24th March – 2nd April
We leave Shanghai unable to see either the road or the sky – we’re in bumper to bumper rush-hour traffic and cold grey drizzle hangs in the air. If the road was smaller, the driving better and the buildings older, it would feel like London…
It’s just 80km east from Shanghai to the water village of Tongli, built around an intricate canal network, linked with its neighbours to the ‘Grand Canal’; the longest man-made waterway in the world and constructed 1,500 years ago connecting Beijing with Hangzhou.
There are few places where proper ‘old China’ has been left intact and where it has, it’s usually for tourists’ benefit. Tongli has so far escaped the worst of the daytrippers, although it won’t be long before it’s chock-a-block with garish souvenir stalls and overpriced restaurants (the countdown’s already begun).
For the time being though, it is a peaceful, watery labyrinth of modest old houses, caesious waterways, delicately arched bridges and a handful of (now abandoned) landowners’ mansions and their maze-like, universe encompassing gardens.
The weather is filthy – gun metal skies and drizzle – but the town is still photogenic. For millennia the Chinese have been master landscapers (they still are, but the aesthetics have long gone out the window) and every view, through a blossomed courtyard, vase-shaped doorway, around a spirit wall or under a bridge is designed to inspire on even the most monochromatic days.
We brave the cold for the best part of a day then head for the comfort of an antique hotel, with decent heating for a change!
Culturally refreshed, we embark on a whopper of a drive north to Qufu, birth and final resting place of Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher who trod these lands 2,500 years ago. His uttered profundities have formed the backbone of Chinese civilisation, behaviour and society ever since (barring some now embarrassingly regretted few decades in post-communist China).
Ironically, he died impoverished and relatively anonymous, leaving few of his teachings written down. Only through his loyal disciples and their successors did his teachings eventually attain the magnitude of influence and importance that they held for the next two millennia.
Philosophical enlightenment is nearly doused before it’s ignited. On an innocuous expressway 300km preceding Qufu, one of our fuel injector lines inexplicably ruptures, causing engine juddering and power loss.
Fearing the worst, we’re relieved by the stink of diesel and seeing a narrow metal hose dangling limply beside the engine beneath the bonnet. We crawl off the expressway and find a handy local garage with an oxyacetylene torch. 15 minutes, some nifty welding and six quid later and we’re back on the road.
Despite a rare outbreak of Chinese sunshine, Qufu is still immensely cold. We spend a morning shivering around the grand Confucius Temple and adjoining mansion - Confucius’ ancestors, the Kong family, did rather well out of their famous predecessor and were granted endless dowries by successive Ming and Qing emperors eager to display their admiration for the humble philosopher. 78 generations of the Kongs lived in pampered luxury here until 1948 when the latest descendant fled to Taiwan to escape the communists. They’ve never come back.
The thought of another mini ‘Western fix’ is ample persuasion for us to floor it through Ta’ain to Beijing, exchanging verdant, irrigated breadbasket country for frozen, arid plains.
It’s an expensive city yet obviously we still have to pay for Queenie’s digs. Resisting the temptation to leave her in a two-star in the industrial outskirts, we find her a comfortable central business hotel. Alarmingly, the best price she can negotiate for herself is 240 yuan per night – Nina takes over and manages 200… Perhaps we should have been doing the bargaining all along?!
Beijing is massive – 20 million plus people, but like Shanghai it’s surprisingly easy to drive into, thanks to a network of six vast, concentric ring roads – rather like having six M25’s around London. Heavy industry and power stations scar its outskirts, but further in it’s impossible not to be impressed with its scale and wealth. We see our first Lamborghini since leaving Moscow; Porsches and Ferraris don’t even raise an eyebrow.
We’ve arranged to stay with Vivi Weller, glamorous and kind hearted girlfriend of our Hong Kong based liver-destroyer, Peter Heber-Percy. Vivi meets us with welcoming hugs and smiles and we sort out plans with Queenie for the next few days (“They’re in my hands now!”). In our scurry to get here, we missed out on lunch. After two hastily demolished bottles of white wine, we adjourn to a trendy pizza place, adjacent to a glitzy hotel bar serving excellent G&Ts. Well, it was never going to be a sober affair…
Sunshine in the capital
After a late start on Saturday morning, we join scores of cheerful locals making the most of their first weekend sunshine in six months. We enjoy the views from the grand 13th century Drum Tower to the north of the Forbidden City, wander round the bustling Qianhai Lake and grab tapas for lunch in a civilized courtyard restaurant off Nanluogu Xiang, a popular bar and restaurant street in the old city.
In the afternoon we admire the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the massive Olympic Park, all built at the expense of countless traditional hutong (ancient cobbled streets and courtyards, traditional homes for Beijing Chinese). The successful Olympic bid was certainly another nail in the coffin for the traditional architecture and ways of life for this city’s inhabitants.
It’s the weekend!
Our pedestrian exertions leave us all rather sleepy, but it’s Saturday night. We’re joined by Vivi’s cousin and a number of her close mates in a popular ex-pat bar on Nanluogu Xiang. It feels like we’re skiing – it’s cold, beer is served in steins and there’s western rock music blaring out of the speakers.
