Tuesday 7th August
An early start to beat the Beijing rush hour. I’ve booked myself onto a bus tour of the area north of the city, including a visit to the famous Great Wall. First though, we stop at the Ming dynasty tomb at Dingling. Inside the burial chambers, which are dug deep into a wooded mountainside, the tombs themselves are somewhat less impressive than the stone thrones for the emperor and empresses. It turns out that the entire excavation was ransacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The relics from the site were left to spoil, and the skeletons of the emperor and empress were removed and burned. Since then, plans to excavate other, grander tombs have been put on hold.
Then on to Mutianyu, a strategically-located mountain pass 70km north of Beijing. There we eat lunch at a rather touristy restaurant boasting the full range of lazy Susans and sweet and sour pork intestines. I get a chance to meet the rest of the group properly: Roger, Alfredo and Africa from Barcelona and Franz and Barbara, a couple from Basel who have spent the past four weeks in outer Mongolia, and have a fortnight left in China! I ask whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip and they look shocked – apparently they do this sort of thing every year.
Anyway, afterwards we board the cable car through the forest canopy and up to the wall. Approaching from below, it is a truly impressive spectacle, stretching for further than the eye can see along the skyline. Any Mongol hordes approaching from the north wouldn’t have stood a chance. The humidity is stifling and even the flatter sections feel like a fair hike. The climb up to the Chinese flag at the end of the main restored section proves a struggle for many, and the hawkers who have somehow raised a fridge up there are getting good business from selling water at 30 Yuan a bottle. The physical reality of the Great Wall is breath-taking, but even more so is the thought of the power of spirit than surrounded its construction. Over hundreds of years, for hundreds of miles and in the most inhospitable of locations, walls like this were built, restored and maintained, all by hand, and they endure to this day. Truly awe-inspiring.
Wednesday 8th August
The temperature hits a high of 35 degrees around lunchtime today, so I decide a slightly quieter day is called for. I head for the picturesque Beihai Park behind the Forbidden City, where a white pagoda rises mole-like from the Jade Island in the middle of the central lake. The water is full of Beijingers on pedalos. I feel equally energetic by the time I get to the top of the island – the marvellous view over the lakes and the sprawling hutong is reward enough for the sweat pouring from my forehead. A group of four Chinese twenty-somethings ask me to join them in posing for a photograph, seemingly in each of the 32 possible configurations, but I am in distinctly no rush, and enjoy the chance to practise my Chinese. I feel it is embarassing that the hotel’s talking mynah bird knows more phrases than I do, but it is improving. Mindful of meeting the Cambridge group tomorrow to travel south to Linyi, I spend the hottest hours of the day resting and doing some preparation work for my lecture course. The Guizhou restaurant I chosen for my final dinner in Beijing turned out to have been closed, so I trusted pot luck, and found a place specialising in the cuisine of Xinjiang in the far northwest. Unexpectedly, the meal is accompanied by intermittent belly-dancers and a optimistically enthusiastic guitarist. The food is somewhat less louche, the house special dapanji is a spicy chicken casserole. It is always easy to exaggerate such things, but my ‘small portion’ genuinely would have fed a party of four and left room to spare. I barely make it past the rim of the bowl before declaring defeat and trudging back heavily laden through Dongzhimen.
Thursday 9th August
I squeeze in a quick trip to the Olympic Park before leaving Beijing. For the first time since arriving it is a brilliantly sunny morning, which is somewhat unfortunate since the park is an entirely exposed concrete esplanade. The Bird’s Nest stadium is very striking though, as you wander through the beams which are somehow both disarranged and artful. Opposite, beside the Water Cube, is the food tent – dumplings and noodles as far as the eye can see! I go for steamed pork versions, before a bizarre dessert that describes itself as fried ice cream.
Then it’s time to join the gang at Beijing Nanzhan. The plan to meet is slightly fraught as the station is absolutely enormous (comparable to the Forbidden City on the overhead map) and is the home to six KFC’s, the agreed rendezvous point. Eventually everyone makes it in time for the high speed train south. It’s refreshing to catch up with the familiar faces at 300 km/h. There are 18 of us, so a bus seating 15 is sent to pick us up from the nearest station for the two hour run into Linyi. Only the driver gets a seatbelt. I’m just glad to get a seat. Not that many places are open in Linyi at 9.30, so we end up with our guides at a corner diner in the centre of town. There is confusion about whether the bowl of warm soy milk that everyone receives is a starter, a soup or a dessert. Matters improve with an onion omelette and further dumplings. The accommodation at the university is exciting. My roommate David and I are surprised to find a water-cooler and a widescreen television, yet there are no cupboards, or any other furnishings. The previous occupants have left us a small gift: a string bag of garlic shoved down the back of the TV stand. We spend a slightly futile twenty minutes attempting to swat mosquitos before turning in.