Steve Watson

 

      Information: Travels: China: Diary (Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Suzhou)

 
 

15/04/2010

(Thursday)

 


 

 

Arrived in TAIPEI.

 

The first leg of the trip is successfully completed. I'm in the Taipei backpackers in my little room. Thank goodness. Actually, things all seemed to go pretty well: I only got a little bit lost and confused in exactly the place I was sure that that was going to happen. The bus driver dropped me at the M3 entrance to the subway, which to my inexperienced eye looked to be completely unrelated to any information I'd had about how to get to the hostel from the bus stop. Never mind; after wandering about for a while and looking at maps on the walls, someone came up to give me a hand. They pointed me in the right direction and off I went. (Their help wasn't really necessary, but it was certainly welcome.) Of course, once I realised where I was (so to speak) the hostel's instructions made perfect sense - but it was too late by then. In any case, I'm glad I left my suitcase at the airport (NTD100) and didn't have to lug that thing around with me.

 

Map of Taipei centre

My guide to getting here from the Hostel's website. Not as clear as it looks.

 

The hostel's quite reasonable. It's great that everywhere has free internet these days. I spent the first free hour here catching up with emails from work and mailing friends who had demanded daily updates. (Work is all in a tizzy about organizing a Core course that I'm teaching next semester and they want me to stay in touch as much as possible - but they won't pay me for that courtesy.) And after that I took the opportunity to have a less anxious walk about the underground mall that I walked through to get here. Pretty dead actually; and it doesn't look like it was the most interesting set of shops anyway. Probably not the best area I'm guessing. It's a pity I haven't really got much of an impression of Taipei yet: the bus trip in was at night and it was raining and cold, and the driver took us through some pretty dodgy areas by the look of them. (I particularly liked the scantily dressed girls in the glass fronted shops trying to attract custom. They must have been freezing.) Still, I know enough to know that that's no way to judge a place. Perhaps when I have more time on the way back it'll be more appealing.

 

16/04/2010

(Friday)

 


 

 

Left the hostel about 12 to get to the airport for the trip to Beijing. I got instructions from the clerk on where to catch the airport bus, but I couldn't find it and eventually caught a taxi with some other people. I must have been close though, otherwise the taxi driver wouldn't have been hanging about waiting for passengers. He broke off his negotiations with the others and came up to me and offered to take me for 150. I said, no, the bus only costs 90. He said ok, 120. Considering that I was beginning to doubt the existence of the buses, I decided that that was a reasonable compromise. He must have assumed that his other potentials couldn't speak English because one of them asked how much I was being charged and whether it was true that I had no money? I said no, I just didn't want to pay that. But he wants us to pay 200 each. And with that the negotiations recommenced with new vigor and volume. Most amusing. But everything was eventually sorted out and we all left amicably enough.

 

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I had a meal at the Airport, which was ok, and used their internet to do some more emailing.

 

So now I'm in BEIJING

 

I got off the airport shuttle train at Dongzhimen and was going up to get a taxi when I met a lady from New Zealand. She was having trouble hauling her bags up a huge flight of steps and I offered to help (partly by  mime and partly in basic Chinese 'dui bu qi, ni yao wo bang ni ma?') She wasn't fooled for a second; she answered in English and we got to talking. When we eventually got to the top she called my hostel to get precise instructions, wrote it down in Chinese for the taxi driver on the little sheet of directions I already had, and called a taxi for me. Again, I'm sure it wasn't necessary, but it was certainly very nice. And it does give you a certain confidence that you will in fact get to the place you want to go. Since it was night again and this time I was with all my luggage, that reassurance was welcome. What a pity I'll never see her again and can't possibly return the favour.

 

East Central Beijing

From an excellent and mostly accurate map that I bought in Borders.

You will note that it does not actually show my hostel's street, which I've written in above the X

 

I found my hostel well signposted and welcoming in a little hutong.

 

Saga International Hostel

In Shijia Hutong off Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie.

