Archive for the ‘China’ Category

I would like to say that China is a strange country, but of course, all countries are strange to those who didn’t grow up there. Each country has its little conventions and rules of conduct which seem weird to visitors. I’m sure, for example, that Chinese visitors to Scotland (where my family originated) would find Haggis as strange as many Westerners find snake soup or fried dog. Actually, even I found Haggis strange until I tried it and liked it.

The Beach

But most of us tend to forget this. We’re so used to living in our own countries that we can’t even imagine that other people would want to live differently. Travelling through so many in such a short period of time makes that quite obvious. Asia has advantages and disadvantages, but the only thing I have a real problem with is the concept of `saving face’. As far as I know I haven’t really had to deal with it on this trip, and I can see a few advantages to it, but I’ve grown up with friends who I can trust explicitly and not being able to really trust anything that anyone says gets frustrating after a while. I’m sure that the Chinese and others must have some way of working out if a person is telling the truth or not, so I guess I just have to find out what that is.

Anyway, back to China. In many ways, the country just seems to be living in the fifties. It has the same kind of fake conformity that we see in old movies while underneath everything is changing rapidly. I wouldn’t want to claim that the next decade will be like the sixties, but the whole country seems to be full of regulations which are simply ignored because they’re impossible or counterproductive to enforce. Even though the Party is still nominally in control, the country seems more capitalist than many of the nominally capitalist countries in Europe. With such a mixture of communist politics and capitalist economics, I’m sure the Chinese are living in interesting times…

I spent Friday just tidying up loose ends – getting money changed, posting another lot of unneccesary stuff (books, tripod, etc) back to my parents, and changing my flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan as I wanted to see what the Hong Kong job market was like so I extended my stay by a few days. The main Post Office in Beijing was surprisingly friendly and efficient even though I had to visit about six different counters before my parcel was finally accepted. It was also the only time I’ve ever had a parcel checked by a customs official before it was allowed out of the country. Even then I’m not sure what the point was when it only received a cursory inspection.

On the way back I stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some munchies as requested. Since all the packets were marked in Chinese I merely grabbed a few things that looked interesting and hoped that people would eat them. As I returned to the flat the lift attendant already knew which floor I was going to. That’s quite a nice touch.

On The Beach

Saturday involved an early start. Some of the students had arranged a weekend trip to the beach at Beidaihe, and we were to join them. After last-minute packing we were just in time to meet them at the college, then drive to the station to meet some of the others. As we waited a legless beggar came over to see us. One of the students told him that he had no small change. The beggar produced a large wad of notes and explained that this wouldn’t be a problem.

On arrival at the bus-stop things didn’t look too promising. The driver’s head and shoulders were hidden under the bus as he reassembled the engine. He didn’t even have a Buddha sitting on the dash to look after us like most taxis in Bangkok and some in Hong Kong. We climbed on board and hoped that it would start. Only to realise that we’d forgotten one of the students. Oops.

Luckily the driver wanted to wait for as many passengers as he could get, so the final student arrived just in time. The bus rolled off into busy Beijing traffic and we chatted with the students for some time before reaching the open road. I finally fell asleep for an hour or so, and on waking was quite glad that I’d done so.

Overtaking in China seems to involve the following procedure:

  1. Beep the horn loudly
  2. Pull out onto the other side of the road
  3. Check for oncoming traffic – if you see any then beep the horn even louder.
  4. If the oncoming traffic doesn’t swerve off the road, then beep the horn more insistently to show them you’re there.
  5. If all else fails, slam on the brakes and horn at the same time and stop with four or five feet to spare.

I counted three close calls on that trip and was glad I’d slept through some of the others. Ah well, at least the sky was blue now we were away from the city.

Me On The Fishing Boat

Every hour or so the bus driver had to stop to refill the engine with oil. After about three hours (by which time we were supposed to be in the sea) he decided to stop for lunch. A judicious chat with the students persuaded him to keep driving, but in the meantime I had my first encounter with traditional squat toilets. At least they weren’t as bad as some people had made out.

Mountains and a darkening sky indicated our approach to the coast. After about five hours on the road we finally reached the outskirts of the town, only to be pulled over by the cops. As it is supposed to be primarily a resort for Party members we assumed this was an ID check and I was somewhat worried as I discovered that in the rush that morning I’d forgotten to transfer my passport from my other trousers. Luckily he just asked if we were carrying any fruit-knives, and when we insisted we had none he left. Apparently long knives are illegal in that part of the country and I guess we looked trustworthy enough.

