It was a bright sunny day in Beijing when we met up with 18 of our expedition members (with one more to join in Xi’an due to family commitments), and our Beijing to Istanbul expedition officially started! For many, this journey represents the realisation of a dream to travel the Silk Road, for others, the lure is the challenge of travelling through parts of the world that are off the regular tourist-trail. For two of the group, it is their second Odyssey, having done a Cape Town to Cairo expedition in Africa with us in 2011 (welcome to the Odyssey “Extreme Overlander” Club, Mike & Jane!). But no matter what it was that originally drew everyone to the trip, we all met up in Beijing excited about heading off on our epic expedition!
After a quick chat from us (Pete & Kirsten) about the way we run our trips, and a run down of what we will be seeing and doing during our month in China, we headed off to enjoy a Beijing Duck feast in a nearby restaurant.
The following morning, our plans to visit the Forbidden City were put on hold as the rain had been steadily falling since the early hours, so instead many of the group headed off to the Lama Temple. This Buddhist temple complex is an oasis of calm in the busy city, once you enter through the walls it is as if the rest of Beijing simply doesn’t exist. It is a living, working temple, with people worshipping and incense smoke filling the air. We wandered through the temples, admiring the intricate decorations and gazing up in awe at the 17m tall sandalwood Buddha that is said to be carved from a single piece of wood. A beautiful place.
The next morning the weather was much more kind, with a bright blue sky and cooling breeze making our visit to the Forbidden City a pleasure despite the crowds that are an inevitable feature of Beijing’s most popular tourist attraction! The Forbidden City is China’s largest complex of ancient buildings, and there are plenty of ceremonial buildings and courtyards to explore – the central corridor attracts most of the visitors, a few steps to the east or west takes you into relatively deserted museums and courtyards that are a pleasure to explore.
Returning to the hotel, we loaded up onto Penelope, our faithful expedition truck (definitely not a bus!), for our eagerly anticipated first drive. It was only a short drive, heading to the wonderful Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, but was a great introduction to Penelope.
The Great Wall is perhaps China’s most identifiable icon. Although it isn’t actually visible from space (I know, I was disappointed to find that out too), it is an incredible feat of engineering, and we will continue to see evidence of the wall sections during much of our time in China. Dating back up to 2,000 years, it is unsurprising that much of the wall is in ruins, some sections of the wall have been repaired and restored to their original glory, including the Jinshanling section which is located in a spectacular hills, crawling off along the ridgeline as far as the eye can see into the distance.
A cable car can take you up onto the walls, and from there it is an intermittently challenging walk along the walls back to our hotel. Our huffing and puffing was put to shame by the t-shirt lady who made it up the hill quicker than the cable car and followed us along the walls making short work of the steps that were testing our fitness levels! Every step affords new views, and photo opportunities aplenty – not a bad spot for Whiskey on the Walls – think it might have to become a new Odyssey tradition!
The early birds got up for a walk before we headed back down the hill to Penelope who awaited with open arms (ok, open luggage locker) for us. Our next destination was the city of Datong, and while the city itself has only a few attractions worth looking at, it is the nearby Yungang Caves that are the main attraction. This is a stunning example of Buddhist art and sculpture, highlights including the 17m tall seated Buddha in Cave 5 (sorry, no photos allowed), and the similarly proportioned Buddhas that our guide informed us bore the facial features of the benefactors who had sponsored their construction! Many of us stayed to watch a shadow puppet play – with Chinese narration and subtitles our interpretation of the story might have been a little inaccurate, but the penultimate scene seemed to involve a man and a woman attacking each other with handbags…
An afternoon of relaxing, wandering the supermarket (it is amazing what you can find – Lonely God chips anyone?), or just starting to sort through the photos… and for some an evening feast of lamb cooked on a BBQ that slots into the table. Delicious!
Enroute from Datong to Pingyao we stopped at the stunning Hanging Temple, where slender wooden poles support the overhanging sections of the temple high above the ground below. For those who aren’t so wild about heights, it can be a bit of a challenging walk, just don’t look down!
Pingyao is a beautiful town – encircled by complete city walls, with red lanterns decorating the streets and lovely courtyards at night, souvenirs and antiques of varying antiquity (dusty doesn’t always mean old!). The town is home to museums and temples that you can wander through, or just spend time enjoying the atmosphere of this distinctly Chinese town. If you haven’t been to China, but have a vision in your mind of what it might look like, this is probably it! The group’s exploration of Chinese food continued, with a hot-pot-meets-sushi-train dinner; other meals saw some sneaky chicken burgers or pizzas being consumed, not to mention a G&T or two (or three)… We’re all for “when in Rome” but the occasional taste of home never hurts either, and it is definitely going to become more scarce as we continue our journey west.
Leaving the cities behind for a night, we headed to one of our favourite spots in China, a small mountain hamlet where the local families still live in cave houses. It is a wonderfully different experience – sharing kang beds, eating delicious local meals, sitting in the courtyard sharing stories (and discovering Rob’s fantastic singing!) over a drink or two. An unforgettable night in a spectacular setting.
From the simplicity of a mountain village, to the historically important city of Yan’an, where the Chinese Communist Party had its foundations – today it retains a quite a different feel from the other cities we experience in China. The Revolution Museum is the official main attraction providing a fairly selective view of Chinese modern history through the audio guide and captioned photographs… Unofficially, the Pizza Hut which serves a range of Chinese-western dishes (although pizza is a bit difficult to find on the menu!) was a pretty close second!
Our next destination, Xi’an would be where we would say hello to the final member of our group, Pam, and goodbye to the western-ised luxuries that we had been enjoying – time to stock up on cheese (yes, a complete luxury in China, even the sliced plastic-wrapped stuff), tonic water and familiar snacks, and have our last US-chain food and drinks (KFC and Starbucks) before we start our exploration of the Silk Road in all its ancient and modern glory on our journey west. It has been an action-packed 10 days so far, and we can’t wait for what lies ahead!