/2012
'He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man' - Mao Zedong.
'He who has not frozen his bollocks off and got a soaking on the Great Wall with the missus is not a true man' - Thomas Evans
So, off to the Great Wall this morning, doing it ourselves after looking at a number of tours before realising we have done every other sight off our own backs, catching the bus and listening intently to the Chinese tour guide (who is clearly quite amusing - or so the other passengers think). Arrive at the Great Wall to be advised that due to the incumbent weather conditions, ascending in the cable cars is the best course of action. Dry and warmish at present...
A tackier mess of things you cannot hope to see as the entrance to the Great Wall of China, with a horrible succession of black bear enclosures and crap souvenir stalls. A reject rollercoaster from a shitty theme park acts as the cable cars and immediately proceeds to give us a wet arse. We get up to the Great Wall and the wind and rain really give it a go, with the rain coming in sideways. Our hands are pretty soon a very pink, very cold and very numb. The wimpy Chinese tourists are all hidden in the built up bits of the wall, leaving the wall almost exclusively to us, allowing us to walk and conquer the wall in some seriously extreme weather conditions. Cue some great snaps and a decent hike back, before getting back on the cable cars and seeing the sun come back out. Typical!
Our last night of the whole trip (how are we here?) and whilst getting ready to go out for some dinner, I somehow manage to delete all of today's photos, which is disappointing. Crispy duck pancakes and a few drinks to celebrate the best year of our lives and try to block out the fact that we are off home tomorrow...