One of the joys of being in Beijing over the Spring Festival Holiday (aka Chinese New Year) is the fact that for one week of the year, the streets are deserted and you can almost guarantee to get a seat on the subway network at any time of the day. Of course, almost anything of note is closed, but I guess you can’t have everything!
There’s one place I have passed very many times in Beijing, with hardly a second glance; but for once I thought I would explore the grounds of the Agricultural Exhibition Center, which I have seen on many a map, though have never ventured inside.
An added bonus is that the Agricultural Exhibition Center station (or ‘Agricuiture’, as it is known in the local vernacular) is on Subway Line 10 which is the same line I live on, all of five stations away… so braving the outside cold, I set off in exploration mode.
It also happens to lie just a proverbial stone’s throw away from one of my favourite Chinglish signs, which makes me smile every time I pass it…
China’s Agricultural Museum, to give it yet another of its official titles, is the only national agricultural museum in the country. Inside a huge parkland setting are numerous buildings, four of which are open to the public as well as three “exhibition gardens”. The notice kindly reminds you that that the museum is closed on Mondays and during the Spring Festival.
But the gardens appear to be open; and better still there is no entrance fee…
I make my way to the Traditional Farming Garden where there is a collection of sculptures that are almost as exciting as those I found at the Watermelon Museum. Each has a title carved into a stone in the ground. This one is called “Shelling”…
But this one, featuring a couple of canteen ladies and a kid, has me totally flummoxed: it’s called “Second Weeding”. I make a mental note to swat up on my agricultural processes.
This one, called “Spreading Mannure” (sic), makes a little more sense though; and the guy seems resigned to his work. (You can imagine him coming home to the wife of an evening, putting his feet up in front of the fire and saying “I’ve had a shit day at work, Honey!”.)
Another of the exhibition gardens is entitled ‘Modern Farming Garden’ and here we are treated to artists’ renditions of a Water Conservancy Project (well, that’s what it says!)…
and ‘Hybrid Rice’, among other assorted sculptures.
But believe it or not, things get even more exciting (Patience! The best is yet to come!).
Inside the grounds there are three lakes – all popular with the birds at this time of year due to there being fountains in each one keeping a section from freezing over.
It’s actually quite picturesque and a pleasant way to while away the hours walking around each one for a morning constitutional.
There’s even a lovely eight-right-angled bridge, reminiscent of Shanghai’s Jiuquqiao – though obviously much smaller.
This being a park devoted to agriculture, it’s no surprise to come across a sculpture of a cow – though what the writing on its back says, or of its significance, I have no idea.
I move on, and peer through the dirty windows of No 3 Building – a huge monstrosity which appears to be totally empty. Perhaps there are grand plans to make it into another museum; or perhaps they built it thinking they were bound to be able to find a use for it one day in the future. Who knows?
All around me it is silent, save for the coughing of the birds in the trees. Everything is padlocked tightly closed, the way the Chinese love to padlock anything that is remotely out of service.
But what’s this? I enter the “Traditional Farming Experience Zone” where three buildings are guarded by a pair of gargantuan sculptures (for want of a better word) and I swear I see movement inside one of them.
I think back to the sign at the entrance to the park. Closed on Monday and the Spring Festival. Perhaps they mistranslated and should have written ‘or’ rather than ‘and’?
This building has a sign outside saying Chinese Traditional Farming Tools Exhibition. And inside there are two girls in the reception area, looking bored out of their skulls, chatting away aimlessly.
I decide on a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained philosophy and walk in as if I own the place, nodding Ni Hao to them as I do so. One smiles at me. The other looks straight through me. But neither makes any move to stop this Laowai from going any further.
But once inside I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay for more than about three minutes anyway. There’s a collection of old wooden tools (that in fairness have been meticulously dusted) …
… and a few still-life tableaux of workers tilling the fields. Exciting or what?
My three minutes over, I saunter back past the girls once more and head for the next building, enticingly called ‘Painted Pottery’. It too is open, and as I heave open the large door, one of the girls from before trots in after me and stands unobtrusively behind me as I inspect the display cabinets.
All the explanations are in Chinese only, save for one or two titles in English, so I’m not sure how old these artefacts really are. Some are quite striking however…
This one, for instance, is called ‘Bird Offset Mouth Kettle’ which I think sums it up to a tee (or should that be ‘tea’? Oh, your favourite blogger is in cracking good form today!)
This exhibition hall takes up at least eight minutes of my time, and I feel almost guilty keeping the poor lass from gossiping with her erstwhile companion.
But at last I reach the door once again and she smiles at me before hurrying back to putting the world to rights with her friend.
Once outside again my eye falls on what must be the 'pièce de resistance' as far as this museum is concerned (I did warn you to be patient!) Yes! A building devoted to exhibiting soil specimens…
Amazingly, it is totally devoid of anyone – not even a bored-looking reception girl.
But it is not just one or two collections of soil, but wall after wall after wall containing samples of soil taken from all over China.
Each sample of soil has its own background explanation, though I have to admit that I don’t find this too helpful at times.
But, in order perhaps to keep the kids amused, there is even an area where you can run your fingers through the soil, enjoying its texture to the max. Oh bliss!
And lest for one moment you think this is all there is to see here, worry not! There is even a display of fertilisers to add to the overall enjoyment of the exhibition!
I have to admit that I have long had a hankering for setting up a museum dedicated to watching paint dry; but after this experience, I doubt I could ever hope to equal the nirvana-induced state that this exhibition causes in my over-excited brain. I guess my ambition will just have to remain a pipe-dream.
My eyes glazing over, I return once more to the outside world and head on back through the park. I had seen earlier on that the main building was firmly padlocked closed. But now I am curious to discover if there are any other lesser-buildings that might have remained open. And my curiosity pays off. No 2 Building – called Chinese Agricultural Civilization Exhibition Hall – looks closed, but on pushing against the door, it gives way and once again I find myself to be the only one inside this labyrinthine collection.
Here, an escapee from Madame Tussauds appears to have been given a free hand to depict whatever it is that Chinese labourers of old got up to in the fields. These gentlemen, for instance, are digging into real earth (borrowed from the soil exhibition, perhaps?) …
while here a team is ploughing the land, looked over by a farm manager who has dressed up for the occasion, no doubt.
Meanwhile, another guy is admiring a perfectly formed pear growing on a type of pear tree I have never come across before.
But it’s not just waxwork displays on show here. There is also a fulsome collection of ploughs (or plows, depending on which of the many signs you read) …
as well as hoes, sickles and scythes …
There’s even a model of a dragon-bone water lift with pedals for bringing water up from the river to the fields.
And here is a "rice-polishing device using water power (model)" which appears to have been designed for bashing the living daylights out of anything placed in cups under each hammer. Hmmm… so that’s how it is done…
I round the corner and come to where a taxidermist appears to have been doing overtime. A collection of piggies for your delight? Here we have wild boars and domestic porkers on display.
and across from them, a collection of farmyard poultry.
Round another corner and here we have a horse being lectured at by its master. But to my eye there appears something wrong with the horse, with its right foreleg making it look, for all the world, like a pantomime horse about to do a song and dance routine.
And then before I know it I am out through a side door and into the cold air once more.
I head on back to my favourite bridge, determined later to make a 360-degree photomontage to which it lends itself admirably…
and then head on out by way of yet another monolithic sculpture of a bosomy young lady leading a pair of horses on which sits someone bashing the bejeezus out of a pair of mounted kettle drums.
Who ever said Beijing has nothing to offer the careworn, been-there-seen-it-all resident during Spring Festival Holiday?