A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Brian Sprints his way around Olympics-ville

As my many blogging fans will know, I can hardly be described as the world's biggest soccer fan; not by a long way! But it would have been difficult for anyone in Beijing in the last month not to have known that the Italian Supercoppa was being held in the Chinese capital. Why a European country would want to hold its national football competition in a foreign country has somehow escaped me; but two years after the Italians first decided that this would be a thoroughly good idea, they were back yet again.

So come the beginning of August, two of the top Italian teams – Inter and AC Milan – could be seen playing in the Birds Nest as fireworks lit up the night sky outside. The Birds Nest (鸟巢), was the iconic venue for the Beijing Olympics, which were held in 2008; the world's largest steel structure and the most complex stadium ever constructed.

As the whole Beijing Olympics site is literally just up the road from where I live, it would have seemed churlish if I did not go there to investigate, which I did not once, but twice. Even three years after the most lavish Olympics in living memory, the site still draws hoards of rubber-neckers including a fair number of school parties and other organised visitors.


What is now China's National Stadium is located on the Olympic Green about 8km from the centre of Beijing. As a testament to its significance, it was built right on the city's north-south axis, which runs straight through the Drum Tower, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Three metro stations serve the area, it being that big – although the metro line, Line 8, has the fewest number of stations of all BJ's metro lines at only 5, covering a mere 4.5kms. But by 2013 Line 8 will be extended in both directions and will reach the city centre. Close by the Olympic Green is the iconic 25-storey IBM building built in 2001…  

The Chinese are still intensely proud of their Olympics and even now you regularly hear the 'One World, One Dream' theme song being belted out from loud speakers surrounding the Olympic village. Of course, you are left in no doubt that you are approaching Olympics-ville from whichever direction you are coming; but I wonder if the Chinese know something I don't? I always believed the Olympic symbol was five inter-connecting rings (signifying the five continents). The symbol was adopted in 1913 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement. So I am wondering how come the Chinese have discovered another four continents all of a sudden? (OK, maybe Arctic and Antarctica could account for two; and then….????)

Inside the Green itself you still get a feeling of the grandeur that bedazzled the world three years ago; from the Olympic Flame, which we all remember was lit by former gymnast Li Ning after a 4 month 'Journey of Harmony' around China…..

to the Ling Long (玲珑) Pagoda ('Ling Long' means delicate in Chinese), which housed a part of the International Broadcast Centre. This three-sided tower contains six occupiable pods, each in the shape of an equilateral triangle.

Across the way is the National Aquatics Centre, known as the Water Cube. Although somewhat underwhelming at first glance, when you come here after dark, things look very different! The Water Cube displays different colour patterns each evening, looking like a giant magic box. It has now been reopened as a world-class water amusement park.  

And talking of lighting, running up along the Olympic Green are the most fabulous lampposts (for want of a better word) that I have ever seen. Beauty and functionality combined in a towering statement of grandeur – repeated many times over!

Surrounding the entire Olympic area are acres of park and waterways, richly planted with lotus and water lilies and a delight just to walk beside.

Inside, right through the Green and surrounding parklands, are sculptures that tie in beautifully with the gaming theme of the Olympics, each with snappy slogans or explanations displayed at their base.

The notice at the base of this snooker sculpture reads "The sport of noble gentlemen shows a refreshing appeal when it is played by Chinese woman. Sports is the human language without national boundaries." (sic) I have never actually seen a Chinese woman playing snooker – as yet – but why ever not, I think to myself, as I move on toward a sea shell made of steel and ceramic representing tradition meeting future technologies.  

Ever eager to stop and admire myself, I also like a sculpture that appears to have no form or reason to it, save that it offers multiple reflections of little ME!

Of course I could not agree more with the admonition close by …  

And how they know anything about my kind soul, I have yet to find out – although once again it rings so very true!  

The notices liberally scattered around the grounds appear to have been well thought out to bring a smile to one's face. You can just FEEL the grass at your feet struggling to make you feel welcome. ..  

