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Published: August 6th 2007
Beijing is amazing!!! Our room in the Red Lantern is one of the nicest I have ever stayed in - all red silk, dark wood and crisp white sheets. Sunlight shining through the coloured window panes spreads hazy red and yellow pools across the bed and floor and our door opens onto an open courtyard filled with leafy trees hung with red lanterns. Perfect! There's even a little pond filled with fat goldfish and a miniature wooden bridge to cross it. After about 5 minutes in the city Nico is straight on the internet changing our flights home to give us an extra couple of days. It's all good😊
After showering off the Gobi dust we take a bus to Tiananmen Square helped by a friendly student who makes sure we get off at the right place. We stand and watch the swallows looping and swirling around the curved roof of Qianmen (gate at the squares south end) while a kite seller pulls a long string of paper dragons through the air beside us. I have been here before but had forgotten how strangely magical it is, especially at as daylight begins to fade. We walk around Mao's mausoleum and
the monument of the Peoples Heroes towards Tiananmen (gate at the north end, leading towards the Forbidden City). The square is filled with people - Chinese tour groups in matching baseball caps, pensioners sucking ice-creams, empty-bottle collectors, photographers offering to take your picture for a small fee, stern looking but baby-faced policemen, more kite-sellers, this time with massive, soaring eagle kites, western tourists with noses in guidebooks, clusters of granny’s chatting and children squealing and roller-blading under the billowing red of an enormous Chinese flag. I love it! We walk as close as we can to Tiananmen to look at the giant portrait of Mao hanging from its centre. A few days ago we heard on the news that a Chinese man had attacked and damaged the bottom of the portrait, by throwing paint or burning it - can't remember which. The portrait has obviously been replaced as there isn’t a scratch on it now.
We are following the road east of Tiananmen to Wangfujing and a promised vegetarian restaurant when suddenly, in the middle of the bright lights and millions of people, we are accosted by none other than Daphne and Bernd our Dutch friends from Mongolia -
Mao and Nico, alone at last
at Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace)
hurray! Realise that they are definitely stalking us but glad to see them anyway. Eventually after much puzzlement we discover that the planned vegetarian restaurant is now a nokia phone shop (consider hurling my phone at the window in protest) so take a wander down through the night market, ogling the all manner of winged, tentacled, many-legged delights on offer by way of snack. I try, unsuccessfully, to get Nico to eat a cockroach on a stick, settle for a banana fritter which has no banana and have to be held back from a fist-fight when I spot some poor dead seahorses. Outrageous. Seahorses are an endangered species, not some flipping tourist’s dinner. Exit stage left.
We head back to the bright lights of Wangfujing to lighten my mood, eat some food, drink some beer and head home for fab sleep in super comfy bed...
Next morning - my birthday!! Wake up to the sound of musicians playing in the nearby street, Nico handing me a lovely pressie and thunderous, torrential rain. It's been 36 or so degrees for the past few weeks in Beijing but today, in honour of my increasing years, we are treated to the
All fun and games until I spot the seahorse kebab. Cue tearful retreat.
full monsoon. Fab! The streets and half cobbled bits of footpaths turn to mud and ponds - looks like a completely different world than yesterday. Birthday breakfast is a massive plate of noodles and a fat, juicy spring roll in a packed cafe for me and a bowl of unidentified stuff and floating guts for Nico. Lucky Nico. Jump in the metro, get off at a random stop which, by a stroke of fortune, leads into 4 floors of shopping paradise. As it's my birthday Nico is powerless against the onslaught of a million, billion lovely shiny things and so a happy hour is spent browsing, nail-painting and admiring silky cushions and the like. Sorry Nico😊 On the top floor we find a massive amusement arcade where I prove to be a total champion at throwing a basketball through a hoop and utterly rubbish at computer games (surprising, I know). We manage to break the air hockey game (ooops) and attract a large crowd for a basketball competition. Hours of culture-free fun😊 The rest of the day is spent wandering in the rain, ducking in and out of stalls and cafes (despite the gut-soup experience Nico is in food-heaven) and
'soaking' up the atmosphere (ho ho).
Day 3 - the rain has stopped! Amazingly the massive swimming pools have turned back into roads and so, fortified by another breakfast trip to veggie spring-roll paradise, we head off to visit the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is all yellow Chinese-style roofed buildings with reddish walls and eaves and pillars brightly painted with dragons, flowers, water-lilies and so on, set around a series of wide, light-grey stoned courtyards which are separated by a series of Tiananmen style gates guarded by large stone lions. These lions are often surrounded by large groups of tourists getting their photos taken. The buildings on the west side of the 'city' house small displays of Chinese armour, pottery, swords and similar. To the left behind the large temples attractive narrow streets with yellow tiled walls lead to succession of beautiful small courtyards behind small gates decorated with more lovely ceramic tiles. Often these courtyards have several benches and a shady tree where the weary traveller (i.e. moi) can sit and dream of China past.
The little streets of the Forbidden City lead eventually to the Imperial Gardens - an exquisite place where ancient gnarled trees
Hordes of slimy creatures have been haunting my dreams ever since this visit
have been smoothed like marble by a million admiring hands and charming pagodas sit on little humpback bridges over ponds where fat carp slide through shining water lilies. I love the squiggly branched scribble trees and could sit for hours watching the fish flit in the still water. A lovely, lovely place.
One of the best things about the Forbidden City has to be the fantastic names of the various temples and halls. Here's a selection to feed your imagination - Pavilion of the Rain of Flowers, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Temple of Supreme Harmony, Gate of Divine Might, West Glorious Gate, Five Phoenix Pavilion, Inner Golden Water River, Hall of Literary Glory, Hall of Union, the Hall of Earthly Tranquillity, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, Pavilion of Literary Profundity... Stuff of dreams...
Should mention - while wandering in the Forbidden City we bumped into Kim and Karen, English friends from Mongolia, and seconds later, should’ve guessed it, Bernd and Daphne again! Great to see them all (again!). Beijing is a city of 15 million souls but it might as well be some tiny town at home if our rate of chance encounters is anything to go by...
We leave the Forbidden City by the northern gate and walk across to Jingshan Park. Here we climb to the top of the hill for a fab, if a bit cloudy and grey, view over the Forbidden City on one side and the Bell and Drum Towers to the other. Definitely recommended thing to do as you can see the full size and drama of the Forbidden City - looks really different from up here.
Stop on the walk home for street kebabs for Nico, eaten sitting on miniature chairs laid out on the footpath which is strewn with discarded kebab sticks, proof of many happy customers. When more supplies are required the cook, who is operating a massive wok of hot oil, shouts upward and from the roof above a plastic bag of meat magically appears and is lowered on a piece of string. Sizzling kebabs, car horns, chattering and laughing, clanking beer bottles, revving motorbikes, clatter of bicycles mounting the pavement....
This is also the night of the Peking Duck Experience. Not sure if I have ever seen Nico as happy as when sitting in a fine Jishuitan restaurant with a plate of finest, succulent duck,
a dish of salty, fruity sauce (plum? hoi sin?), another of shredded spring onions and a great heap of feather-light pancakes to roll it all together in. I think he was actually purring with delight. Good stuff! My food is good too - the vegetarian tofu dish being definitely vegetarian, apart from the fish, but the oyster mushrooms and bok choi make up for it. Fabulous meal - Nico speechless, think he may have reached some higher state of enlightenment or something similar.
All in all, an excellent first couple of days getting soaked and stuffed in Beijing 😊
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