A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Solidarity Lake Park – an oasis in BJ’s CBD


I think it’s a truism that when you travel anywhere you make the effort to visit all the must-see places in the limited time available. But when you live somewhere, you never bother because you know it is “always there”!
That probably explains why I make so little use of my local neighbourhood park – Tuanjiehu 团结湖 – which I first visited four years ago when I lived in the north east of the city; yet here I am now living close to the Central Business District, with the Park just five minutes’ walk away, and I somehow never seem to find enough hours in the day to get there.
But the recent Spring Festival Holiday (always a misnomer I feel, when temperatures plummet to around -12 degrees!) gave me every opportunity, since there was no need to go to the office for a week.
And sure enough the main entrance was bedecked with New Year paper lanterns.

The “back entrance” in Tuanjiehu Road was similarly decorated, as, of course, was most of the city…

In some ways I feel that the Park should really be called Hujialou rather than Tuanjiehu, since the three entrances are all much nearer that station on line 10.

But the reason is simple enough. In 1958 the People's Government of Chaoyang District organised the public to dig a loop from a kiln pit and fill it with water. The resulting ring lake was named Tuanjie – the lake of union or solidarity – as a tribute to the concerted efforts; and on Sept 26th 1986 (hey! that’s 28 years later!) the park was officially opened.
Unlike some of Beijing’s parks, this one has free admission. And the official blurb helpfully tells you:
Opening Hours:
Peak Season: All Day
Off-season: All Day

(I guess for any other season you have to ask!)
A helpful signboard has a rogues-gallery of the Park staff, reminiscent of the Roly-polys dance group of the ‘80s. (What? You’ve never heard of them? They were a dance troupe consisting entirely of overweight middle-aged women who would perform “amusing” dances which, if they had been young and slim, would not have been at all funny.)

And the Public Security Bureau also feels it is a really useful idea to remind you that “Being urgent, call 110 quickly”; though whether anyone at the other end of the phone will understand you if you do is another question altogether which no-one seems to have thought of.
The official blurb and sign posts helpfully tell us that “The Park covers an area of 277 acres and 67 acres of the lake” or “The Park spans an area of 12.3ha with the lake covering 5.4ha”. Hmmm. Do the maths. That’s 24% or 44% respectively. But looking at the map, I think the latter is nearer the mark.
Either way, the Park is attractive in both summer and winter. The highlight (for me) is the Jie Xiu Bridge, which is an attractive moon-bridge near the West Gate.

Even with the ice of winter, it makes an attractive setting.

And in the north-east there’s a lovely promenade looking towards the Huanbo Bridge…

… which on closer inspection features a double arch, and has visitors queuing up to be photographed in front of it.
Other curiosities abound, such as “artistically” designed windows in the walls,

and a stone tea pot near a tea house, that has always been steadfastly closed whenever I have visited.

As you’d expect from one of Beijing’s parks, Tuanjiehu features line dancing, shadow sword fighting and fan dancing at all times of the year.

But in the depths of winter, the normally thriving boating industry slithers to a halt…

… as the constant low temperatures ensure the lake turns into an ice rink.

The place is filled with people of all ages chair-skating, propelling themselves across the ice with deft movements of their specially shortened ski sticks.

Of course, in the summer the Roly Polys have to think of other ways to amuse their clientele – and what better than Beijing-on-Sea?

Look at the tourist websites and they feature pictures of a “beach” packed with half-naked people (many showing off their tattoos) as they splash about in the water. Alas, in the low-season this “Paradise” looks anything but inviting…

But come the spring, the Park comes to life as the trees start shooting flowers,

Or shooting leaves, or whatever else it is they care to shoot…
But one signpost found throughout the Park still leaves me confused. Who or what is the PKU Starlight Rroup? OK, PKU must be Peking University, also known as Bei Da 北大, and I think we can assume that Rroup (集团) is in fact Group (though why didn’t anyone check before making so many identical signs!).
But what Starlight is all about and why anyone visiting this Park should care, remains a mystery. A web search reveals it is the name of a film production company, but again why the visiting public should care, I simply don’t know. Perhaps one of my blog groupies can put me out of my misery? Any suggestions?

Xiamen: A surfeit of old loos and a museum that has done a runner…


I’m often being told that I like taking risks and that if anyone sets out deliberately to get lost, then I’m that man! Well, in my defence, I love exploring new places, and what better way to do that than to “get lost” in the first place, whence you can all but guarantee to come across new experiences!
And so it was that no one should really be that surprised that on a recent trip from Beijing to the Philippines, I found myself making a transit stop in Xiamen, also historically known as Amoy – a major city on the southeast coast of China, overlooking the Taiwan Strait. The city was a treaty port in the 19th century and one of the four original Special Economic Zones opened to foreign investment and trade when China began economic reforms in the early 1980s.

Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport is one of East China’s main air hubs with flights to over 60 domestic and international destinations. Unsurprisingly, the airport is the headquarters of Xiamen Airlines – the first privately owned airline in the People's Republic of China. Established on July 25, 1984 it is 51 percent owned by China Southern and is the only major Chinese carrier which operates an all-Boeing fleet.
XiamenAir has been consistently given the title of "Best Airline In Mainland China” in various surveys, which I think does not say an awful lot about the competition! The cabin crew, almost to a man (or woman) can best be described as surly, though in their defence it can’t be much fun having to put up with the bad manners of the majority of the passengers. (I find a simple smile and an uttered 谢谢 usually do the trick in bringing the said flight attendants back into the real world.) But there’s no denying that with its long consecutive profit record and high profit rate, the airline is one of the most profitable airlines in the world.

No doubt, one of the reasons XiamenAir is so popular is that their fares are way lower than anyone else’s, to the point where flying between BJ and Manila can cost half the fare quoted by the other main carriers, albeit that those transit times can be very frustrating – of which more later.
Xiamen was a foreign enclave in the late 19th century, after the British forced the Chinese to open it as a treaty port in 1843. This gave Xiamen Island and neighbouring Gulangyu lots of foreign-styled buildings built by residents from around the world.
So I have arrived in Gaoqi International Airport and have five hours to kill. I wander outside into the street and pretty soon my eye falls on a large direction sign indicating it is only 3½ kilometres to a coffee museum, called Angelique. 3.5km is the equivalent of a 35 minute walk for me, and anyone who knows me will know that I’m a fan of offbeat museums. So what better way of killing time until my next flight?

In 2006, Xiamen was ranked as China's second "most suitable city for living", as well as China's "most romantic leisure city" in 2011. And you can soon see why. The climate is probably best described as subtropical, and the place is full of lush palm trees and other subtropical delights…

There’s also a huge number of trees that are in desperate need of a haircut – those beautiful air roots hanging from the branches that give them such a beguiling sexy look to them!

The major roads are lined with narrow parks, some maybe only 100 metres wide, but which give Xiamen a wonderful edge over so many other cities in China.

The city planners have done an amazing job of making the place so attractive, as pavements meander through the parklets bordering the not-so-busy roads.

And lest you could possibly lose your way here, there are loads of intimate-sounding maps that some might feel are verging on the overly-familiar in their effort to be both welcoming and helpful LOL.

34 minutes after having left the airport, I arrive at Angelique. The 3.5km sign was pretty accurate in that respect. Unfortunately, what it wasn’t so accurate in was the fact that this old colonial-style building is no longer a museum; it’s just part of the Angelique empire – transformed into office accommodation or storage, or whatever.

I search on my trusty iPhone – something I probably should have done earlier – to find that the museum has moved another 11kms from where I am now standing. Somehow Angelique has metamorphosed into Anjelioue, but there is no doubting that this is one and the same place.

It’s even close to the Gulangyu Antique Piano Museum – a private collection of hundreds of pianos from around the world, including failed designs, such as a corner piano.
I do the maths, and realise that I will be hard pressed to get there, do the museum(s) and get back for my flight in time; so with tears in my eyes I wander off into the sunset in search of other stimuli.
Beside me is yet another park-like setting. This one has something a little extra … by way of an old discarded lavatory pan. I’m not sure it adds a huge amount of glamour to the park though.

Another street. And another lavatory pan! What is it about Xiamen that they are so profligate with their old loos?

Soon I am heading my way back in the direction of the airport whence I come upon a long street market with advertised prices that would surely create a stampede by cost-conscious bargain hunters back in Beijing.

You can even buy cute white bunny wabbits, ducks and geese that I fear are hardly likely to become household pets.

I am soon back at the airport with a taste to explore more of beautiful Xiamen.
My return flight the next week is transiting through in the middle of the night. A seven hour stop over. Fear not, sweet reader. Your favourite blogger has foreseen all eventualities and has even read the small print in the XiamenAir brochure.

Well… maybe not all eventualities. Owing to a late arriving incoming flight, XiamenAir is two and a half hours late in leaving Manila; and by the time we get into Xiamen not only is my stop-over a mere 5 hours and 55 minutes long, but to add insult to injury the B11 counter in Domestic Departures is long closed – in fact Domestic Departures itself is also now closed though I am helpfully advised that I can come back at 5am to make enquiries. As the check-in desk for my next flight also opens at 5am, I am left contemplating the prospect of sleeping on a bench in the McDonalds end of the Domestic terminal (so much classier, don’t you think, than the KFC end!).
At least the next aircraft has something approximating to an onboard entertainment system; though “breakfast” (I think that is what they call it) is a roll and… another roll served in a cardboard box.
And in the baggage hall of Beijing Airport, they can’t even get the flight number correct on the display boards, leading to widespread confusion, not to mention keeping everyone waiting for over an hour before the first bags come off the belt.
So will I fly XiamenAir again? Probably, though not for the delightful onboard service, I have to admit. Instead I will be doing so purely to get another stop-over or two in that wonderful south China city.

