Borders, Bicycles and Beijing

Getting from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was, as border crossings normally are, eventful. The cabin on the Mongolian train was rather plush by our standards as of late. We shared with two Chinese men, one of which growled the whole fourteen hours as if he had smoked one cigarette a day for each and every person in China. We spent a few hours in the border town Erlian trying to figure out what would be the best method to get to Beijing. We opted for the sixteen hour overnight bus. So after spending the entire journey sleeping above a bunch of giggling old men, we were dumped in the middle of Beijing at 6am. Finally after waving the phrase book around at the bus station for a few hours trying to find out where we were, taking a few rickshaws followed by a metro, we arrived at the Sanlitun district of Beijing, welcome to China.

They say there are 9 million bicycles in Beijing, well now there are 9 million plus two. A Beijing bike ride had to be done. There were no bicycles to rent around Tiananmen square, but luckily the kite woman was willing to lend us hers. The cycle route took us around the tranquil forbidden city moat (didn’t go inside as I forbid myself to pay their prices), past the lovely Quinhai lake and back through the old city hútong (narrow alleys).

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Quinhai lake kite seller

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Tiananmen square in the centre of Beijing, is the world’s largest public square. Named after Tiananmen, the gate of heaven north of Beijing, the square is home to the embalmed corpse of chairman Mao. After the disappointment of missing Hô Chí Minh and Lenin’s remains on my visits to Hanoi and Moscow respectively, I struck third time lucky. The Chinese almost treat Mao like some kind of god during this surreal experience, which I was sadly not allowed to take photos of. The people buy flowers at the bottom of the stairs only to place them at the entrance of the hall to be sold again. Once inside the display room, speaking is off limits and the guards wave the hoi poloi along, giving me roughly 10 seconds and a twisted neck to see the man himself. After exiting the hall there are rows of hawkers selling Mao post cards, plates and other memorabilia. Mao plates? Would have been a good buy if I had room, imagine, a tyrant themed dinner party with Gaddafi napkins, Mao plates and a Hitler a cutlery set…

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Outside Mao memorial hall

First impressions of China on a whole are pretty good, mental, manic and charming at the same time. More modern than I’d imagined but I guess it’s to be expected with a capital city. The food is oily, the air is smoky, but I love it!

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