A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Pounding the mountains for a slice of history

It’s one of those picture postcard villages that guide books are so very keen to write up, but no one you seem to meet has ever been to – or even heard of.
Cuandixia (爨底下) is a village dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and located in the Mentougou District of Beijing. According to the blurb, it is a popular tourist attraction known for its well preserved courtyard homes.
I ask my friends, but no one has a clue. I look up Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, DK, Rough Guide and a plethora of web sites and they all wax lyrical about the place. So I decide the time has come to give it a go.
Now, according to the perceived wisdom of the copy-and-paste brigade out there in the blogosphere, you simply take a subway train to Pingguoyuan at the very end of Line 1 and look for a 929支bus which will whizz you to Zhaitang in about 2:20 hours for the grand price of ¥18 – or thereabouts – after which you have to take a cab the rest of the way. One of the web sites that mentions this place warns rather ominously “be aware there are many buses with this number driving to many different places”.
Well, I know Pingguoyuan of old. It is where the Eunuch Museum is located. And to get there takes about an hour from my place – or it would have done if I hadn’t decided that it would be a nice idea to travel there via the new subway line 6, thereby avoiding the dreaded interchange station of GuoMao (World Trade Centre) where Line 10 meets up with Line 1. So now, for one hour, read an hour and three quarters!
The first challenge on arriving in PGY is to find the 929 支bus stop. Except that it becomes clear that for 929 you should read 829. Not that anyone – including a policeman – appears too sure of where that is either. But a hike from the station for 10 minutes brings one to the said bus stop where there are a number of people talking animatedly while looking somewhat lost. A group from Hunan explains that no one appears to know if or when the bus will actually come; and this is surely why there is a gaggle of private taxi drivers hassling the would-be tourists to take them to their destination – for a hefty consideration, not surprisingly.
But they say timing is everything. The aforementioned Hunanese are in the middle of negotiations with the driver of a minibus – how about if we all piled in together and that way we could reduce the fare to 50 RMB each, which includes the ¥30 entrance fee it costs tourists to enter the Cuandixia area.
A deal is struck and we all crowd in for the 2½ hour drive in somewhat cramped conditions. There is good natured banter throughout the journey – 99.99% of it in Chinese, unsurprisingly – and the driver suggests halfway along the route that maybe the 'laowai' would like to sing a song to everyone for their amusement and delight. This laowai would not, however. For that matter, neither would anyone else.
Cuandixia is located on an ancient post road that nowadays is given the somewhat unglamorous moniker of National Road 109 – lying roughly 90 km northwest from central Beijing in the Jingxi mountain region. We pass through numerous unmemorable villages and past a plethora of unmemorable landmarks, until we reach a huge dam holding back the YongTing River to create the massive Zhaitang reservoir. And then the scenery gets much more interesting.
And then suddenly the driver pulls into a lay-by and tells us we can all stretch our legs. Bliss! Ahead of us the road twists through some natural rock formations that remind me of some of the desert rocks in Saudi Arabia. I, with a couple of other guys, walk back up the road for a much needed pee!
We pile back into the mini bus and drive for another five minutes against the flow of traffic until we reach a car parking area. Nowhere has there been a single sign for Cuandixia – but we have definitely arrived.
Only later do we realise the cunning driver has gone via the back road entrance – the tradesmen’s entrance to the village – and has thus avoided paying the tolls and made himself an extra 180 kwai in the process!
Up here in the mountains it is noticeably colder than in Beijing. There is still snow on the ground and many of the footpaths still have ice on them. Care is needed!
Once again, I read up some of the printed out blurb I got off the web sites: “Cuandixia is known for its architecture and natural beauty. It is home to 500 well preserved courtyard homes dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Many of these homes have been converted into inns offering food and lodging to travellers. Stone paved lanes and steep staircases help define Chuandixia's (stet) architectural identity. The village is a frequent subject of photographers and painters. The surrounding area is full of mountains and trails popular with hikers.”
Another entry contradicts the first: “A beautiful ancient mountain village. It is very small, only around 70 traditional court yards. It is renovated nicely and seems rather authentic.”
