Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of …. Bullshit!

I should have guessed, I suppose. When a tourist web site tells you that something in Beijing is one of the major tourist attractions and that travellers had better go there on week days to avoid the great numbers of visitors at the weekends, then next time, maybe, I will pay more attention.

I'm talking of nothing less that Xiangshan Park (香山公园) otherwise known as Fragrant Hills Park. "The most spectacular natural scenery is the red smoke tree leaves over the mountains which, when autumn arrives, blanket the entire mountain," the website gushes.


Every year, they even have a Red Leaves Festival which this year is being held from October 12th to November 6th.


Because summer turns to winter here very quickly, you can be forgiven if you blink and miss the autumn. Already some of the leaves in downtown Beijing which were green last week have turned to a livid red…


As rain isn't forecast, I decide that today I will break the habits of a lifetime and actually get out of bed at the crack of dawn … well, 7.30 which is as near dawn as I care to imagine – and visit this little paradise on earth.

Now Fragrant Hills Park is a public park at the foot of the Western Mountains in Haidian to the north west of Beijing. It covers some 395 acres and consists of natural pine-cypress forests, hills with maple trees, smoke trees and persimmon trees, as well as landscaped areas with the traditional architecture and cultural relics you find almost everywhere over here (oh how blasé have I become!). Every year, thousands of tourists ride the cable cars through the park in order see the hills in autumn colours and not surprisingly the grand opening of Beijing's annual Red Leaf Festival also takes place here.

The problem is that as it turns out, one or two other people have had the same idea as your favourite blogger. I get onto the metro train which at 8.30 is already heaving with people. Eight stations along line 10, the entire human cargo decamps from the train and heads for line 4. I am carried along with the crowd. The incoming train sinks down onto its suspension as we spend the next 15 minutes enjoying one another's arm pits and hanging onto the carriage handles for dear life until we reach Beigongmen Station whence the train is finally able to disgorge its load and I am carried upwards towards the daylight.

There are 10 different bus routes that serve Xiangshan and it seems that every other bus in Beijing has been commandeered to provide a non stop stream of transportation for the masses. I see a bus labelled 000 which is actually a 447 bus masquerading as a 563 bus. But no one is too worried about what route it is serving, for every vehicle in Beijing, it appears, is heading in the same direction.
Whether I had wanted to get on this bus or not, it isn't as if I have any choice. I can hardly feel the road under my feet as I am swept up into the charabanc and a bruiser of a conductress finally screams at the remainder of the baying mob and manages to get the doors closed.

One advantage of taking a number 000 is that it doesn't stop at any intervening bus stops. Not that that actually makes much difference today since the 10 minute bus ride actually stretches out to one hour and 15 minutes. Stop, start, stop, start…. But the excitement visibly mounts  in the bus as we see a clump of red trees at the side of the carriageway fighting for survival against the acrid motor fumes that are engulfing it. Ohhhhh…Ahhhh the bus sighs in happy unison, followed a few moments later by another clump of red trees and an equally happy ooooooooh…aaaaaaahhhhh. (Google Translate helpfully tells me that what I actually heard was a rendition of 哦啊 in the local dialect, but let's not split hairs.)

Finally we reach the end of the line and the bus spews out its contents onto an already crowded pavement. The entrance to the park is normally a 10 minute walk away… but today it takes 25 minutes…



But the crowd is well behaved and we surge ahead to the end of the road. To ensure there is no trouble, there are police everywhere and I see a number of stall keepers at the side of the road being castigated by the said police for a number of misdemeanours including slowing down the human traffic. There are even "PLICEONDUTY" boxes manned by zealous officers of the law to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.


At the entrance to the park it is obviously carnival time. Floral displays accentuate the red leaf motif …


and the two main entrances are bedecked with red plastic leaves …


But something is amiss. For once inside there appears to be a total dearth of red leaves. How can this be? Sure, there are beautiful trees all around,


but the problem is most are green or yellow. But wait… over there is a tree turning orange… does that count, I wonder? Obviously others, too, are somewhat mystified, as they head toward the orange spectre…
 

Now, the problem is that the Chinese LOVE the colour red, as the feng shui energy of red is that of arousal. It is hot, passionate, rich and celebratory. Red is the Chinese colour of luck and happiness. So now everyone is looking for something red to be photographed with. Some have their pictures taken in front of posters showing what the place would have looked like if nature hadn't put two fingers up to the world and actually done what it was meant to do.


