Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Temple of Extreme Moisture

In China the people say they will eat anything with four legs – except a chair and anything with two wings – except an airplane. Thus we were well prepared for our first evening in the capital of China, Beijing, as our local Chinese guide Jackie took fourteen exhausted UK Voyagers Jules Verne travellers through the open air street market in this remarkable city. Three hundred and sixty five days a year from 6.00 am until midnight and in all the extreme weathers these fast-food stalls line the street by the hundred preparing and cooking food for the hungry passers-by.

But what food; Skewers crammed with plucked sparrows; skinned frogs; wriggling scorpions; silk worm cocoons and water rat; all ready to be stir fried and grilled, served and eaten on the go. Snake-burger anyone? Delicious steamed dumplings seemed to be normal fare on this bustling food street and we weren't really shocked at the skewers of scorpions – after all we eat prawns don't we?

So what was our itinery for the sixteen night visit to China? Our holiday was booked with Voyagers Jules Verne and charmingly named 'The Original Yangtze Cruise' as eight nights of our sixteen were to be spent sailing up the vast Yangtze River to include the new Three Gorges Dam and the Three Gorges as they are now before the dam is completed in 2009 and drowns another eighty metres of the mountains that make this part of the Yangtze River so recognisable. The remaining eight nights were to be spent in five star hotels in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian with internal flights between Beijing and Shanghai and after our river cruise a flight from the river port of Chongqing in the Western provinces to Xian to visit the Terracotta Army and then flying back to Beijing for an overnight stay and then the ten hour return flight on China Airways to Heathrow.

Five airplane journeys in sixteen days; A warning disclaimer at the end of our booking confirmation from our travel company Voyagers Jules Verne told us that this trip was strenuous and should not be undertaken by anybody with walking difficulties or health problems. Tired yet?

First impressions of China were vivid and will remain with me always. Beijing has a population of over thirteen million people and covers a land area larger than Belgium. It certainly is a city of the old and the new with cyclists braving the heavy traffic that clogs up the roads for most of the day, plus risking the fumes. China is under construction – bring a hard hat with you as essential travel wear. The people of Beijing are beautiful, both male and female. They are small boned, slim, high-cheek bones, clear complexions and sculptured features, beautifully dressed and always on the move. Our local guide told us that although China has a communist government everyone is a mini-capitalist holding down three jobs at a time.

We visited a local park that was like an outside gymnasium. The majority of the people using the basic equipment were well past retirement age and were supple and able to manoeuvre their bodies into positions that a thirty year old would envy. Music played under the trees as elderly couples danced together. Groups of people practiced Tai Chi together, played ball-games, gambled, sang, played musical instruments and made the most of this free amenity provided by the government to keep a fit body and mind. I somehow couldn't imagine our retired population in the UK making use of walking machines, benches and even a cobbled path that people were walking around and around barefooted.

Another significant impact was how polite and non-aggressive the huge city of Beijing felt. Usually in any big city there can be a feeling of threat and menace but we didn't experience this sensation at all in China. We felt completely safe.

Another huge impact was that after the scruffy, dirty and worn out atmosphere of London Heathrow and the obvious discontentment of the people who have to work there, and then Beijing International Airport was indeed a sharp contrast. Spotlessly clean with polite smiling staff and a very modern, streamlined appearance putting Heathrow to shame at the first impression that it must surely give to our visiting tourists.

Another lingering thought was the absence of wild birds and dogs and cats in Beijing as the only birds we saw were in cages and I pushed the thought of sparrows on a skewer being stir fried right out of my mind. I didn't want to know!

Our group of seven couples with ages ranging from thirty two up to seventy eight got to know each other during dinner on our first night in the revolving restaurant at the top of the extremely comfortable five stars Xixuan Hotel in Beijing. Eating a delicious Chinese buffet meal and gazing over the dramatic skyline of tower scrapers and congested newly built road system choc-a-bloc with gleaming new cars we noticed the descending smog that began to obliterate the tops of the high rise hotels, apartments and office blocks. We wondered – was the smog a warning of things to come?

