Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 6


25 March 2012, Sunday

The day turned out to be quite authentic. In the morning we met our guide (an official one, of course) and went on a hutong tour. By the way, what is really good about tours here is that usually it’s not just a trip to one place, but rather to several different places, very cleverly connected so, that there is a good balance of walking, riding and climbing.

Likewise, this hutong tour started with two towers, facing each other – the Bell and Drum Towers. Thank goodness, we only had to climb one of them, the Drum Tower. Both towers were built during the Ming dynasty and were used to alert people of the time, every two hours.

In order to get to the hall with the drums, we had to climb sixty very steep stairs, and then nine more. Apart from drums exhibited here, there were also ancient devices used in the past to determine the time, so that servants would know when to hit the drums. The operating principle of most devices was based on the burning of incense, which was calibrated so that it took a set amount of time to burn.

At half past nine four guys and a girl arrived and demonstrated a drum performance. The girl was hitting the largest drum. And the drums, I have to mention, were nothing like those you would typically see on the stage: each one was of the size of a huge barrel, or even two. So, no surprise that the whole city heard them back in those days.

The guide showed us all parts of Beijing from the balcony. It was really interesting to look down on the places we had already seen: the Beihai Park, the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City.

From the Drum Tower we moved to the Bell Tower, but luckily the visit was limited to the ground floor, where we participated in a tea ceremony – not a theatrical one, as in the Lao She teahouse, but with detailed explanations and tasting of different varieties of tea. We were taught how to brew the tea, how to hold the cup with three fingers and how to drink the the tea, sticking out the ring finger and the pinky finger. Interestingly, in some countries the latter was once considered a bourgeois affectation and was highly ridiculed. Here, though, the two fingers sticking out symbolised the tail of a phoenix, which, in its turn was the symbol of the Empress. So this gesture was only made by women. Men also used to hold the cup with three fingers, but tucked the remaining two in – this gesture symbolised the dragon, i.e. the Emperor. We got to taste five different varieties of tea: oolong with ginseng, jasmine tea, pu-erh (in tiles), black tea with lychee and rose flowers, and fruit tea. It would have been a sin to leave this tea kingdom without buying some real Chinese tea, so we purchased two packs – one oolong and one jasmine.

From here we walked to the Shichahai quarter, which, as our guide explained, is a favourite places of Beijingers, with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops. The place is very picturesque, located on the bank of the Shichahai lake. We learned that “hai” meant “lake”, therefore “Beihai” meant “Northern lake”. Then it dawned on us that “Beijing” started with “bei” by no accident, and that is how we figured out that “Beijing” simply meant “Northern capital” (a fact, which probably everyone else knows anyway!)

The journey continued on a rickshaw, which this time was part of the official tour but which we still had to tip.

First we visited an exemplary Beijing family. Often people live in hutongs for generations. Clearly, senior representatives of families enjoy living here, while junior ones – not so much.

Right at the courtyard entrance we stumbled upon a wall. The guide explained that, just as high thresholds, such walls were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. A typical courtyard was surrounded by four houses, and, together with them, used to represent the five basic elements of the Universe. The main and the most prestigious house was the one on the north, under the sign of Water – that’s where the parents lived. The house on the east represented the Wood element and belonged to the sons – the support of the family. The western house was associated with the Metal (Gold) element and was inhabited by the daughters. In the southern house, under the sign of Fire, lived the servants. And finally, the yard itself represented the fifth element – the Earth.

In addition to that, the guide drew our attention to the obligatory presence of trees in the yard. The 人 character means “a man”, and if a man is surrounded by a wall on four sides, it makes 囚, which means “a prisoner”. In order not to create such an unpleasant analogy, trees (木) were planted in the yard, but necessarily more than one, because the 困 character means “difficulty” – something that clearly wasn’t desired by the residents.

Speaking of characters, I should mention that the Chinese are fond of pasting the “fú” (福) character, which means “good fortune”, on doors, windows and walls. Moreover, they often paste it upside down. This is based on a wordplay: the word “dào” in Chinese means both “inverted” (倒) and “to arrive” (到). So, “Fú dào” at the same time means “Fú upside down” and “Fortune arrives”.

A resident of the house sat us under a portrait of Mao (this was happening in the eastern house, adapted for visitors) and, in fluent English, told us about life in such a house and showed her father’s paintings, made in traditional Chinese style.

Before leaving, we saw other members of her family: her father and her son. The cute two-year-old boy was shy at first, and refused to pose for us when we wanted to take a picture, but then took a fancy to us, escorted us to the door and even said “See you later” in English.

