Saturday, 21 September 2013

The First Solo Adventure

I left Borneo on a pre-booked flight back to Hong Kong to stay with Sally.  I left some great new friends scattered around the area, but travelling with them would mean re-tracing my steps and going backwards didn't seem right this early in my trip.  The only problem was that Sally's birthday was in 2 weeks, and I could not afford to spend that time in Hong Kong.  Nor could I really afford to do what I did next, but at least it was movement...

I had not considered going to China when I thought about coming out here, but not having a plan means you can make these last minute decisions..  However, it's a big place with so many diverse sights and backdrops, so where could I go for just a week?

Beijing was the obvious first choice with many things to do within the city and the Great Wall of China very close.  With little idea of what to expect I arrived with just as little idea of how to actually get to my hostel.  Thankfully the locals were very helpful & sent me in the right direction - even the little boy who just came over to chat while I was sat on my backpack gave me good ideas on what to see.  The friendliness did cause me a set back.

I am not ashamed to say I got scammed.  My guard was down from the initial experiences and I was truly not expecting it to happen here.  Thailand definitely, but not here.  Especially when my scammer was a dumpy little 30-something woman (I would have known something was wrong if the more common 2 young attractive girls had approached me - that doesn't happen to me anywhere!).  She said hi, said she was here on holiday & what was I doing?  I was hungry.  She knew somewhere she had gone the week before with her friend.  Would I like company & conversation?  'Why not?', I thought.  First impressions of the place had bells ringing, but I went with it trying to be more outgoing & willing to experience things.  The food was good.  So was the company.  The bill was horrific.  But by that time you're stuck.  You have to pay.  I'm just glad I only had one beer...  I learnt from others that I met later in the hostel that one guy decided to drink champagne.  I'm really glad I didn't do that!

It took a day or so to meet people.  The bar at the hostel/hotel was nice but pricey, so we would only go there to see who was in, check emails and drink water.  This was good though.  It meant the days were spent doing what I wanted to and then catch up in the evening for beers at the bar over the road, learning dice drinking games with the bar staff.

Within Beijing the usual attractions are Tienanmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace.  These were duly done in a couple days and much walking.  The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are vast with lots of history.  The audio guides are a bit hit and miss in reliability but offer very good  information as you walk about.  Tienanmen Square is (unsurprisingly) full of Chinese people having their photos taken as groups, individually, in front of this, that, anything.  Actually, everywhere is full of Chinese tourists, but there is nothing at Tienanmen Square that hints at the events of 1989, except the security checks at all entrances (they love these - bags are checked entering the underground and at all entrances to attractions).  Chairman Mao had it completely remodelled.  And then had his tomb located at the south end so he would not be forgotten.  This they love.  I decided to see it and queued for 50 minutes (I say queue - the Chinese do not know how to queue.  We shuffled along at faster than normal Chinese walking pace while everyone tried to shove past to gt ahead in a queue to see a man who wasn't going anywhere anytime soon) for less than 30 seconds viewing of what honestly looked like a mannequin.

Also well worth a visit is the 798 art district.  Located in an old electronics factory this is a collection of modern art galleries, cafes and shops which has a feel much more like Camden than Beijing.  This was a nice little diversion from the more touristy attractions.

But the highlight was of course the Wall.  There are a few sections of the wall accessible from Beijing but I decided to go to Jinshangling.  I was joined by James who I had met a couple of nights before.  The first surprise was how big Beijing is.  The journey took four hours.  We only left the city limits after 2 hours.  But the journey was rewarded by a phenomenal sight.  Jinshangling is one of the less reconstructed sections of the wall.  No paving exists in places, towers have fallen down, parapets are missing and steps have collapsed.  And it winds over the mountains, disappearing into the distance in both directions.  Towers can be seen dotted along the ridge on the horizon as if it goes on forever.

And, importantly, because of it's condition and distance from the city, it is not covered with tourists.  James and I, with another English couple, often had entire sections of wall between towers to ourselves which added to the sense of scale and remoteness.  You can imagine how Mongol invaders would have stared up at the wall and realised it wasn't going to happen.  We were all really glad we had decided to see this section of the wall, and there were some parts where renovation had taken place to give an idea of how it would have looked nearly 600 years ago.

