Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sun and Sea and a Super-yacht that Isn’t

We Brits can never be satisfied, I think. I used to long for days and days of eternal sunshine; but after working in Saudi Arabia when it rained for four days a year and the temperatures rose to 60 degrees in the summer, we all used to long for a shower or two, if not a downpour!

Having spent the best part of three years in Beijing, I now long to see blue sky again instead of the PM2.5-filled pea-soupers that passes for fresh air here; and now that winter has well and truly settled in, it’s also nice to dream about warm days and shorelines being gently lapped by blue oceans.

So it is a bit of a no-brainer to be asked if, for a second year in a row I would like to participate in Doha’s now annual bash – the Qatar International Boat Show.

10 o’clock at night sees me trundling my case up Huixinxijie to the Beikou where one of the many airport bus terminals is located…


…and being whisked up the expressway to Beijing Capital Airport’s terminal 3. I always love T3. Light and spacious and beautifully designed (by British architects Foster & Partners) – not a bit like the dowdy Terminal 2 which I hate having to travel through. Just before the corridor leading airside is a model of an armillary sphere known as Ziwei Chenhang – a device invented in 117AD by the Chinese astronomer ZhangHeng to measure the movement of the sun and stars.


As is usual in any place in China, one can spend endless hours being amused by the signs that ordinary Chinese take for granted. T3 is no exception.


The plane leaves just before 2 in the morning and winding my watch back by five hours and doing a quick mental calculation confirms arrival in Doha at around 5.45 in the morning local time after a pretty uneventful nine hour flight.


For the past few years I have been flying in to the old Doha Airport; but today we land in the newly opened Hamad International. It’s clean, it’s orderly, and welcoming for the first time visitor. I think I already like it!


I have been booked in to the old Marriott Hotel near the old airport. OK I was thoroughly spoiled last year when I stayed in the Ritz Carlton; but even without the comparison, this hotel seems definitely well past its sell-by date. (It was actually built in 1972 and refurbished in 2005.)


Although, in theory, rooms cannot be taken until 3 in the afternoon, I arrive at the hotel around 7 in the morning hoping I can be allowed in early to have a quick shower before rushing off into town for my first meeting. Fat chance! There is no mention of my booking in the hotel’s computer system, not that this seems to faze the charming receptionist in the slightest. He wonders if I have perhaps come to the wrong Marriott (there is another one near the City Centre).

But no; a quick phone call to the other Marriott confirms I am an unheard of quantity there too. Would I like to help myself to a coffee from the machine over there and we will see if we can find the problem for you, sir.


It would appear that this is a regular problem for the Marriott (later in the week I am told that one of the guests whom they had given a new room to just half an hour earlier was not staying at the hotel). The problem is made worse by their Assistant EBC Manager who goes by the name of Sunday Aigbomian. (The Lord was obviously having a rest the day he was born, or else he forgot to stand in the queue when they were handing out the brains.) Sunday’s laissez-faire attitude to doing anything on time beggars belief. But eventually he comes up to me four coffees and 115 minutes later to tell me that my name was on the system after all and my room is now ready.


As rooms go, it isn’t bad. The bed, though only queen size, is comfortable in the extreme; the TV sports a good selection of channels; the bathroom is perfectly adequate, if somewhat basic; and there is a kettle with cups, but no coffee, tea bags or anything remotely resembling anything you can add to the boiling water. The room service trolleys have no tea or coffee on them either and accordingly every day I instead make a morning raid of the tea and coffee in the lobby area where there is a selection of five different types of tea bag.

Breakfast, too, is a hit and miss affair. Very friendly staff, who sometimes remember to bring coffee when asked (well, on four of the seven days anyway), while the fruit is excellent, the cooked stuff mediocre, the arabic stuff OK, the cold meats and cheese selection excellent, the croissants cold and rubbery, the omelettes-to-order good, the coffee sometimes excellent and sometimes too watery for my taste; and they even have a special freshly-squeezed machine with which the hotel guests can have fun trying to work out how to operate it. But I don’t like the fact that the invoice is plonked down on the table every day virtually before I have taken my first mouthful.


