A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Search of the Flying Watermelon

You want to go where, an office colleague of mine asks me dumbfounded, unable to believe her ears. Whatever for?

This is a question I find myself fielding more and more these days as word gets out that this crazy foreigner is working his way around Beijing’s many and varied museums.

If ever one were to doubt that the Chinese have a sense of humour, then I now have proof positive that they have simply oodles of it, especially in the area of Daxing to the south of Beijing. Every year at the end of May, Beijing holds its annual watermelon festival there. But for those who simply cannot contain themselves that long throughout the year, they will be relieved to hear that Daxing is also home to the country's only watermelon museum.

Why should I possibly want to go there? Because, as mountaineer George Mallory replied when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it’s there.

With information regarding this museum pretty scant on the web, I cannot for one minute imagine what they can possibly fill an entire museum with, purely on the subject of watermelons. But I am determined to find out.

The first challenge is to work out how to get there. But your super-slooth soon discovers it’s a little further south of the end of the Daxing Line which connects through to subway line 4. Except that the Daxing Line has now been subsumed into Line 4, despite many signs still telling you that you are travelling on the Daxing Line.

Unlike the other lines of the Beijing Subway, which are completely state-owned and operated, Line 4 was built and is managed by the Beijing MTR Corp. Ltd., a three-way joint-venture which includes the Hong Kong MTR Corporation, which operates the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway. Among the most visible differences in the management of Line 4 is a ban on food and beverage consumption inside Line 4 trains and stations. (No such ban exists for other Beijing subway lines.) Perhaps the thought of visitors to the watermelon capital spitting out their melon pips on the carriage floors was uppermost in their minds in the early planning stages of this line?

Daxing turns out to be quite some way south. In fact it takes over an hour from central Beijing to get to the end of Line 4/Daxing at Tian’GongYuan before having to travel a further 15 minutes by bus. But with a subway fare to anywhere in Beijing of just 2 kwai (about 20 pence) and the bus fare of 4 jiao (4p) I can revel in the value for money I am getting as the train trundles on and on and on…

It’s a beautiful sunny day, and everywhere the blossom is out – a range of whites, yellows, pinks and reds – but what catches the eye is that here with the sudden coming of summer, the blossom precedes the shooting of the leaves on the trees, so that the flowers stand in stark contrast against the woody branches, with hardly a leaf in sight.

Arriving in Penggezhuang Township, there is a dirt track to what is obviously the museum. Can this really be the way in?

There’s no mistaking the museum, though. It’s shaped like a huge watermelon set off by two large green leaves designed to look like a pair of fluttering wings. Named “the flying watermelon”, its design motif apparently symbolizes China’s ambition of flying out of its home markets towards the international arena.

With strong visual impact, the entire building not only integrates contemporary architecture’s aesthetic viewpoints, but also conveys artistic appeal and classic museum culture. That will bring you fresh feeling and surprise,” I later read in a snazzy brochure.

But surprised and fresh though I may be, the problem still arises how to get in. In the end, genius prevails and I make my way up the road to what turns out to be the local Police HQ. It looks onto the back of the flying melon, so your favourite cunning blogger decides to risk the long arm of the law and cut through the surrounding gardens.

As I circumvent the main building, I cannot help but be bowled over by the endless watermelon motifs carved into balustrades and walkways.

They’re kind of cute in a funny way.

I have read that the large garden surrounding the building and through which I am now making my way has several dozen valuable watermelon varieties growing there. Well, that’s as may be, but given that it was snowing in Beijing just three weeks ago, I am not surprised that there is not a watermelon plant in sight, though the beds appear to have been freshly dug presumably in preparation for a mass planting any time soon.

This outdoor exhibition area is also home to a Sculpture Park (well, that’s what they call it). Depending on your point of view, it too is cute and fun, or incredibly tacky. I’m afraid I find myself veering to the latter viewpoint.

I do, however, quite enjoy Mr Pig tucking into a watermelon (many of my fans know that I like pigs);

But I do wonder what on earth a sculpture of a boy about to have a pee has to do with a watermelon museum… until I remember that watermelons, of course, are mildly diuretic.

