Sunday, 16 January 2011

Back to Beijing

The train ride home from Harbin was relatively uneventful and we arrived back in Beijing at about midnight. This time we're staying at Leo Hostel just down the road from the last place, still near Tianamen Square.

We didn't do much sightseeing during the first 3 days in Beijing, so this time we're doing a bit of running around.

We had a quiet first day back, but one thing we did do was visit a gorgeous little tea shop where I ordered 'Chrysanthemum 8 Treasures' tea. Up until now I'd stuck with Jasmine tea, but Chrysanthemum had been recommended and '8 Treasures' sounded intriguing. This is what I was served:

How stunning is that?? It smelt and tasted amazing too. Unfortunately it's a special mix and I couldn't find half the ingredients afterwards. Methinks I'll be googling and then scouring Chinatown when I get home!

The morning of the next day we go to see Chairman Maos' embalmed body in the mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. I've taken a liking to Saras' term for him, 'Pickled Mao'. Having seen Pickled Minh whilst I was in Hanoi I have now decided that a visit to Moscow is in order. Visting Pickled Lenin in the Red Square would finish off my Pickled Commie Dictator Trio. I wonder if there's a t-shirt for that? Unfortunately you can't take pictures inside the mausoleum, they make you check your bag in at a locker room across the road first. Lighters and matches are also banned. I suspect that the glorious Pickled Mao is highly flammable given the quantity of formaldehyde he must have absorbed over the years.

There was a sign at the entrance saying 'Please be quiet and remove your hat'. Rather like laughing at a funeral, whilst doing the Mao rounds I had a slight smirk on my face and the almost irrepressible urge to don my frog hat and beat at the glass whilst howling at the top of my lungs. Thankfully I managed to refrain and made it out of the mausoleum in one piece and without handcuffs. He looked very peaceful....if a tad plastic, surely there'd be no harm in giving him a poke to see if he wakes up? Apparently not, he's in a glass case surrounded by glass walls with 2 guards.

Shame. Maybe next time.

Tiananmen Square

Having oogled Mao, we moved onto the Forbidden City. A few people have told me how they were a tad disappointed with the city, but it's quite incredible when you think about it. It's name comes from the fact that the common people were forbidden to enter the city, only those given permission by the Emperor were permitted to enter. It housed the royal family, high ranking officials and 'admin' staff. There are 5 entrances to the city, the centre entrance to be used by the Emperor only (and presumably the poor sods carrying his sedan chair, I very much doubt he walked anywhere), the two inner entrances for the royal family and highest ranking officials, and the two out entrances for the rest. Even today, the central entrance is cordoned off all the way through the city, probably as much to do with preserving the intricate carvings on it as maintaining tradition.

Construction on the city began in 1406 and it remained the seat of power in China for over 500 years, through successive Emperors and Dynasties. I can understand why some may find it a bit of a letdown, it can be a bit 'same same' if you stick solely to the central paths, but Sara and I amused ourselves by looking around the galleries at the sides where many of the artefacts are displayed. Then we paid an extra quid to get into the treasure galleries, SPARKLY STUFF!!

It always amazes me how people of money and power just like to surround themselves with stuff. Just, loads and loads of expensive stuff, some of this jewellery was incredible. I can't deny that I wanted to smash the cases and steal some for myself.....dangerously alluring stuff, this 'stuff'.

Empresses Head-dress

We visited the Imperial Garden on the way out and bought far too much stuff in the gift shops and then headed to Beihei Park for a walk and a coffee. Beijings parks are stunning in the summer, it was much less crowded and leafy at this time of year, but it was great to watch kids playing on the frozens lakes and sit in the coffee shop watching the sun go down....Sara and I, we're WELL romantic!

Back in the hostel we stayed up until 1am drinking beer and playing Liars Dice!

This will be my last broadcast from chilly China. Today has been quiet, with an 11pm flight to look forward to I didn't really fancy doing anything strenuous, you know, like walking or moving in general. I've watched Prince of Persia, Pirates of the Caribbean and Zoolander on the DVD player in the hostel and spent some time chatting to Liu, a girl who works here. She was talking about her boyfriend and how she keeps breaking up with him, but then takes him back whenever he turns up crying at her.

