Beijing part 2 – great wall, great dinner!

Firstly, sorry for the lack of photos! WordPress doesn’t work brilliantly in China, so I think I’ll have to wait until I’m in another country before adding pictures!

We were up early the next morning for our trip to the Great Wall of China. We didn’t want to go to the really touristy Badaling section and didn’t have the time to visit the wilder sections, so we opted for Mutianyu; still a bit touristy, but quieter than Badaling. We took a car from our hostel with a girl from Florida called Lisa. When we arrived there was an option to take a cable car up to the wall, or to walk up the long way. We opted for the latter as it felt a bit of a cop out to do otherwise! There was even a toboggan slide to get down again, but our budget didn’t stretch to that extravagance! Being early in the morning, it was nice and quiet. The surrounding forested hills were shrouded in mist, and the wall curled away from us into the distance. The wall took the most difficult route over the hills, as this would have made it most effective defensively, so much of it was very steep. The bricks of the wall were laid parallel to the ground, regardless of the incline, which is something I haven’t seen before, and looks quite odd. The steps were variable in size and distance apart, so you would go from taking tiny fairy steps to huge strides up steps that seem made for giants. Sometimes the switch over was quite random, so you really had to watch where you were going. We reached the watchtower at one end of the section and Luke stopped to draw, whilst I turned round and walked the other way.

The further I walked, the busier it got. I saw a large group of American girls in white headscarves and long buttoned up dresses. I think they must have been from some sort of religious sect; I wondered if they were Amish, but I had thought they lived a more reclusive life! I really wanted to ask, but thought it would be rude and they should just be allowed to get on with their holiday. I reached the ridiculously long and steep section just at the point I had to turn around and go back (I was quite relieved for the excuse as I was already quite tired). Luke had bought us a packed lunch the night before – including what we thought was a cheese sandwich; it was called ‘Cheese Bread’, so the assumption was quite reasonable. It was really disgusting – no cheese in sight, just a small purple alien squashed in the middle.

After the wall, we got the driver to drop us near the Chinese Academy of Fine Art, as we had made plans to meet up with the girl from the tea shop we had met the day before. I am hopeless at remembering Chinese names, so let’s call her Ling. She was waiting outside with two of her friends, who are sisters. One was studying Chinese landscape painting and her sister was studying English, so she acted as translator. The English speaking girl’s name sounded like Carmen, so was easy for us to remember! She also studied Spanish. They were from near Hong Kong, so their first language was actually Cantonese.

They showed us around some of the exhibitions in the art museum. The first was a collection of films  by a Danish artist who made avant garde videos of mundane things or things with steam coming out of them – not really my cup of tea, and I don’t think they liked it much either! There were also some paintings by people who went to this art school – some were originals and some were copies of old European masters. Another exhibition was a joint venture between Belgium and China, which examined preconceptions of eastern and western attitudes to creativity. The one about China is by the Belgians; the Chinese will do their view of the west in Belgium in two years.

We were introduced to a Chinese oncologist, Chang, who lived in Oregon, USA – he got to know Ling through visits to the art school. He spoke very good English of course. Ling told us we were all invited to her calligraphy teacher’s studio. I thought this would be in same building, but it was out of the town centre, quite a long taxi ride away. The studio was on the ground floor of an apartment block, and very light and spacious inside. We were greeted at the door by two smiley girls, who showed us in and we sat down to have tea. Just as in the tea shop, one girl was in charge of serving the tea. It was rather ceremonious – the crockery was arranged on a slatted tray, the teapot being seated in a shallow dish with hot water in it. The tea was poured into the pot, and then over the pot so it ran over the outside. This was repeated a few times, and eventually the tea was poured into the cups. Yet again, I think we were being treated to rather posh tea. When our cups were empty, they were refilled. The tea maidens are very attentive!

The studio had a large table in the centre for working and there were beautifully framed works of calligraphy on the walls. The calligrapher seemed like quite a busy and important man. We showed around our sketchbooks; they were very impressed with Luke’s work and talked about how our cultures differ in ways of seeing. The girl that studied Chinese art explained a bit about how it is taught. She had to study calligraphy for one year before she began to learn how to paint pictures. Calligraphy is seen as a high art form; the line work is very important. They have to study masters of calligraphy, do copies, and eventually develop their own style. Chinese landscape painting seems a little like following a recipe – there are particular ways of painting leaves, mountains, clouds and water that emulate the traditional Chinese style, and she drew us some examples. She also told us that instead of painting from one viewpoint, you can paint from every viewpoint at once to get the overall feeling of a scene. I understood from this that you could paint rivers, trees and mountains in a way that looks the most pleasing, not depicting them accurately in position.

