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Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

When I tried to log into my WordPress account on Monday evening to post my experiences on the Great Wall, I encountered difficulties. I was able to log in through the main page, but I couldn’t access my blog at all. I could only assume that the presence of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Mao’ had led to my blog being blocked. I had Habiba make the post for me – I would have included some pictures, otherwise.

On Tuesday and Wednesday – my last two full days in the Middle Country – I didn’t do a huge amount. Tried to do a bit of writing. Went to have a look at the CCTV (China Central Television) building – the one that has two legs connected by a bridge at the top. It’s a very big building. Mark explained later on that one of the nearby buildings, a more conventional tower, was built as a companion building – the latter symbolising the male member, the M-shaped building representing the female legs. The ‘penis’ had been gutted by fire after a celebration with fireworks went disastrously wrong. On there I passed by the British Abassador’s residence and the British Embassy. Maybe I could have dropped in to say hello to David Cameron. The Chinese soldiers in dress uniform outside were a bit scary, though.

I had dinner with Charlie and Mark each night; the first night we had roast duck and then went for a walk around a small lake – Hou Hai, I think – one of a series of linked lakes surrounded by park that I should have gone to in the daytime, but didn’t. This lake was actually ringed by bars, each one with a PA speaker outside blasting out whatever was playing inside (many bars had live music or karaoke). It was an interesting sonic landscape.

On the Wednesday, I finally took the plunge and bought a few souvenirs from a little maze of alleys crowded with stalls that I hadn’t actually known was there until I started exploring for gift shops. Along with stalls piled high with what we could probably safely describe as tourist tat, there were stalls selling meat shish kebabs or fruit shish kebabs or live scorpion shish kebabs (I assume they get deep fried before you eat them). I didn’t try any.

I was nervous of the whole haggling process and walked into a couple of shops and past a few stalls without stopping to be sold to. Eventually, though I got a small brass dragon as the first of my purchases. The process for haggling for this was typical of what happened for later purchases – or attempted sales on behalf of the stall-holders. I asked how much it was and the woman asked me how much I wanted to pay. I didn’t know so she typed on a large calculator, ’80’ (£8). I said, ‘Twenty,’ and she was all, ‘No, no,’ so I walked away. Then she grabbed my sleeve (arm- and sleeve-grabbing happened a lot) as I went and as I pulled away she said, ‘OK, twenty.’ And that was that.

The woman I bought my gift for Habiba from complemented my hard bargaining skills – I’m sure she just wanted me to buy other stuff from her. A man pointed out a mah jongg set as I browsed his stall. He wanted 650 yuan for it, but came down to 200 as I walked away. I didn’t want to spend that much money anyway – because I’m a cheapskate. I did also buy a pair of massage balls. Each being maybe three centimetres or so in diameter; one blue, one red, both with yin and yang signs on them. They have bells inside. Your supposed to roll them around in a circle on one hand without letting them touch each other.

Separately, I bought a couple of jars of spicy sauce and a few packets of snacks (one of which promises ‘Odd taste’) from a little supermarket near my hostel.

I also – following Charlie and Mark’s advice – changed my train ticket to Tianjin on Wednesday night to one for Thursday morning – the morning of my ferry from Tianjin to Incheon. This sounds dangerous, but, while I was supposed to be a the ferry terminal at 9 am, the bullet trains from Beijing run very often and early and only take 30 minutes to get there. If only you could go everywhere by bullet train.

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Yesterday, I went to the Summer Palace, which just outside central Beijing at the end of one of the subway lines, with Charlie and Mark. The occasion was overshadowed by a couple of things: firstly, I’d been sick the night before so I was feeling a little tired and fragile of stomach; secondly, for the first time since I’d been in China, the weather wasn’t great – it was hazy and smoggy – it reminded me of my first day in India, although the sky wasn’t quite as brown as that.

Whereas the day before, I’d been to the Temple of Heaven and taken my time wandering around at will taking photographs of whatever caught my fancy, at the Summer Palace, with a couple of friends, there was a different dynamic. It was more about chatting than sightseeing, and with the weather as it was, the sights weren’t highly seeable anyway.

