Birds Nest but no soup.

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September 4th 2019
Published: September 4th 2019
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Tiananmen Sq queue at 5amTiananmen Sq queue at 5amTiananmen Sq queue at 5am

There are several other security entrances around the square
Day 38 to 40 of 80 Birds Nest but no soup

Up before the crack of dawn on Monday, 2 Sept.

In Tiananmen Square they have a twice-daily flag ceremony - morning raising timed for sunrise, evening lowering at sunset. We have seen the crowds coming away from the evening performance so decided raising was best. But that was 05.42 on Monday, and we wanted to allow up to an hour or more to get there, and get through security.

So, alarm for 04.00, out before 04.30. In the end we were at security queue by 04.50 but they didn't open up until 05.00. We were still 3 or 4 rows back from the barrier though. There were thousands there, with all the usual Chinese good manners and etiquette.

The ceremony, although viewed from further than we would have wished, is a lesson in precision marching. A mixed troop from all 3 forces - air, sea, land - marching in perfect unison at 108 paces per minute, 75 cm per pace.

Upon reaching the flag pole the flag raiser then performs the ceremony, raises the flag, in two minutes and seven seconds, the exact same time it takes the sun to rise over the horizon.

The whole thing is over in well less than 10 minutes.

It was, therefore, still before 06.00 - go back, lie in or not? breakfast or not? or stay out? We chose the latter, and headed for Jingshan Park, situated immediately north of the Forbidden City, again on the N-S centre line.

The place was immaculate, and absolutely buzzing, mostly with old biddies in groups doing all sorts of exercise routines. To music, mostly - slow dance, tai chi, with fans, with swords, in wheelchairs, just slapping themselves, just clapping .... the list of variations was endless.

The park is a former private imperial garden, and used to be fully attached to the Forbidden City, until they whittled away land between it and the City's Northern gate before shoving a 6 lane highway through the non-existent 'gap'. Bit like the Chinese in crowds really.

There is a man-made hill/mound in the lower centre, built by hand from the excavations of the FC's moat. Atop this is Wanchun Pavilion which affords a bird's eye view across the Forbidden City's rooftops. Wonderful, particularly in the rising sun's light.

Just across, West from there, is Beihei Park, built in 1166, so predating the Forbidden City. Some emperors had homes here, attended to government affairs here, and held sacrificial ceremonies particularly before the Temple of Heaven park was established.

It is classed as the world's oldest and best preserved imperial garden. It is, like the Summer Palace, mostly lake, and we walked around Jade Island with its White Pagoda built to honour the visit of the 5th Dali Lama in 1651. The Park, like the FC, has a '9 dragon wall' supposedly one of only 3 in the world - though this is the only double sided one. However Wiki lists several more than 3. Although called '9 dragon...', with all the additional details on the walls and the eaves there are apparently 635 dragons on the wall. We did not attempt to verify this.

Like Jingshan Park, this was even more buzzing with 'exercise ' groups, even though it was still barely 8am.

We spent a leisurely half morning in the park before heading back for an afternoon's feet up. We felt that after a hectic 8 days we deserved it before meeting up with the Explore group that evening.

Our tour guide, Frank Zhao, is an Explore-only guide. Trained as an accountant, he has been guiding for many years now, initially in X'ian, his home town, but then on more national tours. He also let know that recently he acted as translator for 10 days for a BBC documentary film team.

Early impressions of him are good. He outlined, over dinner, his plans for the coming 2 1/2 days the group are in Beijing for, fitting in several more items than are listed in the Explore notes. For us, however, there is considerable overlap in the first 2 days with things we have already done (and in considerably more detail than the group will get in their couple of hours or so at each stop) and so we have taken the option of ducking out of the first two day's itinerary and joining back for the evenings.

Be aware, for the next 3 weeks our blogs will be littered with the 'Sayings of Frank', SoF.

That first group evening Frank took us to a Peking Duck dinner locally, where the group - there are 10 of us - were regaled with a wide range of dishes. There must have been a dozen or more, many/most of them very delicious. The choice was wide enough, and clear enough, for Pip to indulge in more meat than so far in Beijing because it was clear what was being served.

There are 10 of us in the group, 4 couples and 2 singles, mostly similar age or older than us.

Tuesday was smoggy, you could see it noticeably in the air when looking out from our hotel window across the top of the city. We headed north, to the Olympic Park. Incredibly hot and also humid today. We walked up the centre line joining the two immediate metro stations at the north amd south of the park, with a couple of small side detours.

The 'Birds Nest' stadium, now called The National Stadium, dominates. The Water Cube would have been better at night when lit up, but still an interesting distraction to see for an hour or so. Across to the east we spotted what we took to be the Olympic Flame assembly and so headed over there ... only to find that on the way there is a carved medal board listing all the 2008 medalists - Olympics first, followed by the Paralympics. We spotted some of the GB names, though checking back now we find that 10 of our 18 golds that year were in cycling and we think we both missed that section.

