Wednesday, July 04, 2012


We landed in a soup of smog. The land barely visible until we felt the rattle of wheels on the ground. The airport (new since the Olympic Games) is vast and shiny. The officials whizz around on their Segways and scowl. The quality of the air is appalling. You can positively taste the pollution. I’m really hopeful that our four days here won’t be like this. We meet Eric, who is going to be showing us around. Abby’s sister Ida has pulled some sort of magic trick and hooked us up with some unbelievable accommodations. Everyone around us treats us like royalty. I could get used to this!

We go down into the basement (the hotel is over a shopping mall) to the food court for supper. We wander around looking at the amazing selection of food. It all looks great and is amazingly cheap. No money changes hands at the restaurants. You pay the cashier at the front to put money on your card. When you order your food they wave it over a machine to deduct the cost and you get refunded for what you didn’t spend as you leave. Another take on Hong Kong’s Octopus card. We could definitely take lessons from the Chinese on restaurant tech.

Wake up to beautiful sunshine. The view out one window is the rooftops of the Forbidden City. Outside the bathroom window I watch a busy intersection that appears to have no traffic signals. Three cyclists almost flattened in the space of two minutes. When we get out on the street I realize the lights are working, only noone pays them any mind. The English language Beijing paper reports on the happy return of Hong Kong to China. Abby shows us a news report (that is blocked in mainland China) of 400,000 Hong Kongers protesting in the streets.

We get a ride to the People’s National Theatre, or the Bird’s Egg as it is known by Beijingers to go along with the Bird’s Nest, and then on to Tian’anmen Square which is heaving with people. As Eric pointed out, it is low season for foreign tourists, who are scared off by the heat, but high season for Chinese who are on summer holiday. We are elbow to elbow with masses of people. Most follow a little red or yellow flag and a guide who is shouting into a little microphone. It’s all photo ops as people queue to have their picture taken underneath Chairman Mao’s portrait.

The only building within the 117 acre square is Mao’s mausoleum which was erected very shortly and very quickly after his death in 1976. We read somewhere that the present powers that be now wish it had never been built but that noone has the guts to take it down. At one end of the square are the gates to the Forbidden City. Mao’s huge portrait hangs over the door with an inscription in Chinese that basically says “We’re coming in, whether you like it or not”. The portrait is a bit of a blight on the gorgeous building but when we ask Eric how long he thinks it will hang there he answers, in a tone that leaves very little room for doubt, “Always.” The other buildings surrounding the square, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People are monoliths.

The Forbidden City is a veritable warren of courtyards and buildings. The scale of the place begins to boggle the mind and then you find out that you haven’t even entered the Inner Court. The details!! The hinges, the woodcarving, the gutters, the roofing! So many hours of painstaking labour.

The names of the structures demonstrate exactly what place the Emperor and his entourage felt they occupied in the universe; the Palace of Heavenly Peace, the Palace of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity. It was believed, when the place was built back in 1420, that Heaven was made up of 10,000 rooms so the Emperor (oh the humility!) made sure the City only had 9999.

The Inner Court was reserved for the Emperor, the Empress, his thousands of concubines and the eunuchs who served them. For lineage’s sake, the only testicles allowed in the City were the emperor’s — except for those hanging in a little bag on the eunuchs’ waists! The story goes that the emperor would choose from a tray of tablets containing the concubines’ names to determine who would visit him that evening. The concubine would then be delivered on a eunuch’s back (their bound feet kept them from walking long distances) dressed only in a yellow wrap (the imperial colour).

Every inch of the place has significance — the number of creatures adorning the roof to ward off evil spirits come in nines, or sevens or fives depending on who inhabits the space. Dragons and phoenixes (for the emperor and empress) adorn every space occupied by the royal couple. Images of cranes and turtles, signs of longevity, abound.The whole of it is surrounded by a moat which connects it via canal to the Summer Palace where the Emperor and company spent some time escaping hot summer in the city over twenty kilometres away.

Lunch is dreamy thanks to Abby, who takes charge of the menu at mealtimes, ordering up a dozen or so dishes, each one more delicious than the last. The food in Beijing is very different from that of Hong Kong. Lots of yummy, goopy sauces. Lots of nuts. At 25 million strong, people from all over the country settle down here and it shows in the dishes which, according to Abby’s discerning palate, have the colours of many different provinces. She has taught us a lot about eating in China. When someone pours you tea, you tap the table with your index to show your thanks. When you drop a chopstick on the floor, you throw down the other for good luck.

After lunch, we visit the Summer Palace, the country version of the Forbidden City which has long since been absorbed by an ever-growing Beijing. Huge shade trees, a man-made mountain overlooking a man-made lake (the optimal feng shui dictates having your back to the mountain facing the water — nothing a little slave labour can’t fix), more woodwork, the longest corridor in the world, more jaw-dropping beauty. The opulence is astounding.

At one point I ran ahead of our group to find a toilet (or hand-washing place as it is known in Mandarin). My progress was slowed by a barricade of security guards who surrounded a small group of foreign dignitaries by the marble boat on the lake. The guards were stone-faced and unmoving, self-important as they pushed people out of the way. As they moved along with their VIPs, the crowd fell in to fill the void. By the time everyone had caught up with me moments later it was as though it had never happened.

Eric explained that the marble boat was the emperor’s answer to an old Chinese saying. “The waters that float a boat can also swallow it”, i.e., the people are the water and the emperor the vessel. The Marble boat made during Emperor Qianlong’s reign (although perhaps not of the most buoyant material) is definitely unsinkable.

Chinese tourists (probably people from the countryside in the big city for the first time) stop the girls and ask to have their pictures taken with them. It is so strange to think of families in distant parts of China having a picture of Alice and Frances in their family photo albums.

In the evening we take a walk through the nearby night market — a wide pedestrian walkway filled with families out walking, couples holding hands, hawkers. One side of a long block is filled with food stalls selling everything from dumplings to scorpions on a stick. The gross-out award goes to the skewers of silkworms that go on the grill but the seahorses and grasshoppers on a stick take a close second. The only ones eating these things are young Americans & Australians. The hawkers loudly point out the “do-you-dare” food to the foreigners, perhaps the only ones stupid enough to try. A lot of green-faced gwailos (ghost faces) wander around holding half-eaten starfish on a stick.

p.s. i'll try to get the next blog up before we go to Chengde tomorrow morning. Apparently access to facebook and blogger will be blocked once we leave this hotel.

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