Li River Adventures


Rob Sheard negotiates Chinese security. If you know the bloke then you will realise all the many ways this moment could have gone spectacularly wrong (he would say spectacularly right).

I doubt the security at the train station had ever seen the like: Four foreigners, three over six feet tall and the fourth sporting a blonde mullet/afro affair, attempting to catch a train from Xiangtan to Guilin.  The startled stares we received strongly suggested this was indeed a rare occurrence.  Our attempts to avoid a scene were certainly not helped by Rob Sheard in a conical paddy hat.  Security quite wisely preceded to conduct an extra thorough search of his person (see photo).  Loz, Rob and I had been joined by another intrepid adventurer after Hong Kong, Alex.  He was fresh from the Trans-Siberian Express and the Mongolian steps, so thoroughly enjoyed the comparatively balmy two degrees Celsius that Xiangtan enjoyed earlier on that February day… unlike the rest of us.

Guilin is a popular Chinese tourist destination in Guangxi autonomous region, to the south of Hunan province.  The Guilin region boasts very impressive scenery and wonderful hikes, but we had been warned that the city of Guilin itself was certainly not the place to stay. Instead we journeyed about two hours south along the Li River to a small town named Yangshuo.  We lucked into a great little hostel with lovely staff.  I believe it was named ‘Green Forest Hostel’ and I can definitely recommend it!


Yangshuo and the surrounding landscape.

We had two nights in Yangshuo. Booking sleeper trains to and from Xiangtan gave us practically three full days, which was just enough time to explore.  Large, domed hillocks, verdant with greenery surround the meandering Li River, the town of Yangshuo nestling amongst the peaks.  The town itself reminded me a little of an Alpine resort – minus the skiing.  Many of the buildings were constructed from various dark woods, or at least detailed in such a way, and tables from the countless bars and restaurants crowded either side of the paved walking streets. As it is a major tourist attraction, considerably more care and attention has been given to the upkeep and general cleanliness of Yangshuo than most other similarly sized Chinese towns.


Loz, Rob, Alex and I on top of the ‘mountain’.

On our first afternoon we climbed a small mountain, or perhaps a large hill.  It is difficult to know what to term the limestone formations which surround Yangshuo.  They’re not quite mountains, but also too steep to be hills.  I’ll go with mountains, it makes our achievement in reaching the top sound all the more more impressive!  In reality the climb wasn’t too bad at all, the hardest part was actually finding the track up to the summit amongst the labyrinthine back-streets of Yangshuo.  We reached the peak just as the sun was setting and the view across the town to the mountain ranges in the distance was stunning.

That evening we had an impromptu night out.  It was utterly unplanned as we were all suffering a little from the inevitable sleep-deprivation of a night on a Chinese sleeper train. We had stumbled across two of Alex’s fellow travellers from the Trans-Siberian (who happened to be Dutch, the nation of Rob’s persona – if not his birth).  This was quite by chance, one of the wonderful coincidences which seem to occur so often when travelling – a couple of beers in the hostel were a must.  These two beers escalated in a big way and we soon found ourselves in a down-town bar.


At Xingping, looking north. The beginning of the trek to Yangdi. This is also the view on the back of the Chinese 20RMB note!

The following day we all awoke a little worse for wear.  A combination of hangovers, food poisoning and dodgy ankles sadly did for two of our gang, so it was just Rob and I who set off on a twenty-four kilometre hike from Xingping to Yangdi.  Both these villages lie on the Li River, to the north of Yangshuo.  We caught a bus to Xingping, which took just under an hour, and then walked on to Yangdi.


One of the locals we chartered to get us across the Li River.

It was a lovely wander.  A twenty-four kilometre trek sounds like a serious mission, but it was all flat and not especially taxing.  It took us about four and a half hours at not a great pace, but in our hungover rush we had forgot to bring any food.  Luckily we managed to get by on a bag of oranges we bought from a local farmer.  It was a pleasant twenty degrees or so, a welcome change from Xiangtan.  A couple of times the trail crossed the river, so we had to charter some locals to help us across in their slightly dicey looking craft.  We then had to engage a final chap to take us all the way back down the river to Xingping.  He didn’t inspire me with that much confidence, but we are both good swimmers so we weren’t too concerned…

The following day, after a well earned lie-in, we had just enough time to explore some local caves before making our way back to Guilin to catch the train.  After searching for an hour or so, we discovered that the caves had been blown up to make room for a luxury hotel.  It was unclear whether this was a monumental error on the part of the hotel’s backers:  ‘A hotel for all those weird, cave-obsessed foreigners? Good idea’ – ‘Thanks, the caves will have to go to make room though’ – ‘Well, of course, I quite agree’ – ‘Great stuff, those caving Europeans will love that nice new luxury hotel’…  It sounds farfetched, but sometimes you do wonder.


