Forbidden City and Beihai Park

4/9

Slept until gone 0900 – what a treat after the broken up nights. Breakfasted at 10 (great omelette chef at the hotel) and then out into Beijing. Took the subway Line 10 south for a few stations, then onto Line 1 west to Tiananmen Square.

As soon as I was at pavement level the offers came – come and see our art gallery, do you need a guide, have you seen the great wall? I did go and see some student artwork and of course they did try to sell me some prints. The art was good, if derivative. I left without buying and headed into the entrance of the Forbidden City.

Past the first gate there’s a long, wide walkway with many sellers and tourists headed deeper inside. To go further you need a ticket. It was about £6 for an adult. I tried to buy an audio commentary but my money was rejected as fake. That’s odd, I thought – it came from Thomas Cook in the UK I thought. Wasn’t sure I wanted audio anyway, so headed into the paid zone, through huge gated archways, walls painted a deep red.

Inside are a series of very large courtyards, divided by more archways, with gold coloured roofs. Everything is on a grand scale – from the walls, the cobbles, to the cauldrons for putting out fires, kept frost free in winter by fires. A river runs through the city, with decorative white stone bridges.

Further inside, the scale gets more human, with walled streets, halls, palaces, pavilions and gardens. The temperature was well over 30c today, and often I would stand next to the air conditioners inside the exhibitions to cool down. If I faced the ac, others thought I was looking at something very interesting through the mesh. You could look into the rooms, but only through rather murky perspex.

In the northern section were the palace gardens and family residences. The pavillions had names like Palace of Gathered Elegance, Palace of Earthly Honour, Hall of Mental Cultivation. The gardens had a variety of very old trees, some interesting rock formations and fish ponds. By this stage the crowds were dispersed throughout the many courts so it was possible to feel quite peaceful in places.

It took a couple of hours to walk round most of the ancient fortress city, 1 km long. I left via the north exit so I didn’t have to walk all the way back south, over a wide moat surrounding the whole compound. I headed west towards Beihai Park, with its large lake and White Dagoba. On climbing the hill and walking past the monument I noticed a sign saying Caves. It wasn’t highly publicised. I paid 50p to climb down tunnels hundreds of years old. I found myself laughing at the contrast – suddenly I was alone underground. Along the tunnels were 100 statues of emperor looking fellows. Each one represented three birth years. Mine was number 48, an ugly bearded little fellow. On the exit were fine views over the lake. Then a Sunday afternoon walk in the shade along the east side of the lake, paddleboats paddling and picnicking people.

So, quite a Sunday Weekend Walk, several hours. After a walk east I hopped in a taxi and headed back to the Hilton. Here’s a video I shot of that ride:

Then out for a Chinese massage at a centre near the hotel. A tiny Chinese lady dug deep into my city- and book fair-stressed body, through pyjamas, I suspect using acupressure points. She was tough! Afterwards, again the 100 Yuan note was rejected. The manager came with me to the hotel to get a replacement. I remembered then we had taken one note when selling some Chinese books on the last day of the fair.

In the evening a final meal with Zhang Dan, Derek and Marleen at an Italian restaurant near The Village. They had hundreds of photos of the owner’s uncle with celebrities – Paul McCartney, Patrick Swazee, Sigourney Weaver, Arnie, etc. Very 80s, including the music. A fairly quick meal, all of us still quite tired from the time zones and the fair. Outside the hotel, a fond goodbye as we went our separate ways – Zhang Dan to her home nearby, and tomorrow, me to Heathrow, Derek & Marleen to Bali.

Travel and Arrival in Beijing

29/30 August. Getting here and arrival in Beijing

At 1130 I left Brockwood, Jerome giving me a lift to Heathrow. We went the Odiham route, quaint Englishness, nothing like what was ahead, and got to Terminal Five in an hour and a quarter. Due to keenness (not so much on my part) to be in plenty of time, and due to Jerome wanting to make sure the baggage drop went OK, having changed the name on the ticket, we sat around for 45 minutes in Café Nero, waiting for the drop to open. A lady tried to pay for her lunch with a very old design of fiver I hadn’t seen in years. When that was rejected she drew and equally old twenty, all sterling looking and serif. In my bag lots of weirdy Yuan with the criminal Mao still pictured.

There was no difficulty checking the bag in, so we hugged goodbyes, with more thankyous from Jerome for replacing him on this trip to the Beijing Book Fair.

I had a sore throat and wasn’t feeling great as I passed through security into the departure area. Hungry. Had a veggie brunch – potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, veggie sausages. Skipped the sugar laden beans. Felt conspicuous and odd eating in that busy environment, so many voices, such harsh lighting, the lone diners eating at the high bar. Afterwards I found a water fountain and then a seat with natural light and fewer people. With food in my belly and a view, I began to relax. Before long it was time to take the shuttle to Gate C and wait for boarding.

People didn’t listen to the row numbers called first, nor did the attendants check, so getting to my seat at the back of the plane meant lots of waiting for people to get their bags in the overheads. Not sure why I chose right at the back. It was next to the loos, so often there was a queue of people stood right next to me. Podgy Chinese fellows and their podgy wives. Garlicky Europeans. I didn’t mind the girl with the coconut hair, who seemed to make a point of leaning into my shoulder as she waited. A nine and a half hour flight over Europe, Russia, Siberia and across the vastness of China. I saw some desert after dawn, railroad and railroad across the yellow.

