Sunday 29th March 2015
Manchester / London / Sanlitun
Our second long trip in two years. The first was to spend Christmas in Hanoi. This time, we were flying out to spend two weeks with our son in China.
From North Wales to Heathrow by car was non-eventful, for a change. Light traffic all the way and an easy parking courtesy of Reeds in Wraybridge.
It was a ten hour direct flight on an Airbus 330. China Airlines. The name doesn’t inspire much confidence but it was immaculately clean, went up at the right time and came down nice and slowly. An eight seat across aeroplane and such a long flight.
The food on board Flight CA856 was remarkably edible. Beef and noodles or chicken and rice with bread and cake. By 3.45 a.m. we were over Mongolia, somewhere near Ulanbattar, flying at 37,000 feet with still 1093 miles to go. Everyone managed to sleep, after a fashion – with inflatable collars, ear plugs and eye shades. However, for me sleep was nothing more than an insipid doze. The fish and chips at Heathrow had worn off and ETA was still many hours away. Somewhere in the luggage rack were two bananas. I’m not sure they should have been on board.
We were met at the airport. The taxi took us to the Sanlitun guest house hotel in a little over an hour for the princely sum of £10. The first novelty of staying in China. Hotel rooms come with or without a window. If you want a window it’s more. However, a window only means a view if there is something to see out of it. When all you can see is a set of windows across a yard or a road, you might as well do without. In addition, jet lag is easier to cope with if you get a good night’s sleep, and where better than in a pitch-black room.
The hotel TV provided information in Chinese and English. ‘How to escape from your hotel room in the event of a fire’. How? Why out of the window, of course. The notice behind the door reminds you that, in the case of fire, attract attention by opening the window and waving something bright. The room even has curtains along one wall….pull them back and there is the windowsill…..but no window. It’s all very mysterious.
After a nap it was time to start just a little exploring. It’s easy to overdo things when you arrive, but nothing is going anywhere, so it’s best to pace yourself. The nearby Heaven Supermarket allows you to choose your own beer and drink it on the premises. Little tables and chairs line the front apron to the store and you can watch the traffic and the people pass by. Not far away is the The Homeplate Smoker and ‘The Bullpen’, an American-Chinese-themed smoked meat emporium that sells prime smoked brisket, pulled chicken, rib tips and salad. Just what the doctor ordered after a surfeit of processed in-flight tray meals.
Monday 30th March 2015
Sanlitun / The Summer Palace / The Hutongs / Culture Square
It’s easy to find somewhere for breakfast in Sanlitun. Not far away was Costa. Coffee and pastries might sound very European, but it makes weaning off European and onto Asian food a little easier.
We caught the underground train to the Summer Palace. Beijing is so big, it’s clear that we’re going to be tourist-gophers. Pop out of the ground to see something, drop back underground and travel on.
It was smoggy at the Summer Palace. It was smoggy across Beijing. We were a natural curiosity. It is China’s second largest city with a population of over 21 million and Western faces still arouse curiosity. Everywhere we go, people want to have their photographs taken with us. There is a natural curiosity about what you are doing and no awareness of what might be termed ‘personal space’. You open your camera on the train and the person next to you takes it as an invitation to look at your photographs with you.
This would be endearing if it wasn’t for the fact that, as a people, they have not developed the Western sense of propriety. It’s not uncommo0n to see mothers hanging their toddlers over the grid for a No. 2. Toddlers are often seen with ‘bum-less’ trousers, making defecating all that much easier. Men and women, young and old hack and cough up volumes of phlegm which they deposit on the sidewalk. Everybody spits. All of the time.
Public toilets are foul-smelling middens. There are toilets without doors, invariably of the ‘squat’ type that, whilst possibly more hygienic, are an art-form difficult to master given the Western inability to balance precariously whilst fully dressed. The strangest sight is when you come across what might be termed a ‘Western-style’ toilet only to see footprints all over the seat where someone has tried to squat from a height. The Chinese calls these ‘potty-toilets’. It’s safer to use a nearby hotel and reserve the public conveniences for a quick pee. ‘Quick’ is the operative word. The stench of ammonia is on a par with tear-gas.