After a while I realised that her boyfriend was sitting right behind us, well within earshot. She just said 'It's ok....he doesn't speak English!' Turns out that she's actively discouraging him from learning English :o). Good girl :D she makes me laugh!

Ok guys, I'll be leaving for my flight in about an hour and a half. Thanks for following if you have been. Hopefully it won't be too long until I can blog here again :D. Big loves xx

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Ice Ice Baby.....have I used that title before?

Today is the day that we visit Harbins 27th annual Snow and Ice Festival! Whoop whoop!

The festival covers 3 sites, Sun Island hosts both the Snow Sculpture exhibition and the 'World of Snow and Ice'. Zhaolin Park hosts the Disney Winter Wonderland. For the sake of time, cost and circulation, we decide to visit only two, the two on Sun Island (a decision we were glad we made seeing as there was plenty of Disney to go around at the other two).

We were training home the next day, so we decided to hit up the snow sculptures in the morning with the light, and then visit the Snow and Ice World in the evening with the hostel, saving us the inevitable getting-the-wrong-bus-and-freezing-to-death scenario that would be involved in transporting ourselves.

After bundling ourselves up in all our finery (everything in our bags) once again, we set off once more across the icy Songhua River Tundra and arrived on the doorstep of snow world, where we were greeted by 'Joy Bunnies Greet Guest'. After posing for a couple of photos for a nice Chinese lady we met, we wandered into the festival.

Sara prepares for -30!

Apparently this years theme is 'Merry Snow and Ice Festival. Passionate Country', which I guess leaves it open for just about anything and everything. It doesn't really matter, some of the sculptures we saw were stunning, many of them were easily recognisable internationally, others were more abstract, illustrating concepts rather than actual objects or people.

Kung Fu Panda (that's for you Dad :D)

Represents evolution I believe

There was also what appeared to be a competition going on, lots of people were still working on their entries, people come from all over the world to enter the competition, here are some of the entries we saw.

At one point I was wandering around and heard a thump, looked back to see Sara laying on her side in the snow. No one was quite amazing really. I managed to keep my mirth under control seeing as you never know when you're next going to fall over yourself! Bless her, shes got a painy hip and shoulder thanks to that one.

Some of those sculptures were absolutely beautiful, but we had no idea what was about to greet us this evening as we wandered back to the hostel to warm up.

At 5pm that evening we all bundled onto a minibus to head to the World of Snow and Ice. I'm not sure there's an awful lot I can say that does justice to this place. I'm going to let the pictures talk for themselves (and then inevitably burble on about it for a while afterwards anyway!).

The entrance to the Festival

It was something quite incredible, people work from November onwards to achieve this, in significantly sub-zero temperatures! It's not even like they can keep the bulk of it up all year, as Harbin can reach 36ish degrees in the summer months. All the ice is taken from the Songhua River.'

The slides were fun too, Sara and I didn't go on the biggest, which had a huge queue and looked of questionable safety, but we had some fun on the smaller ones. Especially the moment when I was sat down ready to slide, and I heard a familiar thump from behind me. I turned around to see Sara laid flat out on her back, groaning. There she lay for about 20 seconds. During these few seconds, I could be seen from the bottom of the slide trying to scrabble myself backwards on my arse away from the top of the slide without slipping and shooting straight down in a flurry of limbs and iced tea (which kept falling out of my pocket) whilst shouting 'Sara! Are you ok Sara??' She turned out to be fine, but had a bruised arse and head to go with her hip and shoulder.

One thing I have to mention is the tea I had here. Sara and I stopped in a warm little café for a sausage on a stick and a warm drink. I was enjoying my very sweet milk tea when suddenly something solid shot up the straw.

As you can imagine. It was rapidly ejected back into the tea as I mildly freaked out regarding the unidentified floating object in my beverage. It turns out that (for fun I I can see no other possible reason) the Chinese like to put jelly in their tea. Apparently it's also common in soft drinks and fruity drinks across Asia. Unlike the trains...I'd like to encourage the UK NOT to take up this practice. It's chewy and it's weird! Jelly tea is made of wrong and fail.

