I was both excited and a little worried about Beijing. Capital cities have a reputation for being different from everywhere else in the country and normally not for good reasons. They do have stellar sights though and none more on paper than Beijing.
My first impression of Beijing was one of predictable frustration. The subway is stupidly big with eighteen different lines. And yet it is very easy to navigate, except for the ticket machines which will only accept crisp notes. This means it pretty much doesn’t accept any money at all. After the umpteenth attempt it gave me a ticket and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Beijing was going to work against me. I needn’t have worried.
After arriving at my hostel, I went on a shopping trip in preparation for a school visit I had organised. Considering the school had gone to the effort to allow me to visit, I thought I couldn’t just turn up in my well travelled portable wardrobe. I hate shopping at the best of times and shopping in China was even less fun. Everything was too small. And everything else was in skinny size. After a silly amount of time I found something that said slim and left the shop one big ball of stress.
The following day, brought glorious weather. People talk about the pollution in Beijing, but I was very lucky having had nothing but blue sky. To make the most of the sun, I visited the summer palace – the holiday resort for emperors. It contains a lovely palace and a huge lake to walk around. All in all it was very nice. My favourite part was the continuous propaganda on every sign post next to a building, which, without fail, mentioned that the Anglo-French troops had destroyed it and then the Chinese rebuilt it. They were really drumming that message home. The next day I took the subway out to terminal three at the airport and sat in a parking lot waiting for a lady called Michelle to pick me up. It was all rather surreal. Michelle, who as it turned out was a tour guide, did arrive and drove me another thirty minutes to a school in the middle of a housing estate. Of the 300 or so children who attend the school, all live in the tower blocks, which surround it. So close are they that the whole school goes home for lunch for two hours every day.
It was a great experience having a tour of the school by the head. No one, other than Michelle, spoke any English and from the looks of the children’s faces it was clear that they were quite surprised at my presence. My overriding feelings from the tour was that they have insanely good sporting facilities, and the behaviour was impeccable with every child sitting in the same way as apparently it enhances their learning, but that it is a system very much based on rote learning. Chanting and singing was going on in every class I saw. Expectations are high. Grade one children are expected to learn 2000 Chinese words in a year. The pressure on everyone from child to teacher and indeed head teacher seemed very intense. It was lost in translation a little bit but I understood that the head and her teachers pay are dependent on tests (which may have meant observations) every month, and fluctuate throughout the year depending on how they get on. They are then ranked against their peers in their own and other schools. It sounded even worse than Ofsted.
The next morning I was up bright and early on the subway travelling to a random station on a line in double figures. There I caught a bus for an hour and a half before being dropped off at a service station. On the mountains above was the Great Wall and boy was it a sight. I met a French couple on the bus, who had such French sounding names that I can no longer remember them, and spent the day with them exploring the wall. It really is pretty remarkable. Considering that the wall stretches for 8000km, there are many different options when choosing where to view the wall. I had chosen the Jingshaling section, which was a fantastic choice.
First it was quiet. There was barely anyone else there. There are far closer spots to Beijing that I understand are unbearable due to the numbers, but when I was at the wall, it was empty. It was also a good choice, because it has a mix of original and restored wall. First up was the old wall. We clambered over stones, climbed up and down watch towers and had just a great experience in the remains of the past. It is really quite incredible, when you look into the distance and see it stretching for as far as the eye can see.
Then we went back and joined up with the restored wall. Again it was perfect, but really tiring due to all the steps going up and down – up and down. In many ways what I was most struck by was the scenery. Thick forest covering hills and mountains everywhere you looked. I felt isolated, far away from civilisation. It was very special indeed.
On my last day I went to the Forbidden city, which is spectacular. The size of the place and the wonderfully designed buildings were a joy to walk around and see. Perhaps surprisingly the best part was the watches and clocks section.
To round off my trip to Beijing, after a failed hour trying to find my targeted restaurant to try Peking duck, I gave up and wandered into a restaurant on my way back to my hostel. What a good choice it was as something resembling it was on the menu, although it was translated as mutton and not duck but whatever it was it was about one third of the price in most restaurants and absolutely delicious. It capped off a great visit to Beijing.