9 Million bicycles

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August 29th 2019
Published: August 30th 2019
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According to Katie Melua's song, written by Mike Batt, 'There 9 million bicycles in Beijing.' But I bet that when he wrote that they weren't all sea turquoise, yellow or red and hired for the hour or day using a smart phone app. Because that's what it's like now.

Beijing, the city, is surprisingly peaceful even at the main roads. And it's predominantly because of the almost total lack of petrol mopeds, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks and the like. Sure there are many 2 and 3 wheel vehicles about but they are almost exclusively battery powered. Mind you that makes them close to being a silent assasin as you can't hear them coming and they are not great respectors of the rules. And at night they un-clearly like to save battery power by driving with no lights.

Hello from hot, humid and slightly smoggy Beijing where we have been for 4 days now.

At least if you are reading this, and have seen any of our Facebook or Twitter entries or Messenger or emails, it means our Internet traffic is getting around China's 'Great Firewall'. This speaks for itself really. China blocks internet traffic that is, or has the potential to be, detrimental to China's government policies. So that's sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Outlook e-mail and very specific sites particularly various western news organisations.

A way to get around this is to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. We have bought access to one such on a monthly basis which we can then cancel at the end of our trip. Essentially what we do is sign on to whatever wifi site we are accessing the Web by, the app logs us on to the VPN programme and logs us onto a server outside China of our choosing. A longish list to choose from. And it works. Once set up it is pretty much automatic. The location we tend to sign in to is a server in Singapore.

We've had nearly 4 days now. Some Chinese observations.....

- there are a lot of them. The crowds at the popular places eg Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square are at FA Cup final levels, every day, all day.
- they appear to come in 3 volumes - loud, louder and SHOUT.
- they eat as if the apocalypse will start when they have finished eating. The sight of the size of the breakfast platefuls they put away in the morning is a sight to behold. And go anywhere touristy and the seats, bottoms of walls, grass, is smothered with Chinese eating.
- they will eat in odd, to us, combinations. We have seen a menu which was strawberry appetiser followed by duck followed by duck soup, and at one lunch snack stop a, frankly obese, 10 years old was eating chicken nuggets from one hand and an ice cream from the other, alternatively, without mum even batting an eyelid.
- we think many of them are secretly practising for the Phlegm Olympics in which they will win gold, men and women, in the volume (highest decibels ), volume (greatest quantity ) and duration categories. Don't know about the distance category as, to be fair, they don't seem to spit it out.
- very clean everywhere, even side streets where less might have been expected. Little evidence of litter being dropped. Have even seen several times children walking to a bin to deposit rubbish!
-toilets everywhere, and, where we have seen through open doors, pretty clean looking too. Mostly squats though. Bigger ones in buildings are the best bet for a normal sit, even if it's only the disabled cubicle.
- we are still the novelty. Maybe it's Pip's flowing auburn, with a hint of sophisticated grey, locks, or Paul's greying beard. It's certainly partly our eyes. At one meal a little boy at the next table was stretching his eyes apart with his fingers and staring at his brother.

We are already having to pace ourselves in the heat, particularly after Tuesday which we will come to later.

Monday we took ourselves just 3 km or so eastwards to the Temple of Heaven . We find this, that places we would think of as 'parks' are named as if they were just a single building - see Summer Palace on Wednesday.

The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 in the reign of Ming Emperor Yongle (no, not Ming the Merciless, that's Flash Gordon, the comic book and film!). So it is contemporary with the Forbidden Palace. It was used as the place where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshipped the God of Heaven and offered sacrifices - cows - to pray for favourable harvests and ample rain. It became a world heritage site in 1998. It is the world's largest architectural complex for offering sacrifices to heaven.

The first surprise was to find that when we presented our passports at the ticket desk, because you are supposed to show id when buying tickets and we travel in hope of reduced entry prices for oldies, they were studied by the cashier who then issued tickets free of charge. This appears to be the thing at some of China's sites, though not the Forbidden Palace. So that saved us around £4 each. Mind you, the coffee we had inside, sub-Starbucks style, was around £5 each. So, swings and roundabouts.

The centerpiece is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, a round halled, 3 tier confection of a building, the roof covered in blue, yellow and green glazed tiles from above to below, signifying heaven, earth and all things on earth. We queued to have a peer through the darkness inside but with no lighting seeing anything really discernable was limited.

