Beijing - November
I had always planned to return to Beijing some months after my first visit. It was fun to be here in August but it was impossible to see what the city was really like when there was an Olympic games going on. Being here again, it was interesting to compare and contrast. I can report that the most striking difference between then and now is that it is bloody cold here in November. Unlike August, I didn't see a drop of rain during these thirteen days, but the wind blew icy and cut through to the bone when it was at its enthusiastic strongest.
In the previous two weeks in the previous three cities, I had taken accommodation in private hotel rooms, so it was a minor shock to the system to be back in a room with five strangers. Maybe the change back to dorm life heightened my awareness to the noise of other people, but I found myself getting narked with the late-night chatting, lights and clumsy stumbling in the dark of my room mates. After six nights, I changed to a different room with fewer people and proper beds instead of bunks.
Arriving on Thursday night I found Max , my Taiwanese friend from Qingdao, in the hostel bar. It was coincidence that he was there but I had known in advance and it was good to spend the evening chatting with him. He told me how he had been snared by a couple of girls on Wangfujing shopping street, who used a sob-story to get him to first buy them tea, then food, then give them some money so they didn't get thrown out of their hotel. In retrospect he knew that he had been had but we agreed that, although there was a lesson to be learnt here, it was probably better to remain instinctively charitable rather than allow the devious nature of two people to harden a good heart. I was nabbed by two girls, who I assume to be the same, twice during this stay here. Once on Wangfujing and once near the south of the Forbidden City. You could tell from the way they attached to you like limpets offering to go and get some tea to talk about Chinese culture, they there was something up, but I tried my best to be polite as I made my escape.
On Friday afternoon I met up with Shan, my poor Chinese language teacher who had endured my shoddy learning attempts in August. My skills had actually blossomed after that as I went to western China and I had been using my dictionaries to teach myself new words and attempt conversations with people. Going to Korea for three weeks had erased most of this from my memory however. I kept promising myself to revise it all again, but it hadn't really happened so I felt a bit sheepish meeting her again knowing that she would use Chinese on me and informally test me.
I walked several miles back across town in the cold early hours afterwards, so spent the next day at the hostel trying to make sure the cough I came back with didn't develop into something else. On Sunday I went over to the 798 art area. A former business and industrial park on the outskirts of the city, all the buildings have been taken over by people exhibiting artwork and associated cafes. Some of these are independent artists selling their work, some are proper exhibitions of established artists and some are just shops selling traditional-style souvenirs. The styles range from paintings to photos to sculpture and all sorts of cross-breeds of the three. After several hours there I took a ninety-minute walk to the Goose & Duck sports bar I had often frequented in August, to see Everton draw 1-1 at home to Middlesbrough. I then took another ninety-minute walk back to the hostel.
There was so much to see at 798 that I had barely covered a quarter of it. I went back the next day for a couple more hours and already saw some of the displays had been replaced, but reached a point where there is only so much art you can take in and absorb, so I made my way back home.
Having finished most of my reading books and posted them home, I took advantage of the excellent Foreign Languages Bookstore to stock up. I really must try to quickly read the biography of Adolf Hitler I picked up though, as it weighs a tonne and I don't fancy it lugging it around in my backpack any longer than is strictly necessary. Before this I took lunch with Shan. We went to a German restaurant near her work where I picked out some traditional schnitzel for her to see what she would make of it. It didn't really go down well, but far funnier was the cheese plate I had brought over. You know it's not a great selection when it includes sliced cream cheese, but she struggled to believe that Europeans ever eat this stuff that tastes "like medicine". In fairness, she soldiered on to taste all four varieties on the plate and only spat one of them out, but I don't think she was convinced by the idea of this great western food that the Chinese are missing out on.
Back at the hostel bar, I got talking to a Chinese girl whose face I recognised. In the Summer I had tried to arrange an Olympic ticket from a tout for the sister of the hostel manager. He had messed her around and she didn't get the ticket in the end which I had felt quite bad about. Thinking that this was the same lady, I finally took the opportunity to apologise to her. It turned out that the reason I recognised her was simply that she sometimes worked on the tour desk in the hostel, so no apology was necessary.
