A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Is this Beijing’s tackiest market?

I sometimes wonder at the stupidity of planners. Do they never do any homework before they take decisions? I’m referring (in this case) to the recent closure of Yashou market – a mecca for tourists and expats alike where you could get fake Armani, fake Paul Smith, fake Feragamo … in fact fake anything, I guess… and where beating the sellers down to less than 25 percent of what they originally asked for was all part of the fun of the place. Alas, it has now been converted into yet another upmarket brand store and the once buzzing building which boasted standing room only has turned into yet another ghost town. Do they never learn?

Not that I’m that worried. What most expats in Beijing haven’t discovered yet is the Guanyuan market, not 50 metres away from Chegongzhuang (exit H on line 6) which has a much better selection of rip-offs at half the (starting) price – and there’s hardly a laowai in sight.

Or for those more adventurous, how about the massive (correction, that should read MASSIVE) market within spitting distance of Yuzhilu right at the top end of Line 8. Never been there? Do yourself a favour and put aside half a day to explore its charms.

But I didn’t mean to go on about these markets in this blog. No. Instead, I wanted to celebrate one of Beijing’s more unusual markets that I only discovered a couple of weeks back. To say it is tacky would be an understatement. Cheap and cheerful are other adjectives that sum it up admirably. And I simply love it.

It’s called Tianyi market, and it’s a ten minute walk from ChegongzhuangXi station, practically on the corner of Fuchengmenwai Dajie and Zhanlanguan Lu.

You can hardly miss it. It’s like Disneyland has come to life; a weird concoction of castle turrets…

... liberally (and I use that word advisedly) adorned with plastic and plaster animals of all descriptions peering over parapets, out of windows, and stuffed onto every available ledge that the builders could manage to squeeze in.

   Golden zodiac animals rub shoulder to shoulder with Cinderella and the seven dwarves,

while tigers and zebras play peekaboo with a small army of penguins, bears and bambi deer.

There’s even an African wildlife assortment standing guard over a giant screen featuring Bugs Bunny and other worthy notables, courtesy of a BTV kids channel.

If you’re one of those families that like to adorn the place with Xmas wreaths, then you surely won’t want to miss out getting one with a cow’s head stuck in its centre … will you?

But I can feel you getting impatient at my blathering on about inconsequential things like plastic animals guarding the entrance. Let’s go in, shall we, and have a look…

If you were in any doubt that it’s the Christmas season, you won’t be any longer.

Dozens of stalls sell everything your heart could possibly desire in the way of tacky ornaments, baubles and sparkly wall hangings;

not to mention cards, crackers and place settings.

At the top of every escalator is what looks like an Afghan Father Xmas, complete with burqa and heaven-knows-what inside his little red bag. How come Santa was never this appealing back in Europe?

Of course, it isn’t Christmas all the year round, even in Tianyi; so the canny merchants also sell many other must-have products such as tasteful Angry Birds underpants…

while those who love furry appendages for their key rings and smart phones will find no shortage of ideas here.

Or how about some tacky plastic flowers to brighten up your tacky apartment? Hey… this is even better than IKEA!

Fake (plastic) jade and onyx you’re after? You’ve come to the right place.

In fact all six floors present a veritable cornucopia of wonderful products.

Not that it is ALL tack, you understand! I mean if you are a serious serial handbag collector, then you might find plenty to whet the appetite.

But in-your-face colours and bling are never that far away, just in case you should get withdrawal symptoms for even a second.

But please… When you’re wandering around, spare a thought for the poor shopkeepers…

 … many of whom work their fingers to the bone, and are always ready to greet you with a welcoming smile (he IS smiling, isn’t he???)

I can guarantee that once you have visited this wonderful market, it will be top of your wish list to come again and again. Let’s just hope the planners haven’t yet thought of making this a branded upmarket palace of tack. (Mind you, what is an upmarket brand of bling? I must confess, I have yet to find out.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Zhengyangmen Museum – Another Must-Visit Attraction off the Tourists’ Radar

I must have been there dozens of times; yet it wasn’t until that long ago that I discovered that Zhengyangmen (正阳门, which means "gate of the zenith Sun") has a museum inside showing dioramas of the old city walls and pictures of Beijing’s old roads, markets, and houses. It is certainly somewhere I will be taking friends of mine in the future when they come to Beijing.