Not just that, but in 2008 a study was released showing that watermelon has ingredients that deliver Viagra-like effects to the body’s blood vessels and may even increase libido. So maybe instead of having a pee, this little boy is staring in awe at the effects that a watermelon has on his own tackle?

Scientists know that when watermelon is consumed, citrulline is converted to arginine through certain enzymes (well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me). Arginine is an amino acid that works wonders on the heart and circulation system and maintains a good immune system. It also boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it. As the report pointed out, watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra, but it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects.

So there you have it girls. If you see your BF pigging out on watermelon, it could be that you’re in for a very good evening…

I step through the side door into the building which turns out to be spookily deserted. No one anywhere in sight. It’s like a watermelon version of the Marie Celeste. To the left and right of the main lobby area one can enter the western or eastern hall. I choose to go east.

It appears I have chosen to enter the “Agricultural science popularization museum for the juvenile”, which a booklet that I pick up from the main reception desk tells me “integrates technological, academic, interesting and interactive elements and highlights the on-the-spot participation and interaction in order to enable juvenile visitors to learn about the agricultural technology through visit plus recreation and touch plus thinking mode to inspire their dream and anticipation to the future agriculture.”

I learn that watermelon was indispensable in ancient China. People made all kinds of products with it, such as beauty, medicinal, food and decorations. There are more than 1200 varieties of watermelon around the world and in China, cultivation began before the 10th century. Today it’s the world's single largest watermelon producer, with around one third of its production coming from the counties surrounding Beijing.

In China, watermelon rinds are stir-fried with olive oil, garlic, chilli, onions, sugar and rum. It is also stewed or pickled. Watermelon jelly is a traditional Beijing dish which is made by boiling sugar and jelly with water and then mixing in sliced cherries and watermelon juice. This is then chilled before serving. Watermelon juice can even be made into wine, though I suspect it’s pretty weak stuff (though I have to admit I have never tried it).

At one end of the gallery is a collection of watermelon art, with classical Chinese drawings and paintings depicting the fruit in all its glory.

There are also pictures of watermelon banquets…

not to mention watermelon desk calendars …

Watermelon is even turned into toothpaste!

Curiosity now draws me to the west hall. And the first thing that hits the eye is a model of two camels carrying their masters and loads of watermelons to market. They don’t look like the camels I’ve been so used to in the Arabian Peninsula. These camels, of course, have two humps and look much cuddlier than their Arabian counterparts.

The western hall takes itself much more seriously than the Juvenile hall to the east. Here there are models upon models upon models of watermelons in all shapes and sizes. Is it possible to get watermelon model fatigue? Yes; I can state quite unequivocally that this is indeed a danger when entering the west hall.

And not just watermelon model fatigue; but watermelon seed fatigue too. The seeds are a very popular snack in China and are a good source of protein, polyunsaturated fats and minerals, especially magnesium and iron. But different though each variety may be, I’m afraid by the time I have looked at my x-millionth seed tray I find myself fast losing interest. Perhaps if I cannot sleep tonight, I can count melon seeds instead of sheep…

I lose count of the number of cabinets filled with these wretched seeds and instead turn to the display of seed packets that I presume are on sale somewhere, though I never do find out where…

There’s even a model of a satellite (Chinese, of course) that is used to monitor the growing of watermelons in some way, though my Chinese is not good enough to decipher exactly how. But it looks pretty and makes a change from the rows upon rows of plastic watermelons.

Finally all good things must come to an end. I leave the deserted building and head out into the sunshine once more, skirting around to the Police HQ and walking nonchalantly out of the gate (always a good idea to walk nonchalantly when entering or exiting a police station, no matter where in the world it is).

It takes another two hours to get home, but once again my life has been undeniably enriched. Once again I can wow the boring expats in the staff canteen who never go anywhere, from what I can make out, with tales of daring-do. Once again I can tell you, dear fans, of all the amazing things there are to do and see here in the northern capital. And once again I can ponder on some of the ridiculous things that people the world over get up to.

A Watermelon Museum?

But why FGS?

Why ever not?