The Train To Beijing
After a gruelling day of early morning teaching and afternoon baseball, I was pooped. I had wrangled and begged and pleaded, but everyone had something more important to do instead of play baseball, so my team was a few people short. The game was a crazy mix of frustration, fun and exasperation, punctuated by a surprise ejection (or walk-off, whichever came first) of one of my fill-ins. At the end of the game, we were down by three runs at the bottom of the 6th inning (the last inning), and there were 2 outs. I came up to bat, trying to fill the hero's role, but I got a little tight, wanting it too badly. I swung very hard and got under the ball, and the pop-up was caught all too easily. It was a fitting end in a way, as I would have felt guilty if we had won, as we were afforded a ton of leniency in regards to start time, player roster, etc. It just sucks to fly out when you are the tying run, that's all . . .
I knew the trip would be different as soon as YJ and I boarded the train. This was no "gong nong" peasant train . . . this was luxury! I staggered through the wide aisle in utter amazement, as I found my very roomy seat and stored my knapsack above my head where there was ample space. I could stretch out my legs! There were no passengers sitting or standing in a crowded aisle! The washrooms had running water and were relatively clean! There was QUIET, ambient music playing pleasantly in the background! No doubts remained - I was in Chinese train heaven.
The sojourn to Beijing is over one thousand kilometers from Wuxi, but the train didn't even stop once before our destination, making a long trip into a twelve hour overnight quickie. What a difference a few months makes . . . Although I am still haunted by the peasant train to Chengdu, the memory of the ultra modern transport from Wuxi to Beijing will erase some of those painful memories.
Day 1 - The Climb up Xiang Hill
My friend Weihan (whose house we would be staying at) and his girlfriend Very (a Malaysian Mormon with an american accent) were to pick us up at the station. After our early morning meeting in front of the crowded Beijing train station, we headed back to the apartment where we would be staying. It turned out to be a smallish flat not too unlike mine, except for an extra room and roommate. We would later meet the affable and sincere Jeremy, but now we had to decide what shape YJ and I were in for today. It was mutually decided that, although tired, we were up for some sightseeing, so we headed out to Xiang Hill Park.
As our foursome entered the park area, we strolled up the shop-lined road leading up the hill, basking in the dry heat of the pleasant sunshine. Actually, I should amend that - YJ suffered a little, as she later had problems with the dry sun exposure, not being acclimatised to the desert weather. Despite all the warnings of raised prices (because of the holidays) and Beijing being an expensive city to live in, the entrance fee for the park was the first of many times we were pleasantly surprised at the cost. Compared to Wuxi parks, Xiang Hill was relatively cheap. After looking at the entrance map and planning where to go, we started climbing up the mini-mountain towards the old Buddhist temple at the very top.
The way up was filled with tourists, but as we panted our way onward we hardly noticed. The hike was turning into a bit of a more arduous trek, and many breaks for water and rest were required as we all gained higher and higher altitude. Finally, after a good three hours of hiking, we made it to the top.
A disappointingly large crowd was milling about around the Buddhist temple and old style buildings, and we rested amid the mass of people. It was a nice lookout from here, but the smog of Beijing robbed us of a truly magnificent view, shrouding the buildings of downtown in the grey mist that blends in with the grey sky. After a short while, we climbed back down, which went more quickly but was just as physically demanding for the legs. Walking down stairs for a long time turns the legs into jelly, and we were all exhausted by the time we had finally completed the all day climbing event! At least we all felt as though we had accomplished something . . .
Day 3 - Great Wall Camping with the Mormons
Before we had even arrived in Beijing, Weihan had talked with me about the possibilty of camping on/beside the Great Wall, and YJ and I had been entranced by the idea ever since. Very, along with several of her friends, had organised the trip quite well, taking us out to a place not commonly visited by the hordes of tourists that usually visit the Great Wall each day. Camping is virtually unknown in China, and the part of the wall we were going to not well travelled by tourists yet. I brought a sleeping bag with me, and we also purchased some sleeping mats (the thin blue ground mats that we also have in north america), and thus armed, a group of about ten was driven out to the site.
Besides Weihan, YJ and myself, all of the group were Mormon, part of the church and community that Very belonged to. They were all pleasant and easy to get along with, and any fears of "weirdness" marring the excursion were quickly put aside. We set out from the restaurant we had been dropped off at, and walked a short while to the Great Wall . . .
