Nluogu Alley

Near where I am staying in Beijing, amongst the Hutongs, is Nluogu Alley.

I stumbled onto Nluogu Alley by serendipity. After having the rickshaw ride that would have scared Death, I made the driver drop me off ‘somewhere’ and started walking map in hand towards my hotel.

Roaming away from the hustle and bustle, I came apon this charming, tree lined alley with a variety of cafes, restaurants and bars, and all sorts of interesting beautiful boutique shops.

Filled, but not overcrowded, with wandering people, bicycles cycling by, and very few cars passing through. I met a pretty white goose ( yes GOOSE), wearing a sign card around its neck. Interesting choice for advertising, but it got the job done with many locals and tourists pausing to read his message and ask him for a photo. This goose had a great job, happily roaming this beautiful alley and making friends with every waddle.

Charming. Did I mention this alley was charming? I was completely charmed.

Nluogu Alley is complete with traditional Chinese architectured terrace houses, many with rooftop restaurants, shops selling Love Potions, local fashion designers and Arts & Craft boutiques – This was my kind of hang out!

I’ve already decided to check out every eatery in Nluogu Alley, and with so much variety I’m not sure if the rest of Beijing is going to have a chance..

The Great Wall of China

I had high expectations of the Great Wall of China, it was the main reason I chose China to participate in my Asian adventures, and yesterday it not only exceeded my expectations, it hit 100% of my Wow Factor Odometre.. FULL CAPACITY!

We entered the Wall from JinshanLing in Beijing, from here we had access to reach six of the towers and around 11km’s of the wall, not including the 30 minute trek up a mountain you had to take before even reaching this entry point of the Wall.

The Jinshanling portion of the Wall was not a ‘walk’. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that it is – It is a hike! It’s not smooth flat walkways. It’s steep, rubbly and in ruins with some sections not even having a wall to stop you from toppling over the edge!

The steps to reach the towers range from 10 giant steps made out of stone to hundreds of tiny brick steps. On the Wall you have to chose your path carefully or you could end up with a sprained ankle and debris in your face.

The view from the wall is breathtaking. Foliage covered mountains for as far as the eye can see with the Wall snaking its way through the land.

TIP – Do not let any of the old Chinese ladies that just seem to hang out on the Wall, assist you with anything. I was trying to put on my poncho and one of these ladies held up the left arm for me, next thing I know she’s following me like a shadow wanting to help with everything, and also wanting to get paid – I had to hot leg it to get away! Don’t let their age or looks fool you, they have the speed and agility of a mountain goat. As I heard one American man in his early thirties say to his old lady shadow while he climbed a steeper part of the wall, ‘ I feel like I should be the one helping you

The air in the mountains is fresh and clean, unlike the city of Beijing, and when you’re hiking the Great Wall, the combination of spectacular views, the intense activity, and the fact that you’re standing on one of the greatest monuments in the world, that holds so much history, so much respect, and had taken (literally taken) thousands of lives to build, fills you with utter awe. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. And this is true also when including all the surreal acid tripping experiences of my younger years.

The Wall humbled the Forbidden City, which also has an amazing history but was like an ant in comparison.

I reached the end of the Jinshanling portion of the Wall with Waily, the only other person able to keep up with my fast pace. We had lost 90 minutes of our hiking time through traffic and only had 3hrs to complete as much as we could before needing to return to the entry at 2.30pm for a buffet lunch – an excellent incentive to move quickly.

Other groups had dropped behind or didn’t make it to the end. If you were scared of heights, were with a family with children or an elderly, or were generally unfit, you weren’t gonna make it.

Girlfriend, panting ‘I want to turn back’
Boyfriend ‘but we’re almost at the first tower’
Girlfriend ‘I want to turn back, do you want to turn back?’
Boyfriend, looking at the first tower only a metre incline ahead of him, looks back at girlfriend, ‘OK.’ Depressed undertone.

Advice for those of you who come to China to complete the Great Wall ‘LEAVE YOUR LOVED ONES BEHIND!’ I dont mean at home, I mean leave them behind on the Wall, and meet up with them later on exit = )

The tale of two toilets

On the road to the Great Wall of China today from Beijing deserves a special mention. Not because of any amazing scenery along the way, or friendships struck, but because I had a uniquely interesting toilet experience.

It’s a 3 hour drive from downtown Beijing to JinshanLing, the part of the Great wall that we were touring, and 2 hours into the trip our guide announced a quick toilet stop and 15 minute break to stretch our legs.

We pulled over into this large, main road, petrol station, and having a real dislike for waiting in lines, I quickly scooted off the bus ahead of the other 10 women competing for what we were told were only two female toilets.

