There was a time, many years ago, when I developed a fascination for the Chinese language. It was because of watching Chinese movies, and no, they were not the Kung Fu kind. Two that made a real impression on me were “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”. I attempted to learn Mandarin for two years and loved doing so at the time but then stopped.
On Sunday 13 May, I finally made it onto Chinese soil.
We had come to China to watch the second Port Adelaide Football Club game in Shanghai which was to take place on the same day a great many people were expected to be watching a certain royal wedding. We were to be in a stadium with thousands of fellow Power supporters cheering on the team.
Our pre game tour took us to Beijing and for two days we were expertly guided by David and Alex, our Chinese guides, who escorted us to the Great Wall about 80 kilometres outside Beijing, a jade factory, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and one of the Hutong districts in the city. We also attended two live theatre
performances (a Kung Fu extravaganza and an acrobatic show). The sights we visited were awe inspiring and beautiful reminders of how insignificant an individual can appear in the vastness of a country which is now the most populous on the planet. Through the stories of the two guides, I now developed a greater appreciation of a nation which has a long, fascinating and sometimes brutal history.
All around, my eyes focussed on the characters that used to be the subject of my memorisation drills and my lumbering brain was actually remembering some of them. The sounds of Chinese were also having the effect of reawakening some (very few) now forgotten expressions. I was in a linguistic heaven!
There were two stand out experiences for me. We were given free time on Monday evening and despite having shared a banquet lunch with the other people on the tour at the jade factory, I was feeling famished. Mark and I decided to follow David’s suggestion to try some “local snacks” in a street near our hotel. We followed his very clear instructions about how to walk there and found the place easily. Street vendors were noisily hawking their specialities and the laneway
One day, all this will be deciphered by me!
was packed with locals and tourists milling, walking and bumping into each other in the steamy, sticky atmosphere of a hot and humid mid May evening in downtown Beijing. There was no hint of any cooling breezes. The food around us sizzled and so it seemed did the people. My olfactory senses were being assaulted by good and bad smells as we made our way at a slow pace down the very crowded laneway. But I was hungry and it was time to feed my stomach. The first thing we tried was like a soft spring roll but bigger and flatter, filled with sweetly tasty bean shoots and other veggies. It was delicious. We also had some skewers of barbecued chicken, tasty but a little spicy, tofu tossed in a rather funky brown gravy (Mark felt sure this would be our gastrointestinal undoing but it turned out not to be), absolutely heavenly dumplings and, for dessert, little gelatinous rice balls which I thought were very nice. We declined to try any of the insects on offer. The still live skewered scorpions and enormous furry black spiders were particularly off putting.
At the end of our stroll, we passed an outdoor
stage where a performance of traditional Chinese song was happening.
On Tuesday we were served lunch in the hutong house of a Mr
Liao. The hutongs are the narrow alley ways where people still live in modest and quite cramped housing. Twenty five of us were packed into his living room and upstairs bedroom to enjoy a home cooked meal, banquet style, prepared by someone whom I presume was Mrs Liao. The kitchen where the food had been prepared was tiny and it was delicious. I am particularly enjoying the green vegetable dishes I have been sampling (green beans and garlic shoots at lunch) which I always very much enjoy. After our meal, Mr Liao shared stories with us through an interpreter of his days as a Kung Fu instructor and he performed two songs for us on the traditional Chinese violin, the erhu.
What I enjoyed most about both these experiences is that I felt we had got behind the veneer of the grand and historic aspects of our tour. I think I have had a glimpse of who and what real Beijing people are. They are most evident wherever we go - how could they not be in
a city of approximately 22 million people? To my ears and eyes they seem busy, strident and noisy but I have also seen them smiling, interacting with their friends and families in public areas as they stroll, exercise, play games and conduct their ordinary human lives. David and Alex have been exemplary guides and made us laugh with their anecdotes. I think I am just a little bit smitten by this place.
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