Before we know it its 3am; Charlie regrettably orders a round of local ‘spicy rum’ shots signalling the end of a very boozy night. Luckily Vivi’s Mandarin (which she’s studying in Beijing) is coming on a treat otherwise it would’ve been a very long taxi ride home…
Sunday morning’s a write-off but we drag ourselves out to stumble round Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City – home to the grandest and best preserved Chinese architecture in the country. Ironically it’s now the Great Hall of the People, the government headquarters on Tiananmen Square, which is strictly off limits to the proletariat.
Security is visibly tight in the Square – evidently the stigma of its modern history hasn’t worn off. We see more police, soldiers and CCTV cameras than we’ve seen anywhere else in China since troubled Xinjiang six months ago.
We walk home through some of the few remaining untouched hutong and the extensive, peaceful Baisha Park, dominated by a meandering lake and an artificial hillock topped by an enormous white stupa.
In the hutong, old women are cooking up street food and the men are playing chequers. Throughout the park, locals are going about their Sunday hobbies: there’s a band of enthusiasts playing antique Chinese instruments in one corner; elsewhere young and old alike are practicing tai-chi, martial arts and sword techniques; young fathers are teaching their solitary offspring the art of Chinese calligraphy, using sponges on sticks for pens, water for ink and paving slabs for paper.
It’s incredibly endearing and heartening that despite the rampant, avaricious changes that are changing this city’s landscape almost daily, people on the ground at least don’t appear to have forgotten their past, their traditions and their culture. Long may it last.
The Great Wall
After spending our final day in Beijing at Toyota ensuring our car is fully ‘Gobi’ fit, we say a sad farewell to Vivi and head north to Simatai, one of the more remote sections of The Great Wall.
Once again the notorious Chinese weather closes in on us and we arrive in thick fog. China is often best viewed, selectively, through a camera lens – and often it’s better if its someone else’s lens, who’s had better luck with the weather…
Nevertheless, this means there are few tourists and we appreciate the bleak, remote beauty to ourselves. The Wall surely is one of history’s most incredible constructions, 10,000km of it through frozen, arid and often mountainous terrain – built with effectively slave labour.
We sleep ‘on site’ in the hope that the weather improves in the morning. No chance of sunshine and blue skies, but it’s far brighter, so we make a second attempt to actually view this feat of engineering.
We clamber up successions of steep steps on the top of the Wall itself, through a dozen enormous watchtowers. At each peak, we admire solid, grey stonework meandering into the distance, undulating over ridges and into valleys as far as the haze and horizon allows, like a boundless Chinese dragon slithering over the parched brown mountains.
The Wall was started in the days post Genghis Khan and his invasion and conquest of China (he reached as far as Indonesia). Evidently, the Ming and Qing dynasties would go to any length to stop a repeat of such a rout.
Trees and coal
Heading west towards China’s resource-laden, windswept and frozen plateaus of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, mountains give way to sandy desolate flatlands, coal dust flurries and leaden skies. The temperature plummets to -1°C, and an icy 70kmh wind bites us every time we leave the car.
There’s more evidence of China’s vast re-forestation projects here. In an effort to combat desertification and the Gobi’s southward creep, China has planted 35 billion trees in the last two decades, increasing the country’s forested proportion from 12% to 17% (roughly 480,000 sq.km. – nearly twice the size of the UK!). Once again, when their own interests are at stake, the Chinese will do whatever it takes to protect themselves, on a colossal scale.
In between endless rows of poplars, conifers and silver birch lie vast quarries, coal mines and the occasional low-lying and frozen village, constructed from earth bricks and often indistinguishable from the surrounding cinnamon-coloured wastelands.
We spend our penultimate night in the grim, oppressive yet wealthy mining city of Datong. After a final sightseeing diversion (a swift sojourn around the nearby Yungan Grottoes) we make for Inner Mongolia and a 500km drive to the China-Mongolia border, 1/3 of the way across the Gobi Desert.
Into the desert
In a final act of incompetence, Queenie directs us onto the wrong road heading out into the desert, giving us an 80km, hour long detour. There are only two roads out here and she’s been here before, dammit! We’re furious, given the already sizeable distance we’re covering today. An uneasy silence reigns for the rest of the journey.
The temperature fluctuates between -1 and -4°C and we’re constantly buffeted by gale force winds and mini sand-storms. The road is good but we do wonder just how tough life must be for the Mongolian nomadic herders who still inhabit these areas. The desert is a mixture of sand, gravel and rocks interspersed with vast grassy plains (all brown at this time of year). The wilderness supports a surprisingly large numbers of woolly sheep, cattle and very hardy ponies, all watched over by equally hardy, heavily wrapped herders.
We arrive in Erenhot, the large solitary border town at 6pm. Overnight the temperature drops to -10°C and its still -8°C in the morning. The Chinese border officials take six hours to clear our car from the country, giving us plenty of time to think about what we’ve got in store over the border when the road gives out…