She introduced herself as Sophia and explained that she also worked for a place called The Hutong which specialises in teaching and demonstrating aspects of Chinese culture, particularly for ex-pats. Hutongs are the maze-like alleyways which used to make up most of Beijing. As the city modernises, they are sadly disappearing at an incredible rate. She suggested that I come along that evening to a tea-tasting club which The Hutong runs on Tuesdays. So that is what I did.
Following a map I had scribbled down on a serviette, I made my way through the hutongs to The Hutong. I more or less figured out where it was, but there was no lighting and no signs so I couldn't figure out how to get in. Fortunately, locals who were probably used to this sort of thing realised what I was after and took me around the the correct door and its doorbell. Inside were Sofia and Celestine, an American lady hosting the night who ran a business importing teas from around the world. We were later joined by three other Chinese ladies, one of whom called Lindsay worked for CBS News in Beijing. This was a quiet night for them but Celestine explained that it was the first cold week of the year so everybody was staying home. Give it another couple of weeks, she predicted, and people realise it's not going to get any warmer and that they cannot stay indoors until the Spring, and numbers will be up again.
I hadn't eaten so the lack of guests was a good thing for me. I was making strong progress through the snacks on offer and was able to feel less guilty about this when the snacks from the unused second table were brought over and we were told to keep helping ourselves. The conversation was a general chat about life etc. This week it seemed to be mostly inspired by Lindsay's work as we discussed the American election which she had been covering and her dilemma about what her next career step would be. All the while, Celestine topped up our little cups, about the size of a big mouthful, with whatever tea we were sampling at the time.
Sophia and I walked back to the hostel afterwards. I mentioned that I needed to figure out how to go to the Great Wall at some point during my current stay so she suggested a tour on sale from her tour desk that gave you a 10km hike along it. Typically, I don't go for tours but getting to the Wall without one isn't ideal so I took her advice.
On Wednesday I met up with Wang, the Chinese guy who had been hosting Christian and Stefan during the Olympics. When he chose which foreign language to learn at university, he figured that no one was choosing German which meant that if he did so and became one of the few people to speak it fluently, he could corner that area of the job market. He was right, but he wasn't as shrewd as he thought because this now means he has cornered an area of almost no jobs. So, aside from volunteer work at the Olympics, he has been out of work and job hunting since he returned from studying in Germany almost a year ago.
Before I left Beijing I would be helping him write an English CV, but today we met for lunch. After going to a Korean restaurant in a large shopping centre, we decided to find somewhere to play some pool. On our way, I saw a Chinese camera crew interviewing passers-by. Deciding that Wang had star potential, I pushed him towards them and managed to get him in front of the camera. The lady reporter asked him a number of questions which he later told me were to discover how many famous Taiwanese songs he knew. Then, he was handed a lyric sheet and asked to sing a couple of them for the camera. He never asked which TV program this was for, so sadly we will never know if his appearance was broadcast on TV.
Afterwards, we stopped almost everyone in Beijing for directions before finding a pool hall. I can best explain how cold it was by saying that I had to wear a scarf under my clothes while I played. Wang proved to be a good player whilst I was on particularly bad form this day, even by usual standards. Therefore he comprehensively outplayed me in all four games. However, using my usual combination of negative and tactical play, I managed withstand his complaints of "It's not fair" and drag the first game out for a full twenty minutes. He then had to endure me pinching the third and the fourth games to secure an improbable 2-2 draw.
He had to go after that so I walked back to the hostel, going around The Forbidden City as the sun came down. I had found this a little underwhelming when I visited in August, possibly due to high expections. But, walking around the outside now and with lower expectations, I had to concede that I had perhaps been a little hard on it.
Thursday was shopping day. My mum had mentioned before that she was always amused by the traditional tight-fitting cheongsam (qi pao) dresses and had jokingly suggested that I bring one back for her so she could " sit on a bar stool at the quiz night and fascinate all the men". So I tried to see if I could get one made for her. I had Shan on hand for translations and together we looked at a couple of places that sold material and tailoring services. I left her to negotiate the price. It turned out afterwards that her tactic wasn't the usual "That's too much, I can get it for half the price down the street" that I might have expected. Instead she had been saying "I know he's foreign but please don't rip him off. Please, please give him a good, honest price. Please!". I just tried to look unimpressed and thoughtful until the price stopped dropping, which it did a bit so it must have been working.
