The Silk Road, China

Thursday, 30 August 2007


I had less than a week left. And having seen results of the relentless pace of change in other major Chinese cities such as Xian and Lanzhou, I was by no means champing at the bit to leave Tibet: I expected Beijing to be a vast, sprawling city , enveloped in smog where the sun never quite manages to shine.

I was delighted to be proved wrong. The sun shone and I found Beijing to be a wonderful city; I thoroughly enjoyed my final days in China, easing myself back into the creature comforts (primarily food, drink and shopping) that await me in London. In addition, my friend James decided that as I had walked with him at the beginning and at the end of his epic journey to Jerusalem, that - having also been there at the beginning in Damascus - he would fly out to mark the end of my (somewhat less impressive) trip.

If China is the world's spiritual home of concrete, Beijing has a lot to live up to. Its centrepiece, Tian'anmen Square (the world's largest) rises to the challenge, with no question of greenery; red flags provide the only relief from the grayness. Beijing's roads are also quite extraordinary: every major route through the city is literally the size of the M25. And this vast capacity still does not prevent total gridlock. At the time of my visit the government are experimenting with ways to solve the traffic problem: one solution be trialled is to take 50% of cars off the road (determined by numberplate) at any one time. Only in China...

Tian'anmen Square

But other than these concrete indulgences, Beijing struck me as a clean, vibrant city with many beautiful parks and tourist attractions to visit. I spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the Temple of Heaven to the south of the city centre, as well as wandering up north from the Forbidden City through Jingshan and Behai park with James.

The Forbidden city itself is impressive, although much of it appeared to be in the process of renovation for Beijing 2008 (as was Chairman Mao's mausoleum... and Everest Base Camp it seems...) We walked through courtyard after courtyard and after several hours we had still barely scratched the surface.

Outside of the city lies, of course, The Great Wall. Unlike most other 'must see' tourist sights in China, which tend to be ruined by this very fact, The Wall easily exceeded my expectations. Before James arrived, I walked about 10km along the Wall from Jinshaling to Simitar, both of which lie further away from Beijing and the huge tourist crowds. It was a beautiful day, the views in Mongolia were stunning and at times I was quite alone as I walked. (Most of the time, however, I was 'helped' along the way by people muttering "hello water" once every five minutes or so! )

The wall is magnificent, even if it was complete folly. Despite the official Chinese version of history, it never prevented an invasion and was virtually a bottomless pit into which Imperial China poured resources - both people and money. Nevertheless, walking along it as it snakes up and down through the hilly countryside was a wonderful experience, even it did made me empathise for those who had once hauled the stones up there to build it.

Back in Beijing, the choice of food, coffee, alcohol and shopping was eye popping. Ironically, people seem to gaze longingly into the western priced super brand stores such as Gucci, before heading around the corner to The Silk Market, where it is possibly to find the same brands, ripped off and sold at knock down prices. (Although knock down the prices you must, as the first starting price is often not far off London prices - it's a long way down from 450 to 15 yuan for a pair for Calvin Kleins...)

The pre Olympic buzz in Beijing is also extraordinary. Everything is being renovated, the (state controlled) television runs stories daily as if it were a month away, and there is a tangible sense of excitement in the city. Even the taxi drivers are learning English.

The competitive pressure on China seems to be enormous. I watched unbelievingly as a crucial swimming event was reporting on CCTV9, the amusingly named Chinese English news channel. The headline was "China Goldless" and the report proceeded to work its way through every event naming and shaming the individuals who had failed to achieve even a bronze medal. There was no mention of any other country at event level, although at the end the reporter mumbled something about Australia taking home more medals than anyone else. China is on show next year and I cannot imagine the lengths that the country is going to to bring home its best ever haul of medals.

The days seemed to flash past and suddenly it was time to return home. But while Beijing is a fun city, it can never quite compete with London in certain respects. One major consolation of returning home will be the first decent steak and a properly served Gin and Tonic in six months. London's Calling?

Just before jumping into the taxi to the airport


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