Being part of a group has its pros and cons. The independent traveller would choose to stop mid-morning while sight-seeing for a coffee or glass of green tea but we knew from prior travel experiences that the host country and their tourist board wants the visitor to see as much of their country as possible. On the other hand, the independent traveller would need more than sixteen days to see everything that we saw – probably more of a gap-year? In one day alone in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square with lunch in a local restaurant en route; dinner at a local restaurant followed by an evening at a Beijing Opera performance; all this without returning to our hotel.

Tiananmen Square is vaster than any news footage can reveal as it covers 98 acres and of course images of the student demonstration in 1989 flash before your eyes. I considered our group of fourteen were pretty intelligent people but we still found ourselves lined up and saying 'Cheese' for a group photo taken with an immense portrait of Chairman Mao as a backdrop. I blame jet-lag!

The Forbidden City will be familiar to many as the setting for the excellent film 'The Last Emperor' The Forbidden City was out of bounds to ordinary people for over five hundred years as it was the home of the Ming Emperors. The last Emperor only left the city after the 1911 revolution but not till 1924 when this, the 24th emperor was expelled by military troops. Considering there are allegedly 9999 rooms all contained in 800 stunning buildings with yellow tiled roofs and surrounded by a moat and high walls it isn't surprising there was a revolution. Translation from Chinese to English was aptly named as 'Chinglish' by our guide as exotically named temples were translated as 'The Temple of Excessive Moisture' and 'The Hall of Preserved Elegance'

The Summer Palace covers twelve square miles – three quarters of which is a man-made lake – but this was built by an Empress using money that was intended for a naval fleet –again – bring on the revolution? However, the landscaping was tranquil consisting of classic Chinese gardens featuring water, rocks, bridges, willows, bamboo, jasmine and traditional buildings showing the balanced Yin and Yang of nature.

At this stage of our trip we had realised that whichever tourist wonder we visited there would be a souvenir shop at the end of it - or a silk factory, or a jade factory, or a pearl factory, or a Chinese traditional landscape painting shop, or a porcelain shop, or an enamel shop, or a silk carpet shop, or a Buddha factory, or a calligraphy shop, or a name-seal shop, or a Chinese tea shop, or a hand-painted snuff bottle shop, or a kite shop; it was endless. On the other hand bargaining with the Chinese was a fun business all undertaken with good nature and a result that pleased both the vendor and the buyer. We had been warned about the 'Hello People' that congregates around any recognised tourist site. 'Hello People' because they called out 'Hello', banged drums, whistled, clapped and shouted to attract attention to their merchandise. But, they were nowhere near as invasive as their equivalents in the Middle East, taking 'No' for an answer with fine humour, even after punching in an inflated price into their large hand-held calculators – let the haggling begin!

A bit about eating out in Beijing and indeed all of China; we were already 'Lazy-Susanned' out! The dishes at both lunch and dinner kept coming one after another on to the spinning wheel, albeit totally delicious but impossible for our group to eat everything. We all felt guilty as we left the table with enough food remaining to feed another group – perhaps it did? A tureen of clear soup, a bowl of rice and a pot of green tea would arrive first, rapidly followed dishes of pork, ribs, chicken, prawns, beef, vegetables and sometimes a whole steamed fish on the bone (picked from a tank of live fish) Then watermelon and pomegranates; Spinning the Lazy Susan was an art form and for kack-handed people like me chopsticks made for awkward and sloppy eating. Although I did like only having small bowl rather than a large dinner plate as this prevented that mass pile up of food on a plate that is the inevitable end-result of a Chinese Take-Away at home.

Morty had to be my food taster in the more Western provinces to protect my mouth from being fire-bombed as they cook with red-hot chilli peppers or lip-numbing wild peppers as in a hot and sour soup. Sadly, whilst in Beijing I mistook a dish of fresh green vegetables as green beans instead of wild green peppers with attention grabbing consequences and an inability to speak for twenty minutes.

Part of our evening city tour in Beijing was a visit to the Opera, a condensed version especially for tourists. Before we entered the Opera theatre we were able to watch the performers applying their make-up and costumes as they got into character. Chinese opera is unique. The facial make-up and costumes identify the characters as good or bad, evil, brave or honest. Everything is very vivid and colourful and the singers 'sing' in a shrieking falsetto and the music sounds like a band tuning up. But the dance and the acrobatics and sense of drama were enthralling made all the more amusing for the Chinglish sub-titles displayed on a screen either side of the stage. The opera visit lasted around one hour and we were all relieved to get back to our comfortable hotel lobby and listen to the excellent female pianist and base player playing tuneful Western classical music as we sipped a few glasses of cold Chinese white wine before bed.

