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 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.
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.
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.