 

17/04/2010

(Saturday)

 


 

 

I took my time getting out of bed. After a long day travelling I think that 9:30 is quite early enough. I wasn't really sure about the public transport so I walked most of the day. I wanted to walk through the hutongs anyway, and by the time I'd done that I was pretty much at the Forbidden City anyway, so I just kept on walking. I have to say that the hutongs are not the romantic neighbourhoods that I'd imagined them to be: they seem to be dirty, dusty, monochrome, rundown slum areas with all the charm of 1950s Coronation Street. I daresay that they make a picturesque setting, and have great historical value as a residuum of the form of life that prevailed for the previous several centuries, but they are not suited to a city that has pretensions to modernity. I can completely understand why they are disappearing.

 

A Beijing hutong

An absolutely typical scene. 

 

On the way in I was greeted by 'Andy' and 'Ann' who talked a good game. They claimed to be art students and took me to an exhibition of their art where they tried to sell me some of their paintings. Oh, wouldn't I buy just one to remember my friends in China? No, not even the smallest one! This is a scam that tourists are warned about, but I was just curious to see how they worked it. Writing in retrospect, I can say that the charm of this great effort at pretending to be artists soon wears off. Still, some of the things which they mentioned as part of their patter were quite interesting - the fact that phoenixes and flowers (particularly cherry blossoms) were symbolic of girls and that dragons and bamboo were male symbols was good to know. It helps to read some of the pop art around the place. And the significance of various colours is also interesting; but I knew most of that anyway. I managed to shake them off easily enough though: they're not like some scammers that I've encountered who simply latch on and won't take bugger off for an answer.

 

So I walked on towards the Forbidden City and saw a narrow park that looked quite busy and quite pretty. I can't find it on my maps now, but I think it was somewhere north of Donghuamen Dajie. Anyway, it was busy for a reason: it turns out to be one of those places where people come to see if they can do a better job of finding matches for their children than their children are doing for themselves. I attracted quite a bit of attention from numerous middle aged ladies, which was a bit alarming before I found out what was going on. Luckily there was a girl there, called 'Julie', who wanted to practise her English on me and told me what was up. She attached herself to me gave me her life story and the tale of her difficulties with her boyfriends and work and eventually also tried to sell me things - but in a purely opportunistic way I think. 

 

Matchmaker's Park

It's cold. It should be Spring, but the flowers and leaves are only just starting to appear. 

 

Taking my leave of her, I soon came to the South gate of the Forbidden City, where huge crowds of people seemed to be milling around outside preparing to go in. I had some misgivings about it, but it turns out that the place is huge and could easily accommodate thousands of tourists. It really could be a city in there.

 

Map of the Forbidden City (Gugong, 故宫, 'Old Palace')

Basically a Ming construction though the Mongols also built on the site. 

Principles of feng shui balance yin and yang to create supreme harmony here at the centre of the world.

The North-South spine in the Gugong is typical of Chinese cities, and in earlier times extended through the outer city too. In the modern city it is not so apparent. 

 

Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihedian)

Looking over the Sea of Flagstones. 

 

Looking over the Roofs

In the background is the pavilion above Jingshan outside the North gate of the Forbidden City. 

 

Looking under the Roofs

Fancy stuff. This sort of decoration still seems pretty popular in China. Note the dragons. 

 

I took the opportunity to phone home from just outside the ceramics museum here. Incidentally, that museum would have been much improved by the installation of a few lights! It was nearly impossible to make out the exhibits. Anyway, mum was suitably impressed and gratifyingly envious; and when she'd gotten her bearings she immediately demanded postcards. I said she could deliver proxy gloatings to the family for me. She said she'd be sure to do so. Excellent.

 

After I'd come out the North gate of the Gugong it was natural to go up Jingshan. This is a hill that was reportedly built from the material excavated from the moat that surrounds the Gugong. If so, that's a pretty impressive dump of dirt. It's real fame is for two things: firstly, it's the only place in Beijing that gives you anything like a decent view of the city (some old books call it 'Prospect Hill'); and, secondly, it contains the locust tree where the last Ming emperor hanged himself.