And you can't help but feel a right heel if you so much as think about treading on the not-so-verdant carpet…  

Of course, this is Beijing, so you know there are going to be at least some notices that leave you wondering what they are all about. Such as this one – Better moment to stay away forever civilization. 

Other notices are perfectly clear as to their intentions, even if they leave you to fill in the blanks…  

Near the southern entrance to the Olympic park is a huge lump of rock 3.2m by 2.7m by 1.6m weighing in at just over two tonnes. As you get nearer you can see the tell tale signs that this is a slab of natural Kunlun jade from the Hetian Kunlun Mountain in Xinjiang. Jade was uniquely used in the BJ Olympics as an inlay on the winners' medals. They say that if you touch the rock you will be blessed with good luck. So naturally I did, although I don't feel any luckier than before. But then who knows what might have befallen me if I hadn't?  

Along one edge of the park, for what seems like miles (but is probably only just over 150 metres) is a string (is that the right word???) of portable toilets. They are all spotless, though I for one am not a fan of hole-in-the-ground loos and would probably walk the extra 500 metres to a brand new toiletarium just up the road if pressed.  

No such problems, though for the local bobbies. I have been to many police stations in my time but never have I seen one so opulent. Take a look at the entrance gate for instance….  

… and this gate leads down a path decorated with dragons heads made out of stone and wood…..  

 …while there are also statues of wild men on horseback (or should that be men on wild-horseback???). I (along with some other snap-happy visitors) had to get special permission from the cop at the gate to be allowed in to take some photographs.  

… although some of the best piccies could be taken from the bridge opposite.  

Just a little further in to the Olympic Village is an exhibition hall belonging to the "China National Arts & Crafts Muesum Rarity Exhibition Room" (sic). I wondered what its purpose was to be perfectly honest. I mean it whiles away a perfectly pleasant 10 minutes, but is hardly earth shattering in its content …  

… though if you are into jade or ceramic workings then maybe you would be smitten.

But as Ogden Nash famously wrote here was "a vulture who circles above the carcass of culture" - and I found myself moving on. Before long I discovered a tower made up of every imaginable bell possible. A splendid sight ….  

… which led your erstwhile White Wabbit to a steel sculpture of his namesake.  

A few metres away was an exhibition hall showing off the story of the building of the Olympic Village; and in true Chinese style there were more models on display perhaps even than the Municipal Planning Department in Tianjin 

For history aficionados you could even gaze with awe at the boiler suits worn by some of the construction workers who put together the Bird's Nest (complete with grimy collars as if they were waiting for the props for one of those adverts for pre-soak laundry detergent). Luckily they were encased in glass, so there was no need to savour the odour saved for posterity; though perhaps one day they will be ideal for future research into 21st Century man's sweat glands.  

Of course, this being China you are never more than a tail's shake from somewhere to eat. Close by you cannot fail to see the signs…

to such famous eating houses as Yoshinoya and McDonalds. I asked someone to translate "I'm Lovin' It" back from its translated Chinese. But I felt the resultant "I love it" lost a certain je ne sais quoi in the translation.  

If Japanese or American fast food isn't strictly your cup of chai, then you should head instead to the fast food tent, which has to be one of the largest fast food halls I have ever seen. 

Here the idea is that you buy a prepaid card at one of the kiosks which you then use at any of the myriad of eateries in this megatent. The offerings were many and varied, though I was not particularly tempted to order fried lump…  

… or even to nibble my way through fried noodles with cat ears (what did they do with pussy's other bits, I wondered?)  

Other delicacies on offer were 'Roast Photatoes', 'Grilled Stesk', 'Besn Bun, and 'An intestinal dry surface' (whatever that was). I could even have plumped for 'Pinea pple roolls', 'Pinea pple cake' or 'Chicken nuggles'. But in truth I was not really in a Nuggle mood, nor even lusting after cats' ears, so I wandered outside once more ready to head for home. It had been a long afternoon, and it was clear that for some it had all been a bit too much.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

BJ's Fierce Creatures - or lack of them!