Ignored the mushroom-something supper and ate instead a Boots-bought quiche and crisps. For breakfast I ignored the beans and tuck into cheesy eggs and the mushrooms. Breakfast was at around 0100 UK time. I had not slept but I’d meditated and I’d relaxed to music, and rested with earplugs through which I thought I could hear violins. Perhaps the wind noise was louder at the back, too; different seat on the way home. It didn’t seem to take too long, with a couple of films and Johnny Vegas on Desert Island Discs. The art of the aeroplane movie. Nothing too ‘deep’ or serious. Nothing that really needs a bigger screen, or at least better quality, or which I’d rather watch at home. I tend to go for the obviously, stupidly entertaining. First: Fast Five – silly fun action with excellent car chases, one with two cars towing a large safe, smashing shit up on the corners as it swung wide. Later in the night: No Strings Attached – Natalie being not quite so intense, and a story pretending to be different but not really. Again, obvious stuff to pass the time in a piece of metal riveted together, with added wings and jet engines. I walked up and down quite often, asking the steward how far forward I could go. Back two chambers only, not into Business Class and definitely not upper deck where he said it is ‘sterile’. Huh? ‘Because the pilots are up there too.’

Talking of sterile – airport shops are just that, incredibly bland and this weird, clean, international ‘world class’ glossy nothingness. It was the same in a mall along the road from the hotel. I could have been anywhere.

Short wait for passport control, a tick on my £90 visa. A long shuttle to baggage reclaim and then only a short wait for the big case. Then to the taxi rank, a supervised queue. First time outside, in the heat that doesn’t leave, sticky with poison. On your turn you stand next to the furthest empty bay and soon a yellow and green Hyundi comes powering into the lot and bakes late into the space. I stepped back. My trolley did the same. I’d printed the Bijing Hilton’s address in Chinese characters as I’d heard they don’t necessarily recognise English, and there are a few Hiltons in Beijing. Windows down it wasn’t too hot but megasmog everywhere, even inside the airport, aggravating my sore throat some more and pricking my lips. As I write, on the 18th floor, at 6pm I can hardly see 1km away due to the greyness. There seem to be three taxi types but I don’t know the difference: yellow and green, yellow and blue, and black. Many black limos and Audis and Lexus and Mercs on the Airport Expressway, and old Passats and Jettas. I habitually tried to put a seatbelt on but the clunky clicky bit was under the blue and white fake silky back seat covers. The driver looked stern, as do most of the Chinese I’ve seen today.

On arrival at the hotel, the cab door was opened for me while I paid the fare, and a bellboy collected the cases from the boot. I was escorted into reception. Very proper. On checking in, I asked for a room with a view and they tried to upgrade me. When I asked, they said it was £60 extra a night to be in the new tower. ‘No thank you,’ I said, a little hot and red by now. I’d read that you don’t tip in China so the taxi driver got his fare and tolls only, and the bellboy got, and expected, nothing when bringing my bags to the room. Room 1812, way up above the streets, looking sort of south over the 3rd Ring Road. A sigh of relief to be alone in a neutral room. 11am, 4am in the UK, there was nothing else for it but to have a snooze, after letting Jerome and Caroline know I’d arrived safely. Set the alarm for 5pm just in case and slept for an hour or three. That was a good reset but slow to wake. It was now 2pm and after a while I felt more centred, more here – China! – and up for a little wander.

I’d thought of going to the Forbidden City but it closes at 4pm. Mo had recommended some parks and temples. But the heat and pollution was rather too much for the subway. And I realised I am just not that interested in sightseeing, especially after a long trip. So I walked along the ring road to the sterile Lufthansa centre. Stayed five minutes and got the hell out. On the way was a major junction with a long zebra crossing. Green or red for pedestrians didn’t seem to make all that much difference, so I huddled in behind a little tour group and scurried across. Beyond the shopping centre were a few local shops – a café, a tattoo parlour, youths getting shoulder wide tats in black, sitting out in the streets grimmacing; and a small grocery store. Found some natural mineral water for 80p each (Beijing prices seem much like the UK) rather than paying the Hilton’s assumingly higher cost. Not that I’m paying, but you know, why get ripped off? The girls in the shop were sweet, getting all confused over the calculator of 8 Yuan times 4 and giggling. A little further along, the Ministry of Rock and Hard Rock Café. I walked back along the river a bit, yellow bridges, a possible massage place, and a sex shop also selling biscuits and whatnot, and the ‘Durty Nellies’ Irish Pub (an imitation of course, and spelt wrong…)

Back at the hotel, sorted for fluids if not food (on oatcakes for ‘lunch’, breakfast, whatever it is), I went to the gym and pool on the 4th floor. Swam some lengths while an American family made a lot of noise, splashing about. The mother apologised. Popped into the steam room then back to my hotel room. And that’s pretty much it. Rang reception and there’s free wifi in the lobby whereas in the rooms it’s 30p a minute. Seems a little steep for a classy hotel. No facebook in China!

I wanted to include some of the photos I’ve taken but the internet is far too slow. [Now added] Here is one of the smoggy views in the area: