Monday, 23 April 2012

BEIJING - CHINA ( Part 2 )

15th - 24th Apr 2012

The Great Wall ( of fog )

Back on the packed ( end of the holidays ) 24 hour fast train from Kowloon to Beijing and in the top bunk of a six berth carriage. Spent a large part of the journey in the dining car again. Curious meals such as, for breakfast, ‘three silk fry powder (face) and in thousand-year-old eggs porridge’. I can’t think why the Chinese don’t bother to get an English speaker to do more of their translations. Actually the meals had some decent(ish) offerings. Gosh, for all their good points the Chinese have two rather seriously off-putting tendencies; their remarkably noisy eating habits with much slurping and sucking, and their disgusting predilection to hawk and spit ( normally outside it must be said ). Rather off-putting.

Left: A sign from the Central area in Hong Kong. For those 'in the know' it merely states the bleedin' obvious. Haven't heard from or about him ( or Sampson ) for ages. Hope all's well.

My fellow compartment dwellers were a pleasant and chatty group and a couple of them spoke good English, one of whom was a charming young girl student from Hong Kong who called herself Syndi. She is studying Chinese literature at Peking University and gave me lots of useful tips on where to go and what to see in and around the city. It is curious that ‘Peking’ is still referred to in several instances; the main airport is called Peking Capital Airport, the major university is Peking University, many diplomats, apparently for political reasons, still refer to the city as Peking and, of course, there is Peking Duck. Anyway, Syndi was good company and she even got her boyfriend who met her at the station to give me a lift to my hotel. Very kind of them both and it saved me a lot of time, effort and money. If you are reading this; thanks Syndi!
Talking of hotels, the one I was introduced to ( by the guys organising the next bit of my journey ) in Beijing, Sanlitun district, is a gem. It is called the YoYo Hotel and for Y300 ($50) pn is very comfortable, clean, free WiFi and the staff are really helpful. Strongly recommended.
Next couple of days were spent getting my Mongolian visa; not too difficult but involved a couple of trips to their embassy. Also moving in with an ex-colleague who now works for Tianjin Airlines and has a rather luxurious pad in the city of Tianjin. Much appreciated!

Right: For this is he; the redoubtable Pepe whom I last saw in Lima, Peru, where I was royally entertained by him and his family on an earlier part of my journey. He normally gets back home to Peru for three weeks after working here for six. However, he was a bit pissed off because, due to training requirements, he hadn't seen his family since January. Pepe, I am most grateful for your generous hospitality.

The CRH 'Bullet' trains from Beijing South railway station are impressive; both the trains, and the station which was built for the 2008 Olympics. The station is more like an airport. It is gleaming and most efficient. It puts any train station in UK to shame.
Left: The 'departure lounge'. Soft piano music plays and the announcements are polite, quietly audible and relevant.

By the cringe it goes quick! The train travels at around 295kph. It used to go at 320kph but due to a serious accident in July last year various modifications were made including reducing the speed a bit. It is much safer to crash at 295kph than 320kph. Right: The train. It gives a super smooth and quiet ride and is kept immaculately clean. It is washed down every time it gets to an end station. They have 'cabin crew' ( the lady in red ) as per an aircraft.

Left: A typical ( 2nd class ) carriage. Journey time from Tianjin to Beijing South is 30 mins, and there are three trains an hour. I did 14 trips up and down to Peking ( on my touristing jaunts ) on this machine and it always left and arrived on schedule with little time spent queuing for tickets. Impressive indeed. About £5 one way. Bloody good value if you ask me.

Right: A buffet in mid-train serves coffee and 'light refreshments'. Not expensive either. One coffee for 50p. This system really does show up our ( British ) commuter trains as completely squalid and expensive rubbish in comparison.

Left: They display all sorts of details at the end of the carriages, including the speed. Hardly feels like you are moving. Last year it went faster ( OK, it crashed once....many dead ).

