Wednesday, October 10, 2007


My next few days in Beijing were slightly odd. It was coming up to the time to say “goodbye” to one group of people, those with whom I had endured the phlegms and arrows of China. It was also time to say “hello” to a whole new group of people, those with whom I would be sharing cramped train space over the next few weeks as we crossed out of China, through Mongolia and into Russia.

We had one last organised event with my original group, a visit to Tiananmen Square followed by a tour of The Forbidden City.

Both, for different reasons, hugely evocative names.

As a young child, I recall blurry images of missiles being paraded in front of the Chinese leadership for the benefit of those in the West as if to say “ we have them and we are not afraid to use them” In later years, of course. A burgeoning democracy movement found its spiritual home in the same square and, when it was put down with ruthless efficiency by the authorities, the images were screened around the world and indelibly printed on the minds of all who saw the massacre that took place.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government brook no discussion of such matters and our official guides denied all knowledge of such events. No mention is allowed in the media and the internet is scoured for any unauthorised release of images. China may be opening up, but it is at times like this that you realise that it is still a closed country. As a visitor, you see what they want you to see and hear what they want you to hear.

The square itself is pretty impressive. Built on the gardens of the original city of Beijing which was destroyed by Mao, it has a capacity to hold over one million people and is still the centre for many celebrations and concerts. A few days before our arrival it had been at bursting point as the people of Beijing celebrated the “one year to go” point for the 2008 Olympics.

With the fug of pollution that greeted us as we came out of the subway station, it was hard to believe that it would ever be ready to hold any sort of pastime that did not involve coughing up ones guts, but, as I said before, The Chinese government can do just about what the hell it likes and they are already putting in plans to clean the air over the next year. The have to as they have already been threatened with the cancellation of a number of events should the air quality not fall below tolerable levels.

Topping and tailing the square are reminders of China’s hard line past and its most significant leader with a Mausoleum containing the mummified body of Mao Tse Tung at one end and the instantly recognisable portrait at the other end.

Moa is more than just a dead political leader to the majority of Chinese, but his influence is definitely on the wane. While the older generation still revere him, almost to the point of divinity, to the younger generation with their exposure to Western culture, he and his school of thought are increasingly anachronistic. You can see this in the way they discuss him, the same way we might discuss Churchill, a piece of history which impacted greatly on where we are now but has little relevance.

You can also see it in the cluster of high end shopping centres that surround the square filled with every brand name you can imagine feeding the increasing hunger of the growing Chinese middle class for luxury goods.

I spent half an hour walking around the square. My thoughts, inevitably turned to the anonymous man with the shopping bag who became a symbol of the failed push for democracy as he stood in silent challenge in front of row after row of tanks. No one is quite sure what happened to him but it is pretty certain that the Chinese leaders did not give him one of the luxury apartments they kept aside for their cronies.

After our brief stay in the square, our guide took us into The Forbidden City. Again, I am not your history teacher, go and look it up. However, it is fair to say that it is huge, far bigger than one would expect even from reading about it and watching interminably boring films about Emperors who ended up as gardeners.

It is also fair to say that it is one of the more hateful experiences of my time in China. It is impossibly crowded and filled to every corner with tour groups, primarily Chinese, who follow dutifully after their flag waving guide who is, inevitably barking instructions to them through a megaphone. Even, that is, if the group is about 8 inches away.

Half an hour of wandering around saw me right royally pissed off at being shoved from pillar to post. So, I decided to take my leave of the group and head off to find some forbidden stuff of my own in the form of some of the more unusual snacks offered on the streets of Beijing.

This city’s “Snack St” is very different from those I had seen in Chengdu and Xi-an. This one specialised in things on skewers and what things on skewers they were. Starfish, seahorses, silk worms, lizards and, most challenging of all, scorpions still wriggling on their sticks as they waited to be sizzled on a hot plate. I tried a few, well you are forced to aren’t you? But, I wont claim that they were anything other than disgusting. A case of “been there, done that. Wont be doing that again”

After that, I needed to take the taste away with some less unpleasant options so headed across the road to what I thought was optimistically named “Gourmet St” What I found was possibly the best food court in human imagining. An enormous space, probably the size of a couple of football pitches, stretching out into the distance and filled with stalls selling food from every part of China imaginable. Spicy Sichuan hotpots, Cantonese roast goose, silk road noodles and mutton soups, fiery Hunanese fish, stir fries, dumplings, braised pork knuckles. You name it, it was there.

Food is obtained by a pre paid swipe card which you hand over to the stall in question from which they deduct the amount of the meal. The amount on the card can be kept indefinitely or, at the end of your meal, you can get a refund of any money left on it.

The quality is exceptional and the owners of the stalls all holler amiably at you to come to their stalls as opposed to their neighbours. It is all enormous fun and large plates of food with the inevitable “bin pijou” cold beer, costs little over £1 a time.

Another nap and a shower, much needed in this intense heat and humidity, saw me refreshed and ready to meet up with the group for another take on the Beijing duck. This time, a more formal version at a well known restaurant on “Ghost St” so named because of the parade of white lanterns which line the streets.

In this version, the skin of the bird is separated from the flesh and then rearranged back on top in a pleasing design. It is less greasy than the previous more home style version and, once again, six of us managed to demolish two birds alongside a whole slew of other dishes.

And, that was about it for that group. The next day, we all went our own ways with the prerequisite promises to keep in touch.

For most of my companions, it was home or on to other cities. For me, it was limbo land as I stayed in Beijing to hook up with my next group of fellow travellers to head up to Ulaan Bataar.

But, that’s for next time

Oh, but there is, of course, some more wonderful 'chinglish' for you to enjoy

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