Next, we made a walk through the hutong. In fact, the word “hutong” is of Mongolian origin, meaning “water well”. During the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty each such quarter had a water well, hence the name. Nowadays the term “hutong” refers to these narrow, or sometimes, very narrow alleys.

Like everything in China, the front door design of each house was strictly regulated by the social status of its residents. If the house belonged to a military official, there were two round stones at the entry, decorated with various ornaments, standing on their edges, one on each side. Square or rectangular stones, on the other hand, indicated that a civil official lived in the house. The number of hexagonal wooden beams above the door jambs also depended on the social status of the owner. Twelve beams was the maximum, which was only attributable to the Emperor. Severe punishment or even execution expected those who dared to break this rule (as well as using other privileges of the Emperor: yellow colour, dragon as a symbol, constructing two-tier roofs). Then the number of beams decreased with decreasing social status – so a commoner would content with just two.

We already mentioned the meaning of four cardinal points in the design of Chinese courtyards. About the city as a whole we were told that east was for the wealthy, west for the noble, north for the poor and south for the lowly.

We came back from the hutong and had lunch, after which we visited our last place in Beijing – the Hongqiao Pearl Market, where we had great fun! In order to get to chic, certified pearl jewellery on the fourth floor, one would have to survive three seething and boiling floors full of low-quality Chinese goods (the ones we have oodles of as well). Escalators were located in different places, just as in any other large shopping centre, but in, say, “Marks and Spencer” it’s quite hard to imagine noisy sellers chasing you, grabbing you by the hand and shouting: “What is your last price?”. And this arrangement of escalators made it totally impossible to avoid them.

We had been warned that bargaining was absolutely necessary in China, but we couldn’t even imagine that people haggled so passionately and fervently here. The mall was packed with foreigners, who, apparently, had also been briefed on the rules of shopping in China. Here and there we observed many funny scenes, such as a resentful buyer walking away, a seller running after him, ready to make any concessions just to palm off his fake “Dolce and Gabbana”. A sales girl caught our conversation and cried out in broken Russian: “Come buy a scarf, why don’t you want a scarf?” We left without any scarves, though.

And finally, we had a very, very tasty dinner at the same Japanese restaurant, albeit with more modest portions.

Of course we didn’t get the chance to see everything we wanted to – for example, the Summer Palace, the China Ethnic Museum, the Lama Temple… But still, we spent five useful and fabulous days, full of impressions, in Beijing. Let’s see what Hong Kong is going to be like…

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 5


24 March 2012, Saturday

Today we visited the Beijing Zoo.  As we had scheduled the Kung Fu show for the evening, we decided not to spend more than 3-4 hours at the zoo. Therefore, we acted on the same principle as once at the Louvre, where, first thing, we had checked out the Mona Lisa and then viewed whatever we had time for. In this case, first of all we headed for the giant pandas. It should be mentioned that all the “Mona Lisas” of the local “Louvre” were sleeping like logs during our visit!

Signs of at least some activity were only shown by the very first panda we saw. It was calmly eating bamboo leaves, but then again, having completed its meal, it lay down to sleep. But anyway, those big cute animals looked very sweet!

The same thing was observed of the small (red) pandas: only one of them was eating something, while the others were sound asleep, sprawled in the branches.

Actually, the entire zoo seemed like a big Land of Nod. The wolves were asleep, the bears were asleep, the jaguar was asleep… However, the lion and the tiger didn’t let us down. Apparently, the usual desire of all cats to show off played its role. While other animals tried to hide from spectators in the most inaccessible corners, the lion and the tiger, on the contrary, specially lay down on the most prominent places and struck majestic poses. We managed to take a photo of the lion while it was stretching!

Of course, the zoo was very busy; after all, it was a Saturday. We finally saw a lot of Chinese children (there are not too many of them on the streets). They were all chubby and rosy-cheeked, very cute!  It was a big surprise to see a lot of girls. Clearly, the desire to give birth only to boys, resulting from restriction on the number of children, has significantly decreased, at least in the capital. Perhaps, this is the consequence of the prohibition to determine the sex of the child before birth. At times we saw rare couples with two children (probably, well-off people), but never with three.

By the way, – that’s already another story – we also never saw any foreign guides. In Europe, a French-speaking group of tourists, for instance, would have a native francophone guide, the same about the speakers of other languages. In China, though, it seems like for any language requirement there is a corresponding Chinese person available. Even the text for the audio guide in Russian, mentioned earlier, was clearly recorded by a Chinese woman. Another point is that, all the TV channels, whether they are in Russian or French, are in fact Chinese, show news about China and the TV presenters too are Chinese! For example, a thin Chinese guy with glasses, giving the spiel in fluent Arabic from the screen, made an indelible impression.