A Dose Of Nostalgia In Tai Po Market


Amazing though it must seem to many of my blog fans, I’m old enough to remember the days when Hong Kong never had an MTR system, and when in order to get from the Island to Kowloon your only choice was to take the Star Ferry. It was in those days that you flew into the old Kai Tak airport, rather than the gleaming edifice on Lantau; and your nostrils were immediately assaulted by the smells of exotic food the moment you stepped off the plane.
It was in the mid 1970s, too, that I had the pleasure of taking the old Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) up to the border of Mainland China at Lok Ma Chau, there to stare in wonder into a closed world that was the Peoples’ Republic. Little did I ever imagine then that I too would one day be living and working in the PRC.
All these memories came flooding back on a recent trip to HK when I happened to be in Tai Po and saw a sign to a nearby railway museum. Railway? In the middle of the New Territories? Why here FGS? And then it suddenly struck me that Tai Po used to be the mid point on the KCR and what better place to have a museum?

Hong Kong Railway Museum (香港鐵路博物館) occupies some 6,500 square metres, and is conveniently situated in the old Tai Po Market Railway Station. It’s easy to get to, and will fully occupy about 45 minutes to an hour of your time. It’s also free to get in, though among the visitor rules you are admonished not to pick any flowers inside the museum!

To get there, travel to Tai Po Market on the East Rail Line (45 minutes and HK$19 from Central). It’s then a 10-minute walk from Exit A2. (Walk straight ahead; turn right when you have to; take next left; follow the street round, turning left whenever you can.)
To read some of the whingers who post their thoughts online you’d think it was difficult to find. But common sense surely tells you that a rail museum is going to be situated slap bang next to the railway line, so if you aim to follow that northwards, you cannot fail to find it!
But for those who like to dot there Is and cross their Ts the address is 13 Shung Tak Street, Tai Po Market, Tai Po, Hong Kong. And if you have a GPS, its coordinates are 22°26′51″N 114°09′52″E.
Or an easier way, look out for the blue signs…

… or even the red signs.

Got it? Think you can find it? Phew!
Well, when you (finally!) arrive, the first thing you see as soon as you step into the yard of the museum is the old station building ahead of you. Both inside and around it are a plethora of exhibits, including old photographs and artefacts, six historical coaches, a narrow gauge steam locomotive and a diesel electric engine.
When all the stations were being built along the railway to the standard design, for some reason it was decided that the Tai Po Market station would be built in the Chinese style. As you can see from the plaque above the entrance, it completed construction in 1913.

The British section of the KCR was opened in 1910 and as Tai Po was situated about halfway along the line it naturally developed into a general admin and trading centre. In 1911, it was decided that with the copious quantities of material left over from the building of the KCR, a branch line linking Fanling with Sha Tau Kok on the north eastern border with China could be built; and accordingly a two-ft wide narrow gauge railway was pretty quickly put together and opened in April 1912.

This entire 7¼ mile stretch of line took an average of 55 minutes and the passengers were expected to sit in carriages open to the elements, which is perhaps one reason it only survived for 17 years before closing in April 1928 when a new road was completed.

Two locomotives are on permanent show at the exhibition: The first is an EMD G12 Diesel-electric locomotive #51, introduced in Hong Kong in 1955, which is called "Sir Alexander", named after former Governor Alexander Grantham. More on this one later!
The other is a W. G. Bagnall 0-4-4PT narrow gauge steam locomotive, which was restored in 1995.

It’s a sweet little train really. And you can peer into the cab if you have a mind to…
… as well as learn all about what goes into the making up of a Bagnall loco.

When the British part of the KCR opened in 1910 it owned four steam locomotives…

But this Bagnall is one of two that formerly ran on that narrow gauge line between Fanling and Sha Tau Kok. When it closed, the two were used by sugar mills in the Philippines.

But luckily for posterity they were rescued and returned to their home.

The other locomotive of the pair was also brought back to Hong Kong and is undergoing restoration.
Outside in the museum, there is also a pump trolley...

and a diesel-engined railcar.

Apart from the outside exhibits, there is also an exhibition gallery that includes historical pictures and artefacts that help chronicle the story of how the railways developed in Hong Kong.

There are copious posters and official notices,
… not to mention timetables on display.
Blog fans will know how much I enjoy seeing the old B/W photos of yesteryear and this place never disappoints for a moment…
Here’s a photo of the opening ceremony of the KCR on October 1st 1910 in Tsim Sha Tsui, officiated by Sir Francis Henry May.

