South we go today on the high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. Cities? Love them or hate them, I found Beijing hard to love. There was the famous smog, oh so horrible, which pervades everything. It reduces visibility and while you might think you are breathing normally just wait until you blow your nose! It is the nation’s capital, so everything is overpriced and you have to continually weigh up whether this purchase is really necessary. A beer in one bar is half the cost at the bar just across the street only fifty yards away. There were hustlers too and I fell for it on day one. The route firmly in my mind I set off to walk from the hotel to the Forbidden Palace, only a half hour walk and mostly a straight line. But. Two beaming students fell in step with me and welcomed me to Beijing. Fine. Nice. They followed me into the travel agency. Odd. Off to the Palace again they suggested that I might like to see their art exhibit. Well OK. We wove through arrow streets and I completely lost my sense of direction. More weaving and we came to their studio, nice enough, but no thank you, I don’t want to buy anything. And left in a bit of a huff. I was then lost for the next while and the only part of the Forbidden City I located was the moat by which time I was exhausted. Back then to the hotel and a nap and a wasted day in Beijing. Grumble grumble.
The hotel Concierge to the rescue. The excellent Yina, apologizing for the art students, calmed me down, dusted me off and suggested a trip the see the Great Wall the next day. When I said I wanted to see the Forbidden Palace as well she told me to turn on my computer in my room and book an extra day online as it would be less than half the price of extending my stay at the reception desk. OK, great. That worked. Then the travel agency found me a train ticket to Shanghai. Things were looking up after a rather bad start. Sure, I felt a bit stupid but worse things have happened in other Capital Cities, there was that time in Rome…….
To the Wall I went. Not to Badaling , the popular destination, but a bit further away to a place called Mutianyu where there is a cable car ride up into the mountains. This of course would be wonderful except I suffer from vertigo, or just a fear of cable cars in general. Would you believe it, my phone worked and I could text back home. Soothing words, again, just think of it as the ride up to that winery in Napa Valley (Stirling). OK, sure, but there’s no wine at the end of this ride. Bravery won the day and off I went. It got better. I could text photos of the Great Wall, with a slight delay, from a cable car, in the mountains of China, to our small town in Northern California. Things have changed, no more waiting until you get home to develop the film and then get reprints and then post them, in an envelope, with a stamp. Oh no, not any more. This is 2014, we text our photos of the Great Wall from our phones and they are received, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the planet, in a matter of seconds.
I did visit the Forbidden Palace but that was preceded by a quite extraordinary event:
I was chatting with the Concierge staff about my taxi ride to the Palace and asked if they would explain to the driver to drive past Tiananmen Square on the way so I could at least glimpse it. It is rather famous. Yina hummed and hawed then said, come on, I’ll take you, in one of my cars. Pardon? Take me? One of your cars? Sure, lets go, it’s a bit slow today and it will be a good lesson for one of the trainees. Down into the bowels of the staff parking lot and we piled into her rather smart Buick van. On the way she explained that she wanted a BMW but her husband had reservations as he thought she drove too fast. I got to see the famous Square in some style and didn’t have to join any of the huge security lines to gain access. They worry about the Falun Gong setting themselves on fire she explained, nonchalantly. She took photos for me out of the driver’s side window. I heard great stories about the Olympics, how an Australian tv crew were staying at the hotel and couldn’t be bothered to attend some of the events they were supposed to cover so gave the tickets to the staff. She had been to the gymnastics and the swimming, for free. Not only that. The tv crew had their own butler, provided by the hotel, who used the two tickets the crew gave him to the Opening Ceremony to treat his Dad. And Then. He sold his two tickets to the Closing Ceremony, bought a new car and retired back to his village. $10k each. Eat yer hearts out Olympic fans. It was great, she said, all the subways and buses were free for the duration of the Games, but nobody at the hotel used them, they all had to stay in the basement parking lot which was converted into dormitories. They were paid for 24 hours a day for the duration of the Games, but worked regular shifts. Nice.
She dropped me off at the Palace ticket office, explaining that the trainee would escort me round if I paid for his ticket. Hey, no problem…..Hmm, but, not only had he never been to the Palace before but his English was, shall we say, a bit limited. I gave him my camera and he happily snapped away. My history is a bit rusty but I think there was a war sometime at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The Eight Allies? Opium Wars? Anyway the invading army completely looted the Palace. Quite disappointing. The buildings themselves were a marvel to behold, but I felt it was all a bit sad so I won’t go on. Or am I just a Philistine?
I gave the hotel and Concierge staff a five star revue on Trip Advisor.