The Sky’s gone out

The streets seem to be paved in granite as we walk out of the main station in Beijing. The air is so thick with dust you could spread it on your toast and the sky is invisible, hidden behind a gray veil that cloaks and chokes.

The train had been rattling through the suburbs for what seemed like an eternity after a fleeting glimpse of the Great Wall. Beijing is big and sprawling. I had been told to expect something like a cross between Las Vegas, Bangkok and Croydon. And this expectation was being met and then some. It was the Las Vegas bit that spun me out the most, I mean the last thing I was expecting was all that neon. Beijing drips in neon. flashing multi-coloured displays. And where there is no neon there are huge printed signs illumined by spotlights. Pictures reduced to their primary colours. Restaurants in particular are marked out by their green, red and blue signage, with poorly reproduced pictures of electric red Peking duck.

Lindsey sits on a slab of granite, guarding the packs just outside the station and I go looking for a bank. I find one on the sixth floor of the Henderson Centre. It is a cool respite from the burning heat outside, I lap up the air conditioned air as I ascend in the glass elevator at the centre of this shopping mall that could me almost anywhere in the world. Is this really China?!? We dodge the touts and jump into a cab. After half an hour of madness on the Beijing roads, we are at our hotel.

Four wheeled madness

Oh yes, the Chinese roads. I think it is safe to say that the Chinese, traditionally, are a nation of cyclists. It has been a painful evolution from two wheels to four. They have not adapted well to the motorcar; in our short experience of China we can report that they are amongst the worlds worst drivers. Nominally they drive on the right, but any stretch of empty road is seen as fair game and they will drive through the path of least resistance, even if this means spending most of their time on the wrong side of the road. Naturally this has drastic consequences. Not that we have seen any accidents, but imagine a round-a-bout where cars move round anti-clockwise, giving way to the left. A tried and tested system in European countries. Alas in China to take the left exit at a roundabout, going around 270 degrees of it is just a tad too far. The path of least resistance is to turn left immediately, go clockwise, rather than anti clockwise, 90 degrees rather than 270 degrees and to hell with traffic going the right way round the roundabout. And so all hell breaks loose and gridlock follows and it is no mystery that traveling from A to B in Chinese cities usually involves significant pain. And as for pedestrians? Forget it. Again, nominally there are pedestrian crossings, but they are more often than not ignored. Cars swerve to avoid people walking across the road rather than slowing down-the path of least resistance again.

But I have digressed. we have checked into our hotel room in Beijing, negotiated our way around hotel bureaucracy; filled out the forms in triplicate, handed these to the woman in charge of our corridor and exchanged them for a tag. She opens the door, no hotel room keys in China it seems. And here we are. Shortly we will venture out into the mayhem of Croydon/Las Vegas/ Bangkok that is Beijing.

Deep fried scorpion

We find somewhere to eat, deciding to pass on the street stalls that sell food from everywhere in China. All sorts of dead creatures on skewers are thrust under our noses by the stall cooks, ready to be submerged in huge vats of boiling oil. Beef, chicken and pork are in abundance, so are shrimps and octopus tentacles. Then there are the more specialist stalls. Frogs legs, snake, larvae, scorpion, locust, grasshopper and rats all feature. I am determined to give the locust a go (well, you've got to try these things) but at 15 Yuan, a little more than a pound for four of the little bow legged skewered delicacies we decide that unfortunately this is more than our budget can bare, so sadly I am unable to report that fried locust tastes like chicken (well these things always taste like chicken. don't they?)

We grab a bowl of steamed dumplings than walk the streets, floodlit by the streams of neon that cascade from the tall buildings that surround us. Beijing is reaching for the sky.

Attention to the barnet

We hit the back streets and Lindsey points out a barbers. I'd been looking for one since we first arrived in Ulaan Bataar, but whilst Ladies hairdressers were in abundance (and Lindsey had the full works done in a particularly fine salon) we'd not found any men’s barbers. Consequently my barnet was resembling the Chinese cities, growing rapidly in all directions, especially towards the sky. And my face was turning grizzly with a couple of weeks of growth protruding. Haircut and shave were in order.

Now Lindsey has found me a barber and has marched me in and is instructing the hairdresser to tidy me up. I grab the Mandarin phrase book that we had earlier bought and point to the appropriate word. With Lindsey chanting a mantra of 'not too short' behind me I point to "duan'. Short.

