China is not just crowded, it is like a black hole.
Everyone knows China is crowded. It’s a no-brainer. We are constantly aware of the fact it has half the world’s population and has that one-child policy and all that smog and has cities that have a bigger population than our whole country — and so I was super prepared for that. Because I am mildly agoraphobic and super-claustrophobic I need to understand that sort of detail before I commit to spend some time in that place. A place called CHINA. But I didn’t realise that Beijing’s massiveness was comparable to a black hole. Not a black hole that would suck you in and destroy you. But one of those black holes that are just out there and if you get close enough you will feel it’s gravity.
See if you replaced our Sun with a black hole of the same massiveness we would never get sucked in — 8 minutes later when the last light of our Sun vanished — everything would get dark of course, but our planet would just keep spinning around our new centre.
That seems to be what Beijing is like. It just exists out there without much every-day influence on our world (except for some imperceptible stock-market fluctuation, or other economic mumbo-jumbo upheaval). But the closer you get, the more its power — it’s GRAVITY — just smacks you in the face.
So let me explain. Our flight got delayed by the (Abbott) Australian Government introducing a new passport check which (from what we were told) was designed to scrutinise dual-passport holders. This system was due to start on July 2, the day of our flight. But seeing as our flight was to start at 12:50am on July 2, Cathay Pacific naturally opened check-in at 9pm on July 1. As you would do. But the new system wasn’t designed for that. And so a slow chaos ensued. Everyone in the queue steadily sat down as it seemed we would be stuck here for ages while the Government vs Reason (Our Airline) sorted out this mess.
But eventually through two different check-in procedures we managed to board only 30 minutes late and arrive at Hong Kong about 20 minutes late. We raced to our connecting flight and suddenly everything was cool again. But it seems that 20 minute delay really fucked up the system. Our plane then just got stuck on the tarmac for almost 2 hours because Beijing Airspace was too crowded. Eventually we got cleared to take-off but once we were about to land we had to circle Beijing and then come around to the airport the long way. Just like we were attempting to land on a black hole.
So because of our lateness we had no gate to alight at. We spent about 30 minutes drifting around the airport like we were George Costanza looking for the best park. We ended up at the very extremest corner of this vast, vast airport and our poor pilot (who had only ventured over our internal airwaves to apologise about delays) had to break more news of a delay. Our previous indiscretions meant we were stuck in this remote part of the airport and our only rescue was a series of buses that would eventually deliver us to the terminal.
It wasn’t entirely civil, but wasn’t too painful. After a walk across the tarmac, a crowded bus-ride where the driver took 5 go’s to make it round a tight corner (we all applauded when he had success) we made it through customs without any real lines or hassle (a situation where I was expecting the third degree) and picked up our bags immediately. At this point I was supremely grateful but utterly mystified at the same time.
Because we were now 2 hours late and SO over everything (in that “travelling-sucks kinda vibe) I said to Dee, “Let’s get a Taxi” when our original plan was to get the airport-train to the city and then a subway train to our hotel. She agreed. From Benny’s intel, I knew this was a risk: but I just hoped it wasn’t as scary as he described it.
We found a cab and somehow managed to make it intelligible which hotel we were staying at. So began a bit of a hell-ride. Our driver just sped through these highways at speeds that made the breath in my chest smack against my spine. He had no consideration for lane markings and thus had no need for turn signals. He tailgated like we were actually attempting some conga-line. And there was just as much honking as in NYC. It was so scary I looked at Dee for some sort of guidance but she just said, “Just close your eyes. Look down if you must. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Dee is so much more hardcore than me
But of course I couldn’t help but pay brutal attention, and when eventually we came to some serious traffic jams, I felt saved. But this jam was epic. Like we didn’t move an inch for 10 minutes. I am not exaggerating there. It was the complete opposite of what we had just suffered.
Once at the Hotel we immediately got some advice from the concierge — an ex-pat as it turned out. What stood out was this statement: “Anyone who speaks English to you is trying to scam you”
We nodded and processed that information and even understood it — but unfortunately nothing sunk in. More on that later.