Searching for caves.

The bus journey back to Guilin was a little chancy.  The rain was torrential and our driver seemed to take the view that, because the roads are more dangerous in the rain, it is best to drive as fast as you possibly can, thus limiting the time you spend on said dangerous roads. This is surely some of the most controvertible logic which has ever occurred to anybody, ever. We were a little greyer for the experience, but did eventually make it to Guilin train station, although we passed at least one accident on the way.

We spent most of the time on the train back to Xiangtan playing poker, drinking vodka and eating caviar curtesy of Alex’s time in Russia.  Munching on caviar in a sleepy compartment as your train hurtles through the Chinese countryside is certainly an odd experience.  We called it a night at 1AM, but it felt like barely a few minutes passed before the female conductor was banging on our door to get us up.  She was incredibly aggressive for somebody who must have surely had ample experience of rousing comatose passengers from deep sleep in a non-traumatic fashion.  If she did have such experience she failed to utilise it, instead screaming at us in shrill bursts of rapid-fire Chinese.  Perhaps startling foreigners in the small hours of the morning is one of the perks of her job?  It was 4AM and we ended up cursing her and twiddling our thumbs for the next hour as our train slowly approached the station.

Offensive train conductresses aside, it was a great trip with great friends.  It was also a fantastic end to a wonderful two months of exploring China.  Since then I have knuckled down again in Xiangtan, with great memories from the holidays to get me through the long, smoggy days!

There will be some good reunions soon though.  Loz thoroughly deserves a final mention, having just returned to the UK after 976 days on the road.  A very impressive effort!  All his smiley photos with family and friends have certainly increased my excitement for the impending reunions…  Just three weeks until my ten months in Xiangtan comes to an end!

Back to Civilisation!

If the days were longer in Longhui during the Spring Festival (see yesterday’s blog), then conversely they absolutely flew by in Hong Kong.  The Special Administrative Region was the next stop on my adventures.  I headed down from Hunan on the fast train in mid-February to meet a couple of old friends, Rob and Loz.

As soon as I crossed the border into Hong Kong it was crystal clear that I had left China. Small things like the cheery hello I received at HK customs, bright colours on the metro and a huge reduction in the startled stares in my general direction, hinted that I had entered a world ever so slightly different from the mainland – but it’s a world ever so slightly different in so many ways!

In truth it was like stepping back into civilisation.  I saw a Marks and Spencer for the first time in six months – and they had gingernut biscuits in the simply food section.  An absolute dream!  I was able to find shoes in my size, speak english to passers by and eat food that wasn’t rice… sometimes it’s the little things.

We stayed at a hostel inside Chungking Mansions.  It was a fantastic location, just a few minutes walk from the waterfront.  The Tsim Sha Tsui area is a great spot to base yourself, with shops, bars and restaurants all within easy walking distance.  The ferry to Hong Kong Island is also only a few minutes walk away.


The view from Victoria Peak.

We had two whole days to explore. Rob and I spent one day on Hong Kong Island.  I saw such delicacies as cheese, mulled wine and filleted fish through a haze of wide-eyed wonder.  The weather wasn’t great, but still the steep, vibrant streets hummed with activity.  Finding a place that sold well bound writing paper was a particular highlight… that may give you some idea of the paucity of decent shops in Xiangtan.

That evening we went up to Victoria Peak.  This is the picture postcard shot in Hong Kong and to see the skyline all lit up was a special sight.  For dinner we went to ‘Bubba Gump’s’, a Forest Gump themed restaurant, where I was able to have a proper fish and chip supper for the first time in half a year.  I do apologise for going on about food so much, but it’s hard to talk about anything else when I am writing this in Xiangtan, wistfully thinking back to those times of plenty!


A secluded spot on Lama Island.

The following day we all took the ferry over to Lama Island.  It is a lovely secluded spot, only about thirty minutes by boat from Hong Kong Island.  The ferry departs from two sides of Lama Island, so we arrived at one terminal and walked across the island to the other, a gentle stroll which took less than three hours.  I remember finding it hard to believe that we were just a few miles from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.  It was a lovely setting to have an amble and a good catch-up with Loz and Rob.  It was even warm enough to go for a swim in the sea, something I have really missed in landlocked Hunan.

