I’m on a train! Obviously…. As that’s where most of my journal entries are written…. But this train is a bit different… I’m on a Chinese bullet train – a sad but true fact that I am disproportionately excited about this. I’m on my way from Pingyao to Xi’An for my next adventure… before I go into Pingyao I need to catch up from where I left off!
Thursday 20th October – Monday 24th October:
Thursday was the first day we really experienced the ‘touristy’ side of the Great Wall as we headed up to Jinshanling… We woke a little later than normal as we didn’t have a coach commute, but not a huge amount as we had to make up out lunches again. A quick bit of breakfast and we headed back to the bar we were in the night before the gather food. It was another entertaining concoction of seaweed crackers, something that vaguely resembled spam and sweet bread…. Not completely convinced we soldiered, in intrigued as to how the food would go down later in the day.
We headed up the slope to the beginning of the trek for the day and, after a quick warm up of Tai-chi from Peter, we set off. We were about 20 minutes in when I looked behind and noted a sea of blue and white beneath us…. I mentioned it to Charlie who looked mortified – a group of students were following us along the Wall. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem under normal circumstances, but Chinese schools are a whole other level – 750 students were approaching us, split across 14 groups. The additional issue surrounded the fact that the Chinese, although friendly are not patient…. In the UK you would (more often than not) find people will wait for one another, that is not the case in China – queuing is NOT a thing and waiting for others simply doesn’t happen…. So 750 students continued to come running passed us with little patience for anything. A bit scary given the slopes we were going up….and more frighteningly so…. Down!
About 2 hrs in we decided to sit it out, have an early lunch and let them pass. It was definitely a good move – the wall was a completely different place again without them. Still busy, a lot more Americans, Australians, Chinese and Brits around but a lot calmer than with the students.
After our exciting experience of impromptu ladies loo queues on the wall we again found ourselves making a make shift loo by the wall – it definitely became evident as the week went on that we were more and more relaxed with each other and about all things toilet! We made a human barrier so no one coming along the wall could see us and went about our business – you soon become good friends doing things like that.
The day concluded with us walking down the mountain through some beautiful scenery, to be greeted at the bottom by a vendor selling food and beers…. This is when I realised I wasn’t feeling great as I declined the offer of a beer at the end of the walk!
We all trundled back into the bus and headed back to our last hotel out of the city… a 45 min commute and we arrived in an ‘interesting’ little place…. The rooms were ok but the bathrooms were probably the worst of the lot…. We grinned through though, showered and headed for dinner. Again, I declined the offer of a beer – something wasn’t’ right…. I thought I was just tired but the remainder of the evening proved that theory wrong. Dinner was the standard Chinese dishes with rice – one of the best dishes all week was an aubergine dish – not something I would normally pick out but it was absolutely delicious! We finished up and I was all ready to get an early night to be 100% the next morning…. That’s when James sprung the surprise that there was a karaoke bar next door and we were all going along…. I have to admit I wasn’t feeling but I went along with the group and it ended up being pretty good fun. Fortunately, it wasn’t the sort of bar that meant you went up and sang individually but mics were shared around us all for the evening. Our rendition of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ was pretty spectacular.
Unfortunately, the night went downhill for both June and I (and it transpires Caroline in another room too) as we were hit by a bout of food poisoning… not really what we needed the night before our last day of the trek! As a result, not a huge amount of sleep was had by either of us.
We woke in the morning both feeling pretty terrible but we got up and headed downstairs…. Breakfast wasn’t an option for either June or I so we grabbed our water and headed back to the room to get packed up. I slept through the full commute and then cracked on for the last day of trekking. I have to admit it wasn’t the easiest with tired legs, no food inside of me and dehydration … the climb up to Mutianya section. The final day was also touristy (but no where in comparison to the Thursday) but we had been warned that local farmers had reverted from farming to selling things on the wall and they don’t take no for an answer. We were expecting to experience some of that on the Thursday but fortunately avoided it. Friday however we did experience some of it….. in town forms – either trying to sell things to us or walking with some of the group asking it they wanted help with their bags…. Even after continually saying no, they would stay and walk with us for up to half an hour in some cases – that definitely wasn’t one of my favourite parts of the trek!
The day was our worst when it came to weather with the cloud so low we literally couldn’t see anything…. It made for a different type of trekking and mixed it up a bit so we weren’t complaining! We classified the finish of our trek as the climb up the ‘stairway to heaven’, quite a famous part of the wall, it actually wasn’t the steepest part of the wall we had climbed but it was nice to finish at a recognised point. Getting to the bottom of the stairway however it was really daunting as we couldn’t see the top so we really didn’t know what was ahead of us!