 

Looking over the City

The view looking South from the pavilion on Jingshan (Coal Hill, so-called because there used be a coal store here). The low roofline of the imperial city contrasts with the soaring edifices that impress the Western imagination. This too is typical of Chinese cities: for the Chinese, if there was an architectural focus for his feelings of awe it would be the walls of the city. 

[I've lightened the sky as much as I honestly could, but Beijing really was smogged over most of the time I was there.]

 

The Imperial Moat.

Now a suitable background for the photos of young lovers.

 

Walked back through Wangfujing Dajie. This is a major upmarket shopping street. For me there's really nothing of interest here; however, I did buy myself a little dictionary which I found I was missing. Yet another person attached themselves to me as I walked along minding my own business. This time it was a girl who wanted to practise her English and suggested that she could walk back to my hostel with me. I don't know if the offer was exactly what it sounded like, but I thought it best to decline anyway. Do tourists in Australia have this much harassment, I wonder? By the time I got back to the hostel I was pretty tired, so I didn't go out again. Instead, I went to bed early and tried to keep warm by sleeping in my leather jacket - it's bloody freezing here and they won't turn on the heating.  

 

18/04/2010

(Sunday)

 


 

 

Another leisurely morning. I love a holiday. Even better, I discovered that they made breakfast here, and coffees - which I've really been missing the last couple of days. Left at about 12:40 havning already arranged a trip to Mutianyu tomorrow morning. I actually wanted to combine this trip to the Great Wall with a visit to the Ming Tombs, but apparently that wasn't doable at a reasonable price. How odd; but never mind. 

 

Got myself onto the subway at Dengshikou, which is my local station - and with which I'd become very familiar over the next few days. Headed off south a few stops to Tiantandongmen to see the Temple of Heaven. All quite straightforward. There's plenty of English assistance on the machine and in the trains themselves. This is all the result, I'd guess, of the Olympic Games held here a couple of years ago. I'm very impressed with their subway system: it's clean, convenient, safe, frequent, and rapid. Coming back was a bit more interesting, however. It was very crowded, and the machine wouldn't read my notes. Luckily I had some coins in my pocket.

 

The Altar of Heaven in the Temple of Heaven complex wasn't all that interesting as a structure really, though it's interesting to read about the numerological obsessions of its builders and the ritual and cosmological symbolism in the structure. Actually, the Altar of Heaven  is being pretty massively disrespected by the tourists here. At the very centre of the top platform is a stone called the Heaven's Heart Stone, which is supposed to be the exact centre of the world - a type of omphalos, in fact. There is a line of tourists waiting to be photographed standing on this stone in 'funny' poses.

 

Much more photogenic is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. 

 

Qi Nian Dian (祈年殿), The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Tiantan is the place where Man, Earth, and Heaven meet (that's what the 3 tiers mean) - and is thus an eastern version of the duranki of Sumer, and any number of other holy buildings. The Emperor, who incarnated that unity, spent a night here twice a year as part of a Taoist-inspired magical performance to renew the favour of Heaven. The common people were not invited.

 

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Pretty fancy.

 

The Temple is set in a really nice park, and it's well used by the Beijingers. There were old people dancing, groups of people sitting in long porticos playing cards, harmonica bands, ethnic dance groups, families and couples and groups of young people having picnics, kids playing a type of hackysack (where the sack has a shuttlecock's tail,) and all sorts of other things. It really was quite entertaining to just walk around.

 

Dancing in Tiantan park

Concentrate, concentrate.... Don't look down, don't look down...123, 123

 

Writing in Tiantan park

This sort of calligraphy using a sponge brush dipped in water is surprisingly popular. I am told that the characters he has drawn are rather beautifully done, but I can't really tell. It's not clear what they're saying yet though, which is a pity. 

 

Got back to the hostel about 5. Later in the evening I walked along Donghuamen to see the night market. There was a long line of food kiosks selling all sorts of peculiar looking things. Since I didn't have anyone to explain what was on offer I played it safe - but what I got was pretty boring (some sort of spring roll) and vastly too expensive. Then home via Wangfujing: this time running a gauntlet of girls offering 'lady massages'. 