Not familiar with Zhengyangmen? I’ll bet you are really! Except you maybe know it by its more familiar name of Qianmen, which is the gate south of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Actually, strictly speaking, Zhengyangmen together with its Arrow Tower (Jian Lou) are collectively known as “Qianmen”. The main gateway of the gatehouse is aligned on the same north-south axis as the Yongdingmen Gate to the south, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square, the Tiananmen Gate itself, the Meridian Gate, and the imperial throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, the city's Drum and Bell Towers and the entrance to the Olympic Green in the far north.

It was also the route the emperor took whenever he went to Tiantan (The Altar of Heaven), in the outer city, to make offerings. In fact the gateway would only be opened when emperors were passing through to give offerings to Heaven or to carry out imperial inspections.

Zhengyangmen was first built in 1419 and once consisted of the gatehouse proper and an archery tower, which were connected by side walls and together with side gates, formed a large barbican. The city's first railway station, known as Qianmen Station, was built just outside the gate, but that wasn’t until a few hundred years later I guess.

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the gate sustained considerable damage but it was extensively reconstructed in 1914, only to have the Barbican’s side gates torn down the next year. In 1949, the Zhengyangmen gatehouse was occupied by the Beijing garrison of the People's Liberation Army, who only vacated it in 1980; but now it has rightly become a big tourist attraction.

Yes … even when they do make barriers to your progress, the tourists still find a way of getting in!

… though In fairness, the tourists are well catered for…

Unfortunately, “progress” waits for no man, and Zhengyangmen was one of only a handful of gates that survived the demolition of city walls in the late 1960s and 1970s during the building of the Beijing Subway. (Go on Line 2 and practically every station has a name harking back to the numerous gates surrounding the city.) Line 2's Qianmen Station is even located between the two structures inside the space once surrounded by the barbican. So sad!

Depending on which web site you believe, Zhengyangmen stands 38 metres high, or 40, or 42 (with variations in between) … and the gatehouse was, and remains, the tallest of all the gates in Beijing's city wall.

Anyway, enough of the background. The gate has a very interesting museum which covers the history of Old Beijing, and contains many notable items in its collection. For instance, there is a super-long painting of Emperor Qianlong's first tour to Jiangsu and Zhejiang in 1751. It was drawn by court painter Xu Yang and consists of a number of scrolls each measuring 868.6cm x 1988.6cm. Or rather, the original is in the China National Museum, and this is a copy. But it’s still lovely despite that, and few visitors are any the wiser!

The detail is exquisite and clearly shows the entire barbican with the two towers to north and south.

And the amount of entourage that accompanied the emperor is clearly shown.

If you love old photographs, as I do, then you will be taken with shots of what this area was like before the rebuilding started in 1914 (or 1915, as the caption tells us).

There are even photos of the inside of the so-called Moon Fortress …

Architectural drawings are to be found giving precise measurements of the towers…

During the Ming dynasty the many gates leading into Beijing’s Inner City were managed by Inner Officials who were all eunuchs. But from 1674 the gates were put under the management of the Chief Commission of Infantry which looked after defence and security in the capital. It guarded not just the nine gates of the inner city but also the seven gates of the outer city. Troops lead by the Chief Commission of Infantry regularly amounted to some 30,000 soldiers.

In 1644 the uprising led by Li Zicheng toppled the Ming dynasty. When Li Zicheng led his troops out of Beijing he set fire to the palaces and nine gates of the Inner City. Zhengyangmen was destroyed, but was later rebuilt in the Qing dynasty.

