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September 17th 2009
Published: October 28th 2009
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If you’d told me way back as a kid that I’d be flying to Beijing one day, I’m not sure I’d have known what to think.

Back then China was something of an unknown quantity, a mysterious Red Giant which, while not as likely to blow us to kingdom-come as the bloody Ruskies, still definitely resided in the ‘Not To Be Trusted’ file.

The truth is I, like the rest of the world in those days, had very little idea of what actually went on in China at all. It was a strange land of ancient traditions that the modern world seemed to have left behind. The only snippets coming to my conscience from that fount of all knowledge, the telly, were episodes of Hong Kong Phooey, The Water Margin and the madness that was Monkey. From this I surmised that the Chinese all lived in filing cabinets and were expert ventriloquists, their spoken words bearing little relation to their lip movements. The only real life Chinamen I knew were George Takei, confusingly playing a character called Zulu (I only later discovered it was in fact Sulu, and he was Japanese) and David Carradine, who it turned out was
Wedded Bliss?Wedded Bliss?Wedded Bliss?

Actually, they were models!
a white guy all along, and would later go on to encounter his own mysterious ending.

Musically sole advice came from Carl Douglas (a Jamaican!), who reported Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting. Apparently they were all fast as lightning, and a little bit frightening, not really news to anyone with even the briefest of acquaintance with Monkey, who was plainly mad as a cut snake.

It’s no wonder I was bemused; all-in-all I knew squat-diddly.

I was still wary of them, though. I’d heard all about Chinese Water Torture, strapped to the floor to endure constant drip-drips to the forehead. I have to say at school we had our doubts about this particular punishment, compared with, say, a session in the Iron Maiden, being stretched on the rack or hung, drawn and quartered. It just seemed a little tame, all so unnecessarily obtuse, particularly when you already had the fearsome Chinese Burn quite literally up your sleeve.

All went to show just what an odd bunch they really were.

Curiously, though, they also seemed to have come up with some really useful things in their time, amongst them paper, fireworks, and Pot Noodle. This last I didn’t go for at all, as my parents had unwisely exposed me to Chinese food at far too tender an age whilst briefly down visiting my Granny. In those days I had distinctly conservative tastes, basically anything that wasn’t sausage, beans and chips not passing muster. Unexpectedly I gained an unlikely ally in Granny, who for once deserted the Grown-Ups United Front by being unable to hide her distaste for the filthy foreign muck. This rare slip left such a mark on my maturing psyche that I would later become the first student in history to go right through Uni without so much as a single Pot Noodle. Really I think I deserved Honours for that alone.

The main reason I was not be too sure about Beijing, though, was that I’d never heard of it. Back then any fool knew that the capital of China was Peking.

I’ve always been wary of name-changes, ever since Marathon went to Snickers, just one more attempt to lure me into the pure-evil that is the peanut-chocolate combo. Later Prince, for no apparent reason, chose to change his name to The Symbol, which not even the Chinese could decipher, before reluctantly returning to The Artist Formerly Known As Good. Any number of cities and even entire nations latterly followed suit, particularly galling when you’ve just finished years of schoolboy tests on world capitals. The question with Beijing is why did we ever need to change at all? It’s all just a matter of accents. I’m not bothered if the French choose to call my hometown Edimbourg en Ecosse. Makes it sound a little classier if anything. So long as they don’t get all shirty over me calling them The Bloody Frogs, it’s all dinky-di with me, mate.

Luckily the whole subject’s something a moot point as it turns out we didn’t fly to Beijing at all, but fell for the usual low-cost carrier trick and touched down at the much cheaper Tianjin instead. Don’t worry... I’d never heard of it either.

Fortunately Tianjin turns out to be not so far from Beijing at all, particularly as the two are connected by the world’s fastest intercity link which, rather unkindly for such a marvel of engineering, is nicknamed The Whizzy Train.

Ironically, so stunningly efficient is the Whizzy Train that it doesn’t actually feel very whizzy at all. The flat and featureless landscape it traverses doesn’t help, but I’d swear if you closed your eyes you’d think you weren’t moving at all. All this despite zipping along at well over 200 miles an hour, comfortably my personal Land Speed Record, and faster than even I ever managed to wangle out of my parents’ ageing Ford Escort.

