A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The World

I remember once writing an article about a theme park in Shenzhen called Window of the World. I started off by saying that “Everyone knows that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris and the Taj Mahal is in India, don’t they?” I then smugly went on to write that these two monuments could also be found in Shenzhen.

Little did I know, in my ignorance, that you can also find the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal in Beijing – and I’m not referring to the Café de Paris or a local Indian takeaway either.

Located in the Fengtai District of Beijing, about 17kms south west of Tian Anmen Square, the Beijing World Park (北京世界公园) “features 106 of the most famous sites from 14 countries around the world”.

Measuring just short of 120 acres, the park – constructed over three years from 1991 to October 1993, consists of two parts: A “scenic area in miniature displayed according to the position of its country on the map”, and a “shopping, dining and enteratinment area” (so the blurb would have us believe).

“This enteratinment area is situated in an international folkloric village and the tourist can take an electric train and a motorboat through the park to simulate a trip around the world.” Sounds grand doesn’t it? It even looks great in the touristic blurb, guaranteed to whet the appetite of any aspiring tourist to Beijing. 

Strange then that not a single expat I had spoken to had even heard of the place, while my Chinese friends had heard of it, but had never actually been there,

But perhaps it’s not as strange as all that. To get there means taking the subway on Line 1 all the way out to Wukesong and then finding a 967 bus which jerks, stops and starts its way along a crowded road for nearly an hour.

When the new Subway Line 9 opens in 2012 to join up with the Fangshan line, there will be a direct link all the way from downtown and no doubt visitor numbers will pick up enormously.

Since its opening in 1993, the Beijing World Park has apparently received 1.5 million visitors annually. But I have to say that on the day I went, 1.49999 million of them have decided to stay away. The place is practically deserted.

“Of China's theme parks, the BeijingWorldPark is outstanding in term of its exquisite architecture, rich and colorful activities and cultural atmosphere,” the blurb continues.

Well, maybe on the other 364 days of the year, but on Christmas Eve, there are no activities, colourful or otherwise; and the cultural atmosphere must be taking a holiday that day too. “Taking a speedboat one can have a global voyage” – no, they are all locked down for the winter; “and if one takes a battery-operated car, he can sightsee around the park” – no battery-operated cars; the “Special Joy Adventure City is a cinema with the latest technologies” – maybe, but it is locked; “by visiting the Modern African Primitive Folklore Exhibition one can experience the life of the original inhabitants of Africa” – sorry, but Africa, too, is closed.

Not that it really matters that much. It makes for a pleasant stroll across the five continents, as long as one isn’t too fastidious about the level of detail of the models.

On entering the main gate of the park visitors enter a “life-size Italian terrace garden”. How big is “life size” I ask myself? About as big as my back garden in the UK, I guess. It has “magnificent stepped buildings, fountains and figure sculptures of the Renaissance, full of European romanticism”. Hmmm. The fountains have been switched off unsurprisingly for the vicious Beijing winter, while a number of nude statues has one automatically pulling one’s coat tighter, as if you expect to see goosebumps on Michelangelo’s David clone.

Looking out onto what I guess is the ‘Paciflantic Ocean’ you can turn left to Asia or right to Europe and America. In the former you can find a Japanese Imperial Villa, the Great Wall, and – my favourite - Yingxian County Wooden Pagoda,

as well as Ankor Wat, Borobudur and other famous Asian landmarks.

There’s even a very pleasant traditional Chinese garden to wander around.

The Middle East has the pyramids, of course, and what are described as “the Pharoas of Alexandria” – but are actually at Abu Simbel!

There is also a stone slab with a relief of three topless Egyptians, which previous visitors have obviously been keen to touch up, judging by the smoothness of their mammaries. So it would appear that the Chinese are just as fixated with breasts as any one else!

Just to get the visitor in the mood there is also a cute fluffy camel; but unfortunately it is a Bactrian (Asian) camel (ie with two humps) not a Dromedary (Arabic) camel (one hump). But then, who’s to worry, or even care for that matter? No doubt the vast majority of the 1.49999 million visitors won’t know the difference.

