Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Friday 24th September 2004

The colour that best defines Beijing is grey. The roads, the buildings, the sky - all are grey, a colour which mutes the bright temples and red lanterns that swing above streets and doorways. But despite the impression this might give, the city is captivating and dazzling, the streets full of constant diversions and for a foreigner, almost everything can give rise to endless speculation.

What first struck me was the traffic. Gridlock characterised much of the journey from the airport, which eventually ended in a narrow hutong close to the centre of Beijing, the location of the charismatic hotel - where I managed to meet up with Claire. That evening we struck out towards the flashy shopping area of Wangfujing, where, to continue the traffic theme, we discovered that many of the main roads through Beijing's centre take both courage and minutes to cross - they seem as wide as motorways.

Over the next couple of days we orientated ourselves - the obvious starting point was Tian'anmen Square, vast and liberally peppered with tourists and monuments, this place does, in a way, feel like the centre of China. Given my new-found hobby of viewing long-dead Communist leaders, Mao Zedong's mausoleum beckoned, a grand structure parked in the middle of the square. Visitors are allowed to see Mao in tightly regimented groups. Claire and I had to fall into ranks in such a small group, and then solemnly march towards the mausoleum. Many of the Chinese in front of us chaotically broke ranks on spotting a flower stall, running towards it and waving money at the vendor to buy tributes to Mao. But soon we were inside the mausoleum, passing by a statue of the erstwhile leader benignly relaxing on an arm chair. And then there he was, much thinner than I expected, lying under a hammer and sickle. To be honest, he looked like a waxwork - and there are rumours to this effect. Supposedly the real Mao was so distorted during the botched embalming process that a wax model had to be used instead.

We continued our acquaintance with the Tian'anmen Square area the following day, passing under the giant portrait of Mao to enter the Forbidden City. The place was packed with tourists - notably giant flag-following tour parties, each member identifiable from badges or colour-coded baseball caps. Like us, they wandered the collection of lavish pavilions, alleyways and gardens, enclosed by the high red walls of peeling paint. Perhaps like me they tried to imagine the palace as it was - populated by high officials, eunuchs and concubines. It wasn't an easy picture to conjure, despite remembered scenes from The Last Emperor. But the majesty and history emanating from the Forbidden City is awe-inspiring. Plus I had an excellent guide in the audio-tour. Sir Roger Moore provides English speaking tourists with a friendly and easy-going route through the main buildings.

Often, when directing me to the point when I should next turn on the guide he would say:

'Take a few minutes to discover the area, and I'll meet you over at marker number 5, just by the large incense burner'.

On finishing the tour, he hoped I had enjoyed it adding:

'Personally, I have enjoyed it immensely'. Which was good to know.

As well as the major sights, we have also enjoyed some of Beijing's many parks and lakes - a pleasant refuge from the bustling streets, they are also perfect for people watching. Tai Chi enthusiasts practice along side rehearsing opera singers. In the early evening, bats fill the sky flitting over pagodas and the still surfaces of the lakes. And as usual, people stare at us - surprising perhaps for such a cosmopolitan city.

Yesterday we took a hutong tour, riding a rickshaw through the ancient lanes of the low grey houses - Beijing used to be full of these little alleys, but now most have been demolished, the few hundred remaining cluster around the centre of the city. The tour was fascinating. As well as visiting the home of a hutong dwelling family and enjoying a tea ceremony, we visited a kindergarten. Claire was suspicious that the place was a 'show kindergarten' - and she may have been right. It was certainly well equipped, with CCTV cameras and a ball pool. We arrived during morning exercises when all the 'little emperors' were out in the playground, running in circles and generally being endearing. Some were shy, some pointed at me and laughed (not unusual among children here I have discovered) others came to talk to us through an interpreter. I asked some of them what they wanted to do. One loud little girl wanted to go to university and make money for her family. A boy wanted to be a policeman, another girl wanted to work at McDonald's.

'McDonald's is dustbin food' said a boy to the girl. She shouted back, as did he, and the conversation disintegrated into an uninterpreted, typical toddler brawl. I suddenly became a little overwhelmed with the innocence of the children. It was a great place to visit.

After a quick stop at the hotel to shave off my beard, we headed to Yonghe Gong, a Tibetan temple. The over-ornate pagodas and brash decor is more how I expected the comparatively restrained Forbidden City to be. The centrepiece of Yonghe Gong is a huge 180 metre standing Buddha carved out of sandalwood. I imagined him coming to life and rampaging through the city, like the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters.

There is too much going on in Beijing to write about in much detail - every aspect deserves a comment and every comment begs questions which can't be answered - so much is incomprehensible. As well as the above we have drank lots of tea, seen the ornate Temple of Heaven, picked our way through the hectic shopping of Dazhalan and gorged on fatty Peking Duck.

65 - posted at 12:27:46
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Comments

It certainly is not dustbin food - and I have breifed my lawyers sufficeintly to whap a 'cease and desist' order on that brat's ass.

Thanks for the post-card by the way. Very efficient postal system.

RT

1: RoboDoc (The Sticks) - 10:03:44 on Tuesday 28th September 2004 (permalink)

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