Safe to say, jelly tea aside, Harbin Snow and Ice Festival lived up to and beyond my expectations. The pictures really don't do it justice. To top off a great day, we spent the evening getting a bit tipsy with Severin (spelling? Correct me if I'm wrong!) and Andrea, a lovely Austrian couple that we met at the hostel *big waves to you if you're reading this*.

Thank you Harbin. Back to Beijing now where it's a bit warmer (only -7 degrees)...whoop!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Brrrrrrr....just, brrrrrrrrrrrrr

The train taking us to Harbin was a 10 hour sleeper train, soft seats, so upon arriving at Beijing Train Station we wandered over to the posh waiting room.....where we sat on the floor.

About half an hour before boarding the train I took a wee (ha ha) toilet break. As per usual, the toilets were squat toilets. I’ve managed to perfect the art of squat-toiletting without peeing all over your trousers or feet (mostly), it’s always easier when you have something to hold onto though! On this occasion there was nothing to hold onto and I almost toppled backwards when suddenly a mop appeared between my feet under the toilet door. In her all-encompassing enthusiasm for toilet cleanliness the cleaning lady was mopping the first 4 or 5 inches of my cubicle, about 2 feet under my nose.

Bless her heart.

Later, seeing Sara and I sat on the cold marble floor, she dragged over some empty seats for us to sit on, and then chose to perch on her little stool near us when she had her teabreak. She took us under her wing and made sure she let us know when our train check-in came up. The whole time we passed barely a word between us.

After running the gauntlet of passengers brandishing such weapons as whole peking duck and bags full of noodles, we finally made it onto the train. Lucky things that we are, we found ourselves sat next to two gents who seemed very enthusiastic.....about what I couldn’t be sure.
They started talking to us, as far as they could, they spoke as much English as Sara does Chinese...and my Chinese is non-existent. They kept motioning to their tea and I was nodding and making ‘mmm yeah, nice’ noises. They suddenly produced a little paper wrap with 2 nuggets of what at first appeared to be hash. However, the strict Chinese anti-drug laws combined with the wild abandon at which they were waving the stuff around convinced me that it was, in fact, tea that they were offering me. The next thing I knew, one of them dragged me off down to the hot water dispenser to make ‘tea’.

Once I was re-sat with my beverage I found myself sipping at it very slowly, that initial impression not quite leaving my mind. All turned out ok and it was just tea you’ll be glad to know! Next they bought us beers, despite our protests.

Then the inevitable happened. Despite the not insignificant language barrier, they asked for our numbers. When we wibbled, they gave us theirs. So we gave them our email addresses, hoping this would sate their thirst for personal information.


So Sara began to try and communicate that our mobiles were English mobiles and didn’t work in China (LIES!). And so began a tiresome roundabout of:

‘Number, number, telephone number’

‘No, our mobiles are English, don’t work in China, very expensive’

‘Yes yes,, Chinese mobile number’ *brandishing his own mobile for us to type into’

‘No.....English mobile, no work in China’

‘Yes, Chinese mobile!’

Until eventually the poor lady sat in front of us who obviously understood what the guys were after, and understood enough of what we were saying (or...had been in the same predicament herself) turned around and told them what we were trying to say. Even then, it took a little while for them to accept it.

Soon after, the lights went out, praise de lor’!

*insert countless whinges on how broken my sleep was during the night, and how Sara seems to be able to fall asleep standing up if she wants to, about how it’s all not fair and I’m so tired*

So, we disembarked the train in Harbin at about 7:30am.....and I’ve never felt anything like it in my life!

At first I thought I was bunged up from the night before.....what is this strange feeling in my nose like boogers every time I breathe in? Turns out it’s the moisture on my noztral hairz freezing every time I breathe in through my nose! It's around -30 degrees.

We have trouble trying to get a taxi to understand where we’re going and eventually Sara has to get the hostel on the phone to talk to a cab driver. By this point we’re both freezing our tits off....almost literally.

