A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Following in the Footsteps of the Spermatozoa

Despite, it seems, having been told all my adult life that it was “time you grew up” and to “start acting your age”, I guess in some ways I’m still a little boy at heart; which, perhaps, is why I sometimes find myself browsing through web sites such as beijing-kids.com.
It’s the weekend, and outside it is pouring cats and dogs after a lovely week of sun. How come it’s always the weekends that it rains? My mind is cast back to something this web site proclaims loudly: “The Beijing Museum of Natural History is a popular museum for kids and nature lovers alike. This place is perfect for a rainy day or to escape the humid Beijing heat.”
Well heat is one of those relative things isn’t it, though I wouldn’t call today’s “humid” 4 degrees very warm. But with the rain looking like it is set in for the remainder of the day, maybe it’s time I paid said-museum a little visit?
It’s located on the west side of the Temple of Heaven, so after a 40 minute journey on a packed subway to Tiantandongmen station on line 5, I start my 12 minute walk round the northern end of the park and arrive at what I assume is the museum (as outside there isn’t anything written in English, and I stupidly forgot to write down北京自然博物馆 on a piece of paper).
Ziran bowuguan ma?, I ask an official outside, and the look on his face - a mixture of dughh, stupid laowai and incredulity that anyone can be so thick – affirms to me that I have got the correct place!
The beijing-kids.com site tells me the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30am-5pm. Most other web sites agree on the times, although Time Out says it’s 9 till 4. Beijing Tourist site says it is “Opening in the entire year without the resting day (stop selling the ticket after 16:00)” – mind you, so does ebeijing.gov.cn, as does virtualtourist.com, tour-beijing.com, santafarelo.com, toursofbeijingcheap.com, stay.com, china.org.cn, chenshuai0515.blogspot, and a few million other sites besides. Has anyone actually been there, I ask myself, or has the truth been firmly established by the amount of copy-and-pastes in the blogosphere?
cityweekend.com.cn tells me entrance is RMB20; tour-beijing.com believes entry is free; bnhm reckons it is 15 kwai; lonelyplanet.com trumps the lot at RMB30. Travelchinaguide reckons you have to reserve a place at least one day before you take the visit. But actually, your favourite blogger, who has just turned up and has now visited the place, can confirm that entrance is actually 10 kwai!
However, all agree that the place is well worth going to. cityweekend.com.cn declares it features some of the saddest taxidermy of all time but it's well worth a visit, if simply for the weird factor. timeoutbeijing.com reckons the main draw is on the third floor which “famously houses three pickled human cadavers wearing hoods that make them look like the victims of a botched kidnapping.” (Actually this particular exhibit appears to have been removed long ago, if indeed it ever was there at all, since it adds as an afterthought that the museum was closed when they made their visit.)
The museum itself covers four floors and has some 200,000 items in its collection. It was the very first natural history museum in China after the founding of the People's Republic and was formally opened on Oct. 1st, 1959. According to its own web site “the creature development history that passed for the 3 to 4 billion years is now highly condensed in the nature museum... When you entered into the nature museum, you will find the fossil that records the ancient life, the lively creature specimen in different poses, and realistic nature sights. You will be deeply attracted by them and be inspired to explore the birth of preliminary life, the process of creature evolution and the dawn of human history...” I can hardly contain my curiosity!
There is actually a queue of people shaking their umbrellas out in the entrance hall while waiting to go through the security X-ray check. But I follow a group of canny Chinese who go in through the exit door where there is no security at all and avoid the rush!
On entering the first gallery there is a veritable plethora of every kind of animal, fish and creepy-crawly imaginable, with a beautiful display of butterflies and beetles pinned to a large board. Everyone wants to take a picture of it and I merge into the crowd of happy snappers…
Many of the stuffed animals were donated by an American philanthropist called Kenneth E. Behring, who was once a director of the China Disabled Persons Welfare Foundation. According to the official blurb, the “explanatory notes are refined, accurate and scholarly and the items on display were delicately produced with perfection, definitely conspicuous, entertaining, engaging, informative, science-based, inspiring, sustainable and modern.”
The animals themselves “are all carefully selected choice pieces in the museum’s collections and a number of them have just been produced recently with the avant garde biological plasticizing technique.” Could this be why some of the poor creatures that have ended up in a glass case look anything but realistic and more like an Airfix model, or something straight out of the Hongqiao Toy Market?
But there is no doubt that the kids love it and everyone poses in front of their favourite mammal, whether it is a polar bear…
… or a tiger, whose red tongue looks like it has been sucking on too many hawthorn ice lollies.
This furry camel looks too cute for words…
while the obligatory panda looks as tacky as the ones currently residing in Beijing Zoo!
Up a flight of steps and one finds oneself entering “Amazing Africa” where the pictures and models on display appear to show a species of human animal – but it’s all in Chinese, so I cannot furnish you with more information.
I am assuming these models on display are waxworks, rather than out of a taxidermy studio, but there again… who can say in China? They certainly don’t look like what I imagine Timeout was referring to earlier on.
Ah, but now we come to what everyone knows about Africa. It’s full of animals isn’t it? I mean, I've seen Lion King and this is exactly like the film. Grrrrr….
Oh, but how unsporting is this? Simba was never this horrid in the film. The kids can’t believe their eyes. They move on quickly…
… and come across a giraffe who’s had its body chopped off. Oh I say. How beastly!