Throughout the week there are workmen who do their very best not to make too much noise before 7am; but it’s a shame that no one has explained to them that hotel guests (well, this one at any rate) aren’t much taken with having to walk over carpets that look like this…


But the hotel staff – whom I at times feel positively sorry for – have been well trained to grin and to greet every guest. One of the guys who works on the concierge desk is incredibly friendly and helpful. No surprise, then, that his name badge reads “Thank God”. LOL!

One of the things that I most like about Qatar is its currency. It has to be some of the prettiest in the world. No wonder, then, that I feel so sad when I have to give it away to errant taxi drivers and their ilk…


And you have to hand it to the Qataris – unlike the Chinese who just block multiple web sites and then keep quiet hoping no one will complain or perhaps even notice, they at least have a sense of humour as you sit there fuming that you cannot get into that naughty little web site. Thank goodness I have my free Chinese VPN with me to circumvent the restrictions!


But I haven’t come to Doha to access naughty web sites (honestly I haven’t!). I am here to work (I think that’s what they call it) and take a taxi into town for my first meeting …


…before going on to the organiser’s office to meet the team and get briefed on how things are going to look at this year’s Boat Show.


I am given a grand sounding title and even some business cards to match, though throughout the whole week I only succeed in giving away a small handful of them.


One of the first jobs is to work on a press conference which is to be given the day before the show opens on board a super-dhow ̶ that is, a boat that looks like a dhow on the outside…


… and a super-yacht on the inside. This is a unique creation from Qatar’s Al Mannai Marine. The 150 tonne dhow is 30m in length and incorporates the latest in technology and as such, it is the very first of its kind in a luxury dhow category with yacht specifications. The entire build of this design takes from 18 months to 2 years, and currently Al Mannai Marine has six such dhows in production.


There’s time during the setting up – of course – for a quick pose before getting on back to work and preparing for the imminent arrival of the media. (OK, maybe I should have brought a comb with me. I never imagined there would be such a breeze that day!)


The big day arrives, and with it a posse of VVIPs – including the Minister of Economy and Trade, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Bin Mohamed Al Thani, who executes a snazzy snip of the red ribbon before the world’s waiting media.


There are countless ambassadors, too, making their way up to Mourjan Marinas in Lusail City, where the show is being held throughout the week. Here’s the British Ambassador who is well taken care of by my colleague Farheen, who was obviously born to mingle in such exhalted circles!


Actually, the first day, Farheen wears a very loud pink pair of trousers which proves to be a blessing when trying to locate her in a hurry right from the other side of the marina. We decide as a team to wear similar dayglo colours throughout the show so we can spot each other easily. I have with me this greenish-yellowish creation which almost glows in the dark when the sun shines on it, if you get my twisted logic!


The official hours of the Show are from 3 till 9.30 – since no one in their right mind would want to spend too much time outside in the daytime in Doha. As dusk falls, the number of visitors swells, the last day – Saturday – having the most rubber neckers and baby push-chair owners .


There’s plenty to feast your eyes on – such as a house boat manufactured in Abu Dhabi with six state-sized bedrooms, each with its own jacuzzi-filled bathroom. Wow!


There’s even a cinema on board. And as for living rooms – yes I did use the plural deliberately – well feast your eyes on this one and compare it with what you have at home. And then double it, because there are two of them! There’s also a third open topped ‘living room’ if you include the roof space that’s been done up with astro turf, not to mention the other open decks.


Lighting is used to great effect as the marina sits overshadowed by the ongoing construction of Lusail City. This appears to be the one week of the year when taxi drivers are ever asked to come here, with at least four taxi drivers telling me they haven’t been out this way in months. But the canny organisers have placed direction boards at every road junction from downtown Doha, so the hoardes keep on surging along, driven, no doubt, by the fact that the licence conditions forbid the organisers to charge an entrance fee, coupled with the fact that Doha has to be one of the most boring places in the Middle East for anything to happen.


Bored with boats? No worry … even though it is in fact a boat show, you can also feast your eyeballs on over 50 Harley Davidsons , courtesy of the local H.D. road club.


One of my jobs is to write the speeches given by the good and the great. Many of the speeches are given in Arabic, and I am then told it is up to me to deliver an English translation of the Arabic-translated script I had written in English… if you see what I mean. At least my day-glo tie means everyone can see this normally shrinking violet!