We finally pulled into the Chinese hotel that the students had chosen. No rooms were available, but after a brief chat with the receptionist some were discovered. The rules said that Chinese and foreigners could not share a room, or even a block, so we were sent to a special block reserved for foreigners. I must say, the room was the best I’ve ever had for $8 per night. Twin beds, bathroom, air conditioning and just about anything else you could want. The students got us a seriously good deal.

In the last few years I’ve only swum in Florida, where I wore shorts, and they were getting too delapidated so I had neither those nor trunks. I’d planned to buy some in Singapore, but as the water park was closed we never got round to it. Instead we had to go on a shopping expedition, and one of the students demonstrated her bargaining skills again as she helped me buy some. Another had never been in the sea before and found herself a rubber ring.

We reached the beach and set up. The sea was tolerably warm and very rough – we should have had surfboards. We spent about forty-five minutes swimming and then had to go back to prepare to meet the other students who’d preceded us. As we were changing the sky grew very dark and heavy rain began to fall. We grabbed our stuff and rushed off to the shelter of the deckchair stall. The only exception were the two students still swimming, who were in the best position of all for a rainstorm!

Chinese Student On Boat

After a five minute photo session so that everyone could have their picture taken in front of the double rainbow we walked back to the hotel, showered and napped. We met up with the other group of students and they took us to a seafood restaurant on the shore. It was unlike any I’d been to before in that on the way in you chose a selection of live shellfish, fish and crabs from buckets by the door and they were taken away to be cooked for your meal. I’d previously only seen many of the shellfish on offer sold in shell shops in Europe.

The dinner was huge, as was the supply of beer. Dish followed dish, and I had to work hard to keep up. Most of the shellfish were nice, but I declined the snails and had learnt my lesson before about trying to eat crabs with chopsticks. By the end of the meal the students were a little concerned that we’d drunk three or four bottles of beer each but we pointed out that the English knew how to take their beer and wouldn’t fall over.

The local food in China is very cheap, good, and very messy. I loved the meals that we had in various small restaurants, and none came to more than about $4 per head even with beer. Admittedly hygiene is not up to Western standards, but I didn’t catch anything. I was, however, lucky that I had Tansy and the students to translate as most menus were only in Chinese.

We continued on to the beach, stopping at a stall to pick up more beer and some munchies. One of the students had brought along his guitar, and we sat on the sand illuminated by streetlights and shop lights listening to him play and playing silly games. At midnight the lights cut off, but I still had my video light to keep us going for another half hour or so.

Compared to Beijing the sky was very clear, and many stars were visible. The cool sea air was also a pleasant change. Reluctantly we packed up just before 1am and returned to the hotel. I was spending far too much time looking at the stars and too little looking in front of me on the way back, but luckily one of the students kept me from crashing into things.

The next day we hired a minibus to take us to another beach nearby. We drove for nearly an hour and were then surprised to see people sliding down a large sandbank ahead of us. A cable car took them to the top, then they slid down on the far side. I wasn’t sure if they were using skiis or something like a bobsleigh, but it looked quite fun. Unfortunately the queue would take about an hour to clear so we decided we’d better leave it.

The beach itself was pleasant but had no shark nets so wasn’t recommended for swimming. The rusty Armored Personnel Carriers giving people rides along it added an interesting surreal touch. I think the machineguns had been removed. All along the shore motorboats were assembled to give rides, and further down a 4×4 towed people for parascending. I hadn’t expected this kind of thing in China.

We walked along the beach for a while collecting shells, and along with one of the students I tried to rescue some crabs that had stayed out too long in the sun, but they were dead. Perhaps for the best, as otherwise they’d probably have been in a seafood restaurant in a few days anyway. We stopped and chatted by an old fishing boat which was slowly falling to pieces.

Before leaving we decided to risk a ride in one of the motorboats – hell it was only $1.50. We didn’t realise quite what it entailed. We pulled on the lifejackets then climbed in, soaking the legs of my trousers as we did so. I found myself in the front seat, hanging onto the bulkhead and a small handle on the side.