The blurb continues in supra-over-the-top-hyperbole. “All these attractions were built with certain accuracy in designs and vivid sculptures,” it says. “They are such good works of art that even a person who have seen the originals cannot tell the difference.” Hahaha. OK, now I really must take issue. Surely the copywriters of this stuff have graduated from the Yashow Market School of ‘These are genuine Armani shirts and Louis Vuitton bags’ fame. Either that, or they have never left the Middle Kingdom to see the originals for themselves.

But let’s not be picky. Over in Europe, the “German Castle” is cute;

the Vatican (with the Eiffel Tower in the background) is impressive;

even Pisa’s leaning tower gets everyone queuing up to get their photograph taken pushing it back up again!

“The last attraction here is the LondonBridge, which connects Europe with America”, we are told.

Sure enough, there is the Washington Monument, the Capitol,

the White House, the Statue of Liberty, and a host of other American landmarks, including the Twin Towers, though without an aircraft about to smack into the side of them.

There is however an old aircraft of indeterminate vintage propping up the side of the children’s play area; but unfortunately it too is locked up. 

At last, having travelled around the world, your favourite blogger is in desperate need of refreshment. Thankfully not all the cafés in the park are closed, and it is time to try out a concoction which seems to be popular over here consisting of tea with coffee flavouring, coconut and some gelatinous lumps floating in it.  Once you get over the initial shock of adding Nescafe to Liptons Yellow Label, it actually makes for quite a nice drink.

Just outside the World Park, there is an International Street “for shopping and a rest, where you will find lots of food and snacks, and all the flavors from different parts of the world.” Except it, too, is closed.

Time instead to take the long trip home, having spent the day overdosing on cultural excitement, the like of which is hard to match. (BTW: Anyone know of any jobs going for a Yashow copywriter, perchance?)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Xmas in Beijing

How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a light hulb?
Four. One to hold the bulb and three to turn the ladder!
Old English “joke”

To be perfectly honest, I had all but forgotten that Christmas was on its way. Despite what the glitzy expatriate web sites were saying, I didn’t see Christmas trees and decorations everywhere (not living in the vicinity of Beijing’s Diplomatic area, which of course is the exception). And having lived for the past decade in the Middle East (the majority in Saudi Arabia where anything remotely resembling Christmas is banned by the religious authorities) I can’t say that it is something that I particularly miss.

So I was drawn up short the other day when I walked into a supermarket to the sound of 铃儿响叮当 (What Google Translate tells me is Jingle Bells!) – that age old Christmas ditty played by a Chinese girl band. It was wonderful for me to hear a brand new take on a very old song.

There were, of course, other clues if one kept one’s eyes and ears open, such as this homage to western visitors I discovered in the Hutong area outside a coffee shop.

Amazingly, I thought, it didn’t seem to have much of an effect dragging in the tourists by their thousands. Someone obviously went to a lot of trouble to make the foreign devils feel at home, and that’s all the thanks he got!

Other clues appeared in the most unlikely places. Over the entrance to an office block near the CCTV headquarters, a group of reindeer appeared to be having an identity crisis with Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage.

And walking in the Diplomatic area, instead of the usual "You wan sexy massage yes?" shouted out by the ladies of the night, one was accosted with "You wan sexy Cleesmars massage yes?"

In the shops, lest there was any stock left after the mad Christmas rush, the storekeepers obviously had covered all their bases by being a little ambiguous with which holiday they were actually celebrating – a wise move, since the Spring Holiday (a.k.a. Chinese New Year) falls in January this year.

In some of the touristy areas of Beijing, pretty young girls sporting red Santa hats were now trying to tempt passers by into their shops; and at times the sight of a chubby old man with a red hat and thick white beard was becoming as common as Colonel Sanders, another well known bearded man over here.

