We stepped off the train into the hustle and bustle of one of the largest cities in the world. We took a bit of time to find our bearings, as most signs were in Chinese characters, but we didn’t feel threatened at all as you sometimes do in a big city. On the contrary, most people we made eye contact with smiled at us happily, especially when they saw our cobbled together plastic bag kite. Unfortunately Beijing has a bad smog problem at the moment, and there was quite a haze in the air. The other thing we noticed was that the sound of the Chinese language was completely different to how we had imagined it. There was a lot of ‘arrr-ing’, which made it sound almost West Country. Then we realised that we had probably only heard Cantonese before, as Cantonese speakers are more prevalent in the UK than Mandarin speakers (who make up most of China).
We made our way onto the subway, which was thankfully really easy to use, and so cheap! Only 2 Yuan for a ticket (about 20p. On exiting the metro, we followed the route given to us by the hostel, along streets lined with food outlets, little shops and eventually shops selling musical instruments (predominantly mandolins). There were lots of people on the street and we wove our way between them with our big rucksacks. Every now and then, there would be a beep and we would have to stand aside for a scooter or a kind of tricycle moped with a trailer on the back to go past. These were all electric and so more or less silent! There wasn’t much in the way of a pavement in this part, so you would often find yourself having to leap out of the way as one suddenly appeared behind you! We walked a long way, longer than anticipated, and started to think we may have missed the turning. At this point, a jolly man with a limp and a dead arm spotted us and waved at us excitedly to follow him. He seemed to be heading in what looked like the right direction, so we followed and he took us directly to the hostel. We thought he might work there, but I think perhaps he didn’t after all. He had an animated conversation with the lady at reception and then waved goodbye to us happily. She told us he was a bit crazy, and we said he might be, but he was very nice and helpful! I thought he seemed like a bit of a local character and expected to see him around more, but we didn’t see him at all after that day.
Red Lantern Hostel, in the Xicheng district, is very beautiful inside. It is down a little side street, just entering the hutong district. The hutong are old alleyways, full of character. Beijing used to be full of them, but development has seen a lot of the old areas replaced with modern buildings. The hostel is set around a central courtyard – there is a balcony along one side, which is where our room was located. The courtyard is enclosed with a roof, so it is quite warm inside. There is a little bar at one end, and at the other a pond with Koi carp and a little humpback bridge. There are other tanks of fish in the courtyard and lots of greenery. We showered and settled ourselves in, before heading out for dinner.
We made our way to a restaurant recommended by our hostel as a good place to eat Peking duck. It was in a large room, upstairs in a high rise sort of building, not dissimilar to those you see in China town in Manchester. There were no tourists in there at all, so we stuck out like a sore thumb! People smiled and nodded at us and the waiters and waitresses seemed to find us quite amusing. (Luke’s beard was definitely quite entertaining by this point, so perhaps that was why). Luckily the menu had pictures, so we were able to point. We ordered the Peking duck, which was very tasty, and some mystery dumplings. They brought a platter of twenty – far too many for us to eat!
After stuffing ourselves as one might stuff a dumpling, we took a walk around our local hutong district. It was atmospheric at night, with the lights and little shops that spilled out onto the narrow streets. On many of the walls there were pretty paintings, sometimes illustrating what the building was used for historically – e.g. people baking for a bakery. There were a few antique shops that sold all sorts of odds and ends – old toothpaste tins, pairs of china dogs, dragons and ornate and tarnished brass knockers; fruit and veg stalls (refreshing to see so much vitamin C on display after Mongolia!) and small stalls where people grilled sizzling kebabs… We had to keep our wits about us whilst soaking all this up, so we could dodge the scooters and bicycles as they sped past.
On our second day in Beijing, we visited the enormous Forbidden City. We walked there from our hostel via Beihai Park, a beautiful city centre park with a central lake and island. There were several beautiful temples and old buildings and one of the three famous ‘nine dragon screens’. These are like a long ornamental wall with nine dragons weaving in a row, all brightly painted and glazed. If you look carefully, there are hundreds of other smaller dragons hidden within the design. This is the only double sided nine dragon screen in China. The park has been designed to have pleasant meandering feel, so you never know quite what is round the corner. We arrived just as the park opened and it was wonderful to come upon local people scattered about in groups doing tai chi, dancing gracefully and playing keepy uppy with hackysack shuttlecocks. We saw an elderly lady doing morning stretches and exercises holding onto a bar in front of a monument. There was a lovely, calm community atmosphere about the place. Along the waterfront there was a line of large interconnected pavilions – the five dragon pavilions. These had the ornate roofs that turn up at the corners that are characteristic of Chinese architecture. The pavilions were filled with people singing, dancing or playing musical instruments. Our favourite was one that was brim-full of locals who just seemed to have come together for a morning sing song. With so many happy people singing their hearts out, and the misty light on the water behind them (well, smog, but let’s not spoil the romantic impression), we found it very moving.