Perhaps it’s dietary? The tube trains, packed to the gunnels with commuters, emit their own aromas. Old garlic? Fish? It’s hard to say. Train operatives stand on the platform and force ever more commuters onto already-packed trains. Noses are up against armpits, bags between legs, chests against backs and knees against buttocks. It’s an oppressive intrusion of personal space and is commonplace. Rush hour seems to be eternal and endless. The trains themselves are punctual, cheap and clean. There isn’t the room to make them dirty. As they pull away, the station guard, resplendent in red uniform, salutes. Pride in her work….very Oriental.
The Summer Palace dates from 1192 but was destroyed twice. The last time was at the hands of the British. The latest version dates from 1886. It’s huge. Acre upon acre of gardens and pagodas. It’s a little early in the year for the cherry blossom but I’d imagine given a month or two, it would all look magnificent.
On leaving the Palace, it’s possible to walk to the Hutongs. These are areas of old China that have been preserved for posterity. Originally the housing estates of Beijing, they have been restored and converted into all manner of tourist shops. Predominantly, they sell food, soft drinks and ice-creams out of myriad cafes and fast-foot outlets. Green tea ice-cream is certainly different. Small apples, covered in toffee and sold stacked together on long wooden skewers are tasty and sweet. The enormous pips are easily disposed..simply spit them out into the street. When in Rome……
From the Hutongs we headed to Culture Square, home of the Bell and Drum Towers. Lots of steps to climb only to be thwarted from a panoramic view by the ever-present smog. They are still worth a visit, however. The drum recital sparks the imagination and is reminiscent of the old China of Arthur Waley’s ‘Monkey’.
A long day sight-seeing needs reward. Mexican soft tapas and pulled beef with endless beers. It did cross my mind that it might be difficult to pop out for a ‘Chinese’!
Tuesday 31st March 2015
Mutianyu / The Great Wall / The Olympic Stadium / Tianjin/ Tanguu / Teda
There are a number of places where you can access the Wall easily and without too long a drive. Mutianyu has the advantage of being slightly off the tourist route. So, rather than standing shoulder to shoulder with the hordes, you can wander the Wall having huge sections…..mile upon mile…..more or less to yourself. Our driver, Tony, took us in his relatively new Kaval there in a little over an hour. The Kaval is a nasty sedan, full of harsh plastics and characterless instruments. Altogether functional and reminiscent of the mess the Chinese have made redesigning and reproducing the MG.
As I have said, Mutianyu was deserted. It suffers from the same air quality as Beijing, so the mist was down, short on long views but big on a mysterious, almost ethereal atmosphere. The Wall may have been rebuilt in sections, but it is still a Wonder of the World. A cable car takes you to the top and then you walk down through section after section. All for £1.62 plus the driver.
The Wall is horrendously steep in places, following the contours of every hill and vale.As the song says, I would imagine that on a clear day, you could see forever.
Rather than walk all the way down to the bottom, you have the option of catching the cable car at certain points and from there, it’s an easy run back to the car and then on back to Beijing.
In the evening, we checked out of the Sanlitun, left our bags with reception and headed to the Olympic Stadium via the malls. The Birds Nest Stadium was built for the 2008 Olympics but time has not been kind to the build. The quality of construction defines ‘jerry-built’ although I appreciate that that presents something of a clash of cultures within the analogy. The whole site is uncared for. Perhaps the issue is that they seem to have lost all interest in maintenance. When one compares it to the durability of the Berlin stadium, you can’t envisage the crowds coming to see this as a national treasure in eighty years time.
Time to move on. We had tickets for the Bullet Train. A station that thinks it’s an airport. Glitzy, well-managed and very much of the moment. We waited in departures, went through passport control and found our seats. Such a beautiful train. At each end of the carriages are little kitchens where people access boiling water for their pot-noodle buckets and above the door way the LED strip reminds you that you’re travelling at 297 kph. Just over 184 miles per hour. The train is full of characters. From young men traveling home to feisty old ladies off visiting. It’s not expensive, but it feels a little exclusive. In fact, you travel for an hour at breakneck speed in absolute comfort for £6.50 a seat.
