From the archive: Beijing #10

More witterings … Jun 1, 2008 Having postponed my visit to see the pandas at the zoo on Friday, this is where we decided to go yesterday morning.

We took a taxi right across the north side of the city, going about 12km from east to west. Even on a Saturday, the traffic is ghastly. It occurred to me that, given the speed these guys drive at and the weaving in and out of lanes while on the phone etc, it’s amazing that there aren’t more Chinese Grand Prix drivers. The above factors, plus the fact that most taxis don’t have operational seat belts, make for an interesting ride.

The zoo was extremely busy. It’s a special weekend here, Sunday 01 June being Children’s Day in China, and there were a lot of extended-family outings underway. The animals outside the cages and enclosures were almost as interesting as those on the inside and a lot happier.

When I say animals, I mean homo sapiens in general, ourselves included; J was certainly getting a lot of attention, still being leg-braced and on crutches. Cultural differences are fascinating. In Europe, certainly in the UK, it’s not done to be caught staring at anyone but over here it’s quite normal to have a really good goggle until your curiosity is satisfied. Having said that, local people have been very solicitous of J’s current special needs and are generally very kind-hearted.

Another thing the Chinese do a bit differently is to have the retail opportunities located before you actually see the attraction rather than on the way out, hence there were a thousand-and-one panda related offerings just inside the entrance to the panda house. Said pandas  were, apart from one large chap in an outside enclosure, all totally bored with life and dozing with their backs to the audience, several of whom were knocking on the glass to try and rouse their attention. I know they’re there for the good of their species, and we wanted to see them in the flesh, but it seemed like no kind of life for them.

The large cat enclosures were similarly poignant and had their own unique fragrance.

Around the zoo there were numerous wee shops and stalls selling all sorts of things,  from the usual animal related cuddly toys and games to jade and calligraphy pens, bottled water and cigarettes. Some of the food items were unusual to western eyes. There were large sausages on sticks, just like lollipops, which were being enjoyed by locals of all ages and seemed to be a particular treat for small children. There was also something which translated as squid and octopus, which looked like a large dod of seafood pate on a stick. Not too many people were eating those.

I mentioned cigarettes being on sales. A smoking ban has recently been enacted over here but doesn’t apply to open air spaces, restaurants or pubs.

Our other planned destination yesterday was The Summer Palace. There are actually two of these,  an old and a new, the former of which was largely destroyed by Anglo-French troops in the late 1800s. The Palaces were built so the Imperial Court could escape the heat of the city during the hottest months and were basically playgrounds for the privileged few. Such places have been open to the general populace since 1925 and are popularly enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike. We underwent further immersion into Beijing life by taking the boat from the zoo to the Summer Palace and experienced more kindness from local people who gave us directions and helped J on and off the boats. The person in charge of loading passengers onto the boat and keeping us all in order was a tiny, young Chinese woman with the loudest voice I’ve heard from someone so diminutive. She even used a loudhailer at some points, though we weren’t sure this was absolutely necessary.  Local people also had their ears covered when she was in full flow.

The journey along the canal system took more than an hour and involved changing boats at one point. The second part of the trip was along a wide canal which was lined by beautiful balustrading, built for the Imperials. We passed many old men fishing and young men swimming in the rather murky water.

The grounds of the Summer Palace are most attractive, with beautiful vistas along paths and across the lake and waterways. Kunming Lake itself is large enough to run its own wee ferry service for people who don’t want to walk all the way round. There were also pedalos and what seemed to be pedal-less pedalos, powered by electricity. We decided that a return visit would be in order so as to hire one of these and have a picnic on the water under the striped canopy.

The paths were well maintained and an easy-ish walk for J. Every so often there’d be an arched bridge to negotiate. There are several of these in the park, each with a wonderful name and its own pavilion perched atop. We spent so much time enjoying the birdsong, the balmy breezes and sunshine, walking around the south and western sides of the lake, that we ran out of time and energy to deal with the northern and eastern sides, which is where most of the Palace buildings are situated. The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, The Long Corridor and The Cloud Dispelling Hall will have to be explored another time.

At one point we wished we’d had a guidebook for Chinese birds. There’s one which looks similar to our magpie, except it’s grey, rather than black and white, has more of a swooping and gliding flight and its noise is less harsh. We were sure we could hear cuckoos all over the park and there were some sounds we couldn’t identify at all. Where’s Bill Oddie when he’s needed?

Although the zoo was full of larger family groups, the Summer Palace seemed to have smaller groups and there were also a lot of single-sex groups of younger men and women whose main occupation seemed to be taking photos of each other in trees and against floral displays.

In one pavilion we saw middle-aged people ballroom dancing. It’s also quite common to see people doing tai chi in parks and plazas earlier in the day. Most people here live in apartments without their own gardens so make the most of any chance of enjoying greenery and open spaces.

