Palaces, walls and warriors in Eastern China…

From Nánjīng we took an overnight sleeper train to Xi’An. We shared a cabin with an old Chinese man who spoke no English and a younger Chinese woman who spoke a small amount of English. Despite the language barrier we got on well. We taught them how to play Pass the Pigs and they taught us to play a Chinese card game called Dou Dizhu. It was lots of fun and we all stayed up playing games until 2am!

Our main reason for visiting Xi’An was to see the iconic Terracotta Warriors. The warriors were built by Emperor Qin Shi Huang during the third century BC. He spent 38 years building his tomb, which is said to be the largest in the world. It is thought that over a million workers and artisans were buried alive in order to keep the tomb a secret. The 8000 plus, warriors were discovered by a farmer in 1974, who was digging a well and the excavations are still continuing today. The detail on the archers, horses and cavalrymen is incredibly impressive and amazingly, every single one of the warriors are unique!

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Whilst we were in Xi’An, we spent some time exploring the Muslim Quarter, which was a bustling area of food stands and souvenir vendors. Local men made Nut Brittle using a technique of throwing the mixture over a large metal hook and stretching it as it cooled. We tried some of the local delicacies, including Ròujiāmó Kebabs and Yángròu Pàomó, a tasty soup where you first break Flat Bread into pieces yourself, before the chef pours the steaming broth over the top. We also explored the older parts of the city, including the Big Goose Pagoda, the ancient City Walls and the decorative Drum and Bell Towers.

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The next day, we took the (extremely) fast train to Beijing, which travelled at over 300km per hour! We stayed in an old house in a Hutong; which is a close knit neighbourhood with traditional Chinese houses. The narrow streets were filled with fruit and vegetable sellers, houses with shops inside their living rooms and oddly an inordinate amount of hairdressers!

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On our first day in Beijing, we visited Tian’anmen Square and watched the flag lowering ceremony in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace; which displays the famous painting of Chairman Mao. Within one minute of the ceremony ending, the crowd were hastily escorted from the square by a squad of boisterous guards, leaving the square empty for the night. That evening, we had dinner at the Donghuamen Night Market, which is known for its bizarre delicacies. Whilst England has cheese and pineapple or sausages on sticks, the Chinese take it to another level, with locusts, scorpions, snakes and even seahorses on sticks!

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The next day, we visited Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum and saw his body lying in state, before moving on to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the palace of the former Chinese Emperors and entry was strictly forbidden to commoners. We spent a day exploring the vast palace buildings, ornate landscaped gardens and quirky features, such as the outdoor opera house. The palace was packed with Chinese tourists pushing and shoving to get the best view of the main attractions. A tannoy announcement whilst we were queuing for tickets, told us that “to avoid crowds, [they] limit visitor numbers to 80,000 per day!” The following day, we visited the much more relaxed Summer Palace, where we spent time walking around the lake and taking a boat trip on the water.

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We did a day trip to the Great Wall of China and walked 6km along the Mutianyu section. Areas of the wall we walked on had been restored, so you could see the true grandeur of the structure, which snaked for miles towards the horizon. We wandered between the many watchtowers and admired the surrounding scenery. We also walked along a section of ‘wild wall,’ where the wall crumbled at the edges and plants grew up through the bricks. Rather than walk down to the bottom, we decided to take the toboggan, so we slid the first part of our journey back to Beijing! That night, we had fun making some tasty dumplings, with the staff at our Hutong guesthouse.

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On our last day in Beijing, we visited the ‘Birds Nest Stadium,’ the venue for the 2008 Olympic Games. Alex tried some traditional Peking Duck for lunch. It is cooked in a different way to the Peking Duck that is sold in the UK. Chefs hang 100 day old ducks upright in an oven heated with a fruitwood fire and then separate the skin from the meat using pressurised air. This technique leaves more space for the rendering fat to drain, resulting in a crisper, drier skin. The results were delicious! That evening, we also visited the Beijing Drum and Bell Towers, whilst locals danced in the square below them. We said goodbye to China the local way and said “Gambai” (meaning “cheers” or “down in one”) to a few too many beers in a local Hutong bar. The next morning, we boarded a train to Mongolia…

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