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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?