To tell you the truth, I thought it might be a little bigger, but the solid brick wall winding around on the tallest crests and peaks did not fail to impress. It was an amazing feat of architecture and manpower, especially considering how and when it was first built. Most of the wall had been rebuilt here, but there were still parts where it had remained in it's delapitated state, just a lump of crumbling bricks turned to stone and grass. We decided to climb up onto the wall (which we did without too much difficulty), spotting an area between the crumbling wall and refurnished wall to get onto. And then we hiked up the walkway, the top of the wall angling upwards with every undulation of the enormous hills beneath it. We had to be careful at times, as the angle turned dangerously steep - sometimes climbing up stairs, but at other times leaning into 45 degree ramps, some even with protruding rocks for good footholds. And then we ran into a "broken" stretch, and stopped as some of our braver party members tried climbing the sheer rocky face.
After some trepidation about the safety of climbing this, we decided not to take any chances (it would have been foolhardy, in my opinion), and we took a ground path to another stretch of good wall farther on. After retrieving a fallen sleeping bag from the dense (and thorny!) scrub brush, I rejoined the group on the trail, as we now lighted our way with flashlights in the twilight. Eventually, tired and spent from some steep trekking, we entered the wall again, going up a stairway onto the top. (The Great Wall of China was built to defend against Mongolian invaders. Thus, on the Mongolian side there is an unending face of bricks, and on the Chinese side an occasional doorway and stairs to the top.) We found a nice open area of the wall, and set up our sleeping area under the stars, on top of the flat bricks still warm from the sun's heat.
The evening was really nice. We stuffed ourselves with the food we had all brought, everyone sharing with others as if it was a hippie commune. Songs were sung (someone had brought a guitar), a neat Korean clapping game was played, and stories were swapped. The sky was pretty clear, and I fell asleep with YJ under the quiet, warm blanket of the night . . . yes, it was finally quiet in China.
It didn't rain at all, and the night was warm, especially on the bricks and mortar. Although it was a very hard floor, the retained heat saved us all from the chilly morning that so often begins a day of camping. We climbed to the very top of our ridge early, and watched the sun rise over the misty hills from one of the wall embattlements. It was a magical morning, and it was too soon for me when we had to return to the restaurant to get back to the city. The whole excursion was the highlight of my trip to Beijing, and is definitely one of my highlights from China.
Day 5 - Tian An Men Square and Doggy Dinner
Well, I had to see some of the well known tourist stops, and YJ and I went out on our own to visit Tian An Men Square (literally translated - sky safe door), also known as Red Square. The Forbidden City was glanced at as well, and the large expanses of ancient Chinese architecture were marvelled at. I even purchased Mao's "Little Red Book in red square, translated into english. Heh he, look for some good quotes from there in later chapters . . .
We had planned well to see the major tourist sites near the end of the week, as it wasn't as crowded as I had expected. With the influx of tourists during the national holidays it was indeed a large mass of folk - but my guess is that most came to see these popular monuments and squares in the first few days. YJ and I spent a pleasant few hours of touring, and it turned out to be quite enjoyable. But we were starving after all the walking, and met up with Weihan and Very in the Korean part of town for some hot pot.
Dog hot pot.
Now, before all you dog lovers start hating me, let me explain something. I had decided to try it just once, to see what it tasted like, and frankly I don't like the thought of eating man's best friend. I mean, why would you eat your friend? It just didn't seem right . . . but curiosity always gets the best of me, and heck - I heard the meat was tender and tasty. Just one meal wouldn't kill me.
Well, we had a great dinner. Some of the Korean dishes are really interesting (see: weird and gross), but a lot of it was quite good, especially the hot pot part with the . . . canine. It was delicious, I am sad to report. A lot of fat, and the meat was really tender. Even YJ tried a bit of the meat, but she was less inclined to eat our doggy buddies. Turned out to be more for me, which was fine, as it was probably going to be my only time eating the stuff. At least no doggy bag was required (groan).
Did I feel guilty afterward? Just a teensy bit. Was it tasty? Extremely so. Will I eat it again? I don't think so, but you never really can predict these things . . .
The Trip Back
We bid our farewells to Jeremy, Weihan and Very, a great bunch of people. The whole trip was a huge success, and getting back on the comfy train to Wuxi, we fondly remembered the kindnesses shown by our gracious hosts . . .
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