Today we go to the Forbidden City. To get there we have to go straight through a hutong from our hotel, so that is already an interesting walk. We make our way through a maze of telephone poles, power lines, small shops, restaurants and masses of bustling Chinese. Very hectic and beautiful to watch.
Rapper Def P and his wife Fenske make a world trip by train across the northern hemisphere. He has written his adventures in the book Back and forth and can partly be read on our site. In this part, Def P has arrived in Beijing with the Peking Express, where he will visit the Forbidden City, among other things. This time Def P writes about visiting the highlights in Beijing, fuss with chopsticks and the Great Wall of China.
The Forbidden City
On the way to the Forbidden City we arrive at the Square of Holy Peace, which most westerners know from the famous television images of the Chinese student who tried to stop a tank with a plastic bag. Following on from this is a large, rectangular area called the Palace Museum, better known as the Forbidden City. The last emperors of China ruled here and you can now take a walk through all the imposing gardens and palaces.
As we stand in line, we happen to run into Lisette and her mother. Because we get along well with them, we spontaneously decide to visit the palaces with the four of us. The complex of the Forbidden City is so gigantic that we can spend a few hours with it. Afterwards we have a drink at a backpackers cafe in ‘our’ hutong. It’s really nice to sit there on a terrace and watch all those busy Chinese pass by. I used to understand the cliché of many Europeans that ‘all Chinese look alike’. But now that I’ve been in between for a while, I’m starting to see the many subtle differences more and more. It’s really special that we are now such a long way from home without flying. It doesn’t get much further east than this.
Wrestling with chopsticks
In the course of the evening we eat adventurously again. We arrive at a restaurant where we have to cook our own food in a kind of soup pot. That causes quite a few hilarious scenes. We immediately struggle with questions like: “How long do you cook this?” and “how do you get those slippery things with chopsticks?” Half the staff starts to interfere with us and the exclusively Chinese guests there all start staring at us. They’ve probably never seen a bunch of Westerners make such a fuss over actions that are their daily routine.
I fumble for minutes to get hold of a kind of slippery dough envelope with my chopsticks and the Chinese think it’s hilarious
We see more and more guests nudging each other and looking at us with a smile. We also get a bit of a giggle from it. I fumble for minutes to get hold of a kind of slippery dough envelope with my chopsticks and the Chinese think it’s hilarious. Our efforts are now causing massive laughter. I’m starting to feel more and more like we’re a bunch of hired clowns. At a certain point I’m tired of messing around and poke my sticks right through the envelopes. The Chinese watching spontaneously start clapping and cheering for this action. It’s like watching a monkey do a trick.
They probably didn’t know it yet. Fenske is no longer able to recover. “Has the fork ever been invented?” I shout with my food strung on the sticks. Pretty handsome for such a white monkey! We have seldom laughed so much at dinner. And that for a Chinese price. In terms of entertainment, this whole evening should have won a prize from me.
Pure for the wall
This morning we drive to the Great Wall of China at half past eight. We have arranged a kind of private taxi through the hotel that will pick us up neatly. This is actually quite funny, because a strange situation arises for our hotel. There are several Dutch people waiting for transport, including a few older people who were also on the train with us. Very nice people by the way. Two young boys, who have already recognized me, make a failed attempt at being tough. They start to shout out loud how silly it is to go to a tourist attraction together in a tourist van with the elderly. At least they arranged their own taxi and blablabla…
What they don’t know is that a minibus has indeed been arranged for the entire group, and that Fenske and I have specifically asked for private transport. So I don’t go into their silly talk and wait quietly. A little later a van and a nice black passenger car arrives. You should have seen their sour mouths when it turns out that they have to go in the van with the ‘elderly’! Especially for us, the doors of the private car are kept open courteously. Before I get in, I just say: “Have fun everyone!” Brilliant, those sour faces. Afterwards we heard that these guys were so fed up with everything that they flew back to Schiphol the next day in a hurry. So maybe there was more to it, but whatever. Enough about the sourdoughs.
