Signs for Beijing had appeared a few days ago for the expressway routes but it wasn't until about 2 days away from Beijing that we saw signs on the normal road. As we turned north in search of the wall we were riding away from Beijing again, but on Friday we dropped out of the mountains once more and headed downhill to the capital city and the end of my journey through Asia by bike. As with any major city there was a lot of built up area to get through before we could say we were in the city itself, and we were using the ring roads to count down our time to the centre. Beijing has six rings roads, the outer most one being about 30km from the centre. No need to get too excited when you see the sign then.
I had envisaged a sunny day to finish the ride but at lunchtime the rain began to fall which made a good excuse to stop for some noodles and icecream, although not at the same time. After that it was back on the bikes for a final hour into Beijing. Following the sings for Tianenman square we skirted the walls of the forbidden city and headed south until we came to a set of traffic lights that seemed to be set in the middle of nowhere. As they were green we went through and found ourselves drifting out into a road that is bigger than any I have ever seen before. The roads that run along the north and south sides of Tianenman square are 7 lanes wide - each way, with separate cycle lanes on both side each wide enough for 2 or 3 cars each. The east and west sides are also lined with 7 lane roads one way. I can only imagine trying to cross these roads when they are busy. Thankfully there are underpasses for pedestrians.
Riding down the west side of Tianenman square we came to the police barrier. The whole of the square is barriered with entry points manned by police, army and security personnel checking everyone who walks onto the square. All bags are put through x-ray machines and all of the people are required to walk through the airport style metal detectors. Needless to say they would not let us onto the square with our bikes. As they could not speak any English we had a hard time trying to convince the police, army and security personnel that just one photograph of me and my bike just one foot inside the barrier wouldn't cause a security issue. Luckily we were joined by a young Chinese man who spoke English and told us that bikes were banned on the square. Funny, I seem to remember a tank there a few years ago. Luckily he did not understand my meaning when I mentioned it. Finally, after a translation of my plea that I had ridden all this way just to have my photo taken with my bike on Tianenman square the army guy sought a second opinion and relented long enough for me to have my photo taken just inside the barrier (obviously in the name of international co-operation and good relations). I had made it to my final destination.
Bangkok to Beijing. 7 months riding through 6 countries.
I have to admit that riding into Beijing and seeing signs for the square brought a tear of joy to my eye. I had reached the point where I wanted to stop pedaling for a while, but also because of the sense of achievement it brought. Of course it's nothing compared to the round the world rides of others but for me it was a personal goal. To Sven it was just another city to tick off on his long list. My friend Alastair was very kind to let Sven stay for three nights while in Beijing so we spent the next couple of days doing some sightseeing and making arrangements to stay in touch etc prior to him heading for the coast and a ferry to south Korea, before going on to Japan and then Canada. The last two weeks riding with Sven had been some of the most enjoyable. On reaching Xian I had contemplated covering some of the distance to Beijing by train due to the amount of time I had spent in the mountains to the west, but after meeting Sven we decided to cover the last 1600 kms to Beijing in 14 days. It was going to be a push considering we wanted to stop and spend time in a couple of places as well as see the wall but having a friendly, funny and enthusiastic riding partner really made a difference in those last two weeks. Luckily for me Sven said the same thing. I just hope that his last efforts to cover the 800 km to the coast in four and a half days won't be too much. It's all downhill to the coast but a long way to go in such a short time when riding alone.
If there is only one thing you have time to do when in Beijing it is visiting the forbidden city, renamed as the palace museum, home to the Emperors and their families for nearly 500 years. A huge complex that covers 720,000 square metres, it was built between 1406 and 1420 and has 980 buildings. Alastair told us that we should go early to avoid the crowds. The doors opened at 8.30 so we aimed to be there at 8. Exiting the subway station we were met by hawkers selling forbidden city t-shirts, Chinese flags and water. The crowds were thick even 100 metres away from the first bridge that you have to cross to enter through the walls of the forbidden city. Once you have passed through the walls you cross a huge courtyard, though another arched gateway and into another courtyard where the ticket hall is situated. By this time there must have been at least 5000 people within the outer wall waiting for the opening time. So much for beating the crowds.
The forbidden city is an impressive collection of old Chinese halls and buildings set out in a line from south to north, surrounded by a wall 7.9 metres high, 8.6 metres wide at the base and tapering to 6.6 metres wide at the top. It is also surrounded by a moat 6 metres deep and 52 metres wide. Just four gates lead into the city, one through each wall.
Although the forbidden city is a fascinating area, the walk from south to north through the many halls took us nearly two hours and by the time we had completed this walk we had to give up. We had planned to visit many of the side buildings housing many paintings, pottery and other artifacts in separate museums but it was a hot day and we were being constantly jostled by the huge crowds. We exited the city and climbed the hill to the temple at the top of Jingshan park where we had a great view overlooking the forbidden city.
Monday morning it was time to say goodbye to Sven as he set off for the coast. I spent the rest of that day and the next sitting in Alastairs flat watching films and eating fruits and biscuits. I was free to relax and do nothing. Relishing the prospect of staying in one place for a few days I found it very hard to keep still though. My mind was telling me to relax but my body had got so used to moving that I became fidgety very quickly. I decided that the next day should be spent outdoors and set off to the temple of heaven, a huge park and building complex in the south of the city where the emperors used to make sacrifices and annual ceremonies of prayer for good harvests. It's a shame I spent the last two days indoors during the sun as it rained the entire time I was there. Never mind though, I got a good deal on an umbrella.
Just one more thing to do after all the sightseeing and that was arranging a box for my bike and transport to the airport. Alastair and I rode to a bike shop where the staff soon found a box big enough and a van to take us to the airport. We arranged to return friday morning in time for them to pack the bike and headed off to the local international shop for some foreign food goodies. The area around Alastairs flat is thick with foreign embassies and compounds for their workers so we were able to buy plenty of home style goodies, but when I got there I couldn't think of anything I wanted except digestive biscuits, white chocolate and yoghurt. Luckily Alastair can speak enough Chinese to order us some delicious proper food in the restaurants so my diet didn't suffer too much.
Friday morning arrived and a late breakfast was followed by a return to the bike shop where we left the mechanics to wrap and pack the bike ready for the journey home. After 7 months riding with a loaded bike it looked really strange with bags removed again, naked and exposed. I said my goodbyes to Alastair, thanked the guys at the shop and jumped in the van to the airport. I was going home. After 7 months in Asia I was once again going to sample the weather of the UK, which luckily was basking in hot sunshine. What was it going to be like ? Riding on the left. Speaking English. Walking into a supermarket and seeing row upon row of food I recognised. Riding the last leg home in time for Sunday lunch with my family. So much to look forward to yet so much is being left behind. Friends I had made. People and places where I had spent time. The generosity and friendliness of strangers. Hot weather. Fruit so sweet and tasty it defied belief. Freedom to go where and when I chose at the drop of a hat. All this and more was going to be missed, but so much was being looked forward to. Meeting up with family and friends again. Retelling all of my tales and misadventures to whoever will listen. Riding my favourite trails through the woods again, and catching up with all the developments at home. Just one more leg to go. In some ways the longest journey of all. Homeward bound.