That evening our HK extravagance concluded with a big night out in Wan Chai.  Wan Chai is a small district on Hong Kong Island.  It is an area famous for its bars – and it didn’t disappoint!  I can definitely recommend it to anybody else who has been in central China for an extended period of time and needs a night out… or just anybody who likes a drink and a dance.  One bar named Coyote’s quickly became a particular favourite of ours. They served a tequila based cocktail which was basically 100% tequila… after the first couple it stopped tasting so bad.

That was my whistle-stop tour of Hong Kong.  It was a fantastic couple of days, a much needed shot of civilisation to get me through the next few months.  It is often the little things (like ginger nut cookies and swims in the sea) that I miss in China.  To have those for just a couple of days was brilliant.

The greatest part of the trip for me, however, was seeing two old mates again.  It can be hard at times coming to a new country all by yourself and spending the best part of a year there, so I was very grateful to them for making the effort.  Best of all, they didn’t say goodbye in Hong Kong, but followed me back to Xiangtan.  More of that next week.

Spring Festival Dreamtime

It was four in the morning.  Another rocket had just been lit, I could here the soft hiss as this latest weapon against the Nian climbed into the night sky.  The assault was part of an incessant bombardment of Chinese mythical beasts (and my senses) which had already lasted five hours.  It was followed by a further stream of whining rockets which leapt into the air, bursting with deafening regularity just feet from the window.  Then a firecracker exploded outside the front door.

Total war?  No, Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year is generally referred to as Spring Festival in China.  It is perhaps a little bit like Christmas and New Year rolled into one, with celebrations conducted primarily through the mediums of family, food and fireworks.  Lots of fireworks.  The scale is hard to digest (literally in the case of the wonderful cuisine), but try to imagine a country where many of the 1.4 billion population suddenly up sticks and move to see family and friends, with everybody travelling in a state of frenzied excitement – and ALL the shops are closed. Chaos is quite predictably the result.


My Spring Festival family.

I was very lucky to be invited to spend Spring Festival with a family in a small village just outside the town of Longhui.  Longhui is in central Hunan province, only about three hours drive southwest of Xiangtan.  Another of the foreign teachers (Stephen) at my university is married to a Chinese women (Jojo) and it was to her family that we all went, a few days before the end of January.  The house was packed, I never worked out where everyone could possibly be sleeping!  In total there was Stephen, Jojo and I, Jojo’s two brothers (incidentally the one child policy has not been enforced or adhered to as strictly in rural areas of China), Jojo’s mother and her father.  There was also little Yoyo, the two year old son of one of Jojo’s brothers.  The house was definitely not built to house all eight people, but as a guest of honour I had a room to myself!

That didn’t necessarily lead to getting lots of sleep – back to the fireworks.  They actually serve a practical (or pseudo-practical) purpose because loud noises help to scare away the Nian.  The Nian is a mythical beast who doesn’t like fireworks or the colour red.  He (or maybe she?) is traditionally believed to come out of hiding during the Chinese New Year to steal livestock and young children.  In the past this was a very real fear, but today the threat of the Nian has been translated into contemporary concerns like poverty.  Whenever we visited a friend or relation we set off a roll of firecrackers outside their house to ensure the Nian didn’t slip inside when the door was opened.  This practice also functioned as an ostentatious doorbell.


New Year breakfast… at 4AM.

On two nights we got up very early to have a celebratory ‘breakfast’.  It was delicious food, but slightly incongruous to be eating a big dinner of chicken, fish, eggs and pork at 4AM.  We woke at this time for a meal on the early morning of New Year’s Eve and the early morning of New Year’s Day.  The purpose of the first breakfast was to look back and to give thanks for the year that was.  There was a small Buddhist shrine in the house where the family prayed.  Last year was the Year of the Snake, which is the animal of my birth in the Chinese zodiac.  Apparently during this year (unbeknownst to me) I was at especial danger from the Nian, so I treated myself to an extra dumpling to celebrate surviving.  On the morning of New Year’s Day we had a similar meal, this time asking for good fortune for the year to come.

