Beijing to Xian
Arriving at Beijing airport I hopped on the shuttle bus to the International Hotel. Then went inside to the travel desk where they arranged free transport to the Far East Youth Hostel. This new service (or at least that’s the impression I got) can be used for any youth hostel in Beijing. The actual Youth Hostel part was closed for refurbishment but dorm beds were available in the hotel. Situated in the middle of one of the Hutongs and only 10 minutes walk to Tiananmen, it was perfect.
My first full day in Beijing saw me joining a tour and heading out to walk the Great Wall. I chose to go to Simatai as this steep part of the wall promised few tourists and for once this was the case. It took about three hours to drive there then a quick lunch before walking up this section of the wall. We walked from Tower 5 to Tower 12 and at every step the view was breathtaking. By the time I got to the top, there was only me and one girl from Scotland there to enjoy the view.
The next day I got up early to watch the raising of the flag in Tiananmen Square. I was there at 6am and couldn’t believe how many people were already gathered there. Mostly locals, clutching a flag and waiting patiently for the guards to appear. I definitely wasn’t expecting them to be accompanied by a band as well which just added to the already electric atmosphere. After this I headed back to the hostel for a quick breakfast before returning to the square to visit Mao Mausoleum.
It is free to get in here, but you must leave your bag at a building across the street. Then I was hustled into an orderly queue and walked through the building. This afforded me a glimpse of Mao, who looks very peaceful, if a little waxy. Then I was out again to claim my bag and walk onwards towards the Forbidden City.
Since I had entered from the south I decided to rent the cassette tape for a self-guided tour (recorded by Roger Moore – a big selling point obviously) I found this really worthwhile as it explained a lot about the buildings that would of remained a mystery otherwise. After wandering through here for a couple of hours I then went to the relatively quiet Prospect Hill Park (Jingshan Gongyuan). From here, if the weather had been clearer I could of looked down on the Forbidden City. As it was it was hidden in haze, but the park was still worthwhile. Especially when I came across a group of locals dancing in one of the squares.
The next day I journeyed out to the Summer Palace. This massive park filled with temples, gardens, a lake, and a long corridor was a great place to explore. More relaxed than the Forbidden City as although crowded there were quiet areas as well. I’m sure in the summer this place must be spectacular but lacking flowers of any description at this time of year it did feel a bit bare.
I visited my favourite place in Beijing on my last day. I walked down to the Temple of Heaven Park (Tiantan Gongyan). This park lacked the tourists and instead was filled with groups of locals practising Tai-Chi, other martial arts, dancing and just hanging out. The atmosphere here was truly relaxing and gave me a glimpse of how the locals like to unwind. The park also has a lot of interesting buildings to explore.
Then I was off on a day train to Datong where I planned to stay two nights, giving me one day to visit the Cloud Ridge Caves (Yungang Shiku) and the Hanging Monastery (Xuankong Si) then head off the next day to Wutai Shan. On arrival here the guy in the CITS office didn’t give me much hope of the tour taking place the next day but he did fix me up with some cheap dorm accommodation at a nearby hotel.
Luckily, some other people showed up in the morning so the tour was on. The main road to the Hanging Monastery was closed which meant we had to detour. Unfortunately the driver and guide wasn’t sure of the way so we made a long and extremely bumpy mistake or two on the way. The Monastery is built into the mountain about a third of the way up, but 1500 years ago it was about half way. Built by men hanging from the top of the mountain it is certainly a feat of engineering. Also the fact that Buddha, Laotzu and Confucius sit side by side make it unique.
Then back to see the Caves where over 50,000 Buddhist statues have been carved into the mountainside. The largest one is 17m high and was carved from the top to the bottom. The caves were certainly worth the trip to Datong, even if the area is so depressing and polluted due to the coal mining.
I woke the next morning to an inch of snow and was a bit wary about catching the bus into the mountains but decided to chance it. The trip was exciting as we were constantly stopping to either dig the bus or other vehicles out of the snow that were blocking the road. When we arrived at the closest town to Taihuai I was told the road was closed so we would need to make a detour. What should of been a five hour trip became 12 hours, but at least we got there. I was lucky that two Chinese girls took pity on me and decided to help me find a place to stay when we got there as the hostels in my guide book were closed due to the off season. Finally found an over-priced hotel way out of town, but beggars couldn’t be choosers by that stage.
The next morning I woke up to realise why I had travelled here. Taihuai is a village surrounded by five peaks with about 15 temples, and another 20 in the surrounding countryside. I spent the day wandering around this tranquil place, walking up to Dailuo Peak, talking with Monks in Xiantong Si and generally soaking in the atmosphere.
The next day saw me catching three buses to get to Pingyao. This city is surrounded by a completely intact 6km Ming Dynasty city wall. I stayed here at Tianyuankui Minfeng Binguan and cannot recommend it highly enough. The rooms were spotless, 24 hour hot water and the staff were very friendly. They managed to secure me a sleeper ticket on the train to Xian and the owner actually took me to the station and saw me on the train when I came to leave.
The city itself was very interesting to walk around but the shop owners are very persistent when you walk past. I walked around the wall in the morning and was pleasantly surprised to get it to myself. It was very interesting to look down on the streets and homes and catch a glimpse of daily life.
I am now in Xian and will be until March 16th when my flight to Lhasa leaves. So far I have visited the Army of Terracotta Warriors. Catching the #306 bus there meant I had as long as I wanted to explore. I was very impressed, it was much bigger than I expected and since most of the statues have been left in situ, broken as found, it gives it a very realistic feel. The film was very interesting, showing how they were made and how they probably looked when first made.
The next day I took the Western Tour which was a bit of a disappointment after the day before. Also you cannot get inside a lot of tombs as they haven’t been opened yet. The Doorway Temple (Famen Si) was worth the trip though.
I am spending the rest of the days wandering around Xian, visiting the Muslim Quarter, Drum Tower (Gu Lou), Bell Tower (Zhong Lou) and Shaanxi History Museum (Shanxi Lishi Bowuguan).