Another evening – another set of speeches required. This time it is a posh event held in the Al Sharq Village where another colleague, Joanna, is busy looking after some of the journalists. Despite it being an Islamic state, we are greeted by proffered trays of champagne, and white and red wine. And none of your cheap stuff either. Or maybe I have been in China too long to tell the difference! Either way, I down a glass or two of bubbly, wash it down with some very acceptable sauvignon blanc, but since I am required to present more of my translated-translated-speeches, I decide to leave a critique of the red wine until later – only to discover that it is packed away the moment the speeches end, and I never do get to try it out. Ah well… win some, lose some.


Everyone agrees that this year’s show has been a thoroughly spiffing event; and we all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Its time to head on back to Hamad International where the checking in hall is vast but where there are only three check in desks open. I am required to wait for all of three minutes.


With all the paperwork complete and my case riding around the airport somewhere on a conveyor belt, I pass through immigration and move on down to the airside waiting area – which is somewhat spoiled by a huge and grotesque bear taking up valuable floor space.


And again, despite it being an Islamic State, pragmatism rules the day here and there is no shortage of alcoholic beverages on sale – such a contrast with next-door-neighbour Saudi Arabia where they are slightly less hypocritical…


The authorities have done their very best to keep the spoiled Arab brats amused by providing in a number of places funky slides and climbing frames for them to wear themselves out on…


Finally we are off. I’m sitting on the starboard side of the aircraft for a change – a good choice, it turns out, for geat views over the Pearl immediately below us…


The onboard info keeps us updated – well, those of us, at any rate, who have watched enough of the vast film library over which we have free reign.


There are stunning views over the himalayas, too, as we down some fried pangasius with sweet and sour sauce, herb potato, sautéed beans, baby carrots, chick peas, cucumber salad, and a chocolate slice, all washed down with champagne, mango juice and Fosters beer. Despite about 90 per cent of the flight being Chinese, Qatar Airways haven’t taken it upon themselves to provide chopsticks, and my neighbour worries over how to balance the chick peas on his knife before finally giving up the unequal struggle.


Eventually the onboard computer shows us making a bee-line for Beijing - بحين - and we start our descent, arriving on the tarmac thirty minutes ahead of schedule.


As usual the majority of Chinese passengers totally ignore the impassioned pleas of the flight attendants to “remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop and the seat belt signs have been switched off”. Doesn’t the airline ever educate these stewardesses that all Chinese know instinctively that rules are only meant to apply to other people, never to themselves?

It’s been a great week off, enjoying the sunshine and adding to my waistline; but it’s also good to be back in Beijing even if it is only 1 degree above zero.


Hey – it sure beats having to work for your living!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An iPhone in the family way… And disaster in Candy Town!

You have to hand it to Apple. A nicer set of shop assistants in Beijing it would be hard to find. Especially my new found “friend” Kevin Zhang.
 
For some weeks my poor little iPhone 5 had been feeling sick. Bloated. Overweight. And getting to the point where she looked as if she had got pregnant when my back was turned. (Could it have been that Huawei phone that had been lying around recovering from a cracked screen? Or the unnamed Android from Hong Kong that had such low self esteem that it didn’t even have a brand name on its body?)
 
As her tummy got fatter and fatter I knew the time would come when I had to take her to the Apple doctor, and so I headed off to Sanlitun, where the bright and spacious store that positively reeks of money is located.
 
I arrived at five minutes to 10 o’clock and already a queue of people was forming outside, while on the other side of the door another queue was forming – or perhaps it would be better to describe it as a line-up. At least ten people that looked like they were fresh-out-of-college techie nerds who had landed their first job in the real world.
 
There were also at least eight security guards whose job it was to intimidate the would-be pilferers in to not even thinking of doing such a nasty thing as casting covetous eyes over the products on display inside the hallowed portals of Apple’s palace of dreams.
 
The clock struck 10 (figuratively speaking), the doors opened, and the techie nerds greeted each of the shoppers and pilferers with a smile, and waved them over to the right display where another army of techie helpers descended on them to offer their unwavering help and support.
 
I was approached by a techie female nerd, who appeared intent on showing off to a security guy who obviously had the hots for her, how good she was at handling foreigners. Can I help you? she said in near flawless English…
 
I explained the problem of my pregnant iPhone and asked if someone could take a look at it. And she walked me over to introduce me to Kevin.
 
