Thursday, 11 October 2012

Broken Plans & Legs: Beijing

The Chinese flag is ceremoniously raised & lowered 
every day by a guard of honour in Tiananmen Square
I had plans for China. Big plans. But the Universe continued to play a few tricks on me and all of them, it seems, were made to be broken. The country itself had hitherto been uninteresting but I was attracted by the draw of two very special people - my friend Will, based in Shanghai and working for Tesco and 'American Mark', a PhD scholar who was living in the Gansu province. Mark was studying how certain aspects of Chinese culture and social structure helped to support co-operation between individuals and he was doing this in the context of an industrial co-operative. I was going to join him there. It would be a unique opportunity to experience the full gamut of capitalism and communism which I thought summed up modern day China rather elegantly. 

Marching towards progress - 
Communist scupture in Tiananmen Square
However, a few days before my arrival I received a brief email from Mark imparting the unexpected news that he was to leave China immediately with no knowledge of if or when he would return. I was concerned by the uncharacteristically brief tone of his message and it turns out I had reason to be. It transpires that the Chinese government were in a particularly edgy mood at the time. Tensions were building between Beijing and Washington after the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest from his village in north eastern China and took refuge in the US embassy. Potentially one of the victims of this fallout, Mark, under suspicion of espionage from the Chinese government, had endured a 13hr interrogation by soldiers with AK47s in a Chinese military camp before being promptly extradited.*

The eerily beautific face of Mao is lit at night, 
lending it an ethereal glow
I had resigned myself to the fact that the Universe wished to divest me of travelling companions at this particular time (how ironic, given that all the time I was in India I had craved that I actually wanted company it was being removed from me at every opportunity.) I planned to undertake an epic trip, heading up to Datong to see the Buddhist caves and a hanging monastery, on to Pingyao, the oldest walled town in China with Will and then continue on alone along the Silk Road. But it was not meant to be. After a day or two of sightseeing in Beijing which entailed walking for miles over vast areas, negotiating thousands of steps on the metro, my knackered legs well and truly gave out on me. I was physically unable to walk any more. And so the rest of the trip was spent recuperating and receiving treatment at a Chinese hospital. I must be the only person who has spent a significant amount of time in Beijing and not even made it to the Great Wall! 
The Forbidden City

Fortunately, before my legs gave out I was able to do the prerequisite tour of the incredible Forbidden City, the iconic imperial palace of the Ming dynasty and home to the Chinese emperors for 500 years. The complex consists of 980 buildings and spans a staggering 720,000 square metres... no wonder my legs were fooked after that! The site was so huge that it was difficult to snap photographs, never mind take it all in. But Will and I managed to find the perfect spot to enjoy a panoramic view over the city - sipping cocktails and wine at the Yin Bar, a classy establishment on top of the Emperor Hotel. 

Panoramic views of the Forbidden City at sunset from Yin Bar
Red lanterns in 'Ghost Street'
Our gastronomic tour continued with visits to the Beijing night food market. The less said about this the better really..I was groped not once but twice and we had some nasty interactions with unscrupulous stall holders who tried to rip us off. Perhaps one of our most memorable and tasty meals was had down 'Ghost Street'. Strung with hundreds of red Chinese lanterns and stretching over one kilometre, Gui Je (as it is officially known) is Beijing's most famous eating street. It is populated with more than 200 restaurants open 24hrs and serving all kinds of Chinese cuisine including the infamous and delicious Peking Duck. This dish can also, bizarrely, be found in vegetarian version in most restaurants - fashioned out of tofu (I think) but bearing a very close resemblance to the real deal - skin and all. 

Will looking bookish at the Bookworm Cafe
Speaking of vegetarianism, we also enjoyed a fabulous and flamboyant feed at the Pure Lotus, a vegetarian restaurant with a twist. The only way I can describe this is like 'Alice on acid' - although given that it is a Buddhist restaurant ran by monks, there are no chemical influences at all - not even alcohol served. Sumptuous dishes made from fruit, flowers, vegetables and all kinds of goodness were served up flamboyantly on enormous leaves, in silver art nouveau dishes. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling and monks in jazzed up, sequinned garb, flitted between the tables. 
Art in Book worm Cafe

However, our favourite hang out became the Bookworm Cafe - a restaurant, library, bookshop and events space all rolled into one. Here Will and I enjoyed some 'Slow Boat' real ale on draught (wow! for the first time in 7 months!) and marvelled at their single malt whiskey selection. It was a beautiful place to relax with your nose in one of the many good books adorning the shelves and get lost in the art they had on display. Another little gem we came across was the 12 SQM bar, once famous for being the smallest bar in Beijing and now a gorgeous little atmospheric pub with a great selection of booze. The Ozzy barman was very friendly and a meeting of the local book club was in full swing during our visit. 

Hutong life
We stayed at an excellent hostel called Red Lantern House, a traditional Chinese courtyard house set in a sleepy Hutong - narrow streets or alleyways traditionally lined with courtyard houses and common in Beijing. I enjoyed hobbling around the Hutong and taking in the local life - carts full of melons trundling along, street vendors selling everything from fresh ginger to dates, nuts and '1,000 year old' preserved eggs. Some of my most wonderful, human interactions in China were in the Hutong. Despite having no shared language at all, smiles and gestures melted hearts and opened doors. It was lovely to wander around at night as stall holders barbecued in the street, people sat peeling vegetables and old men played cards. 

My legs during moxybustion. YUK!
A serendipitous discovery was that the best Chinese alternative medicine hospital was located just around the corner from Red Lantern. Here I received massage, acupuncture, electric wave therapy and moxybustion (cupping) every day. This was the first time I had tried any of these treatments and it was certainly an experience, having to lie there whilst a doctor poked sticks into my legs. However, I felt grateful that I was able to get such comprehensive treatment so easily and I felt that it all added to the authenticity of the experience. From Beijing. Will and I took advantage of his corporate air miles and flew to the not-so-Chinese tropical island of Hainan (still part of China but off the mainland). There we lay on our backs on the beach for a week, enjoying fresh coconuts and sunshine. Well, even yogis need a holiday sometimes, don't they? 

"I've got a lovely pair of coconuts" in Hainan

*Luckily, Mark escaped unharmed and has now been allowed back into China, where he continues to pursue his studies...

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