 

19/04/2010

(Monday)

 


 

 

Up bright and early and away to Mutianyu. A little late starting because two of us were still asleep. We continued to sleep on the way out, which was a 2 hour drive in a very uncomfortable van. At the wall we went up by cable chair and came down by toboggan. The latter was quite a lot of fun but we weren't able to really let ourselves go because of nervous nellies and old people in front of us. I have to remark that the thing didn't look as if it would be safe enough to be run in any of our nannified Western countries: it would have been possible for someone to harm themself by going to fast and losing control - and that would never do.

 

Actually, this is something that I noticed again and again in China. Yes, it is a violent police state and the people are the prisoners of a ruthless dictatorship, but unless they are seen to be challenging the state they may never feel the oppressive hand of the state. In the acts of daily life, they are really a good deal freer than we in the West. They don't have to wear seatbelts, they don't have to obey road rules, they don't have to wear hard hats on site, they don't have to keep kitchens spotless, and so on. These may be trivial freedoms, but they are the freedoms that one feels - and at the risk of sounding like Sartre in Nazi Paris, I can well imagine that one would feel freer in China than in 'Elf 'n 'Safety land.

 

Well, never mind that. The Wall. Very big. Like the pyramids, however, it isn't anything like as impressive to see as to think of. It's a fairly standard wall, not as strong as most significant fortifications one will see, but it is amazing to think that it continues like this (or similarly) for thousands of miles. (In Chinese it's called Wanli Changcheng, 萬里長城, the 'Long Wall of 10, 000 li.) It would have been nice if I'd got some decent pictures of it, but as I stood on the wall my camera battery ran flat! The only decent picture I got from there is of a dragon procession passing through the village below the wall. You wouldn't bloody believe it would you? 

 

Dragon head

Part of a procession in the village at Mutianyu. 

 

The Wall at Mutianyu

Kinda snakey.

 

After tramping up and down a bit, with our guide, Echo, giving us some info - but nothing that you couldn't get from a reasonable guidebook or common knowledge - we had a lunch in a private room in a restaurant below the Great Wall. What a lot of food! But we managed to get through it. The tour party was a very decent group of people, I thought. There was a chap from Rhode Island; two guys travelling together, one from the UK and the other from New York, going around the world; two large kiwi ladies (possibly partners) who understood my mock homesickness at seeing sheep out the window; two girls from Suzhou, Lauren from Texas and Sara from near Frankfurt, in Beijing to do some advertising work for an elevator company. Once we got started talking it was all very pleasant and easy and no awkwardness. This made the ride back home a lot more fun, and Echo could take the opportunity to have a sleep. 

 

Lauren and I got on pretty well together. She and Sara are actually staying at my hostel, so while Sara went up to sleep, Lauren and I had a coffee downstairs. In the evening, we three all went out to a place that had been recommended to them by some guy to have a Peking Duck. That turned into a bit of an adventure because the stupid taxi driver dropped us off nowhere near the restaurant and we had to walk through alleys to get to a silk shopping centre, and then by asking several random people we managed to home in on a very nice shopping centre - now that I inspect my maps, I can see that this must have been somewhere in Qianmen. Then a waitress walked us a good 500m to the second branch of the place, and then she served us at table. Good grief, what an epic!

 

I have to say that I wasn't terribly bowled over by this Peking Duck that is so much praised. I thought it was very ordinary and too expensive (Y125.) It was just normal roast duck meat in a pancake with some sauce and a julienned vegetable, with a very weak duck soup. I didn't get what was supposed to be so special about it. Since we were blowing out on a fancy meal, we also had Mandarin Fish; but again, that was a disappointment. It looked very fancy, all bright orange and angry-banana shaped, but it tasted like every other sweet and sour dish I'd ever tasted. I did like the tomato egger (sic) and the beer though. They were good. All up it cost about Y200 each.