An hour along the tracks takes in Tianjin and then on to Tanguu when we got off. We were staying with family in Teda, a short taxi ride away and with the promise of a beer before bed.
Wednesday 1st April 2015
Teda is an economic zone. A city named after its purpose, the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area. It’s a vast collection of high-rise apartment blocks built on a grid system with the usual infrastructure of malls, schools and government buildings. It also has a university and a downtown business zone.
The view from the apartment takes in the many-laned highway and looks out towards Tianjin and the docks that is the purpose for the whole of the development. It’s a free-market zone, built with American money and housing a multi-national community.
Heading out of the apartment, we crossed the footbridge, circuited the football stadium and went shopping. Teda Mall is expansive. But empty. It feels like a city after a nuclear disaster or after a plague. There are shops, so many of them, each staffed by assistant after assistant. But no customers. You wander mile upon mile of seemingly endless thoroughfares wondering how they ever turn a profit. In the York Coffee House, with murals of Harrogate adorning the walls, we realised that no one spoke a word of English. Pointing at the coffee beans and holding up two fingers generated a mixture of puzzled glances and fits of giggles. Eventually we gave up and, with a shrug, waved a hand across the menu and smiled. No one was more surprised than us when two coffees and two cakes turned up.
The nearby Aeon Mall is no busier. Two sixty foot high ‘Transformers’ (‘Robots in Disguise) guard the entrance to two floors of empty shops. The only area that was busy was the downstairs creche where some mums and many dads were minding their single children. The one-child policy is changing in China, but only for the financially secure.
In the evening we wandered out into Teda main street. The Parrot, a Thai restaurant was warm and welcoming and we indulged in Thai green curries and green beans.
Thursday 2nd April 2015
Rather a lazy day. It had rained during the night. We woke at about 9 a.m. to soaked streets and even worse visibility than usual. It took until noon for the weather to abate and the sky to clear enough to make wandering out a possibility.
The Main Street Shopping Mall in Teda is rather par for the course, the only real sight of interest being posters of David Beckham with PhotoShopped oriental eyes..
Teda is an area with no borders. Endless mile upon mile of housing, offices and business buildings. We ate takeaway from the Pommedoro, an Italian-Chinese restaurant with exceptionally good pizzas!
Friday 3rd April 2015
Teda / Tianjin
Waking to a clear sky filled us all with hope. We spent time after breakfast stood at the window of the apartment looking down on the yard of the school opposite, watching line after line of pupils keeping fit to music. Regimented, collective, uniform. It’s what China is all about.
In the afternoon, we caught the train to Tianjin. It felt as though everyone else had the same idea. An horrendous journey made only bearable by the fact that it was short.
Tianjin, however, is lovely. Built along a river and sporting a ferris wheel, the view from the ‘Tianjin Eye’ takes in the full length and breadth of the city. We walked along the river bank and through the Lama temple and along Culture Street. It’s a city that you could spend more than a few hours exploring.
Jacky’s Bar in Teda sells excellent ribs and even better beer. Just what was needed after another long day.
Saturday 4th April 2015
Xi’an and the Muslim Quarter
An early start. We needed to be up and out by 6 a.m. to catch the 7.50 flight to Xi’an courtesy of Xianmen Airways and a Boeing 737.
Everyone seemed to be heading home for the holidays. Even though they don’t celebrate Easter, they clearly have their own festivities to enjoy. In fact, Teda was still celebrating Christmas with Christmas lights and trees in full splendour across the city.
So, for Easter Saturday, we were booked in the Ramada Inn, Xi’an. In a room with a window.
The in-flight meal was…interesting. A very pretty yellow box with a picture of a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel on it. It promised much and delivered little. Opening it revealed a bread roll, a small cake and a sachet of something resembling salty, fishy cat food. Oh and a fork! Watching those around me, I discovered that the art of eating it was to suck at the contents of the sachet and then try and keep it down with the bread roll. If it is an acquired taste, I’m not sure I have enough years ahead of me to manage it. Tripe and cow’s heel marinated in milk is cordon bleu compared to that.