At the other end of the central axis is the Circular Mound Altar, 1530, a very open affair, pretty much as described by its title, where a circular central disc 'marks the spot' so to speak.

Somewhere in between, is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, like a smaller version of the main temple. Here we first encountered the real pushiness of the Chinese trying to elbow their way up the queue. Surrounding this building is the Echo Wall, which is supposedly able to reflect sound so that two people on opposite sides of the courtyard could hear each other clearly, rather like the Whispering Gallery in St Paul's Cathedral But it wasn't working for us, nor it seemed for any others. Though there was a stage a few minutes later when we were aware of wheels on the cobbled floor that seemed to be close by, but none were to be seen.

The main axis buildings are connected by the Vermilion Steps Bridge, a bridge only because at some of its several hundreds of yards length it crosses a small stream.

Two other notable buildings are the Palace of Abstinence where the Emperor would spend 3 days before the ceremony without meat, wine, music, sex, handing down of death penalties and paying condolence calls. A tough life!

And the Department of Sacred Music where the rooms were exhibition space for displaying the main types of Chinese musical instruments and pictures and records relating to the same.

We wandered further north into Tiananmen Square before heading back to our hotel. Tiananmen Square is the very definition of a big Square. Following the 'local difficulties' they had back in 1989, the 'June 4th Incident' as it is known in China, the 'Tiananmen Square Massacre' in the west, and other incidents since, they have introduced strict security measures to get through a cordon and into the square. Queues, which weren't too bad, x-ray bag check, personal pat-down, to get into the area. At least they weren't too bad when we went through around 6pm on Monday, which is also a Forbidden City closed day.

That evening, back in our hotel after having eaten, we took delivery of our freshly washed trousers. Yes, we have used a genuine Chinese Laundry.

The plan for Tuesday was to spend the day at the Forbidden Palace. Our first mistake was to walk there, about 4 km. No problem most of the time but it was already in the upper 20s, and a bit smoggy. 2nd mistake was to go in via the recommended route. That is from the South, through the T'man Square cordon, across the square and in next to the Chairman Mao portrait. It was heaving, and it was barely 8am in the morning. The 2km from square security queue to ticket office took nearly an hour. In the heat. And no shade, though we were, like thousands, packing our umbrella. 3rd mistake was no ticket. For quite a while they have had an 80000 daily visitor limit. Chinese can only buy online. Foreigners can buy at the desk, if there are any. But there weren't. And that was our 4th mistake, going on a Tuesday after Monday's closed day. So that was that for the Forbidden City. Another day.

We had a plan B though, the National Museum of China, 'handily' situated just on the eastern side of T'man Square, about 2km behind us, back inside the security cordon. So by the time we had departed via a different gate, back down an outer road, back through the heaving security checkpoint, sorted out ticket - free again, hey! - and got through the museum's security check it was gone 10am. We were all but done in.

But it was worth the effort and we were there until 16.30. The museum was built in the late 1990s, the total collection came together in 2003, the building gutted, refurbished and expanded in the late 2000s. It is now the 2nd most visited museum in the world, after the Louvre, with 8m visitors per year.

It is vast. The central open hall must be as big as the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. But there is absolutely nothing resembling a map or plan of the place, and what exhibitions there are where, at all. Whilst having a post melee arrival drink on floor 2 we saw two gallery entrances, and went for it. That exhibition was called "The Road to Rejuvenation" and covered, in some considerable detail, the history of China from the abdication of Emperor Piyi in 1911 to the current day. There were some fascinating items on display, and just about enough English to know what the items were. There were also many contemporary photos, but regrettably these were only labeled in Chinese, typically with a year date in Roman. Our only regret - we had entered via the exit and did the exhibition backwards! 😊

The other major display was Ancient China, so from about 5000BC to 1911. These were the items the Nationalist forces didn't get to take with them to Taiwan.

You look at some of the items, the older ones especially, and wonder what if they had cracked something like steam power and the Industrial Revolution 2 or 3 hundred years earlier than Britain?

Mind you, they didn't manage to invent the fork, and even today they still eat with two sticks!

There were other exhibitions, somewhere in the vast building. We passed stairs leading to a Van Gough exhibition, and have since read that there is a large African collection on display. But it took us all day to do the two biggies. Plus the 'special room' just off the central hall.