In 1780 a fire broke out in a shop nearby, which spread to, and destroyed, the Archery Tower. Another fire broke out in 1849. And on June 16, 1900 the Boxers set fire to a pharmacy spreading once again to the Archery tower. Shortly after, a company of Indian mercenaries stationed in the Moon Fortress accidently caused another fire which destroyed the Gatehouse Tower. The final rebuilding of the tower was launched in 1903, and was completed in 1907.

With so much destruction and rebuilding, I guess it’s as well we can still see photos of what the place looked like throughout the years. Here, for instance, we are taken back to 1900 and the parade of the Allied Force of the Eight powers before the Gate.

A decade or so later, American troops posed for photos by the same tower.

As I mentioned earlier, in order to alleviate traffic congestion, the Moon Fortress enclosure was demolished in 1915 and two side gateways were opened in the walls flanking the Gatehouse tower. Roads were paved; a zigzag ascending path was built for the Archery Tower and decorated in the Western style.

So this was what it looked like just after the rebuilding in 1915.

If you think the reconstructed archery tower shows a strong European style, that’s because it followed the design of a German engineer called Rothkeger.

Other famous moments in history were captured at the tower, such as on May 27, 1929, when Sun Yat-sen's coffin passed through the Gatehouse when it was conveyed to Nanjing for interment.

On July 7, 1937 the Marco Polo Bridge incident broke out, marking the start of China entering the second world war, known locally as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. On July 28 Japanese forces captured Beiping (as it was then known) and entered the Inner City via Zhengyangmen on August 8th.

But on January 31, 1949, Beiping was peacefully liberated; and on February 3rd the PLA marched into the city in a grand ceremony.

Here’s a close up of the PLA passing through the gate…

If we fast forward to 1990, this is what the Gatehouse and Archery towers looked like…

And 14 years later, on October 9, 2004, the opening ceremony of the Sino-French Culture Year was held at Tiananmen with the Gatehouse Tower used as a backdrop for the French flag in not very subtle lighting.

2008, of course, was when the Oympics came to town; and the Chinese used the event to show off the country to the world. Ten million RMB were invested in the repair of the Gatehouse and Archery tower.

The museum also has loads of little did-you-know factoids positioned throughout. Did you know, for instance, that in the Ming, Qing and ROC period, women in Beijing would go to touch the doornails of the gate on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month every year since it was said that they would give birth to boys if they did this. Wow. Talk about gullible! (Do you think anyone asked for their money back?)

Another little factoid…Daqianmen cigarettes were launched by the British and American Tobacco Company in 1916. The trademark of Daqianmen was put into state ownership in 1962 and jointly owned by Shanghai, Qingdao and Tianjin cigarette factories

And one more factoid to keep you interested. The kilometre zero point for highways in China (a bit like the original milepost for London being at Charing Cross station) is located just outside Zhengyangmen. It is marked with a plaque in the ground, with the four cardinal points, four animals, and "Zero Point of Highways, China" written in both English and Chinese. Zero Point was approved by the State Council and installed in September 2006. Four ancient Chinese mythical animals – a Qinglong (Green Dragon), Baihu (White Tiger), Zhuque (Vermilion bird) and Xuanwu (Black Tortoise) represent East, West, South and North. Meanwhile the wheel in the centre represents the system of highways radiating to all parts of China.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fengtai's Curate's Egg

[Curate’s Egg – n. Pron: /kjʊərətsˈɛɡ/ – Something of mixed quality. The term derives from a cartoon published in the humorous British magazine Punch on 9 November 1895. Drawn by George du Maurier and titled True Humility, it pictures a timid-looking curate eating breakfast in his bishop's house. The bishop says: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones." The curate replies, desperate not to offend his eminent host and ultimate employer: "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"]

In May 2013, Beijing’s subway system opened a short 7-station stretch of Line 14 in the south western suburbs of the capital. The ninth China International Garden Expo was held in Beijing’s Fengtai district from May 18 to Nov 18, and this little stretch of line was designed to make it easy for the visitors to reach it.

According to the official blurb, “The ninth China International Garden Expo is held every two years…” which I guess is a bit like me celebrating, for yet another year, my 39th birthday. But let’s not nit-pick.