I have to admit that I’m a fan of the actor John Cleese. Not a big fan, you understand, but a fan nonetheless of some of the comic films and TV sketches that he has been involved with over the years, reaching right back to his Monty Python days.

One of his lesser hits was a film made some 15 years ago called Fierce Creatures, in which he starred with fellow thespians Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert Lindsay. And I was graphically reminded of it this morning when I went off to visit Beijing’s famous zoo.

Ex-policeman Rollo Lee is sent to run Marwood Zoo (BTW did YOU know that Marwood is John Cleese’s middle name?). In order to meet high profit targets and keep the zoo open, Rollo enforces a new 'fierce creatures' policy, whereby only the most impressive and dangerous animals are allowed to remain in the zoo in order to attract the requisite crowds.

He should have followed BJ Zoo’s policy of forgetting about the animals and just drawing in the crowds under false pretences. (If ever an entrance ticket fell foul of advertising standards, then this has to be the one!)

And crowds there were in abundance. What on earth did they know that I (still) don’t?

Of course, the majority of people head straight for the Panda area (where you have to pay a RMB5 premium to get in).

But the majority are greatly disappointed as there are only three very scrawny and mangy pandas behind dirty glass, bored out of their tiny little minds.

Outside there is another filthy scrawny panda lying on a log. No one is really sure if he is scratching himself or masturbating. (Mummy, mummy, what IS that panda doing to himself?) Either way he doesn’t look very happy. 

(Once again, I am reminded of Fierce Creatures in which the animatronic panda eventually has an "out of order" sign hung on it.)

Vince: What do you do for an encore, fall asleep?

Probably the cutest giant pandas are stacked up in one of the many shops around the zoo, waiting their turn to be taken to a new home and a new life, poor things…

… although panda-wise, there are some very cute Lesser Pandas with brown fur jumping about their cage and then slumping down exhausted from the exertion.

Beijing Zoo was originally the grounds of an imperial manor during the Ming Dynasty. In 1906, the Imperial Ministry for Agriculture, Industry and Commerce established an experimental farm with a small menagerie. The Viceroy of Liangjiang – a guy named Duanfang - purchased a batch of animals from Germany and deposited them here, attracting great interest when the farm, known as the Wanshouyuan or the "Garden of Ten Thousand Beasts” opened to visitors in 1908. The Empress Dowager and the Emperor Guangxu both visited the zoo twice.

After the 1911 overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the zoo became a national botanical garden. During the Sino-Japanese War, many of the zoo's animals died of starvation and some were poisoned or eaten by the Japanese Army. It is said that only 13 monkeys and one old emu survived the war.

Di: Have you any background in animals?
Rollo: Well, I've eaten a lot

In 1952, national leaders Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Ren Bishi donated their war horses to the park, which was renamed the Beijing Zoo in 1955. Staff were sent to study zoo management in the Soviet Union and Poland, and began to trade animals with Eastern Bloc countries, Japan, Burma, India and Indonesia to expand its collection.

Vince: And I want to thank you all, personally, for the incredible enthusiasm that you've shown vis-à-vis our latest new innovative initiative. You look fantastic! You're no longer a bunch of smelly old animal keepers. No, as of today, you are official Theme Zoo Visitation Enhancement Facilitators!

The zoo's development came to an abrupt halt during the Cultural Revolution as zoo staff were purged, research work stopped and contacts with foreign zoos were severed. But in the 1970s, as China forged diplomatic relations with the Western bloc, the zoo received animal gifts from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Mexico, Spain, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Australia. The zoo also organized a four-year mission to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, which brought back 157 species and 1,000 animals including giraffe, African elephant, zebra, wildebeest, oryx, ostrich, Thompson's and Grant's Gazelle, tortoises, baboon and aardvark.

So pity the poor beasts who are still left in this living animal hell. Do a Google search on BJ Zoo and you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a kind word to say about the state of the animals or the conditions under which they are kept. 

