Asia 2005 : Beijing


No doubt in preparation for the 2008 Olympics there will be a big education campaign to get Beijingers to speak a little English. The staff in the coffee shop I just arrived in is well ahead of the game: "Good morning" they chorus. Only problem: it's three in the afternoon.

I just spent two hours trying to find the office of "Monkey Business", the travel agency who have my Trans-Mongolian train tickets. According to the Lonely Planet, the office is on Dongdaqiao Xiejie. However, this is what I found at Dongdaqiao Xiejie:

The names of the sights in Beijing conjure up a mystical world: Gate of Heavenly Peace, Fragrant Hills Park, Temple of Heaven, White Cloud Temple. Then there's Tiananmen Square. Idwtgmsbbtcc. Still, nowadays the square (the largest in the world) is generally just full of Chinese tour groups, all anxious to get their photo taken in front of the big man, star of 10 yuan, 20 yuan AND 50 yuan notes, ladies and gentlemen, give it up for your Chairman for the night, it's ... MAO!

Mao gazes across the square from his lofty position on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, at his own mausoleum. If he were to glance right, he'd now see, beyond the 'Monument to the People's Heroes', the hulking curves of the 2008 Olympic Stadium.

After successfully picking up my Trans-Mongolian tickets from a new address I headed for the Lama Temple, billed as the biggest Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside Tibet. Outside there were about twenty monks in orange robes. "Ah, they must be the monks from the temple" I thought. On closer inspection, they seemed to have rucksacks and shopping bags, and several had camcorders. These were clearly tourist monks.

Inside the air was thick with incense. Signs noted that it required three incense sticks to pay homage to the Buddha, but many of the Chinese devotees were staying on the safe side and going for quantity, plunging handfuls of incense sticks into the fire tubs before vigorously bowing in front of one of the temple halls.

Thinking back, Buddhism had featured quite heavily in my trip up to now. I was no longer confusing my Buddhas with my Bodhisattvas, and I could tell the difference between a green and a white Tara.

Note to self: bring children to Tibetan Buddhist temples: hours of fun can be had spinning the big prayer wheels.

At the Temple of Heaven I seem to have walked into a scene out of the Wizard of Oz. A woman in a long white dress has decided to start tap dancing in the middle of the path.

The Chinese look on in bemusement; not that it is that odd here. Numerous times I've come across people in strange postures doing Tai Chi, or slapping themselves over the head, or grannies (it's usually the old) poised, legs flailing, on children's climbing frames.

The evening is the time for spying. I head over to San Li Tun, the famed bar area of the city. The authorities don't seem to like having a famed bar area, so the pubs and clubs are frequently forced out of their premises and the area bulldozed (this is what had happened to the "Monkey Business" office). An Irishman I meet who is planning to set up his own bar (quick plug for 'The Pavilion') tells me you can often only get a bar lease on a week-by-week basis. Still there are lots of embassies in the San Li Tun area, and where there are embassies there are ex-pats, and where there are ex-pats there will be alcohol.

I'm really spying to see what life is like for foreigners in China, since I'm considering becoming one myself. In addition, introducing myself as a spy tends to provoke a better reaction than introducing myself as an unemployed consultant.

The bar I'm in has a cellar full of Belgian beers and Hooegarden on tap. It's full of particularly smart looking Dutch ex-pats who have just been to their embassy to meet the Crown Prince of Holland.

The Great Wall

Next day and we're off on a tour to the Great Wall. Today's tour guide is called Monica (well obviously she isn't, but Chinese people seem to feel they need to get an English name when dealing with English people. Ye briefly flirted with the name 'Ian' when he came to Britain, but thankfully changed his mind.)

Monica favours audience participation during her commentary. Since the audience is a little reticent, I am shouting out "20" for every question. How many concubines do you think the emperor had? 20! How many nationalities in this bus? 20! How many cars are there in Beijing? 20!

At Mutianyu the stubborn bastards, that is to say the Germans and myself, resolve to walk up to the wall rather than pay to take the cable car.

The view from the top is one of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. It looks exactly how the Great Wall SHOULD - winding away over the mountains, with no respect for terrain.

The Great Wall was built to keep out the unpleasant Mongols coming from the north, but was never very successful as a fortification. It did however provide an excellent transport route for sending troops along to the latest troublespot.

Coincidentally the Chinese had just completed the mammoth engineering project of building a railway line from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet. Idwtgmsbbtcc.

Now we'd reached the wall I felt the need to out-do the cable car cheats, and make it to Hero's Tower, the furthest extremity of this part of the wall: according to Monica anyone who reached Hero's Tower would become a hero. The Germans start singing "We could be heroes... just for one day!" Necessity propels me to break into a trot towards the distant tower, speeding past old grannies and dodging round Japanese posing for the obligatory photo or twenty.

I only have two hours to make it up to the tower and back. After a long uphill stretch I meet a girl taking a breather, and as happens every five years or so, I discover our only language in common is French. "Erm... c'est quelque minutes l'apex de la montagne?"

Next, I compose a particular unoriginal song to keep up my spirits as I climb the last exhausting flight of steps

I don't know what I've been told
The Great Wall is very old
It was built up by the Qin
That is why we all now sing

(repeat ad nauseam)

Well, I was a hero (just for one day). At the top of the final 300 steps which I hauled myself up was an 80-year-old postcard seller.

The Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing is a branch of Starbucks. The world is fucked-up.

Strangely enough the audio tour of the Forbidden City is narrated by Roger Moore. His dulcet tones lead you down the Imperial Path, previously reserved only for the Emperor himself.

Roger informed me about the many privileges afforded the 'Son of Heaven'. Only he could use the Imperial Path, only he could write in red ink, only he could wear decorated robes, and of course only he could have a harem of 3000 concubines.

Within the inner court only the Emperor, Empress and concubines were allowed, tended to be eunuchs and maidservants. The maidservants had a pretty bad time of it, however the eunuchs could actually wield great political power... many of the emperors were too busy with their concubines to attend to matters of state.

Zhongshan Park

Great views of the Forbidden City. One tourist draw is being able to dress up like an Emperor... some people fit the role better than others!

Onwards from Beijing

Go out for dinner with a bunch of people from the hostel.

There's a Korean brother and sister, who make up for their appalling English with giant smiles; Mike, an American with a laptop and a million photos; Hiromi from Japan who is delegated to read the menu (hey! Japanese is practically the same as Chinese, no?) and happily enough Yakir from Chengdu (I FOUND ANOZZER VONE!)

Well I'm prepared for my Trans-Mongolian odyssey. I've stocked up on instant noodles, dried banana and chocolate. I've bought myself a Beijing 2008 sweatshirt to fend off the cold Russian winter and I'm now the proud owner of a natty alarm clock to wake me up early tomorrow morning. The alarm clock has 4 ring tones to choose from: I have selected the William Tell Overture to rouse me in the morning.

Next: Trans Mongolian >>