They found the picture of the cat I painted the night before and were quite complimentary; then they saw my attempts at calligraphy and seemed impressed, but mainly because they could read what it said (which is more than I can do!). So perhaps I can learn the art of Chinese calligraphy, just never know what I’m writing.

During tea, some clients arrived and so we got ready to go. When we were leaving, the calligrapher stopped us and gave us each a calligraphy paintbrush, one fat and one thin – the others told us they were very good quality. We were really touched by the gesture and I was especially pleased as I had been trying to justify buying one for myself. We left Ling at the studio, and travelled back into town to have dinner with Chang and the two sisters. They chose an amazing fish restaurant – did you ever think I would say that? We were pretty damn hungry by this point, having forgone the cheese bread at lunch, so had big appetites. They chose the food for us. The meal started with a few vegetable dishes, including peanuts in a really tasty vinegar sauce, large popped fried beans with chilli and Sichuan peppercorns (I love the tingling sensation you get from these), slices of rice starch in sauce which were really slippery and tested our chopstick skills to the max, spiced courgette strips, sticky rice …all really fresh and so tasty. Then a big fish arrived on a platter, in a buttery garlic and ginger sauce covered in thinly sliced vegetables, and lying on a bed of pak choi. The fish had been grilled and  had a lovely barbecued flavour. It was amazing. Later they brought some mussels and tipped them in too – I didn’t try these though. Dinner was paid for with a loyalty card, so we didn’t have to pay a penny! We felt very fortunate! I’m sure this is going to be our best meal in China; we would never have found anywhere as good if left to our own devices. After dinner, we thanked our kind acquaintances and bid them goodbye before heading back via the lakes to our hostel

On our last day in Beijing, I am ashamed to say we STILL didn’t manage to fly the kite! We are still carrying around even now, like some sort of battered talisman. We collected our nice clean washing from the hostel staff, which smelt of cooking having been hung up in the courtyard to dry, then took our luggage to the train station to leave in left luggage in preparation for our night train. No one understood what we were after even after I pointed to the Chinese character for luggage rack in the phrasebook. Eventually, Luke drew a very good picture and the penny dropped.

We debated what to do with our final few hours in Beijing. As it wasn’t very windy and so not kite flying weather, we elected to visit he Lama temple, a famous Buddhist temple. There was a lovely tree lined avenue leading up to the entrance. Once you had paid your entry, each person was entitled to a bundle of incense sticks. As Luke set about drawing straight away, I had his share of incense as well and so had a lot of burning to do! I went round lighting incense and putting them in the burners in front of the temples. As usual, there were lots of different buildings; large temples and smaller side temples, each dedicated to a different god or incarnation of the Buddha. The smoke billowing from the casks at the temple doors and the heady scent of incense made it all very atmospheric. However, I did find myself wondering if I was contributing to Beijing’s smog problem! Most people were lighting big bunches of incense at once, which I started off doing, but then a man came and indicated that I should light three at a time, plant them in the burner, then go and pray. I did so, feeling rather self-conscious as he was watching me! I must have done alright though, as he nodded kindly at me afterwards!

After this we went to the lovely Confucius café and drank lassi, which was quite expensive, but we got our money’s worth as we eked it out and internetted for a long time!  On our search for a pre-train dinner, we discovered a more upmarket hutong in the Dongcheng district, with lots of little bars. It was Hallowe’en, so a lot of people were dressed up, and some bars had Hallowe’en themed nights. We ate in a vegetarian restaurant, aptly called Veggie Table, before going for a drink in a bar with live music. The man were mostly young Chinese men, but the lead singer looked to be in his 50s and sounded Spanish. He had a good voice and the music was really fun – bluesy rock with good groove to it. They started off with ‘Everything I do’ – but singing, ‘Everything we do, we do it for you!’ (we, meaning the band and you, the audience). It was super cheesy, but got better after that! We had a bit of a dance; me willingly of course, Luke less so as no one else was dancing. We had to leave sooner than we would have liked in order to catch the night train.

We had chosen hard sleepers to keep costs down and had been a bit worried about what they would be like, but we needn’t have worried. The carriages were open and had rows of three tier bunks, with nice thick duvets and clean sheets. I was on the top and Luke was in the middle. I didn’t sleep quite as well as I might have done, as being so high up I kept getting paranoid about falling off!

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