Day 6/ 8
We booked in to a cosy little hostel within cooee of Tianamen Square; happy friendly staff, small, clean room with warm shower and comfortable beds. An inward facing cobbled courtyard adorned with ornate wooden doors and frescos in a nicely dilapidating state. Nice to feel warm and clean again. Many of the other guests are out of town chinese tourists here to pay their respects to Chairman Mao and to admire the Forbidden Palace.
The surrounding side streets are busy with activity, lots of food stalls and restaurants, trinkets and cooking smells: hot pot, steamed dumplings, roast duck. The food is really good, albeit overly salted and oily. The only affront being that of the constant cigarette smoke and the presence of American fast food outlets with their prominent insignia. Quite possibly a three pronged strategy within the gaze of party officials, a brilliant plan to keep the population at bay. First came Mao Tse-Tung who did famously well, more recently the Tianamen square massacre (1989) and present day KFC's 24-piece family bucket, deep-fried and dangerously delicious. An omnipresent manifestation of what America has to offer the rest of the world, and all this within site of the final resting place of the great helmsman who's complexion I must say looks just a little too orange for my liking. Interesting to witness how much reverence this man is shown and how utterly moved people were when filing past his embalmed body. Outside his immense mausoleum I passed a throng of women kneeling, quietly wailing, crying.
I've been so impressed by the chinese people, they are courteous and polite, ready with a smile and happy when you engage them in conversation. Very charming without being in your face as they can be in some Asian countries. Theres an understated style in the streets, a well dressed uniformity, no individualism, but also no bling, no garish labels, not yet as fashionable as say the Singaporeans but perhaps its only a matter of time until they are.
A thick haze has descended over Beijing in only a matter of a couple of days since the rain storm swept through leaving the sky clear and bright. The smog has built up to such a degree it is difficult to see past one city block. I have come down with a gamy throat and by late afternoon my eyes become tired and sore. Much of this smog may be as a result of the particulates wafting in from the coal district west of here but also the growing traffic which is slowly consuming this city as it has most other cities in the world. As the car becomes king, it gradually takes away the charm of the city, the convenience of the automobile comes at great cost to the community. There are large areas of Hutongs which have been demolished awaiting transformation into high-rise tenement blocks. So sad to see the soul of the city replaced by commerce and mediocrity.
Beijing has an inexpensive, sophisticated and efficient metro system. Trains arrive on platforms every couple of minutes. Some of the busier stations employ pushers who very politely and good humouredly (is that a word) push you in to the train. Hutongs are full of electric scooters (copies of classic Lambrettas and Vespa), electric carts and tiny electric cars. Got to love the tiny electric car; what a wonderful device for getting around in. Lets have lots more of these throughout the world please.
An old blind man was sitting on the busy sidewalk playing a banhu; a traditional bowed stringed instrument, with a wooden device attached to his shoe to tap out a tune. Mesmirising, a wonderful semblance of days gone by.
At long last we are on the road. Seems to have taken forever to get going. Had a very productive afternoon and evening in the industrial town of Xuan Hua Bei, two hours short of Datong. The air was filthy with industrial pollutants: the rank, burnt metallic smell of coal smoke. The streets were caked in coal dust and clogged with trucks, three wheeled carts, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians. Two large coal plants and a myriad of factories and yet amongst all this industrial filth well dressed and well groomed people happily went about their daily business as though nothing much the matter. A man and a boy chased after us to have their photograph taken with us, both smoking cigarettes. I'm surprised and delighted by how much access I have with my camera, no security guards, no animosity, just a few curious people, good humoured. Parked up on the outskirts of town, too filthy with coal dust and litter to sleep outside, put the back seats down and rolled out the swags for a fitful nights sleep. We need to construct a plywood platform so that we can place the gear below and our swags on top in order to fully stretch our legs. If this is going to be our home for the next 4 weeks its going to have to be a lot more comfortable than it was last night...