After the serenity of the park, we were almost loathe to leave to go to the Forbidden City! The Forbidden City is indeed huge. We got ourselves GPS audioguides that kicked in and told you historical facts when you moved into each new zone. I think I prefer the type that you can choose when it speaks to you, but it was still good to have. It was packed with Chinese tourists inside and at some points I just gave up trying to peer inside temples as there were too many people trying to do the same thing. Construction of the palace was started in 1406 and it has housed 24 emperors, ending with Puyi, the last emperor in 1912. Entrance of commoners used to be punishable by death, but fortunately this draconian measure is not upheld nowadays. The whole complex is surrounded by high walls and the entrance is opposite Tienanmen Square. There are several impressive gates that lead into large courtyards and then up flights of stairs to large halls with names like ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ and ‘Palace of Heavenly Purity’. As well as the main buildings that form the backbone of the complex, there are numerous smaller buildings and temples on either side, many of which would have been living quarters for the imperial family and the concubines. Some estimates put the number of rooms at close to 10,000; though this is thought to be a bit of an exaggeration, it does give you some idea of the scale of the place. At the North end are the Imperial Gardens. This is a winding garden of archways, trees and strange craggy rock formations (which are all labelled ‘perilous hills, do not climb!’) interspersed with pagodas. It is where the emperor and his concubines would have wandered many years ago. I found it a bit oppressive – there were no grand views and not much open space, which is what I would personally prefer in a garden. Also, to live out your life in such an enclosed space, grand though it may be, would be awful.
There are a few small museums within the palace buildings. I visited the ceramics gallery, which told the fascinating history of pottery in China, and the Hall of Clocks – an extensive collection of the most insane timepieces ever created. The ceramics gallery really impressed upon me just how creative human beings can be. Some of the pottery on display was from 7000BC! I can’t imagine how you go from finding a bit of mud to figuring out that if you mould it and fire it at 1000°C you can have a useful pot to put things in. I think I would have been a rubbish prehistoric person. Perhaps I could have done some nice cave paintings though; I might have been more of an interior designer than an innovator. It is wonderful to think that as the Chinese shaped their porcelain thousands of years ago, they were also shaping the history of the human race. Advances in ceramics led to advances in cooking, transportation, storage and trade, and so international relations. All that from a pot! Anyway, I got a bit over-excited about pottery…
The clocks really were the funniest things! It seems like they were just an excuse for a crazy amount of gold and ornamentation. Often they were huge, depicting entire scenes, with intricate moving parts, like rotating flowers, or even rhinoceroses. Then there would be a tiny clock face, not much bigger than a pocket watch perched somewhere in the midst of the gaudiness. None of the clocks were working when I was there though, so you had to use a bit of imagination to get an idea of what they would be like in action. A lot of the clocks were from England, and all were in need of a good dusting (imagine that, coming from me!).
We stayed in the Forbidden City until closing time, then wandered about looking for somewhere to eat. We ended up on a wide pedestrianised shopping street, similar to something you’d find in Europe, but with beautiful oriental painted archways, curled rooftops and lit up with fairy lights and red lanterns. We spent ages in the café waiting for our meals, but it was fun people watching, so we didn’t mind.