I’m more inclined to go with the figure of 70, although perhaps there are another 430 yet-to-be-discovered courtyards lurking somewhere behind the mountain.
The driver had mentioned that the village is popular with foreign tourists (though I am the only laowai here today). One of the web sites advises to “go in the weekdays if you want peace and quiet, as many Chinese tourists from Beijing are said to go there in the weekends.” Well, not today. A rough body count puts the entire visiting population at around 20-30, if that… far outnumbered by the locals who make a living from the rubber-neckers.
This is a living museum. You’re free just to walk into any house in the village. Most are built in the open courtyard style where you enter a portal before turning left or right and then walking through little passageways that interconnect between the different houses.
Every house has a special plaque at its entrance, and some even have additional information about whether they contain an eating place or somewhere to doss in over night.
Almost every home has a restaurant and practically every one acts as a guesthouse too, typically costing around ¥50 for a room for 2 people to sleep in.
Furnishings are very simple and one imagines it must be galling for these people scraping together a living seeing the hoi polloi coming in their charabancs down from the big city. Until, that is, one remembers that they are making a pretty good living from those tourists while other peasants have a very much tougher time of it.
All the houses, by the way, are owned by members of the Han clan who moved from Shanxi Province. According to legend (and Wikipedia), a villager named Han Shoude, who bore a strong resemblance to Emperor Kangxi, became a monk in the service of the self same emperor and built many of the grand courtyards of Cuandixia with imperial funding. Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, Cuandixia prospered from its position trading in coal, fur, and grain.
Whether it is for the tourists, or whether they really do love having Mao portraits in their sitting rooms, there is a definite Mao presence here. I read that there are still some extant Mao quotations daubed onto walls in the village, but I don’t come across any, not that I would probably recognise one if I did.
There are also some antique-y type pieces of furniture which have probably survived here for generations – or perhaps they have been brought in for the benefit of the gullible tourists. Who can say?
The houses themselves are built of mud, straw and stone – a bit like that used to construct desert homesteads in Saudi Arabia, I think to myself.
But all of this appears of no consequence to a bored looking feline, sunning itself in the early afternoon rays.
On the side of the village is the old well, said to be 16.7 metres in depth and with stone walls down which a bucket was suspended by a windlass to draw the water. It was used up until the 1960s after which it was replaced with a motor driven pump
Many films have been shot in the village, due to its “authentic” nature – the best known of which are ‘Winter Jasmine’, ‘Lovers Grief over the Yellow River’, ‘Master of Taichi’ and ‘Worldess Love’.
But now it is time for some exercise. Signposts point ominously upward to a scenic trail leading to the ‘Golden Toad watching the moon’ scenery-viewing platform.
At first the ascent is easy…
But the higher we go, the colder it gets, and the path becomes pretty icy.
We pause for some group photographs
There’s me at the back, my red scarf clashing somewhat with the red coat and red hair in front of me.
A panorama picture unfolds beneath us of the village and surrounding hills
and then the path meanders its way downwards once again. We come across a stone brick edifice simply labelled “Goddess Temple”.
Here sacrifices are offered to the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun, the patron saint of women and children. She, it is said, is in charge of youth, birth, obviation of danger, and relief of difficulty etc (though we are not told what the etc includes). But she does apparently respond to every plea – etc or otherwise – and is “the typical folk worship representative in the Beijing area”.
An example of her extraordinary powers is evident for all to see. Just a few metres away from her temple, she has put up a warning sign to be careful of the wet “floor”. (Apparently, however, it is OK to slide onto your sit-upon from a bit of ice on the winding path higher up the mountain.)
The stone of the mountain is a beautiful mottled red at this point – contrasting nicely with the grey and green-hued rocks of a little while back.
The brisk walk has worked up appetites all round. Hmmm…. Scrambled egg with Chinese mahogany bud sounds tempting; as does tossed lily magnolia bud; or fried Chinese prickly ash leaves.
But earlier we had spied an outdoor cooker from which amazing smells were emanating. The smoke fire at the bottom both cooks and smokes pieces of mutton inside to give it a very characteristic smell.
The maître d’-cum-chef is only too happy to lift the lid and give us a gander…
Round the corner are some more pots slowly cooking away.
