With thunderstorms forecasted for our last day in Beijing we booked a driver to take us to the Great Wall of China as quickly as we could. Was about 90 minutes away from the hotel. The road leading there is stunning. You quickly exit Beijing and find yourself in the countryside.
After an hour of the journey one of my biggest fears came to fruition: Dylan needed the toilet for a number 2. Asked the driver to stop but he couldn’t understand. How do you explain this? Toilet? Bathroom? Restroom? Baño? – blank face. Oh dear! Again, if only Google wasn’t blocked you would show a picture but we would soon learn that it would probably have meant nothing…. A call to the tour company to translate and soon Dylan was “squatting” (as just a hole in the floor!) in a filthy, Chinese petrol station toilet with flies everywhere in the middle of nowhere. Help! At least Dylan is laughing his head off (at my instructions). Thank God I had paper as there wasn’t any. No chance of soap to wash hands. We are out of there in a flash. Santizer in the car and we survived.
About 20 minutes before arriving the skies turn very dark. As Beijing has a lot of smog it looked like an eclipse. Apocalyptic. Thunder, lightning and hardcore rain. We arrived at the parking lot at the Mutianyu section of the wall and it is pissing it down so hard and very cold now. Mark runs out to assess the situation. They stopped the cable car due to safety (this gave me such reassurance that they take safety serious here). What to do? To have come all this way and not make it. Mark is determined to hike all the way up without the cable car, in flip flops, and with no rain attire – I am not.
After 15 minutes of pondering the rain eases a little. Ponchos are being sold and five minutes later they re-open the cable car momentarily. Bought two ponchos, borrowed the driver’s umbrella and with no time to negotiate bought the most expensive red sweater made in China. At least it had pandas on, so the perfect souvenir! Off we go.
The moment I had the first view of the extent of the wall
As we reach the top, the rain stops. All other tourists have fled so we get the wall to ourselves. Amazing. One of mans’ most outstanding creations. How did they do this? The skies clear, the sun eventually peaks out. Mark hiked a very steep section with Dylan on his back and got a massive cheer that echoed around the mountains. I watched from afar with Jonas.
Before they close we take one of the last gondolas back down. Head back to the hotel feeling accomplished. That is it. Our last destination on our list for this trip. We can go home.
Poor Jonas only had one sock
As the plane lands in Chiang Mai we ask the flight controller if we can get our stroller at the gate. He hesitates for a moment, speaks on the radio and then turns round agreeing to it giving us the biggest smile. Oh Thailand, how we missed you.
We decided to go into town the first day and visit Tiananmen Square. We went 5 days after the 25th anniversary of the massacre. Took the airport train. Quite impressed by how easy and modern it all was, thanks mostly to the Olympics. Then took the subway. Ridiculously cheap and crowded. Airport style security checks each time you enter. People pushing you everywhere. Only stroller in sight, only foreigners in sight and only children in sight. Hmm… feeling we probably should have taken a taxi.
We arrive at the station and head to Tiananmen square. Massive! One of the biggest squares in the world (880 m by 500 m). No western tourists anywhere, no shops, no hotels, just a big open space. Huge image of Chairman Mao and screen showing images of China. Security checks to enter by very serious soldiers. In fact, soldiers everywhere watching you. Very intimidating atmosphere. Should we even be here? Google is blocked so no reassurance. The sun is beaming and the only shade comes from an ice cream van and we head there as Dylan is asleep. Within seconds we have hoards of Chinese women and some men surrounding us. They speak among themselves, point at us, take pics of the kids, keep speaking to me despite the fact I am absolutely clueless! A man tries to sell Mark a Chairman Mao watch and gets annoyed as we didn’t want it, and even more annoyed when he takes a photo of it.
We head off to Silk Street. This is where they sell the knock-offs sold in the China towns around the world. Gucci, Rolex, Ralph Lauren, etc. We had no energy to negotiate for anything so just had a look around. Went back to the Golden Phoenix for some chicken and rice and off to bed confused and humbled by this country. Completely underestimated the culture shock.
After this experience I was intrigued to see modern China. Everyone talks of the new rich Chinese taking over the world. Who are they and where do they go then? We ended up at Sanlitun Village which is the “it” place in Beijing. This time the train had quite a few foreigners and ex-pats. Relief. Still got bustled around a fair bit. Very trendy; all the Chinese covered head to toe in designer wear. They all speak English, they wine and dine. Very polite. Had a fantastic lunch paying western prices though. Dylan had a blast running through the fountains with the locals. Mark said this could have been anywhere but I disagree. For me this could have been anywhere in a capitalist country but not the communist China in my mind.. Pleased we have seen this side.
On reflection, for me, Tiananmen Square is a metaphor for what China stands for: Grand, intimidating, strict and no smiles going around,.Who needs English or tourists? People are busy at work reaching world domination and making money to spend at Sanlitun Village. Better learn Mandarin for the future!
We had originally planned to go into Beijing as we had a six-hour layover, though we would have preferred to stay for longer. So we couldn’t believe our luck when we showed up at the counter of Air China in Tokyo and were advised that our flight from Beijing to Chiang Mai was cancelled and there wasn’t another one for 3 days. They apologized and offered to pay for accommodation and food for 3 days. If only we remembered that there is no such thing as a free meal…
Once in Beijing, we approached the counter of Air China to find out about our hotel arrangements. The lady at the counter murmured something and pointed to a bellboy instructing us to go with him. No details asked. I’m sure she gave out a muffled evil laugh as we walked away.
Travel tip: If you ever find yourself in Beijing and need a free hotel, go to the Air China check in desk and you will see the bellboy for the Golden Phoenix Hotel. Hop on the free shuttle bus and check in when you arrive at the hotel. You will be given a dirty room that stinks of smoke. If you complain about it, a cleaning lady will come in and whisk away the ashtray for you. You may complain further about the visible dirt particles on the carpet that you can move around with your foot, or the rusty airplane toy under the bed your child wants to play with. This may prompt them to give you a slightly better room. However, if you ask for towels or toilet paper you are better off stealing them from one of the cleaning carts when the housekeeping lady isn’t looking. Don’t expect the beds to be made or the room cleaned throughout the duration of your stay, no matter how long. The cuisine is interesting. If you like fried chicken and white rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then you will be in heaven. If you fancy something more your alternative is to hop on the shuttle bus and eat at the airport. Please note, if you are a solo traveller you will have to share a room with a stranger who also had a cancelled flight….. don’t believe me or are you further intrigued; I promise you will laugh and enjoy reading the first 3 reviews on Tripadvisor.
Golden Phoenix … not for people with high blood pressure!