In the Diplomatic area, Santa obviously felt more at home, though times are obviously hard (perhaps it is the Eurozone crisis yet again?) as he had left the majority of his reindeer behind. I mean, not a red nose in sight!

The touristy markets, of course, are the exception that proves the rule. Gaudy decorations for Christmas are intermingled with gaudy decorations for the Spring Holiday, and I am sure that there will be many a piece of gaudy plastic left up throughout the whole of January.

Mind you, I haven’t yet seen any mistletoe for sale anywhere in Beijing (a woody stemmed parasitic plant with waxy white berries) – something that you will always find in Europe. According to ancient Christmas custom, a man and a woman who meet under the mistletoe are obliged to kiss and even now, no girl (or guy!) can refuse to be kissed under the mistletoe!

At work, Christmas finally arrived on the 20th December when four Chinese guys took a couple of hours to erect a not-very-big plastic Christmas tree in the entrance hall of our office, complete with flashing lights, tinsel and baubles. Given that the tree is only about 4-5ft tall, you might be forgiven for wondering how come it took so long for four people to set it up?

From what I could see in my various wanderings past the work site, there was heated debate of where to put the star. Should it go in the middle? Maybe there should be two stars – one on the right and one on the left? Another star was procured, from where is anyone’s guess. But someone then had the brilliant idea of putting the first star at the top of the tree. So what to do with the second star? Better put it under the first star, because then it looks “meant”.

As for the fairy lights, it didn’t take long for someone to work out that the nearest power point is used for the office microwave. So now we have a Christmas tree that is lit up in the morning, and lit up in the afternoon, but is strangely dark during lunch hours!

Not to be outdone, the apartment block – which actually belongs to the same company - decided that they too would install Christmas trees on all the floors in which expatriate workers live, but not on the Chinese-only floors, which seems a tad mean-spirited I think. The trees are erected just outside the lift doors and are a warming sight as one steps out of one’s apartment to face another day in this secular utopia.

Downstairs, by the entrance, someone has got hold of a ghastly giant Santa sticker that says “Merry” in big letters, leaving one to search for a tiny “Christmas” that is actually there if one has the patience to look for it!

These ghastly Santas have mushroomed everywhere in the past few days (someone obviously bought a job lot of them) where they sit incongruously in the company of Chinese lions, Pi Xiu and lanterns.

The Hilton Hotel, according to tradition, has one of the largest trees of Beijing’s hotels. It takes up the entire foyer area and whereas before there was ample seating for visitors waiting to meet people and sup a tea or coffee to fill the time, now they have to cram into a tiny corner – and probably miss the people they have come to meet who walk by on the other side of the tree.

Mind you, anyone who likes model railways can enjoy the big boys’ train set whizzing around the base of the tree. I counted 12 trains and seven stations, (although I have to admit I might have miscounted when one of Santa’s mini-skirted helpers walked by serving out coffee).

So “out of practice” as I most certainly am with Christmas festivities, it will make a pleasant change, I think, to experience a Chinese Christmas for the first time. The only question is – where on earth can one buy mistletoe in this town?

A visit to Prince Gong's Pad

One of the things I love about exploring a city on my own is when I come across something totally unexpected and, better still, that so few other people appear to know much, if anything about.

It was when I was exploring the hutong area of Beijing last week that my eye fell on a smudge on the map that represented an old mansion that had been standing on that same spot since 1777.

Variously known as Prince Gong/Kung's Mansion/Palace, depending on your map or guide book, it turned out to be one of those charming 'finds' a little off the beaten track that I am sure I will return to again and again.

It lies quite close to Shichahai Lake to the northwest of the Forbidden City. It was the private home of He Shen, who was the Grant Secretary and a favourite minister of Emperor Qianlong and he lived here between 1776 and 1799. In 1851, the mansion was offered to Prince Gong (also known as Yixin), Minster of Legislation, by Emperor Xianfeng and he lived here from 1852 to 1898, hence its name. Now it is the most well preserved mansion and most complete royal residence that still exists today in Beijing.