A couple notice that an itinerant Mickey Mouse (whom I could have sworn I saw at the Olympic Green last week) has red trousers and insist on taking each other's pictures with the ruddy rodent.

Everywhere there are signs to ensure that no one can even think of getting lost. But I have to wonder how come the place names all have only three or four ideograms, but the word for 'wheelchair led person' has five characters, while 'Rubbish Receptacle' has no fewer than 11! (Actually Google Translate offers up only three ideograms for its translation, which all goes to prove that the signmakers at Xiangshan don't rely on such technology.)


It seems that I, along with a few million others, are not going to be lucky today. The fickle finger of fate has seen to it that we will all have to come back another day – perhaps after the Red Leaves Festival is actually over – if we want to see any red leaves at all here.

Undaunted, I head over to my favourite part of the park, which actually isn't officially in the park at all, though you have to pay the park entrance fee to be able to actually reach the entrance to the Temple of Azure Clouds which will set you back a further 10 yuan on top of the 10 yuan you have already forked out.

The Temple of Azure Clouds (碧云寺), is a Buddhist temple complex built in the 14th century during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) which is built on six different levels over an elevation of 100 metres. It also includes a Memorial Hall to the celebrated Chinese nationalist, Sun Yat-sen.

As you pass through the Gate Hall, constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), you are greeted by two warriors known as Generals Heng and Ha in Buddhism. It is their role to safeguard the temple gate. This one is General Ha, who I guess is slightly more cute than his companion …


You now pass through a series of gate houses and halls, each with statues of divine beings inside…


One hall houses a smiling bronze statue of Buddha Maitreya, 2.5 metres in height, while another features Buddha Sakyamuni with Manjusri and Samantabhadra together with two disciples – Jiaye and Anan on either side.


Something for which the Temple of Azure Clouds is famous is its Arhat Hall, built in 1748 for the first convocation in Buddhist history. It is the best preserved among the four arhat halls in China.

Inside there are 512 statues, of which 500 are gilded wooden arhats (spiritual practitioners who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and thereby achieved nirvana), 11 bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who, out of compassion, forgoe nirvana in order to save others) and one statue of Ji Gong (a famous Buddhist monk). All the arhats are life-size statues with different poses and expressions. It has been said that two of these were the statues of Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.


Something else that this temple complex is famous for is the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. Dr Sun, who died in 1925 is regarded as the foremost pioneer of Nationalist China, and is often referred to as the 'Father of the Nation' (國父). He played an instrumental role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty during the Xinhai Revolution and was the first provisional president when the Republic of China was founded in 1912.


Inside, to the right of his statue, is an empty crystal coffin presented by the Soviet government in 1925 – though they were a bit tardy as his body had already been buried in Nanjing, having first been interred here before being sent to the Jiangsu capital!


Photos of Sun Yat-sen, his handwriting, books and statue are also on display in two side halls...


where there is also a thoughtful placard referring to the Giant of the Last Century:

"This is not a normal temple, really not," it reads. "…This temple, once formally visited by numerous Chinese descendents from all over the world, is more than a place for personal pray…."

"In his whole life, he loved his country, revoluted and made progress" it goes on in the same adulating tone, concluding "Over the past 100 years from the Revolution of 1911 to present day, people would have missed him at every important historical moment owing to his ideal, spirit and brilliant personality."


So there you have it. Dr Sun – a giant of the last century.

Sufficiently moved, I go off in search of a 'little boys' room' and am struck by the admonition stuck to the wall above the urinals…


Now I have to say this intrigues me. Yes, even I am impressed for once at how clean the facility is (unlike, it has to be said, numerous other public facilities in China). Keeping it clean is an admirable goal, of course. But keeping it cleaner? I half expect to see a flunky handing me a mop and bucket as I leave the facility and hurry out into the afternoon sunshine lest said flunky actually materialises.

As I walk down the hill towards the waiting buses once more I notice that for some it has been a hard day with all the crowds and excitement. I tiptoe quietly past the sleeping craftsman who appears oblivious to the world.



Avoiding the queues for the 563, I walk on an extra 200 metres to the bus station round the corner and have no problem getting onto a 696 (and even manage to grab a yellow seat - reserved for the elderly, sick and pregnant) which I discover takes me practically all the way home. OK, it takes over an hour with the heavy weekend traffic, but for the princely sum of one yuan (about 10p), who am I to complain?  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In search of vintage paint stripper

Men are like fine wine, a female friend once told me. They all start out like grapes and women then like to stomp all over them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something they'd like to have dinner with.

