BEIJING HERE WE COME!
1-9 November 2012
The subject of going to Beijing crops up occasionally during our banters. I was determined to at least lay my footprints at the Great Wall when my knees still have the strength. We got determined at the August 2012 Old Students Reunion and sought out for travel bargains.
My travel agent managed to hit upon a fantastic deal; a 8 days 7 nights tour on MAS; RM2,800 visas, entrance to tourist must visit places plus all meals and a guide who could manage English language. We were paid peanuts and did not turn into monkeys. There was another 10 other fellow travellers on the same tour, so a total of 17 of us made the tour group quite comfortable.
Finally seven of us committed to the trip; Balan and Ann, Wing Kwong and Mey while Shirley chose to bunk with Zip and me instead of taking her own room. Traffic on take-off day was horrific as KL had a downpour and I thought I was going to miss my flight as we were reminded to be at the airport by 4.00 p.m. to check in. I managed to arrive at the airport at the dot of 4.00 praying all the way that I was able to catch the KLIA express at 3.30 from Sentral Station. When I arrived at the airport, Shirley called she was delayed at work and just left home. Zip was early as she cruised in from Seremban. General Balan and Anne were also nowhere to be seen. Wing Kong, Mey, Zip and I went to McDonald for a quick bite/coffee while anticipating for the rest. Phooi Yee, the tour guide made the final call for check-in just after 5. I think the tour guide had loads of experience knowing Malaysians usually use Malaysian time, so she intentionally did not tell everyone the real take off time; so my fretfulness was for nothing.
The flight was humdrum so I managed to catch up 3 movies on the flight. (Possible if you fast forward all those boring dialogue). We arrived in Beijing just past midnight after a bumpy flight as it was raining and head straight for bed. The room was adequate and snug for the 3 of us. Zip was ever gracious and gave up the two comfortable single beds for Shirley and the disabled me.
It was an early start the next morning and after a quick breakfast we got on the bus to Tiananmen Square, the world largest city square, followed by a tour of the Forbidden City which is now the National Palace Museum. We walked along the equidistant path which only Emperors were allowed to stride. We had glimpses of the Royal Treasures which we captured on camera. Beijing was interesting as all the places have something different to offer. We also had our very first of our many toilet experiences in China. Doors that don’t locked or someone try to barge in while you were processing. We quickly advanced the art of see no evil, smell no evil. Long way to go for our Chinese friends but the positive side was toilets are not drenched.
The days went by rapidly as we whisked in and out of Temples, Museums and Palaces. The weather started to turned icy and damp. It was freezing when we were taken to Olympics Water Cube, so some of us chose to remain on the bus and relived some of our previous getaways with Balan and Ann. The rain cascaded when we were at the Temple of Heaven so Big Bird made an entrance. It appears Chinese chefs have analogous cooking styles for all tourists, so the food tasted the same regardless where we were eating. It became a little monotonous for me but Wing Kwong and Zip relished whatever grub that was placed in front of them. Balan and Anne were sensible diners as long as there was something spicy, they were managing. The vegetarians, Shirley and Mey had restricted choices as it was winter and there was not much selection of greens.
The icing on the cake for the trip was the adventure to the Great Wall of China. The previous evening, our guide said that we will have snowfall and warned us to bundle ourselves with enough warm clothes. He notified if there was too much snow we may not be able to get there as the roads leading to the Great Wall could be inaccessible. That night Zip and I prayed that the trip will not face any hitches and we will be able to set sights on the Great Wall. We woke up the next morning and glanced out of our windows. There was snow everywhere and we prayed that the trip would not be cancelled. Our Chinese tour guide, Mr Blue shovelled the snow to make a path for us to get into the bus. Not to get our hopes high, Mr Blue said that he hope that the freeways leading to the Great Wall will not be closed due to the snowfall. It was quite amazing as we saw stalled vehicles along the way, some parts of the highway impassable but we had a clear run to our destination. Who says God does not hear prayers.
Mr Blue kept reminding that safety and our wellbeing should be the main concern as the steps could be slippery when the snow melts. If it was too wet, we were not to attempt the climb as it was not worth taking the risk. As our bus manoeuvred up the mountain slopes, the first snow had just fallen on the Great Wall. It was an amazing sight to witness the mountains enveloped in snow. We were drop off at the parking lot and made our way to the foot of the Great Wall with a snow blizzard accompanying. The experience was exhilarating and the view breath-taking. After tracking for 50 metres in 4 inches in between soft snow; sleet and slush (caused by some of the inconsiderate drivers trying to inch as close as possible to the shops) we made it to the foothills of the Great Wall. The magnificent structure was just there waiting to be conquered. The snow fell on our faces as we made our way to the cabin where the cup of hot coffee was waiting for us. After the blizzard eased a little, I just had to step on the Great Wall and the first 7 steps had some rickety railings for me to cling on. The snow had harden into slippery ice and this made it too precarious and risky for me to go further as there was no railing for me to grasp. I had stepped on the Great Wall and climbed it albeit 7 paces. What an achievement it was for me!