We were booked into the Ramada Xian Bell Tower. A very nice hotel. A decent sized room with a large walk-in bath. And a window. Luxury.
It’s situated at the far end of the street that leads away from the Bell Tower. The Bell and Drum Towers are good photo opportunities but they don’t draw you in as did the ones in Beijing. The climb would not provide an enticing panorama.
More interesting, by a long way, is the Muslim quarter. It’s mayhem and bedlam. Street after street of madness. Strange, strange food adorns stall after stall. Amid blazing barbecue furnaces and frantic purveyors you’ll find animal heads, offal, grey boiled meat and strange, exotic sweets. By the time you’ve pushed and shoved your way through the crowds and emerged at the far end, you’re probably ready for a McDonald’s!
If it rains, and it did on us, look out for the umbrella salesmen. The umbrellas cost next to nothing and they are truly beautiful. For 30 yuan (about £3) we bought a fabulous parasol that lasted well beyond the length of the holiday, the flight back and a daughter’s wedding two years later.
The memsahib developed toothache. It was clearly an abscess and needed some treatment. In a country where so few speak English, finding a dentist was pretty much out of the question. Plan B was to find painkillers. We couldn’t spot the usual neon green cross that signifies a pharmacy so, on the advice of the hotel manager we headed for the hospital.
The stark grey concrete building at the end of the street was the hospital. Outside, a board carried the photographs of the doctors who tended the sick within. Strange that most of them had been photographed still wearing their surgical masks. I could understand it in a litigious society – best not be too easily recognisable, but here in China, I presumed that they might not be so up to speed with ‘Better Call Saul’.
Inside was worse. Grey barren corridors more closely resembled an abattoir than a hospital. We wandered the corridors, never challenged by anyone in authority and ended up at the far end where, through a plastic curtain we saw people sitting in, what resembled, a station waiting-room.
Along one wall were kiosk windows, behind which a receptionist sat while women in white coats ran up and down in front of ceiling to floor shelves collecting packets and boxes to make up prescriptions. It was clear that, not having a prescription to hand in, we were going to have to discuss this in person.
Pointing to my wife’s face and then mouth and emitting a low groan was the best I could do. Strange looks and side comments were hard to interpret. Eventually, a kindly lady who spoke a few words of English – pain, you and tooth – pointed to a packet of pills and smiled. ‘Yes!’ came my response and I handed over a handful of Yuan. It was clear, however, that we couldn’t buy any form of painkillers. If we’d had a prescription, we might have been able to take away what we needed. But we hadn’t.
The receptionist pointed to the door and waved her hand around. A piece of paper appeared and a drawing suggested that we needed to go down the street to a nearby shop. Some Chinese characters were added, the paper folded and given to us and the hand waved again.
We left. Stepping out into the street, we turned left and there…..next to the hospital pharmacy, was a proper, recognisable chemist shop! The lady inside looked at the paper, smiled, disappeared and reappeared with two boxes of Ibuprofen. Marvellous. 22 Yuan (about £2.20) and we were in business. Twenty minutes later and the pills kicked in!
It was time for a bath and a beer. We were booked to go and see the terracotta warriors on the next day. We’d hired a driver for £50 return – apparently, the visit would take the whole day.
After a beer, or two, we decided that it was about time we explored a typical Xi’an Chinese restaurant. It’s not a case of ‘I’ll have what they’re having’. For a city that welcomes so many tourists, not having a word of Chinese makes life difficult. It’s difficult enough coping with the public transport system when you can’t read the characters. Finding a Chinese restaurant with a menu of photographed dishes seemed the most sensible choice.
We pointed our way through the menu and sat back to enjoy fried broccoli, ribs, sweet and sour pork, potato balls and beef chili with beans. All washed down with infused hot water. A banquet? It might have been had we had more inkling of what was best to choose.
By the way, it rains in Xi’an in April. It rains very hard and for a very long time.