This room, in pride of place, with oodles of space for the number of exhibits, marked with a certain quiet ambiance, and entranced with a stiff backed army soldier, appeared to celebrate modern China's Foundation Day on 1 October 1949. There was film of the Proclamations, the microphone/stand used and in the centre of the room the China Flag raised at the ceremony.

Nice, proper Chinese meal out that night. Pip - noodles, black Bean sauce and 'sides' (beans, radish, spring onion, celery), Paul - a rib-sticky crispy pork and duck with fresh pineapple chunks.

We needed a calmer day Wednesday - Tuesday evening we had booked Forbidden Palace tickets for Thursday. So we braved the Beijing Metro to travel 25 km NE to the Summer Palace. Metro was quite civilised, modern, air conditioned throughout including the trains, and the ticketing system quite intuitive.

The Summer Palace is actually a nearly 3 sq km park, 3/4 of which is covered by Lake Kunming, the excavations from which were piled to form the 60 m high Longevity Hill which is the Northern entrance. Dotted around on the hill are various temples, pavilions and the like.

In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value".

Notably in recent history, it is also the Central Route terminus of the South-North Water Transfer Project having traversed 1,267 km (787 mi) from Danjiangkou Reservoir, Hubei, making it Beijing’s main water supply.

The origins of the Summer Palace date back to the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 1153, when the fourth ruler, Wanyan Liang (r. 1150–1161), moved the Jin capital from Huining to Yanjing (present-day Beijing).

And the gardens and its features were developed by successive emperors. But in the early 1800s it had pretty much fallen into disrepair.

During the 2nd Opium War, in 1860, the French and British looted the Summer Palace and burned down lots of the buildings. It was very disheartening to read the 'building boards' and seeing 'burnt by the Anglo-French forces, rebuilt 18**'. Lord Elgin - yes him with the marbles - was responsible for its greatest destruction as an act of revenge. This is said to still provoke strong emotions in the Chinese. Maybe that explains some of the funny looks we get? ?

Following abdication it remained the former emperor's private property and was opened to the public for a fee. The Beijing government took it over in 1924.

As we arrived, and rested with a snack and drink we watched with bemusement a group of 60 to 80 year old women, plus a couple of older gents doing, in perfect unison, dance aerobics to a Chinese techno beat.

Many individual points and buildings of interest, far too many to get to our describe, but of particular note:-

Suzhou Street - a sunken area, built into the base of Longevity Hill, allowing the lake to run around the back of the hill as a river. The sides are lined with shops, as a replica of real Suzhou water-side streets.

The Long Corridor - built 1750, this has been billed as 'the longest corridor in the world' at 728 m. But, it's outside so surely not a 'corridor'. And there is debate as to whether that is provable. The Pentagon may have longer corridors. The definition is not in straightness. This corridor has bends, corners and intersections. And apparently there is a genuine 'corridor' about 100 metres longer on the RAF Falkland's base which joins all its buildings together. Looks like it is now described as the longest Chinese painted outdoor corridor in the world. It is very nice though.

The Marble Boat - replaced a burnt out real wooden boat. Built in the late 1700s, it was destroyed by .... yes, those pesky Anglo-French forces - but rebuilt. The upper structure is wood painted to resemble marble, amd it has faux paddle steamer paddles. But there is no way this boat is floating.

Bronze Ox - to ward off flooding.

A nice steady day in sun and shade.

When we got back a bit of further TripAdvisor research showed that we had a nice restaurant barely 200m from the hotel. We were the only westerners there, again.

Pip had a vegetable sautéed dish, Paul had beef with celery and, as it turned out but not on the description, coriander and hot red chillies. In fact, what he really had was chillies & beef!! It was packed with the firey little blighters.

Amongst the items we didn't choose from the menu were :-
Various duck gizzards items
Various sea cucumber items
Simmered wild turtle or, for an extra cost, hanshou turtle
Stewed bullfrog
Duck floss??
Purple sweet potato juice

Thursday is Forbidden Palace day.

Appropros being looked at all the time by the Chinese. ..
Chimpanzees in a zoo - do they have an f word in their vocabulary. Do they sit there saying "I wish these f'ing humans would stop staring at us."

That's what it feels like here.

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