After our 4AM breakfast Stephen and I went for a little walk.  A smoky pre-dawn fog hung low over the valley.  The only sound was the now occasional pop of a firework.  The houses we came to were distinguishable by the red lanterns which burnt outside the doors and windows, malevolent eyes to scare away the Nian.  Every dwelling was firmly shut up, the family inside not wishing to risk an unbidden entry from the beast.  It was an erie scene, reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic thriller.


A state visit to see some friends and relatives in a nearby village.

Another big part of the celebrations were the many visits we paid to relatives and friends.  It was hard to keep track of who was related to who and how.  There is a propensity in China to give friends familial names and I think I unwittingly become a surrogate uncle or cousin to a good many people!  When we weren’t on state visits, Stephen and I explored the surrounding countryside. Navigating the maze of small paths we would stumble across surprised locals tending their fields.  They would generally greet us with a friendly but bewildered expression, not sure what to make of two foreigners so far from the beaten track.

It was a fantastic week, one of the highlights of my travels in China.  It was a privilege to be able to share in such an important family time.  Staying in the village was like stepping into the past and without many of the trappings of modern civilisation, the days seemed longer. As the unseasonably balmy afternoons and evenings ticked slowly by, I explored the countryside, or read, or just sat and thought.  In hindsight, the early morning pyrotechnics were not a problem at all, I could dream all day long.

Spring Festival dreamtime indeed!

Individuality and Collectivism at The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is certainly worthy of the claim to being ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.  One thousand life-size warriors stand in formation inside the extensive necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, ready to defend their emperor in the afterlife.  It is an incredible sight.

The scale and ambition of the Terracotta Warriors are, of course, remarkable.  It is hard to believe that such an undertaking could ever have been completed, but there the warriors stand, oblivious to their own wondrous inconceivability.  In my opinion, however, the scale and ambition are not the most impressive aspect of the army.


Face to face with an archer from the Terracotta Army.

Each of the individual clay figures is individually crafted, gifted with a face unique among his one thousand fellows.  This, in my view, is the most extraordinary facet of the warriors.  What a wonderful experience it would be to look into the eyes of one thousand clay warriors, with no two the same, each one standing at nearly two metres high and each in a fearsome attitude of battle readiness.

Unfortunately this chance to stand face to face with the warriors is lost.  Visitors are instead left to crowd a walkway about five metres above the heads of the tallest warriors.  Looking down upon them I was struck by the divide between past and present, classical civilisation and modernity, clay warrior and living person.  As a wild beast in a pit loses its majesty, so the warriors lost their magic, at least for me.  Instead of being transported back through history, as is the rare potential inherent in such wonderfully tangible historical relics, I was made painfully aware of the distance, both in space and time, that separated me from these amazing figures.

You may completely disagree: ‘stop being such a misty-eyed sentimentalist’ is perhaps a justifiable response to these thoughts.  To inspire, however, history should surely be ‘lived’ as much as possible, rather than needlessly imbued with such a critical distance – a distance vital at times, but arguably not so here.  Archaeologists may well say that the proximity of people any closer to the warriors would soon destroy them.  If this is the case it would certainly be a great tragedy for future generations, but visitors don’t need to be close enough to touch them, just close enough to stare into their eyes.  Regardless of this, there is an argument to be made that laudable attempts to protect the Terracotta Army are not responsible for the distance between tourist and warrior.

A recent article in The Economist attempted to get to the heart of a debate which has been raging for some considerable time.  The debate concerns the perceived differences between the individualism which dominates the Western psyche and the collectivism which dominates in the east of Asia.  ‘That orientals and occidentals think in different ways is not mere prejudice’ explained the article, in fact ‘many psychological studies […] suggest Westerners have a more individualistic, analytic, abstract life than East Asians’. Might this prevalence of individualism in ‘The Occident’ and collectivism in ‘The Orient’ explain the presentation of the warriors in the viewing gallery of today?


The scale of the army is certainly impressive.

Viewed through occidental eyes it is perhaps natural to see the individualism inherent in the individually crafted faces as the most amazing aspect of the warriors.  If we attempt to look through oriental eyes, eyes imbued with the spirit of collectivism, however, surely the most remarkable thing is precisely not their individuality, but their scale; tangible evidence of the remarkably ambitious collective effort which brought about their construction in the first place.  If this is the case then it is unsurprising that it is the scale and ambition of the warriors’ construction which has been focused on.

