Beijing, as China’s capital, holds some stunning sights, but is weirdly un-cosmopolitan. In fact, Shanghai felt more like the country’s principal city.
I was surprised by how low and grey Beijing was: there are very few skyscrapers, although the buildings – like most of the rest of China – are fairly new. The primary building material across the country is grey concrete, which doesn’t make for a pretty skyline.
Our first night in Beijjing wasn’t actually ‘in’ Beijing; instead we camped at the foot of an unrestored section of the Great Wall. This was amazing, but made me very glad that I’d brought my hiking boots! The climb was up a dirt and rock trail, and took us up 220m, to 990m above sea level.
Words and pictures do not do the Wall justice. Centuries of disuse have made sure that it won’t be stopping any invading armies – trees and slopes of soil come right up to the base – but its size and remoteness make it remarkable that it ever got built in the first place. More than 1 million people died during its construction; carrying the blocks that form it from the valley floor to the ridge line would have done for a few of us, too!
We all climbed the Wall to the nearest watchtower, and the boldest of us walked for 30 minutes to reach the third tower – the highest nearby point, which gave an amazing view of the valley and Wall. The view would have been even better if a thunderstorm hadn’t been approaching: the way back to camp was a lot more rushed as we made an undignified scramble to get off the Wall before the lightning arrived. Jason and Nick, who’d ‘desecrated’ the Wall by peeing off of it, were blamed for this.
We huddled in tents while the storm passed and then managed to light a campfire – toasting marshmallows was a great end to the day.
A 6am hike down from the Wall set us up for day two and a return to Beijing, with a brief stop at the Olympic Park before visiting Tianmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is a belief in China that one cannot be called Chinese until you have visited both the Great Wall and Tianmen Square: we did both in one day! I’ve already applied for dual nationality; one way to avoid the Brexit fallout.
Tianmen Square is key to Chinese history, especially over the last century. It was the sight of student riots in 1989, when the Chinese government sent in the military to clear it of protesters. Our guide Luna, who is a history graduate, told us all about this, which surprised us as the Square is full of undercover police, and we had been warned to be very careful in what we talked about while there.
Mao’s tomb, where his body is preserved, and the Peoples’ Memorial are also in the Square. During the Cultural Revolution, when most of China fanatically followed Mao’s personality cult, he declared that nothing should be higher than the memory of the peoples’ martyrs – and so the roofs were cut off of all the surrounding buildings. That’s actually one of the least ridiculous things that happened under Mao.
We also walked through the Forbidden City, a walled city of its own inside Beijing, and former home of the imperial family. All of the roofs are yellow (the imperial colour), and the buildings are painted yellow, blue (for sky), green (for land) and red (for China). The Imperial Palace – setting of the final scene of Mulan – is in the very middle.
Other activities in Beijing included a visit to the Temple of Heaven, the Pearl Market (fake goods) and Wangfujing street food market (scorpions, seahorses, snakes and lizards).
The Temple of Heaven is China’s most important temple, although it isn’t dedicated to a particular belief system. It is where rulers have traditionally declared their victories: in the last century both the Japanese and Mao had photographs taken there when they took over. It is also the only temple in all of China to be decorated with phoenixes as well as dragons.
Beijing is where our group began to split apart, with 12 of us leaving to go back home. Very sad! We did, however, gain one new girl – Rowena – who will be with us until Shanghai.