 

The evening ended with Lauren in search of her phone: she'd left it at the hostel, and was having withdrawal symptoms, so we all taxied back together. Then the girls decided that they were going to go do some clubbing, but that didn't sound attractive to me so I had a coffee and went up to sleep. A very pleasant day all round when I think of it. One of the good ones.

 

20/04/2010

(Tuesday)

 


 

 

OK. Camera's all charged up and I'm ready to go. Off to the Summer Palaces!

 

Hmph. The subway was easy enough, though it did take about an hour each way, and though I did manage to get off once at the wrong stop (Yuanmingyuan instead of Xiyang - for Yiheyuan, you see my problem?) No, that was all fine and normal. What really annoyed me was that when I got to the right station there were no signs pointing in one direction or the other for the Palaces, so I started at random in the wrong direction. Then I saw signs to the Palaces that explicitly and deliberately took me in the wrong direction. I still, looking back, don't know what those signs were trying to do. Anyway they took me walking away for miles and then just  ... stopped. By the time I found my way back to the station I'd been walking for an hour - and not even through any interesting streets. From the station going in the other direction, once you get to the corner of the street it's all very obvious and it took me only 10 minutes to get to the site. But I was already exhausted and irritated before I even got in the gate. It had taken me 2 hours 10mins to get here. 

 

I think it was worth it though: the gardens are really attractive and entertaining. They'd be a great place to go in Summer if there were not so many people around. I can understand why they were a favourite spot for the emperors and 'empresses'.

The Long Pavilion

This stretches for quite a distance along the north shore of the Kunming Lake.

 

It's amusing the way the signs on the various sights all make a point of mentioning in hurt tones that the place was destroyed by the British in 1860 (but not too destroyed, apparently.) I wonder why they did that? There's never a mention of any sort of context, or what the Imperial Chinese might have been up to to invite such a thing. Even my guidebook, which is otherwise pretty relentlessly self-flagellating, gets the pip a bit here too. There's rather too much of this victim narrativology from the Chinese government these days. They clearly think that encouraging a resentful nationalism is an acceptable way of creating some ideological legitimacy in a world where an explicit embrace of capitalism is impossible and communism is simply not believed in by anyone. I think the history of this idea is not encouraging, and I wish they'd try something else. We saw some very nasty anti-Japanese protests being stirred up a few years ago (in the course of trade negotiations as usual) and the government very nearly lost control of those. I know there's also a debate about whether China can now be described as returning to a Confucian model, which seems to be an idea that some analysts and some elements of the government are trying to popularise for a similar reason; but I'm convinced that such an ideology couldn't support a modern state and that China is not really on that path.

 

Took a boat across the lake to a peninsular pavilion. They all have the most intriguing names: Virtue and Harmony, Rippling Waves, Viewing the Rosy Moon, and so on. (Speaking of which I wish I'd taken a photo of the sign on a food shop near here. It had the most bizarre descriptions of the really normal food being sold. One that sticks in the mind is the 'flesh gripping the meat' which I think was a hamburger.)

 

On a boat

One of the ferries that travels between the Long Pavilion and Nanhu Island.

 

Off the boat

Many of the boats have rather fancy prows. I don't think they add much to their seaworthiness.

 

Another pavilion

I just thought this was a really nice scene.

 

21/04/2010

(Wednesday)

 


 

 

In the afternoon I went to see Nanluoxiang lu. It's supposed to be a great place for tourists to hang out, but there wasn't much there, it's just a narrow, old, street with cafes and craft shops all the way up it. Chinese yuppies and that sort like to hang out here apparently. I wandered around a bit but I somehow managed to forget to go to the Drum and Bell towers which are near here. Very foolish, I'll have to come back later.

 

Anyway, back on the subway and down to finally walk over Tiananmen square. Seemed to be a lot of security around for no reason that I was able to discover. Maybe it's always like that in the heart of the People's Republic. 