The British section was also known as the Hong Kong Railway and the bill for its construction ran to $12m. It had five stations along the line from Kowloon – at Yau Ma Tei, Sha Tin, Tai Po, Tai Po Market, and Fanling. The entire stretch was finally opened for service for through traffic with one terminus at Dashatou and the other at Tsim Sha Tsui on the very tip of Kowloon.
The official account informs us that “Political reasons forced the suspension of the through train passenger services on 14 Oct 1949” and Lo Wu replaced Dashatou as the terminus. Direct train services to Guangzhou finally resumed on 4th April 1979.
The Tsim Sha Tsui terminus in the early 20th century must have been quite a sight.
There’s even a model to show its construction.

In fact there are copious photographs of all the old stations.

And not surprisingly there are loads of pictures showing the construction of the lines.

That construction marked an important step in the history of transport development in southern China. The railway contained two sections, built separately by the two governments concerned. Following surveys on the Hong Kong side, two possible routes linking Kowloon to the frontier were suggested. The route that finally won through consisted of a tunnel nearly 2.4km long through Beacon Hill and then along the coast to Tolo Harbour, running for 35.4 km. Work on the 143km-long Chinese section from Shum Chu (Shenzhen) to Tai Sha Tou (Dashalou) was commenced in 1907.
However, with the success of the railway, Tsim Sha Tsui was unable to cope with the incoming freight traffic by the 1950s and 60s. Accordingly, in 1975, Kowloon station at Hung Hom replaced Tsim Sha Tsui as the terminus in Kowloon. The entire Tsim Sha Tsui terminus was demolished – as seen in this 1978 photo, apart from the now-famous clock tower, which still stands at the western end of the Avenue of Stars.
Meanwhile, let’s return to those diesels I mentioned a while back.
The KCR British section purchased two diesel electric engines from Australia in 1954 and they came into service in September 1955. They were numbered 51 and 52.
The 51 was called Sir Alexander and the 52 Lady Maurine, setting a precedent for all the diesel trains to be named after well-known figures of the day.
But what’s this? Can it really be true that in Hong Kong – at that time perhaps more patriotically British than Great Britain itself – could have made such a disastrous mistake as mounting the Union Jack upside down at an official launch ceremony? Apparently yes, if this old newspaper report is to be believed!
Unlike a steam locomotive, the engine of a diesel electric could be left at idling speed when the train was not in motion. This meant a great deal of fuel could be saved. For a return trip from TST to Lo Wu, a steam loco would use 180-230 gallons of fuel oil or 1½ tonnes of coal; but for the same journey a diesel electric loco needed just 44 gallons of diesel and only had to be refuelled twice a week. In addition two diesel locos could be coupled together to generate more power and haul a larger number of coaches or heavier goods. They might not look as romantic as steam locos, but they were certainly massively more efficient!

By 1976 the number of diesel-electrics in operation was 12. But I guess all good things must come to an end; and after ceasing to provide services in HK, engine no 51, the Sir Alexander – was sent back to Australia in 2006 where it continues in service to this day.
On the left of the display room, there is an exhibition room of train tickets and train models of not only KCR trains but also Japanese Shinkansen and Eurostar. (Not sure what the relevance of these is – maybe someone had some old models they were chucking out.)
Here are some first class tickets from the 1960s…

Or the more boring looking ones from a decade later.

But no one seems to be admiring either the tickets or the Shinkansen / Eurostar models!
The further internal part of the room is a refurbished ticket office and signalling house. This is where everyone is heading!

Note the rattan ring with leather bag on the right containing the token which had to be passed from one engine driver to another to ensure there was no more than one cab on the line at any one time. Also the portable signal lamps on the right.
Also on display are the semaphore signalling levers used in the old station for controlling the trains.

And naturally there are copious notes explaining how signals used to work, for those too young to remember.

I mentioned earlier that the building of the station is unique in its architectural style among the KCR stations. It is of indigenous Chinese architectural style, with many small figures decorating the exterior, such as are commonly found in existing old southern Chinese temples. They have been given a good lick of paint to make them stand out!
Further along the track, there are six coaches for public viewing including a 1911 third-class coach, a 1921 engineering brake coach, a 1955 third-class coach, a 1955 luggage coach, a 1964 first-class coach, and a 1974 ordinary-class coach, which might even have been the one I travelled on all those decades ago.

Hmm, the inside of the 1964 First-class compartment looks a lot more comfortable; though I guess you never know that, do you, until you have actually parted with your money!

The KCR was finally electrified in 1983 when this station was taken out of service, with new stations being opened to the north (Tai Wo) and south (Tai Po Market) of it. And finally in 2006 the KCR was subsumed into a new joint company with the MTR. The end of an era!