And so, the end is near, and so we face our final three days in Beijing then it’s back to blighty and life returns to this normal that people talk of…385 days.
China is absolutely massive. I think I might have mentioned that before, but I need to say it again. Huge. But it’s not the kind if massive that you get in India, with people doing everything everywhere because there is nowhere else to do it. China has a bit more space, and when it gets crowded, they just go upwards. But they use the space well, and seem well prepared for the population of the world to live within it’s boundaries; large manicured parks to rival Japan, free and clean public toilets to rival Singapore, a transport network better integrated than Thailand and landscapes up there with Nepal. But of course, China does have a lot of people, and we are currently on a bus heading to the Great Wall on the Sunday of a public holiday!
Our first objective as we arrived in Beijing was to make for Tiananmen Square. I had been put off my idea of taking a toy tank with me by fellow travellers who said the security checks were more rigorous than a Norwich & Peterborough bank account; but it turned out to be nothing more than the standard X-ray scan, and not even the usual flammable liquid in water bottle check. I found the square underwhelming. It is massive, obvs, but it’s kinda just a large vacant area. Big flags vigorously whipped the air around the people’s monument and the state buildings either side of the barren eight lane highway that encircle the perimeter are true imposing communist classics, but it all felt a bit sterile and devoid of energy and it certainly gives nothing away about it’s history other than a constant procession of young soldiers who would probably struggle to passify a quiche.
As well as hosting the worlds largest public square, Beijing has a bunch of really good museums and surprisingly for China, they’re free! With our budget having taken a blow from the national park fees and two rather expensive internal flights, we were up for as much free stuff as possible, and so the forbidden city remained forbidden to us!
Surrounding the central sites, myriad alleyways known as the hutongs stretch out east and west and contain a mix of quiet everyday housing and thrusting tourist shops selling all manner of colourful wears and the most spectacular flower sculpted ice creams. For one of the first times in China we were in the company of lots of westerners, though still outnumbered by young Chinese couples in matching T-shirts, cutsey! Curiously for a capital city, I find this scene of bustling low rise streets to be the norm much more than tall glass covered skyscrapers that seem to have taken over in every other capital – or even every other city come to think of it here in China.
Finally we arrive at the Great Wall. With the traffic delay we now have only a little more than two hours, of which a good chunk is consumed with the walk up hill just to get to it, it is after all perched along the ridge line of the mountains. We chose to explore the Jinshanling section. Even with our brief time the Wall was spectacular. First to Five Window Tower for 360 degree vistas, then east along a rough and ruined section of broken footway and crumbling parapets, then west for the revamped slippery smooth inclined path and thigh high steps. When a fellow Didcot Runner told us it was his toughest marathon yet, I can now see just how much it must have hurt!
So we end our world trip of Asia with a 2:30 am flight out of Beijing, which means a long day on the streets of the city, turfed out of our hotel with rucksacks on our backs. But we’re ok with that, if anything, it’s one of the lessons of our year; endurance in the face of long hours on buses, waiting at stations or eeking out things to do in towns that do not always offer the tourist much in the way of entertainment. It feels as if I should follow that sentence with a list of profound life changing qualities that we have now gained from our journey. But the truth is, we enjoyed our lives before our trip, and are rather excited to return to them. Sure, there are a few elements that we will change due to the past year: we will bus and cycle more and not use a car as much, our patience will extend for longer and we will certainly think twice before making purchases, a year on a budget requires discipline. But we left the UK (whilst it was still part of Europe) as thirty somethings with plenty of life experiences in the bag, we were not hoping to come back changed people, we just wanted to add some more stories of adventure to our dinner party repertoire!