The elephants are a classic case in point. Standing forlorn in a sea of mud, they are all but ignored by the passers by who rush on to have their photos taken with concrete elephant replicas!

But at least you can see an elephant or two. Follow the signs to the Tigers and Lions and all you see are what appear to be empty cages with a picture of what a tiger looks like. And as for anything remotely resembling an insect house, well there isn’t one.

Oh don't worry about Terry; he wouldn't hurt a fly. Well, actually, he would hurt a fly, being a Mexican red-kneed tarantula - Brachypelma Smithii - and therefore particularly partial to flies.

I find myself entering an area devoted to Australian animals. You know you are here by the large notices dotted randomly around.

Just in case you are not aware of it, they have kangaroos in Australia (yes, really!). And here is a stone depiction of what they look like…

Some everso clever wood working artists have also had a go at filling the Australian animal reserve with naïve art from sawn off old logs.

And this might be just as well since try as hard as I might I never get to see a single kangaroo, or any other Australian animal for that matter, although there are numerous kangaroo cartoons liberally scattered around the place.

One of BJ Zoo’s newest attractions is the Beijing Aquarium, which was opened to the public in 1999. It is the biggest aquarium in China and in addition to a wide range of fish species, visitors can watch shows performed by dolphins and sea lions.

But once again, although the shows earn their requisite numbers of oohs and ahhs, the majority of online comments describe the Aquarium in shades of “California comes to Beijing”, saying how out of character it all is. Being the stingy guy I am, I’m not about to shell out an extra RMB120 to find out!

What does impress the visitor, in common with so very many parks and open land across the country, is the magnificence of the great outdoors, with nature being offered a helping hand by the Chinese planners.

The zoo occupies an area of 219 acres, including 13.8 acres of lakes and ponds and these are a pleasure to walk around. Like many of Beijing's parks, the zoo's grounds resemble classical Chinese gardens, with flower beds amidst natural scenery, including dense groves of trees, stretches of meadows, small streams and rivers, lotus pools and hills dotted with pavilions and historical buildings.

Another draw for the crowds, according to an article in The Guardian last year (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/21/exotic-animals-beijing-zoo-menu) is the exotic menu on offer at the zoo’s Bin Feng Tang restaurant.

Not having visited this facility I am not in a position to verify the story; but according to the reporter, visitors to the zoo are warned not to feed the animals, but are encouraged to eat them at the restaurant which offers crocodile, scorpion, the webbed toes of a hippopotamus, kangaroo tail, deer's penis or a bowl of ant soup, amongst other delicacies.

In the wake of the negative coverage, staff had said they would be revising the menu, so lovers of exotic food making a bee-line for BJ may well have missed the boat, I fear.

The Guardian adds as an afterthought that in the past, notices on each of the zoo's animal cages included information about which parts of the animal were the tastiest and most useful according to traditional Chinese medicine. But try as I might I can find no hint of which part of a panda to tuck into first, and whether it goes better with hoi sin or oyster sauce.

Certainly this all gives new meaning to the expression ‘feeding time at the zoo’.

[During the credits of Fierce Creatures, it reads, "No animals were injured during the making of this movie, only humans."]

For some people the sheer excitement of Beijing’s Zoo is obviously too much to bear…

Vince: Oh, were you asleep?
Rollo: Uh, yes. Uh, filthy habit I picked up in the Far East.

I decide that all this excitement is far too much for one day and with tears in my eyes I head for the uncaged Great China Road Hog outside the zoo’s gates and head on back to the Subway, whose BJ Zoo station is decorated with some of the animals that it might have been nice to see for real.

Looking on the bright side, I guess one thing I was spared was seeing the zookeepers dressed up in lemur or giraffe costumes.

But frankly, I honestly believe that if you were just to place lots of stone and plastic animals around a naturally beautiful park you would have no problem whatsoever in attracting hoards of Chinese to your amusement park. Maybe zoos in the west have something to learn from the inscrutable Orientals after all?