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.