Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 3


22 March 2012, Thursday

To begin with, the Forbidden City, listed first among the must-see sights of Beijing, did not impress us that much. Spoiled with places like the Louvre and Schönbrunn, we expected that we would be allowed in the imperial appartments to marvel at their decorations, furniture, utensils and clothing of the emperors and their family members. Instead, we found ourselves on a huge territory without a single tree (or a bush, or even a grass blade), paved with stones, dotted with pavilions of the same type – very similar to those we had already seen the day before, in the Temple of Heaven complex. Of course, there are all sorts of artefacts, more or less divided among several galleries (art, ceramic, bronze), but Chinese museum art isn’t generally a surprise for us, as we have repeatedly seen it in various museums – for example, not long ago there was a wonderful exhibition of imperial clothing in Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Crowds of people, mostly Chinese, were traversing Gugong – that is how the imperial palaces complex is called.

It’s worth mentioning that amateur tour guides, attracted by our foreign looks, eagerly attacked us on the distant approaches to the complex, offering individual tours. But we, remembering the previous day’s unfortunate experience with the private sector, firmly refused.

By the way, just outside the complex we observed a funny scene. A loud bellow from a policeman, getting out of a car, made two stout women in galoshes and with voluminous bales full of stuff for sale (obviously illegal sale!) flee headlong, while their younger and suppler companions were walking on all fours, hiding from the guardian of order behind the balustrade.

So, back to the Gugong. The crowds were moving strictly from south to north, peering into the open windows of the main pavilions, the interior space of which still remains forbidden to people. It is, however, no wonder – these millions of visitors would otherwise just take down the quite small halls. As for the western and eastern pavilions, their doors and windows were firmly locked.

We deviated from the north-south axis just once, to visit the treasury. Alas, here too we were slightly disappointed, because the treasury was quite modest: a few trinkets in coral and jade did not hit the eye or imagination.

Interestingly enough, although moving among an avalanche of people is not that easy and even gets on your nerves, at the slightest deviation to the side, to emptier and more desolated places, you immediately start feeling uncomfortable.

Speaking about unattended places, there are quite a lot of them both on the left and on the right, because the collectivistic Chinese are not likely to disperse across the territory. Generally, this collectivism is observed everywhere. This is evidenced by previously mentioned collective dances and exercise in parks. The necessity to act as a group had also been symbolically showed in the Lao She teahouse the day before: at least three performances demonstrated a tremendous coherence of actions.

Another peculiarity we noticed was related to, excuse me, public toilets. Most of the stalls in those consist of squat toilet; however, there are always a couple of stalls with good old seat toilet. By the way, there are public toilets pretty much at every turn; they are free and fairly clean. Yes, the prose of life indeed, but still a very important issue for a travelling person.

Once again, back to the Gugong. Of course, it is possible that we could have missed something interesting, but nevertheless, upon reaching the northern gate we firmly decided not to go deep somewhere else, but to return the now habitual automatic audio guide and go back to the hotel. The latter didn’t work quite smoothly: the sidewalk was separated from the taxi stand literally by triple fencing – so near and yet so far! As we tried to squeeze through the passages to the roadway, we were attacked by trishaws and moto-rickshaws. Of course, we gloatingly replied: “No, thanks!”, but it didn’t make our passing any easier. The taxi drivers here also seemed not as quiet and law-abiding as those carrying us in the morning from the hotel. They were haggling, trying to overstate the price, and taximeters were apparently out of question. Finally we reached an agreement with one of them, not as greedy as the others, and drove off. The driver surprised us first with his English (something which you hardly ever come across here), and then, with the fact that at some point, stopping at a red light, he pulled out a thermos from the glove box, poured a cup of steaming jasmine tea and drunk it with pleasure.

Despite the fact that we were driving through much more interesting and colourful streets than the day before, our general mood was not so good. We didn’t even want to go out at all after lunch. But then we almost forced ourselves to go visit two places: the Beihai Park and the Donghuamen Snack Street. And this time it turned out an epic win, we enjoyed it a lot!

