Thursday, June 2, 2016

Day 16 - 28 May Taiyuan to Beijing

The stay in Home Inn had been comfortable. It is one of the more popular budget hotel chains in China. The rooms are of decent size and fitted out comfortably. Apparently, all Home Inns across China have the same d├ęcor, flooring and layout. Therefore, when Andy said that he would be booking the same chain hotel in Beijing I was okay about it. However, the booking in Beijing had to be prepaid, which Andy did. Most important for me was that the hotel confirmed free parking slot in a private yard for the Champion.

Breakfast at the Home Inn is not included in the tariff. That gives one the choice of skipping the same if leaving early or choose an alternative breakfast joint. We chose to have the buffet breakfast at the Inn, which consisted on a range of local foods and toast and eggs. I had melon, apple and a piece of cake for starters. Eggs boiled in tea is highly recommended in China. I was told that the flavor of the egg changes with the infusion of the tea. I picked up one to feel the difference. I had another and still didn’t feel anything different from the normal boiled egg! So I guess, an egg is an egg. After leisurely breakfast we started from Taiyuan at 8 am with 540 km to the Great Wall. Just outside the hotel the GPS led us on a merry circus in the city and we lost half hour. By the time we reached the highway after driving over 20 km we still had the same distance to go to the Great Wall! Anyway, I was not too bothered about the loss of time because with the highway as good as it is in China I was confident about covering up to 1000 km in 12 hours, without recourse to rash and unsafe driving.

The G5 was, as usual, very good. There were undulations in many places, but none that impacted speed or safety.  Shanxi province has many coal mines and that was evident in the large number of multi axle trucks that were ferrying the mined coal to storage yards. The trucks were all covered and hence, there was neither large scale spillage nor pollution. On the highway trucks have a maximum speed of 80 kmph and a minimum of 60 on the third lane! All of them definitely meet the minimum condition and many exceed the maximum; such is the condition of the trucks. The overtaking lane on the highway stipulates a maximum speed of 120 kmph and a minimum of 80. The driving carriageway has 100 and 80 as its limits. Road warnings are everywhere about safe driving and keeping to speed limits. Cameras are everywhere. They keep going off whether one is within the speed limit or otherwise. Warnings about rear ending are most common. I wondered why when lane discipline and road conditions are so good. As if in answer to my curiosity I saw an ugly accident that involved two multi axle trucks. The truck that rear ended was carrying fresh vegetables that had spilled all over the road under the impact. The truck in front was carrying coal. The driver cab of the rear vehicle had been smashed beyond recognition and the fate of that driver was not in doubt. The site was ghastly. The traffic ground to a crawl and the traffic police arrived in a while and restored order.

During the course of the drive we crossed from the Shanxi province to Hebei; the toll was paid at the exit of one and a fresh toll card was picked up at the entry. At all the toll gates the number plate was a matter of great confusion till the temporary number was held up by Andy. On the approach to Beijing, which is not a province but is situated in Hebei province, but administered separately, the traffic was diverted from the highway to a traffic police check point. As was expected, we were asked to park for inspection of papers and the car. It took a while to explain why the strange car was where it is and what it was going to do! The stickers on the car amused the police officials and a cursory check was done of the bags in the boot. We were permitted to leave after Andy left his personal number with the police. Later he told me that cars from outside are meant to collect a special permit to enter Beijing. While the rule is there it is mostly observed in its breach.

Despite the holdups and a short power nap at one of the comfort stations we reached the Juyongguan Great Wall by 3 pm. Even from a distance the Wall was an awe inspiring sight. We parked in Lot 1 parking facility that was almost empty. There are many parking lots for vehicles coming in from different directions. Andy directed e to park the car in such a way that we could get good pictures of the car with the Wall in the background. And what a pretty picture it made.

The Juyongguan segment is a very important section of the 5000 kilometer Great Wall. The slopes on both sides of the Pass have dense foliage. The ravines are flanked by mountains and brooks flow all around the year. This has been a strategic Pass since the Qin dynasty in 3rd century BC and has been named as one of the most beautiful Passes in the world. With citadels and towers the wall formed an important and impregnable defense system. The Wall is so well maintained with an eye on tourism that it has all facilities for tourists in ample measure. The Juyongguan Great Wall has eastern and western walls. While the sun was in the right position to take pictures of the Eastern Wall I climbed, what looked to be, the more difficult Western Wall. The hundreds of steep steps ruined my legs, but the resolve to reach the summit kept me going with the GoPro and camera. I climbed and climbed but never got to the summit because there isn’t one. The wall is never ending. If I had plodded on my visa for China would have expired!

On the trudge up the Great Wall I met a family of Indians who were there from Kolkata. We spent some time chatting about the expedition and clicking pictures. Then I came across a large number who looked to be from the sub-continent. It turned out that that they were part of a 165 strong Pakistani contingent from EFU Life Assurance Limited. They were in China with families on an employee engagement program. I interacted with a few of them and wondered why we were two countries. I told them about the expedition and they invited me to Pakistan. Then I told them how I had evaluated the route through Pakistan to London and had to drop it because of the troubles in Quetta.

By the time I got back to the car I could not feel my legs. The tough climb and descend had taken its toll. But the effort and its effects were worth it because this day I became a true man, in the eyes of Chairman Mao, who had famously said, “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man..”. this and a few other sayings are put up at one of the terraces of the Wall. It took us more than 90 minutes, through slow moving peak traffic, to reach the hotel from the Great Wall. Once in the hotel, I collapsed on the bed.

I had told Andy that I would like to have a Peking duck dinner while in Beijing. He found out that the most traditional restaurant that served the delicacy was a short distance away from the hotel. We walked to the Quanjude roast duck restaurant, reportedly established in 1864. While the preparation of the roast duck is one of the secrets I was told that the serving of the same is another. We ordered a half portion with wheat pancakes, sauce and onions. Andy took a portion of rice with a Sprite while I settled for a bottle of Yangjin beer. Looking forward to tucking into a half portion of a duck I waited in hungry anticipation. When the prepared duck was wheeled to the table my hunger increase when I saw the size of the duck – it was a large one. When the half portion was served I was disappointed. It was less than a quarter plate of meat. The rest of the ‘wounded’ duck was wheeled away with the words, have a feast!

The preparation was good, no doubt, but to my mind it was too pricey. I had a few pancakes stuffed with the roast duck splattered with sauce and decorated with onions. The beer helped to dull the overwhelming sense of the ‘Peking Duck’ disappointment. Moreover, in the room the ache in the legs and lower back, from the climb on the Wall, dulled the experience and I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down on the bed.

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