When I used to live in Saudi Arabia, they always used to say that the test of a good wine was how much 7-Up you had to pour into it to make it remotely drinkable. Many was the time when these well-worn "jokes" were trotted out:

*You should get health insurance before you drink that stuff!
** Does it come in unleaded as well as leaded?
*** Does anyone realise that this stuff is meant to include grapes?

Now I am in China I have found the same piece of advice is entirely apposite. Frank Sinatra may well have felt sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning that's as good as they're gonna feel all day. But obviously the great crooner never visited the Middle Kingdom.

The 14th International Food and Wine Festival is being held in Beijing's Hilton Hotel next month. They say it is the most famous wine pageant in Beijing, though whether there are any others at all, I really couldn't tell you.

But many "distinguished Chinese and overseas celebrities" are expected to attend as well as some 2000 exhibitors, some of which are famous international brands.

Now, this doesn't surprise me in the slightest, for the Chinese domestic market for wine is projected to become the largest in the world in a few years, even though the current average annual per capita consumption of wine in China is only 0.35 litres. But this year alone, China's wine consumption is expected to reach 828 million litres as the country uncorks (or should that read unscrews) more than 1.2 billion bottles of wine every year.

In 2008, wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd predicted that within 50 years the quality of Chinese wine will rival that of Bordeaux. OMG – is that really the best we can hope for? Why can't they set their sights a bit higher such as a good Oz or Kiwi wine?

But they say that while there is a small yet growing group of wine connoisseurs, the bulk of wine consumers in China are still in the "bling" phase, buying bottles to show off to their business partners or as an ostentatious present.

Traditional Chinese meals have always had one specific partner in crime - the ruthless take-no-prisoners "baiju" – a grain-based drink, which to my untrained palate tastes like a mixture of paint stripper, rocket propellant and lavatory cleaner.

But when it comes to real wine, it appears that among the different grapes, the Chinese tend to prefer Bordeaux to other wines because of its perceived value. It was the first western wine to enter the market here and as such consumers tend to play safe when ordering a bottle of foreign plonk.

At the moment, a few large wine companies, such as Changyu Pioneer, China Great Wall and Dynasty Wine dominate the market.

 

The largest wine producing region is Yantai-Penglai in Shandong province in the north east of China. (It is believed that Confucius drank the wines of this region, which all goes to prove he must have had the stomach of a horse.) With more than 140 wineries it is responsible for 40% of China's wine production. Unfortunately I couldn't get any statistics on how much 7-Up they consume there.

Of all the wines served in China, 8% is imported bulk wine (used for blending purposes), 9% is bottled import, and 83% is locally produced. Eighty percent of wine sales are red wine.

The taxes and duties on most incoming bottles are around 50%. And in restaurants and bars that mark up is typically 200-350%, so it is no surprise that the locally produced stuff is favoured by the unsophisticated local market. Interestingly, wines from Chile and Argentina are exempt from import taxes, and it is a well-acknowledged fact that when you get a mass-produced plonk that is arguably actually drinkable, the chances are it has a good dollop of imported bulk wine from Chile or Argentina in it.

Like many people round the world, Chinese wine consumers often judge a wine by the label. Market research shows Chinese drinkers do not particularly like plain white labels, but tend to prefer red backgrounds with loads of gold, as the two colours are regarded as lucky, and therefore suitable for presenting as gifts.

I decide to try a bottle with a bold red and gold label:

 

and thank my lucky stars that I had the foresight to purchase a bottle of 7-Up at the same time. How to lose friends in one fell swoop, I think to myself, red and gold label not withstanding. OK. It only costs 11 yuan (just over a quid) and I later discover it is excellent poured over a gently simmering chicken-in-a-wok dish, but to imbibe it on its own is a disaster. I doubt that any Argentinean or Chilean bulk has come anywhere near this particular bottle.

I decide to splash out a little and fork out the princely sum of 18元, though with little in the way of expectations as there is over two litres in this bottle. I have to admit though that I am buying it more for the cookability of the wine than for knocking it back by the tankard.

 

I realise that at this rate I will be soon living on chicken-in-a-wok or coq-au-vin, though I suppose there are worse ways to live. As the Kempinski Hotel's sommelier - Jean-Claude Terdjemane – is quoted as saying, "Wine, like people, should always have small imperfections. It's where the charm and character come from."

I stress to myself that JCT does say "small imperfections" and accordingly now splash out an amazing 19 元 on another bottle – this one from Grand Dragon (plenty of gold on the bottle, but no red.)