Sunday 5th April 2015
Terracotta warriors / Muslim Quarter
Easter Sunday. We woke to the playing of Chinese music over a speaker system erected in the street. On the hour, every hour, the speakers play out what sounds like a nationalistic anthem. Very reminiscent of the old days under Mao, I’d imagine.
Behind the considerable mist, it seemed to have stopped raining. Time to pop up the road to Starbucks for coffee, blueberry muffins and cinnamon whirls.
At noon, we’re picked up by a Buick people carrier and driven out into the countryside. Winding our way through towns and villages at breakneck speed we eventually arrive at the usual pre-attraction commercial stoop. This time it’s a factory that purports to have the original furnace in which they baked the terracotta warriors. They’re certainly still making them. You can buy any size you like. Something small for the suitcase to go on the mantlepiece at home or a two-metre high one to be shipped anywhere in the World and placed on your front door step. They also specialised in extremely expensive and highly-lacquered furniture. It’s lovely but you really wouldn’t know where to put it when it arrived many weeks after you reached home. If it arrived at all, that is.
We finally arrived at the Terracotta Warriors site. The whole of China seemed to be on holiday and had all woken up with the same idea as us. It was heaving. Two generations of Western diets means that the European tourist is no longer towering over the indigenous natives. Instead, I stood on tip-toes trying to look between shoulders and round the sides of thousands and thousands of like-minded tourists. £30 for the two of us to get in and a couple of hours later we were exhausted. They really are a wonder but you had to be very patient to work your way through to the front or to stand aside until there was a break in the crowd. We hadn’t come all that way not to be patient and not to go home without some sort of photographic record of what is a wonder of the world.
There is still a lot of excavating to be done. However, it’s a curious sight to see ranks on rank of five foot high warriors and the occasional horse stood in serried lines waiting patiently. Waiting? For a call to arms from beyond this world? It feels far more than simply a recognition of earthly worth or respect.
A couple of hours walking or cycling the outside walls of Xi’an should be on everyone tourist itinerary. However, it needs to be remembered that they close at 6 p.m. and it’s lethal if wet underfoot. We were too late to be admitted, so we walked the outside walls which were still interesting and then headed to the Muslim quarter again in the vain hope that the meat would be a little less grey and a little more identifiable. It wasn’t. You never realise how comforting pizza and beer is until you see what the alternatives might have to be.
Xi’an at night is a perpetual festival. Street musicians are everywhere. The whole town is lit, bright as a Christmas tree and everyone goes out to enjoy it.
Monday 6th April 2015
Xi’an and the Muslim quarter (again) – with scatological and culinary observations / the airport / Teda
Woke one again, and as usual, to thick cloud and the hourly tannoy of nationalistic tunes and party speeches. Whether it summons people to work or not, I’m not sure.
Xi’an is China’s oldest city. There was such a desire in us all to ‘go native’ and eat as the locals. Hell, it’s hard. We went to a Schezuan restaurant last night, but the menu was all in characters and not a picture of anything to be eaten to be seen. The waitress gave us a ‘are you really sure you want to take a chance’ kind of look and we scuttled for the exit. Looking through the windows of the local traditional restaurants, it’s hard to see Western faces. Spot a Western restaurant and that’s where you see Europeans. It’s almost a case of gathering the wagons into a circle for culinary protection.
The street markets in the Muslim quarter sell nearly everything on sticks or in plastic wrapped bowls. The used sticks form small mountains in corners. The wrapped bowls mean you eat your food out of a plastic bag. They remove the plastic bag, reline it and serve the next person. Washing up in between? Not a chance. Streets are a cacophony of car horns, tuk-tuks and people shouting at each other, invariably down their mobile phones. The butchers are open-air…to everything. Meat is cut up to include as much fat as is bestially possible. After that, the deep-fat fryer seems to take care of the rest. On offer are sticks with beef, lamb and chicken. There is no pork in the Muslim quarter, of course. Fresh bread comes from an open tandoori style oven and is hot, cheap and extremely tasty. It’s a cross between a naan and a tortilla.Fried dough balls and dim sum with chopped liver inside are an acquired taste. There is also some very grey offal and stack upon stack of tripe. The ice-cream is in many flavours. Green tea flavour is popular with young and old and the black ice-cream contains sesame, apparently.