Towering over the top of the park is a tower with countdown clock to the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Hard to believe given the temperatures around here. Several of the Park venues will be used for the indoor events, though others will be nearly 200 miles away (think 'London' being awarded an Olympics but running some major events in Manchester).

Off to the west was a small local temple which filled 15 minutes or so.

We found our way to the same houtong from a couple of days ago to revisit a coffee shop there, and take a more leisurely look through some of the retail, before looping through a more residential houtong on our way back to the hotel.

For the evening Frank had booked us seats at a Legend of King Fu show, a powerful, energetic extravaganza telling the story of a boy monk working his way to Head Monk. So it had monks, kung-fu, swords, concrete blocks breaking on chests, pretty girls, metals bars smashed on heads, acrobatics.... Hey, back up ... 'pretty girls'! Thought this was about monks! Yes, but the girls/fairies were the 'temptations' during the story.

SoF - being a monk is a career and can make you quite wealthy. The money donations go to the monks, not charitable works, so they can retire after 10 years to a house and a good living if they so wish!

SoF - Frank's wife works as a Chinese/Japanese translator and sometimes accompanies very high ranking monks on visits to Japan. Frank tells of visits where the monk changes into impeccable suit, tie, hat western clothes and asks for booze, cigarettes and even strip clubs when visiting Japan!

Back to the show. It was great fun if a little predictable. Anyone who didn't realise within 2 minutes that the Head Monk narrator speaking to the new boy monk about a boy monk's rise to Head Monk was actually narrating his own story must have been asleep.

Today, Wednesday, is our last full day in Beijing. Again we separated from the group as they were going to Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Olympic Park, houtong, (phew, in one day) all of which we had done, plus a couple of small items which didn't justify our whole day's attendance.

We went to the Beijing Capital Museum, a quite new building, around 10 years or so, where it feels as if there is more 'volume' - 6 storey atrium and entrance etc - given over to fresh air than there is to exhibits. But it was a very good museum indeed. Not over rambling or too stuffed. The top floor Beijing Folk Art was lovely, and homely. The porcelain and jade collections seemed better than those displayed at the State Museum in Tiananmen Square. And the 'History of Beijing' room kept it simple with a single linear corridor (around a rectangle) of artifacts, with a timeline of non-China events and people on the opposite wall - 'The Hastings Battle' anyone? Plenty of the usual suspects were on there - Willy Shakespeare, Issy Newton, Ollie Cromwell, Charlie Darwin, Frank Bacon, John Logie Baird, Mike Faraday, and, for some unexplained reason Simon de Montfort. But no english Kings and Queens other than Charles 1st. How appropriate at these strange times for UK politics displaying someone who had contempt for parliament and democracy. At least he did, until he lost his head for it. Boris......

A gentle ramble took us to the Tea Centre of Beijing. A 3 storey building stuffed to the gunnels with small merchants selling tea, and tea regalia in all conceivable shapes and sizes, smells and mixtures. We had hoped there would be a 'tea shop cafe' there but it wasn't to be. Any of the stalls would have served us teas as a free tasting but then the pressure would be on to buy. And we haven't finished the tea we bought back from India earlier this year yet.

Another Frank restaurant, another delicious meal. Another dozen dishes, none repeated from the previous two evenings. Evening spoilt somewhat though by one of the party finding that the four 100 yuan notes she had with her tonight - about £12 per note - were fakes! These 4 ×100 were from one of two batches of 2000 yuan, 4000 total - ~£500 - that she had withdrawn fresh from a bank-based ATM only a few hundred yards from the hotel. As we retired to our room Frank was arranging for all her notes to be checked on the hotel's 'fake checker' machine, many of which we have seen in retail around the city. We shall know in the morning. We have checked ours and believe they are all OK, especially as they are all from 1 machine (different bank, and location to the one above), and we have already used several from ours.

Tomorrow, the Great Wall then overnight train - 6 bunks to a section, amongst the locals - to X'ian and the Terracotta Army.

No more 'things we haven't eaten' as Frank has been arranging the dishes without us seeing a menu. Though he did point out the cooked ducks' heads as we entered tonight's restaurant. There were no takers!

Don't know if our next blog will be in 2/3 days or a week. We have 1 night on train, 2 nights in X'ian and then we board boat on the Yangtze for 4 nights. Don't know if boat has wifi.

Hope you are all having fun with the political shenanigans back home in the UK. As we press 'send' we note that Hammond has just finished talking for the Brexit Delay Bill and The Lords is attempting to filibuster out the time available for then to discuss the bill.

Jeez, surely whichever side of the Brexit fence you sit on English politics is a world laughing stock at the moment!

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