Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beijing Blog 3

Can’t leave China without doing the wall. Every guide book advises doing it via an organized tour. The conference has fixed one up for a fee. Which is all very convenient, except that I have a great loathing of organized tours. I’d rather not see the place than have a guy with a raised umbrella mechanically rattle off data and then shovel me back into a bus so he can take me to a jade factory.

Thankfully some research tells me there is a fast train to the Badaling wall. I get to Beijing North railway station and manage to buy a ticket even though the first clerk assures me there is no such train. Spotless platform, convenient though crowded train. Should have got the first class ticket. Anyway, friendly Beijingers make a bit of space for me, and I’m ok. Coming into Badaling, I count 200 tour buses, and that’s only what is visible to me. There is a public section to the wall, and there is a section reserved for officials and VIPs. I muse on the fact that with all the talk of power to the people, only a tiny political elite get all the jam. What’s better - Ration by willingness to pay or by political muscle? Either way, the common man is screwed. I do the obligatory walk up the wall to a few turrets and then return. First class on return and it is all very comfy and swishy.

The sun finally breaks through the sky. A kid wants to take his picture with me, and I oblige. I want to tell him that I am from a place where the people only slightly less numerous than they are, and so he would be impressing nobody. But perhaps he just wants a picture with a dunce who keeps leaving more money than asked for in the bill.

Beijing Blog 2

You can only call it the Forbidden City with a sense of irony anymore. Really, it could do with a lot more forbidding. At the moment, the mantra seems to be to pack ‘em in and pile ‘em high. I am in the middle of the Forbidden City, and the atmosphere is that of a vacuum-packed can of sardines. I have been to greatly crowded tourist spots like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat before, but this is something else entirely. Even growing up in India and working in Bangladesh did not prepare me for this. How could they possibly fit in so many people in an enclosed space?! Did I chance to come in on a day when they were preparing to enter the Guinness book, like those zillions squashing into Volkswagen Beetles in the sixties?

My day started in rather more tranquil fashion at Jing Shan park, directly north of the Forbidden City, and notable as an oasis of peace and greenery that the last Ming emperor decided would do as a place to hang himself in after disposing of his pesky family with a scythe. A plaque explains the murky details and is read with great interest by visitors. Something to do with enemies at the gate, palace intrigue, cheating wives and conniving eunuchs – a little bit for everyone, and a sure-fire magnet for crowds. The terraces atop the hill in Jing Shen afford great views of the layout of Forbidden City and I entered the City from the Jing Shen entrance, in reverse to the average visitor who enters from Tiannanmen Square.

The Forbidden City is stunning. Breathtaking. At least I think so, because between the Gate of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, I enter a State of Incipient Panic owing to the thickness of the crowds. Either I am getting too old or have developed agoraphobia. But you do need the imagination of a Zhang Yimou to mentally erase the crowds from the Forbidden City and imagine it in its imperial splendour.

Late evening. I finally track down the Purple Bodhi, a vegetarian restaurant in Chaoyang where I am based. It is beautifully decorated but the waitresses seem surprised that anyone bothered to come in for a meal. The menu has been devised by a nature poet. I choose ‘Moonlight on the Lotus Pond’ (lotus root and button mushrooms in a clear soup) and ‘Eternal Happiness’ (medley of fresh green vegetables) with rice. How could I refuse dishes with these titles? You have to love the nature theme that runs through Chinese culture. A good meal, and and I leave a good tip, which is promptly returned to me by the uncomprehending waitress.

Beijing Blog 1

Fly in on the red-eye Air China flight from Bangkok to Beijing. As the plane hovers over Beijing capital airport at 6:00 am, things look murky, misty and rainy – I might as well be in the UK. We seem to have caught Beijing at the threshold between sleepy weekend lethargy and manic monday-morning explosion of activity. Terminal 3 is massive and gleaming. We are required to fill out a swine flu card requiring self-reporting of symptoms. I wonder which fool would confess to racking coughs and high fever and risk immediate quarantine and a battery of tests.

The taxi driver does not speak a word of English –none of the ones I have encountered so far do. Which is a darned inconvenience when trying to explain where you want to want to go. Without written details in Chinese or a map, you have no chance of getting anywhere in a hurry. But the lack of English can also be a blessing. I am no fan of chatty taxi-drivers. The way I see it, once the journey has started, the taxi driver and passenger should pretend the other does not exist. After negotiating a series of highways and ring-roads, we are finally at the hotel. I pay the exact metre fare and get a printed receipt – perfect.

Afternoon – decide to try out the metro system and get to Tiannanmen square. I tell the hotel receptionist I want to walk to the metro station, and she looks at me pityingly as she would a rank fool. Despite her exhortations, I decide to walk to the metro station. This is a European trait I seem to have picked up, choosing to walk whenever possible. Mental note – quickly discard this trait whilst outside Europe. Beijing is a bit like LA, it does not look kindly upon pedestrians. Nothing is within walking distance, and pedestrians are considered target-practice. You are the lowest being in the traffic food chain, and they are lining up to mow you down. The pedestrian green light is not a signal for YOU to cross safely, but rather a signal for THEM to prepare to squash you. After an eternity on foot, get to the metro station. The ticketing is easy to follow. One of the great advantages of being an Olympic city is that the infrastructure is designed to be visitor-friendly. I still manage to make a mess of the simple act of buying a ticket from the touch screen system, until a kindly local helps me out. Beijingers are curious about foreigners, but they just don’t like to acknowledge it. So you will get the briefest of flickers from curious eyes before they return to looking past you.

The metro train is packed to the gills. I try to hold my breath everytime someone coughs, and find out this is a cheap ticket to asphyxiation. There it is, Tiannanmen square, just like in the pictures. Except heaving with people exiting the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao keeps a stern eye from the gate of F City, no doubt marking me out as a trouble-making capitalist pig. The square is an impressive sight, flanked as it is by the Great Hall of the People where the legislature meets, the National Museum and the Forbidden City. I try to imagine 1989 and one man holding his arms out to a rolling tank, but find that it is difficult to think in a thick crowd. A couple of art students engage me in conversation. Their English is quite good, and they persuade me to take a look at their exhibition in a little annex to the museum. Quite good stuff – typical Chinese nature paintings along the lines of Qi Baishi’s, which I am quite fond of. They gently coax me into buying some of their stuff, and I eventually give in, buying a set of four season paintings in watercolour on scrolls. Exiting, I wonder if I have been scammed. If so, they are terrific actors. But I think not.