Stranger delicacies include chicken feet on sticks, duck heads and lamb feet. The latter forms a snack to nibble on as you tour the shops and stalls.
The biggest issue for me was the fact that you could not differentiate between a dish-cloth and a tea-towel. Both were the same colour, coincidentally, the same colour as the tripe. Add that to the fact that everyone, and I mean everyone, produces such volumes of phlegm in this country where air quality is so poor that it has to be deposited somewhere. The pavements are perpetually wet and greasy. One wonders what we walk on.
Again, in Xi’an we saw toddlers with open-back trousers to make depositing easier, invariably on the side of the street. Not necessarily the gutter side, often in the shadows of buildings and doorways. Mind you, with squat toilets absolutely everywhere, it’s probably more hygienic for the youngsters, although not for us. It’s not uncommon to pass a non-animal deposit on the pavement.
Public toilets are really not for the faint-hearted. If the food or water causes problems, my advice is to hole-up somewhere until it passes. The level of ammonia is staggeringly high. Public urinals have written, in English ‘a step closer will help keep the toilet cleaner’. A step closer? If you could aim from outside, that would be close enough for most of us.
Many of the shops are lovely. Many are what might be termed ‘western’ and are well-stocked and spotlessly clean. Assistants are gracious and smart, with always a smile and a welcoming bow. The tea-shops are a pleasure to enter and a world away from the bedlam of street life. Cake shops and bakeries are clean and purvey tasty and recognisable products.
The Chinese are certainly into fast food. KFC’s are on every corner. Chinese fast food outlets tend to focus on hotpots – bowls of broth in which you put all manner of vegetables and the occasional piece of meat. the teaming broth cooks the food, while you wait.
However, at Xi’an airport, the hotpots need to be avoided. Noodles and vegetables swimming in a fish stock with a hard boiled egg lurking in the depths did nothing to satisfy and prepare us for the hour flight back to Teda.
On arrival, we made straight for Pommedoro for penne with chicken and bacon and then Jacky’s for beer. There is comfort in familiarity.
Tuesday 7th April 2015
Teda / Beijing / The Pearl Market
Today was a ‘packing day’. The plan was to take the bullet train from Teda to Beijing and then to book into the Novotel.
All went according to plan and by early afternoon, we were in the Novotel… 4* and without windows.
The hotel is just down the road, in Chinese terms that means a taxi ride, from the Temple of Heaven. It’s warm and welcoming in the hotel and in a prime spot for a few days’ sightseeing. The added bonus is that the staff speak good English.
A short walk brings you to the Pearl Market. It’s an indoor emporium of fakes and copies. Watches, jewellery, bags, coats, scarves. You name it and the Chinese have copied it and sell it at a ‘negotiable price’. First you ask. The price is given. Offer 10%. This is usually followed by an exasperated gasp and a calculator offers you 75% of the original price. Go to 15% and tell them it’s your last offer. Clearly at such a price you are condemning the whole family to future slavery in the sweatshops that turn out Rolex, Dolce and Gabbana and Mulberry. They ask for 60% of the original. You’d think that the compromise would be somewhere around the 50% mark. No. Stick to 15% and start to walk. If they let you, you’ll find exactly the same further on and the whole process can start again. The likelihood is that they’ll take the 15% and then try to get you to buy something else as well. If you’re really bold, you might be able to stick with the 10% of the starting price and do a deal on that.
The memsahib bought a tea-set and four embroidered bags.
Of course, along the way, there will always be a bad deal. I bought an Omega Seamaster for £12. It looked and felt like the real business. It had a sweep hand that swept rather than ticked and it looked so authentic even James Bond would have been impressed.
In ten minutes it had gained five hours. In a further half an hour it had lost a day. If I stayed very still and didn’t breathe, it would only gain half an hour every five minutes. Ah well, better luck next time.
On the way home (by now it was Christmas), we stopped off and bought fake DVDs for £1 each. These were perfect and were films that were only just out in Hollywood. Somewhere in the back of a shop in Beijing, I dare say there are copies of films not yet made! Such is the nature of the Chinese patent-free enterprise.