My hairdresser is a young woman with a pretty face and an occasional smile. She starts work on my head by putting a towel around my neck. She then takes a bottle of shampoo that has been diluted with water and squirts the cool liquid onto my head. She works up a lava, massaging my head.

So I'm sitting, and the mind starts to chatter. It's thrown up this dilemma and the internal babble refuses to be stilled. And it's causing me grief and paranoia. Should I close my eyes? Are you supposed to close your eyes? Is this a head massage or is this just shampooing my hair? Should I be enjoying this? What will my wife think if she sees my face a picture of ecstasy as another woman runs her hands across my scalp. Oh but it is good, but I'm too paranoid about the open/closed eyes to realise and suddenly it is over and she is leading me to the sink and hang my head forward over the ceramic bowl and phoawoarr! The smell of sewers rises up through the plughole, right up my nostrils and I'm shouting to myself 'come on woman, get that shit off my head. It stinks down here'. And then fresh air. Back on the chair and the massage continues. To hell with it. I close my eyes. Which is the wrong this to do because it is the instruction for a full upper body massage. And for the next half hour I'm having my scalp re-massaged, then my back and arms and hands and the effects of a month's traveling on trains, boats, cars and minibuses are soothed away.

Let the cutting commence

That's what I like to see. Good old electric clippers. Nice and short remember. Lindsey repeats her Mantra 'not too short Marc' but she is deeply engrossed in conversation with the other customers in the shop. She has the phrase book out and is running through it, picking out sentences and teaching them how to say things in English. In return they are teaching her Chinese. And through the hum of the clippers all I can hear is Lindsey laughing and laughing with these men, who it turns out are policeman (this is the policemen’s barbers) and every now and then through her laughter her mantra has changed to 'that's too short Marc' but before she can catch the hairdressers attention she is back with the phrase book 'tai gui la' -that's too expensive.

My hair is action man short and I'm happy. I'm now moved to another seat with a more supine back and my face is being lathered up. Another woman with a stern, miserable face takes over. She whips out the cutthroat and attacks the thick bristly growth on my boat race. Facial hair on men in China seems to be as rare as hen's teeth, so this woman obviously doesn't realise that amongst the weeds of the thick stubble there is an ancient garden of a beard on my chin. She is oblivious to the goatee beard and before I can so much as mutter a protest the blade is cutting a path across my chin. In one cool swipe my chin is beardless. She lavers me up and repeats the shave to catch any rogue hairs and ten minutes later my face is as smooth as the proverbial babies bottom.

Time to pay the woman. how much?!!?!! 100 Yuan, almost ten pounds. What was that phrase Lindsey? 'Tai gui le,' but she is having none of it, and to be fair I have been here for more than an hour, massaged, and shaved. Lindsey's friends the policemen are laughing, but they nod their heads that this is a fair price, and so yet again we blow our budget.

Great Wall

We take a minibus to the great wall at Jinshanling. This is supposed to be the less touristy part of the wall around Beijing and allows for a four-hour walk to Simitai where the minibus will pick us up.

Our driver is a walking wall, a bulldozer of a man. A stocky geezer with a fat curled bottom lip, cauliflower ears (the right one constantly flattened by his mobile phone) and rolls of flesh oozing out of the back of his neck. He looks like he has just walked out of a Bond movie. "So you have met my driver meester Bond."

Great wall of chinaWe pay the entrance fee and start walking. Almost immediately on our left is a cable car. We look at each other. Whoa, cable car's for wimps. we'll walk up! A hundred meters on and the path splits in two. Left or right? The locals who try to sell us post cards in vain point to the left. We are not sure, but we are not alone, Natalie from France has joined us and is equally unsure. We decide to go left and steadily climb up to the Wall. It is a tough, hard climb along a rough path and then we are at the Great wall and we can report that it certainly is great. In either direction it snakes across the terrain. Across the rugged green stepped landscape that looks like God got bored when he created this landscape and just laid down a green velvet sheet over the backbone of a huge slumbering dragon. Up and down the Wall climbs and falls, following no particular contour, just ploughing across the angular hills. And after the first ten or fifteen minutes of Realisation, yes, we are at the great Wall, the only man made structure that can be seen from outer space, we soon realise that we have quite a mission ahead of us.

