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Published: November 2nd 2007
For some reason, I didn't expect to like China, but actually, I am enjoying my time here immensely. Somehow, I have managed to avoid the crowds by staying away from the major tourist spots, and hence I found being in Beijing really relaxing. Being at the quiet Templeside House Hostel (www.templeside.com) has been a treat as well, as Bobby and his delightful staff have made my stay very special with their hospitality. What really gets me is how friendly the Chinese people are: extremely obliging and helpful, in particular when I get lost (once in a while), and although everyone in the street stares when I pass by, it doesn't feel obtrusive or uncomfortable, like in Sicily for example, or in some Muslim countries. They just seem genuinely curious and happy at seeing a foreign face, and complete strangers smile at me on the street and say 'hello!' or 'Ni Hao!'
On Tuesday night, I went on a motorcycle sidecar tour of Beijing ('you are crazy!' exclaimed some fellow English travellers. 'Have you seen how they drive here?') with a lovely Chinese guy called Wangma. He made me wear an open silver helmet and some pilot's glasses, much to Bobby's
delight, who exclaimed beamingly, 'Hitler's Army!' when he saw me. The tour was wild, and really good fun. We cruised past some of the tourist stops, like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which were deserted at night, as well as through some of the smaller districts and quirkier neighbourhoods and a couple of bars, where I met some of his friends.
It was windy but very sunny on Wednesday at Samhain, so I borrowed an old bicycle off Bobby and decided, like a large percentage of the Chinese population, to cycle through Beijing to the Temple of Heaven. Getting around by bike here is easy, as the city is mainly flat and the streets are straight and wide, and have some very large bicyle lanes. The problem is the traffic: not only do the Chinese drive like maniacs, you also have to be constantly alert, because when it is green for you, it doesn't mean that the drivers will stop. On the contrary. So when you're crossing a road, whether it's by bike or by foot, you constantly have to look over your shoulder, to the left, right, and behind you, as otherwise you might just be run
over by a bus. That aside, seeing the city in that way is really nice - Beijing is beautiful, and you can take in quite a lot, stopping off whenever you like, without being on a crammed bus.
The Temple of Heaven is quite simply stunning. It's a huge complex, set in a 267- hectare park. It has four gates, each of which corresponds to the points of the compass, and inside this magic circle are magnificent examples of Ming architecture, such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. In this complex, sound, shape and colour combine to take on symbolic significance. Most atmospheric and most magical in my view is the Round Altar, five m high in white marble arrayed in three tiers, and its geometry revolves around the number 9. It was here that the prayers and sacrificial rituals took place. You can walk into (and out of) the altar to the centre stone like walking a labyrinth. It's a powerful place still, although I think that the Emperor would turn in his grave if he would witness the many tourist groups with their blue and red caps, screaming and laughing in the centre of the
altar. You can lose the tourists though by disappearing into the rows of ancient cypress trees, where it's silent. There are also the seven-star stones, and the site felt most appropriate for Samhain, as there are also the 'divine kitchen' and 'butcher house', where the sacrificial animals were prepared and slaughtered. There was also a divine music hall, where dancers and singers were specially trained for the sacrificial dances and songs. What impressed me most about the Temple of Heaven is just how much thought and detail (and magnificence) this Emperor put into placating and honouring the Gods. It's a truly magical place.
Now, as I am slightly 'directionally challenged' (say left to me and I will go right), I got really lost on my way back home in the dark. One wrong turn, and that was it. I cycled through Beijing for almost three hours until I finally found my way back to the guest house. On my way back, I rode through a big street called Fuyou Jie. A policeman whom I asked for the way had discouraged me from taking this road earlier for some reason, which made me want to take it all the more. As I rode along the tree-lined street, I noticed a lot of policemen standing beneath the trees on the pavement. They stood in a distance of maybe about ten metres from each other, but, even more strangely, between them, on their own, always stood an extremely beautiful and well-dressed young man, loitering on the kerbside. I nearly crashed my bike a couple of times as they looked at me with dark smouldering eyes, and every time I stepped off my bike to check my map, one of them would take a tentative step towards me, and continue to look at me. I almost blushed as I felt their gaze upon me. Who were these beautiful men? Were they male prostitutes? Did they want my custom? But if they were rent boys, then why the policemen next to them? Unless it is extremely dangerous to be a rent boy in Beijing and they are afforded police protection, then this didn't really make sense. Still wondering, I left them behind. Bobby nearly choked later when I asked him whether these men on Fuyou Jie were prostitutes. He told me that they are highly trained and very smart special security guards, usually adept in martial arts, chosen through a rigorous selection process - some kind of special force to protect important people and buildings, and this street is politically sensitive. I guess it helps to be beautiful if you want the job!
Yesterday I went to the Great Wall of China, to Jin Shan Lin, a three hour drive from Beijing. I was told that this was one of the most beautiful stretches of the wall, and you can hike to another place called Si Ma Tai - a ten km walk. I hired a driver to take me there (who was overly fond of sounding his horn at every occasion to alert others he was approaching and whom I was ready to strangle after three hours of his near-suicidal driving, during which he 'entertained' me by singing and humming Chinese chansons), and met Marie, a lovely Swedish woman from Halmstad, in the car park, and we undertook the hike together. And a hike it was: far, steep, precarious, with almost vertical stone steps (103 or so at the time).. and so, so beautiful. We were almost the only people on the four-hour hike, and there was just an incredible stillness, far-reaching mountain views, autumn leaves, a bright sun and a clear sky... glorious. At the end of the hike, after you cross a wobbly chain-bridge which you must not step upon if you suffer from mental illness or alcoholism according to the sign, you can fly over the river to the car park via a toboggan ride. You basically strap a harness around your body and zoom as fast as lightning down the mountain. We didn't dare to do it - and later really regretted it, as it looked like so much fun!
Well, I'm off to Tibet in a couple of hours. Everybody just looks at me pitifully here and says 'You know that it's really cold there now, yes?' Apparently, most hotels don't have heating there.
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