When we arrive at the hostel we have to wait for our room as we have arrived mega-early. A little while after the room is free I go for a nap because I’m being a nasty, snappy, weird and tired Becki, and we’ve decided to hit Sun Island for the snow sculpture part of the festival this afternoon. A couple of hours nap did me the world of good, and in the afternoon I set out wearing:

2 x long thermal trousers
1 x long leggings
1 x skipants (Michelin stylie)
1 x vest
1 x top
2 x thermal tops
1 x hoodie
1 x coat with a removable fleece lining
1 x neckwarmer
1 x scarf
1 x hat
2 x pairs of gloves
2 x normal socks
2 x thermal socks
And a pair of skiboots

And if we’d made it to that festival on that day, I’d have some really cool pics for this instalment of the blog. As it was, the sun was starting to set and my glasses froze as we crossed the frozen Songhua river! So took the decision to do both festival bits the next day and scurried back to the hostel and warmth, buying comfort cake on the way home.

At least I knew my clothes worked!

Just so it’s not completely devoid, here are some pics of our little jaunt down the road and across the river.

Walking across the deserted frozen Songhua river

Don't like cracks in the ice!!

Amazing pics coming in the next blog guys, keep reading. I must leave you now, Sara is trying to make me buy sauced pig nostril off of the train waitress. I must thump her.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Windy Chinese Walls

Today at 1:30pm sees us on a train (later than the one we’d have liked, but faffage took precedent) to Badalung, it’s an hour’s train ride and check this out:

Suck on THAT British Rail, take a hint from China on this one. Sat fully upright my feet could barely touch the seat in front (we found out later that they swivel too, if you want to face the direction of travel, or avoid the sun in your eyes).

45 minutes or so into the journey I caught my first glimpse of what we came to see, the Great Wall of China, my first wonder of the world. Seen from the train that was travelling in valleys between the hills and mountains you couldn’t see how far it went, still, that first sight was great :o).

I have to say a word about the hostel that we stayed in in Badalung, it’s called the Great Wall Courtyard Hostel and it was fantastic. The first thing they did for us was to pick us up from the other end of Badalung when we inevitably turned left instead of right out of the train station, and they didn’t even charge us!.....unusual. We also recieved a free beer with dinner (large beers, one was enough for two), the attentions of a friendly, gimpy, slobbery Alsatian that always tried its luck at dinnertime, lovely traditional Chinese courtyard surroundings, and a free thank you coca cola for our journey home. The owner (I assume) was a lovely lady called Cheung, we like Cheung.

Anyway! We had arrived in time to see sunset at the wall, so off we toddled once we’d checked in and warmed ourselves with Jasmine tea.

Here’s another example we can take from China, it costs the best part of £20 per person to get into London Zoo. Less than £4 equivalent for the Great Wall! Can you see London Zoo from space?? I don’t THINK so! Get over it London, you’re not that great.

Sunset at the wall was lovely.....unfortunately, my camera battery took the opportunity to die on me....what spectacularly bad timing! Still, I knew I was coming back the next day, no harm, no foul. We walked a little way up the wall to get a nice view of the sunset and Sara took some pics, before we headed back for noodles and dumplings, beer and bed. The courtyard part of the hostel was freezing, covered though it is, but the room was soooo warm. It was the best nights sleep I’ve had in a while.

The next morning we were up at 8 to get an earlyish start on the wall. The wind had picked up since the day before and it was pretty nippy. We were some of the only Westerners brave enough to face the elements at that time of year. Had I known what the elements were in advance perhaps I would have had my own reservations. Ignorance is bliss so they say.

Wind is the element I’m referring to. The wall climbs uphill in both directions from the point at which you climb on at Badalung. We chose to climb the opposite way to which we had the night before, variety being the spice of life and all that malarkey. When you’re on the wall, you can see which side China lay on (the East) and which side Genghis and his mates would have been on. The Western side of the wall his higher walls with gaps for archers, and holes, presumably for boiling water or tar.....perhaps worse if the Chinese defenders were of such a mind! The Eastern wall is much lower. Now, the wind was coming from the West, or Northwest, which meant that I felt constantly in danger of being blown over this piddly little wall with its token banister. I know Asians are reputed to be shorter than Westerners in general, but even they’d have to be hunchbacked to make use of these. Praps when originally built, the wall was manned by child and/or dwarf warriors. I bet Ghenghis had a giggle at that.