The Economist article concludes that it was actually the production of rice, the staple food in East Asia, which has lead to the preeminence of collectivism in the region.  Rice is far more labour intensive than wheat (the historically dominant crop in Europe), requiring Asian farmers to combine their efforts to ensure that the crop was harvested successfully. The article concludes that, as the overwhelming majority of us were farmers until very recent human history, it is unsurprising that a collective mindset still dominates in East Asia, but is not predominant in the Western hemisphere.

Interestingly, it was a group of Chinese farmers who discovered the Terracotta Warriors in 1974.  Might their collective rice growing tradition have influenced the portrayal of the warriors today?  I wonder how the presentation of the Terracotta Army might differ if, instead of having been discovered in rural Shaanxi, they’d been stumbled upon by a farmer in, say, rural Staffordshire?

Thoughts on a postcard please!

A Day in Xi’an

As the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road, Xi’an has long been a final destination for weary travellers on long journeys.  Formerly named Chang’an, the capital of the Han dynasty, it was also the final stop on my three week exploration of northern China. Although I didn’t have to deal with the hardships of previous European visitors (such as fighting off marauding bandits during gruelling camel rides across merciless desserts), I did somehow manage to get on the wrong train.  I found myself bound for Shenzhen, a city about 1300KM away from Xi’an.  This is roughly equivalent to aiming for London but accidentally arriving in Vienna.  Thankfully the women on the train were able to help me and I changed trains at the amusingly named Bao-ding-dong station, just outside Beijing.

I was fairly relieved when I actually arrived in Xi’an, as you can imagine.  Modern travel to the ancient capital has its challenges as well it seems, at least for me!  I stayed for three nights, giving me two full days to explore.  On the first day I visited the Terracotta Warriors (more of which next week) and the second day I spent wandering around the city of Xi’an itself.


The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

It is a very interesting place.  Xi’an is one of the most culturally diverse cities in China, in no small thanks to its historical status as the eastern gateway to central Asia and Europe, via the Silk Road.  As a consequence there is a strong Islamic tradition in the city and the Muslim market is a fantastically vibrant place. An enduring Buddhist influence is also evident in Xi’an, with the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda an especially striking piece of architecture.  There is also the city’s wall, which is apparently one of the best preserved in China.  I spent a day leisurely exploring these three places.

I took the metro to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and then worked my way back to the historic centre of the city, via the wall, to the Muslim market.  Incidentally, I stayed at the 7 Sages International Youth Hostel which has been named by Hostelling International as the sixth most spectacular hostel in the world. This might be a touch hyperbolic, but it is certainly a nice place.  Built around a courtyard dating back almost 1500 years, it gives a very good insight into Chinese historical architecture.  It is also situated within the city walls, only ten minutes walk from the nearest metro station and a brisk twenty from the Muslim market.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a striking structure.  The Pagoda was built at the request of Master Xuanzang, designed to store the valuable Buddhist artefacts he brought back to China from his twenty years of travelling in India.  Having survived numerous earthquakes it has now stood for over a millennia.  Xuanzang insisted on it being constructed from stone to protect the artefacts from fire, a scourge of the predominantly timber Chinese cities of the past.  Xi’an also boasts the Little Wild Goose Pagoda (which should surely be named the ‘Wild Gosling Pagoda’) which I sadly did not have time to visit.

Surrounding the pagoda is an extensive Buddhist temple.  This temple is wonderfully ornate, with dazzling golden statues.  The jet black beams of the rooms which house these statues are detailed with lustrous gold and crimson, creating stunning halls and pavilions. The peaceful tranquility of the temple, right in the midst of Xi’an, was a wondrous surprise – I could have happily spent an entire day there.


Xi’an city wall.

There were other places I wanted to visit, however, so after a couple of hours I set off for the city wall.  This is another imposing structure, over thirteen kilometres in circumference and twelve metres high.  Two lanes of traffic could easily pass along the top and it is astounding to think that the ancient wall, built by the Han over two thousand years ago, encompassed an area three times as large as its modern descendant.

My final stop, as a chilly night fell, was the Muslim market.  That evening it was a delightful chaos of smells, shouts and shops.  Filled with food from all over Asia, a trip to the market is a must for any foodie who visits China.  Do beware (or enjoy) the diverse meats; the majority of vendors seemed to go by the adage that, ‘if it can be caught, it can be cooked’.  I also found some unusual gifts after searching amongst the labyrinthine passageways and braving the raucous bartering of the local vendors.  The market really seemed to come alive as the evening wore on, I cannot recommend a sunset visit enough!