Outside, the entrance is guarded by a splendid pair of lions, who look extremely well fed. And inside there are numerous lesser lions and Pi Xiu.

The Mansion itself, which covers a total of 60,000 sq metres, is made up of three sets of courtyards each containing complexes of buildings: central, eastern and western, conforming to standard mansions of princes in those days.

The green glazed tiles on some of the roofs in the middle column designate an architectural grade second only to the imperial palace. The rear hall is a two-storey structure more than 180 metres wide.

The authorities here leave nothing to chance, however. One of the central buildings was destroyed by fire and now they are prepared for all eventualities, as can be seen by the not-very-well-disguised fire hydrants that have been made to "look like" little bushes standing on top of manhole covers.

The main courtyard of the western complex includes the Xijin Studio as its main hall and is entered via a gate with the name of "Courtyard of Heavenly Fragrance" carved above it. Surrounding the courtyard is a series of elegant rooms separated by "nanmu" (a type of cedar tree) partitions. In the centre of the courtyard are two rare midget crab-apple trees nearly 300 years old.

When I was there they also had an exhibition called "Introspection and Expression: Paintings of Xu Chenyang" which featured a couple of dozen pictures by this artist whose pictures sell for around $25,000 each. I'm afraid, though, the philistine in me won through, again. They were pleasant enough, and formed a good excuse to enter from the freezing cold outside (it was minus 7 that day) but I can't imagine that I would ever part with my hard earned cash to get one of these on my wall.

The gardens of the mansion were, for me though, the delight of the entire complex. The princes' mansions and large private houses in Beijing were often built with walled flower gardens laid out either behind or to the sides of the main buildings. Nowadays, there are very few such mansions dating from the Ming Dynasty. These gardens are ingeniously constructed with complementary buildings and terraces, well spaced vegetation and hill paths that wind their way around cool and tranquil grottos. They are an exquisite combination of classical Chinese architecture and tasteful landscaping. There's even a little temple with loads of red flags outside representing prayer wishes?

and also a long row of Tibetan prayer wheels that you are encouraged to turn as you walk past them.

There is also a man-made lake, which of course was almost totally frozen over when I was there, together with a peninsula islet sitting in its middle.

From the lake a mini-river meanders its way past stone cliffs and under stone bridges

into an ice bound fishing pond.

An unusual wooden artificial hill forms a flight of stairs which gives access to a building set at the top. A Chinese wisteria dating back more than 200 years is still growing in front of it.

But in the depths of winter, instead of flowers, the only thing that seems to cover the flower beds is pieces of broken ice.

Perhaps this is what the warning signs refer to (stuck up on the walls, there is no mention of what it actually is we have to be "cantious" about).

Definitely this place will deserve a future visit from me, hopefully when there are more flowers about and less reason to err on the side of cantion!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Exploring the hutong

One of the great things about climbing up Beijing’s Bell and Drum towers is that you can look down on the rooftops that mark out the distinctive hutong areas of the capital. It’s sometimes hard to remember that once upon a time this is what all of Beijing looked like, or at least the old centre, marked out by the encirclement of No 2 Ring Road.

Nowadays, it’s an area that foreigners flock to, especially the immediate vicinity of Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), just north of the Imperial Palace and Forbidden City; for not only is it famed for its hutong (胡同 - alleyways) and siheyuan (四合院 - courtyard houses) but also for the multitude of cafes and bars together with clothing and handicraft shops that have sprung up to grab a piece of the capitalist action that permeates this section of the Communist utopia.

Yet despite the plethora of tourists – normally enough to guarantee that I give it a wide berth – the hutong areas possess a timeless charm about them, especially the ones where the encroaching tourist trade has yet to make a major indent.

Nanluoguxiang itself has a 768-metre-long south-north central axis, with 16 hutong meandering east and west off the central lane (giving each side eight hutong). This was the typical hutong layout of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).