 
You have made an appointment with the Genius Bar, yes? Kevin asks me in heavily accented English. The what?
No, I simply wanted to know if they undertook repairs here.
Yes, that’s right. You need the Genius Bar.
 
I find out later that this is a world-wide branding that Apple uses to describe its armies of techies who “have extensive knowledge of our products, and work with you face-to-face to provide technical support and troubleshoot hardware problems…. During your session your Genius will gather information about your system… etc etc blah blah blah.”
 
Is Kevin a Genius? No, he just works here.
Can I see a Genius?
Not without an appointment.
How do I make an appointment?
 
Kevin smiles the well rehearsed smile that shows that Apple really cares about its clients, even if they are stupid enough to even think about coming to see a Genius without an appointment.
 
Kevin takes me over to a computer and asks me to fill out a form. Problem is, the form is totally in Chinese. Oh, you don’t speak Chinese? No problem. Let me help you. I fill in my name and date of birth. Kevin looks on in amazement. I am asked the serial number of my device. Kevin looks it up for me. I am asked for my passport number Oh, you don’t have your passport number to hand? Kevin asks in dismay.
 
So I cannot see a Genius to ask about my iPhone without giving my passport number? I ask in amazement.  
Oh, you cannot see one anyway today. There is a three day waiting list.
 
I wonder why I have even bothered to fill in the form. But I persevere and ask Kevin if bloat is a common problem with iPhones, given the appalling reputation that Apple has with its batteries. Oh no. He has never seen this kind of thing before.
 
How much would it cost to fix?
A minimum of 800RMB (that’s $130 FGS!) plus whatever it costs to fix any damage inside.
 
I do a quick mental calculation and wonder if it is even worth repairing the phone, rather than going out and buying a new one.
 
I return home and wrap a couple of elastic bands around the casing to stop the screen being pushed out of its socket by the ever fattening innards of my beloved iPhone. And two days later I am off to the Gulf to work in Qatar for a week.
 
The phone continues to get more pregnant day by day, such that by the third day in Doha I feel it necessary to ask if there is a local repair shop that might be able to take a look at it. I walk into two phone shops, both of whom tut tut over the poor patient and tell me that a conservative estimate for such a repair would be around 1100 riyals (that’s $300!!!!).
 
Worried lest my friend and companion for the past two years should expire before my return to China, I start copying down phone numbers and other data from her memory banks; and then head on to Carrefour to check out replacement phones. But I discover that phone prices in Qatar are about 20 percent higher than in Beijing.
 
Disaster strikes. I am already up to level 213 in Candy Crush – something that exercises what passes for a brain when I am sitting in a Beijing subway train or in a Doha taxi – but when I switch on, all the levels have disappeared and the game has reset itself at level 1.
 
 
With tears in my eyes, I coax my companion to just hold on in there for a few more days, determined to get her in to see a doctor just as soon as I can.
 
I rush her round to a Mr Fixit a few of days later after my return to the Central Kingdom, but get a few more Tsk Tsk Tsks and a rambling explanation (translated by a helpful assistant) that it would be much better were I to junk this old phone and buy a new one – which, surprise surprise, he just happens to have a whole load of that he can sell me at a bargain price.
 
I make my excuses and leave.
 
The next day I am taking an afternoon constitutional around the UIBE campus (University of International Business & Economics) with a couple of companions at work when Yifei has the bright idea of popping in to a phone shop on the campus to see if they do repairs. They don’t… but the shop two along does. Try there.
 
We try there. Do they replace iPhone batteries? They do.
But is it an iPhone 4S, an iPhone 5, an iPhone 5S or an iPhone 6?
It’s an iPhone 5.

Excellent. They have a spare battery in stock.
But how much.
150 RMB.
150-ma???
150!
 
 
I rush back to the office, pick up my pregnant iPhone and rush back, hoping the price hasn’t shot up in the meantime. It hasn’t.
 
A crowd of students gather round, none of them having seen the innards of an iPhone before. Once the abortion is performed, there is a wave of oohs and ahhs as they look on in wonderment at the bloated battery.
 
