Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, February 28th

All that glitters

At the ambassador's reception, there wasn't a Ferrero Rocher in sight. Instead there were hundreds of Irish and Chinese academics and commercial educationalists, all exchanging business cards and rehearsed spiel. We arrived after a good half an hour of walking in the bitter cold, due to the half-mile-long street being numbered 5, 7, 9 at one end, and 3 at the other. We met M's former colleague, who was great ("You should see the rugby at The Den - it's next to another sports bar, Frank's Place. Feckin' mad!") but the rest of the occasion was a disappointment for us, though I have no doubt it served its purpose.

We stood out like sore thumbs, having no business cards pinned to our lapels. When we saw one earnest Chinese lady approaching us, we did everything we could to avoid eye contact, but got caught in a completely inane conversation where she gave us her patter and we couldn't respond; it was excruciating, because we had nothing to offer in return. I wanted to cut her short and say "don't waste your time or ours... go and find someone who might actually benefit you!" but instead stood with glassy smile until she realised we were a dead end and drifted mercifully off into the crowd to pin someone else down. We had a conversation with the (predictably) charming Ambassador's wife. We left as soon as we could after a very disappointing buffet, and M having had some decent Chardonnay and me having had a pint of proper Dublin Guinness. Still, if we hadn't have gone we would always be wondering what it would have been like.

Also a minor disappointment was our new hostel, which, while being much cleaner and warmer, was much more of a sterile institution, with dozens of regulations and very little socialising. We did meet a very pleasant brother and sister from England who were travelling, and with them we managed to watch the rugby... an amazing result again - Grand Slam this time? Or maybe the Triple Crown, though I predict that Wales will be the ones to fear this year.

Then we finally managed to get to the wall by hiring 'Edward', an English-speaking driver. We didn't hike it - the part that we saw was at Mutianyu, which is the steepest of the lot with a 1,000m ascent, so we wimped out and took the cable car to about 3/4 of the way up the mountainside. The wall there is utterly spectacular, hugging the ridges and peaks of the mountains at breathtaking angles. The thought of being a slave carrying a single stone block all the way up the side of the mountain before returning to get another one filled me with horror. Walked about half a mile down to a watchtower and back up again, marvelling at the enormity of the thing: 3,000 miles long, stretching from the Pacific to the Gobi Desert, and each inch represented one entire day of labour for one man. Unfortunately every time I took a picture, I was thinking of those crappy captions they put under people's pictures in British tabloids, such as "Williams: rat" etc. The thought that kept occurring to me was: "Wall: great".

Wall: Great

Since the wall had been somewhat restored, commercialism was flourishing in the village below, though thankfully it didn't reach the wall. In addition to the cable car, had we had wished, we could have gone up on a ski lift and come down on a wheeled toboggan slide. And the hawkers! The worst I've encountered so far (though the ones a the Terracotta Army in Xi'an have a worse reputation). On our descent ran a gamut of about fifty people blocking our path. God knows how much they buy T-shirts for wholesale; at the top of the slope they were saying "T-shirt one dollar!", then lower down it was "Two T-shirt one dollar", and by the time we reached the bottom it was four T-shirts and a chopstick set for one dollar - and that's even before bargaining.

Alas my bargaining skills deserted me when I tried to buy some nuts from a vendor. She was asking 5 yuan (€50c) for a bag. I did my usual laugh ha ha ha OK I give you two yuan. She declined and wouldn't budge, so I dismissively waved my hand and indicated that there were lots of other vendors and I could get a better deal from them. I didn't bank on the sorority of the vendors though - as I walked down the line of fruit-and-nut sellers, the word went out as to how cheap I was, and each vendor I passed showed me with a scoop how many nuts I would get for two yuan. The numbers diminished each time until the final vendor held one sole nut in her scoop and fell about laughing. Great fun at my expense, and I enjoyed the joke too - though I never did buy any nuts.

We've spent too long in Beijing. I really like it, and it's an interesting place, but so, so big. The buildings are huge and the gaps between them massive, making walking around kind of difficult. The hutongs, the atmospheric old alleyways in which people lived in courtyard houses, are disappearing, though there are many still left, and they're fascinating to explore, but the city is also expensive for China, and we really need to get somewhere cheaper. Tonight we leave for Xi'an, which is more of a 'real' Chinese city, and will therefore be a bit rougher. Our soft sleeper train leaves at 8.30pm and gets in at 7.30 the next morning.

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