I reached the ladies cubical with only 1 girl ahead of me in the line. Ugh, I have to wait. This was almost unbearable as the stench of the place burned much like how my kitty litter would smell if I left it for a week (I have 2 cats). Thinking this would be good practice for what I would have to deal with in India, I stuck it out by concentrating on the crack in the bathroom mirror, not making eye contact, and keeping my mouth closed.

There was a curtain covering the entry into the toilet cubical, and after a couple of minutes, a chinese national popped out with a surprised ‘Aya!’ at the line of strange foreigners waiting to use the facilities. She was wearing a yellow shirt I recognised as the uniform of the staff at the petrol station. Turning her head back towards the toilets, she calls out to her remaining friend something in chinese, which I imagine was ‘Hey, there are a lot of ladies needing to take a piss out here, hurry up!’

Waily, the Singaporean girl first in line, stepped into the cubicle while I waited and prayed that she would be a fast shooter. I really needed to pee now, and had included silently counting the tiles to my method of sustaining

Finally I hear the sweet sound of a flush and, unexpectedly, it was Waily who came out first.

‘ There are no doors’ she says to me, code like, in passing.

Hmm, no doors hey, no problem, it’s not like anyone was going to come in knowing there were already 2 toilets in use right?

I stepped into the cubical and froze, the vision before me stinging like a slap in the face. There were no doors. There were no dividing walls. There were no curtains. There wasn’t even a shrub. What it was was a single square tiled room with two toilet holes placed in the ground, side by side, and perched above one of the holes was another female staff member taking a dump.

She looked quite comfortable, like she had been perched there bird-like for hours. Arse bare, squatting, texting on her mobile phone, looking up at me standing there, her nonchalant expression saying ‘What?’.

I did a quick assessment of the pain in my bladder, took into account the stench in the room, and imagined myself bare assed next to this girl who could so casually crap and text in public. . . I decided that my pain barrier would hold, and I did not have to subject myself to this kind of shit. At least not today.

Making a quick escape, I burst out of there calling ‘There are no walls’ to my fellow tour mates waiting in line, while still hopeful that I hadn’t offended the girl by not accepting the throne beside her -it wasn’t personal.

I smiled appreciatively at Waily as I got back onto the bus. She did try to warn me, and she had been strong enough to handle the shit that I couldn’t. Much respect.

Beijing Subway – A public affair

The subway in Beijing intimidates me, especially not having had any prior interaction with it. However, since I was going to be in town for a while, it was time to make friends with the transit network.

The first introduction was with the ticket machine, and to my delight there was an ‘English’ option. Instantly I warmed to the experience. The directions were easy to follow and the screen brought up a very user friendly visual of the subway map. Each line was colour coded and transfer options easy to follow. It seemed effortless, just the way I like it.

I selected Xidan, which from what I could tell, was the closest station to my final destination. Cost? 2 RMB, equivalent to 40 cents. Cheap and easy – loved it!

I fed two, 1 RMB notes into the machine, which it spat out. Flipping the notes over, I tried again. Same response. Turning and flipping the notes over 3 more times with the same result and suddenly the cracks appeared in this new relationship.

Why…WHY??? I couldn’t understand why my cash wasn’t good enough for this piece of junk! I was giving it exactly what it had clearly asked for, and there was nothing wrong with my money, I’d taken the time to smooth out any creases, and there were no visible damages that would justify the rejection. I was frustrated and confused.

The lady waiting patiently in line behind me motioned that I needed to offer more money. Oh, it doesnt take 1 Rmb notes? Ok, no probs, I’ll put in a fiver (rejection) still not good enough? Fine, here’s a ten! Ignoring me?! Why don’t you just give me what I need, what I have requested, what I deserve! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!

Just when I started thinking that I was way better than this and could easily catch a taxi, an angel who could speak english appeared and told me that sometimes these things are ‘really finicky and sensitive’, and I should try another 10 RMB note. But I don’t have another 10 RMB (pathetic voice)‘Here, take mine’ (hollywood teeth smile) and like a good little angel, he handed me the note that put the spark back into the day. Ticket in hand, and all stress forgotten, I was ready to give it another go.

Following the directions onto the platform, the monorail came within minutes and I was on my way. I love that the monorails in Beijing have TV screens, showing movie previews, cooking instructions, subway instructions, and a map of the subway. A map of the subway that had way more stations that what that creep of a ticket machine had showed me! The subway map on the monorail monitor not only informed me that there was a station at TiananMen East, right at the Forbidden City (my desired destination) but that there was a faster way to get there! A 3 (THREE) stop with 1 transfer option, rather than the 17 stop, with 2 transfers and a walk I had selected!