Beth and Peter went ahead of us as Beth wanted to *high five* us all as we reached the top….when we got there she surprised us with a little medal each, really sweet and a lovely thing to have for our photos at the end!
We had all agreed to put out PCUK t-shirts on for the last day so we got some amazing pictures at the top.
Again, it was one of the more emotional parts of the trek as the whole thing meant so much to so many people up there, we all had hugs and high-fives for our loved ones!
Despite us saying it was the end of our trek we did then have to climb back down again! Some people took the cable car back down (as we were close to it) and the rest of us walked… when we got to the bottom we were greeted by James and a bottle of sparking RED wine to celebrate! I wasn’t really feeling up to alcohol but I did a quick toast and we all headed on the bus with our subway sandwiches (the first western food we’d had all week!).
As this was our last day of trekking we were heading back into Beijing to the hotel we were going to be in for the last two nights of our trip… arriving we found we were in a Holiday Inn Express – you honestly would have thought we were in the Ritz we were all so excited about it! Separate showers (no wet rooms), comfy beds and no ‘stink bugs’ we were ridiculously excited! To add to that the majority of us had arranged to have a massage so we had that to look forward to as the masseuses were going to come to our hotel rooms. We had a quick nap – the best shower of the week and waited for the ladies to arrive.
The massage was 1.5hours long, for a bargain of £25… it was certainly an experience – my hair was pulled, my fingers and toes clicked, my feet put in warm tea…. All a bit odd but I felt incredible when we were done!
At 7pm we all met in the reception area in good spirits and all with very different massage experiences! We had a good laugh about it as we headed to the restaurant for dinner. I still hasn’t feeling 100% at dinner time but managed to get more in me than June, Caroline, Emma or Beth (the latter two had been hit by the same throughout the day), this was the night of Peking duck so I had to try that! It was interesting group eating throughout the trip as in more cases than not we had a private dining room… it was quite nice as it felt more personal with the group.
After the food the speeches and awards began – firstly the guides and driver was presented with their tips for the week and said a few words to us about the week. For Charlie it was likely to be his last group tour so he was actually quite emotional about it…. For Peter it was the beginning of him being a main tour leader so exciting times ahead for him. Following this Beth made a lovely speech about the charity, what it’s doing, where our money is going and the plans the charity had. By the Friday before we left for the trip we had raided £28,000 for Pancreatic Cancer UK…. This this didn’t include anything given during or following the week…. We should get an updated figure soon, but we all felt that was an incredible achievement. Beth than handed out a few silly prices for us for the week – I was presented with the Michael Palin award in honour of all my train travel and adventure in getting to the wall.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel and continued to have a few drinks in the bar before wrapping up for the night – a long but fantastic week for all of us.
There was no rest for us though, Saturday we were up and out by 8am for a bus day of sightseeing! The tour started at the Temple of Heaven where Charlie took us around the sites and gave us an overview of the history… this was then followed by a tea tasting session (amazing). Following this we headed to a silk factory which was a little disappointed as it felt a bit like a sales pitch rather than a real overview of how they made the silk and then went for some lunch. Following lunch we went to the
Forbidden city which was incredible to see… given it was a Saturday it was completely rammed by still pretty special. Charlie had told us that on National Day in the past they had been known to sell 180,000 tickets for entrance into the city…. Hitting this number one year they realised it was unsustainable and pretty dangerous so they now restrict entrance to 80,000 people on National Day (still seems like a lot to me!).
By this point we were all feeling pretty shattered and a bit over the crowds so we were offered to miss out Tiananmen Square. I was happy to miss it as I knew I had some additional time in Beijing in which I would head over but I didn’t want to dictate that for the rest of the group. The response was unanimous though, people wanted to move out of the city as everyone was tired. We were offered the opportunity to go to a Chinese market instead, which went down very well as there was a lot of good shopping to be had as well as some places to eat, drink and sit down. We did a bit of wandering – I didn’t do a lot of shopping at this point as again I knew I had a few additional days and so would head back when it was a bit quieter and I always prefer to shop alone! When everyone else was done I’m ashamed to say we opted for fries and a coke at McDonalds – a bit of a snack ahead of the show as we knew we weren’t going to get to eat for a few hours.
After the market it was time to say goodbye to Charlie as his dad was heading into town for one night so he was going for dinner with him. It was a little sad saying goodbye to him as it really did signal the ‘beginning of the end’ of the trip for us.