As they pushed the boat out into the breakers it began to roll wildly at forty-five degrees or more. Just as I thought we were going to go right over it turned back, but only because it was hit by a large wave which soaked me to the skin. Another couple followed before the driver got it under control. Soon we were skimming over the waves at high speed. Each wave we hit would throw us into the air and then we fell back to the sea with a thump that ran right up my spine.

Survivors Of The Boat Trip

You know, I sometimes feel that there are two parts of me. One part is reckless and fearless and will agree to try just about anything. The other is a real scaredycat who’d rather be at home with his mother. This was one of those times. But I must admit, even though I was soaked through by the time I returned it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t screaming because I was scared, just because I was enjoying it. Honest.

A little further along we found another beach suitable for swimming and set up for a long stay. The biggest problems were the umbrellas and deckchairs. We didn’t really want any, but soon we had an entourage of about fifteen people following us along the beach to try to persuade us to rent some. Eventually we gave up and hired an umbrella just to make them go away.

I covered up with sunscreen and headed off into the waves, some of which were five or six feet tall. I spent most of the next couple of hours hanging on to a rubber ring with one of the students, riding the waves. The currents kept washing us into the shark nets until we learnt to keep swimming away.

This time we avoided the rain, and I abandoned the sea when the waves became far too large to comfortably deal with. Even so, I had to fight hard against the current to get out. Only after I began changing did I spot my red shoulders and arms, and realise that all that time on the ring they’d been out in the sun. Ooops.

We packed up and took a train back to Beijing. We’d wanted to take a train there as well, but no tickets were available. Somehow the students had managed to organise some for the trip back. That was far more comfortable and saved two or three hours of travel. However the crowds were incredible. We had to fight to keep moving and trying to keep the group together was difficult, involving a lot of shouting and gesticulating over the heads of the other travellers. Somehow we all ended up in the right seats.

The next day would be my last in Beijing, as I was flying out on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately I woke up with very sore and peeling arms and shoulders, feeling generally unwell and with some trouble walking in a straight line. I spent most of the day dozing on the sofa and hoping that the damn sunburn would sort itself out eventually. By the evening I could at least manage to get to the shop by the base of the flats. They only spoke Chinese, but that wasn’t a problem. The shopkeeper had already worked out that when one of us went down there the question wasn’t “would you like some beers?”, but rather “how many?”

Joyce also had a minor problem that day as the taxi she was in was rear-ended by a car. Luckily she was in the front seat and consequently unharmed. I’m rather glad that I did stay at home instead of joining her as I would have been in the back. Perhaps the sunburn was useful after all…

… to use the immortal words of Richard Nixon.

A Rare Empty Section Of Wall

The Great Wall was one of the tourist sights in China that I really wanted to see. It’s a marvel of ancient engineering, stretching for thousands of miles across China’s highly variable terrain from plains to mountains, built to stop Mongol invasions. It’s also a memorial to bureaucratic incompetence, as, legend has it, the Mongols soon discovered that bribing the poorly-paid guards to let them through was much easier than trying to fight their way over the wall. Britain has Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to stop the Scots (even the Romans weren’t brave enough to take them on), but it was much smaller when built and very little survives today.

We knew that the China Travel Service offered tours to the Wall at about $45 a head, but being poor we decided to make our own way. Rumor had it that buses went from Tianamen Square, so we made a preparatory reconnaisance down there. On the way I spotted something by the side of the road which looked a lot like a crashed UFO – what it was I don’t like to think. We found a bus station that looked promising, so we decided to wander round one of the parks and return early the next day. I also stopped off at the airline office to change my return date so I could go to the seaside at the weekend. I was quite glad at this point that the police examination of the plane when we landed had prevented me from confirming the original dates.

Me At The Great Wall. Note The Nomadic Research Labs T-shirt.

Joyce also wanted to check out trains to Hong Kong as she was planning to travel down there to fly to Australia. We made a brief stop at the new Beijing West train station, which is more like an airport. One unusual feature of all Chinese train stations that I’ve been to is the X-raying of baggage on the way in. I don’t know if that’s to stop smuggling or to prevent people taking weapons on board. The grilles and perspex screens in the Beijing taxis which seperate the driver from passengers are definitely due to violence. Apparently many taxi drivers were injured or killed in knife attacks until they were made compulsory.