The next day, we dilly dallied in the morning, then had to rush across town via the subway to meet our Chinese friend, Weimin. Weimin is an artist who lives in Oxford and has done a lot of work for the Ashmolean museum there. It so happened that he was in China for a print-making conference and his few days in Beijing visiting his parents coincided with our visit. He took us to dinner at the sort of place we would never have succeeded in finding on our own. The whole meal for three of us cost about £1! And it was really tasty and more than I could finish! We then headed into the calligraphy and printmaking area of Beijing. Here there were lots of shops selling brushes of all sizes, specialist paper and slabs of dry ink which you rub on an inkstone with water to get the liquid form for use with your brush. The inkstones themselves were lovely, weighty objects, smooth in the centre with a slope for ink to pool at one end, and sometimes with intricate carving around the edges. Here, the act of writing is an art form in itself. I have always thought that Chinese characters look beautiful, so it makes sense really. Weimin explained about the different types of brushes and how to tell if they are good quality, also about the importance of the inks you choose. The streets were lined with shops selling calligraphy equipment, bookshops dedicated to Chinese art and shops selling works of calligraphy and exquisite prints. We went into one gallery and watched a girl making prints. It was a fascinating process. She was working on a design by a famous artist, and had several thin pieces of paper that were clipped together like a book at one end. She had a humidifier going full blast so that the paper stayed damp. On the table in front of her she had a wooden printing block that was fixed in position. She would delicately sponge a colour onto an area of the printing block, then stretch across a piece of paper and smooth it over the block. Then she would check that the colour had been applied correctly, clean the block and reapply the paint and move onto the next sheet. Bit by bit, the prints would be filled in, with colour in precisely the same place as the original design. When you see a finished print, it is nigh on impossible to tell it is not an original painting as the attention to detail is so fine. Indeed, Weimin told us that many of the so called ‘original’ works of oriental art in Western museums are in fact prints. Only an expert would be able to tell the difference. Even so, it is clearly a highly skilled job, with a great deal of artistry involved. To my eye, it looked harder work than just painting a picture!
In the street outside, we came across a man practising calligraphy, with a bucket of water and a huge sponge paintbrush. He was painting on the road itself, so he was occasionally interrupted by a car or bike going past. Luckily it was a quiet street for traffic! Weimin said he was a very talented calligrapher. He had a book of poetry and was copying out the text. He told us that he gave himself the task of getting though one whole bucket of water a day in this way, so that he could maintain his skill. He let me have a go; so I took the brush and copied one of his characters. After I had finished, Weimin told me it meant, ‘life’. Quite a good one to choose I think! They were complimentary about my copying skills, which I think meant that they could at least read what it said! I love the whole idea of this. Such temporary beauty. Just imagine, all that poetry slowly evaporating into the city air. When you’re inhaling the smoggy fumes, it’s nice to think of the poems you might be breathing in. We returned to the street later; the man had gone, and most of the poetry has also disappeared.
By this point, we were pretty thirsty, so we went in search of some tea. It wasn’t really the district for teashops, but we were told by a man that a new tea shop had just opened that day, and we were stood right next to it. We followed Weimin up the stairs and found ourselves in a fancy tea room. It was a special invitation only opening party. Weimin spoke to the girl on the door, explaining that we were thirsty and there was nowhere else in the area to go. She eventually agreed to try and find us a table and he promised to draw her portrait in return for the favour! We had a great time drinking tea, drawing pictures and listening to the Chinese chatter around us. At the head of each table there was a pretty Chinese girl in traditional dress pouring the tea for the guests, warming the pot and brewing more tea and ensuring that when you were running out, the tea was replenished promptly. We found out the tea we were drinking was from a 600 year old tree and cost £300 for a small packet!! We got it for free as it was opening day and they were showing off their best teas! We drank so much of it as well, what with all the top ups – although the cups were tiny. All three of us were painting and drawing, which drew people to our table. One man was a chef who fused cooking with calligraphy. He showed us a photo of the sort of thing he does; it looked amazing. He told us we could visit his restaurant and he would do a demonstration for us – but unfortunately we never got to take him up on his offer. A girl who was a post graduate at the academy of art came over to talk to us; she said she would like to practise English, so we swapped contact details. Another of the tea girls paid us a visit and Weimin drew her too. His portraits were really good and the girls were very pleased.
After drinking all that expensive tea, we found a large bookshop where we purchased a Chinese phrasebook. It hasn’t turned out to be the most useful thing we have bought – phrases like, ‘your boyfriend is very handsome’, don’t really come in that handy, whereas things like, ’where is the left luggage?’ are conspicuously absent. We were right by the night market, so ventured in for a nosy round. It was heaving inside. One area was dedicated to food stalls – anything from kebabs and dumplings to scorpions, seahorses and centipedes on sticks. I thought seahorses were protected, but hey ho. Some of the scorpions were wriggling on their sticks, which was pretty gruesome. We ate dumplings and some tiny toffee apple things that came in a row on a skewer – they were really good – the tanginess of the fruit went really well with the sweet toffee taste.
From the subway station, we took a back street route to our hostel and discovered another lake and more hutong, where we managed to find a place that was open late to trim Luke’s beard! When we got in, I painted a picture of the noisy, slightly senile ginger cat that lived there, and I tried doing some Chinese calligraphy copied from an address I had.