Having created this garden paradise, it was obvious that the burgers of BJ weren’t going to tear the whole thing apart when the Expo was over; so none of us was surprised to see an announcement that as of April 1, 2014, Beijing Garden Expo Park would open its gates again “to welcome visitors from all over the world to extend the splendidness, bring forth genial greening for Beijing citizens and provide a new place for recreation, rest and sightseeing for the people”.

Well, you know how time flies, and before you know it a whole year has passed and you still haven’t crossed a particular attraction off your to-do list. But a friend of mine mentioned she had cause to go there recently, and it finally jogged my memory banks that it was high time I got off my sit-upon and ventured forth to Fengtai.

Getting there was a doddle. Straight round line 10 and change at Xiju. And sure enough at Garden Expo Park station there were signs still showing the way to the 9th China (Beijing) International Garden Expo – no doubt being kept in pristine condition for the next time they have a 9th Garden Expo.

But something is odd. I mean, the line 14 train was practically empty; but this station is even more practically empty than the train itself. No hoards of excited locals making their way to the park, as one might expect on a beautiful Saturday morning.

I look out of the station window to make sure I’m in the right place. Yes; sure enough I can see a French Château on the skyline…

The official website blurb, which I check on my mobile, is equally emphatic: The opening gates of Beijing Garden Expo Park are Gate 1, Gate 2 and Gate 6. Visitors can purchase tickets to tour in the garden at Gate 1, Gate 2 and Gate 6.

No problem. The website further enthuses: Beijing Garden Expo Park extends its garden expo exhibition, starts the park exhibition for inheriting the garden expo spirit and emerges before the citizens with new images. This editor reminds visitors not missing the best touring period. I can’t wait.

Alas, when I reach Gate 1, the area of neglect is visible for all to see. Not only are the gates firmly closed, but mother nature is slowly reclaiming its own. With tears in my eyes, I carry on walking to see what is visible from further up the road…

I check the web site again. Another page explains all: For those visitors who are passionate about garden architecture, we command you enter the Park from door No. 2.

Gate # 2, I remember from the station ground stickers, is 800 metres from the station entrance. I keep walking determinedly. And sure enough, there ahead of me is Gate # 2 – not # 4 as a notice outside proclaims…

Another notice advises that Children and disabled old men must be accompanied by adults. Presumably disabled old women don’t count; but as I am none of the above, I stride over to the ticket office, wake up a bored looking clerk and hand over a fistful of the readies for my entrance ticket.

Beijing’s Garden Expo Park covers an area of 513 hectares – that’s if you include the 246 hectare lake. The park is made up around a central axis known as the Gingko Boulevard; it has two so-called scenic areas – the Yongding Pagoda and Garden Valley, as well as a number of traditional gardens.

The official web site – gardenexpo-park.com – tells you all you could possibly need to know. Heavens, it even has a “Surach” box so you can find anything. And all the pages describe the park’s “Beautiful Scencry”. I discover, for instance, that “It recovers garden on rubbish landfill ecologically by utilizing the greening science and technology,” which is good to know, don’t you think?

Just inside the gate is a mini-plethora of 2, 3 and 4 people bikes available for renting for between 40-60 RMB/hour.

But I eschew such luxuries in favour of shanks’ pony and arrive at the French looking château. The official notice explains that “The Fort primary incorporates lots of elements from well-known European castles. Main building: a castle in Normandy, France. Porch column: the Louvre in Paris. Steeple: the Villandry castle in France. Steps: the villa d’Este in Italy”. It may be a bit of a hotch potch, but from the front at least it’s quite picturesque.

In front of the château is a traditional parterre …

… which is used as a backdrop by a couple having their wedding pictures taken.

Time to move on to the “Arab Stylish Garden” which seems remarkably un-Arabic and apart from a piece of scruffy lawn, has no garden that is visible to the naked eye.