I gather there is some debate as to whether The Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. It stretches for over three and a half thousand miles from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. It was begun in the 5th Century BC built in small stretches then linked together at the end of the 3rd Century BC unifying the whole of China. As I climbed the steep worn steps on this hot day determined to reach the fourth tower on this minute restored section at Badaling Pass forty-four miles north of Beijing I thought about the forced labour of millions of people who were conscripted to build this wall as a defensive protection against the people of the North.

This section of the Great Wall is the most crowded and surrounded by souvenir stalls run by the 'Hello People' and there are many restaurants. There are quieter places to visit the Wall where the traveller is able to climb in comparative solitude away from the tour groups. The views as I climbed higher up this restored section became more dramatic scanning a wild and rugged landscape with just the sight of the unrestored Wall disappearing into the distance.

Our afternoon was a welcome contrast to The Great Wall and the throngs of people. The Ming Tombs were a relaxing experience. The third Ming Emperor Yongle chose the Shisanling Valley, twenty five miles north-west of Beijing, as the burial place for himself and eventually eleven of his successors. We strolled in the afternoon sunshine through huge marble gates that marked the beginning of The Sacred Way leading to the tombs. As we approached a triple arched gate we were all superstitious enough not to walk through the central arch as this was only used when an Emperor's body was brought through for internment. Rather than face more crowds our guide recommended we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity by following the half mile long Sacred Way route past the eleven unrestored and unopened tombs. Ah! Bliss! The beautiful formal Chinese gardens and huge statues of men and animals carved out of granite gave us a feeling of calm. The fully excavated tomb of Emperor Yongle took thirty thousand people six years to build. It is difficult not to appreciate these labours as I strolled through courtyards, marble terraces and palatial buildings all centred onto The Hall of Eminent Favours – one of the largest wooden buildings in China.

As if this wasn't enough for one day our last night in Beijing was to enjoy a meal of Beijing (Peking) Duck in the Quanjude Restaurant, the largest duck restaurant in the World. This 'Duck Palace' has over forty dining rooms and can serve five thousand meals a day. Needless to say, the gang were a bit travel weary by this time and dissolved into laughter when the expert chef arrived at our table to carve our duck wearing a mask. Some bad taste SARS comments bounced around the group but I put this down to the bottles of very strong Chinese fruit wine that were spinning around the Lazy Susan. I have never been inside such a large and busy restaurant and as we left to return to our hotel at 9.00pm there were hundreds of people, mainly Chinese, queuing to have a meal.

The afternoon of day five we were to fly from Beijing to Shanghai on an internal flight for the next stage of our holiday but on the way to the airport that morning there was one more stop en route to The Temple of Heaven where emperors held their religious ceremonies. But again we were 'Minged' out as we felt culturally drained and all agreed that we were looking forward to our overnight stay in Shanghai and then boarding our river boat, The Victoria Rose, at Yuhan for a relaxing eight night cruise up the River Yangtze. Oh how we were to recall those words 'relaxing' in the days to come!

Tour prices for China vary enormously. This was our sixth holiday with Voyagers Jules Verne as they appear to be in the mid-price range and have always been completely reliable and efficient and always ensure their clients have comfortable and often luxurious accommodation, particularly on more strenuous touring holidays such as this. A Tour Manager is always supplied and they employ professional English speaking and knowledgeable local guides wherever required. The second part of our visit to China will focus on the Yangtze River Cruise, the Three Gorges and the new Dam, the Terracotta Warriors and our exciting trip in a cable car to the top of the Yellow Mountain; plus of course some personal observations – including the fog.

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pal said...

I do so love your travel pieces. China is on our list.

Maddie Grigg said...

I felt like I was there, all those descriptions of people, food and places. You can't half write. I hear that 'Chinglish' is being spruced up, with jobs going for translators to tidy up all the funny translations.

Buggles Balham High Road said...

We want to go back to China to see bits we missed last time Pal. Put it at the top of your list along with Cuba.

Thanks Maddie. I value a comment like that coming from you. I'm happy this piece took you there.