Bloomin' freezing in Beijing

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Jul 17, 2006

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Let me begin with a quote from the pilot of my plane touching down in Beijing from the sweltering heat of Singapore: "We will be landing shortly in Beijing.
The temperature on the ground is -10 degrees". I don't think I had quite
prepared myself for how cold it was going to be here - I've had to resort to
wearing most of the clothes I've brought with me and investing in a pair of
gloves and a communist army hat. Sub-zero temperatures aside, Beijing is a really nice city - clean and modern, but still very Chinese. On a backpacking trip like this big cities are usually stressful stops and it's very much a case of get in, see the sights and get out again as quickly as possible. Beijing, on the other hand, was a remarkably hassle-free and relaxed experience - because of the obvious language barrier the Chinese
tourists get way more hassle than I do. First impression of the Chinese people is that they tend to ignore you and get on with their lives unless you approach them, in which case they are generally really friendly and helpful. One afternoon, some university art
students showed me around their studio and taught me a little about the Chinese artistic tradition. Another afternoon I met a student from south China who was in Beijing looking for work to help him complete his studies. He took me to the old part of town, where we sampled a traditional tea ceremony, with all its attendant formalities.

First sightseeing stop in Beijing was the Temple of Heaven Park, in which elderly Chinese played badminton and danced to ballroom music to keep warm. In the centre of the city stands the awesome Forbidden City, so-called because for many years it was out of bounds to all but the Emperor and his inner circle. The audio commentary was by Roger Moore, whose dulcet tones and cheeky innuendos helped to ward off the biting cold. About half-way round I badly needed a hot drink, and would you believe it, nestled away next to the "Gate of Heavenly Purity" stood a franchise of Starbucks. Chairman Mao would be turning in his mausoleum! Of course, I had to have a Communist-themed day of sightseeing, which included the pickled ex-helmsman himself (no photos allowed I'm afraid), the flag-lowering ceremony outside the "Gate of Heavenly Peace" and the immense Tiananmen Square, which makes Trafalgar look like someone's backyard. At the Lama Temple the atmosphere was peaceful and the air was heavy with the smell of incense. Perhaps my most enjoyable afternoon involved renting a bicycle and riding all over the city, finishing with an ice-skating session on the frozen lake.

Of course, no trip to Beijing would have been complete without a trip to see the Great Wall. Rather foolishly, in retrospect, I opted to save a few quid by taking the "Chinese tour" rather than the tour offered by the hostel, English guide included. On my tour, the guide wittered incessantly at the group all the way there and back - I'm sure she was very informative but, not understanding a word she was saying, I took refuge in my ipod. Even worse, we were subjected to numerous stops en route - a jade shop, a dried fruit and nut store and a traditional chinese medicine surgery. At the latter, an army of doctors in white coats marched us off the bus and diagnosed us with various illness. And guess what? For a price, they had just the cure for all our ailments!

As you may have noticed, I tend to talk a lot about food in my posts. I have experienced some real culinary delights so far on this trip, and Beijing was no exception. At the night market, you could buy pretty much anything on a stick, from squid and snakes to even starfish! One of the restaurants south of Tiananmen Square is famous for its Beijing roast duck. Nixon and Mao ate duck together there back in the day, and the restaurant has also been visited by daddy George Bush. The restaurant even has a large digital counter on the wall, showing the number of ducks served since the restaurant was established, and when you order one, you get a certificate recording which number duck you ate. Served with hoi sin sauce, spring onions and sliced cucumber, the format resembles the duck pancakes we all know and love, but the taste and texture of the duck is far superior, even to Jimmy's best offering (sorry fella!).

Finally, I saw the Shaolin Monks perform their world famous kung-fu show. As any of you who've seen them on tv know, they get up to some pretty crazy tricks on. Thevideos pretty much speak for themselves, but seeing it live was just incredible. They even got me up on stage to try and pull a metal bowl off a monk's tensed six pack, but I ended up humiliating myself by losing my grip and falling over!

The cold is getting to me now, so like a big bird I'm heading south for the winter.
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