Climbing the Great Wall of China
We’ve barely left when I suddenly remember that I left our brand new camera under the breakfast room table with my restless head. Fortunately, our driver is a very relaxed guy. He doesn’t mind driving straight back. When I return to the breakfast room a little later, the waitresses already know what I’m here for. Without me having to say anything, I am already handed the camera. What a relief! I almost want to hug the ladies. I thank them and happily run back to Fenske. After this we start a grueling drive of about two hours to the Great Wall of China.
When we get to the wall, we have to line up for cable lifts to the top of the mountain. I notice that Fenske is getting more and more nervous and that she actually doesn’t like getting into that elevator at all. I suggest to walk. Much to her relief, we look for a walkway, which we soon find. It turns out to be a nice climb that requires all the courage from Fenske. She finds it less scary than the cable cars, but still not relaxed. Fortunately, it is a very nice route, but she prefers to look up and does not dare to enjoy the view. When we finally approach the mountain top, we have to go up a staircase, through a gate, and then we are finally on the Great Wall of China.
Everything moves so fast on this journey that sometimes we hardly realize how far we have come. But we are now really on the Great Wall of China! I personally think it’s a great moment, but Fenske is just sweating and puffing with fear. The Chinese side, which we have just climbed, is not so bad. But the Mongolian side of the mountain descends quite steeply. It is clear that an army could never march against this. And if it is up to Fenske, we will now also march down on the Chinese side.
But we traveled about three hours from the hotel to stand on this wall, so I want to walk on it for at least three minutes. I persuade Fens to at least take a picture to capture this special moment. She smiles like a farmer with a toothache and a little later we are standing next to the wall again. Ready to descend for another hour and drive back to Beijing for two hours. A bit of a strange time relationship perhaps, but we still had a nice walk! With proof on the sensitive plate. I’m just glad I got her up the mountain. Another big win for my sweet, scared wife.
Beijing city center
Once back in the center of Beijing, we go to a special shopping center. We start in a brand new and prestigious Chinese variant of the PC Main Street, with insanely high prices by Chinese standards. Western shopping probably delivers enough here, because right behind this street you can already see an entire building site where they are making another street in the same style. A kind of western brand mecca with a San Francisco-esque funicular that runs through it. Poop chic everyone. The funny thing is that if you walk out of the street, you come back to one of those typical Chinese neighborhoods with a huge covered hall with all kinds of cheap junk shops. A kind of Black Market of Beverwijk, but with ‘real Chinese’.
It’s a nice chaos again with much better prices, but also a lot of junk. In fact, the prices don’t even matter, because we don’t need anything. It’s more like looking around. Although: I actually need a belt, but can barely get the Chinese buddies around my waist. For the first time in my life I’m too fat for something! We soon give up on the shops and go back to ‘our’ hutong for a portion of authentic Chinese food.
Chinese tents where you see white tourists are usually dirt cheap, but if you go to a tent where only Chinese people are sitting, you can eat and drink together for a total amount of three euros. A gap in the market for ‘obesity tours’. We think the food is so extremely cheap that we pay almost double as a tip. We’ve been told by experienced travelers that the Chinese don’t always understand or even appreciate the concept of ‘gratuity’, but we’ve done it almost everywhere so far and get a big smile from everyone. I’m also starting to feel more and more sympathetic to these strange hardworking people. Even their unabashed gurgling, belching, spitting, grunting and snoring that they do everywhere in public is getting used to and is sometimes very laughable.
These people are sometimes very shameless, but also very friendly and sociable. And they love to eat! My stomach is not getting any thinner on this trip. And that while we walk quite a few kilometers on these kinds of days. There are plenty of public transport options and taxis here, but if you walk you see a lot more. And the weather here is perfect for walks. You can also notice that they drive a lot better here than in Mongolia. They are clearly more used to all the crowds here. Still, I wouldn’t like to get behind the wheel here myself. An accident is just around the corner and a collision can ruin your entire trip.
The other half of this chapter can be read in the book Back and forth by Def P, in which the adventures of his journey around the world are linked to stories from the life of Def P. Besides the countries and regions he visits during his train journey (Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan and Canada), the book also contains special trips to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a Bosnia in ruins, the Spain of tourists, the slums in the US in the early 1990s and the slums of South Africa.