We had arranged to meet on the platform at Beigongmen Station in northwest Beijing (not the track, as Charlie had originally suggested – a suggestion that my inner pedant could not resist correcting), but I was fifteen minutes late, partly because I hadn’t set out early enough and partly because I got on the wrong train at first and went a couple of stops in the wrong direction. When I got there there was no sign of Charlie or Mark. I walked up and down the platform, went up the escalator, hung around up there for a minute, went down again, up again and finally sat down to read on one of the few benches on the platform. I was still suffering a little from the night before and was dehydrated because I had felt up to consuming anything.

I’d read a page or so before Charlie and Mark turned up, the former apologising profusely. We went out of the station and headed to a vendor of street food. Charlie bought a thing made of a large, thin pancake with a couple of eggs fried on top of it (maybe some other stuff – I can’t remember) then folded up and served in a plastic bag. I tried a bite – it seemed tasty, but I couldn’t really stomach food.

There was some construction or renovation work going at the palace, so shortly after we entered and we had crossed a bridge over a picturesque pool surrounded by buildings we were faced with a barrier. So we went round instead of going straight up to a temple on top of a hill looking over the boating lake. We didn’t go into the big temple just below it, but walked down to the lake. There were hordes of tourists walking along the lakeside. We walked round to a seventeen-arched bridge that led to a small island and then headed out – at an entrance at some distance from the subway station, so we had to walk a long way back. Whilst in the palace, I bought a deck of playing cards with Chinese emperors’ faces in place of the normal spades, kings etc.

After taking the subway a couple of stops, we got out to take a taxi to one particular university in an area of universities. At this university we went to a Muslim restaurant – only it wasn’t there because the building had been demolished. After making enquiries of passersby (a large proportion of which were young non-Chinese – all students here studying Chinese, probably) we found the restaurant in a nearby building – the university dining hall, in fact. It was called ‘Muslim Restaurant’ – which may not have been a direct translation of the Arabic text above the door.

The food there was OK – the roast chicken and lamb shish kebab were very tasty, and there was some delicious bread. I could feel as I ate, though, that it wasn’t such a good idea for me to eat so much. And indeed, later that night, I developed a bad headache and threw up a couple of times.

I slept to nearly midday today, deliberately giving my body some much needed rest. The rest wasn’t very consistent, as people in my dorm were coming and going all evening and morning, but it seemed to do the trick. During the day I went to Starbucks for a tea and did some writing then came back to the hostel, watched some Prison Break and did some more writing. I had dinner at a bare little restaurant that I’d noticed on the main road near the hostel and that is often full of people. I ordered a stir-fry and a bowl of soup that was much larger than I’d expected. The stir-fry was tasty, but very greasy and rather salty, and it started to make me feel queasy. The soup wasn’t great.

Today, I also signed up for a trip to the Great Wall. I’m to be in the hostel’s bar/restaurant at 7:15 tomorrow morning – which means I should probably get ready and go to bed.

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Last night was marred – as is always the danger when staying in a hostel – by an old guy in my dorm snoring like a hippopotamus. I got up in the middle of the night to apply my patented earplugs – pieces of tissue mushed up with spittle and squeezed into my ears. I slept well after that – but got up at about 9:30 – a bit late.

I went to the Temple of Heaven for the duration of the afternoon. The central hall is a spectacular, circular, three-storied edifice – but there are a number of other buildings within the huge, park-like compound. Wikpedia says:

The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven (traditional Chinese: 天壇; pinyin: Tiāntán; Manchu: Abkai mukdehun) is a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It is regarded as a Taoist temple, although Chinese Heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.

I spent a good long while slowly making my way round, photographing comprehensively. Although the central axis of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven (another beautiful but less monumental circular building and linked to the first by a wide raised road) and the Circular Mound Altar was fairly crowded with tourists, the rest of the place was less visited.

