So we are off on our great voyage, via Valencia Airport and a change of planes at Istanbul Airport. The Boys were grateful that their father splashed out on a Business Lounge for the stop-over

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At Beijing we were met by a taxi from the hotel. Unfortunately the taxi driver neither spoke English nor did he know the way to the Red Wall Garden Hotel. Eventually after over 2 hours in his cab (it is a journey that should take 45 minutes) his GPS finally delivered us to the hotel around 19.00. Anyway the Red Wall Garden turned out to be an excellent hotel

It was well positioned in a hutong fairly close to the Forbidden City. Hutongs are a network of narrow lanes containing original Beijing houses; houses that elsewhere have been demolished to make way for high rise It is difficult to get to by taxi as the streets are narrow and one way. Reception is efficient, and rooms are excellent and spacious. Be warned that there is no elevator, so you have to struggle up stairs - in our case 4 flights to get to your room We chose to eat our breakfast on one of the tables in the courtyard, which is a pleasant alternative to eating in the restaurant. The courtyard is also a good place to enjoy a beer - though unsurprisingly the beers here were much more expensive than any other beer during the next two weeks in China. Service is friendly, if a bit slow The Forbidden city is a bit of a hike away, but certainly reachable on foot. And there is a very good (and free) Hutong Museum virtually opposite the hotel. Also a number of restaurants in easy walking distance- from gourmet to cheap. Plus an ATM relatively close I enjoyed our two night stay here, and would stay here myself on another visit to Beijing

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As we arrived, the group we were joining was leaving the hotel for an initial dinner. We literally plonked our cases in the room and hurried to join them for dinner in a nearby Chinese Restaurant. It was the first of our many meals in China, and they were generally of a better quality than in any other countries on our route. The reason being that the food is freshly cooked to order in China, but generally not so elsewhere. China was the only place I put on weight: the method of serving was to put lots of dishes in the centre of the table, and one helped oneself. I do tend to overdo helping myself, and if my travelling conscience is not sufficiently observant, I can get away with blue murder.

This was our first meeting with our new travelling companions. Being at a long table we did not actually talk to many, but there was plenty of opportunity for such chat over the next seven weeks

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Mike Miller and his Taiwanese girl friend came round to the hotel and we had a beer together in the courtyard, then walked to the "Taste - the delights of Yunnan flavour" Restaurant in a nearby Hutong

A bit difficult to find down a narrow hutong, and in fact not that obvious from the outside even when you get to it. Mike had done his homework and sussed it out the day before, so that we found it successfully. It is certainly worth finding. Eclectic modern décor inside and extremely good fresh food from first class ingredients. I can particularly recommend the prawns. Service was efficient and friendly. Our friends spoke Chinese, so that helped as the staff were not really too good at English. I thought that the cost for four of us, including a bottle of wine, was very reasonable. This restaurant is certainly worth seeking out, and I hope to visit again

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The hutong Museum was just over the road from the hotel. Shijia Hutong Museum is the first facility in Beijing specifically established to preserve hutong history. While the capital is dotted with courtyards that offer protection either as outstanding examples of hutong homes or for their famous previous occupants, only this museum has been set aside as a model hutong in its own right. Shijia Hutong itself (which also houses our hotel) has been protected for its entire length, stretching about one kilometre from Dongsi Nandajie/Dongdan on its western side to Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie in the east.

Most of Beijing’s hutongs date to the Yuan or Mongol dynasties, and a panel near the entrance of the first display hall speculates that the term hutong comes from the Mongolian word for “well.” Other possible explanations include 13th century pronunciation of the word for “alley,” passed down through the ages. The name Shijia Hutong is believed to originate from that of a late Ming dynasty official, Shi Kefa, whose family lived in the area. Beijing was later subdivided and local control given to Qing dynasty military officials, known as “bannermen”. The bordered white banner flew over this particular hutong.

Apparently Prince William was in the museum last year

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And dinner in another Beijing Restaurant. Note the revolving table centre, designed to ensure that I ate too much. Actually after this meal, I could never face a Chinese Dumpling again over the entire trip.

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We then had another chance to visit the Beijing end of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. The Mutianyu Great Wall is one of the best-preserved and best-known Great Wall sections. Compared with the Badaling section which we saw on a previous trip, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is less crowded and is located 40 miles to the north of Beijing.. We would eventually see the western of the Great Wall at at Jiayunguan

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, built mainly along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese empire against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BCE; these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger, are now collectively referred to as the Great Wall. Bits were built 220–206 BCE by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China but little of that wall remains. Since then, the Great Wall has on and off been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced; the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration. Shades of Donald Trump here. The defences of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke.

The Great Wall stretches from Dandong in the east to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi).

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We went up by cable car, and when it was time to go back down, I chose the 1580 meter (almost 1 mile) toboggan ride down. OK it is very "touristy" but was fun. You sit in a cart, and armed with a brake lever, set off down a stainless steel chute. Pushing the lever between your knees forward releases the brake to let the toboggan start sliding down the track, and pulling it towards you makes it stop. Adjust your speed by how far you push it. Actually your speed is more governed by the person in front of you, as you have to hold back in order not to ram them. From the adverts, I gathered that Mrs Obama had also passed this way recently, and that her Secret Service escort had also enjoyed the slide down

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From here it was on to Beijing Airport and a flight to Xi'an where the Silk Road actually started. The Chinese airport security made European airport security look lax. The Chinese are edgy about Uigar, and other guerilla groups fighting for independence, having a go at aircraft. Emma had problems with having large camera batteries removed from her case, and we all had problems with satisfying the functionaries that our camera and torch batteries were benign

On to next town - Xi'an

Back to Overall Itinerary for Silk Road Trip 2016