One contains chicken being stewed with mountain mushroom; the other contains fish from the river.
Turns out the maître d’-cum-chef is also the waiter. Best not to look at his filthy hands. Others have survived before us, so we’ll be brave too, and we decide to plump for the chicken and fish.
The “dining room” is one of the tourist guest rooms – behind the other table is a huge flat area which serves as a bed – I reckon you could comfortably sleep six in it! The portions we are served are gargantuan too – including a bowl of rice turned red by the hong dou – or red bean, with which it is cooked.
It is actually pretty tasty – such a shame that the foreigners who have come before me have chosen to copy and paste comments such as “don't expect fine cuisine there” or “the residents there apparently were not good cooks”. FGS what do they expect? McDonalds and chips???
At last it is time to pile once more into the minibus that manages to cut half an hour off the return journey – and this time he charges “only” 30 kwai for the trip. But it’s a helluva better way than waiting for a non existent bus and on the journey home there is a lively debate on the merits or otherwise of Mao and Marx with the bus driver and one passenger taking sides again the rest. (I, of course, remain neutral!)
It’s been a long tiring day, but once again your favourite blogger can now amaze his fellow workmates with tales of daring do in far flung places they have never heard of – not, one suspects, that they will even give a damn!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why Bother with the National Museum?

I love auctions. Whenever I go back to the UK for a break from my globe trotting, I invariably visit an auction house in my home town that holds an auction once a week. It sells an awful lot of tat along with some really classy pieces; but the excitement is in not knowing what you are going to discover until you actually get there and take a close look.
So when I hear that a major auction is about to take place in Beijing, I can’t wait to go take a look. The 33rd (or ‘33th’ as it is written up) China Guardian Quarterly Auctions: Chinese Painting & Calligraphy, porcelain and works of art; rare books and manuscripts is holding a three day preview prior to three full days of auction in the Conference Centre of the Beijing International Hotel, which can be found on Jianguomenneijie, not a stone’s throw from Beijing Railway Station.
Outside are two of my favourite stone lions in Beijing – lions with attitude, I always think!
A large red banner stretches across the entrance foyer, and it is immediately clear that this is no small auction. The conference centre, which is stuffed full of massive conference rooms, is almost entirely taken up with sale pieces. And none of your tat that can be found in my home town auction house. For this auction, anyone even thinking of making a bid must first lay down 500,000 kwai – or around £50,000 – before being allowed to do so!
This conference centre oozes with class. You can’t escape it. It’s a wonderful place. Hiding behind the red-pink banner, for instance, is a pair of huge wooden carved elephants. Who couldn’t fall in love with them on first sight?
There are also high-end furniture shops on the ground floor, one of which displays this wonderful display case in its main window. A stunning piece which, I fear, I will never be able to afford. <sigh>
But enough of the centre itself. The auction is being held by China Guardian Auctions Co, the second-biggest auctioneer on the Chinese mainland and the world's fourth largest art auction house – and it has gained a reputation as the most professional of all China's big auction houses. And that means it is BIG business!
The value of works sold at auction in China has been surging for three years. In 2011, the country passed the United States as the world's biggest market for art and antiques, capturing an estimated 30 percent of the world total, up from 23 percent a year earlier. Last year, the 20-year-old company sold over 22,000 items in four auctions, generating 51.62 billion kwai – or $8.3 billion, including the sale of Chinese painter Li Keran's landscape Shao Shan for 1.24 billion kwai.
Of course, it should be pointed out that among other restrictions, Chinese law forbids foreign auction houses from selling "cultural relics" that date back earlier than 1949, which form a significant part of the Chinese art market; so it is hardly surprising that the home grown auction houses are doing so well.
Today’s auction display features loads of jade, vases, calligraphy, paintings, rare books, and goodness knows what else stuffed into separate conference rooms that just seem to go on for ever.
I soon find out that photography isn’t allowed – and there are numerous security guards and cameras everywhere to make sure that everyone behaves themselves – which is a pity as some of the pieces are extremely beautiful. I pretend to make a call on my iPhone and press the camera shutter surreptitiously. Hmm not a great photograph!