With price agreed, we then had to handle the much trickier issue of measurements. I tried to explain that I get most of my size from my mother, so they should try to imagine a short, female version of me. Various shop assistant girls were brought forwards for me to inspect while they and I tried not to blush too much. "Is you mother taller than this girl?". "Are you mother's shoulders as wide as this girl's?". "Is you mother's bum as big as this girl's?'. It was all guesswork and I told them to err on the side of caution and make it a little bit too big if they were unsure, as it would be easier to have it made smaller at a UK tailor than made bigger.
Next up was some cookery stuff for Mark Watts. I wanted some authentic equipment but this wasn't as easy as I had imagined it. I thought I could go to some Chinese equivalent of Lakeland Plastics and take a choice from all sorts of weird and wonderful items. The truth of the matter is that most Chinese cookery is done by throwing it in a wok and most equipment is bought from a supermarket looking very much like what Tesco sell. I did manage to buy some small packs of dried ingrediants. Hopefully they are not common back home, but I know nothing of such matters so who knows? I picked up one packet that looked odd to me before realising that it was labeled 'Fennel'.
Everybody in Beijing always tells me that the Summer Palace is worth a visit, so off I went on Friday. I took metro line ten to its western end and then tried to walk the rest of the way. The distance didn't look far or complicated for me, but when I attempted it I found that I had to get around a major road intersection complete with multiple twirling sliproads, bridges, fences and a river that ran through the middle of it all. However, once I managed to get around everything, I found myself by the south gate to the area.
The south gate took me in to the south point of a large lake, on the north-east of which lay the main palace. I took an hour to stroll around clockwise, taking photographs and lapping up the sights as I went. The palace itself was a cracking complex, much of it built up the side of the hill. I had been advised that there were three hours of sights to be seen all told and my fast feet normally mean I spend less time at places than suggested. But, after three and a half hours it began to shut down for the evening and I think there was still a lot more I could have looked at, given the opportunity. See photos for a better understanding of it all.
Outside the east gate, I had a rare understanding of where the bus would go so I rode it as it crawled back into the city through its rushhour traffic, hopping off and walking around the north side of the Forbidden City when closer to my hostel.
It was an early-ish night for me afterwards as I had to be up at six to go to the Great Wall. Someone I knew came into the room at 4am. He used to live at the hostel for many months and although he has now moved out he is still one of the mainstays of the place. He had booked a bed for the night rather than go back to his home so late, but I thought he had been sent to wake me up because I was missing my coach and had kittens for a while until I could find my watch and work out what time it really was.
Two hours later and waking up at the correct time, I got dressed and made my way down to reception. A sleepy-eyed guide found us and took us to a coach which stopped at one other hotel on its way out of the city. This is low season for tourists so everyone on the bus was able to take a double-seat for themselves as we rode for a little over three hours. Upon arrival, I bought myself some biscuits for sustenance and made a farewell trip to the toilet before we were led up to a section of wall. The plan was to walk unguided at our own pace for approximately ten kilometres until a point where we would make our way back down to some late lunch and our waiting bus.
Low season meant that there were few people about which made for a very peaceful experience. The weather, whilst cold, wasn't badly cold and the sun was clear and bright throughout the day. I took many photos, most of which looked dubious on the screen when I looked at them at the time, but they were generally brilliant when I got them back to the PC afterwards.
I had some fairly low expectations of the day because, after all, it's just a wall. As an overall concept that it stretches for hundreds or thousands of miles (sorry, I can't be bothered to research this right now), one can't fail to be impressed. But when you're only looking at one bit of it, then the effect is less so. But, you can't really come to China or Beijing and not see it, so here I was. Possibly because I wasn't expecting much, I have to say that it was really great (no pun intended and only even noticed weeks later when I proof-read this). Incredible to follow it as it went up and down the hilltops (never flat), incredible to see it wind its way into the distance as far as the eye can see.
During most of the early stages, local farming people would come along to chat and act as impromptus guides. Realising that they wanted to sell me some of the tour books or t-shirts in their bags, I politely explained that I wouldn't be buying anything, reaffirming this point when they assured me "No, no, later". Further down the line, I spotted a couple of these guides who had firmly attached themselves to a trio of Germans. After a while, I quietly asked one of the group if they knew what was going to be asked of them later, in case they might end up in an unfortunate situation where angry guides felt they were 'owed' a sale after guiding them for three hours. The girl I spoke to said they had already tried to tell them they didn't want anything and that they were fully aware what the game was. One of the guides saw this and was less than happy. As we came to the next tower, she stayed behind with me when the others had gone upstairs and we had a shouting match during which she accused me of having told the Germans not to buy anything. "You no good!" she kept repeating. I countered that she didn't understand because I had not told them not to buy anything, which was true. What made me particularly proud of myself was that I was able to conduct this entire slanging match in Chinese. I knew those lessons would come in useful one day!