This time I am able to swallow it all without adding any 7-Up whatsoever and without having to rush to the bathroom immediately afterwards. Things are obviously improving.

I turn back to the interview with JCT in Beijing Agenda magazine. "Have you discovered any notable vineyards in China?" he is asked. "Yes. Grace Vineyards from Shanxi. You can sit with a bottle in any of our restaurants for RMB220." [Gulp! Thinks: I am only a factor of ten out!]
"What about Great Wall wines?" the interviewer continues relentlessly.
"No comment!"


Many wine boffs over here believe part of the problem for would-be Chinese connoisseurs is that the language of wine is western. They are faced with obscure words referring to unknown tastes (see how challenged you are if you go looking for liquorice or blackcurrants in a local shop!). As author Jeannie Cho Lee says: "Nobody has ever used things like Chinese chives or red dates, persimmons, or any of these more local ingredients to describe wine."

To try to plug this gap, you can nowadays go online to watch a series of programmes in Putonghua called Wine Connoisseur. It's already in its second season and has been produced by ASC Fine Wines, China's biggest wine importer.

Each episode features a conversation between Zorro - representing one of the uneducated Chinese masses at the bar who would like to know more about wine -- and Martin Hao - a wine expert. (This is beginning to have throw backs for me to those famous Pete & Dud sketches in Not Only... But Also from the 1960s!)

Topics range from the basics, like recognizing the difference between white and red, or dry and sweet wines, to more challenging matters, like pairing Chinese food with wine.

Not that you need Zorro & Hao sketches to learn about the etiquette of wine drinking – as I found out on my visit to Chateau Laffitte some 10 days ago.

"The wine tasting starts form at the table and ends in the mouth," we are told. "First, raise the glass and watch the liquid. Second, come closer to the glass and sniff in the fragrance coming out the wine. Third, and also most importantly, let your lips touch the glass rim and drink up the wine. At the same time, experience the tasting period." Sound advice to be sure!

"At the very end of the process, you would come to a conclusion of the impressions acquired in the above stets. To conclude is to summarize your feelings and emotions to make assessment of this wine.
"At last, it is worthy of mentioning that tasting the wine while standing will obey no rules of perfect order yet still with a lot of fun."

We are advised that there are three stages of smelling:

"Smell as it set still: Let the glass remained still after or before rotating it. You can let it on the table or raise it into the air, then rotate it in different directions. Then set it still to let the delicate scent of micro-molecules come out, especially for those young wines.

Smell after rotation: The fragrance traced in this stage, either delicate or rough, will be so strong as to fill the whole glass. Yet for the young wine, it seems harder to be woken up. Therefore it's a bit early to draw a conclusion.

Smell after shaking: Either it is too dumb, closed, or ill smelled, you can confirm your impression by shaking the glass with your hands covering the mouth to prevent liquid from spitting out.

Only 35cl of wine will be poured into your glass when tasting the really expensive ones. Maybe you find it minimal, yet as a matter of fact there is no need to drink a lot of it. This tiny amount will suffice in 6-8 times tasting. However, if taken too little, your tongue won't be stimulated enough.

After drinking it into the mouth, the wine will be diluted by saliva, and the only taste you identify may be the worst part of roughness, bitterness, acid, the taste of tannin or alcohol, rather than the flavour of fruits. If you're drinking too much each time, apart from the awkward looking, there won't either be enough saliva in your mouth to deal with the quantity you take in.

After taking the liquid into your mouth, let the tongue stir it in a low speed to make the liquid fully touch the inner side of your mouth and the very back of your tongue. After chewing a bit, swallow down a tiny amount.

(Ah – that's obviously where I missed out on my Chateau Plonk. I forgot to chew!)

Spitting should be taken in a resolute way otherwise there will be an awkward moment of lingering saliva. Purse up your mouth to stiffen the muscles a bit and then spit them out like a compressor.If you can't make it perfect, then let practice do the job. And only in that way will you spit the liquid precisely.

Ah. Now I understand why the Chinese are such great spitters. Everywhere you go in China you hear that gurgle in the back of the throat which sounds like a simmering volcano, followed by a loud ptchawahh sound. So all they are doing is practising their wine etiquette! You see – there is always a perfectly rational explanation for the vilest of human behavioural patterns, just so long as you keep an open mind!

By the way… Did you hear about the new blend of pinot blanc, pinot noir, and pinot grigio that acts a bit like a diuretic? It's called pinot more. (I heard that on the grapevine, BTW.)