 

Tiananmen Square: Monument to the People's Heroes

Suitably pacifist statuary in the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I think it commemorates the struggle for liberty and democracy by oppressed subjects of a brutal regime, or something like that. 

 

Walked on past this concrete desert into Qianmen (the 'Front Gate' suburb, named for the southern gate, which is also called Zhengyangmen.) This is a completely yuppified area that was cleared of its 'picturesque' hutongs and market in preparation for the Games. I was amused to see the very exotic- looking Starbucks at the North end near the Arrow Tower. At this time I was desperate for a break so I sat in Costa's for an hour or so with a cafe latte massimo warming my hands. 

 

Qianmen Dajie

Note the clothes and sky. This doesn't feel like Spring. 

 

22/04/2010

(Thursday)

 


 

 

In the morning I went off north with my umbrella in hand (it was raining yesterday) intending to hunt down the Drum and Bell towers that I missed yesterday, but I missed them again because I went first to the Yonghegong lamasery and the Confucian Temple, and then had a leisurely macchiato in one of the little hutongs. By the time I got back there was actually blue sky; the first I've seen in town in the whole week.

 

The lamasery was interesting enough but, like all Buddhist temples that I've seen, rather full of grotesques. It's a pity that the popular imagination doesn't appreciate the simple elegance that Buddha's system really deserves in its places of worship. I tried to get pictures of monks and worshippers but it was impossible. Every time I clicked I found that the flame had gone out, the person had turned away, someone had walked in front of me, etc. and so on.  

 

Yonghegong lamasery

Offering prayers and incense to Buddha, or perhaps to a bodhisattva/arhat/lohan. 

 

I much preferred the Confucian temple which was just around the corner. Much more restrained. Much more rational. Much more human. (It was also, for some reason, hosting a BMW Road Safety exhibition; and there were lots of tourists taking photos of the cars in the car park rather than of the historical site behind them.)

 

Confucian Temple

A statue of Confucius, appearing much less grotesque than the Buddhist gods.

 

Confucian Temple

Graceful.

 

?

Confucian Temple

Peaceful.

 

In the evening I went to a Peking Opera at Liyuan hotel down near Qianmen somewhere. A good deal more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Of course, it was only a sampling of a real opera. There were just two extracts. The first part was a lot of very high pitched and untuneful singing, but that actually seemed quite interesting. The second part was a pretty acrobatic performance of Monkey King defeating the 18 Arhats - which I'm sure I remember from 'Monkey!' on TV. The acrobatics were interesting and people were enjoying it - but in a brief interlude where there was no music we could suddenly hear a man snoring, which made the audience laugh and must have put the performers off their stride. How you could sleep in such a place is beyond me. 

 

23/04/2010

(Friday)

 


 

 

Well, there wasn't really much that I wanted to see today, so I went out to the silk market where there was, as I suspected, nothing of interest. Back then to Qianmen and had a coffee at Starbuck's. Not great, but a good enough way to fill in the time. I went up and down Wangfujing again too, but it was basically just a normal shopping street. There was one incident of interest: apparently they were making some sort of ad in the street, because everybody was crowded around snapping photos of a camera crew that was trying to work. Good luck! I did my own little bit to hold up proceedings. I was advised by many bystanders to photograph the star. 'Beautiful!' they said, with apparent pride. And they were right. Hey, maybe she's famous; I wouldn't know.

 

Modelling in the mall

Maybe this'll be worth money one day.

 

Come shopping here

Why, yes. This is our normal work uniform. Why do you ask?.

 

Had a nasty bone-filled meal at a cheap restaurant near the hostel, then took my bags and myself to the train station. Turns out that taking bags on public transport at 7:30-8:00pm is a mistake. It's still more or less rush hour. It was extremely crowded and I felt like a massive nuisance and a twit trying to manoeuvre these things around and bumping into people and standing on their toes. Never mind; I got off easily enough and taxied to the train station. I was a bit nervous about the train at first, but it was all pretty obvious in organization and things went smoothly. Such a contrast to the Indian trains.

 

And so to sleep. With any luck I'll wake up in XI'AN