FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Beijing to London

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 21, 2012

A short trip by metro to Dongzhimen and a smooth run on the airport-express train delivered me to the airport with minimal hassle. The view from the train had been a little worrying, with a dense fog hiding most of the landscape from sight, but thankfully things seemed a little better around the airport.

A glimpse of my ride home

A glimpse of my ride home

Once I had completed the usual formalities I found a quiet airside cafe and chilled out until it was time to board my flight home. Thankfully, there were no dramas this time and after a couple of good flights found myself back in at London City airport a little ahead of schedule. In fact, I was perfectly in time for the rush-hour – oh joy!

Looking back on the past ten days, I am relieved that a second trip to see Sandaoling was worthwhile and glad to have finally gotten around to spending sufficient time in Beijing to appreciate the city better (after all, this is the fourth time I have been to/through Beijing so it really was long overdue!). I don’t know whether I will be back, but if not this was a good note to end on.

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Sunset in Tian’anmen Square

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 20, 2012

At the end of my last full day in Beijing I headed to Tian’anmen Square to see the sunset flag lowering ceremony, which is probably as clichéd a tourist experience as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. However, sometimes you just have to give in and do these things… after all, you would miss some incredible places if you only ever did stuff off the beaten track!

The Chinese flag flies in Tian'anmen Square

The Chinese flag flies in Tian’anmen Square

I arrived about an hour before sunset to find that the three sides of the flagpole accessible from Tian’anmen Square were almost completely lined with tourists (with hardly a westerner amongst them). There was a noticeable army and police presence, along with other men in tracksuits who looked like they shouldn’t be messed with. I guess with the recent increase in security for the party congress there was still a degree of lingering nervousness, though I don’t know what counts as normal to make any proper comparisons! The soldiers had fire extinguishers at the ready to deal with any self-immolations, particularly after a spate of such incidents at other locations in China.

The flag is taken down from Tian'anmen Square at sunset

The flag is taken down from Tian’anmen Square at sunset

A moment or two before sunset the traffic stopped and soldiers marched out from the tower on the square. The flag was lowered respectfully and then the traffic was stopped once again to allow the soldiers to return. Once this act had been completed the crowds were encouraged to leave the square. I headed back to my hotel to get myself ready for my journey homeward in the morning.

The Great Wall

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 20, 2012

The final day of my trip began with an early morning metro ride to the pick-up point for a tour to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, Huairou District, which is approximately 70km outside Beijing. I had opted to travel with Urban Adventures in the hope that their relatively early start (6.30am) from the city centre would give us a decent spell on the wall before the majority of visitors arrived.

The plan threatened to unravel fairly early on as we hit a massive traffic jam caused by some construction work at a roundabout in central Beijing. Thankfully the roads flowed pretty freely once we made our escape and we reached Mutianyu around 8.45am. A short cable car ride took us up to the Great Wall which was largely deserted, except for a small group of visiting soldiers.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu with dedication to Chairman Mao

The Great Wall at Mutianyu with a dedication to Chairman Mao on the hillside

I don’t suppose I had ever really contemplated the kind of terrain that the Great Wall crossed, nor how high it would be, so this came as something of a surprise. The view down to the village below certainly spoke volumes!

The view down from the Great Wall at at Mutianyu

The view down from the Great Wall at at Mutianyu

After climbing out of the cable car we turned left and headed up to the last tower at the western end of the public section of the wall. The public section of the wall has been restored and is generally easy to follow, but there is a real kick at the end with a steep climb to the final tower. Any desire to congratulate ourselves on such a feat was quickly dispelled by the sight of an old lady selling souvenirs and snacks at the top! The old lady insisted that we should climb much further, but the sign saying ‘No tourist section, please donot pass’ and the CCTV camera trained on the gateway persuaded us otherwise…

A quiet-ish day on the Great Wall

A quiet-ish day on the Great Wall

The way back down was much easier and we had soon made it back past our initial entry point. By now there were tourists across the whole length of the wall, however the numbers were still fairly modest. I guess this is the advantage of visiting in the off-season, along with the incredible colours of the vegetation.