Clearly, the Beihai Park must be absolutely charming in summer, when, as we saw in photos, willows dip their green branches into the waters of the lake, reflecting the bright blue sky. But even on such a dull March day the evergreen part of the park looked beautiful and was somehow compensating the bareness of the willows. In the centre of the park there was a hill, crowned with the White Pagoda. Luckily, we didn’t make detours to get to the Pagoda, but walked through all the pavilions, in the very first of which we saw the magnificent statue of Buddha Shakyamuni. The trees in courtyards in front of each pavilion were covered with red diamond-shaped wish cards.

On the right there was a tower with a bell, which, as it is believed, should be struck three times for security and prosperity for the whole year. Needless to say, we easily parted with three yuans each, which was the fee for striking the bell. We did then have the dangerous desire to check whether it worked by skipping down the steep and narrow wooden stairs, but managed to suppress it.

As you would expect, the ascent to the Pagoda was very difficult. And even then, how can the way to Perfection be easy? We overcame it without much trouble, though, which cannot be said about one or two women, who couldn’t make it up the stairs. What we found a bit annoying was a Chinese family, pointing their fingers at us and vigorously discussing – us, I believe. Only later, after reading a book on Chinese concepts of culture and ethics, we realised that such behaviour is not uncommon and absolutely normal here.

Inspired by the “pilgrimage” to the Pagoda, the wonderful air and the beauty of bridges and pavilions, we decided that we definitely should not miss the next item of our programme.

Thus, from the sublime grandeur of the Pagoda, we moved on to the utterly earthy Donghuamen Snack Market. However, we weren’t intending to try anything there – both following warnings not to buy food from street vendors, and being aware of the very exotic selection: skewered grasshoppers, centipedes, beetles, seahorses, silkworms, worms, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and other creatures, unknown to us.

In their neighbourhood, even ordinary candied fruits, noodles with vegetables and lamb kebabs looked unappetising. Smells along the stalls varied from very pleasant ones (sweet or spicy) to absolutely disgusting malodours. The nasty smell was mainly coming from the raw offal, also skewered, and it should be noted in fairness, that all the arthropods mentioned above didn’t smell at all.

Having checked the map, we realised, that the Wangfujing Street, adjoining the market, was not far from our street – Qianmen – and we decided to walk to the hotel. The distance was, perhaps, quite short, but as we were extremely tired by that time, walking it didn’t seem very easy.

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 2


21 March 2012, Wednesday

In the morning we had to struggle to open our eyes, our bodies were swollen and bloated, and, barely able to move, we went down to have breakfast. And this was a somewhat new experience: all the Western hotels where we had happened to stay previously offered pretty much similar breakfasts, with slight deviations. Here in Beijing, though, we found almost none of the usual cheeses and sausages (the only sausage available was made of mushrooms!). Instead, there were a number of hot soups and congees, and other hot Chinese dishes – chicken, noodles with vegetables, rice, etc. The breakfast was complemented by tropical fruits, mainly familiar to us (grapefruit, pineapple, and kiwi) except for the rather tasteless dragon fruit.

We decided to start our acquaintance with Beijing from the Temple of Heaven, and we think, we did the right thing. We paid 10 yuans (just over 1.5 USD or 1 AZN) for a ten-minute taxi ride – so cheap! – and there we were in the vast temple complex. Here it immediately became obvious how Beijing outdid the good old Europe in terms of audio guides – the one we got was fully automatic, showing the map of the complex along with our current location, marking in red the places we had missed and talking about the part of the park where we were at the moment.

The Temple of Heaven did of course impress us a lot with its grandeur, the mastery of its architects and its typical “Chineseness”. But no less impressive seemed the Chinese themselves. Here and there, all over the huge territory of the park, there were people singing, dancing and practicing tai chi in groups, playing badminton and another game, unknown to us, which consisted of tossing a feather ball to each other. Passers-by, not participating in these mass events, were also having fun – for example, we saw an elderly Chinese gentleman with a hat and cane dancing as he walked by. Generally, old people looked very active here – another white-bearded old man took a few dance steps around a singing woman, someone else was stretching and doing exercise.