Later Mr Blue said we were really lucky as many people pay extra money to experience the snowfall in the Great Wall and often they are thwarted as the snow may not descend or the fall so heavy that vehicles could not get up the mountains, so we had what he called a perfect and rare experience. In his years as a guide, he said he experienced this favourable weather less than 10 times! So we have been blessed by the sight of a resplendent white Great Wall. The weather froze Shirley’s iPhone screen and it was too cold to take off our gloves for too long to snap more pictures. It was bizarre, after our Great Wall snow experience; we never saw much snow anywhere during the rest of our stay in Beijing. We found out the next day, two Japanese tourists died on another location of the Great Wall as they were stranded in the bitter cold. Their local guide who stayed with them was frost bitten while another guide who had went off to get help and could not get back to them on time.
Our journey also took us to an overnight stay in Chende Tianjin which was a scenic mountain area. It was a quaint town and tucked in the mountains were Tibetan temples with its customs and traditions. It was a different experience as it was the older bits of China and you have to take time to enjoy the oasis of serenity as Beijing had bustling traffic and people just shouting distance away. We had a steamboat which was halal and also different from what is in Malaysia. You have a pot with boiling water (not stock), stick your meat paste to cook it, take it out and dip it in soya and spicy dip. Not much flavour for Malaysians used to oodles of MSG . In China much of the meat is blended and made into a paste (like fish ball texture), frozen and then thinly sliced. They don’t have any hint of additives but was palatable. Chende was a township with a huge number of Chinese Muslims. Shopping and foodstuff was certainly much cheaper here and we would have like a little more time to spend in the interesting street shops.
Other highlights in the trip included the tricycle tour to visit the Alley Homes and actually seeing for ourselves the living conditions of a local home. We relaxed at foot massage experience where we dip our feet into a connotation of boiled dark herbal stuff and luckily our feet were not discoloured or scalded. The streets in Beijing came alive with people and the street food was interesting. You get a gastronomic array of innards, scorpions, smelly taufoo and local delicacies (which we were not brave enough to savour). What surprised us was the sight of a stall passing off as Seremban Crabs Sticks!!- The truth was it was processed crab stick surimi – the kind you find in frozen sea food outlets. Certainly it is nothing like the real stuff. As for shopping, we visited an array of factories; silk bedding, pearl, precious stones, Chinese traditional herbs, cosmetics and tea factory. We watched a Chinese acrobatics with spell binding performances – six motor cycles all spinning and criss-crossing in the revolving globe. We enjoyed the musical especially the mistranslations in English. The music was accompanied by ethnic dance performances and what amazed me were the stage props. In the penultimate closing scene, the stage turned into torrential waterfall.
Balan had a taste of the local paparazzi and has photo several shoots with the locals who thought he was so “Suai” meaning dashing. Wing Kwong had his flashes of fame with the Yunan ladies at the tea house who bestowed him “Desired husband look” – Not surprising, he also came out as the big spender at the teahouse. Ann was the unexpected toughie as she withstood the cold weather well with minimal warm clothes. Although it was the first time we travelled with Mae she was good company and funny as well. Shirely had challenges with her vegetarian meals but forbearingly she managed to tuck them in. She, Wing Kwong and Mey scaled greater heights than me at the Great Wall. Zip was the decoder for those with less understanding of the Chinese language or lacked bargaining skills.
Travelling with a group has its own challenges are we certainly had our share of amusing incidents and torturous ones as well. We were Chinese (or rather Malaysia boleh) enough to adjust quickly to a culture of a capital city like Beijing like toilets, food and the shrewd shop-keepers. I am used to travelling alone but with friends it is certainly much more enjoyable. There is an amount of quirkiness in every traveller; me, I incline to dawdle. Since my disability, I am even less fleeting thus I normally wake up earlier or get into the shower ahead to get ready on time. Zip and I had been travel buddies a few times so we were able to put up with the familiarisation of going on a long vacation. Coffee keeps us going and we are often prepared to leave our comfort zones. Thankfully, we don’t give each other the dreaded answers like – “Anything” or the potent “I want this or nothing else”. By being easy-going we survived many escapades together; Taiwan and Myanmar is within our radar.