We saw many grandparents having an afternoon out with their sole grandchild, both Grandma and Grandpa being very hands-on and obviously enthralled with their wee one.

The children are delightful and behave well in public. Most of the wee boys have No1 haircuts and I was having to put my hands in my pockets to resist the temptation of running my hands across their lovely wee skulls. For special outings the girls wear elaborate party-type frocks and dainty little shoes. They tend to have either a ponytail or a pageboy hairstyle.

Something else which made us smile was what I call the bare-botty trousers, which almost all babies and small children wear, prior to being potty trained. These garments are basically trousers or dungarees where the crotch seam is left open from the waistband at the back, round to the waistband at the front. It must make learning to walk quite a bit easier than when a child’s encumbered by nappies and, of course, with the nether regions being open to the air, there’s no danger of nappy-rash. The adults in charge are adept at knowing when junior needs to go and quietly hold the child over a convenient spot. Of course the hotter temperatures over here facilitate this arrangement but I think it’s a very sound ecological practice. In a country of 1.29 billion people, imagine the amount of landfill that would be used up if everyone used disposable diapers, even if most families are restricted to one child.

So we had a lovely afternoon out in the open air and J coped well with the walking and isn’t suffering any ill effects today. I have a lot of photos to sort through when I get back to the UK and will try to put some up online where they can be accessed.

From the archive: Beijing #9

Further goings-on in the orient
May 30, 2008

I got up this morning with the full intention of visiting the zoo to see the pandas. Zoos are fine as scientific places of conservation, which is exactly their function in the case of pandas, who seem to have backed themselves into an evolutionary dead-end.  Left to their own devices in the wild, present numbers wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves and they’d end up extinct.

I digress … On reading the guide book, I discovered that it’s possible to take a boat ride from the zoo to The Summer Palace so decided to defer until tomorrow when I can go with J.

Today’s activity involved me taking a taxi into the city centre to do some shopping. I was heading for Wangfujing and even at 10.00am it was still full-on rush hour. A half hour journey cost 38 Yuan – less than three quid. I don’t know how these guys make a living. It’s illegal to tip in China but I have a terribly careless tendency to drop a couple of small notes by mistake when I leave the car.

Notes come in very small denominations here. Ten Yuan is worth about 70p and it’s possible to get a half Yuan note.

It was hot in the city centre. Everywhere one sees girls with parasols, protecting their complexions from the suns rays. Meanwhile, us westerners are taking every opportunity to catch some of these rays, starved of sunshine as we are after a long, dreary winter and damp spring.

The shopping malls provide a comfortable, air-conditioned respite from the noon sun. There are many recognisable brands available here – everything from Nike to Moschino. Prices are comparable to those in the UK – so no real bargains on clothes or cosmetics, I’m afraid.

Beijing is gearing itself up for the Olympic Games. A fair proportion of the city is a building site and many older buildings are getting face-lifted. It’s akin to being inside a beehive; determined and slightly frenetic activity wherever one looks.
This is no third world city. This is a thriving, modern world capital with sophistication sitting comfortably alongside its less cultured cousins. Many sky-scrapers surpass those of London, in both height and design.
It’s useful to remember that the Chinese had attained a level of development way beyond that found in much of Europe, 2200 BC. This country is certainly one of the cradles of civilisation and if my understanding is correct, they were carrying out advanceded things like writing and building while we were still trying to figure out how to rub sticks together.

I love people-watching and find faces endlessly fascinating. Some have very delicate features; even the men could be described as pretty. Others have more heavy-set faces. This part of China isn’t that far from Mongolia and I suspect many Beijingers have that ancestry and the attractive features bestowed by those particular genes.

I had a good wander along Wangfujing Dajie, stopping in a few places and making purchases of wee gifts to take home. Every 200 yards or so there’s a Beijing 2008 store selling Olympic souvenirs, some of which are incomprehensible to me and possibly designed mainly for the home market. With a population of 1.29 billion people they’re sure to find plenty takers.

In one of the malls I found an excellent cup of coffee and they had free internet access for patrons so I was able to get online and find out what was going on back home.

Getting a taxi back to the hotel wasn’t easy. The first chap in the rank wanted to leave the meter off and charge me 145 Yuan. He was nearly asked if he thought I’d come up the Clyde on a banana skin! I settled for just giving him one of my best death-glares and barking  “illegal”  at him.
The taxi who took me back did use his meter and the fare came to a whole 36 Yuan.

Back at the hotel I dithered between going out to sit in the Plaza with a coffee and a sudoku puzzle or three, or going to the gym to shift some more lard. Decisions, decisions. The gym won.

J would very much like me to stay out here with him for the duration of the contract but, interesting as the place is, there’s not enough to keep me occupied without being able to speak Mandarin. Learning that would be a fulltime occupation in itself.