And the two or three over-sized umbrella-stand pots seem even less Arabic still. On the other hand, I remember all too well having it rammed into my feeble brain when I was in the Middle East that Arabs invented practically everything; so maybe that explains the umbrella pots.

Walking my way up the Gingko Boulevard, there are the usual clusters of rocks on display, as you would find in every Chinese park. They are set off by one or two plants that can’t quite make up their minds whether they should be flowering or not.

Ah… what’s this? A rusty notice explains that I am now about to enter the Hong Kong garden. It “depicts HK as an international metropolis where East meets West. Skyscrapers along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour are replicated to signify HK's status as a successful global financial and reading centre. In front of the skyscrapers, a traditional Chinese junk with its reflection in the water highlights the role of HK as a fishing port more than a century ago”. Hmmm. I’m afraid I am somewhat underwhelmed.

Above me, a steady stream of express trains thunder their way to distant climes – a beautiful sight, one has to admit, that exemplifies China’s lead in the rail industry. I am slightly more-whelmed.

There’s even a display of China’s space technology which looks pretty good from a distance…

… but alas, there is a general state of neglect that is visible for all to see…

… while the pavement areas are chipped and cracked…

… and the litter wafting around all adds up to a very sorry state of affairs. Can this park really have been revamped just over a year ago?

Almost every building, too, which must have been throbbing with people during the height of the Expo, is firmly padlocked closed. And if you peer through the dirty windows of some of them you can see the remains of unloved plants that withered and simply gave up the will to live a long while back.

Elsewhere, a modicum of effort has been made into reviving the old park. The Daily Gardening Area, for instance, covers 6,200 sq m. “New materials and technologies were used in its construction and it is designed to give visitors a new gardening experience”. Well, if barely alive plants thrust into square plastic boxes represents a new gardening experience, I think I will stick with the traditional methods, thank you very much.

Some of the exhibit areas, too, are bizarre in the extreme. Take this Sunken Garden, for instance, by designer Plasma Studio – “widely recognised as one of the leading emergent architecture and design practices with worldwide scope and outlook (we are told). The practice has won a growing number of awards including International HotdipGlavanizing Award and the Architecrural award. The concept of working with a sunked ground comes from a mission of fabricating an experience both intimate and intense combined with a feeling of harmony with the environment and intimate contemplation”. (sic)
If placing a few metal sheets over a floor made of stone and wood can win awards, then maybe I am in the wrong profession. Oh come on… who is kidding whom?

There are breaks from the tedium, however. Occasionally one comes across a splash of colour which makes such a contrast with what has gone before, that you find yourself going Wow, before realising that this is hardly what you would call ground-breaking horticulture.

But it is pleasant all the same; and every so often you come across the occasional flowering trees which lift the spirit. The Crape Myrtle Garden, for instance, has over 1,000 crape myrtle trees (I guess that’s how it got its name). Also known as itchy tree, skinless tree and all-red tree, it is native to China and originated along the Yangtze River Valley. Due to its blossoming period from July to October it is also known as the hundred day red flower.

Of course, no Chinese garden would be complete without its “Ross Garden” (which has somehow been derived from “seasonal garden” as it’s called here in the original Chinese).

And sure enough you can see the occasional “rosses”, now well past their prime.

As part of the initial development of the Expo Park, Beijing’s municipal government began to construct a green eco-development zone of the Yongding River from November 2011 to May 2013. The resulting Yuanbo Lake is 4.2km in length and covers 246 hectares.

Not to miss a trick, the official web site immediately springs into verbose OTT action… “The lingering lake water in the Park is clean without dirt, it is simple and elegant as the quite after the gorgeous and the peaceful for living an easy life. When the strolling clouds go across the sky, although they are quite, they can bring us daydream throb for beauty; although the remaining lotuses float in the pool, they do not wither away. On the contrary, they show us the power of new life: the branches dancing in wind, waiting for the vitality in next year, show the mood of enjoy calm for a moment …… The lake water is like the strolling clouds and the remaining lotuses, quite, peaceful and never cease in clam.” Errr, quite! (or should that be “quiet”?).

