Thursday, January 24, 2008

Madness in the Middle Kingdom

Outsiders have always regarded China as a land of mystery, opportunity and extreme contrasts. Until very recently, the world’s largest population was strictly kept within clearly defined, exclusive and long established geopolitical, cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Only in the last 15 or so years have we been able to visit and bear witness to the vast wealth of natural beauty and historical intrigue and the frenzied clamour of the Chinese people for the trappings of a suddenly tangible future.

However China’s imposing capital, Beijing, is not just drawing interest from historians, adventurers and world travellers for being home to the world’s longest wall and the setting of thousands of years of glorious dynasties and imperial palaces.

There are more and more visitors to the city finding their own funny little quirks and “well-kept secrets” there, and in recent trips I managed to see some of those that I coaxed out of previous visitors and expats in the city.

Clearly no-one in their right mind would leave Beijing without visiting such massive draws as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, but even a visit to these places can throw up a few surprising, and at times hilarious, sights, and I’m sure I won’t be alone in thinking that these are the best bits of the city experience.

As the crowds in Tiananmen Square begin to form early in the morning, you might be forgiven for giggling at the colour-coded tour groups from far-flung corners of the country. Nowhere else in the world do tourists look this much like characters such as Jennifer Yellow Hat out of children’s reading books. If huge groups of 30 or 40 octogenarians from the Sichuan countryside, sporting cheap, badly made, brown suits, with yellow caps perched on top of their heads and blindly following a student with a yellow flag, a whistle and a loudspeaker doesn’t get a laugh out of you, the furtive hawkers are sure to.

One after another opportunistic street vendor with a rosy-cheeked smile seems to line up to offer you exactly the same gaudy tat: miniature plastic kites with party political slogans on; musical lighters which play the tune “Red Oriental” whenever you unsuccessfully try to fire them up; £1 watches with pictures of Chairman Mao as their faces, and his hands clicking past the seconds: perfect as silly gifts for kitsch-lovers.

Walking round Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) is also a sure way to see some sights peculiar to Beijing. Any tree in the surrounding park could be concealing a trigger-happy cameraman waiting to snap you unawares. Someone I met told me of his experiences with this: “I was casually walking round, taking it all in and trying to stay in the shade, but I had this strange feeling of someone secretly following me. Eventually I thought I must be imagining it, until all at once a local jumped out from behind a tree, with a flash digital camera and snapped a quick picture of me and my girlfriend.” This experience is actually a fairly common occurrence, but the photos are not any sinister attempt to spy on you, nor an attempt to make a quick buck selling you a keepsake photo. In fact, these photos seem to be treasured by Chinese tourists as proof of seeing a westerner or someone with blonde hair. Someone, somewhere in China must have a photo of my chubby, sun-blushed face up on the mantelpiece!

Sections of the world famous Great Wall near Beijing can offer some of the world’s most breath-taking sights and stunning hikes, as well as holding the secrets to a grand and warlike past, but few overseas visitors would be likely to incorporate a go on the year-round bobsleds in their day-trip itinerary. In fact, after a bit of a march, endless photo calls to really capture that elusive prize-winning shot of the wall winding its way over the surrounding hills and an hour or two imagining great Chinese generals of the Ming Dynasty pacing up and down on sentry duty, a hair-raising ride back down to the bottom is a highly exhilarating (if rather bizarre) way to unwind [pun intended].

The wall between Jinshanling and Simitai is certainly the most authentic, rugged and awe-inspiring section within a day of the capital, and a tough 10km walk past its twenty-something sentry posts is nothing short of spectacular. However even up here adventurers are likely to experience some of that uniquely Chinese randomness. When I did the walk with a group of friends and colleagues, we had been advised to shun the relentless advances of the vendors on the wall, but as I progressed I actually started enjoying the banter with these canny salesmen, as the assortment of goods offered went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Beginning with the usual tacky mementos, we got through water, sun hats, energy drinks, beer and at the finishing post I was even offered a shot of the singularly horrid local bai jiu (white spirit). I took it. However I am certain that these guys were not only there for the money they could make – they actually truly seemed to enjoy our company. A couple of stragglers in our group were struggling with some of the high-peaked middle section of the route, and swore blind they wouldn’t have made it (definite exaggeration) if it wasn’t for the jovial chit chat and endless encouragement of the Nei Monggol folk along the way. They said they felt like Edmund Hillary with their own loyal Sherpas!