Tower 11 sits at the end of a short spur off the main wall

Tower 11 sits at the end of a short spur off the main wall

The original plan been to walk back to tower 6 and choose between the three options available to get back to the village (walk down, slide down on a toboggan or take the chair-lift). However with a little time in hand I continued on to the three connected towers guarding the pass at Zhengguantai (a rare occurence on the Great Wall) before turning back and choosing the chair lift to get me down.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Although the wall has been restored it is still a terrific place to visit. The view from the wall was fascinating as we could see how unrestored and overgrown sections of the wall continued to snake around the mountains in the distance. This can all be seen in the photograph below which shows a distant unrestored wall (running down the centre of the image from top to bottom), further towers on the hilltops and another section of wall on the nearest hillside. It’s not hard to see how fascinating it can be and why so many visitors come back again and again, walking different stretches of the wall. I’d certainly love to go back and hike some of the unrestored sections.

Unrestored sections of Great Wall can be seen in the distance from the wall at Mutianyu

Unrestored sections of Great Wall can be seen in the distance from the wall at Mutianyu

Our small group gathered back in the village at midday and from here we headed to a local restaurant for some much needed sustenance. It was a great day trip and certainly the perfect way to round off this trip to China.

Great Wall Gallery

The Forbidden City

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 19, 2012

The Forbidden City is both a fascinating and frustrating place to visit. Inevitably, the place attracts vast numbers of tourists and even on a weekday, in low season, it can feel like you are sightseeing through a scrum just to get a view inside the fenced off palace buildings. However, once you move away from the main south-north axis the crowds thin out and the experience becomes much more pleasant.

Off the beaten track

Off the beaten track in the Forbidden City

I started my visit to the Forbidden City at 11am and spent about four hours wandering around. I was surprised by some aspects of the layout, such as the military barracks and basketball court located within the boundaries of the complex, just outside the Meridian Gate, and unprepared for just how much more beautiful some sights appear in person. The five marble bridges over the golden water were a particular delight.

The military maintain a presence on the approach to the Forbidden City

The military maintain a presence on the approach to the Forbidden City

I took a leisurely wander around the Forbidden City exploring any passages that caught my eye, often leading to small galleries tucked away in hidden courtyards. I began to realise how much the tour groups being whisked through on the main axis must be missing. Similarly, the Eastern Palaces (requiring a 10 Yuan ticket) were much quieter still which was a pity as some of the treasures tucked away there were really worth a look – as was the nine dragon screen that can be found here.

The view across the golden water

The view across the golden water

The absolute highlight of my day was, rather unexpectedly, a visit to the exhibition of clocks in the Hall of worshing ancestors. I was completely blown away by the utterly amazing timepieces on display – the most elaborate, inventive and beautiful clocks I have ever seen – and all utterly amazing in their own right. I had timed my visit for the second of the day’s displays of working clocks (at 2pm) with about five clocks wound up for people to watch their extraordinary movements (towers rising, pieces twirling etc).

Overall, I would say that the entrance fee is an incredible bargain for such a remarkable place. I paid 40 Yuan for the main ticket, plus two supplementary 10 Yuan tickets which works out at somewhere around £6 for a day’s entertainment. I am sure I could have spent longer in the Forbidden City too – I am sure I missed some of the Western Palaces and other exhibitions (there is only so much my brain could digest in one day!).

The end of the day

The end of the day

In the evening I returned to Tian’anmen Square for a view of the illuminated tower gateway to the Forbidden City which was as striking at night as in the daytime. The other monuments in the square are also lit up, but you cannot access the square itself after night has fallen.

Gallery

Beihai Park and the White Dagoba

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 19, 2012

I started my day with a morning walk around Beihai Park, an imperial garden for more than a thousand years and the one time home of Kubla Khan. Ever since it was opened to the public in 1925 it has been a popular place to exercise, wander and relax. Indeed, across the park I could see small groups undertaking the most carefully choreographed of movements in the morning light.

The White Dagoba, Beihai Park

The White Dagoba, Beihai Park

The Round City, one of the main sights at the southern extremity of the park, was sadly closed due to renovation work which limited my options. I crossed the Yong’an Bridge and settled for a walk around Qionghua Isle. The park really needed more time to be appreciated than I could give it, but I was keen to get a small taste of the place and climb up to the White Dagoba.

The White Dagoba from close quarters

The White Dagoba from close quarters

The White Dagoba is a striking Tibetan stupa (a mound like structure built to hold Buddhist relics) which is hard to ignore as you enter the park, especially on a day with such clear blue skies like today. It was originally constructed in the 16th century, although it has subsequently been re-built on two occasions after earthquakes took their toll. The walk up was steep but entirely worthwhile.