The zoo was, indeed, huge, but we decided to leave out other animals, such as giraffes, anteaters, elephants, as we had seen them many times before, and they were not among our most favourites. The same can be said about the aquarium – only a few months before we had seen a very beautiful one in Bergen, Norway.

We got to eat something quite late, because most restaurants here serve food strictly at certain hours and are closed all the other time. So, if you feel hungry, say, between two and five o’clock in the afternoon, you can hardly find anywhere to eat. As a result, we combined lunch and dinner. And that was a good idea! We tried out the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Not being quite sure what was what in the menu, we selected Teppanyaki course which was a set meal. We even thought that it was surprisingly expensive (300 RMB), but as it was our penultimate day in Beijing, we decided to still go for it.

And – oh my God! – it turned out to be an eight-course meal!!! The waitress just kept bringing and bringing plates, bowls and salad-dishes. From the menu description it wasn’t really clear that we would get that much: appetisers (salmon roe, a snail and some sort of jelly), a salad, miso soup, a fish dish, a beef dish, a rice bowl, grilled vegetables and fruit! Even when the waitress had already served all our food, we winced every time she appeared in sight with another tray, and sighed with relief when she passed by. And it was impossible not to eat everything – the food was incredibly delicious, perhaps the best of all we had eaten here. Our noble diet plans must have come to nothing after such a nosh-up. And the prices seemed not so high after all – where in Baku could one have such an abundance of delicious food for just 38 AZN (appox. 48 USD)?

In the evening, as already mentioned, we familiarised ourselves with Chinese martial arts, i.e. watched “The Legend of Kung Fu” at the Red Theatre. We had very good seats in the ninth row, numbers one and two – not at the edge, as one would expect, but right in the middle. Odd numbers were counted to the left of number one, and even numbers to the right of number two. Most of the spectators were foreigners, and the performance was in English with Chinese subtitles on the screen (while the Buddhist mantra “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” didn’t require translation). Although one would think that a performance like this should be particularly interesting for men, and despite the imposing price of tickets for our row, the man sitting next to me slept through the whole performance.

The plot was rather simple: it was the story of a boy who entered the monastery to study martial arts, about his life, temptations and achieving the highest level of enlightenment. But the performance was very impressive and colourful, combining elements of ballet, pantomime, circus and opera. The actors did an amazing job, sometimes it even was impossible to distinguish imitation from real Kung Fu skills: the main character lay on swords, broke metal bars over his head, smashed bricks over his chest. So what was it – a sham, an illusion, or did we see a true master of Kung Fu in front of us?

The Chinese wouldn’t have been Chinese, if they hadn’t demonstrated their exceptional get-up-and-go. Apart from selling souvenirs with logos of the performance at the foyer, they also organised an opportunity to take photos with the artists for 20 RMB. We were among those who went for this opportunity – while had it been free of charge, we probably wouldn’t even have thought of doing so!

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 4


23 March 2012, Friday

Today was the Great Wall day, which had been planned from our very first day in Beijing. We woke up bright and early, and at 7.30 am were all ready, as instructed beforehand. But unfortunately, the other tour participants were not as punctual, so we didn’t hit the road before 8 am.

Our hotel staff had advised us to choose the tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, together with a part of the Sacred Way. Later we found out that the programme also included visits to jade and silk factories. Our guide was a small nimble lady of indeterminate age, named Hui Liang (Melanie for foreigners), who definitely earned her bread honestly and conscientiously – during the day we learned a lot more information about China than in all the previous time.

For example, while our coach was heading to the Sacred Way, we learned that the tombs of the Ming dynasty, to which the Way actually led, were located so far outside the city in accordance with feng shui requirements. As the Dragon used to be the symbol of the Emperor, all buildings associated with the Chinese ruler were constructed so that they lied along the so-called “dragon line”, where the Forbidden City symbolised the dragon’s head and the Ming Tombs were his tail. We also learned a lot of details about the mutual harmony of yin and yang, e.g. that in addition to well-known pairs like the Sun and the Moon; the earth and the sky; male and female, even fruits are divided into those related to yin (watermelon, pear) and those related to yang (lychee, orange), and it is not recommended to eat too much fruit of either category, it’s better to strike a balance.

The part of the Sacred Way, which we saw, was, of course, interesting, but not really stunning. It represented a cobbled alley, lined with tall trees, with stone statues on both sides. Dourly towering officials and generals were followed by animals: elephants, camels, lions and mythical sons of the Dragon. In accordance with yin and yang principles each pair of standing animals had a corresponding pair of the same animals, seated.