My next stop was Xi'an, for the Terracotta Warriors.  With time in short supply I took the bullet train.  I actually missed the train by 2 minutes due to going to the wrong underground line for a transfer I had booked but the ticket office just changed it free of change for the next train.  That would not have happened in the UK.  The train was great.  With big comfy seats it did not feel as if you were travelling at speeds of up to 309 kph and 1000 km was covered in under 5 hours.

The Hantang Inn Hostel is one of, if not the, best in the city.  The food is not great and overpriced, the iced cappuccino was lovely and the beer was cheaper at the street bar outside, but the rooms were very good, staff very knowledgeable and efficient, and the common area very good for meeting people.  Which I promptly did.  A couple of German guys were chatting to some others I had seen at the King's Joy in Beijing and we became drinking buddies for the next few days.

I waited a day to see the Warriors as I was waiting for another friend, Adam, to join me from Beijing, so spent the first day exploring the city, starting with a bike ride around the city walls.  It was nice to give my legs a spin for the first time in weeks, even if the bike was less than could be wished for (steel frame, singlespeed, poor suspension and a bit small - why they wanted a deposit I don't know.  No one would consider stealing this.) but frankly the view was disappointing.  The city has been greatly remodelled in the last 20 years as Capitalism has moved into the country, leaving very little of the original city visible from the walls.  A walk around the streets was much more rewarding for that, in particular the Drum and Bell Towers and the Muslim Quarter, a street and couple of alley selling stall food really cheaply - spicy sausage on stick, meat skewers, dumplings, and a kind of stuffed, deep fried poppadom.  This kept us going back for a few visits!

Adam arrived later that day and along with the Germans we decided to see a couple of sights lit up.  The best thing we learnt from this is that taxis are very difficult to flag down in Xi'an.  But a good, and long, night was had.  Which made getting up at 9 the next morning very difficult.

I'm still not sure if I was underwhelmed by the Terracotta Warriors.  I think I expected to see more of them.  There are three pits.  Pit 3 is small and recommended to be the first visited.  Pit 2 has some warriors on view in it but mostly are under the original roof enclosure, which was good to see how the place was built.  The main attraction is Pit 1.  This is where the famous row after row of warriors can be seen.  They just don't go back as far as I imagined.  Maybe seeing the pictures over the course of years had given me a false sense of perspective which reality could not match.  What was a surprise, after a week in the country, was the entrance system.  You queue to buy a ticket, walk a long way to the gate and give the ticket to an attendant who punches it in the automatic gate, which I could have done myself.  Then you walk another 100m to another gate for someone to do it again.  I know they have a population of over 1.3 billion, but this seems a bit of an excessive way of creating jobs.

My final night was spent with my new friends, now including a Dutch guy who had also been at Beijing with us and pretty much anyone we get our hands on in the hostel.  The feeling of travelling camaraderie was akin to that felt in Kota Kinabalu, but at the same time we all felt it was fleeting, that most of us would not see each other again although some lasting friendships may have been made.  As we made our farewells the next morning part of me wished I hadn't booked my ticket back to Hong Kong.  But everyone was going in different directions.  Everyone else was spending longer in China and I hope they met each other again along the way, but as China has a blanket ban on external social media and especially Facebook keeping in touch is more difficult.

So what did I learn?  Well, I only had one week so did not have much to arrange unlike the next few months. I was annoyed by being scammed, partially for falling for it but mostly because it just went to make me more cynical of the kindness of strangers. But I survived (ok, for a short time) in a country that is not as easy as the rest of Asia for travelling.  English is not as widely spoken, and in Xi'an it seemed almost non-existent (signs are all in Mandarin only).  This trip would not have been as easy if not for the people I met, especially Adam who was actively learning Mandarin as he went along, although the differences in dialects made it hard sometimes.

I know that while travelling solo means you can do what you want when you want to, but it will be even more fun to spend time with people going in the same direction for a while.  China was a big success for me, but it could have been a fatal failure and left me doubting my ability to go further.  Let's just hope the knowledge that there will be silver (and gold or platinum) linings will give me the strength to get through the clouds that will eventually arrive...

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