I paid a small extra charge to walk up and around a small temple sited next to the stupa, offering a view across the Forbidden City and the sprawling metropolis. It was certainly a good way to start the day although I did feel guilty about leaving without seeing the other sights that make this park special.

Gallery

Heaven on earth

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 18, 2012

After leaving the mist shrouded Summer Palace behind I took the subway south to Tian Tan and was amazed to emerge into bright sunlight and blue skies. I’m not sure quite what happened when I was underground but I couldn’t fail to be delighted by the change in conditions.

I headed into the park armed with a through ticket for the Temple of Heaven which would give me admission to the key sites of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. All around ordinary members of the public in the park went about their daily exercises completely unphased by the incredible buildings around them, but then again I walk past Tower Bridge on my commute every day and probably take it just as much for granted!

The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven

All the sights in the complex were visually stunning, although you can’t actually enter the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests itself – all you can do is work your way through the crowds and peer into the gloom. It’s strangely like sightseeing during rush hour! Anyway, I managed to make it through the complex and finally left the park as the sun began to set.

Gallery

A taste of summer

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on November 18, 2012

The Summer Palace was one of the sights that I most wanted to see in Beijing, having been drawn in by the rich illustrations of the Palace and its grounds in my guidebooks. It is also an attraction that has become much easier to reach since the opening of line 4 of the subway in September 2009. After picking up a Yikatong card (the Beijing equivalent of the Oyster card) I headed out on the metro to Xiyuan, a short walk away from the east gate of the Summer Palace.

The palace was a much loved retreat for the Qing Dynasty and one that we are lucky to see, given the destruction wrought upon it by Anglo-French forces in the nineteenth century (as information boards around the complex repeatedly drill home). Thankfully, the determination of the Empress Dowager Cixi to see the Palace rebuilt that effectively secured the future of the complex for today’s visitors, though whether she would be thrilled by the hordes trampling over the site is a moot point!

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

The Summer Palace in the morning mist

I had intended to spend the best part of a day exploring the extensive grounds of the Summer Palace but after emerging from the metro on a cold and foggy morning I realised that this may be a less than rewarding way to spend my time, particularly as many of the classic views would be obscured by mist. Re-writing my plans on the hoof, I decided to focus on the main buildings in and around Longevity Hill.

The complex was busy throughout my visit (even with it being a weekend during the low season) but not overwhelmingly so. The large groups seemed to stick to ground level, so once I started to make the steep climb up to the hilltop temples the crowds disappeared.

One of the rewards for making the trek up the hillside was the beautiful Hall of the Sea of Wisdom which was decorated with over one thousand glazed statues of Buddha. Although the building itself survived the fire of 1860 the small decorative statues fared less well, the soldiers having smashed their heads and hands. Although the damage has been repaired it doesn’t appear to have been of the highest quality – at least from the examples I looked at up close. Sadly, the temple’s interior holds a commercial enterprise which rather detracts from the experience – although, the same is true of many of the buildings throughout the complex.

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Glazed Buddha statue from the exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom

Having reached the top, the way back down on the other side takes you down through an equally interesting series of classical Tibetan Buddhist buildings. The lack of sun today was evident from the layer of ice on the surface which made for trickier walking. After descending I took a wander around a recreation of a Suzhou market street around a part-frozen waterway, where the Emperorer Qianlong once play-acted being a commoner. It’s a fairly tacky tourist trap these days, but a harmless enough diversion.

A wander back to the frontage alongside Kunming Lake took me to some of the other highlights of the complex – such as the long corridor, the marble boat and the seventeen arch bridge – all of which deserve to be seen. The sun made a brief appearance through the clouds but apart from this it remained resolutely misty, which helped me decide to call it a day in the early afternoon. I was glad to have made the trek out to visit the Palace but it would be much better seen in a different season and in better weather!

Gallery

A tale of three airports

Posted in Beijing, China, Harbin, Netherlands, Schiphol by folkestonejack on January 9, 2011

My morning began with an early morning trek up to London City airport to start my long journey to Jixi. This should have involved three flights and one overnight train…

Step 1: Cityjet LCY-AMS

Arrived on schedule at Amsterdam Schiphol airport armed with a saturday newspaper and found myself a comfy spot to rest and have a good cover-to-cover read. I had a good number of hours to kill but it was actually quite relaxing after a fairly intense week at work… it has to be said that if you have to spend time at an airport then Schiphol is not a bad place to be! I was surprised how quickly the time passed, assisted occasionally by distractions such as the air side outpost of the Rijksmuseum.