There was also the Abstinence Palace, where the Emperor hung out before performing the ceremonies, and the Double-loop Longevity Pavilion, which was populated by elderly Chinese folk hanging out in the late afternoon. I also passed a man playing a scratchy traditional violin while the woman sitting next to him sang. In the same little square hidden amongst the cypresses were a few kite fliers – one man had a kite that was so high I couldn’t find it in my camera’s viewscreen to photograph it.

After finishing at the temple I headed out of the West Gate and walked to Beijing South Railway Station, where I came into Beijing from Qingdao, to buy a ticket for Wednesday to go to Tianjin. And after subwaying back to my hostel to pick up my computer I went to a duck restaurant and ate duck. Not roast duck, though – perhaps a mistake, but it was a little expensive. On the subject of which, I have 700 yuan left (about £70). Apart from food and drink, my main expense is a trip to the Great Wall – which will probably use up about half of that, all told – and a night’s stay in Tianjin. I also need to keep 30 yuan to be able to get out of the country.

Tomorrow, Charlie and I and maybe Mark will go to the Summer Palace.

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Yesterday, I went to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square where Mao’s body is on display. I’d been told by Charlie not to take my bag, as they weren’t allowed. I joined the fast-moving queue near the entrance and in a few minutes passed through the security checkpoint, where my phone was scanned (it doesn’t work in China – I brought it for the time and alarm), and was into the mausoleum. It was free.

Most of the tourists – dare I say, pilgrims – there were older Chinese people. A lot of them were very eager to get inside, hurrying and pushing. Once we got into the building, though, a hush fell over the crowd and people shuffled along in a slightly more orderly manner. The first chamber has a marble statue of Mao and the flow of people split two ways to enter the central chamber. There, everyone shuffled extra slowly – or tried to, as the staff shooed people along handily.

The central room was dark, with lights shining on the case containing the body. He certainly looked a little plasticky – but better than most people do decades after their birth. For me, the visit to the mausoleum was a novelty, but I suppose it must have been a special moment for the Chinese people. You could say that the equivalent for me would be seeing Churchill’s body if it were on display in London – but I can’t really imagine that I would see doing that as much more than a novelty either.

Later on, I went to the Olympic Green and walked around the National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) and the National Aquatics Center. I then went to meet Charlie and Mark for dinner at a restaurant near where they live.

The following day, Charlie planned to take a day off – partly because of a bad back, but mainly, I think, because I provided her with an excuse to go to the aquarium at Beijing Zoo. We met at 11 o’clock and each paid 120 yuan for admittance to all parts of the zoo – Beijing Aquarium being the most expensive part by far.

The zoo was pretty dingy and the animals didn’t seem the happiest creatures in the world. The pandas were all sleeping and were begrimed with dust from their enclosures. At the bear enclosures, people threw bits of food down to the eager black and brown bears; people even poured drinks directly into the mouths of the brown bears as they flattened themselves against the enclosure wall with their mouths open. The lions and tigers outside were also sleeping. We went into an inside area where there were a number of cages about 8 by 12 feet. One tiger paced up and down in this limited space, another slept. The cages looked like prison cells.

The aquarium was less depressing – fish don’t have feelings, after all. Highlights in here included a pond roiling with hungry, hungry carp that approached the sides for titbits from the visitors (they weren’t coy). There was a large tank that could be viewed from different sides and had a tube running up and through it with an escalator in side. In the tank were a turtle or two and several large stingrays and manta rays – one of which had a round body and a very long tail and looked kind of like a flying saucer. There were huge sturgeon, porcupine fish, jellyfish, starfish, dolphins and seals.

After that, I tried, with little success, to write, and then went once again to Charlie and Mark’s place, where they kindly cooked dinner for us and another guest.

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This afternoon, after writing in the morning and eating and writing in the evening I walked to the Forbidden City, of which, Wikipedia tells us:

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing, China, and now houses the Palace Museum. For almost five hundred years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government.

Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers 720,000 m2 (7,800,000 sq ft). The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

I don’t know if I saw all of those 720,000 square metres (far from it, I’m sure), but I went in through the main entrance, beneath the portrait of Mao, bought a ticket and went into the palace proper and spent at least a couple of hours working my way northwards through the compound, past a number of halls. It was all very grand. Huge buildings sitting in huge squares, with huge numbers of people streaming up through the middle of the palace.