The park was difficult to find, and we almost wandered into some major government buildings instead before the cops waved us off. We found a different park instead and made do. That was full of kids’ amusement rides, including dodgems. They seemed very out of place inside a traditional old Chinese pavilion. The day wasn’t much good for photography though. The Beijing smog was so thick it was even blurring out buildings a couple of hundred yards away. That probably explained why my nose was so unhappy.

We’d planned to be back in time for a ballroom dancing lesson at the college. I’d studied some last year so I was itching to try it out, but we just ran out of time. While Tansy and her flatmate were tangoing away we went to the Post Office to post Joyce’s cards. Affixing paper stamps with glue from a pot (rather than preglued) was a new experience, as was the care that the Chinese Postal Service took with their charges. As Joyce handed the cards over, the woman behind the desk threw them on the floor. At least they didn’t make as much noise as the parcels… Still, might as well learn if it’s breakable in the Post Office rather than out on the open sea.

Lamps At The Great Wall

The trip to the Wall called for another early morning. I was pretty much a zombie when we arrived at the bus station, and it was indeed the right place. Two old ladies asked us if we wanted to go to the Wall, then proceeded to try to fleece us for ¥300 for a return taxi fare – we declined. The bus we found was a much better deal at ¥12 (about $1.50) each way.

There was only one minor problem. The bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, so we had a wait of half an hour, which put us right in the Beijing rush-hour traffic. The bus crawled along out of town. A few hours later the guide began talking in Chinese over the PA and we spotted a few chunks of Wall on the hillside. Knowing that the ride would one day end was something of a relief. The bus parked.

The steps up to the Wall were packed with stalls and touts, and we fought our way past them, then struggled up the short stretch of road that followed, trying not to get run over. We paid up and climbed the steps, finally qualifying for our ‘I Climbed The Great Wall’ T-shirts. We were there… yet another place which had previously only been a photograph was now real.

Great Wall

We turned left and headed off along the Wall. It was full of photo stalls and people trying to sell us books and T-shirts. It was remarkably empty of tourists, who all seemed to have gone in the other direction. We couldn’t yet work out why.

This stretch of Wall is very well restored, and would be very scenic were it not for the crowds, shopping mall at the entrance and coach park below. The further we got from the entrance the more partially-collapsed sections of Wall we could see in the distance. The day was very hot and we had to stop regularly to drink water.

We walked a little further before spotting a strange ‘A Camel For Rent’ sign by some steps. Looking over the battlements we saw it tied up down below in front of a clothes line. It was yet another tourist photo-opportunity, allowing you to dress up as Marco Polo and be photographed on the camel in front of the Wall. Crash helmets were also available for the more nervous customers.

They would have to be Westerners though, for the Chinese were totally fearless. They thought nothing of climbing up on top of battlements over a hundred foot drop or walking to the very tip of a promontory with nothing below if it would make a good picture. They also liked to leave their mark behind on the Wall. One of the first things I’d noticed on climbing the steps was that practically every stone was inscribed with Chinese graffiti, and we saw a couple of kids adding to it as we walked along.

We soon discovered why the tourists had kept to the other end of the Wall. This end was damn steep. Going up to the watchtower (which was also full of yet more stalls) was slow, but getting back down was rather harder. We hadn’t quite realised how steep the steps were until we looked back down. Joyce slowly climbed down backwards and I hung on to the handrail and tried not to fall over. We were passed by a couple of Westerners with rucksacks; many people today walk along the Wall and camp in the watch-towers at night.

It's A Long Way Down

We stopped for a brief meal of dumplings and the worst iced tea I’ve ever tasted (more like water with a little bit of tea flavoring added) then as we had some spare time we proceeded along the other stretch of Wall. We were less of a tourist attraction at this end and few people wanted their photos taken with us, but Joyce eventually began to refuse to pose. I began to wonder if I should be taking photos of some of the cute Chinese girls who wanted to pose with me. Or perhaps addresses would have been better.

Joyce gave up part-way to the watchtower in that direction but as we still had a few minutes left I carried on. Then time came to return to the bus. Which wasn’t there… luckily we found another which was going back to Tianemen, but again they wanted to wait until filled before they left. After nearly an hour they gave up, and I dozed through the Beijing evening rush hour.

When I woke the city was dark outside and I wondered just how long we’d been sitting in the traffic queue. In fact the time was still only 5:30, but the sky was full of very dark clouds. Shortly afterwards they began to release their load of rain on the city. Pedestrians rushed for cover, as did those cyclists who’d left their ubiquitous plastic cycling capes at home. The bus trudged slowly on.