Right: The river/canal through the centre of Tianjin  city. Cruise boats do trips along here. Tianjin is a new one on me. A large industrial, shipping and residential conurbation of a mere 13 million people near the coast south-east of Beijing. In the late 19th century it was home to 'concession' trading areas for the British, Germans, Italians, Portugese, Dutch and other scavengers. There are many architectural inheritances. Indeed there are some lovely colonial style buildings around the central area. From what I saw it looked a very pleasant, clean and prosperous place.

Left: On the Italian Street. A pre-wedding photo opportunity, as per Vietnam. Utterly tasteless but an important part of every oriental wedding procedure. The Italian Street featured many upmarket bars and eateries of both Italian and German origin. It was obviously geared towards ex-pats but the clientele was mostly affluent Chinese. It appeared remarkably civilised.

Right: The main station in Tianjin. New, hi-tech and shiny clean. The Chinese build so much space into their urban planning that it never seems too crowded. These places are also kept scrupulously well swept and litter free. Filthy Indian garbage worshippers take note. It can be done.

Left: Near the station is a curious and impressive bit of 'modern art' which is also fully functional. This enormous 'astro' clock shows all the working parts and it swivels and moves. Fascinating to watch. It did actually tell the correct time too.

Right: Part of the 'Forbidden City' which stretches north from Tiananmen Square. There were lots and lots of 'Palaces', 'Halls' and 'Pavilions' of rather similar design over a large area. They all had weird and wonderful names like 'Hall of Supreme Harmony' and 'Hall of Mental Cultivation' and served various obscure functions for the emperors and their entourages.

Left: This is possibly the 'Hall of Lost Property' for all I know. Many had displays outside telling their history. It was apparent that most had burnt down several times, or had been destroyed by invaders ( the Japanese for one ) and have been rebuilt on numerous occasions. I will not bore you with detail but this 'city' served the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Right: Another view from the 'Palace of Cricking Camelas' over the 'Square of Baffled Tourists' towards the 'Gate of Have We Got To The Bloody End Yet'. The place that got the best write-up was the Clock Exhibition Hall, but it was closed by the time I got there. And I missed out on the 'Well of Concubine Zhen' because I only noticed it on the map after I had left.

Left: Lots of tourists were eagerly barging in to get a photo of the inside of these many buildings. The trouble is that inside........

Right:.........they all look the same! Gloomy bare-arsed interiors with, normally, a large ( maybe replica? ) throne at the far end. It became repetitive and rather dull. One got to the stage of bypassing most of these reconstructed buildings ( well I did ).

Left: Large bronze urns, which once contained water, were put outside most of the larger halls as rudimentary fire-points. They were where the guards ran to to fill their buckets to try to put out fires. Somewhat inefficient and ineffective I fear.

Right: There are various stations where tourists can dress themselves, and their children, up and be photographed with a suitably imperial backdrop. There is also a place where you can have yourself videoed 'flying' over the Forbidden City including many aerobatics. It cost Y50 and guess who fell for it, although the finished product is far too embarrassing for any future viewings.

Left: A temple on the top of a weird conglomeration of stone. This is near the northern Chengguang Gate. There is an Imperial Garden here which is nothing to write home about.
The Forbidden City is a vast area which, if you wanted to see it all, would take the best part of a day and there were many other things to photograph, but you will have seen enough. I covered what I did in 2 hours. It was long enough.

Right:  Jingshan Park, just to the north of the Forbidden City ( a mere Y2 entry ), is a pleasant garden park with five temples mounted on a hill. From the top-most temple it offers, on a clear day, a magnificent view south over the City towards Tiananmen Square. I was lucky to get three clear days on my previous Beijing visit. This time the conditions had reverted to normal; the 'Great Pall of China'. To get a clear day is, apparently, very rare.
This is the normal view.

Left: Where I stood to get the above disappointing photo is this plaque; it marks the Centre Point of Beijing City.

Right: Again, this place offered the tourists ( mainly Chinese I think ) the chance to dress up and pretend to be 'regal'. There was a queue to do it. I suspect the Chinese have a sneaking regard for some aspects of their Imperial past.