Our audio guide told us about the sacrifice ceremony, the animals driven to slaughter through the so-called “gates of hell”, about the symbolism in architecture and the repeatability of the number 9. The three-tiered altar was very impressive; they say that the voice of the emperor, as he stood in a circular area in the middle, was amplified a hundred times and sounded like it was coming from Heaven. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to test this effect.

In one of the alleys we suddenly heard Azerbaijani speech – how surprising that almost the first non-Chinese that we came across here were our compatriots.

Of course it was impossible to walk the entire park, especially that some parts of it, such as the rosary, were quite irrelevant in early spring. Overjoyed at the cheapness, we were intending to take a taxi back to the hotel. But as we stood at the park entrance, quite lost, looking for a taxi stand, a moto-rickshaw appeared out of nowhere. This promised to be an exotic experience, so we thought, why not? We asked the guy how much it would cost and he showed three fingers. We tried to clarify: “Thirty?” He nodded in accordance. What we didn’t do – very stupid of us! – was ask him to show the amount in written. We asked him to take us to the Tiananmen Square, and off we went happily. Everyone in the streets were staring at us, and as for other rickshaw drivers, they were eyeing ours enviously. Encouraged by those looks, our driver suggested to drive us through the hutongs (authentic narrow alleys), but we were sensible enough to refuse. Finally the rickshaw stopped and the guy vaguely waved his hand in a certain direction, which was supposed to mean that Tiananmen was somewhere there. We handed the driver 30 yuans, and that’s when he made it clear that he was intending to receive not 30 yuans, but actually ten times more, he even pulled out some badge as confirmation. What could we do? Outraged, we reached for centesimal banknotes. What the guy said afterwards really took the biscuit – 300 yuans was meant to be the price per passenger, you see. This was far too much already, so we refused loudly and angrily, and left. The driver shouted after us: “Give me at least a hundred!”, but we remained hard as stone. It’s no joke paying almost 50 USD for a fifteen-minute ride, and, in any case he must have gone home praising the heavens for having sent him such gullible dupes. Well, at least that was a lesson for us.

We then had to walk quite a lot until we reached the Tiananmen Square, but probably it wasn’t possible to drive up closer than we did.  The area was indeed enormous but we didn’t experience such a delight as we did in the morning. The Square looks modern, with all the trappings of communism; their flag gives ground to ours in Baku in terms of size. Yet, we took photos against the portrait of the Great Helmsman, and, as it was already lunchtime, decided to go have a bite to eat somewhere.

The Peking Duck in a restaurant specialising in roast duck, had very little in common with what is usually served in our restaurants: it was crispy, fatty, soft, with authentic relishes (half of which are persistently ignored by restaurants in Baku and, as far as I remember, at least in London as well).

After having a rest in the hotel we headed to the Lao She Teahouse to watch the tea ceremony and other performances. And boy, was that fascinating! We arrived early to pick up our pre-booked tickets, and had time to view something like an exhibition on the first floor, where everything was about tea – tea-things, different varieties of the drink, etc, – and also models of different ancient Chinese facilities: hairdressing salon, pharmacy, confectionery and several types of teahouses.  They were all very well made, with charming figures of people.

We went up the staircase with carved gilded railings, into the main performance hall. The pictures of famous public figures from different countries, who ever attended the teahouse, all over the walls made us feel important. We had bought the tickets for the first row and were sharing a table for six with locals. Generally, most of the visitors in this packed hall were Chinese (just as pretty much everywhere else), except maybe us and a French couple at the next table.

The tickets included tea and snacks (sunflower seeds, peanuts, candied medlars on a stick, traditional sweet biscuits and some kind of a mucous rice porridge with pumpkin chunks). At this time of year they serve jasmine tea, and that’s how it looks like: the cup is filled to one-third with tea leaves, with boiling water poured over them. From time to time waiters come with kettles and refill the cup with hot water. It’s really surprising that despite being constantly diluted, not only doesn’t the tea lose its taste but it actually becomes better and better. Now that’s what I call real Chinese tea – and the dyed crap we are used to drinking can’t hold a candle to it.