In the evening, we headed to a Texan restaurant. There was a quiz on. The weekly quiz is popular, although there seems to be no regard for honesty. The question master asks and everyone starts searching for the answer on their mobile phones. General knowledge seems to be restricted to knowing how to use a Search Engine. Being British, it fell to us to resist and to maintain standards. The questions on famous Ukranians were out of our reach and the endless questions on American sports meant that came a creditable, and honest, last.
Wednesday 8th April 2015
Tienanmen Square / Mao’s Mausoleum / The Monument of the Heroes / The national museum / The Forbidden City / The Imperial Gardens / Bai Hain Park / The Silk Market
The bakeries are close to the Novotel, so it was only a short walk across the road for coffee and pastries. The bread and pastries are very good and the standard of coffee matches most European cities.
The subway took us to Tienanmen Square. It’s staggeringly impressive. More so when one remembers the military and the ‘tank-man’ on June 5th 1989. Although there is a noticeable police and army presence, there was no feeling of oppression or having to be careful what was photographed. Along the edges of the square is the Hall of the People, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Monument of the Heroes and the National Museum. All in one block. Such iconic moments in history. In 1967, I sent off to the Embassy for the People’s Republic of China and they sent me a copy of Chairman Mao’s thoughts. Red plastic wrapper and paper that resembled air-mail paper. I treasured it for many years until we parted company, lost in a house move.
The soldiers on duty are suitably proud and clearly an ‘honour guard’. Uniforms are well-pressed but look poorly made and rather poorly tailored. Shoes and boots are clean but lack the spit and polish bulling that you see from the Guards in London.
From there we walked over and into the Forbidden City. I first developed an interest in the city after watching ‘The Last Emperor’. It doesn’t disappoint. Area upon area, all built to a geometric pattern that speaks of status, gradually leading the walker through and closer to the centre, the focus of the whole city and home of the Emperor since the 15th Century.
At the edge of the City lie the Imperial Gardens. You can cross the road, climb the hill and stand at the top, looking out across the whole of the Forbidden City and beyond. Again, it was smoggy, but it is still a marvel when you realise just how vast a structure it was. There were those inside and there were those outside. Such a difference in lifestyles and culture. The privileged few and the hordes of the poor and deprived. A royal class with such a distinct pyramid of obligation, rank and devotion.
From Bai Hain park, it’s a short journey to the Silk Market. Another vast emporium of retail opportunity. We negotiated for handbags, sunglasses and silk. The quality in the Silk Market is far higher than that of the Pearl. Consequently, the bargaining has to be realistic. 40% of the original asking price is probably the best bet. Still, bargains are there to be had.
The Blue Marine, in Beijing is a Danish restaurant that is reputed to sell the best steak in the City. Believe me, it does. The host makes his own infused vodka and continually plies his customers were the flavours of the month. That night we had kiwi fruit, walnut and coffee.
Thursday 9th April 2015
The Lama Temple / ‘Food Street’ / Chinese Acrobats
The Lama Temple is a surprisingly quiet haven amid the tumult and chaos of Beijing. The Buddhists are remarkably adept at adapting and adopting twenty-first century ways. They may have shaved heads and orange robes, but they are not averse to a ‘selfie’ and a bottle of Coke. They are both penitent and sightseer, wandering the yards, stopping, praying and moving on. I felt no more out of place than I do when entering a Catholic Mass. People bought incense, knelt down and made offerings in their own time and in their own way. I simply stood to one side and observed. It was busy, there are a significant number of devout worshipers in a country where it was positively discouraged until forty years ago.
‘Food Street’ has to be on everyone’s list of ‘must-do’s’ when in Beijing. Situated just off one of Beijing’s more affluent shopping areas, it’s hard to tell how much of it is because of the tourist, whether it’s frequented as part of the natural and usual process of shopping or whether it harks back to a time no longer with us. It’s certainly unusual and unique. Everything seems to be deep-fried and sold on a stick. The list seems endless: scorpions, bats, small chickens, snakes, sea horses, star fish, things I couldn’t even guess when they might be…..all fried and presented a la chupa chup. As is the food isn’t unusual enough, the smells are something else. It’s hard to tell whether the aromas are as a result of the impact of the food on your digestive system or in anticipation of what’s to come. The strange thing is that people might walk through pulling faces and grimacing…but they do buy and sample.