I had a potentially nasty experience here which, for the benefit of anyone following and equally stupid as me, I will mention. At the bottom of Jingshan Park there are swarms of taxis, moto-rickshaws and tri-shaws offering their services. It is a long walk back to the nearest Metro station at Tiananmen Square, so the temptation to take one of these is high. I am normally extremely wary of such things, but on this occasion I let my judgement lapse. I was 'conned' into accepting a tri-shaw ( pedalled rickshaw ) ride back to Tiananmen. What fun. The 'driver' told me it would be Y3 ( about 50 cents; I should have smelt a rat ). He set off and took me, disorientated, through some back-street hutongs, chatted amiably in broken English and eventually pulled up in a narrow deserted alleyway and told me Tiananmen was just around the corner. He then aggressively demanded Y300 ( $50 ) and produced an 'official' bit of printed paper to demonstrate his rip-off prices! I was in a very vulnerable position, especially if he had a few 'friends' waiting nearby. I got very angry with the little bastard and gave him Y10. I walked briskly off with him angrily following and luckily met up with a party of children and their parents. I walked away and that was the end of it BUT, it could have been a nasty situation and I could have ended up robbed or worse. To cap it all I was nowhere near Tiananmen Square. I should have known better. I must have been getting complacent.

Left: The 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium from 2008. It is a truly impressive construction. The photo doesn't do it justice; it looks much 'bigger' in real life. The swimming 'cube' arena nearby is also a magnificent building. I hope the Brits can come somewhere near to providing something as good. The Olympics here were a great catalyst for many lasting improvements in the urban infrastructure ( i.e. the superb Metro system, the South Rail Station and English signage ). Will London benefit to the same extent?

Right: Inside. The place appeared to be in a state of maintenance with several construction teams working there. The running track was given over to a company selling Segway rides. Several people, mainly children, were whizzing, well as much as a Segway can whizz, around the track on these. They, or their parents, must have more money than sense. They were charging Y150 ( $25 ) for 20 mins ride.

Left: A gold medal for the winner of the Rat Race.

Right: To the Great Wall. There are several 'tourist' Wall sites. I was advised that the site at Mutianyu, about 90kms NE of Beijing, is one of the less congested and tackily touristy. I went there by bus as far as the town of Huairou, and then the remaining 15kms by taxi which was an alarming experience. We got there, but more by luck than judgement on behalf of the kamikaze taxi driver. He had absolutely no compunction about overtaking on blind bends. I am told that this is normal suicidal driving by Chinese taxis on the open road.

Left: The Wall has been rebuilt, in parts, by a German engineering company. GERMAN, I ask you? Aren't there enough Chinese to do a bit of stone-walling? What this donkey was doing on the top I have no idea. It was quite steep up and down walking and there were occasional stalls selling fizzy drinks and chocolate bars along the way. As you can see, the vis was down to between 300 and 1000yds with cloud/fog swirling over the top.

Right: An amusing gent; one of the Imperial Guard no doubt. He kept people entertained by occasionally leaping out with a wild yell and flourishing his spear at an unsuspecting victim. I thought it was funny, but at least one American woman didn't.
There was a long gauntlet to be run of seriously tacky souvenir sellers on the approach to the cable car which took the idle up to the Wall ( i.e. me ). They were persistent and thoroughly irritating. Someone said that they have to earn a living somehow. I thought to myself they wouldn't if they were machine-gunned to death.

  A visit to one of the remaining ‘Hutong’ areas was amusing. Hutongs are the old fashioned residential narrow streets consisting of small houses with little courtyards, most of which have been bulldozed to make way for modern high-rise buildings. The Hutongs in the Nanwoguxiang District, not far north of the Forbidden City, were very quaint and led off a central alleyway with many shops, cafes and bars and attracted lots of tourists. Left: The inside of one of the small cafe/bars which did excellent toasties and snacks, and beer.

Right: Inside one of the courtyards which contained quite an upmarket restaurant.