It’s obviously time to move on. I head for the Plant Kingdom “where one can get to understand the evolution from prehistoric extinct plants to modern plants. There are some interactive activities. For instance, audiences can see the whole process of flowers sprouting, growing and blossoming all through the push of a button.” Or not as the case may be. Like a little kid I go around pressing all the buttons, but nothing works – which perhaps explains why there is an extraordinary absence of kids running around this part of the museum.
Instead there are multiple video screens showing a David Attenborough documentary about plants in Africa (where else!) – and I have to admit I never realised he spoke such perfect Chinese, even if his voice has fallen a couple of octaves.
Lest I get carried away by too much of Attenborough’s new velvety voice, I join the crowds making their way to the Gallery of Ancient Reptiles. This is what the museum is particularly famous for. Ever wondered what a mamenchisaurus looked like? Or wanted to see the largest sauropod dinosaur fossil discovered in China? How about a Mamenxi dinosaur fossil all of 22 metres long, which we’re told is 140 million years old? OK, maybe this hall isn’t really a patch on London’s Museum of Natural History which I am sure has a much better collection, but you know once you’ve seen one set of bones, I’m afraid I really think you’ve seen them all.
Mind you, I’ve never had the opportunity to stare up at a dinosaur’s bottom before, but I have to say I find it all a little underwhelming all the same.
Meanwhile some of the kids are learning to become tourist guides, I reckon. This little cutie poses in front of each of the skeletons in turn and gives a long spiel into a mini-loudspeaker hung around her neck explaining everything you could possibly want to know about dinosaurs, as her proud parents look on…
Lest the excitement of the place becomes too unbearable, the authorities have put up warning signs around the place to stop any craving to clamber over the railings on the balcony in order to get a closer look. They obviously take H&S seriously here.
Our appetites all whetted by the dinosaur bones, us kids can’t wait to move on to the next part of the museum – entrance into <gasp> … The Dinosaur Park! The viewers can ascend a height to overlook the Dinosaur World, walk through the canyon to have a look at the waterfall scenery, or watch an exciting science film on dinosaurs in a small auditorium. I tell you, it’s just too exciting for words!
Can’t wait to get up real close to a dinosaur – even if it does look like they have all come straight from Hongqiao market…
Unfortunately, some of the dinosaurs appear to have seen better days. Yes, this one is exactly like another I saw in the market – right down to having parts of his foot missing…
while this sorry individual needs hospitalisation fast. Hmmm… taxidermy just isn’t what it used to be!
For the truly daring among us, we cannot resist being drawn into the terrors that Jurassic Park holds for us. I feel my pulse rate quicken…..
OMG! Another plastic dinosaur munching its way through a plastic dino-sheep while a plastic dino-unicorn looks on. Scary stuff!
I can’t take any more. I must escape from this hall of terrors and back to reality once more.
Now, according to my information, there’s just one place I still have not been to. Lonely Planet warns: “Make sure your children don’t wander unaccompanied into the creepy Hall of Human Bodies, where a ghoulish selection of spliced human cadavers and genitalia awaits.”
I look at my floor plan, which I had picked up at the exit on my way in. No sign of a Human Bodies hall listed. And no signs whatsoever to it on any of the walls which have arrows pointing in all directions save to this one gallery.
I notice an unmarked gallery on the basement floor plan; but at the main staircase the downward stairs are closed off. Instead I walk back through the “Animal Friends of Human Being” gallery and find I am in luck. There are stairs going down sure enough, but it is only once one is around the corner that one comes across a sign for the Human Body section. It’s almost as if the museum is ashamed of this exhibit and wants it to remain a well kept secret.
Even if your Chinese isn’t up to much, you'll know you've arrived when you see sperm on the floor guiding your path in the right direction!
Want to know how your tongue works? There are drawings and models of literally every part of your body telling you all kinds of weird and wonderful facts!
I love this cute model of a human brain – reminds me a little of Shaun the Sheep!
But oh, what have we here? It looks like something straight out of a sex shop in Liangmaqiao – not, of course, that I frequent such places, you understand!
Meanwhile a little girl is holding on for dear life to a model of a penis while her mother tries coaxing her away in the direction of some jars just around the corner which appear to be attracting a great deal of interest from the few visitors that have found their way to this subterranean world. What on earth could they contain?
I push my way through the half dozen people to find eight jars containing a selection of human foetuses preserved in – presumably - formaldehyde. They certainly don’t look like plastic models, Airfix kits or something out of Hongqiao Market. OMG – I think they are for real!
What a way to end my first (and last?) visit to the Natural History Museum. I wander through endless corridors trying to find my way back to the entrance hall. A little girl is in floods of tears, and clings to her dad who tries to comfort the inconsolable wretch. Did she stumble upon the foetuses by mistake? Was she shocked by the genitalia? Maybe she was distraught at the sight of the poor dinosaur with his tail falling off? Or by the giraffe that had lost its body? Or by the lion that was tucking in to an early lunch?
I guess I will never know.
Outside in the cold and wet once again, I can only marvel at the sight of world-weary folk doing their best to sell whatever they can to the well-heeled escaping under dripping umbrellas from the grounds of the museum.
Anyone for a plastic dinosaur? To you, a mere 10 kwai.
But no;
Xiexie - I think I have had my fill of dinosaurs for now.