We walked two and a half kilometres along the alley, right up to our coach, which was already waiting for us on the other side. This time, our talkative guide Melanie regaled us with stories about the famous Chinese jade. In fact, there are two kinds of jade. One of them, the nephrite jade, also known as “soft jade” is used primarily for carving handicrafts. The other variety – “hard jade” or jadeite – is rarer, and therefore, more expensive, so it is used for jewellery. Jade is also referred to as “living stone”, as it changes colour over time, depending on the temperature of the human body. Raw stones, potentially containing jade, can be the subject of gambling (called “gambling stones”), for even a trained eye can hardly detect whether an ordinary-looking grey stone conceals the precious mineral inside.

Right at the Long Di jade factory entrance, stood a stunning huge solid piece of jade, representing a mountain with finest carved openwork in the form of trees, flowers and pagodas. The composition had different colours: green, wine-red, yellow – all of which formed part of the jade block’s natural play of colours, so skilfully used by the carvers. It’s worth noting that the handicrafts at the factory were much more beautiful than those we had seen the day before in the imperial treasury, and the articles were sold for far less than in shops and, of course, hotels.

Among various figurines, we saw a lot of “cabbage”. The name of this vegetable in Chinese (báicài 白菜) sounds similar to “cái” (財) which means “wealth” or “money”, so figurines in the form of cabbage are believed to bring prosperity to the house, if properly located (the leaves should point to doors or windows, and the roots should point inside the house, otherwise financial fortune will smile upon your neighbours instead). By the way, another charm that brings wealth to its owner is one of the Dragon’s sons named Pi Xiu, the figurine of which we didn’t hesitate to buy. We were told that in China every self-respecting businessman possesses one, and in Las Vegas those with a Pi Xiu in their pocket aren’t allowed in casinos.

At the factory we were taught to distinguish real jade from fake jade:  if you hold it up to the light, you would see something like swirling clouds in a real piece of jade, while the fake one would either look totally homogenous or have air bubbles. To tell the quality of the jade it’s enough to strike it with a piece of agate and listen to the sound it makes: the higher the pitch, the higher the quality of the mineral.

We had lunch at a huge restaurant right at the factory. Apart from our group, there were at least a thousand people dining simultaneously, without exaggeration. We hadn’t had the chance to talk to any of our fellow travellers in the morning, but during lunch we met those of them we were sharing the table with. It was a couple from Australia and a brother and sister from Turkey. Another couple, sitting at the other table, was from Brazil, and the rest (a company of three) remained unfamiliar to us.

After the meal we drove and drove to the mountains, towards Mutianyu. The road would probably look much more beautiful in summer, with leaves on the trees. Upon arriving, Melanie told us that we would have to go up to the Wall by cable car. So we did, and, I have to say, riding in an open-top shaky cabin at a height of twenty metres was quite scary!

It should be mentioned that the information desk staff at our hotel hadn’t deceived us when recommending this tour: the Mutianyu section of the Wall was not too crowded (unlike the Badaling section, which is the closest one to Beijing), and the view was just spectacular. Walking the Wall basically meant constantly going up and down the stairs, most of which were not very steep, although there were some difficult sections. Here and there, all along the way, there were enterprising local merchants, attacking tourists even more intrusively than on the ground, sometimes just to chat and with the obligatory question: “Where are you from?” The same question was sometimes asked by other tourists too, though, for example, a Burmese guy – and when he heard the word “Azerbaijan”, he cheerfully told us that he had lived in Baku for four years and worked for BP’s ACG project. It felt quite funny to meet a colleague on the Great Wall of China!

If it hadn’t been for the strong wind, which spoiled the journey a little bit, we would have walked even more. We went back by cable car as well (although there was some kind of a wheel sled too), and this time we felt calmer and jumped off the seats with greater agility.

After visiting the Great Wall, we were already full of impressions. But that was not the end yet, and we drove to the Dong Wu silk factory through the Olympic Village. On our way, Melanie provided us with another batch of background information. Well, of course, we did have some general knowledge about silkworm larvae, cocoons and silk production. What we didn’t know was that in China (and nowhere else) there exist unique and very rare double cocoons, containing two worms. Such cocoons are unsuitable for yarn reeling and, consequently, for silk fabric production (as the two threads are bound together), but they can be stretched. These cocoons are used as fillers for pillows and blankets, which are extremely hygienic, warm in winter and cool in summer. First, the cocoons are put in boiling water, cut open, and the worms, which have completed their “work”, are thrown away (later they might end up at the Donghuamen snack market, fried and skewered!). Each cocoon is then stretched first over a small frame, then over a larger one, and, finally, four workers stretch it into a large square of the desired size. One cocoon can be stretched into a layer for a queen size blanket! A blanket usually contains about fifty layers.

On the whole, it was an excellent day – very interesting, very informative, and not too tiring!

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.