Eating out in Beijing is always a treat. Food is fairly cheap and usually good quality, service is always swift and immaculate and there is culinary representation from such a wide variety of world cuisines. When you visit it is imperative to try out the best Peking duck outside of (well… actually inside of) Beijing. Visit the Li Qun Roast duck Restaurant hidden in the hutongs (old-fashioned, grey walled alleyways) south of Tiananmen for what I found to be the best meal I’ve ever had.

To find this restaurant, you basically have to be with someone who knows it or to get very lucky, because a lot of the hutongs are very run-down, warren-like mazes of poor people’s housing, and the front of the restaurant itself is fairly inconspicuous. It was only when we saw the token photo of Bill Clinton eating there that we dared to order food in possibly the grubbiest, smelliest place I’d ever eaten. It wasn’t a mistake, and the duck was quite frankly superb, utterly authentic and unbelievably inexpensive, and the food, unlike the crazy seating areas and downright disgusting toilet, was also safe and clean.

Perhaps the quirkiest place of interest for me was Mao’s Mausoleum, at the south end of Tiananmen Square. Between the huge, walled set of slanted roof palaces that make up the Forbidden City and the winding streets full of antique curios and tea shops in Liulichang, Mao’s final resting place is a typically Communist-style square block, with PLA guards and a plethora of kite sellers around the perimeter.

Once you have left your valuables and camera in a strange kiosk across the road and (if you are a Mao-sympathiser) bought your bunch of flowers, you join a queue of several hundred people who have travelled far and wide to pay their respects to the controversial leader and instigator of the Cultural Revolution. The queue moves surprisingly swiftly, and it’s only when you get into the building that you find out why. A preserved Mao lies “in state” in the inner chamber, looking like some kind of macabre waxwork. The perennial smile on his face means even death cannot belie the charismatic charm he used to his political advantage throughout his tumultuous life, and either way you don’t get too long to brood on the strangeness of the whole thing, because the escorting PLA guards instantly usher you on through and out the other side, where you have a postcard foisted on you. You are then quickly shown the steps of the exit, where the weirdness of what I had just experienced really hit me… I had just filed past a pickled dictator in a glass box!

The most unexpected of all the places my friends or I visited was the well-kept secret of Beijing’s underground city. Unlike Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, this dates from the 20th Century, and was actually made for Mao and his posse. Once again, the main entrance to this is hidden away in a hutong area, and the only things to give it away are a small, dusty, almost camouflaged sign, and a well-disguised tour guide wearing khakis and sitting on a small chair in front of it.

The underground city is not really what it says it is. In fact, it was commissioned as a nuclear war-proof shelter by Mao, during a period of his dictatorship in which he suffered from extreme paranoia, and was convinced the Russians or Americans were going to ‘unexpectedly’ attack. It consists of innumerate long, poorly lit, dank passageways, and the subterranean network actually stretches between the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, Tiantan, Summer Palace and even has connections out to the port of Tianjin (80 km away from Beijing) and allegedly to Shanghai (a 1 hour flight to the south). These days you can only access some of the tunnels, but along the way there are mildewed relics of a time now passed, such as propaganda wall hangings, old gas masks in little corners and original instructions for escaping a nuclear attack – all quite odd and very unnerving.

If you can hold them off, I would strongly recommend going around on your own, without a tour guide - the glare of a super-powerful torch and the echo of a megaphone underground do rather spoil the effect - but please don’t venture too far down the unlit, semi-barricaded paths, as the outside doors will be closed precisely on time, and a night down there would probably not be too much fun.

As a centre of culture, Beijing certainly has its moments, but in my opinion it is the clear-cut differences from other cultures, the clash of an imperial past with a high-paced future and its little idiosyncrasies that give Beijing its eclectic mix. For me, these are the highlights that make Beijing a truly unforgettable travel destination.

Niven Whatley

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