 
A new battery is inserted into the empty space and the phone fired up. It works! Mr Fix-it smiles and hands me the phone. Err, would he possibly mind putting back the screws that hold it all together? Oh, of course. How silly of him!
 
He battles with the oh-so-tiny screws and eventually the operation is complete. My pride and joy is working once again – admittedly with some specks of dust clinging to the inside of the screen (ie impossible to remove without taking the entire phone apart again); and Candy Crush is still obstinately wanting to show me how I should navigate through level 1.
 
But finally all else is right with the world once more. With a warning to her not to sleep around again with scheming Huaweis and nameless mongrel phones, I give my companion a big hug and welcome her back into the centre of my life once again.
 
Apple? Puh! UIBE? Yeahhhh! Welcome back old friend!
 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Red Leaves, Stone Flowers and a Dead Cat

 
It’s that time of the year again – you know, when the whole of China seems to go crazy over the appearance of a few red leaves, and there is a mass exodus from the city centres to go and view nature at its very best.
 
Here in Beijing, it’s no exception; and hoards of people head for the likes of Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan), where there are more maple trees turning bright scarlet than you’ve had hot dinners. But this year, it is not to be for your favourite blogger. This year our department at work has decided that it would be a great weekend to spend time together en-masse … underground!
 
We gather outside the west entrance of UIBE – the University of International Business and Economics – just opposite the main entrance of the office, only then to be asked to cross back to the other side of the road again where the coach is facing southbound. All aboard and the coach driver does a U-turn and we’re off, facing northbound again.
 
Not for long. Picking up a few extras on the 4th Ring Road, we’re soon curving round in a south westerly direction and heading off towards Hebei, or at least as far as the 6th Ring Road.
 
This is persimmon country, where every second field is crammed full of shizi (柿子), otherwise known as Diospyros kaki – from the ancient Greek "dios" (διός) and "pyros" (πυρος) meaning "divine fruit".
 
 
But we’re not here to appreciate shizi; instead we check in at the Chengtong Yinian Villa hotel, which for some unfathomable reason Trip Advisor ranks as #995 out of the 5,418 hotels in Beijing…
 
 
The car park is filled with red and yellow leaves and we see blue sky, instead of the grey pea-soup that is what normally passes for fresh air in BJ.
 
 
But once inside, it’s a different story. What was obviously once a grand hotel complex has fallen into what some might call “faded glory”. The entire place is crying out for someone with a mop and duster; not one of the three electric sockets in my room actually works (which means that the TV and air conditioning similarly don’t work); there are exposed electric sockets lying about aimlessly in the reception area; and as for the “lunch”… well, perhaps it is best to gloss over that tepid collection of sorry dishes as fast as possible.
 
 
It’s amazing how a little “faded glory” can act as a tonic to give everyone a boost to get on out of here and head for our next destination; though, this being China, we are all given time for an afternoon siesta – as if the exertion of sitting in a coach for an hour and half and having to face a few tepid dishes on a dining room table is enough to wear everyone out!
 
But finally we are off once again, heading for the 'Underground Pearl of Beijing'.
 
The Shihuadong (Stone Flower Cave) is located in Nancheying Village in Fangshan District, about 50 kilometres from downtown Beijing. The cave was actually discovered in 1446 and is a seven-storey (or eight-storey, depending on which web site you read – but let’s go with the official version for now!) water-eroded cave, with a drop of 130 metres.
 
It was originally called Qianzhen or Shifo during the Ming Dynasty and it covers an area of about 1.8 hectares, which is about 4½ acres or 18,000 square metres to us lesser mortals who can still never think in hectares. There are twelve huge "halls" which are interconnected with countless narrow passages, sixteen "chambers" and 71 "branch caves" in many sizes and shapes. The official blurb will tell you that there are “up to 18 scenic areas and more than 120 different landscapes to enjoy, all divided into 16 halls and ten wonders along a 2,500 meters long route”, whatever that means.
 
 
The natural landscape inside the Stone Flower Cave is actually pretty amazing. You lose track of how many stalactites and stalagmites there are that have been formed by mineral deposits (primarily calcium carbonate) in dripping water over the eons. (In case you get confused, the stalactites are the ones that hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites are the ones that grow up from the floor.) Added to that there are stone curtains, stone waterfalls, stone troughs, masonry dams, stone terraces, numerous stone flowers, curling stones (helictites), crystal flowers, fur stones, stone chrysanthemums, stone pearls, stone grapes and goodness knows what else deposited by the at-times “dripping, flowing, percolating, stagnating, splashing, capillary water”, and so on.
 
