The Journey

It’s now 12 days since I left SK and I’m enjoying the liberation. I can’t say I miss the over zealous and misguided delusion regarding their national pride or the bizarre way in which business and work operate. I do miss my real Korean friends of which there are maybe 3 and the Westerners who became good friends during my stay. Frank Oh Bok Young has been a star first offering g me residence with Mrs Oh and himself for my final 10 days and going the extra mile to sort out the money transfer that the Koreans blame the English for not working. Blame that’s what Koreans do best!

Anyway SK is the past and the friends will stay with me forever as will the memories of times spent with my charges.

Beijing warmed me and clogged my lungs at the same time. My accommodation the Leo Courtyard Hostel which whilst formerly grand was cheap, decaying and bohemian and for $7 a night just what I expected. I suspect it’s myriad rooms had seen a maelström of seedy activities over the last couple of centuries. My first night was hell! A screaming banshee, who would be best placed on the floor of Canal Street at kick out time, decided he would put on a show that delivered aural hell. Needless to say my arrival at his door with a pair of scissors and at the Chinese translation of eunuch did the trick. The next 3 night proved to be perfect.

I awoke early and sampled the local dumplings and boiled eggs before crossing over to Quinine Street. Thankfully this shoppers paradise does not spark into life until 11am but I did get some interesting street snaps. What I have observed here is that the cult of Beckham shows no sign of waning.  He advertises everything from fashion to batteries and insurance. What I do admire is that there’s no air brushing of wrinkles :-).

20 minutes later I arrived at the North Gate of Tiantian Park home to the Temple of Heaven. The parks free to Beijingers but 35 yuan gives full access to foreigner visitors. At £3.78 a bargain and it’s worth the ticket price just o see the day-to-day activities of the cities senior citizens. You can read historical stuff here but I’ll just lay down my experiences.

The first of the days entertainment was the mass troops of ballroom dancers who choose their spots carefully so the sounds of the ghetto blasters don’t mix. There is always a leader whose male and often incredibly camp. Maybe staying in the room next door to me? The participants glide in effortless harmony across the tarmac and the pleasure the emirate is immense. Further along another all girl group were performing to ABBA. Their performance was a mix of Disco and Tai Chi. The next act were playing keep puppy with the ballasted shuttlecock. It’s called Ti Jian Zi – The Ancient Art of Shuttlecock Kicking. They demonstrate awesome skills as the shuttle goes over their heads they simply back heal it into play.

At the Corridor of Longevity some octogenarians chatted intensely while others listened to outdoor performances of what I assumed to be songs from the Cultural Revolution. Each rendition was met with hearty applause and appreciation. Some 10 minutes further on the skills of the Top spinner were on display. They lash the conical object continuously to make it spin on ice or smooth ground. Various names are given to the sport in Chinese. In 1926, a pottery top was unearthed from the Huituling Cultural Ruins in Xiyin Village, Xiaxian County, Shanxi, which is evidence that tops had existed in China over 4000 years ago. Its become a popular sport again across all age ranges.

I forgot to mention that I also visited all the historical attractions and as its low season nothing was too overcrowded. The obvious highlight is the Temple of Heaven itself, on this occasion four soon to be wed couple were posing for album portfolios. I also enjoyed the Long Corridor where a variety of craft stalls are set up and the aged go-go dancers continue their performances.

I exited at the East Gate and headed north in search of wi-fi. The bastard Koreans charged me a penalty fee for paying off my account. Yea I said off the remaining seven months but incurred a penalty for doing so.  I was intending to buy a global sim but shelved the idea in the wake of my financial rape! Fortunately I found a Cafe Bene which you may or may not know is a Korean company. The coffee price mirrored Korea i.e. too much but the wi-fi was free and a strong connection. I discovered by good fortune that the collection agency was 5 minutes walk away in the Beijing Business Centre. I negotiated the dumb struck security guard and headed up to the 5th floor, it was 1:00pm. All the staff were asleep at their desks but a woman stirred as I coughed. “Lunch”, “yes please”, “no, sleep time”, “ok”. The man who appeared to be in charge entered the room, rubbed his eyes, took my passport and produced my Trans-Mongolian first leg tickets. With that I was on my way to the Forbidden City.

Little did I know but the Asian Economic Convention was taking place adjacent to Tiananmen Square. have you ever experienced Chinese Security? Even on the subway every bag is x-rayed but this was worse. The whole north side of the square was sealed off with only access to the underpass after passing through security.  The queue for the initial testicle frisk was 300 metres long and took 40 minutes.  This merely gave you access to the spilt underpass, to the left Tiananmen, to the right The Forbidden City, it was like Wembley Way but 3 times worse. This was the queue for the baggage x-ray and we were allowed through in batches of 30 or so. some 35 minutes later I exited the underpass having spend 75 minutes crossing 50 metres. That being said the actual place itself was much more user-friendly than on my previous visits in 1990 and 2013, the crowds around 50% of normal volume.