We went for food in the Wangfujing district. It’s like a massive mall and it has big internal malls on either side every so often. Expensive ones — well relatively. We found a food court and a dumpling place and just dived in cause we were super hungry.
This is how the chefs dressed:
And this is what the mall looked like:
Outside we did some exploring and found that street with the food-cart stuff (Dee had to explain it to me) and that other street with all the nick-nack stuff.
We managed to get a pretty good deal at a 5 star hotel. It was a “Raffles”. I had never heard of that chain but Dee seemed to think it was a big deal. It cost only a smidgen less that what we would pay in Europe at summer so that was awesome as far as I was concerned. We had a pool and a gym and a super fancy bar (as pictured below):
And here’s a pic of Dee posing with (apparent guest) Adrien Brodie and the concierge in this State Room:
So after a decent rest in our 5 star hotel (it was cheap and a kinda necessity while venturing here) we headed out towards Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. These two bad-boys were only about a kilometre from our hotel. We were staying on pretty much the biggest road in Beijing. Like this road (Chang-an) goes on forever in both directions and reaches 8 lanes in each direction around our hotel plus of course the Square and the Forbidden City where it swells to maybe 100m for each direction. You almost had to squint to see any detail on the other side of the road at that point.
But at the first massive intersection on an English voice said “hello”. We said “Hi” back and just accidentally started talking. It was mostly politeness. He was an art student called “Jason” and he was heading over to meet his professor. He said he would guide us to the Square. We were happy for the conversation because previously no one in China had really wanted to communicate.
“Jason” (of course that is not your real name), was our new bestie. He was answering all our questions and telling us all this extra stuff and then we had turned right up a street and we thought nothing of it. I even got Dee to pose for a photo with him. Our artist Jason miraculously had an exhibition at a gallery just nearby and we just said, “that’s great”. But then we were suddenly at this “gallery”. OK. We politely said we would have a look but once we had viewed every single one of his works I knew this was a scam so I said, “Thanks, but we’ve go to get going.” And ‘Jason’ tried his best to keep us interested but we both sped out and up this road which in fact led us further away from our intended destination. Once we had established our rough location getting back on track led us past ‘Jason’s’ scam-gallery. So we tested out a new route.
It was a roundabout way inside the outer complex but we managed to get near enough, back-tracking to this entrance from this side-portal, but once in the business-zone suddenly the amount of people we were confronted with was literally unprecedented. They were all going towards us. Directly towards the Forbidden City entrance. And we were now struggling against that flow of people so we could get tickets. Around us was this massive, massive square. And when you are different and everyone is heading in the opposite direction to you, you get a bit self-conscious. At the time I was weighing up whether or not to be scared because the space all around was massive, but the amount of people there, just staring at you like you were an alien, was just as much off-the-scale. Like I have never seen so many people in one place at one time. (It should be noted I don’t do music-festivals btw). We almost goy to the tiny south gate — which was on the Tianamen Square side — and it was just a crush, upon crush of people coming in just our direction. We ruled out visiting the Square that day.
After turning around (going with the flow), and getting more and more anxious, we found some Australian tourists in a tour-group and asked where to get tickets (because it wasn’t actually obvious). They had no idea either but directed us to their guide. She informed us that tickets for the “Forbidden City Museum” where the same as a ticket to the complex. Once that was sorted everything was stupidly easy. We lined up maybe 8 minutes for tickets (passport required) and then went straight through the gates in an instant.
Inside it was hot, sunny and naturally crowded but if you slunk off to the peripherals bizarrely you had all the space you needed. You could even get photos with maybe no other souls in shot. But at the pinch-points in the centre you had to deal with a crush. As best we could we sped through to the next section, and then the next section. And even though things got bigger and grander I soon was wondering, “How do you get out of this place?” Because there was no obvious exit point. We just plowed on.
We then went on and on but eventually realised the only way out was forward. Once outside we were accosted by English speakers again — but we were wise now. We headed around and up to the temple at Jingshan Park for a 360 view of this crazy place.
