We are about to begin an overland journey of some 4000 kms from East to West through Northern China.
Our fellow travellers come from London, Frankfurt and the usual Aussie intrepid travellers from all over. The tour begins on the Chinese Sunday, which is in fact Monday. All the tourist sites are closed so everyone goes to the Great Wall. We used this day to walk off our “plane legs” after a 12 hour flight via Sydney and meet for the ‘get to know you dinner’ in a Hutong courtyard. It’s surprising to see a vast area of Hutongs still intact and we are staying in the middle of one. There is a great community atmosphere within the hutong area although they may be tiny and lack facilities like showers. Some even share kitchens and there are public toilets provided for the residents to use.
We immediately find most search engines blocked and anything connected to Facebook unavailable but then find we can in fact open up sites like this one if it was in our history. Emails don’t send but I cloud does. Our guide can’t phone us because as foreigners our phones are blocked but he can send us a text. He tells us many times to focus on the positive and “enjoy your holiday” don’t stress over the high level of security or lack of freedoms because “ you can’t change anything”. It’s a country of contradictions and complexity, beauty and hardship, wealth and poverty, always interesting.
Beijing impresses us with its meticulously tended parks and gardens. There are people everywhere snipping and sweeping. Then at night time we find our crockery comes encased in plastic from the dish washing factory because it’s too expensive to pay someone to wash dishes. It is so quiet in Beijing with many electric vehicles. We master the vast subway system and arrive at stations where we are some of the few people alighting. The mall we visit is like a fashion runway with so many young people looking fabulously elegant in all the latest fashions. We are told however that it’s a mistake to regard China as a shopping destination as there are high import duties on all foreign products, making them cheaper to buy at home. Hence the long lines outside designer boutiques in Chadstone and the huge queues at the duty free shops we encountered on our arrival. A fast train will take us to Xian. This is one of 22 all completed since the Olympics.
Xi’an is the beginning of the Silk Road with the ancient wall encircling the old town largely intact. The journey between Beijing and Xi’an takes us through the food bowl. An intensively cultivated region where not a centimetre of space goes to waste. It’s a delight to see the huge planting’s of ornamental trees, orchards, rice fields and vegetable fields. As with the rest of China we have seen so far it is spotless and meticulously neat and goes on for hundreds of kilometres as far as the eye can see.
The scale of the cities we pass through is breathtaking. Beijing has the entire Australian population within its city limits but on the train journey we pass through other cities of 10 million where construction is being undertaken which makes Melbourne’s building boom not even rate a mention. There are many clusters of ten or more 30 storey buildings under construction and others seemingly complete awaiting the occupants. It’s lucky the Chinese accept high rise living or else every inch of the country would be taken up with homes, and the land is clearly needed to meet the need for food.
The air quality in Beijing was good by their standards. It is summer after all with no coal heating, but declines as we travel towards Xi’an passing through more heavily Industrialised cities. We see wind farms and in the villages every home, no matter how basic has a solar hot water heater mounted on the roof.
We are enjoying the food, eating as a group for dinner. Lots of cabbage, potato, mushroom and eggplant dishes. For breakfast we enjoy congee, egg pancakes and red bean steamed buns.