On arrival we toddled out of Beijing South station straight into a spanking new taxi which swept into the heaving traffic of a bustling modern metropolis. There may once have been Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing, but they’re rapidly being replaced by at least as many cars, whose numbers currently swell by two thousand every single day, the whole city rapidly approaching gridlock. The roads themselves pass through a seemingly endless modern sprawl, with barely a building in sight more than 25 years old, and most of them not much more than five. Nowhere does the developing world seem shy of living up to its name, but in China it’s in a particular hurry and progress takes place at Warp Factor 10. I’ve no idea what was here before, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this. In the rush to advance, no-one seems to consider keeping anything old at all, the most striking buildings instead being the most futuristic, none more so than the bizarre CCTV building, which resembles nothing more than a giant skyscraper-sized pair of trousers striding their way through downtown. It’s somehow appropriate that China’s public service broadcaster should be called CCTV; you’re watching them while they’re watching you.

We eventually arrived at the impressive Boya Gardens, the home of our friends Jonny and Becs. They’ve lived here for a good five years now and kindly gave us not only a place to stay, but invaluable assistance in negotiating our way through a land where you can’t even read the signage. Despite the Olympics, few locals yet speak English. And why should they? I don’t imagine there’s too many Cockneys busy frantically mugging up on their Mandarin before 2012.

As well as Becky and Jonny, we also met their nippers Oliver and Alice for the first time, and as a result were happily reacquainted with both Rory the Racing Car and Sean the Sheep, with whom I’d developed an unhealthy addiction during our short stay in Blighty. I’m still hoping they might end up in a double feature together, but struggle to see how a sheep encountering a racing car could make for a happy ending.

That first night we were treated to a sumptuous Beijing feast which even Granny might have enjoyed, and the next day were released into the bustling streets once more to search out something properly old in the form of the ancient Forbidden City.

Fortunately it’s right opposite Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s most famous landmark of all, and so wasn’t terribly difficult to find.

The square itself was currently undergoing preparations for the forthcoming celebrations of 60 years of communist rule.

Most folks once they reach 60 are thinking of winding down, counting down the days before the free bus-pass arrives and the pension finally kicks in, but the Peoples Democratic Republic shows no signs of slowing. Now that the Iron Curtain’s rusted away and the Whitehouse has gone all touchy-feely (the neo-cons would be turning in their graves, if only they were dead), the Chinese remain the only evil Superpower intent on Global Domination, and they’re not about to let us forget it.

The 60th Anniversary was a chance to remind the Chinese people
Come in No 5!Come in No 5!Come in No 5!

With nine million bicycles, you've got to do something to stand out from the crowd!
and the rest of the world that China is now a force to be reckoned with. The big day would kick off a nine-day national holiday, as well as presenting the biggest ever display of military hardware, which would trundle past the glitterati in Tiananmen Square and be ominously beamed to the populace and the world at large.

All of which seems a trifle unnecessary. It’s been common knowledge for really quite some time now that all that’s required to immobilise a your average Chinese tank is to stand in front of it with a couple of shopping bags. Not particularly special shopping bags either, as far as I remember. Presumably a truly quality pair from the likes of Harrods would be enough to quell a nuclear warhead.

You have to wonder why on earth they didn’t just run him over? They’re not too shy of capital punishment for their other political undesirables, after all.

Could it be that to do so would have given the game away, revealed the tank to be made of cardboard and papier-mache, powered by the crew sticking their feet out of the bottom and shuffling along like The Anthill Mob. Would it just fall to pieces at the first sign of heavy-duty action? It was Made In China after all.

Invaded countries need do no more than declare a nationwide day of sales, and the whole charade would be ended there and then.

It wasn’t always thus.

There really was a time when the entire nation was held captive by a brutal regime, as evidenced over the road at the Forbidden City. For hundreds of years the Emperors ruled as the ultimate political elite, and for the average Joe Schmo even to enter the gates without permission would mean instant death.

Fortunately the powers that be have mellowed somewhat in the meantime, and the price of entry has been reduced to around thirty bucks, all without the need for advance funeral arrangements.

Unsurprisingly this has upped the numbers flowing in somewhat.

Despite their despotic rule, the Chinese still revere the emperors, and it’s every citizen’s wish to visit the Imperial Palace, even if only once in a lifetime. Such are their numbers that even this still equates to around 50000 a day, and on a gorgeous autumn day like today there seemed at least twice that many, as well as a good sprinkling of filthy foreigners like ourselves.

All in all it didn’t augur well.

I’m not much of a fan of mass-tourism events, generally finding them about as enjoyable as removing my own entrails through my nostrils with a rusty fork. The zig-zag roped off queue and line of tellers behind plexiglass did little to calm my nerves. Nor did being fleeced for a dubious audio-commentary gizmo as well as my entry.