Further along, I got chatting to an Austrian called Matthias, with whom I continued through to the end which was shortly after a semi-spectacular suspension bridge across a section of river that had broadened into a lake. Climbing up through two more towers on the other side of the gorge, we exited the wall and started the twenty minute walk down to the far end of the lake. Before setting off, the tour guide had said something about taking this walk or 'flying' and then getting a boat, which I took to mean some kind of cable car. Matthias and I decided that the short distance did not make the idea of a cable car ride interesting enough so had opted for the walk. Two minutes down the rode we noticed one of the other tourists come flying past us. It turned out that 'flying' meant a giant deathslide all the way across and beyond the lake. We both made loud exclamations of surprise and turned about foot to march double-quick back up to the top to take our turn.
It was pretty nervy as we stood in the short queue to take a ride, but once on the actual slide it wasn't scary at all. Partly because the incline wasn't so steep which meant the speed was relatively slow. By the end you had to rely on a man turning a wheel to pull you into the landing platform. From there, ten of us squeezed into a tiny boat which crawled at walking pace to a jetty by some buildings where I was able to find the little, blue minibus I had been told to look for. This was to take me to the restaurant for lunch. However, it wasn't going to go until all five seats were full with passengers and I had to wait twenty minutes until anybody else turned up. The ride was just a minute along the road and I could have easily walked it in five or ten minutes had I known. As it was, most of the buffet food was going cold by the time I arrived.
Not that there was any need to rush through eating though. Apparently there was a problem with the alignment of one of the inner rear wheels on the bus. So we all had to wait for an extra hour while the driver, the guide and some people from the restaurant took two rear-right wheels off, then put two wheels back on again. It turns out that there are a lot of nuts and bolts on these things. Back on the road, we headed towards Beijing again, watching the leafless trees silhouetted against the layered, multi-coloured sunset.
On Sunday I went in search of a restaurant wholesale place that someone had suggested would be a good bet to buy some cookery stuff. I went to the area and wandered around for half an hour but drew a blank. I then went to the train station to buy a ticket for Wednesday and after that collected the dress for my mum from the tailors. Walking away, I passed a hotpot restaurant that had fascinating cooking stoves on every table. I went inside to try and find out more about them, but unfortunately couldn't make the waiter understand that I didn't want to eat, I just wanted to know where they got the stoves from. It wasn't a complete loss for Mark though as I stopped off at a large bookstore on the way home to buy some authentic-looking English language cookbooks for him.
Whilst taking a walk around Liangmaqiao and Chaoyang Park on Monday, I stopped into a restaurant for dinner. Only when I got home did I realise that I had put my t-shirt on inside out before I went out, so I must have looked pretty stupid to everyone while I was eating. Even more obviously as the t-shirt had a collar and a small amount of writing on the front. I only realised afterwards when I noticed that the word "Adidas" was forwards, not backwards, in the bathroom mirror.
Most of the rest of the time was spent catching up with correspondence before leaving for my train on Wednesday afternoon. I also went to the post office to send off books and the dress. You really wouldn't believe how much administrative work there is to do whilst away. Of course, I am to blame for part of this by insisting upon writing such a long blog, but there is also email, reading the news etc. It takes up an awful lot of time.
The taxi to the station was cutting it a bit finer than I would have liked. I left later than intended, but this was no problem as I had put plenty of extra time in the plan. But I had forgotten that I would be riding across the city through rush hour so was constantly looking at the clock on the taxi's dashboard as we crawled our way through traffic light after traffic light. It was all OK though, and I made my way onto the 19:03 to Pingyao, due in 07:28 the next morning. I bought some fruit bread to snack on during the journey in case dinner was not enough. But, I was so hungry I ate it as soon as I boarded so wasn't ready to eat properly until 21:15, by which time the on-board restaurant had shut meaning I was hungry all night after all.