Little Bea in Big China: Beijing

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Being in Beijing

Our Morning flight brings us to the infamous traffic and smog of the capital city. Despite Lily's exhortations to keep close together 'like sticky rice', as she is also the local guide for here and there's no-one minding the rear, members of our group keep getting lost, so our progress through the Forbidden City is slow. One of the advantages of having a local guide is that she knows things like how to enter through the back gate. We admire the succession of rooms with painted ceilings, the carved jade treasures, and the clean expanses of squares, familiar from the movie The Last Emperor. There are lots of beggars and street vendors, and we are advised to keep bags and cameras close. We emerge under the giant poster of Mao which still hangs under the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace'1 and cross using an underground passageway to the vast concrete prairie of Tian'anmen Square, at the geographical centre of the city, and symbolically the heart of modern China, used as the location for expressions of popular dissent. It claims to be the world's largest public square, although Lily thinks that Moscow's Red Square is bigger. We pass Mao memorial hall, and admire the architecture of the old railway station.

Beijing Forbidden City courtyard

We have dinner in our hotel, the CSIC Plaza. Aside from a great view of the speedy trains going past every five minutes, the hotel is disappointing: the beds are lumpy, there's only one pillow apiece, the window won't close and TV won't get CNN. And the staff ignore our requests to do something about these. But we find a local shop selling large bottles of beer for 25p, so retire to bed early with a good book. I've already packed my 70 Yuan souvenir bottle opener, deep in the bowels of my suitcase, but a fellow tour member steps up and volunteers to take my top off for me.

At Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, we enjoy watching local people dancing and exercising in the gardens. BJ has a large older population, who retire at about 55-60, so they have a lot of free time and enjoy the socialising aspect of their daily exercise routine. I manage at last to buy a copy of Mao's little red book, as a present for my son. Well, no good university student should be without it! The temple itself is a marvellous example of imperial architecture at its best, and I love its symmetry and colour.

We drive north and west of the city, on still clogged ringroads, to Yiheyuan, the Summer Place. It is beautiful, and you can see why the imperial court would want to spend their summer days here, surrounded by hills and cooled by the vast lake. Lily tells us more about the notorious Dowager Cixi and her extravagant and politically cunning ways—no wonder the natives rebelled! I'm particularly struck by the Long Gallery, a 900 metre long covered walkway painted with mythical scenes, and today lined with noisy sweetcorn vendors. At its far end is Cixi's marble boat, a vessel that cannot sail, built with money that was destined for the navy.

We head back into town, delayed again by the traffic, for a very late lunch and a debate about the afternoons activities. I'm quite keen to take the offered tour of a rickshaw ride round the old hutongs, but am outvoted and we go to a frenetic shopping mall instead, where all the stall holders are extremely and intensely in your face, and the experience is not pleasant. But we did manage to get some watches, including a Panerai one that a friend had asked us to obtain. When we showed the picture of what we wanted, sent by our friend to Dai's mobile phone, to two young lady stall holders, there was much whispering behind hands, and then a furious hunt in a shopping bag below the counter until they produced a watch almost identical to our picture. I was impressed! Of course, their haggling skills were greater than ours, and we end up with two Panerais and a Rolex for me.

I also buy some silk scarves for various mothers, some fake Bobbi Brown brushes and eye shadow, some costume jewellery, and bamboo hanging (way over priced!) and a 800Gb USB. Yup, that's right, larger than my actual home PC. I'd wished I'd waited until after China before buying my daughter an iPod, as I could have got one here for about £20.

We dine at the restaurant across from the hotel, and to our delight are served fish with no bones, for a change! The Chinese cook everything on the bone, as this gives the best flavour, but it does pose a challenge when eating. They also served our much beloved aubergine dish, which is definitely one that we'll be trying on our return home. Dai discovered that he'd left his phone on the bus, but the driver had found it, bless 'im.

Our last day in China dawned misty and rainy, and we sat rather subdued on the bus through the terrible traffic en route to the Olympic village. It's a popular spot for Chinese school children, and a gaggle of schoolgirls all chorused "Hello!" as we passed, and then giggled cutely behind their hands when we responded. There was a queue to get into and out of the car park, made worse by an accident, where a car and a tour bus had both tried to get past the security barrier at the same time. We saw surprisingly few accidents, given the macho attitude to driving that is prevalent. If the lanes on the motorway are too busy, it's very common to see traffic just use the hard shoulders instead.

And then we headed out of town for the crowning glory of our tour: the Great Wall of China. Its superlative name doesn't do it justice— it's an astonishing feat of engineering. Everyone in our group is moved by it. We've all seen pictures in books when we were at Primary School, when it seemed so impossibly exotic and far away, and to be actually standing (or in my case, dancing) on its steps is deeply affecting. Its total volte face from a means of repelling invaders, to now being one of China's prime tourist attractions, is yet another demonstration of the country's ability to reinvent itself.

Great Wall arched doorway

Even with a cable car to take us to the wall, it's a tough climb, with lots of steep slopes and uneven steps. But the trickiest part is probably trying to get past the gauntlet of souvenir stall holders on the way down: standing one behind the other on a narrow pathway, they cry out 'wandolla, wandolla', even though nothing will be sold for one dollar, that's just a phrase they have learned that will get us rich Western tourists to stop and look. Of course, a pedantic English feller in front of me tries to explain the finer points of foreign currency exchange to them, but I don't think he has much success. I escape with only minor damage to my purse, and another dragon T-shirt and a set of chopsticks in silk pouches tucked under my arm.

Our last supper is at Quanjude, a famous Peking Duck establishment, although the non-shredding of the duck and the paucity of pancakes are disappointing.

Lily's dropped enough hints about having a sweet tooth and where her favourite cake shop is, so on our final morning we buy her a couple of slices of cheesecake as a special thank you. Traffic is the usual BJ crawl out to the airport and T3. After buying the obligatory sweeties for the office, I discover that my financial planning has been very neat indeed, and I am down to my last 73p. I find a working vending machine to buy a bottle of water for 50p, and then find superb toilets where I am greeted, shown to a cubicle which is cleaned and flushed for my use, and paper handed to me. So the little attendant is the well-deserved recipient of my last 23p.

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1The English meaning of Tian'anmen.

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