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jackie Chan, Chateau Laffitte and a Jar of Penises

Those that know me well might have been surprised to see their favourite blogger crawling out of bed at some ungodly hour ready to see the sun playing peekaboo over the rooftops. But when there’s a free day out in the offing, you won’t see me slouching around in bed. Oh no. Not me!

My employer had organised a weekend away in the far north of Beijing; and at the appointed hour, when I would normally have been far away in za-za land, I could be seen striding manfully to the coach that was to whisk us away to the delights to come.

Our first stop was to be an area some 60kms north of the city centre, called Huairou, which nestles into the hills in Beijing’s ”backyard garden”. To be more specific we were going to a small town called Yangsong which has one or two things going for it, if you read the blurb.

The first thing it has going for it as far as I am concerned is the variety of beautiful - or gaudy, depending on your point of view - street lights that are the equal of anything to be found in Manila – my nominated street lamp capital of the world.



The second thing it has going for it is Feetang World Studio, the home of China Film Group Corporation, the ”most comprehensive and extensive state-owned film enterprise in China”. Opened in 2005, it has visions of becoming the “biggest and most integrated film and television programme production and post production base in the world”.

No lesser mortals than Angelina Jolie, Keannu Reaves and Jackie Chan have all filmed here – indeed Jackie is apparently on set as we are shown around the studio lots. But we have a tight schedule ahead of us and I can’t make the time to meet him. Sorry Jackie – you’ll just have to live with your disappointment.
Universal Studios this is definitely not. Instead we are shown room after room filled with costumes and props from a plethora of Chinese classics and other memorable occasions… such as costumes actually worn during the Beijing Olympics … wow!

 to the outfit worn by ‘Confucius’ in that Chinese classic …


not to mention collections of old radios (and even a typewriter that I’m sure I used to own many eons ago).

We are taken to a lot made up as an old Chinese restaurant that is so good they just don’t want to dismantle it


and then to a rain forest…

…where a ‘no climbing’ notice pinned to one of the trees possibly explains the absence of monkeys


We walk around an open lot representing a street in old Shanghai.


where just metres away they are constructing a polystyrene version of the Dongzhimen Gate in Beijing as it might have looked 150 years ago.


But lest we overdose on excitement, we are whisked away from this amazing living museum and brought back to reality. We get back into the coach and are driven all of 200 metres to a hotel for lunch. It has been hungry work walking through rain forests so we settle our situpons into velvet cushions and wait as plate after plate is brought to the table. Pigs trotters for openers; chicken’s feet; duck livers; tofu; chillied beans; something unmentionable that is brown and sticky; something else unmentionable that is orange and less sticky; pickled cabbage; fish heads with crunchy eyes; and of course rice – all washed down with a bottle or three of Beijing Asahi beer. Oh yummy yummy!

Suitably replete, our next port of call is a classic car museum – all of three minutes drive away. The Beijing Museum of Classic Cars, which opened two years ago, features a collection of 160 cars, with prominence given to famous makes such as Dongfanghong, Fenghuang and Hongqi, as well as some slightly older European models.

We are shown a couple of Austin 7s and a Citroen Deux Chevaux (sporting a Mongolian number plate) which the Chinese think is so funny. “If you couldn’t get your shopping through the door, you simply lifted off the roof” says Luo Wentao, the private owner by way of our interpreter, and fell about laughing as he must have done on countless other retellings on previous occasions.



One of Mr Luo’s prized possessions is a cart dating back to the Qing Dynasty – saved from destruction by overzealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution by someone cleverly carving in a quotation from ‘The Great Helmsman’ onto the wooden front cross member as the said Guards revered their leader somewhat more than a priceless piece of history.


Pride of place goes to various Hongqi (Red Flag) sedans that have ferried famous leaders through the streets of Beijing.


There’s even a car that has carried Mao himself as well as his good lady wife.



But once again, all good things must come to an end. And with tears in our eyes we are soon hurried around another couple of streets, this time to Beijing Deerworld Theme Park – or should that be factory? The entrance reminds me of Snow World in the UAE’s Umm al Qawain with its plastic sea lions and penguins. Except of course instead of penguins, we have plastic deer in the entrance.


As we enter the estate through the public restaurant, whose menu not surprisingly serves venison as its main (only?) dish, we come across a display of the largest antlers ever chopped off one of these unfortunate beasts and now sits pickled in a large glass cabinet.



We are reminded that deer antler is everso good for you. It is a common ingredient in Chinese tonic preparations which can be traced back to a set of silk scrolls named Wushier Bingfang, from a tomb dated 168 B.C..

