Beijing, Beijing, it's a helluva town. The Bird Nest's up and Tiananmen's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. Beijing Beijing. It's a helluva ...... oh, Gene Kelly, where are you now? What can I write about the place that you haven't heard before? This is probably the least-surprising city we have visited here in China - it's just how we expected it to be. There's Mao's mug hanging over Tiananmen Gate and the infamous square just over the road - a huge expanse of nothing, oh, except for the man himself, tucked up in his monstrous mausoleum. The flag is flying. And through the gate is the Forbidden City which Gayle visits without me - I feel no great desire to join the crowds of Chinese. She tells me I missed a great collection of Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics, but that the buildings of the city itself are very similar to ones we have already seen around the city. We have already nosed around the Confucius Temple and the neighbouring College for the Imperial Civil Servants' Examinations, plus the Worker's Cultural Palace - and these buildings are all built and laid out in a similar style and decorated in the same colour - Imperial Red (not the People's Red). There are some pleasant parks to visit and at the weekends these seem to fill with people of 'a certain age' who happily indulge in rather wonderful group activities: there's the ballroom dancers swinging to Chinese pop, the opera chorus accompanied by an accordionist, the Tai Chi troop twisting and squatting in unison, two harmonica bands battling for supremacy with booming sound systems, and clusters of folk playing 'zhou en lai' (which translates as 'shuttlecock keepy-uppy'). Of course the rest of the week they all just sit around playing maj jong. Winter's come early this year, with heavy snow already been and gone (the snow had been induced by Chinese meteorologists in an attempt to counter the seasonal regional drought - they really wanted rain.) As a result most of the trees have lost their leaves, so the city seems all the more the great urban metropolis. Big buildings. Big roads.
And then there's the small matter of a wall. We set out early one day for a popular walk along a hilly section of the Great Wall. There's hundreds of steps, steep ramps, broken pathways, iron ladders and a suspension bridge to cross. The scenery is big dry rolling hills. We are duly impressed - the wall disappears into the distance east and west. When we set off it's in glorious sunshine, but at the end of the walk the mist has rolled in and, as we drop down into the car park we can just about spot the taxi drivers' fins sticking up above the cloud. They circle, they feed. We escape eventually with torn clothes but limbs intact. It's been a great day.
While we're here we apply successfully for our Burma visa. We have less than a month left in China, but we definitely want to return in the New Year. As is often the case, it's not the Must Sees or Things To Do that we've enjoyed most, but all the other things in-between. So, in Beijing we enjoy the morning wandering around the Sunday antique/crafts market, or the afternoon mooching about the trendy modern art 798 district. There are still some of the old hutongs left and they're entertaining to wander. These are the old lanes full of one-storey houses that once filled the old city centre. Much has been made of their ongoing destruction and those that remain look like they've been renovated or turned into trendy tourist shopping streets. The old houses have no toilets, so public ones are everywhere. In fact, they claim to have the most of all the cities in the world - handy in this cold weather and one boast to be proud of. There's a decent metro system and the city centre is huge, but we still end up walking a lot. Thankfully we've a decent and very cozy hostel to recover in.
This is the furthest north we're travelling, and at the end of the week we catch a night train southwards to get to Suzhou. As usual, the station's busy, there are the tedious baggage scans and the hanging around in the cavernous waiting halls before the gates are opened and the mad scramble to board first. We're on the train to Shanghai and it's full of rather well-off Chinese. We've got top bunks which means we can go straight to bed, and we nod off with the train announcements coming out of the speaker by our ears.