Back to the main part, i.e. the performance. Despite the fact that it was in Chinese only, hence all the dialogues were incomprehensible to us, we still enjoyed it big time. It started with the tea ceremony, demonstrated by a graceful lady in a spring green dress. Then another lady with a strong voice performed a song to a drum beat, executing traditional Chinese roulades, unfamiliar to our ears. She was then replaced on the stage by two sound imitators – their performance was at least understandable: whistle of a train, clattering of a horse’s hooves, hooting of a steamer, chirping of birds.

The tea ceremony

The next act was the long-awaited Peking opera. In fact, we had first wanted to see a separate performance but our thoughtful hotel staff had talked us out of it, and that was the right thing to do – we would probably have hardly been able to endure a full opera performance. But the ten-minute piece we saw really impressed us. A sly-looking lively girl led another girl, looking shy and timid, onto the stage, helped her into her seat and started describing the beauty of flowers and seasons to her. The interlinear translation of the songs into English was provided on a monitor on the wall, which cannot be said about the dialogues. Therefore, it remained unclear, why the silent shy girl was rising from her chair from time to time, making a few steps towards the energetic songstress and then sitting back down.

Beijing opera

After the opera piece came another tea ceremony, with extremely long-nosed teapots: two guys and a girl showed a remarkable coherence of actions. Then, three acrobat ladies spun some plates on poles. Of course, we had seen plate spinning performances before, demonstrated by touring Chinese circus, but it should be recognised that the skills of these three girls were just amazing. As for the comedians, which were performing next, we couldn’t fully appreciate them for obvious reasons, but the local audience did have a good laugh. However, we quite liked the quartet, which played five instruments, each musician playing two simultaneously (I’ll let the readers guess how this can be possible, or check out the photo below).

And finally, a sample of Sichuan opera, with very quick, almost instant, change of masks. Quite a short, but a very impressive performance.

Sichuan opera

As a result, it was a very vivid and memorable show. As we found out that the teahouse was on the same street as our hotel, we decided to walk back. The journey was slightly spoiled by the fact that the underground passage was closed due to the late hour, because of which we had to make a detour. But the weather was so pleasant that this didn’t cause any particular annoyance.

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 1 (or Day 0.5 in fact!)


20 March 2012, Tuesday

Despite the renowned comfort of Qatar airways, the flight still turned out to be exhausting: spending 10 hours in total up in the air is no piece of cake. The positive side is that we were able to doze a little during the second part of the flight (Doha-Beijing), even with the awful turbulence.

The first thing that struck us in Beijing airport was the fact that we had to actually take a train to get to Arrivals and the luggage claim area. This speaks of the grand scale of the airport, which makes it look a bit empty. We then had to wait for our luggage for ages, it was so long that we were already about to say goodbye to our suitcases, imagining them travelling around the world on their own. Phew, they did arrive finally!

We took a taxi to the hotel, the address of which, written in Chinese characters, I had prudently saved on my iPhone beforehand. It took us an hour to get there and the view around the road didn’t impress us at all. It had a typical sight of Baku suburbs (even the carwashes looked the same), and only the Chinese writings on signs and walls unnaturally stood out from this familiar view. We thought that our impressions seemed a bit dull due to our tiredness, but the next day we confirmed that a lot of streets in Beijing are in fact quite uninteresting. The one-hour taxi ride turned out to be surprisingly inexpensive – only 110 yuans (about 18 USD or 14 AZN).

The Capital Hotel seemed to quite live up to its five-star-ness, starting from the magnificent interior of the hall, the large number of restaurants to suit all tastes and the impressive size (there are two adjacent buildings) and ending with the necessary little things in the room, like nail files and combs.

All we were able to do that evening was having dinner and providing ourselves with a cultural programme for the duration of our stay, with the help of three polite and friendly ladies at the hotel information desk. We booked tickets for the tea ceremony for tomorrow, the Great Wall of China tour for Friday and the Kung Fu show for Saturday. We left the remaining time to our discretion. At night we were sleeping, waking, suffering from insomnia, falling asleep again – the result of usual adaptation to time difference (4 hours) plus an enormous fatigue.