Pollution in Beijing, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

I know what you were thinking after the last post — ‘the pollution in Beijing is nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be!’

Not true. That part of the wall was 2 hours drive out of Beijing, and on a day when pollution was low and the weather was good.

Here we are in Beijing, on a bad pollution day — try and guess which one I am. Don’t we look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie with our anti-pollution masks? (which one do you think I am, by the way?)

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We’re in front of the Temple of Heaven there. Not as heavenly as you might wish with the smog, but still a beautiful building.

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Here I am with our lovely guide Lee (now you can check if you got it right in guessing who I am in the top photo — did you get it right? Virtual gold star and pat on the back for you if you did)

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It was proper smog — like stepping back in time to the Victorian London pea soup. To give you an idea, the World Health Organisation’s guideline for maximum healthy exposure to pollutant particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing gets up to 500. Ouch….

We were only there for five days and yet by the end we all had picked up a bit of a cough and our clothes stunk of coal smoke. For those of you who have long hair and who smoke or have been around smokers, you know that horrible moment when you take a shower and all the smoke trapped in your hair is released once the water hits it? That was a daily occurrence in Beijing.

It was gross.

These photos, by the way, were taken on a sunny day. This was the sun:

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What was even bleaker was when we were on the train travelling from Xi’An to Beijing. Then the landscape really became ghostly and incredibly depressing:

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Especially because a lot of these sky scrapers were in desolate areas, and empty. Look at them — they look like they’re appearing out of the fog.

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During the day it was less obvious, but at night, when we drove past the outskirts of Xi’An, we drove through a forest of skyscrapers, and all of them dark and empty. There’s this weird problem of ghost towns in China, where the government builds entire cities in the expectation of the enormous influx of population from the rural areas — except that once the construction is done, the builders all leave, and the cities remain empty.

We didn’t drive through these ghost cities, but we definitely drove through a weirdly deserted part of Xi’An. The cities themselves are a bizarre concept, based on the expectation that one day people will just move in. These are cities without a mayor, without a culture, an identity, or a history — without anyone actually there (at the moment) to run and organise it. Just a collection of roads and buildings and general infrastructure. As if it had all sprouted up like mushrooms under the rain.

Seeing these empty skyscrapers shrouded in smog was rather disquieting — it also gave me a renewed appreciation of how clean and bright Hong Kong is by comparison!!

On this (delightful) polluted day, we also visited the Summer Palace — winter edition, of course.

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It fronted a lake that was completely frozen over, and it had these lovely long promenades that must be very pleasant in the summer. As it was, it was so cold that I hopped and skipped and generally walked like a bit of weirdo in an attempt to get the blood flowing into my frozen toes.

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The Summer Palace comes complete with marble pleasure barge, should you wish to be on a boat, without the risk of getting seasick (or would that be lakesick?) It was odd, but very beautiful. Behind it — and we didn’t get a photo of this sadly — were hundreds of yellow plastic pedalos, all marooned in the ice, waiting for the summer heat and tourist hordes. It was a pretty perfect metaphor for ‘low season’.

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Alright – next up — the Forbidden City.

The Great Wall of China and an update

Well happy 2016 everyone! I hope the year has treated you well so far.

I’m back at the blog after a bit of an extended hiatus — I was actually brought back by a fellow blogger, Sarah Zama over at The Old Shelter. I’m interviewing her ahead of her new book Give Into The Feeling coming out. I’ve been wanting to interview her for a while, so I’m really looking forward to sharing the interview with you all! Stay tuned for that one.

For now though a quick update on things with me. Firstly, The Black Orchid, the sequel to The Viper and the Urchin is now in the very capable hands of Sue Archer (my editor), so it’s well on track to come out in a couple of months. Very exciting stuff. And while Sue works her magic, I’m starting on a new project that I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time: a Victorian Gothic story set in London. More staying tuned there 🙂

I also had an amazing, if slightly crazy December, with some pretty cool travelling. For Christmas my family came over to this part of the world (Hong Kong and China) and we travelled to Guiling, Yangshuo, Xi’An, and Beijing. While it wasn’t the traditional Christmas (no roast turkey and stuffing for us — not that I mind, I’m not a massive fan of turkey), it was a lot of fun, and we got some pretty stunning photos out of it (by ‘we’, I mean my father. Kind of the reverse of the ‘royal we’)

Now, if I was David Copperfield, I would begin at the beginning of our trip. But being neither Copperfield, nor Dickens (a shame — it would be lovely to be a literary genius), I shall begin by the end of the trip, with what was, by far, the highlight. It’s also probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen in all my travels:

The Great Wall of China.

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Prepare yourselves for a glut of photos. It was absolutely stunning:

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It literally stretched out as far as the eye could see:

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I was reminded of a line from Game of Thrones, when Tyrion Lannister said he wanted to see The Wall so he could piss off the edge of the world (for anyone living under a rock and not aware of Game of Thrones, The Wall is based on Adrian’s Wall in Scotland, separating Westeros — the world — from the wilderness and monsters beyond.) It was so easy to imagine how for the men who manned the Great Wall, that must have been like standing at the end of their world, watching out and waiting for an attack by (what they likely considered) barbarians. It makes you wonder what kind of a life they must have led, waiting in the most remote part of their world for an attack.

The Wall is dotted with watch towers. They’re little more than small, square building, providing only minimal cover against the cold and wind. If the guards spotted anyone approaching, they could signal one another and gather up the troops as needed.

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Amazingly, despite how large it is, the Great Wall has never been breached. There have actually been several Great Walls, and the relics we visit these days belong to the Ming Dinasty Great Wall – which is a mere 8,800km long. The official length of the entire Great Wall is 21,200km, and it’s over 2,300 years old.

Parts of it are very well preserved, but of course the vast majority of it is in disrepair, with chunks missing.

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We hiked for a good few hours, and because it was the middle of winter (and therefore low season), and also because we went for the part of the wall furthest away from Beijing, we were alone for the duration — which as you can imagine was incredibly special. We could actually stand and look out of the wall, and imagine what it must have been like back then for the soldiers on the wall.

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Parts of the wall are seriously steep, mind you – not for the faint of feet! But very much worth it.

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It was truly spectacular. A real once in a life time, awe-inspiring visit — and something I definitely plan to use one day as inspiration for a story.

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Alright, next up — Beijing.