And that was my day of exploring Xi’an.  It is a city unlike any other I have visited in China. An ancient capital with its oriental charm intact, it is a cosmopolitan melting pot of culture from all over Asia.  The Silk Road may be long gone, but the food, the architecture, the sights and the smells of Xi’an can still transport a weary traveller back through the centuries to when Chang’an was one of the great cities of the world!

Alone on the Great Wall

‘We Chinese built the Great Wall to keep out the Mongolian people.  They always come on their horses and pillage us.  It is not fair because they are so much bigger.’ These were the thoughts of the local tour guide on the bus to the Great Wall.  Despite her questionable use of the present tense and her defeatist attitude to anybody above five and a half feet tall, her words ended up framing the trip quite nicely.

The Great Wall is the undisputed symbol of China, a civilisation with over five thousand years of history.  It has been said that it is the only man made structure visible from space, with the first bricks laid down over two thousand years ago.  The Great Wall is undoubtedly an astronomical testament to human ambition and engineering; perhaps it holds such a powerful sway over our consciousness because it is almost impossible to comprehend the scale of its majesty, not just in space but also in time.  Try and imagine over thirteen thousand miles of winding wall, but also try and imagine the first men entrusted with its defence looking intrepidly towards Mongolia while, in Europe, Hannibal is crossing the Alps.  It is simply remarkable.

Today, there are many options for tourists wishing to walk on the Great Wall.  Many of the remaining sections of wall are currently closed, however, for protection and renovation. When I was there in January only the Mutanyu, Badaling and Jinshanling sections were open.  It is apparently possible to gain access to ‘closed’ sections of wall, but, as I only had one chance to walk on the Great Wall, I opted for Jinshanling.  I really wanted to escape the crowds and I was not disappointed.


By myself on the Great Wall… I’m a big fan of the ‘all-alone-in-the-wilderness’ selfie.

The day was beautiful.  It was crisp and clear once we had left Beijing and the bus took about two hours to reach the Great Wall.  The tour was filled with foreigners and, after many months in Hunan, it was a simple joy to hear eloquent english spoken aloud once more. Although the eloquence of the tour guide was debatable, her comedy value was pure gold as she lamented the injustices of the muscular Mongolians.  She seemed to suggest that modern Beijing today stands in immanent peril from ruthless Mongol hoards attacking in lightning, horseback raids… and the locals have the audacity to moan about air pollution!

The walk up to the Great Wall took about thirty minutes.  Upon first seeing the crenellations silhouetted upon the ridge ahead I remember being struck by a dual feeling of disbelief and incredulity.  Occasionally in China I have to pinch myself to check that I am actually standing in THE Forbidden City, THE Bird’s Nest Stadium, or, in this case, in the shadow of THE Great Wall.  I was equally incredulous that such a huge architectural feat could ever have been undertaken and completed in such an apparently remote and inhospitable location.

The Jinshanling section of wall connects to the Simatai section, which at the time I visited was officially closed to the public.  I was told by the guide that there was a guard there and that it was too far to attempt to walk in the time allowed.  Always keen for a challenge I set off as soon as I could, soon losing everyone else between the peaks.

The view was breathtaking.  The visibility was the best I have ever enjoyed in China, with the mid-morning sun shining out of a cloudless blue sky.  The air was cold, but I was soon minus my gloves and hat.  Winding along the barren ridges to the east and west was the Great Wall, punctuated at regular intervals by watch towers.  At each tower I stopped to take in the view and it always seemed to be more spectacular than the last.  I soon felt utterly alone, an unforgettable experience in such a majestic setting.


Looking north to Inner Mongolia.

Eventually I made it to where I judged the Simatai guard should be.  There was an empty chair but no sign of the man himself.  I opened my packet of digestive biscuits and sat down upon the parapet, looking north to the Mongol lands.  I sat there, all alone, for some time.

That day Inner Mongolia was a sublime landscape in every respect.  The mountains stood austere in the winter sun, inspiring awe, wonder and not a little fear.  The land was so lifeless, so desolate, yet also mesmerising with a harsh, wild beauty.  The Great Wall decayed as it stretched on towards Simatai, seeming to gradually crumble in a grudging admittance of the limited powers of man in such a terrifically sublime land.  To have sat in the same spot, centuries before, watching for the ravenous Mongols this land hid must have been an awesome experience.