Amongst all the usual tourists, many of them Chinese, I think, with a smattering of foreigners – lots of blond, Teutonic, Nordic types – there were large groups of older Chinese people. These, in particular, were ones to avoid, as they tend to swarm desperately to the most exciting spots – the doorways into the halls – to catch glimpses of the treasures within. The interiors of the halls were fairly dark (naturally enough) and bare – actually not that exciting.

I was stopped by a couple of Chinese couples who wanted me to take their pictures. I was happy to oblige. I was also approached by a middle-aged guy who wanted to take my picture with the women with him. I was bemused and amused by this but complied cheerfully. I was buttonholed by a smartly dressed man of about 25 or 30 who spoke very good English and wanted to show me a gallery of artworks produced by university students, of whom he was one. He followed me round as I browsed, clearly hoping to make a sale, but I wasn’t ready to buy souvenirs yet – and said as much.

At the northern side of the complex was a garden area full of smaller, more intimate buildings. This area also had a number of unusual rocks, bits of coral and so on. Some of the rocks were formed into passageways and installations, beside which were signs that warned, ‘PERILOUS HILLS, NO CLIMBING PLEASE’.

Beyond the north gate of the Forbidden City and its moat, I went into Jingshan Park and ascended the hill there, which gave great panoramic views of the city. Having seen a line of massive gates extending from the south side of Tiananmen Square all the way up to the north end of the Forbidden City, I was impressed – and a little depressed – to see that there were more monumental gates extending further north (I’d glimpsed some further south, beyond the shopping street south of Tiananmen, as well). Depressed because it makes me feel I have to go and look at them all.

Having left my computer and backpack at the hostel, I headed back there, tired and sated with sightseeing, to pick up my things and head off to dinner. Eventually, after walking round for a while longer, I plucked up my courage and went into a place that looked neither too fancy nor too basic and had a tasty dinner of Taiwanese-style chicken and vegetables with some rice. After that I went to Starbucks for dessert, coffee and writing.

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Today was quite a pleasant day. I found out where the hostel was were Habiba stayed when she was in the country. I think I hadn’t understood a critical part of the directions right at the beginning, causing me to start off going one way, when I should have been going the other. It’s quite a nice little place – Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel – and is a short walk from Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Mao’s Mausoleum and so on.

After checking in to this hostel, I checked out of the previous one, handed over a bag of clothes to be cleaned – 39 yuan – and headed off for a walk. I walked around Tiananmen Square and around a nearby area of pretty shops aimed at tourists.

After that I walked back to the area near both the hostels that is full of gleaming malls – even a Lotte Department Store (Lotte is one of Korea’s biggest brands) – for a bit of writing. Yes, I started my National Novel Writing Month project. To complete 50,000 words in one month you need to write 1800 words a day, on average. I didn’t write that much – maybe 450 words at most. I had to stop to go and meet Charlie and her Chinese boyfriend, Mark, for dinner.

Charlie’s time in Korea was pretty stressful, especially her work, and – although she told me some stories about her work that didn’t sound exactly pleasant – when I saw her tonight she seemed happier. Mark seemed like a nice chap, too. We went to a street full of little trendy shops and ate at a restaurant that sold western Chinese food – Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs are from – the staff there wore Muslim caps. We talked about work and life and they – Charlie, actually – provided me with some useful phrases to try to memorise and use.

We talked about the Chinese language, and I learned the Chinese character for ‘peacful’, which consists of two elements – ‘woman’ and ‘house’ – because a woman at home is peaceful, apparently. The character combining ‘pig’ and ‘house’ means ‘home’, because the Chinese are pig farmers. Interesting.

Mark translated the dice that I bought. One of them, the one with single characters, had things like ‘kiss’, ‘French kiss’, ‘pinch’ and ‘bite’; the other, the one with three characters to a side, had ‘up to the man’, ‘up to the woman’, ‘watch a movie’ and ‘go shopping’. Someone in China has clearly read Dice Man.