The ticket machine had misdirected me into taking a hot, stuffy, crowded, and sweaty 90 minute ride all around Beijing when what I needed was the 15 minute pleasant ride.

It was my own fault. I should have known there had to be more stations available and to look for the easier route.

I shrugged it off as a common ‘first timer’ mistake and ‘lesson learnt’. As George W. Bush wisely said ‘fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.’

First day in Beijing!

I walked into the Beijing Hutong Culture Inn and immediately made a new friend – Sharon from Holland. Sharon’s a 31 year old lady who’s been traveling through Asia for the last 8 weeks, can’t eat Asian food for breakfast, but loves Chow Mien for lunch. She had seen me at the Airport struggling with the sales lady over my newly purchased in-country sim card.

Mutually happy to have a girlfriend to start exploring the town with, we dumped our bags in our rooms and just started walking. To the right.

I should have known nothing good would come out of walking right. It was like the Bronx of Beijing – dusty walkways, unfinished Hutongs (villages), sewerage smells, and tired looking little people. And no food stalls!

Note this was at 8.30am in the morning so a lot of shops were not open as yet.

We headed back to the Culture Inn to enlist the help of Harry, a local, and an English major working at the hotel, who was more than happy for us to help him practice his English. ‘Harry, where is the forbidden city?’ ‘Harry, where are the silk markets?’ Harry, is there a tall building where we can have cocktails and look at the entire city?”Harry, how do you say please in cantonese?’ Harry, how do you say ‘No Pig’?’ I couldn’t retain a thing he said about a second after he said it. So I wrote it down, and looked at it later when the instructions were needed, but couldn’t pronounce it. Useless.

Later, we decided to venture to the left. Such a difference the left made. Shops and cafes along the streets, people dressed in more than shorts and a wife beater singlet, and no gutter smell.

At the Yashow Markets, it was the usual haggling, high stress, pushy market environment. Floors and floors of immitation clothes, shoes and bags which in Thailand you learn to start haggling at half the asking price, here in Beijing you go a quarter. And sometimes even a fith.

The 4th floor was like the Mecca of electronics – Immitation brand iPads, iPods, iShuffles, as well as the top brands in cameras, camcorders, gaming consoles, etc.. I’m very pleased to say that I didn’t blow my budget on all these gadgets. Not today anyway.

Next level, my first Beijing food court. Finally, somewhere we could eat that not only had pictures of the food, but actually displayed every dish on the menu and had tasting samples for each!!

At this point I knew Beijing and I were going to get along just fine..

How to be better prepared when arriving in Beijing for the first time

After an 8 hour flight from Sydney to KL, a 4 hour transit, then 6 hour flight from KL to Beijing, I arrived in China with little sleep, eye’s dried from watching a total of 5 in-flight movies, and running solely on adrenalin.

Things I’ve learnt so far.

No 1 – Make sure that your mobile phone is fully charged so that when arriving in a foreign country and purchasing your in-country sim card, it actually works.

No 2 – When getting a taxi in China, have your hotel address written in chinese as well as English.

T (sitting up front with cabbie) – ‘Do you know where this is?’ points at hotel reservation and address print out

Cabbie (blank look, but starts driving anyway)

T (said with best chinese accent) – ‘You know DongCheng district?’ (stabs repeatedly at the reservation and address)

Cabbie(shrug. Looks really confused. Leans away from me. Slightly frightened by my irratic arm movements and emphasized facial expressions. Makes phone call action)

T (More exaggerated arm action and finger pointing) – No no no! I do not have the phone number, and I cant call them anyway, my phone is dead! (tries for the 15th time to read the address, this time using an alternative chinese accent)

Which brings us to Number 3 – Make sure you remember to write down the contact details of your overseas accommodation. (duh!)

No 4 – Learn some of the language! Buy a phrase book, or download the iApp that allows you to write what you want to say and have the iPhone speak for you in the desired language.

After planning this trip for over a year, I did NONE of these things. I blame my grandmother. My whole life my grandmother and I have not been able to speak the same language. I just speak english fluently and she only speaks Chinese and Malay (Bahasa). We’ve made it this far with the help of sign language, caveman like grunts, a whole lot of laughter, and patience. From this, I assumed everyone understood my sign language and caveman grunts. (ass, you, me, I know!)

What you should do – USE the resources available to you. Which happen to be the cabbies mobile phone. Call his mate, who could speak english and act as an interpreter. Ask his mate if he had access to the internet and was able to look up the hotels contact details, (Yes!) have his mate call the hotel and find out their location, call us back and provide directions. Lots of smiling and thumbs up signs. .

Over an hour later, with the help of my new friends who did not judge me for being so disorganised, not that I could understand anyway, we arrive at the Beijing Hutong Culture Inn in the Dongcheng district.

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