 
Above ground, the notices warn ominously that “In the hole the moist road slides”. We are also told that there are no toilets in the cave. “Please be prepared”, it says, though whether one is meant to take in a personal commode, we are never told. Yet another sign imperiously says “No photography”. But, of course, in China everyone knows that prohibitions are only meant for other people, so we happily snap away in front of the official guide, who even points out some of the best spots from which to take the best pictures.
 
 
Some of the engineering is pretty impressive in this place. Where nature has not seen fit to provide a gentle slope to walk down, some gallant souls have installed walkways and staircases over the years. Only four of the seven storeys are open to the public as of now, but no doubt someone, somewhere is planning the next staircase to even lower levels in the cavern.
 
 
You have to hand it to the management of this place. They have done their utmost to instil a sense of wonder in the visitors with their use of hyperbole and the descriptive names they have given virtually every ‘landscape’ we pass. “The inside is a fairyland on earth. You will be amazed at nature's creativity,” the official blurb gushes, as we pass by “Frolicking carps; Mirage Fairy Island; Chess ground; Crowing rooster; Heavenly Abode; Dragon coiling jade column; Bamboo fenced thatched house; Willow Shadow; Spring bamboo shoots; Blooming stalagmites; Greeting turtle;” and so on.
 
One particularly impressive stalactite is a “thin and transparent stone flag” at the top of one of the chambers, which is also unique to the Shihua Cave in China. OK, it doesn’t look much like a flag from this angle, but once we get to the bottom of this particular chamber you can stretch your imagination a little and reckon that if the wind is gusting with just the right force, a flag could curl itself into this kind of shape. As the guide patiently explains, a little imagination can go a long way!

 
The Immortal Appreciating Cascades are some of the most impressive formations. These are apparently the biggest stalactites in China and to do them justice, the management have different coloured lights fading in and out over them as we descend yet further into the bowels of the earth.
 
 
“Everywhere is full of the sound of water dripping ‘Di Di Da’, which is composed into delightful music” the blurb continues; and some of the formations are indeed reminiscent of organ pipes one sees in various gothic horror movies of the 50s and 60s.
 
 
Another must-see formation is what they call the Immortal's Mirror – a disc-shaped stalagmite which has been lit to great effect.
 
 
The entire cave network has a constant temperature of 13 degrees, the entire year round. And we all know how caves are the ideal storage place for maturing wine. This has not gone unnoticed by the clever marketing people at Moutai who use the Shihuadong to mature a special edition of their baiju, which is only sold here in the cave to gullible tourists who want to take back a souvenir of their time under ground.
 
 
I mentioned earlier that the cave had been discovered in the 15th century; but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that it started to get mapped, and first thoughts were given over to making it into a visitors’ attraction.
 
As they passed various formations, the 20th century explorers would mark some of the stalagmites so that they would know if they were simply going around in circles. Here they have (patriotically?) thought fit to scrawl Long Live Chairman Mao. How sweet of them!
 
 
Lest we are left in any doubt which way to go when descending one particular staircase, there is a sign which one can only assume was originally put up for some errant pit ponies...
 
 
One fascination of the fourth layer is the preponderance of “milk stones” – or “Yue Nai Shi". Our guide shines her torch through the translucent rock, which is regarded as a national treasure.
 
 
And then, as we wend our way along yet another walkway, we come across some particularly fine examples of what this cave was named after – stone flowers…
 
 
Our tour is almost over. But lest anyone is worried that what goes down must come up, someone has seen fit to route us through an exit lower down the hillside, thus saving our legs, which have probably had quite enough exercise for one day.
 
And joy of joys, instead of returning straight to the hotel we are driven a few hundred metres to a local restaurant which does us proud with an impromptu meal made up of countless courses.
 
 
But the night is young, and instead of returning to our power-free rooms, some of us braver souls go in search of the sports centre where there is basketball (I fail totally to get the ball into the basket), ping pong (in which I make slightly less of an idiot of myself), and badminton.
 