Jingshan was an oasis. It was super-green and relatively devoid of humans and was almost quiet and serene in places. But then we saw a woman literally peeing (or defecating) right there in the most exposed manner in this most civilized of all places we had yet seen in Beijing. It was like the vibe was “if get a tiny bit of privacy, then you can defecate. NBD”. Took that photo above literally seconds before I witnessed that shit. And I use the term “shit” rather loosely.
That night we headed for a place called Slow Boat Brewery a few subway rides east and a walk down through the hutongs. We kept seeing these “Public Toilets” and thought, “That’s convenient!”. Only later we realised that no one has their own personal toilet in their home (hutong) — so they use the communal facilities.
Slow Boat had some great burgers and some relatively expensive beer but was a worthwhile trip.
THE GREAT WALL
Look: here’s a confession.
I am impossibly biased about any reportage of the GREAT WALL. I would love it no matter what. And in that breath I should say also that I am scared shitless about China, but I toughened up just so I could see this bunch of bricks. So whatever I write below should be viewed within that frame.
And so my love of this Great Wall began ever since I knew it existed. I must have been 6 or 7. (I can remember swinging a pretend Monkey’s Magic Wishing Staff around my head just after my 6th birthday). It was the first episode of the second series of “Monkey” — a Japanese TV series based on possibly the most famous Chinese fable-adventure, “Journey to the West”. King Monkey battled this dragon-demon on the Wall for ages and for a kid’s TV series on Channel 2 (ABC), this was an location shot we were definitely not used to.
So on Benny’s advice we got this private tour where we were got picked up at our hotel and we had a driver and our personal guide (Cheney) and the driver dropped us off at this deserted, ruined section of the Wall and we walked through (with our guide) to the established (tourist) section and then our driver drove around to pick us up at the end of this cable car and ferried us home.
It was a July 4 Saturday when we met Cheney in the foyer at 8am. Our driver was called “Jason” too — eek. Cheney was the only one who could speak English. He did his best to do this script — telling us about history and stuff but there’s only so much “script” in a 3 hour car trip. Eventually when this epic traffic jam emerged I told him about “Monkey Magic” and he was super-surprised.
That traffic jam was only one of many. Once it looked like you were getting somewhere another one brought everything to slow mess of cars. Of course we saw stupid stuff like a whole family with what seemed like all their stuff just hitch-hiking in the middle of the highway on a traffic-island (and sans-island — just the road markings).
Eventually we made it through all the jams, up and over a mountain, and through some toll gates that signs said were a restricted section of the Great Wall. Suddenly we were in a tiny village. We got out and started up the mountain. It was about 32 degrees but soon we were in jungle and the shade was appreciated. But it was all UP. Like pretty steep. You’d get a glimpse of the Wall’s watch-tower way up on the top and think — “Oh shit. That’s where we are heading.”
But although the climb was seriously tough, Dee was only a few steps behind and when she needed a break, I was glad too. She did so well. I am going to put it down here that it was maybe 350m of altitude in maybe only 1.5k. That’s quite a gradient — and in that heat — we did it in under 50 minutes. Cheney said we had broken a record.
Meanwhile the views just got nuts. The first view I got of the wall continuing east was perhaps one of the greatest bits of wilderness scenery that I have ever experienced. The wall just went on for ever and despite the fact it was crumbling it was still so severe. So tough. But at the same time it was so organic too. It fitted this landscape. It just fit in. It was the perfect ensemble.
We still had a bit of trekking to get to to a point where we could touch it. I was smashing ahead and before I knew it, I stepped around a corner and there it was. This bit was a three-storey-watchtower. But the first thing I noticed was someone had scrawled some graffiti on it. About the size of mid-sized-TV. Like in black spray-paint. Ugly. I purposely didn’t take a picture.
To get up the watchtower, which was super high with sheer cliffs and certain death on any angle except for the wall it should be said, we had to venture up that log-ladder thing I pictured above. (my sweat stains got all over the lens).