Walk in the Garden Expo Park with families and friends in such beautiful day to feel the garden art of minding path will be a good choice for your journey. you can walk on the lake path in the Park to enjoy the green lake and feel the happiness of fish swimming in the lake freely; you can stop at the wetland, imaging the scene of grasses flourishing and birds flying here and you will become relaxed and happy suddenly, it continues relentlessly. Well, I don’t see any fish, which might not be surprising from this distance; but I can certainly imagine grass flourishing and birds flying!

Unfortunately, there is precious little of anything else flourishing here today. Even the vast majority of cafes and restaurants are firmly closed…

I congratulate myself on having had the foresight to have brought along a bottle of water with me – which has now grown tepid in the midday sun; and I move on to the Yinchuan Garden (Yinchuan, of course, is the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region). Beginning in the Yuan Dynasty, Muslims from Central Asia moved to Ningxia and brought with them Islamic culture whose essence this little garden tries to capture.

The Haikou Garden's design – we are told – “revolves around the images of a coconut city. The trunks of coconut trees are skilfully made into an entrance....have in mind modern deconstructionist concepts that are oriented by new paradigms, images and sensibilities in design.” Oh please! Cut the crap!

Of course, this being a garden for the masses, the designers just couldn’t stop themselves making it as tacky as they possibly could, with these plastic pandas…

… not to mention this rainbow boat. Ah finally… is this where the hoards of Chinese visitors have headed for?

In the distance is a viewing platform which looks like it should give commanding views over the park.

It’s surrounded by pomegranate trees which are fruiting in abundance.

There are signs warning everyone to be patient… Heaven forbid that anyone should fight his way to the front of the queue!

Alas, it is but an idle dream. The stairs are rusty with further signs of neglect and a chain across the main riser signals an end to even thinking of going up to the lookout platform.

I head on to the next garden… that of Chongqing, known as the city of hills in Sichuan. It’s really rather nice; but the blurb explains that this garden was based on the Chinese garden in Seattle, and I find myself wondering why they have to go all the way to the U.S. when they must have plenty of Chongqing gardens they could refer to on their own doorstep.

Lingnan Garden next to it is another pleasant retreat. It takes up an area of 14,600 sq m.

I’m rather taken with a wooden gate that has its bars sliding through the door frame. It moves easily and makes one wonder at the marvellous simplicity of good design.

Another thing I find myself marvelling at is the “Beijing Qiaoniang Handcrafted Goodsexhibition". Is it a shop? Or a museum? Anything devoting itself to good sex must surely be worth a peep! But like most things in this park, it is closed; and I find myself ruminating on the importance of putting a space in the right place in a shop sign LOL.

Without a doubt, the landmark building in the Garden Expo Park is the Yongding Tower – “The antique-imitated tower, 69.7m in height, is suitable for Enjoy the Sight of it in a Distance and nearby”, the visitor is told.

Though we “can overlook the whole Park from the foot of the tower and enjoy the gorgeous scenes of each Expo garden”, one look at the many stairs and steep slope to get up there is probably the main reason they created a replica of the replica on the Gingko Boulevard. After an hour and a half of walking, I start looking for excuses not to heave myself up that steep hill simply so I can look down on the gardens that I have already passed by.

Laziness (or maybe just plain common sense) prevails; and anyway why should I think for one moment that it is going to be open, since almost every other exhibit has been closed. I look at a picture of the pagoda on my ticket…

 … and make up my mind. Afraid lest I overdose on fun, I head instead for the people carrier, cunningly disguised as a chuff chuff train, and pay the required 10 kuai to get me back to Gate 2.

Yes; this park could definitely be described as a curate’s egg. And when I tell my friends where I have been the next day, I get looks of incredulity from all of them. What? You went there? I could have told you not to go. Why did you waste your time going there? is the common theme from one and all.

But I can now definitely cross it off my list of places to visit in Beijing before I die. And if anyone else asks my opinion, I will be only too happy to answer forthrightly: Why on earth would you want to waste your time going there?