But what’s this? Can it really be? Yes. Gracing the touchline of the right hand court is a dead cat. One’s first thoughts are that the poor moggy simply gave up the will to live in this god-forsaken place and just expired on the spot. But closer examination reveals that it came to a somewhat gruesome end, which begs the question of how it got here in the first place.
 
 
Totally unfazed, the duty manager in charge of the sports hall simply picks up her dustpan and brush and sweeps the corpse away as if it is something that she does on a regular basis. But for some reason not one of us now really feels up to hitting a shuttlecock at this point.
 
It reminds me of the British best-seller “101 Uses for a Dead Cat” by Simon Bond, which was a collection of macabre cartoons some 20 years back. The book was promoted with the tag line, "Since time immemorial, mankind has been plagued by the question, 'What do you do with a dead cat?'" before coming up with a whole load of suggestions. There was even a follow up book that came out a year or two later; but from memory there is not a single one of those 202 suggestions that seems appropriate for this late pussy.

 
The following morning we struggle out of bed and make our way to the 900-seater dining room where the breakfast consists of warmed up left overs from a few days back. It has to be one of the worst breakfasts I have ever had to face and I am left wondering if last night’s expired pussy was simply 'road kill' which was delivered to the wrong part of the hotel!
 
We hand in our keys and head on outside to the waiting coach once again. A quick vote is taken on board the bus, and by a large margin it is decided that we head home by way of Beigong Forest Park, which due to the fact that it is a long hike from the nearest subway station, is a well kept secret sanctuary for middle class Beijingers with cars.
 
And boy, are there cars a-plenty here today! Our bus queues up patiently to be allowed in to the coach park from where we hop onto a shuttle which delivers us to the east gate. I am probably the only laowai in the entire 1800 hectares that make up Beigong which, unlike Xiangshan has no chairlift for those whose legs are somewhat on the rusty side of fit. The peak is some 550 meters above sea level, which soon sorts out the men from the boys as we pass a number of wheezing and puffing characters on the path and stairs heading ever upward.
 
But before the puffing and wheezing start, we are met with beautiful vistas of multi-coloured trees which range from bright yellow to red to green, all set off once again with a blue-ish sky. Ahhh it makes you glad to be alive…
 
 
And as we head on up the first of the 30 degree slopes, the planners have seen fit to set up a mini zoo containing a row of cages where you can see black bears, monkeys, lamas, a pony and some parakeets, to name but a few. Apart from a baby monkey which expertly demonstrates how to peel a banana or three with one hand, and the two black bears who walk round and round in ever repeating circles, most of the other caged inhabitants prefer to siesta as the crowds ooh and ahh through the bars and chain link fences.
 
 
We continue our climb towards the main peak, which is called Langpo (Wolf Slope), stopping every so often to admire a mountain side scarred by mining.
Below us is the mini-zoo from whence we came; but we are only half way to the top so far and soon the going gets steeper…
 
 
Signs point haphazardly to exciting must-see features which seem mysteriously to change their location as we approach, with the signs then pointing back the way we have come. We never do get to see the Garden in the Air, (well, not that we know of anyway), or the Pavilion for viewing the Capital, nor even the Hualin Garden, or the Water Gurgling from Rocky Cliff, though we do finally locate the Seismic Fault, which turns out to be a piece of rock with a few wavy lines embedded in it.
 
 
But there are great views of Beijing from the south west, even if the old CCTV tower and the China World Trade Centre are barely discernible, set off by the red leaves through which we can look down on the vista ahead of us.
 
 
As we have to be back at the entrance by 1230, we give ourselves enough time to get down to the base of the hillside, arriving too early as it turns out, giving us enough time to start enjoying just a few of the other must-see areas that will now have to keep for another time.
 
 
The lower park looks gorgeous at this time of year, filled, as it is, with bridges, courtyards and cloisters. Two lakes and waterways set off areas with various architectural styles, with the landscapes contrasting nicely with the wilder areas of the mountainside.
 
 
Ahead of us is one particular tree that has managed to capture green, yellow and red leaves together at the same time. Set off by a clear blue sky it makes you realise that nature still has a few cards left up its sleeve that it can play to great effect!