Which made it all the more surprising on passing through the Gates of Death to find I absolutely loved the place. Here was the China that we’d been looking for, even if the commentary did prove to be, and excuse my French here, un sac de merde. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Each successive emperor felt duty-bound to outdo his predecessor, each palace more magnificent than the last. And they chose to do so not with some display of grim austerity but with a blitz of colour and panache. The resultant display was on such a grand scale that 50000 people just vanished into the shadows.

That is until a camera was trained on them. It turns out that, despite their naturally reticent character, China is so gripped by modernity that they’ve rapidly become the world’s biggest poseurs, any number of Zoolander moves ready and waiting to oblige the lenses of their friends. And, as usual in the third world, just being Western guarantees a good number of their lenses trained in your direction, with plenty of chances to dust off your own Blue Steel. Frankly we’re used to this kind of thing by now and it’s all becoming a bit Old Hat. Admittedly nobody has yet asked me for my autograph or arranged coach-tours past my house, but surely it’s only a matter of time.

Next day at Olympic Park we were much less in demand.

Here the buildings themselves were the stars, China’s ultimate chance to hack it on the main-stage. The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are the epitome of modernity, undeniable proof (if any were needed) that China is now a true 21st Century player. The shackles of the past are gone, the nation has come of age, and it’s time to enjoy all the ultimate excesses that the west has deigned to offer.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome.

Kublai Khan’s spirit is alive and well, and this time maybe, just maybe, everyone is invited to the party.

Plainly there was still one last attraction to tick off our wish-list, the most famous Chinese monument of them all. It’s right up there on the Hundred Things to Do Before You Die list. Curiously they never seem to include Make a Will, or the more mundane Remember to Take the Rubbish Out, If It’s a Tuesday.

The Great Wall.

It’s just never going to live up to the hype, is it?

Throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aeroplane, taking a racing car to the limit, diving in cages with Great White Sharks. These are three I’ve managed to tick off, and let me tell you, they leave quite an impression, no doubt about it.

Standing atop a big pile of bricks and mortar?

Well, it was just brilliant!

Maybe I’m getting a little old, but it left just as much a mark on my memory as any of the above.

Initially, I didn’t have high hopes.

Once again, the fear was of a total tourist nightmare, ferried in with a thousand other clueless nerds to snap a few shots and buy the T-shirt. Our only hope was to avoid the organised tours and attempt to do our own thing slightly further afield. Doesn’t sound too hard, but we’d never have managed it without the local knowledge and linguistic assistance of our expert hosts and their invaluable nanny. Thanks again, guys!

Jinshanling was only a couple of hours away but with no direct buses or package tours no-one else at all seemed to have thought of going. We’d boldly set off into the unknown and with only a smidgeon of good-fortune and improvised sign-language found ourselves deposited early-afternoon to explore the wall at our leisure. There was quite literally nobody else there, save for one American documentary-maker who’d turned up specifically to get footage of the wall with nobody else in sight. I was even press-ganged into being cameraman while he did the set-piece for his new film!

Standing atop the wall was like stepping back in time. Gone were the throngs of Beijing and modern industrialism. Nothing but endless empty rolling hills as far as the eye could see, any one of which seemed sure to shelter a marauding ancient army ready to besiege you. It really did feel quite eerie, as if the souls of a thousand soldiers past still hung in the air all around.

Next day we strode the ten undulating kilometres down the wall to Simitai, encountering precisely nobody on the way except a couple of bewildered Aussies at the far-end, wondering where the hell everyone else had got to. Not to the restaurant, in any case, where we were the sole customers for quite the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had... I’m sitting here drooling just thinking about it.

I was so impressed with the whole encounter that there was nothing left to do but snap off a few shots and buy the T-shirt.

Well, somebody had to!

On that note it was time to leave the cool fresh air of the mountains and head back to the heat of the plains and into the stifling smog that is modern Beijing.

We had one last day to snap up a few souvenirs and peruse the parks of the city centre, which might have been lovely were it not for the overpowering haze. Our week in China had flown by and we’d absolutely loved it. Thanks again to our obliging hosts. Hopefully we’ll return the favour in Cairns sometime soon.

Despite having now been to Beijing, though, I’m still not sure I know quite what to make of it. What we’d enjoyed most were the ancient and the open, both now being crushed under the weight of concrete and mirrored-glass that is modern China.

At the end of the day you can’t blame them, the everyman’s lot soaring along with the economic boom.

For the rest of us though, the polluted skies above suggest that, despite the glut of cheap consumer goods heading our way, ultimately it might not prove such a good thing.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome?

I suspect my childhood self might have been humming a different tune.

All-in-all It’s Just Another Brick in The Wall.


20th July 2012
Handy Handle

Love the delicacy...simply sublime

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