The Mongol hoards may be no more, the Great Wall may no longer stand to protect Beijing, but the place is still awesome in every possible sense of the word.  Perhaps we can forgive the guide’s total misuse of the present tense.  I can testify that it’s easy to forget oneself, and even one’s grammar, in this remarkable place.

The Very Forbidden City

In the past, uninvited entrance into the Forbidden City would have been met with instant execution.  For many years now this has thankfully not been the case, although I strongly suspect one of the guards to the palace wishes he could deliver such swift retribution on my head.


A January morning, looking towards the Gate of Divine Might.

In the latter half of the twentieth century the palace was opened up to the public.  Today, the Forbidden City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, both for foreigners and Chinese nationals alike.  It is certainly an amazing place.  I had it on very good authority that the most impressive way to view the whole complex was to enter at the Gate of Divine Might and head south through the palace, so this is what I attempted to do.

I was instantly met by a guard waving frantically at me.  I politely waved in return and carried on my way.  He mimed something to me so I gave him the thumbs up, but kept walking.  I am not exactly sure what giving somebody the thumbs up means in China, but it must be similar to in the UK because it generally does the trick.

In this case, however, it didn’t.  He was adamant that I shouldn’t be entering through the northern gate.  I had met these kind of access problems elsewhere in China and generally, when I just pretend to be a stupid foreigner who doesn’t understand or know any better, I’m allowed on my way with a grudging shrug.  If that fails then my next technique is to ask lots of questions, which often leaves people so shocked they frenetically wave me on in a gesture of outraged horror.

So I challenged him, questioning why I wasn’t allowed to enter the Forbidden City from the north.  He said he couldn’t answer that, so together we summoned his superior who was napping in a nearby port-a-cabin.  He wasn’t best pleased to be woken up, but he eventually came out, leaving what looked suspiciously like a large, semi-automatic on his seat.

I started by telling him what I wanted to do and he replied that I couldn’t do it.  After ten minutes talking with him it finally dawned on me that I actually wasn’t going to be allowed in through the Gate of Divine Might.  Complementing his coat and covert hints at bribery had both failed, so instead I resorted to finding out the reason I was being turned away.  After all, I knew that in the very recent past it had been possible to enter through this gate. Indeed, if you search online right now, many websites state that you can still enter from both the northern and southern gates.

I told him this, but he flatly denied that this had ever been the case.  It might seem like, by my questioning, I was causing unnecessary problems.  I find that it can be cathartic to occasionally challenge the status-quo, albeit in my own little way, in China.  As a general rule, whichever way of doing things that would seem to be the most logical and sensible, expect the polar opposite to be the way things are actually done.  This quickly becomes infuriating and the only way I have been able to keep myself sane is by these occasional discussions, discussions where I can explain my frustrations and seek answers as to why things are as they are.  Admittedly this rarely does any visible good, but mentally I find it very beneficial.

As is often the case, my queries as to why I was being stopped from entering were met with the classic Chinese response: ‘No why’.  I simply turned and walked through the gate at this point.  As I told him over my shoulder, if there was no reason – ‘no why’ – that I was being denied entrance, then presumably it shouldn’t be a problem for me to go through the gate.  He ran after me and barred my way, clearly getting rather angry, but he had hit on a particular pet hate of mine.

‘No why’.  It is a common response from my students when I ask them to explain why they hold a particular opinion.  I struggle to explain to them that, without an argument to back up their opinion with (whatever it may be), their opinion would be seen by many to be almost worthless.  This is basically what I explained to the guard at the gate.  If he could give no reason not to do something, why could I not do it?  If there was no reason that he could give me not to enter through the Gate of Divine Might, then I would say goodbye and go on my way – through said gate.

He did not like that at all.  Logical, sound reasoning can be a heinous thing in some places it seems and he threatened me with the police.  It was at this point that I decided to leave, realising that ending up in a Chinese prison over something so trivial would not have been my finest hour.


The Forbidden City is pretty special… if you can get in!

I can certainly appreciate the irony of being the first man to be barred entrance to the Forbidden City since the fall of dynastic China. Later in my stay in Beijing I was able to tour the palace, entering through the Meridian Gate in the south, and it is definitely a wonderful place.  I won’t soon forget it, or my discussion with the guard at the gate.  Why had the rules changed? Why couldn’t he answer my questions?  Why was his reaction to coherent logical reasoning so disproportionately strong?

In China?  ‘No why’, of course.