Sadly this morning, it was time to say goodbye to our favourite ship and begin our journey home. The first stage was to drive that awfully boring road from Tianjin to Beijing, three hours of pretty unrelentingly dull landscape with our Chinese guide, Ken, talking almost non stop.
As we neared the suburbs, there were more private cars, the apartments appeared to be occupied and the scene was of a more liveable nature. Still, the predominant colour was beige and grey, however, and the outlook remained bleak.
The inevitable building sites were all around, still, and the traffic as heavy as it had been yesterday afternoon. Driving here must require immense patience.
Nearing the centre of the city, the streets became more commercial and there appeared to be more of the hustle and bustle one might expect.
But crossing over a busy road as we approached our hotel, my hero and I agreed that Beijing was more or less as we remembered it. Grey, dusty and a little soulless.
Thankfully, our hotel is anything but. We are here for just the one night, because BA don’t fly to London on a Saturday. Our friends are here too – one couple came with us from the ship, the others are staying a little longer to do some more sightseeing. We felt pleased to be here, glad to have “normal” internet (minus google, facebook and anything else the Chinese would rather we didn’t have) and were happy to kick back and simply have a bit of peace and quiet.
We had no plans.
But after about an hour, having refreshed ourselves and got tired of twiddling thumbs, we thought we’d explore the mall which adjoins the hotel.
Oh my. Gucci, Hermes, Dior…at Chinese prices, ie almost double the price of such things at home – not that we buy these things anyway.
We looked at a supermarket which was a dead spit of Waitrose and spent a happy half hour mooching around.
By the ice rink (yes…really) we chatted to a young British/Australian couple with a small daughter who were as mesmerised as we were. They told us they had just moved here and were still finding their way around. Leaving them to watch the skaters, we mulled over the practicalities of bringing up a small child here and reached the conclusion that it might prove to be somewhat of a challenge.
Spotting a ColdStone Creamery there amongst the snack bars and coffee shops, I suggested we take a break and think what we might do for the next hour or two. Though the public rooms of the hotel are fresh and glitzy, our room is a little dated and not exactly somewhere we wanted to spend all afternoon.
But just a minute, didn’t I just spot a sign pointing to the subway?
And don’t I recall noting that this line – Line 1 – goes right into the heart of the city?
How about it?
Neither of us had a coat on, we had no map, no guidebook, nothing. But life is an adventure, yes? Come on!
Taking pictures the whole way, so we’d have a reference for finding our way back (at this point, we didn’t even know the name of this station, except I thought it began with a letter G), we made our way to the barriers and ticket machines.
A 2Y flat fare (20p) wasn’t exactly going to break the bank and, looking at the map, my hero came up with an idea for our destination.
We gathered up a map
and armed with a single journey ticket each, we went down to the platform and waited for the train.
It was absolutely packed, just like a Japanese rush hour train, but rather less gracious and with a little more pushing and shoving.
We travelled five or six stations, pushed and shoved our way off the train and around fifteen minutes after enjoying our ice cream we were here.
In Tiananmen Square!
But our first attempts to walk along the path were denied. Policemen and Army officials blocked the way and there appeared to be some kind of official motorcade passing by. At that point we remembered, it’s the Party Congress or something going on, the new President and Prime Minister have just been appointed and we guessed that these were officials and other dignitaries attending some do or other.
And then we turned around.
Oh! this was the new Performing Arts Centre we had heard about in a lecture on the ship, though in reality it wasn’t quite as blue and shiny as we expected it to be! Nevertheless, we were pleased to see it and even if we couldn’t walk all the way round it, it was a fine spectacle and a nice surprise.
Ok, so, we have no map, no guidebook, no coats. But we feel quite comfortable, it’s mild and there’s not a breath of wind. Can we remember where to go from the last time we were here?
Let’s see. We got off the train at Tiananmen Square West and had thought we’d walk to T S East to ride home again. That seemed like a simple expedition that we could manage, so if only these policemen would let us walk in an easterly direction, we’d be ok.
But we’d better behave ourselves, hadn’t we?
We decided the best action to take was to follow the crowd – and oh my, was there a crowd to follow! We found a subway to cross over to the other side of the road and simply fell into step with everyone else.
Lo and behold, just a couple of hundred yards along, there we were. In Tiananmen Square itself.
And just behind us, the good old Chairman was looking benignly on.
At this point, I found myself feeling quite overcome. After all, it’s one thing to set off with the intention and a programme in mind, planning to visit one of these great places with a guide and a commentary. But we had simply pottered out of the hotel to buy an ice cream and look where we ended up! How neat was that?!
I pinched myself, told myself that yes, I am in Beijing and it’s hardly surprising that I found myself here this afternoon. But all the same, inside I was bubbling with excitement.
Of course there were a few others here too. At times, the police steered us through a checkpoint and random search of bags and belongings, but we were never called aside in spite of being the only Western faces in the crowd. (Surprising, that…we thought there would have been many western tourists here)
It was fun to linger, to look and simply be here for a while. A gentleman brought his young son over and asked if he could take our picture with the boy. Of course, we agreed, and posed for what must be a very strange portrait!
The Square itself was full of parked coaches from all those officials who’d sailed past us earlier, and we couldn’t see a way to get into the middle. So, we contented ourselves with simply walking along one side of the square, past the Tiananmen Gate.
Admiring the painted roof of course, as we passed – though thinking that we’ve seen rather more impressive painted roofs these last few days. But this was the original, the first such painted roof I ever saw and I can remember the deep impression it left on me when I first caught sight of it.
Then, of course, my hero suggested we go through the gate, see what’s on the other side and yes, continue to follow the crowd. So we did.
The afternoon was turning out in a most unexpected way!
Though the paintwork was rather shabby and peeling away in places, the colours and patterns up there are simply lovely, don’t you think?
But my hero was getting antsy now. How long was it going to take us to get back? Would we be able to access the East subway station or would the police steer us back to the West? Perhaps it was time to be making our way back.
And so, we found the subway station with no problem at all, took the escalator down to the ticket machine and bought another couple of tickets before going through the barrier again. Entering the station involved another bag check, too.
Amused by the illuminated advertising signs on the subway walls, which are programmed to be still as the train passes by them, we were soon back at the station where we started – Guomao. We retraced our steps and in no time at all,
We were back!
Our dear German friends have a word for such spontaneous behaviour – fetzig. My hero and I are generally planners, we don’t do fetzig as a rule, which might explain why, when we do, we feel quite thrilled by the outcome.
That’s how we spent Saturday afternoon in Beijing.