Published: September 26th 2006September 18th 2006
Grubby, smelly, noisy, incredibly smoggy, highly polluted, crazy traffic, people spitting in the street, beggars chasing you for money and everything under scaffolding or being knocked down. There are so many reasons to dislike Beijing that it's difficult to know where to start. However, for some strange reason we absolutely love the place. In fact, we like it so much we extended our stay from 4 to 9 days. There is just so much to see and do. And the great thing is that most of it is dirt (ehm..) cheap. There's nothing quite as satisfying as sitting down at the end of a long days tooristing and spending 2 pounds (where's the bloomin' pound sign gone!) on a meal for two! Then guzzling that down with a pint of beer that costs only 35p!
Our hostel is in an ideal place - right in the heart of a busy market street that offers for sale just about anything you could want, or rather, not want to eat. Dog, donkey intestines, strange black eggs - they're all here - just remember to bring some ketchup.
And this whole chopstick thing is a doddle. My days of dilly-dallying with a knife
Our room is just off this courtyard to the right. (The rooms are not quite as grand as the courtyard!)
and fork are firmly behind me. I'll eat my cornflakes with two sticks from now on (and a side order of dog testicles). Mmmm.
The Chinese are right up there with the Polish as my new favourite nationality (which you might have noticed changes every five days or so). Their habit of spitting in the street takes a bit of getting used to, but to be honest, you get the same thing in Edinburgh - just not quite as blatant or with the truly professional, chunky, lung busting, throat clearing action. I suspect that Projectile Phlegm will be sneaked into the 2008 Olympics, and I know where the gold medal's going to go. What is hilarious though is when you come across the consiencious Chinese who will initiate the throat clearing before bending down and gobbing in the nearest litter bin. At first sight it does look like Beijing has a lot more bin scavengers than they actually do as every bin seems to have someone with their head in it - but no - they're just doing their bit and keeping the streets clean of spit.
I think one of the attractions to Beijing is the sense
Da Zhan Lan
The superb market street our hostel is on.
of fun. Walking through the streets is like constantly being at a funfair. There is a palpable buzz in the air as if everyone is having the best time they've ever had. Despite all the warnings in Lonely Planet about persistent begging and professional teams of pickpockets, I feel no more threatened walking through the streets of Beijing than I would in any other city. And while there is a police presence, it is not as overbearing and daunting as it was in Moscow - in fact, the Police seem to enjoy larking about just as much as everyone else. Yesterday we saw a laughing policeman being chased through Tianamen Square by his colleagues who were trying to run him over in a Police van! The guys in the hostel restaurant also take a relaxed approach to their work. They seem to like nothing better than putting on Bruce Lee movies and chasing each other round the kitchen doing toy kung-fu. This seems to be fairly normal behaviour in Beijing. I've seen guys in suits facing off to each other in kung-fu style stances and then attacking each other in fits of laughter. The place is bonkers.
This is the most common phrase you'll hear as you walk through Da Zhan Lan.
of the Beijing male is obvious when it gets a bit too hot. Rather than stripping off or rolling up their sleeves, the blokes all roll up their jumpers/shirts to expose their stomachs. It can be quite a weird sight. You find that whole tour groups drifting round Tianamen square in their red baseball caps can be bare stomached - it looks like some sort of bizarre mating ritual designed to attract female tour groupers (who may well be wearing the yellow baseball caps). Mix the multi-coloured hats with the display of chinese belly and the spitting on the street/head in a bin, and altogether you have an ideal recipe for people watching - something both Vik and I are enjoying immensely.
As if to make a point that Beijing is not all fur coat and no knickers, we have noticed that in the department stores you will always find the fur coats and knickers next to each other. One department store had a whole floor that was devoted to nothing but fur coats and knickers!
I can't leave without mentioning a few of the Chinese people we have met here. Meeting them is easy - they're an
Life in the Hutong's (the lanes, courtyards and small streets that make up most of Beijing) is cramped but lively.
inquisitive lot who are not afraid to give you a big "hello!" and then ask to be photographed with you or even just touch you're arm and then walk off laughing!The girls in the Pharmacy round the corner from us were in absolute stitches when I mimed flu syptoms and a chesty cough. They produced a bottle of liquid and a packet of pills. I asked them through the medium of hand gestures and puzzled faces which was the best... eventually one of them got it and I ended up buying the liquid. The next bit produced even more hilarity. What dosage to take? Needless to say my mimed Westerner overdosing on Chinese medicine was an instant hit. The tears were rolling down their eyes when one of them chipped in with a well rehearsed "tree times a day" and pointed to the 10ml marker on the little plastic cup. Whether that was right or not (she could have picked the phrase up from watching repeats of Dr Quinn) Vikki's recovery was certainly given a good kickstart.
Then there was the arm touching bloke who just gave me a toothy grin before looking totally mesmorised saying "hello?" and then
The Bell Tower
The largest bell in Beijing(?!)
touching my arm like I was an illusion. Then he burst into laughter and hobbled off.
The couple at the Forbidden City (pictures in the next blog) couldn't get enough photos of me. Vikki had seen them coming and done a disappearing act. First they wanted just me. Then just me and his wife (or maybe daughter?). Then her standing on a wall next to me. Then just me and him. Then all three of us. Then me and the temple... Then we had to repeat the whole process with my camera before he decided that we should repeat the whole process again, but this time just photographing from the waist up(???). Even if I could have asked why, I don't think I would have understood...
Finally, I have to mention Dragon (picture in the next blog), who we met at the Temple of Heaven. He is a retired Civil Servant who has spent his retirement teaching himself English and entering English language competitions. The day after we met him he had an examination which would determine whether he could be an official guide at the Temple of Heaven. He took great pride in showing us his book
and telling us that "I learned it all from a book! A book!". He then gave us a tour of the Temple using the knowledge gleaned from his "Guide to Tour Guiding in Beijing", stressing that any questions (and we had to ask loads so he could practise!) should be related only to Temple of Heaven as that was the only chapter he'd read. He took great pride in his work and threw himself into it very enthusiastically, so much so that he lost his balance on a couple of occasions and slipped when he was trying to point to things high up on the map. We signed his little comments cards and bid him farewell. Vikki had to do this twice as the first time she hadn't commented on how good his English was! Best of luck with the exams Dragon.
There are more photos below