17/07/2013 - 24/07/2013
I'm just going to get this out of the way now, so it hopefully won't taint the rest of my post and leave everyone hell-bent on never setting foot in China; I hate Beijing. I very rarely hate a place, but Beijing, to a large extent, invites the sentiment upon itself. The people are rude, the crowds overwhelming and the city is shrouded in a cloud of pollution that blocks out the sky and chokes your lungs. We made the obligatory visit to the famous Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City and were, to be honest, underwhelmed; the buildings seemed rundown and the crowds were overwhelming. Trying to get near the main hall (ironically called the Hall of Supreme Harmony) was less harmonious than turkey shopping on Christmas Eve.
A better experience of Beijing was the simple pleasure of wandering around the hutong (local neighbourhood) surrounding our hostel, where the streets are lined with fruit stalls, authentic restaurants and groups of old men playing mahjong. On our first night we paid £1.50 and received a huge bowl of spicy noodle soup and more pork dumplings than we could eat, and the next evening we befriended a couple of Chinese-speaking westerners in our hostel and feasted on tofu noodles, peanut chicken and salted green beans in soy sauce. Delicious!
The best thing about Beijing is, of course, its proximity to the Great Wall of China. We chose to go to the section known as Mutianyu, a well-maintained part of the wall that still has relatively few tourists visiting it; the majority of tour groups favour Badaling. During our time there we managed to hike all the way to one end of the section, which is harder than it sounds; the humidity and altitude saps your energy and makes you breathless. The majority of the walk is fairly easygoing, but the end of the section is built up the side of a hill so you find yourself climbing the near-vertical steps with your hands, pulling yourself up. However the views from the top are well worth it; from this vantage point you can see the wall stretching for miles, disappearing and reappearing as it snakes over the hills until finally all you can see are the watchtowers dotted along the horizon.
One super-express train later we were in Shanghai, the chalk to China's cheese. China's two biggest cities are different in every way - Beijing has ancient temples where Shanghai has modern skyscrapers; Beijing has endless grey streets while Shanghai is dotted with parks; Beijing is gritty while Shanghai is effortlessly chic. There is no place that better emphasises these differences than the Bund, Shanghai's old financial district that has become an icon of the city. We took in the amazing view from across the water, before wandering down the riverbank towards Yuyuan Gardens.
We then turned inland down one of Shanghai's bustling shopping street until we came across People's Square, where a large park is home to Shanghai Museum. You have to dodge a considerable amount of murderous scooters to reach it, but once you're in the park the chaos of Chinese traffic seems a million miles away. Unfortunately the humidity soon forced us inside, and after exploring the square's underground shopping mall we headed for home, finishing the day with some street food and fruit from what would have seemed a questionable market stall, if the seller next door hadn't been selling melons out of the boot of his car.
The next day was spent wandering around the beautiful French Concession district, which, with its iron-rail fences and tree-lined streets, gives you the slightly disconcerting feeling of walking around Paris in China. The area is filled with European-style art deco buildings, homey bars and pretty parks, and feels very...not Chinese. Aside from the motorbikes zooming down the pavements of course. We ended the day in Tianzifang, a quirky shopping district built in an intimate network of alleyways, where shops, bars, cafes and stalls are all piled on top of each other in a maze of delightful confusion. I could easily have spent the whole day there, but unfortunately I would also have spent my whole bank account.
So ended our time in Shanghai, and we hopped aboard an overnight sleeper train to snooze away a 13-hour train journey. The adventure continues in Xian...