It was a very nice evening, and a nice enough day. I feel like I’m becoming a little more at ease at being in the country. I’ll try to be more adventurous tomorrow.

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In the hostel I was staying at in Qingdao, I was sharing a room with about four other people two nights ago. Around midnight people started going to bed. I was on the internet on my bed, having spoken, briefly, to Charlie and watched some Prison Break. I prepared for bed, too. There was one Chinese guy in the bed next to mine, who seemed to spend most of his time in the room on his computer, conveniently placed on the table right next to his bed. He stayed up for maybe an hour or so, tapping away on an instant messenger program, his keystrokes amplified by the table. The previous night – my sick night – he’d been clicking away till the earliy hours on his phone. Even when he finally packed it in, his noise production continued – sniffing and blowing his nose, scratching loudly. Fucker.

Then, a bit later in the night, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere out in the corridor desperately saying things like, ‘No!’ and ‘Get out!’ I couldn’t hear any other voice. After a few moments worrying about what to do I got up and went into the corridor. The door to one of the twin rooms opposite was open a few inches and a man was standing inside. I knocked and asked what was going on. The door closed and the one-sided argument continued – the woman begging her boyfriend – I assume – to leave, the man not saying anything. I went down and told the two old Chinese men on duty and one of them followed me up and knocked on the door. I’m not sure what happened – I went to bed – but I think they probably just stopped the argument so the person knocking would go away.

My main task the next day was to travel to Beijing on the train. As I checked out of the hostel, I had one of the women at reception write down what I wanted in Chinese so I could show it to someone at the train station. As I was queueing up for a ticket, I noticed that one of the counters showed ‘English language counter’ on the display above it, so I didn’t need my translation. There was only standing room available for that day, so that’s what I plumped for. The ticket was 275 yuan, about £26 pounds or so.

For the first hour and a half of the five and half hour journey I was able to sit, but then a young woman needed her/my seat. She got off shortly after at the very next stop. However, by this time, the train seemed completely full, so I stood or occasionally crouched in the end of the carriage. I did a fair amount of reading on the trip. Fortunately, Marked Cards is a lot better than its immediate predecessor, Card Sharks.

Before I left Qingdao, I’d had word from Charlie that she’d be prepared to meet me off the train. Just before I left, I e-mailed her the details of my train. Unfortunately, she was busy all day and wasn’t able to read my e-mail or meet me. I’d printed out details for a hostel in Beijing that Habiba had stayed at when she was here a few months ago. I followed the directions on my printout and took the subway to Wangfujing Station (noting with a hint of pleasure and surprise the English accent of the English translations on the line four announcements). There, however, the directions seemed to break down.

I wandered round for a long while, my backpack weighing heavily on me and my less than perfect spine. I decided I couldn’t find the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel, and so checked into the Eastern Morning Sun Hostel instead.

This isn’t really a hostel as we would understand it. It’s a cheap (in multiple senses of the word) hotel located on the 4th basement level of its building. On the pro side, I got a room to myself and cheaply – about £10. On the con side, the place is quite grim. My room is a fairly clean white box with a bed, desk, TV and chair in it, but it smells subtly but pervasively of old cigarette smoke. It made me think I was going to sleep in an ashtray.

The communal toilets smell of piss – some I’ve been to in China just smell of sewage, so that wasn’t too bad. They don’t provide toilet paper, though – not even one shared roll outside, which is the general practice here. The showers were like something out of Prison Break. The shower room was done out in dirty, broken blue and white tiles, half of the stall weren’t functional, there was no door, there were no shower curtains (although there were rails and some loops to indicate that such things must’ve existed in the past). The water was hot and consistent, though, and I had the place to myself.

The place also has no laundry facility. When I approached one of the staff with my bag of dirty clothes, she showed me a plastic bowl. For this reason, if nothing else, I’m going to check out today.

I’m currently at a nearby Starbucks, where I’ve had a sandwich for breakfast. Can’t get on the internet here, though – it’s only for residents of China. I think I’ve figured out where that hostel is, though. I think I was simply facing the wrong way when I tried to follow the directions. My coffee’s nearly finished, so I’m off to take a look.

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