Deer farms started in the mid-16th Century in China during the Ming Dynasty period. Soon after, Wu Kun included a recipe in his famous book Yi Fang Kao (Study of Prescriptions, 1584) which combines deer antler and tortoise shell, plus two bone-like materials rich in gelatine:

Deer antler (lujiao) 5kg; Tortoise plastron (guiban) 2kg ; Lycium fruit (goujizi) 1.5kg; Ginseng (renshen) 0.5kg. This formula is said to replenish yin and essence, tonify qi, and strengthen yang. But all I can think of is that it reminds me of something out of Mrs Beeton: Crack 24 eggs into a large bowl….

To the right of the antlers is a large glass container housing countless deer penises.

I have to admit that for some unfathomable reason, the study of a deer’s penis is something we were never taught at school. No really. I do feel that I missed out on an important part of my education.

Apparently in traditional Chinese medicine, a deer penis (鹿鞭) is said to have important therapeutic properties and when consumed is also said to enhance male virility and is an aphrodisiac. But for it to retain those properties it must be extracted from the deer whilst still alive. Oh please! The very thought brings tears to the eyes.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the country banned deer penis, turtle blood, and angelica root potions from athletes' diets because it might have contained some sporting no-nos. It joined steroids and amphetamines on the list of banned substances.

Deer penis wine can be sold at around 40 Yuan a glass and often as high as RMB1400 for a two litre bottle. It is claimed to enhance sexual potency in men and to have a warming effect, aiding the joints. (Now why does that claim not surprise me one iota?)



If you want to know what deer penis tastes of, I’m afraid I am the wrong person to ask. But can I recommend this wonderful snapshot of life in Beijing transcribed in 2006 from the BBC’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ programme.

With our minds boggling, we are led on through to a number of cages at the back where there are countless antler-less deer talking in squeaky voices waiting their turn to be taken to the kitchen while saving the customers a fortune on viagra.

No one feels the need to stay on here any longer than protocol requires; and we happily board our coach once more.

Next on our itinerary is Beijing’s Chateau Laffitte Hotel where we are to stay the night. Sorry, don’t you mean Lafitte? Err… no. Chateau Laffitte Hotel, or Laffitte Chateau Hotel or Chateau Laffiitte, depending on which brochure, sign or TV screen you look at, but not Lafitte.

Now, you can forget Shenzhen’s Window on the World theme park which features a miniature Eiffel Tower. Here you can revel in the splendour of a European style chateau “standing for the essence of the culture of chateau with a pure European taste of classic romance”.



It is based, we are told, on Chateau Lafitte Rothschild with “Fontainebleau Palace styles east and west wings, excelling in its magnificent edifice and splendid decorations where no one can ignore the beauty and attractiveness in this magical chateau that is enhanced by the long row of spectacular Baroque arches, the elegantly decorated carpet flower beds, the pathways paved by snow-white cobblestones and the vividly sculpted statues of ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses!”.



But for some strange reason, as we arrive and look with awe at the splendid chateau on our left…
… our bus turns right, and we pull in to the Laffitte Hot Springs Hotel, reserved for lesser mortals. (Oh, did we say you were staying at the Chateau? Oh dear; we must have made a mistake.)

But I have been taught never to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. As we exchange our passports for our room keys, I wander down a very long corridor and find my room a few kilometres nearer Beijing than when starting off from the reception area.

Faded Elegance is an expression that quickly comes to mind. Either that or the decorators had knocked back a little too much Tsingtao when they had set to on the room. But the bathroom door works, after a fashion…


 even if the painters had forgotten to use undercoat when painting the doors:


and there is a perfectly divine Ethernet distribution bay when I look inside my wardrobe:


And what is particularly attractive is the mural on one of the walls, though for some reason it has been applied from the bottom up and still has its original musty smell just to add a unique charm to its appearance.


I sleep well that night and the following morning go to breakfast where as well as a full Chinese brunch, they serve toast and jam for the western guests, together with hot orange juice and tepid coffee. One problem is how to spread butter on your toast using the chopsticks provided. But practice makes perfect. It’s the way you hold them that is the key to this conundrum.

Soon it’s time for a quick group photograph before we all climb into the coach to head home. Outside the trees are turning red, signalling that winter is drawing close.

The temperatures are already touching 4 degrees at night time. But inside we amuse ourselves by swatting some of the flies that got stranded here during our visit to Deerworld yesterday. All in all it’s been a memorable weekend.