Going to China this half-term was an excellent opportunity for me, and I really enjoyed myself. I struggled to keep a travel journal for the whole trip (which I had intended to do), but I did manage to take some note of my surroundings. Sunrise on The Great Wall, or visiting a Chinese school, are both experiences I will never forget. It was a school trip, and I went along with 14 other pupils from Bedes.
We met at 1.00 am on Friday 18th October, before getting on the coach that would take us to Heathrow. Upon arrival, we had a few hours to ourselves, mainly spent buying coffees and croissants, as well as sleeping. The flight to Amsterdam was only 45 minutes, but after a six hour wait at Schiphol Airport (the most dull place you can imagine), the Beijing flight was an education in time. It was 10 hours from start to finish; punctuated by occasional attempts at sleep, none of which had much affect.
The crew were fast and efficient, working their way down the aisles with ruthless ferocity. At one point an air hostess picked up my bag, zipped it, and stowed it away above my head without ever looking at me. I found this a welcome change from their British counterparts.
We were too jet lagged to fully enjoy our first day in Beijing, but the subsequent days were filled with discovery and intrigue. Our youth hostel was situated in the ‘Hutong’ area of Beijing. This was a lively, smelly, old-fashioned district filled with people kindly and curious. There was no lack of small tourist shops, selling satchels with beloved Chairman Mao painted on their fronts. Buying souvenirs for the family was never an issue in China.
I opted to wake early for the chance to see Mao’s mausoleum. Mao Zedong was the Communist leader of China for 33 years. He oversaw massive changes to the country, which I’ll discuss further in my next post ‘China’s politics’, where I hope to record my observations about Chinese culture. A combination of food-poisoning and sleep deprivation led to my vomiting in Tiananmen Square, and it took some serious self-control to avoid being sick over the preserved body of the world’s greatest Communist leader. A story for the grandchildren.
Personally, I quickly tired of the Imperial monuments which surrounded Beijing. Old palaces, once used by emperors for strolls of quiet reflection, refurbished and re-painted by the Chinese government to pull in millions of tourists. Alone amongst these, the Summer Palace proved to be a peaceful, if not quite idyllic view of the river and distant mountains. But I now had a hundred photos which all looked the same, and I was ready for something new.
The night-train to Xi’an was something which I had never experienced before. I didn’t know it was possible for humans to sleep in such small compartments before I slept in that train! There was barely room to breathe, and it was impossible to avoid trampling someone’s possessions at some point. But once you lay down to sleep, it really wasn’t so bad. If not entirely comfortable, at least it was cosy.
Xi’an was an amazing place, more culturally vibrant than Beijing, and more characterful as well. Situated in the South West of China, its name means ‘Western Capital’, as opposed to Beijing which translates as ‘Northern Capital’. There’s a Muslim quarter, a Great Mosque, a Bell Tower, Drum Tower and City Wall. We visited all of those apart from the Drum Tower. Cycling along the city wall would have been far better if my helmet and bike had fitted me, but the views were nonetheless stunning. At one point I saw a gathering of bongo-drum players, beating out a rhythm on someone’s roof.
From Xi’an we visited a mountain farm in the Qingling Mountains, and spent the night there. The scenery surrounding the farm was just amazing, full of dips and hollows and soaring mountains, all covered by woodland:
They had the most lovely orange fruit, which you split open and ate the middle of, leaving the skin. I don’t remember the English name for this, if there was one, but they were similar in flavour and texture to apricots.
Throughout the trip, I really enjoyed the food. Chinese cuisine is very flavoursome, but would be sickly without their staple food; rice. Apart from being good for you, rice goes with anything, and this explains why it is eaten so much in the East, despite its being awkward to grow.
My impression of the country was altogether quite positive. I had never ventured that far from Britain before, but the trip has awakened in me a desire to travel more, and see the world. I hope to see Eastern Europe, Nepal, India and New Zealand at some point. But I had a lovely time, and would recommend China to anyone.