I had taken the centre and right routes in the past for this reason and the fact that the sun was high in the West I took the left or West path through. The Chinese have expunged all memory of the Mongols from Beijing but its was they who originally constructed a palace here. Genghis Khan captured Beijing in 1241. By 1264 Genghis Khan’s grandson,  Kublai Khan became the Great Khan and moved the Mongolian capital to Beijing. Tired of raping and pillaging China Kublai Khan decided to rule it. He became the Emperor of China and started the Yuan Dynasty. They designed the walled city as a Mongolian cultural haven free from Chinese cultural influence. From the safety of the walls, the Mongols would rule China through dictating orders to Chinese Imperial officials to carry out.  A hundred years later a Chinese peasant, Chu Yuan-Chan created a very large bandit army and evicted the Yuan, declared himself the new Emperor of China. He moved into the Forbidden City and started the Ming Dynasty.  Three hundred years later, the Manchurians conquered China and became the last residents of the Forbidden City.  The Qing Dynasty lasted until 1911, when Dr. Sun Yat-Sen ended Imperial rule with the formation of the Chinese Republic. In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung declared the People’s republic of China from the Gate.  Now his portrait is placed there to commemorate that historic event.  Long live Chairman Mao!

So my first full day in Beijing came to a close and after a hearty dinner of pork, green beans and egg fried rice I retired exhausted for an early night.

Day two began with an early breakfast of dumplings and the focus was a trip to the Great Wall which has been a tourist magnet since China opened up and devoured foreign currency post 1989. The first popular section was at Badaling due to its proximity to Beijing. I’d visited there in 1992 to observe Americans practising their golf swings. Two years ago I’d gone to Mutanyu a little further afield, commercialised yes but less so with fewer people. This time I decided on the Jinshanling to Simatai section which involves a 3 hour drive and offered a 6.5km trek along the wall, which has been renovated but less so than the other tourist areas.

Our group was only 8 people and other than 3 swedes and 3 Chinese we saw no other visitors. The climb to tower 5 caught the breath as the air felt thin, we were to trek to the highest point at tower 26. The sections here were especially steeper and a greater challenge than the other places I’d visited and my companions were good fun. The views were spectacular and the lack of crowds only added to the experience. Most of us napped on the way back, a tiring but fulfilling day.

My final full day in Beijing started with a stroll around Shichahai which is aa area North West of the Forbidden City which includes three lakes (Qian Hai, meaning Front Sea; Hou Hai, meaning Back Sea and Xi Hai, meaning Western Sea), it covers a large area of 146.7 hectares (about 363 acres). So I emerged from Line 2 to face a polluted 4 lane highway but doubling back behind the station I emerged at the lake shore. The Back Lakes area is known as Shicha Hai and combined with other man-made pools to the south, these lakes were once part of a system used to transport grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. Prior to 1911, this was an exclusive area, and only people with connections to the imperial family were permitted to maintain houses here (a situation that seems destined to return). A profusion of bars and cafes has sprung up around the lakes in recent years, providing ample opportunities to take breaks from your walk.

Beyond the lakes, stretching out to the east and west is the city’s best-maintained network of hutong. Many families have lived in these lanes for generations, their insular
communities a last link to Old Beijing. This early morning it was awash with folk giving their pets a daily constitutional, people engaged in many activities (Table tennis, gym, fishing). Rickshaws picked up the days first customers, a woman and her husband braved the sub-zero temperatures ably protected by their snapping pet pooch. Butchers prepared meat for the locals and many restauranteurs and the bakers could not keep up with demand.  It took around three hours strolling to circumnavigate back to the station were I retraced my steps towards the Drum and Bell Towers. Wandering through the maze of hutong’s is a fascinating way to see life pass by.

After a tasty Szechuan lunch I traversed to the main shopping area of Wanfujing (my idea of hell) but did a quick hop back to see the Galaxy Soho Complex designed by Zaha Hadid.  Here from a distance everything looked well but on closer inspection it was another failed implementation of a futuristic design.  Miss H’s firm need to get a grip of these projects (ass the DDP in Seoul) which are often late and badly finished or not finished at all (in this case); this one is predominantly empty after 3 years!

And so my fourth trip to Beijing was over and after a few beers at Beers 89 near to my hostel I retired ready for the first leg of my Trans-Mongolian Adventure.

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