This fight against the wind was taken to extremes at the steep points of the wall, at which points I felt I’d be better off going on all fours, it wouldn’t have been so different from my current hunched posture anyhow.

However, the reward was the view, as you climbed further up, you could see the wall rising onto the hill in front of you, curve around on the mountains to the right, up and over, and far into the distance in the East. As I viewed all this I couldn’t help but think one thought.

What kind of crazy mentalist culture would be paranoid enough to build something like this?

Nice to see they’re over it eh? (Great Firewall of China?)

By now Sara had pointed out the sliding train.....the easy route down from the wall. This appealed to my senses of fun, laziness and increasing wind-induced vertigo. So we reached a point high enough for Sara to take a panoramic photie, had our pictures taken with a couple of people (we stayed stationary too long, easy prey), ate a custard pie and began to work our way back down to the sliding train. We had a photo taken but I can't upload it!

Ahhhh, and a couple of hours later we were on the train back to Beijing in time to catch another train to Harbin and another big adventure (with bellies full of KFC...mehehehehehe....sue me).

Stay tuned for the next blog in which I will be mostly whinging about not being able to sleep properly sitting up, and very cold temperatures. I know I can’t wait!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Heads Up

Rolling around in bed until lunchtime would have been much appreciated this morning, but it was up at 9am in order to ablut before going to meet Sara's mate Kenny and his girlfriend Cindy, Kenny isa lovely guy from the Phillipines who lives in Beijing, Sara met him in Xinjiang when she travelled in China previously.

We're visiting Harbin to see the Annual Snow and Ice Festival in all it's glory, but you can't buy train tickets outside of China without paying through the nose, arse and any other orifice you care to name. So Kenny came to the rescue and secured a couple of sought-after tickets to Harbin for us. The trains were already pretty packed, so we were lucky to have Sara's connections!

We trundled over to meet Kenny on the subway and he suggested we all go out for some lunch together. He took us to what he considers the best restaurant in Beijing for Chinese food Schezuan-style.

As we walked into the restaurant and were taken into the back dining room, we realised that there was a wedding going on. There was a lovely poster of the happy couple up just as we walked in, and red chiffon everywhere, the bride was dressed in red. About ten minutes after we sat down (on a table just behind those of the friends and family), the groom made his entrance, splendid as a strutting cockerel sporting his amazing hairdoo. It must be all about the hair for Chinese grooms this year. He then proceeded to walk around the room with what I imagine was either his best man or brother, taking a drink with every male guest. I hate to think what state he must have been in afterwards.

Back to the food, it's what's important after all! Forgive me for not remembering the Chinese names but I'm afraid that's far and beyond me. To start with something easy we had Kung Po Chicken, a plate of lightly battered prawns, a chicken soup and a fish dish which is basically fish sliced and then cooked and submerged in chilli oil. Rice and jasmine tea to finish off.

All sounds quite normal right? Yus.

The Kung Po chicken was amazing! But knocked your socks off if you unknowingly munched on a peppercorn.

The prawns were equally delicious, you eat them with their crunchy jackets still on.

The chicken soup was yummy, however, it's not like our chicken soup. The Chinese do not believe in waste. Hence the following picture of Kenny....

......about to partake in a lovely boiled chicken head. This is after he offered it...and feet to everyone at the table, but before he prised the closed eyes open with chopsticks to see what he'd find.

And the fish was gorgeous, it just melted in your mouth. However, Sara found that having his big fish eye staring out the bowl at her was a bit too much to stand. I was repeatedly ordered to bury the fish head because 'He's staring at me again!' Personally, the accusatory gazes I felt most were those of his mates in the tanks we walked past on our way out. It was only made worse by the fact that they had actually visited the table with him in a plastic bag so that we could nod our approval before his demise. That just made it personal.

The experience could only be improved by the swivelly table centre, tug-o-war over the last fish-eyeball has never been so much fun :o)

It was a lovely lunch and I enjoyed meeting Kenny and Cindy, you see the fire light up in his eyes when he talks about travelling. Then you look over at Cindy and she's watching him closely, then rolling her eyes, they make a great little couple.

I wish I could say more exciting things about this day, but the truth is that we came home, took a little walk down a nice street with a Christmas tree and trams, and then retired to the hostel for rest, food and an early night, we are hardcore in the extreme!

I'll leave you with a mission:

Can anyone ID this for me? We bought it thinking maybe fishcake....chicken? Potato?

None of those, it's a strange, stodgy, red, sweetish......stuff, deep fried in breadcrumbs. Sara reckons it might be some kind of red bean paste. Can anyone shed some light?

No disgusterising haphazard guesses either people! Thanks muchly :o)


Monday, 10 January 2011

Peking Duck

So, after rolling around in bed until 11:30am, Sara and I decided that we should get some ‘breakfast’. I played the role of reluctant tourist and ordered an English breakfast, whilst Sara went for a more traditional stir-fried egg and tomato.

The english breakfast was cute, it came on an absolutely humungous round plate, and on the plate were 2 pieces of toast, 2 fried eggs, one tiny sausage, a quarter of a tomato, the smallest dish of beans you ever did see, and a pile of fried shiitake mushrooms. All items had a little section of plate all to themselves. It was also delicious, though I could have done with a bigger sausage!

After breakfast we ventured out to the Silk Market. I was expecting a market similar to those I’ve seen in other parts of Asia, and so was unprepared for walking into what appeared to be a department store. It was unmistakeably a market (Nicki, Mum, Dad, think Poole Market), but it was on separate shiny marble (marble-esque?) floors connected by escalators. This is where Sara and I picked up our most important souvenier. The much-coveted, ‘I (insert heart symbol) BJ’ t-shirt. Most Beijing-ers have absolutely no idea why western tourists scream in delight, buy up and pose for photo’s in these T-shirts whilst peeing themselves laughing.....but they do and it certainly helps their revenue, and so presumably order them in by the barrel-load.

Yes...I'm in the toilet....and what??

Sustenance was soon required after doing battle with the stall owners, Sara’s bargaining skills leave nothing to be desired, she haggled a painting I bought down from 1500 yuan to 300 yuan.....well, to 500, I said I wanted to think about it and as we were walking off he shouted ‘300! Last offer!’, so that was about the level of skill I brought to the plate. None.

We visited a restaurant just a few doors down from where we’re staying and had......

General sights on wandering around Beijing at night

Peking duck. It was delicious! There is a dish of the pink/brown meaty meat with no fat, a dish of the meat closer to the skin with skin and fat, and a dish of crispy skin that has been fried. You put a bit of each in the pancake (after dipping in hoisin sauce) and top with nom nom nom. It was exceptionally filling and delicious! *Hunting ducks*

It had already been decided that we were going out for some beers that night, so after we’d waddled ungainly back to the hostel and rested awhile, we headed out to San Li Tun, the club and bar district. After a bit of a wander in the freezing temperatures we finally found the area that Sara remembered from her trips to Beijing before, and installed ourselves in Bar Blue. Sara had taught me a game called ‘Liars Dice’ earlier in the day and we spent most of the evening playing this. It involves 5 dice and a beaker each. I’d explain it, but it might not make sense, I’d be happy to explain to anyone who wants to know when I get home.

It’s a Chinese bar game, and so they’re interested to see Westerners playing, a few people came over at various times and joined us for a few rounds, mostly attempting to thrash us. As is the travelling way....whoever loses has to drink. So we were both the worse for wear having ordered some very strong cocktails when we left at 4am! Not the best idea when we were meeting Sara’s fried Kenny who lives in Beijing at 11am that morning.

Our ideas are always the best ideas! Oh Yes!

Big loves to all at home, hi to Nicki, Mum, Dad, Nanny, Jo and any other family who may be reading (Auntie Pat, Maz) xx