 Left: .....although most of the passers-by preferred to eat from one of the many stalls which sold food on sticks. This is the most prevalent form of Chinese fast food and some taste pretty good.

Right: This bar amused me just because of it’s name ‘Wiggly Jigglys’.

Left: A tri-shaw driver preparing to rip-off a gullible tourist for a vastly expensive pedal around a few Hutongs which would be quicker and more interesting to explore on foot.

Right: A return visit to Tiananmen Square to pay my respects to Mao Tsedong in his mausoleum on the southern end of the square. You have to hand in bags, cameras and mobile phones ( at small cost ) then join a very long queue which shuffles around three sides of the building before going through a security check and get vigorously frisked, in my case by a rather attractive security lady, before joining another shuffling queue up the steps and into the mausoleum. As per Ho Chi Minh, Mao was in a large glass sided box, his face was peeping out from under a red cover and brightly lit. One had about ten seconds to gawp at him. He did not look at all well; palid white face and some hair sticking out from the side of his head. If you stuck a red nose on him he would be a dead ringer for Coco the Clown. I got a bollocking by a Chinese guard for waving my hat at him.

Left: Then on to the National Museum of China on the eastern side of the square. This is an enormous building. The foyer alone ( left ) is a vast open space, not so obvious in the photo, in which it would be possible to house at least three A380s. In fact the entire museum on four floors consisted of acres of spare space, including a few completely empty display halls,  and involved much walking. Most of the exhibition was rather dull, I thought ( one hall of about 30 acres was devoted entirely to Chinese caligraphy ). There were notices at the hall entrances in English describing what was on display in general but many individual items were only explained in Chinese. They did not appear to have a map of the museum and so finding one’s way around was difficult and disorientating. In one wing the display meandered through several halls showing the ‘Path to Restoration’ which featured much about  Japanese atrocities in the wars with China in the 1930s (?), and on through the ‘people’s’ glorious victories and 'liberation' under the inspired leadership of Chairman Mao over the feudalist, captalist, reactionary system of the hated Chiang Kai-shek. The period of the brutal Cultural Revolution and the less than gentle behaviour of the Red Guards was rather glossed over. A series of halls had a large display of ‘contemporary arts and crafts’ which was seriously boring.

Right: In the basement was a maze of twisting passageways which involved another long hike through halls depicting Chinese history from prehistoric to the last of the Imperial Dynasties. Right: One of the Chinese gannet fishermen.

 Left: Some of the terracotta horses and soldiers from the Xi’An collection were on display here, including a scale model of the entire underground army. To be honest, much of the stuff on display consisted of ornaments, pottery, implements and relics of no great interest to me. 

Right: An amusing sculpture of a bloke banging a drum which, we were informed, came from 300BC or thereabouts. It wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day sculpture exhibition.

Left: These are Ming dynasty vases. There were more examples of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain than you could shake a stick at, plus lots of other artefacts on display.

Right: The skeleton of a man from 3000BC semi-dug up from, they said, some site in the west of China. Who knows.

Left: Another view of Tiananmen Square from one of the upper museum windows.

Right: These are some 'tourist' police who were patrolling the hutongs. I wouldn't recommend their tailors and not sure about the low-slung white Sam Brownes.
The soldiers in other parts of the city, often seen patrolling around and guarding the diplomatic areas and public buildings, were very smart. It was noticeable that they were always 'marched' from place to place under the command of an NCO, and even marched when by themselves!

Left: An interesting snack on offer at the South Railway station.

Right:........and a final message from Deng Xiaoping, a previous 'paramount leader' of China.

I was, much to my surprise, rather impressed by Beijing, and even more so by Tianjin for that matter. Very clean and smart in the places I went to, with many interesting parks and buildings. Lots of decent pubs and restaurants and most petty rules and regulations (like not smoking in bars or riding motorbikes without helmets ) were happily disregarded. Most of the locals I met were polite and helpful and, apart from their habitual spitting and dodgy table manners, seemed very civilised. Off north next and may only have intermittent internet connections. Stand-by.

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