Saturday evening’s entertainment was a Chinese acrobatic show in the Central Business District… not everyone joined us for this but the majority of the group went along. The best way I can describe the show was a Cirque de Soleil without the safety requirements…. It was completely insane. At one stage there were 8 motorcycles in a steel cylinder on the stage – I swear if something had gone wrong it would have been fatal! Fortunately, nothing did and we were able to happily go away and tell the tale.
Our final dinner wasn’t really anything to write home about but we were all pretty hungry. We wolfed it down quickly and headed back to the hotel for another couple of drinks before all retreating to bed – it had been a long day after a long week.
Sunday was a real luxury for us – the group heading home weren’t leaving until 10.30am and those of us staying didn’t have to check out until 12noon! So we all took the opportunity to have a good lie in, I slept straight through until 9am. We met for breakfast before those leaving for the flight went back to their rooms to get themselves ready – Lynn and Emma (a mother and daughter from Wales who lost their husband / dad to Pancreatic Cancer in January) we extending their trip to head down to Xi’An and see the terracotta army, they weren’t being picked up until 5.30pm so we had the rest of the day to do some exploring together. The goodbyes were quite emotional but there is already talk of a reunion next year… watch this space!
Once everyone had headed on their way Lynn, Emma and I agreed to meet in the lobby at 12noon after check out. This gave me the opportunity to completely repack my bags ready to move on. Everything needed washing so that was going to be a priority when I got to the next hostel!
Given the location of the hotel we decided to take a walk up to the Olympic park as it was only 15 mins away. We had a good few hours wandering around the grounds, we bought a tourist ticket to go inside the Bird’s Nest stadium and took a good picture of the ‘Water Cube’ (the Aquatics centre) and sent it to Becky on Facebook. It was great to see where all the events had taken place. We also discovered that Beijing is going to host the 2022 winter Olympics which is great for the city. It was really interesting talking to Chris (Sarah’s friend of a friend who I will chat about later) about the Olympics as I commented that it must have been hard for the athletes given the smog in the city… apparently for 6 months before the games the factories in a 60km radius of the city had to stop functioning and the traffic was also significantly reduced in the aim to reduce the pollution in the city during the games.
At about 4pm we started heading back to the hotel so I could get on my way to the hostel, we stopped on route to drop into a shop as Emma needed to buy a padlock, we wandered into what looked like a small corner shop which opened up into a huge supermarket selling everything under the sun. After entertaining ourselves with live eels, chickens and fish for a good half an hour we decided it really was time to go. I said my goodbyes to Emma and Lynn and headed on my way downtown to my hostel.
The hostel was really nice downstairs – a great bar and really friendly staff. I was in a room with three others and, on arriving at about 6pm the lights were out as two of them had arrived from London the day before and so were very jet lagged. I dumped my stuff and headed back down to the bar with my computer to let them sleep. I spent the evening chatting to an Ozzie / Canadian / American (he was a bit of all three) who was also planning his travels around China which was really helpful as we bounced some ideas off each other. By the end of the evening I had decided to change my flight out of China and take Taiwan off my itinerary as I would like to see more of China. After a couple of drinks I headed to sleep.
Monday was an interesting day…. I don’t think I had properly recovered from the food poisoning so I was still feeling a little tender. I had planned to get out and about early to go and see a few bits but I really wasn’t feeling great so I gave myself the morning off. I figured after the week I’d had the odd morning off was acceptable! I had emailed a friend of Sarah’s friend Cass who lives in Beijing to see if he’s be up for a coffee / drink when I finished the trek and we had agreed to meet for a coffee on Sunday afternoon so I worked towards that!
I headed over to the Central Business District (where he lived in a hotel as he was a contractor for them), making my way on the metro for the first time! The metro was very easy to follow, extremely cheap and very clean! The only issue with it was how long it took…. But that’s no different to London! Arriving I headed up to where he worked for a quick coffee and a chat before heading out to explore the local area a bit.
It was really interesting exploring with someone who knows the area well as he was able to show me some of the city extremes, most prominently the business district on one side of the road with the extremely poor areas literally metres away. I asked whether there was much crime but he indicated that there wasn’t as people worked and lived within their means.
After a good walk around Chris had a meeting so we headed back to the hotel and I FaceTimed mum while I waiting for him. At this point I was beginning to get a bit worked up about what I was going to do after Beijing but I thought it through and made the decision to move onto Pingyao, a small ancient walled city between Beijing and Xi’An on Wednesday before heading down to Xi’An on Friday afternoon. Both journeys I could do on the all exciting Bullet train… more to come on that later!
When Chris was finished with his meetings we headed out to get something to eat. He offered various options but I opted for burger and chips as I just needed something that wasn’t Chinese food and it.was.good! After dinner we had one more drink and then I jumped in a cab back to my hostel.