At the top of the ladder was a lady who owned it, and she charged people to climb. She was probs from the village below. Our guide paid our toll and then here was another improvised ladder up to the second level. Then we were going to level 3 and I was a bit weak at the heights. It was the top of a mountain and then three levels above that shit, and those three levels were crumbling shit and the route up meant a tunnel which had a big gap in the floor and you just had to pick the most secure route.
As quick as I could I took a pick of us and then the view from up there:
My knees and hands were shaking all the while but I was utterly enthralled. It was so cool.
Next thing I knew we were smashing down the ruined section of the wall. I was in heaven.
But not so much when the route got tight. Like there were trees growing out of the Wall. It was like a bushwalk but with some sort of injury or death if you fell off the tiny broken path. On both sides was at least a 5 metre drop I grabbed hold of any branch I could as I slowly stepped through. I was way ahead of Dee and Cheney so my weakness was never fully exposed.
At some point Cheney said we couldn’t proceed and had to drop down off the wall to avoid a section that was unsafe. I looked up and said, “Good Call!”.
This is Dee in that section whee we had to drop down beside the Wall
Once we got through the jungle and we got through the crumbling bricks and we braved it through some permanent vendors who seemed to actually live on the Wall (we saw their tents and we saw a guy way back actually squatting in some sort of tent-dwelling on top of the Wall itself. (He was just lying back on his hammock and listening to his radio.
SERIOUS (AND A BIT BRUTAL) OBSERVATIONS
1) In everyday stores shop-keepers refused to say one single word. It was was entirely disconcerting — no pleasantries. I did my “Nihow” (hello) and “Sher Sher” (thank you) but there was no reciprocation. And a definite eye-contact-reluctance. I would plonk my potential purchases on the counter and they would stamp out the price in a calculator and direct the screen in what they assumed was within my eye-sight.
Look: I am all for dropping excessive pleasantries and just getting down to business in economic transactions — but this attitude just became downright rude — almost hostile. I can’t really get my head around even understanding it. I can’t help feeling China is a little like Brisbane. We don’t get much tourist interaction here. But whenever I see people from another culture I am cool with that. Of course I think they are crazy wilfully visiting a stupid deadshit town like ours, but I will always be excessively polite and try to help, and sometimes I will attempt some meaningful engagement.
2) My beard seemed to get special treatment too. At the beginning it was kinda cute all the staring Dee and I got at the beginning. But then it was pretty weird. Almost indecent — invasive. Almost like a power thing. When I was drunk enough I just stared back or laughed at their obsessive curiosity. What drives people to do that?
3) The spitting on the street is not that bad, the smells neither. But the two kids with massive boils all over their bodies just being massaged by their mum was nuts. Like even the locals were giving money.
4) The crowds on the subway were way-worse than Japan and the UK. Once we found ourselves in the centre thoroughfare of this train and felt something pushing against our shins. Dee jumped out of the way but this guy literally just went between my legs before I could move out of the way. It was a beggar with no legs just crawling propelled only by his arms up the corridor. Everyone else was ignoring him so we couldn’t help but do the same.
5) Dee was wise enough to get a VPN before we left. I believed I could suffer through 4 or 5 days without Instagram or Apple. “No big deal”, I thought. But it wasn’t Insti I missed — it was Google. I realised all the searches of this crazy place I needed to do were blocked and my apps and the iPhone’s OS were thoroughly dependent on it. It through me back into the dark ages of the 90s and wondering what other search engine I could turn to. I gave up.
6) They have serious bag-checks at each subway entrance. Like all bags are x-rayed. Kinda full-on.
7) Drivers have an amazing impatience, yet an incredible patience too. Like they accept some random 3-point turns and epic-pushing in, but any hesitation or lack of focus means an immediate reprimand
8) Road crossings work like this. TAKE CHARGE. Despite any call-signal that says pedestrians have the right of way — as a ped you need to take charge. The minute you see a weakness, start crossing and even before just start asserting your authority. It’s just like in Track Racing where there is a gap — someone will fill it. The lesson in CHINA: Don’t let your opponent fill it.