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August 17th, 2003

Beijing, China

One of the small pleasures of these long train journeys is waking up in the morning and glancing out the window for the first time. On this particular morning there was little to note about the landscape -- still flat, but with greater vegetation and quite a few trees -- but something unusual about the air. A thick haze had moved in, obscuring the blue and turning the sky a yellowish-greyish-white that caused it to merge with the distant horizon. My first thought was that this was dust blown south from the ever-encroaching Gobi Desert, but the haze remained for hour after hour. Occasionally I'd catch a nose-wrinkling whiff, or a sight of a smokestack, which would lead me to attribute it to pollution; but even when the settlements and factories thinned out the haze failed to dissipate.

The flatness of the landscape continued through the morning, although with an increasing number of farms, brick houses, small garden plots, and fields of millet and sunflowers to add variety. We passed through a mile-long tunnel, and the scenery changed abruptly: great, dramatic hills, formed of jagged, orange-brown rocks but covered by a thick layer of trees and bush surrounded us on all sides. The train slowed down in order to safely negotiate the twists and turns, and while I was admiring the majesty of the mountains I caught my first glimpse of the Great Wall. This section of the ancient barricade was snaking its way up (or down) a particularly steep hill, with a tower visible partway up. It was like a scene from the movies, or from National Geographic, the only flaw in the picture-perfect scene being the ever-present haze, which now looked like a mountain fog.

An hour later we pulled into Beijing's main train station. It took a bit of effort to change money -- with the banks being closed for Sunday -- and negotiate the metro, but I told myself to savour these travel frustrations as it might be a long time before I'm again faced with unraveling the mysteries of a new city. After a glorious, life-affirming hot shower in my hotel, I took dinner at a nearby Sichuan restaurant. With its exceedingly rich flavors and mouth-numbing spices, the stir-fry chicken with peanuts was unlike any other Chinese meal I've had before. I've always been ambivalent about Chinese food, but I told myself that if this is the tip of the iceberg, then Beijing will make me a convert.

Northern China and its haze
Great fields
First view of the Great Wall
Great Wall of China
The Wall atop a hill
Wall tower

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