Like much of what we saw in the former East Berlin and Poland (previous communist countries), Beijing is a prime example of the communist government. Buildings were massive, and in the case of the Beijing West Train Station, sometimes gorgeously designed:
What caught us by surprise though was the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Peking Duck restaurant attached to the station. The organization of this train station, however, offers strong competition for its German counterparts. There were huge waiting rooms and everything worked like clockwork. People knew exactly when and where to line up and on time meant on time!
We began our last day in Beijing attending a sunrise flag ceremony at Tiananmen Square. We stupidly thought that there would be less people at the sunrise ceremony versus the sunset ceremony. In a country of 1 billion people, we realized how preposterous this assumption was. Although our sightlines were blocked by tall people in front of us, we could hear the national anthem as the sun rose and the experience was beautiful.
We continued with our day by taking a tour of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We took a ski-lift ride to the wall and hiked the ups and downs as we approached each watchtower.
It was a perfectly sunny day but again because of the Tomb Sweeping holiday the wall was more populous than usual.
We also learned that many people died during the construction of the wall and were buried within its structure, in effect making the wall a giant tomb.
To get back down the mountain we took a steel toboggan ride back to the base.
Now that we’ve been in China for a few days, we’re beginning to experience some expected culture shock and we’re doing our best to overcome it. Here are some examples:
1) Relatively few merchants accept credit cards, including travel agencies. This has proven difficult for us as we are not used to carrying around so much cash. We are also limited in the amount of money we can withdraw through ATM’s each day (nowhere near enough we need for our Tibetan adventure).
2) The street signs in Beijing are displayed in the direction opposite to what we are used to. That makes looking at a map and being at an intersection rather challenging, especially when we are trying to rush to the bank in time to pay a deposit and then grab a taxi to the train station in time to catch an overnight train. whew! We managed it though.
3) Spitting. Let’s talk about it. First of all – EW! It’s not just the act of spitting that we are actively learning to be more tolerant of, it’s the precursor to it. The throat-clearing preparation to gather as much “stuff” as possible can make a shy stomach turn. On the other hand we learned that the word “spittoon” has modern use, and not just that of the wild west. When visiting the Forbidden City, we saw a large spittoon made of gold. Only the best for an emperor we suppose.
4) Toilets. Some are the ones we’re used to and those are blessings. Much like in Central and South America, however, we are asked to put the toilet paper in a little basket beside the toilet and not in the toilet itself. We were introduced to a new kind of toilet called a “squatter”. This is exactly what it sounds like, a hole in the ground you are meant to squat over and do your business. This can prove quite challenging the first time. Also successfully going number two in a squatting position on a moving train deserves a medal of some sort we think. This is what a squatter looks like:
5) We expected that being vegetarian here might prove difficult but so far we have to admit that this has been ok. We were not expecting the abundant use of MSG which has been giving Ligeia headaches ever since we arrived. Luckily we’re learning how to get around this. Our current hostel, for example, has a kitchen and Ligeia was so pleased to have “Mindian food” again. 🙂
After our 20 hour overnight train from Beijing, sleeping in a “hard sleeper” class bed, which the Mayan family we stayed with near Coban, Guatemala helped prepare us for by providing us with 2 planks of wood to sleep on, we arrived in Xining (2275 meters above sea level). Here’s Mindy in the middle bunk of 6 in a sleeper car:
We are here for the next few days waiting for our Tibetan permit to come through. Also, it’s a nice stop to help us slowly acclimatize to the higher elevation. Lhasa sits at a mind-boggling 3595 meters. Other areas we’ll be visiting in Tibet are even higher.
We will write again soon and let you know about our experience in Xining.
Lots of love and thanks for following our trip,
Ligeia and Mindy :):)