Sunday, 20 November 2011

More photos of Beijing

Ming Tombs

At the Great Wall: atmosphere or pollution?

An Empresses crown - dragons and phoenixes

Peking duck!

 The Summer Palace

Outside the Forbidden City. We didn't have to take our boots off.

The Temple of Heaven


'What do you think these are?'

I looked at the plate of pale, milky-coloured slippery looking things with a thin coating of yellow, mustardy paste.

 'Some kind of mushroom?'

 I asked, hopefully.

'No. Duck's Feet!'

This was the first dish brought to the table on our first proper night in China (having arrived extremely late the night before). Everything had been ordered in Mandarin after great discussion with the waiter. It wasn't just a simple list of requests. There had been enormous (and completely unintelligible to me) to and fros between them. 'Oh Lord', I thought. 'What if the entire meal is like this and I am bound by politeness to eat it?'

Ducks feet are just as nasty as you might expect them to be, or at least presented this way they are. I think they had been boiled. However they had been cooked had rendered them chewy and slimy and the mustard sauce didn't help. The sauce wasn't even thick enough to disguise the patina of skin clearly visible farther up the foot from the webbing. Nasty. Very nasty. I make no excuses for my western palate. I may be unadventurous and missing a trick but to me ducks feet in mustard sauce are not nice.

The DFP says that this is because in China they are very aware of hierarchy and he was doing what you would do when your boss is in town, but I think it's also just because he was very nice. I find that the DFP thoroughly enjoys this deference. It makes him very cheerful.

The guidebook recommends at least a day to visit the Forbidden City (a huge palace or series of palaces right in the middle of Beijing) and suggests that even after than you may want to go back for another visit. I am ashamed to say that we did it in about and hour and a half. We just walked straight through. I think by this time we were all quite tired and while amazingly impressive it is much of the same repeated impressively and largely again and again. I did keep saying, 'it's big, wow, it's so big' with monotonous repetitiveness.

China is Big. Everything is on a massive scale from the roads and buildings to the sites of historical and architectural interest. It took five minutes to walk to the end of our road. Quite a shock after Singapore where everything is close and requires absolutely minimal walking.

But then walking in Beijing in November is extremely pleasant. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, all my dreams of cold weather have been realised. There was a delightful snap in the air. I so enjoyed walking around without immediately becoming hot and sweaty. I had forgotten how much I used to like walking around and now rather avoid it. I wore jumpers! And socks!

I walked around the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, both enormous gardens with temples dotted around in them. I climbed the great wall of China and I marched through the Forbidden City with the crowds of tour parties.

You seen enormous Chinese tour groups at all the major sites. I didn't see any from other countries, only Chinese. They all wear baseball caps in some bright primary colour, presumably so they can be marshalled easily by their tour leader (something I rather approve of as a some time tour guide).

The people on these groups often look like old peasants from the countryside who might have done a spot of re-educating in their time. They would wander, slightly perplexed and aimlessly around these sites before being organised along to the next one.

I know how they felt a bit. I was often left a bit cold by enormous tourist attractions. While huge and impressive I often didn't connect emotionally with them, they seemed a bit sterile and dead in a way I didn't feel about the places I visited in Mumbai. Everything has been so heavily restored that it was hard to imagine the emperors and empresses living there. I like the places best that spark my imagination most.

By contrast the living places were fantastic. We went to a three storey tea market with rows and rows of little boothes where you could try and then buy hundreds of different types of tea. In one we asked to try some tea and the guy helping us laughed and said, 'we have over 200 hundred kinds'.

In the first place we had our mini tea ceremony the ladies helping us spoke no English. This is not unusual in Beijing, though a lot of people do have a bit of English. There were three. One older and clearly in charge did all the talking in clear, precise and completely incomprehensible to us Chinese. I couldn't even say if it was Mandarin or Cantonese that she was speaking. Even though we understood nothing she kept on gently explaining to us.

There were two younger girls one of whom went and got the different teas from huge (of course huge, this is China) fridge freezer. The other was in charge of the pouring and brewing and swilling. The tea was made in a little pot and then presented to us in an even smaller tea cup, more like a doll's saucer. If you had finished and didn't want any more you poured the dregs over a clay figure. In front of the DFP there was a large clay frog and in front of me a fish.

We bought two kinds of tea from two different shops and we each bought a mug made of dark clay. This clay is supposed to slowly soak up the flavour of the tea. Purists would only drink one kind of green tea from their mug. You have to make a couple of dummy cups of green tea before you drink it to start the seasoning and make it safe to drink from.

I am not sure whether we got a good deal on these things or not. Bargaining is expected.  You are supposed to start by offering 30% of the asking price and go up to no more than 50% of the asking price in theory. In practise this is very hard to do. You just have to decide how much the whatever is worth to you.

I also bought pearls (pearl earings £1!) from the pearl market and went to a huge (of course) area of artists warehouses called 798 which was ├╝ber cool. Despite the anxiety that you were probably paying well over the odds at these places I found them enormous fun and far more vital than the huge, dead, heavily restored buildings.

Meanwhile, while I was site seeing, the DFP eas having meetings with businesses. They had one with an enormous Chinese company and got to see the man one up from the CEO - the clerk. They went to his enormous office for several hours while he sat there and smoked his way through the meeting.

So, Beijing. Should you visit? Definitely yes. I think this sums it up for me. I met up with an American friend who I'd met while we were both living in Paris and is now posted to Beijing.

'Nobody believes me,' she said 'but its much easier living here than in Paris!'

That says it all for me. Oh yes, and like this blog entry, it's big.