The siheyuan themselves come in three sizes. The smallest ones have their main gate on the south side with the main rooms in the north (facing south) for the owner and possibly his parents; the corner rooms are for grandchildren; the west and east rooms are for sons or daughters, while the rooms by the main gate facing north are used as the living room or studio.

For medium and large siheyuan, there is more than one yard, with perhaps rooms for high ranking officials or merchants. The walls in the north-western buildings are normally higher than the other walls to stop the inner buildings from being blasted by cold winds, blowing from that direction in the winter.

The best time to avoid the tourists is first thing in the morning – well, before midday anyway! Correction: the best time to avoid western tourists is before midday. Chinese tourists and couples seeking a bit of personal space use the hutong as a perfect getaway from wherever it is they are seeking to get away at whatever time it is they choose to get away.

The word "hutong" is Mongolian in origin; literally it meant a "water well". In 1260, after the Mongol invasion, Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty and chose Beijing as his capital, then the capital of the Jin Dynasty. The old city had been largely demolished, and so he began the large scale reconstruction of the city and with the digging of new wells, came the new communities. Later hutong came to refer to the narrow streets or lanes formed by the quadrangle courtyards.

When the new city was finished, there were clear definitions of streets, lanes and hutongs. A 36 metre wide road was called a "big street"; an 18 metre wide one a "small street", and a 9 metre wide lane was called a "hutong".

Surrounding the Imperial Palace, hutongs were established throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Most of the hutongs we see today were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911). There are only a very few hutongs preserved from the Yuan Dynasty.

Nowadays, the drab grey brickwork walls that mark a typical hutong are covered in modern signs, looking distinctly out of place. ‘Plastered’, for instance, is a shop that specialises in selling T-shirts, though you might not grasp that from its wall ad around the corner.

Other tourist shops leave one guessing as to what it is they sell inside – surely a dastardly trick to tempt the inquisitive English-speaking foreign devils inside …

One of the nicest of the tourist-invaded lanes is Yandai Xiejie (Tobacco Pipe Lean Street), a quaint 800-year-old hutong which used to be well-known for sellers of long-stemmed pipes, hence its name.

For me, though, the really charming hutong areas are to be found away from the tourist mobs and in the more residential areas where many display their song birds warbling and chirruping outside their homes.

Other caged birds are not as lucky, of course. Some sit there at the backs of restaurants, blissfully unaware that soon they are going to be the main attraction at some banquet table.

Even these less touristy hutong are invaded by streams of pedal-rickshaws filled with rubber-neckers catching a glimpse of the quaint old city. Little do these tourists realise that they would see one helluva lot more if they got out and stretched their legs occasionally. In the summer months the streets are filled to over capacity with these pedicabs, but in the winter you’ll only get around a dozen passing you every couple of minutes.

Cutting a swathe through the hutong areas is Shichahai Lake – the only remaining water system, dating back to the 13th Century (Yuan Dynasty). Spreading over 34 hectares, it is overloooked by former princes' houses, well kept Chinese courtyards and residences of celebrities. Of course, in the depths of winter when temperatures plummet to around -15 on average, it totally freezes over.

In complete contrast, Shichahai Lake really comes into its own during the summertime when the trees are out and the sun is blasting down to the point of discomfort.

Local boat companies bring in yet another tourist invasion, plying their craft on the water with boats that are 7 metres in length and 1.7 metres wide. Each is decorated with old Chinese traditional painting dating to the Song Dynasty 800 years ago. The boatmen wear yellow vests and bamboo hats, and all the boats are equipped with red lanterns. Some even position glamorous eye candy on the bows getting them to play Chinese stringed and woodwind instruments for the rubber neckers with real money.

There are also water sports companies that offer plenty of “entertaitnment” as well as something called “Fat-Boys’ Boat”, though I have yet to discover what this actually is.

If all this exercise gets too much for you, though, remember there are always the bars and cafés that provide instant refreshment – but do remember that in some of the older buildings there are lowish ceilings, so don’t stand up too quickly!