I wander into the jade display room where there are probably more security guards and auction display personnel than there are potential punters. You see an item you like, you point to it, make a grunt or three and the happy chappy places it onto a mat for you to ogle at (making damned sure you don’t drop the wretched thing if you don’t want to bankrupt yourself in one fell swoop) after which it is placed back onto its (filthy dirty) glass shelf waiting for another potential buyer to pass by.
I have to settle for some of the official photographs off the official website to show the kind of thing I am talking about… like this white jade carving, 7.5cm in height, which we learn was made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There is no reserve price on it. I wonder what it will fetch though; almost certainly much more than my annual salary.
Some of the furniture also catches my eye – such as this lacquered shrine with four pillars which is over a metre wide and which must have graced the furnishings of some super-rich family in days of yesteryear.
The rare books room looks much like you would expect – piles and piles of rare books – not a lot to photograph there. And then I am transported into a room full of paintings and scrolls and before I know it I have without a thought reached for my iPhone and snapped a picture … and no one seems to give a damn.
This little horse is expected to fetch around 500,000 kwai – or £50,000 … he’s cute, but I don’t think I would part with so many smackeroonies for him…
This one is apparently worth a similar amount, but again I think I could put my hard earned kwai to better use…
A security guard comes over and politely points to one of many signs hung up at numerous vantage points. Naughty Brian! I weigh up whether it is worth pointing out that there is nothing mentioning an iPhone 5, but think better of it. A smile, a shrug of the shoulders (as if to say what on earth do they expect of a laowai), a quick nod and I move on …
… to these cute little birdies.
And then around another corner to a picture that I fall in love with on first sight. OK, so it helps that I was born in the year of the tiger, but this one is gorgeous. Hmmm … expected selling price 700,000 kwai? Well, maybe not!
I just have to ask someone, though, to take my picture with Mr Tiger and, perhaps because I am a laowai, no security guard comes running over to point out the error of my (our) ways. The implication is clear – if you want to take pictures of works of art, get someone to pose and then turn the camera slightly away and focus on the piece of art. Works a treat!
As a bonus, the picture next door to Mr Tiger is a cute little kitten.
And while we’re revelling in such feisty furry felines I discover yet more tiggies lurking menacingly in little alcoves…
while this one has a security guard standing all of two metres away – but he doesn’t appear too worried about my snapping away…
While on the subject of animals, this red dragon fly reminds me of the dragon flies that used to drink from the swimming pool in Riyadh when I was working in Saudi Arabia…
while this blue stick insect is just too cute for words! A stick insect with attitude? Well that has to be a first!
The shape of these fish reminds me of an almond croissant I ate recently in Dubai.
There are loads of hanging scroll paintings, some of which are expected to go for huge sums of money. I dare not point out to anyone (assuming that they would understand me, that is) that there’s a shop selling such things near to Xiangshan Park (香山公园) – otherwise known as Fragrant Hills Park – for 25 kwai each. (Is your favourite blogger a philistine or what?)
Mind you that aforementioned shop – to my certain knowledge – does not have scrolls featuring animals such as this (can anyone tell me what kind of a creature it is BTW?)
Round another corner is a display of fans – which reminds me of the fan museum I visited not so long back in Shanghai. The guards here are much more officious, though, and once again the camera has to be put away.
So I am not able to take pictures of the calligraphy displays – though to my untutored self, I’m not sure I could really be relied upon to give an opinion one way or the other on whether one is a good specimen or not.
But as I enter the area devoted to Mao era pictures, security once again appears to lapse and I snap away before I am spotted on the dozens of security cameras sprouting out of every corner.
I’m sure I have seen these pieces many times before; but maybe they are the originals? I have no idea. And there’s no guide price to give an indication of their authenticity.
It’s been a good morning and the time has flown past.
Outside in the subway passage under Jianguomenneijie, no one appears in the slightest bit interested in the tat being sold by a street seller. Maybe the passers by have been elevated by the quality of what they have seen inside the conference centre.
It sure makes one wonder, though, why anyone would bother visiting the National Museum, when you can see hugely better artefacts here – and which you are even allowed to touch into the bargain! Mind you, you can take photographs at the Museum, I guess – if you can find anything that really catches your eye.