The walk is hard work. The climbs are steep and the descents are tough on the knees. Before long Lindsey has had enough. She gives me the look of 'if I knew this was what we'd be doing I'd've never agreed to it.' But the presence of another person prevents her from being too public about her feelings.

We are walking with Natalie and she is very sympathetic to Lindsey. We are walking slowly but surely, taking regular measured regular breaks. I ask Natalie what she does, she is a consultant. Before leaving France to travel she worked for a large software/ consulting company, a kindred spirit among the traveling fraternity. It is interesting what people say they do when you ask them. A Scotsman who by coincidence took our photograph in Tianamen square and who we later met and spoke to in Xian said he worked in IT. I asked him to give more details. Oh, Java programming mainly. 'For who?' 'Accenture.' And I'm sitting wondering whether I should say anything and Lindsey says 'Marc's on Flex leave' and suddenly I've got my work head on, is he a consultant or a manager? And why should that have any bearing on our conversation here in China. But anyway, Natalie said ‘Consulting’, and the Scotsman said 'IT' and I usually waffle on around 'internet stuff'. Mental note. Decide what it is I actually do! Maybe I'll just blag next time and be an 'under water bricklayer' or something equally exotic or unusual!

Anyway, back to the wall. We are making slow if steady progress. But Lindsey is uncomfortable and unhappy. I know that if it was just she and I on this wall the waterworks would be flowing and we'd have a crisis on our hands. As we walk further the temperature increases, as does the steepness of the climb. The reconstructed part of the wall ends and the going gets even tougher. No longer is the surface smooth, it is rough and beaten, the result of centuries of weathering and neglect.

Helping hands of peasant farmers

farmer on wallAnd then four farmers accost us. Three women and a man. Instantly one of the women sees that Lindsey is uncomfortable, she grabs her hand and starts leading her along the path. (OK, so I should have been doing that but....!) And then there are two women helping her, guiding her down the steep slopes, pulling her up as we ascend the steepest of gradients. And Lindsey's mood changes. She feels better in the group and is, I think, beginning to enjoy the experience. We are walking the Great Wall of China.

And then as we approach Simitai we find ourselves back on a reconstructed part of the wall, and our helpers, the farmers suddenly change from sweetness and pleasantness to something quite nasty. We should have realised that Chinese farmers whose sole income is derived from farming would not have any grasp of the English language. Yet this motley crew were able to say 'be careful,' and then when they announce that they will no longer be walking with us 'you buy postcard... you buy book'. They were intense, demanding something for all their help. And whilst I would usually have told them where to go, they had performed a service in supporting Lindsey through the trek. And so I shook the oldest woman’s hand and palmed her a few Yuan. But the miserable old bird wasn't happy and demanded more. 'That's more than a weeks wages for normal bloody peasant farmers you ungrateful cow' I muttered to her and walked away to catch up with Lindsey and Natalie who were already on their way.

Last days in Beijing

lindsey and marc in Tianamen SquareWe spent a few days in Beijing after walking the Great Wall, visiting the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. Tianamen Square was particularly striking, not so much for it's appearance, (it's a vast, dull affair that is as gray as the sky above it), rather it's recent history, and reflecting on the democracy protest and the bloodshed that followed. And just off Tiananmen Square the street where that man with the plastic carrier bags stood in front of the tanks. And I wondered if we should really be here, and thinking this is the damned strangest communist country you could imagine. I don't think Marx ever wrote about a capitalist economy with a one party government and George Orwell's Animal Farm comes to mind. The pigs really have become human in China.

Summer Palace  Summer Palace

Forbidden City  Forbidden City

We caught our first world cup game in Beijing. England playing Nigeria. we could have watched the game outside- amongst all the neon on Wangfujing Daje. In this main shopping street near our hotel was an enormous screen that showed advertisements most of the time, but today was showing the World Cup. Naturally a big crowd gathered on the pavement below, necks crooked watching the games. But I fancied a beer to accompany the game, so we chose a quiet cafe with a television. The only sound in the cafe (other than the continuous babble from the Chinese commentator) was from a particularly fat man who was more interested in his food than the football; incessantly slurping his noodles.