From the archive: Beijing #8

In response to a query about pollution.


The air’s been okay over the last couple of days. We had a very heavy rain storm a few nights ago – complete with donner und blitzen – and it’s been quite windy too. When I arrived, ten days ago, it was very smoggy. A lot of the time it’s quite dusty – we’re actually not that far from desert here and the prevailing wind blows a lot of stuff this way.
In readiness for the Olympics they’re going to stop all construction work three weeks beforehand and also they’re going to try to reduce the traffic load by allowing even and odd numberplates road access on alternate days.
I think one of the big problems here is the weight of traffic and that’s not going to change until the price of petrol goes up. It’s ridiculously cheap – about a third of UK proces for petrol. There are no diesel cars car either.
I got a chance to go more rural the other day when I visited the Ming Tombs and climbed the Great Wall. It was good to see some landscape relief and trees after the density of buildings round here.

From the archive: Beijing #7

A quiet day
May 29, 2008

Nothing greatly exciting to report today.
I spent the morning at the gym and having a swim. It was bliss being the only one in the pool.

Then, feeling rather bored of doing sudoku puzzles, I decided to venture out of the hotel complex and do some window shopping so took a taxi down to the Lufthansa Shopping Mall.
Taxis here are very cheap and cost around the same as using the bus in the UK so they’re a convenient method of getting around Beijing. The only problem is the volume of traffic; it seems to be permanent rush hour in the middle of the city.

The shopping mall was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting lots of different shops but it was more like a very up-market department store; full of extremely expensive and mostly useless things.
Again, I felt like a giant, going round the ladies clothing floor. Most garments seemed to be UK size 6 – or 8, for the fatties, that is!

I was tempted by a couple of items. One was a beautiful Chinese tea set, complete with tray, drainer, tea bowls and teapot. Due to it being about two hundred quid and difficult to transport home, it’s still on the shelf. I’m sure I’ll find something equally good, and a lot cheaper, elsewhere.
There was also a rather attractive blue cloisonne vase. It wasn’t too expensive but I know it would just end up gathering dust at Teuchter Towers so it’s still on the shelf too.
I had a good look around most of the store and seemed to have a Chinese person at my shoulder most of the afternoon. At first I thought they reckoned I was up to no good but, on reflection, it was probably because they’re on commission and wanted to make sure they were on hand had I decided to make a purchase.

Next stop was the supermarket, down in the basement. The interesting thing about such places here is that they still put price stickers on the goods; something we haven’t done in the UK for many years since the advent of barcodes.
There seemed to be little departmentalising of goods; baby milk next to shaving foam etc. The fruit and veg counter was a revelation. There were all sorts of things I’ve only ever seen in pictures ¨C and all very neatly packaged. Wish I’d thought to take a couple of photos.

The journey back to the hotel did not start well. The first few taxis in the queue refused to take me. It’s possible they felt the journey was too short to be worth their while. I’ve been told that the drivers rent their cars at a fairly steep fee and have a hard time to make a living on such low fares.
Eventually I figured out that the best approach was to get into the car, close the door and then tell the driver where I wanted to go.

Another thing I’ve noticed about shops, restaurants etc is that they all seem to be vastly overstaffed. Beijing has a population of about 14 million people and that’s just the permanent residents; they reckon there’s a further 2 million floating population on top of that. I suppose there are lots who need employment and wages are much lower than in the UK.

Not sure what I’m going to be doing tomorrow. I may take myself off to the zoo to see the pandas. Apparently Beijing has some new panda guests; following the earthquake in Sichuan province, some of theirs were airlifted up here until their quarters are rebuilt.

On Saturday, we plan to visit the Summer Palace. This is where the imperial court used to decamp to in order to escape the oppressive heat in the Forbidden City. It should be somewhere J will manage on his crutches.

From the archive: Beijing #6

There’s been a lot of coverage on the local and national tv stations about the earthquake and its equally frightening sequelae – aftershocks of great magnitude, landslides and dams threatening to break. The most recent series of aftershocks rendered another 142,000 people homeless. The scale of the disaster is almost unfathomable in its severity.


There’s also been a lot of coverage on BBC World News and the free English language newspaper, which is delivered every day, gives us the government’s slant on things, mainly heartwarming messages of selflessness and bravery. The spirit of community and co-operation reminds me of GB in the 50s – everyone pulling together for the common good.

Beijingers are very much aware of what’s happened in Sichuan province and lots of people have gone south to help in the rescue efforts, including the surgeon who operated on J’s leg. We saw this doctor on one of the Chinese tv programmes. He’s an orthopaedic specialist so his skills are in great demand to deal with horrendous crush injuries.

