In the evening after my arrival in Beijing I had dinner and went for a walk with a Scottish woman who was also travelling on her own. We were just going to go for ten minutes around the block, but it ended up taking an hour. The blocks are big in central Beijing. There were little alleys we could have cut through, or got lost in. The hostel was at the end of a new open mall aimed at tourists, a theme park, and full of domestic tourists. Small rainbow umbrellas attached around the head. Statues of mandarins to get your photo taken with. Our walk soon took us to more regular low level buildings. Minding our step around boxes of hot coals to cook something, giving a wide berth to the woman in the trike with sizzling skewers sitting on top of a tin bucket in the trailer. I expect there was a fire of some sort in the bucket to generate the sizzling. Round to the main street and past flat dull apartment blocks with feeble lighting effects.
The next morning I had a slow breakfast over a map of Beijing. I had finally found an ATM accepting foreign cards on the way to the hostel. Being mildly cashed up and about to go 6 days without much in the way of shops, I dove into some of the local shops to replace a few small things I’d lost or broken on the way – ear plugs, pen, ear phones, padlock, roubles. Just the essentials. I was surprised that during the day I found everything on my list. The bank was even open on a Saturday and had some roubles on hand, though they might not have when I left. Now I felt assured I had what I needed for the next train I had half a day left for sightseeing.
I picked Tiantan, or Temple of Heaven, because it was close and I didn’t go there on my last trip to China. I also picked 798 Art District on the other side of town because I hadn’t managed to do anything much artsy yet. The sun struggled through the haze. It was warm but not hot like Guilin. I decided to walk to Tiantan. It wasn’t as far as I expected so I ducked into the Natural History Museum on the way. A guide book at the hostel said it had a great dinosaur room, and I figured I should check it out for my brother and see if they had any of the really early bird fossils since that’s all I knew about Chinese dinosaurs.
First there was a queue to book a ticket where they took the details from your Chinese ID, or in my case, my passport. They gave you a little docket to take and line up with at the second window where you got the actual ticket. At the gate another person punched a hole in your ticket as you went in. It was free. I didn’t understand, but there were dinosaurs. Nothing I recognised. There were pictures of the bird like dinosaurs, but they didn’t match up with the fossils above them. Children ran around, and it seemed you could eat inside because no one told me not to. It was like a big kids party.
The Temple of Heaven was built ages ago under some emperor. Round parts signify heaven and square parts earth. There were buildings for the emperor to get changed in, for sacrificing animals, and for ritualistic plowing to ensure good harvests. I like how important this means agriculture was regarded as. The buildings look like they might have got a repaint in the lead up to the Olympics and the colours are much stronger and darker than those further south on the trip. A long raised path was claimed to be the oldest bridge of some sort because it has a little underpass. I liked the acres of cypress with grass growing under them and the last really old twisted and knotted trees. Near the East Gate that I was leaving through, a large group of adults were singing with a conductor. They were singing quite loudly and the sound travelled well. It had a hymn like quality to me, but being China I expect that’s not what they were singing.
Now for getting myself across town on public transport using directions from a website that thankfully included bus numbers and names of bus stops. The subway cost a grand total of 2 yuan to get in to, or about 35 cents Australian. Once in I could transfer without going through the gates and needing another ticket. So cheap! The subway trains had the maps above the doors like in Singapore and Malaysia with LEDs for the stations to tell where you were. This made it pretty easy, and the stations connecting to other lines were clearly announced and labelled too. Easy peasy. The bus stop was a bit harder to find but the bus also had an LED sign up the front and recordings announcing what the next stop was.
I didn’t have much time at the art district. I saw one exhibition doing some different stuff with copper, some cool photography, and some paintings that I liked. I felt bit overloaded though, too many different ideas and styles in too short a space and time. I’d run out of money again with my shopping and getting something to eat. I spent my last yuan getting on the bus back to the train and spent the whole bus ride hoping there’d be an international ATM near the train station. I was still getting the hang of currencies and prices that have more zeroes on the end than in Australia. Or less, in the case of bus and train fares. There was an ATM but they only dish out 100s which the person at the ticket counter wasn’t too keen to take. I showed her my empty wallet and she carefully inspected the authenticity of the note before raiding the second till for change.
It started to rain outside as I was packing my bag to leave the hostel for the subway to the train. I dragged out my raincoat, made sure things that needed to stay dry would, and stepped out into the wet streets. Somehow I’d managed to leave later than I planned so I was stressing a bit about making the train. On my way down the steps to the subway platform I was too busy checking which side my train was on, missed the bottom step and went over heavily on my ankle. A couple going past immediately checked I was ok and helped me up. I hobbled over towards the point where the nearest train doors would be and a mother with her family came to my assistance, taking my food bag while her eldest son took my day bag. The other son was chided for laughing and re-enacting my collapse, but I guess it looked pretty funny to him. The young daughters were confused by the stranger joining them. They happened to be getting off at the same subway stop as me. It was raining again outside. Umbrellas and raincoats were produced and the eldest son sent with me to carry my excess baggage and help me find the station the Moscow train departed from.
It was a huge station from the outside, and looked fantastic all lit up in the wet darkness, but there was no time to pause. The son ushered me through at the gate and I couldn’t say thank you enough. I had trouble finding the platform and understanding the frustrated hand waving directions of the woman at the information desk. Others helped me in the right direction. The train was boarding as I arrived. I found my berth in a cabin with one other person and the train left on time. The longest train trip I’ve done was underway. The centrepiece if you like of my trip, and the transition from Asia to Europe.