In the evening we went to the theatre. There are a number of venues where you can view authentic Chinese acrobats. We went to the Chaoyang Theatre. Book ahead. It helps to avoid the tourist crowds and also enables you to sit close to the stage. It’s a lovely old-fashioned theatre. Lots of red velvet and gold paint. Tickets are about £20 and for the hour-long show, it’s well worth it. Photography is discouraged, however. This is a pity, if understandable. However, the memories of six motorcycles in a caged ‘Wall of Death’ and eleven girls all balancing on a single bicycle going round and round in circles will stay with you for many a year. Some amazing feats of gymnastics.
The evening culminated in a Persian Kebab dinner. The holiday is rapidly coming to an end and time has flown by.
Friday 10th April 2015
The Temple of Heaven / Back to the Pearl Market / The Leap in Time
There can be fewer more pleasant places on a warm Spring Day than to stand in the Temple of Heaven and watch the brides-to-be having their photographs taken. Dressed in beautiful costumes, albeit borrowed robes, they are lovely to admire, even if their grooms look somewhat uncomfortable.
We bumped into some chaps from Holland and San Paolo, Brazil. They asked where were were from and wanted to know whether we had ever been to Barry Island. It’s hard to imagine then sitting in the sunshine on the Copacabana and lamenting that, “whilst it’s alright, I suppose, it’s not Barry Island!”. Clearly travellers of discerning taste.
The call of the Pearl Market drew the memsahib back in search of bargains. Weaving your way through stalls of Michael Korsm Rolex and Omega it’s easy to forget that this is an industry built on illusion. Fakes come with only a degree of quality assurance and the guarantee of built-in obsolescence.
“This is the tourist price. This is the Chinese price. I give it to you for 1450 yuan (£140).” We start at £10 and after hearing that you’re taking the food from their mouths, that they’re having to sell their only child into abject slavery in Eritrea and their 90 year old mother will have to have both legs amputated so she can be gainfully employed as a street beggar, we settle for $15 and everybody is happy.
The Rolex is being offered at £20. Professional training at the hands of British plumbers and garage mechanics means that we are experts at the shake of the head and the sharp intake of breath followed by deep and meaningful tutting. We walk away and this time are not called back. Probably for the best. In the long term, nay, in the short term, it’ll stop your wrist going green and, anyway, it’ll only tell the time correctly once in a blue moon.
On the way home, we caught a taxi to the ‘Great Leap Bar’. It’s a micro-brewery and burger house near the Sanlitun district. Comfortingly familiar, the beer is excellent and we indulged in buckets of wings, burgers, and a dozen beers for £60. Throw in a taxi home for £2.60 and it was a good night. (http://www.greatleapbrewing.com/locations/glb-45/)
Saturday 11th April 2015
Beijing Airport / Heathrow / The White Bear
A long and arduous taxi ride took us to the Airport. An even longer and probably more arduous flight took us to Heathrow. Sleep, film, duck and rice, sleep, beef and noodles, film, sleep, bread rolls. Not much else to do, unfortunately.
We broke the journey north at the White Bear in Shipston on Stour. A lovely pub with warm welcoming rooms and decent beer. Donningtons on draught and bed.
Sunday 12th April 2015
Shipston on Stour / Home
The White Bear (£80 b&b) is a lovely old pub that is developing a good trade serving food in attractive surroundings. The owners are very friendly and the place is spotless. OK it’s quirky, not a perpendicular wall or level floor to be seen, but that’s its charm. Hot water was plentiful, even though it took its time arriving at the top floor . Facilities were more than adequate with a very comfy bed and a good breakfast to set us up before a long drive north.
China has been a fantastic experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the World.
Time to start planning the next excursion…..we need some sun. Sardinia looks interesting.