Feeling more than a little excited about the day’s possibilities, Katie and I headed out on foot, to explore Beijing’s Beihai Gardens. Along the way we discovered the National Calligraphy and Public Seal Cutting Exhibition. We enjoyed the displays and the National Library, especially the intricately carved seals and the skill and elegance of the calligraphy, despite not understanding the meaning of the characters.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the lake and the lovely gardens, experiencing beautiful Beijing at its best, even with the ever-present blanket of smog. We hardly noticed the oppressive temperatures, as we strolled through the subtle artistry of this master-work of palaces and gardens, which once belonged to Kublai Khan and then to a succession of emperors.
The next day we set out with an expectation of even more horrendous heat, crowded public transport, massive gatherings of humanity and above all, more of the capital’s grandeur and … it didn’t disappoint. With stomachs full to the brim with an assortment of steamed dumplings, we headed to the closest underground railway station; finding the train system relatively easy to negotiate, despite our lack of local language.
From the station, we plodded a long way in the heat; hardly spotting another person on our way to the lake and grounds of the Summer Palace. This quiet journey eventually morphed into one of the most memorable contrasts of my existence. The initial dribble of human activity we encountered soon rose to a flood; sweeping us along a river of smiling faces and picnic baskets.
It looked scary, yet to our astonishment, everyone moved in a most considerate and orderly fashion, which is a phenomenon that seemed unique to China. In the midst of the flowing masses, Katie and I became celebrities; accepting our new-found illustriousness with good humour. We found ourselves photographed between mum and dad and the kids, over and over, until, by the end of the day we became more famous than Brad and Angelina; about to be adorned on many a mantelpiece around China. Can anyone out there explain why this happened?
Snap-shot heaven is the only way to adequately describe the lake, the grounds and the wonders of the palace. It’s no wonder that after only five days of travel in China, we had taken around five hundred pictures each, which is a warning to all of our friends. Be prepared to avoid all future dinner invitations. You may be required to view them all!
Because of many millions of holidaying Chinese, train tickets to anywhere became more scarce and elusive than an honest politician. Procuring any ticket required standing in an endless queue, so that you could be told that you were in the wrong line. After three such experiences, we luckily managed to snare two fares on the super-fast train to Shanghai, which wasn’t Xian, our intended destination, but a great destination none-the-less.
We danced through the crowd, like a pair of dizzy school kids. It’s amazing how surviving the mob can make you feel. In truth it felt sad to leave Beijing, but adventure beckoned. Tomorrow we will be travelling at three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Come along if you dare!
What I’m reading at the moment:
- Mice by Gordon Reece
- Let’s get digital by David Gaughran