From the archive: Beijing #5

The Wild China series has been fantastic. I saw the first couple before I left the UK and may consider looking for dvds of the rest if they’re not available on i-player when I get back.
I also watched a series of four programmes about the Chinese education system. They make our kids look like spoilt, lazy wee bu**ers!


It would be fantastic to see the Terracotta Army in situ. I have a friend who visited Xian last year and was wowed by the whole experience. The site is an hour and a half’s flight from here so I won’t be going this time round. I did see them in Edinburgh a few years ago – though only four men and a horse.

My health’s actually been much better while I’ve been here. I don’t know if it’s the huge volume of fresh fruit and veg I’m eating – or the tea I’m drinking – or the coffee I’m not drinking – but I’ve managed to reduce the steroids again and my right hand’s much less swollen than it’s been of late.

Had a quiet day today. Surprisingly, my legs weren’t sore from the exertions on the Wall and I managed a good session at the gym and a swim.
Then I went for more pampering.
Actually,  it was torture of the hair removing kind but at least it’s much cheaper than in the UK


From the archive: Beijing #4

More from Beijing
May 27, 2008

I had intended to visit the Summer Palace today but they’d decided not to run that trip so I ended up going to The Great Wall at Badaling.

The wee bus started the trip at our hotel and then collected more people at another establishment and there was a tedious bit of hanging around before we got underway properly.
This time there were a dozen of us; one Brit (me), two from Hong Kong, a Turk and several Americans. The guide was excellent and gave us heaps of interesting facts and anecdotes on the way to our first stop – which was a jade factory. We were given a spiel about the different types of jade, how to tell real from fake, how it’s processed etc – and then some pretty hard-sell tactics to persuade us to part with some cash. I ended up going back out to sit on the bus, I got so cheesed off.
Incidentally – at The Games this year, the medals will be made out of different colours of jade, made in this factory, they proudly told us.

Next stop was the Ming Tombs. There are several of these in different buildings, for various emperors, ranged in a crescent at the foot of the hills. All the sites were chosen with strict Feng Shui requirements in mind.
We visited the tomb of the third Ming Emperor, Yongle. After the hustle, bustle and pollution of the city, this was a tranquil and beautifully green place.
After returning along an avenue lined with cherry orchards and roadside fruit stalls, our next port of call was a cloisonne factory which was attached to the restaurant. Again, a tour of the working part, followed by pressure sales tactics. I decided the best option was to scowl and keep walking. Being polite and smiley just seemed to encourage them. I did feel a bit guilty about not parting with cash since the salespeople probably rely on parting us westerners from our cash to make their living.

We then made our way along the main route out of Beijing towards Mongolia. The road was extremely busy and the higher we climbed into the hills, the more vehicles we saw broken-down at the roadside – causing further congestion. We passed several huge lorries, loaded with enormous net sacks of every vegetable you can imagine. There was also a lot of construction type traffic – Beijing is one big building site, ahead of the Olympic Games. I was intrigued by a particular type of bus which appeared to be neither single nor double decker but something in between. The guide told us it was a sleeper bus which is used for long distance journeys.

Finally – we arrived at Badaling, one of the best restored and most visited parts of The Great Wall.
This, for me, was a momentous occasion. The Great Wall has long been on my list of Places To Go Before I Die. (So far, I’ve managed to tick off only one of these – Swimming in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.)
We had the option of climbing either the north or the south sections of the wall – and opted for the latter since it was less busy.
Thankfully, it was much cooler up in the hills than it’s been recently in downtown Beijing. We also had a spectacular rainstorm last night, complete with thunder and lightening, which seemed to clear the air a bit.
Even so, the climb was not easy. It was a mixture of steps, both shallow and deep, and steep ramps, punctuated by look-out towers. Some stepped areas were so steep they were almost like ladders. I managed to make it right to the top of the southern section, a fair old climb and not one which Mr T will be doing any time soon. The views from the wall were breathtaking and it was worth the effort of the climb.
Back down at the bottom, once we’d run the gauntlet of the souvenir sellers again, a restorative cup of green tea was in order. The Turkish fellow insisted on buying this for me as he said women weren’t allowed to pay. He was the only other singleton on the trip and, once he realised I wasn’t actually chatting him up, was pleasant company.

On our way back into Beijing we passed through the area where a lot of the Olympic stadia are situated, including the fantastic Bird’s Nest stadium. The building which houses the new swimming complex was also interesting, like gigantic bubbles contained within a rectangular box.

Our last stop of the trip was at a government Tea House where we had a tasting session of five different types of tea and another opportunity to buy things.
Up until the last week I’ve spent my whole life avoiding tea because I didn’t like the taste of the stuff, however I’ve now developed a liking for it, provided it’s not too strong. All five samples were delicious and I particularly liked the Jasmine tea and the Oolong.

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