Step 2: KLM Asia AMS-PEK

My flight KL897 departed on schedule (around 17:40) with KLM Asia Boeing 747-400 Combi ‘City of Freetown’ and I settled down for the nine hours or so that the flight would take (assisted by some favourable tailwinds). It landed a good half an hour early in Beijing – around 9.15am. I didn’t need to hurtle through the whole arrival process as my next flight was some hours away…

Step 3: China Southern PEK-HRB

It all started to unravel with the third leg of the trip as the 17:20 China Southern flight remained stubbornly on the ground with engineers crawling around one of the engines. It didn’t look especially good as time ticked by and no word came back on the unspecified mechanical problems. Usually I am fairly jumpy about this sort of thing but I have latterly come to realise that you can’t do much in this situation and instead buried myself ever deeper in a good book (The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón).

I was quite convinced the flight would be cancelled and was already steeling myself for that moment when suddenly a shout went up and everyone was boarded in a hurry. The flight eventually took off at 19:25 instead of the scheduled 17:20 – landing at 20:55. Time was now working against me.

I hurried up the air bridge at Harbin (which resembled the inside of an fridge that had been awaiting defrosting for years), collected my luggage and headed over to the driver who was there to get me to the train station. It was a hopeless mission… despite the best efforts of my driver the distance from the railway station was simply too far to reach in time for me to make the 10pm hard sleeper to Jixi.

The driver turned off at the nearest hotel on the road between the airport and the station then helped me to get checked in (with a fair degree of confusion all round). And that’s the story so far…

Homeward bound

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on December 20, 2009

Arrived in Beijing at about 7.30am and stopped off in an airport hotel to refresh before heading to the airport. In spite of the snow in Europe our flights were operating ok, although we were delayed for an hour by a problem with the computer controlling the toilets on our plane (of all things!).

As it was the shortest night of the year we had the strange experience of chasing the sunset – with a striking orange, red and pink glow from our windows for what felt like a good proportion of our flight. It was good to make it back, though as I am at work tomorrow I will have to wait a little bit longer before I can have a lazy morning!

Back in Beijing

Posted in Beijing, China by folkestonejack on December 2, 2009

Arrived in Beijing after a fairly uneventful flight with Air China.

Got my first taste of the current paranoia about swine flu after passing through gates at the airport designed to measure your body temperature – followed up by a notice in my hotel room instructing me to inform the hotel manager if I developed a runny nose! A stranger conversation I can’t imagine…

Anyway, I headed into town to take a quick look around whilst there was still an hour or two of daylight left – just a meander in and around Tian’anmen Square looking at the monuments and towers. Not an entirely successful outing as I seemed to attract every scam artist in the area, though still mildly funny to tick off each scenario that had been mentioned in the guidebooks…

  • A pair of girls wanting to take me to a teahouse to practice English… check
  • A struggling artist wanting to sell me a painting… check

In amongst all this, I did come across some genuine people who were really friendly – mostly tourists from other parts of China who were as unfamiliar with Beijing as I was.

Tram in Beijing

Tram in operation in Qianmen Street

I was surprised to see trams in operation in Qianmen Street, seemingly designed to look traditional but far too plastic to ever be convincing. And that’s before we even get onto the complete absence of wires…

Xi’an-Beijing-London

Posted in Beijing, China, Xi'an by folkestonejack on February 28, 2009

After leaving Meijiaping behind we drove back to the congestion of Xi’an where we boarded a hard sleeper for Beijing departing at 18:10.

As we hadn’t eaten that day we had a very pleasant evening meal in the restaurant car, washed down by some good beer. This all helped ensure a good night’s sleep and I awoke an hour before we were due to arrive in Beijing. Unfortunately our train was an hour late, so we got to see a bit more of the countryside than we expected.

Some aspects of the journey seemed quite familiar, but others were anything but – such as the woman walking up and down the carriages selling a selection of porn. I can’t quite see that catching on with the operators of the Caledonian Sleeper or the Cornish Night Riviera in the UK!

Our train eventually made it in to Beijing and with time cut somewhat shorter than expected we had something of a dash to the airport rather. After all the usual checks I was able to board my Air France flight home via Paris and settled in for the duration. Late in the evening I eventually made it back to Heathrow and then on to Selhurst. Home at last!