Friday 2 October – Beijing
Pick up by ‘Summer’, our guide for the day. Why don’t the Chinese just use their Chinese names and let us cope? Our small group fitted into a 12 seater mini bus. On the way out of the city, on one of the ring roads, we passed Rem Koolhaus’ extraordinary China Central Television building – apparently known by locals as the ‘big shorts’ for its distinctive shape.
This being day two of the Chinese ‘Golden Week’ holiday, we were all expecting crowds. The general population had been officially advised to stay at home and watch the celebrations on TV yesterday, so this was the first day they were really able to be out and about. Our guide had word that so many were out and about that we should reschedule the order of the day and aim for the Great Wall in the afternoon rather than the morning (the theory being that if we had an early lunch, we’d strike the Wall when all the Chinese were having their lunch!)
Apart from us, there were two couples from South East Queensland who apparently always take their holidays together, usually a cruise. They are starting their cruise in China and will end up in Bangkok – or was it Singapore. I was too bored with them to care. Maria and I christened them ‘Kath and Kim’.
There was also a middle-aged English chap who was just on his way home to the UK after spending time with his ‘girlfriend’ in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Apparently their long-distance relationship has been going for a while but I got the feeling that he was keener than she was. He’d even bought an apartment in the city, and spent his holiday spending money on buying her a coat for winter!
First stop was the Ming Tombs (or tomb, as we only visited one of the three that are open out of the total of around twelve). It was crowded and noisy. Summer did her best to give us a rundown on its history and significance, but she seemed in reality to be preparing us for our next stop, a visit to a jade shop. I could summon little feeling for the site, although I’m sure it’s terribly important. The huge pagodas, all made of timber without the use of nails are quite impressive.
After a few minutes browsing at the Jade shop, I found the restaurant where we were to have lunch and sat and waited. It was here that Dennis the English chap joined me and told me more about his ‘girlfriend’ in Ulan Bator. Eventually a waiter brought a pot of tea and we were onto our second refill by the time the others rejoined us, having lightened their wallets on assorted tat.
The lunch was pretty ordinary, the sort of ‘Chinese’ food Australians might have been familiar with in the 60s and 70s in country towns – but our Queensland friends seemed quite excited and even a little challenged by it.
Our guide received further intelligence that the at the site we were headed to – Badaling – was too crowded, so she advised a diversion to Jongyuan, nearer to Beijing but apparently less visited. It was certainly picturesque, with the wall snaking along ridges and up precipitous peaks, and covered in red and yellow pennants like something out of one of Jang Yi Mou’s films. However most of the wall around this area is restored, and tourist infrastructure is abundant.
I climbed further than most up a quite steep and narrow section of the Wall, with the human tide of mostly Chinese tourists sweeping me along. Elderly nanas went up on hands and feet, small children did likewise and girls like little dolls in six inch heels also staggered up and down. There was a man at the landing who appeared to be having a cardiac arrest, or at least some trauma, and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of assistance around. Guards, who were just boys, stood uselessly in the midst of the tide every few hundred yards, but they could not do much.
Back down around the main area, I did a turn of the barbican and was about to have a quick stroll through the shops as there was still half an hour or so before our appointed meeting time. However Summer found me and said that the rest of the group was already back in the van ready to go. No pressure!
On the way back to the city we passed by, at some speed, the Olympic Village and just managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ‘Birds Nest’ stadium and the ‘Water Cube’.
We raced back into Beijing for another ‘shopping opportunity’, this time at a Silk Shop where staff ‘demonstrated’ the production of silk quilts. Again, Maria weakened and purchased. Upstairs there was clothing and all manner of tat, all at ridiculous prices. There was also a little cafe area, but I didn’t really want any of the drinks or ice-cream they had on offer, so just sat down and waited. Our driver noticed that I wasn’t in the shopping spirit and very kindly had the staff send over a cup of tea for me.
We arranged with Summer to drop us off at the Pearl Market rather than back at our hotel – it was apparently one of the major markets in the city, offering clothing, jade, silk and pretty much every other category of Chinoiserie one could imagine, all at very negotiable prices. It also had a couple of opticians, one of whom promised they could match my prescription in one of their frames for around $200, so I ordered a pair which would take about two hours to fill. At that price, even as a spare pair they are good value.
We had also decided that we’d try and find some of the striking red lanterns that had been displayed all over China in the lead up to the National Day celebrations. We found a stall on about the third floor who had one and said she could obtain more. We negotiated a price – about $8 each – and she sent an associate off to obtain them. Interestingly, at the beginning of the negotiation, one of the volunteer marshals who were part of the strategy for maintaining order and decorum during the celebrations, came over and appeared to be remonstrating with our girl. I wondered if selling such objects to foreigners was strictly legal, or even appropriate. I wondered if the associate was even then out nicking lanterns from the front of the building!
After about 20 minutes of being told ‘5 minutes’ we wandered off to look at other stalls, fully intending to return. She tried to get a deposit from us, but we resisted. Instead, Maria left the conical bamboo hat she’d just bought, by way of security. Within a couple of minutes, I found a nearby stall that seemed to specialise in lanterns and had what we wanted in a range of sizes. We were immediately offered a price that was about a third of what our girl had offered, so Maria charged back to collect her hat while I closed the deal. Our girl was apparently not very happy.
Maria had been travelling with a very basic, and quite small, suitcase that apparently belonged to her daughter. With her newly discovered bargaining skills, such a modest port was clearly not going to be sufficient to contain all the treasures of the East that she was obviously going to acquire, so she set off to find a new one. This came in very handy for transporting the lanterns.
After a few more bargains, my glasses were ready and we were more than ready to head back to our hotel for a cuppa and a lie down. To get there we had to negotiate with the taxi drivers outside the market, who clearly had a little scam going on. When asked to use their meters, they came up with all sorts of nonsense about it being after hours, or peak hour, or other such crap. They wanted US$10 for a trip to our hotel, which wasn’t actually that far away. This was clearly a rip-off and about four times the proper fare.
I walked away from several, and finally got the fare down to 40Yuan, still more than twice the going rate, but Maria with her new suitcase in two felt that was good enough.
After a rest at the hotel, we headed out to dinner. We fully expected to try another of the local diners nearby, but on trying a couple, we couldn’t find a table and many seemed to be set up for large party groups, so we headed back to ‘our favourite shop’ and enjoyed another ‘pot luck’ point at the photo meal.
One of the dishes tonight was a very tasty hot pot, containing various meats, including some liver. The dish continued to braise over its paraffin burner and the onions and other vegies caramelised in a most delicious fashion as the meal progressed.