Another View

When we finally arrived at the bus station few passengers wanted to leave and face the heavy rain. Eventually the guide began encouraging them off and we followed. Most of us raced across to the bike shelter and hid under there, hoping that it would stop. Eventually it slowed enough for us to grab a taxi and then trudge back to the flat through the mud. As I walked into the flat I discovered that leaving my laptop on the table had been a bad idea as the strong winds had sand-blasted the exterior, but luckily it still worked. I was exhausted but hungry, and the others soon returned. We hunted out rainclothes (hey, I even got to use my trenchcoat for the first time this trip!) and walked off to the nearby restaurant under the arch of a double rainbow.

Forbiden City Sign

Take-off from Hong Kong was just as exciting as landing, with the runway pointing straight out into the harbour. The view was very nice, particularly the first few seconds when we flew over lots of boats. To the North we passed over a lot of mountains as we flew into China.

The crew handed out piles of landing forms. Boy, what a bunch of bureaucracy. I seemed to need to declare just about everything I was carrying, particularly books and my laptop. I guess I’d expected this kind of treatment when entering a communist country. I’d seen too many old spy movies – `Mr Bond, why are you bringing three machineguns, a helicopter gunship and a crate of hand-grenades on your vacation? Please take the Red channel…’

The plane was half-empty, so the stewardesses continually offered more alcohol and was quite sozzled as I tried to catch up on some email. I have a simple attitude to flights; any time someone asks me a question related to food and drink I say ‘Yes’. That’s fine on long haul trips but perhaps not so good on short ones.

Before landing we were notified that there would be extra security, with police coming onto the plane. The pilot didn’t explain why. We landed and stopped away from the terminal. Police cars pulled up and a group of green-clad cops formed at the bottom of the steps. Eventually they climbed up as the Japanese tourists enthusiastically filmed them. The police were checking all passports as we left, comparing names against a list. No idea who they were looking for but I was waved on through. This was what I expected from China.

Immigration and Customs weren’t. I expected a long grilling and waiting hours for my bags to arrive. In fact I was through in five minutes. I had all these forms which I’d carefully filled in and noone cared. They wouldn’t even let me go through the red channel, but forced me into the green channel where my bags were X-rayed and then I was left to work out what to do. I entered the arrivals area with all but one form still in my hands.

I looked for the currency exchange to change some more money, I only had 300 Yuan on me (about $45). Found a sign pointing upstairs so I followed it. Walked right around the floor and found another sign pointing downstairs. Went down again and it still wasn’t there. I can only assume it’s a Mobieus currency exchange desk. I guess you can save money by just building signs and not bothering to build the things the signs point to.

Beijing Bikes

I walked out of the airport straight into a mob of TV cameramen clustered around some Chinese guy who I didn’t recognize. I thought about asking one of the English-looking crews who they were filming, but then realised they were speaking German. Finally the guy escaped and walked off towards the taxis. The cameras turned to follow him and I probably appeared in yet another crowd shot. Geez, can’t get away from them anywhere.

The very long taxi queue rapidly shortened. I couldn’t believe how efficient China turned out to be. Most of the taxis were VW estates, and I took one, handing Tansy’s card to the driver (it had her Chinese address on it). He examined it carefully and set off. The drive through town was what I’d by now come to regard as typically Asian. Lots of street stalls, and unlike Bangkok lots of bikes. Lots and lots of bikes. Bikes absolutely everywhere, and plenty of cycle paths to ride along, or at least cycle lanes at the edge of the road.

The driver stopped twice to ask for directions. The second time a guy walked up as I waited in the car and stared in at me. He obviously wasn’t used to foreigners. Finally we found the right road and with a beep of his horn to warn the cyclists that he was about to turn across their lane we entered it. The college was quite large and stood behind a metal rail fence on which some people had affixed paintings for sale. It seems that everything is for sale in China.

I staggered in under the load and asked for Tansy at the desk. The guard didn’t understand, but a student recognized the name. He told me that she would be teaching until 12:30 and I could wait on the comfy leather-clad sofa in the entrance hall. I was glad to drop my bags and relax. We chatted for a few moments, then he lead me upstairs to meet her. On the way up I spotted the college ‘No Spitting’ sign on the wall. Hmm, different.

She walked into the office looking somehow similar and somehow different, not too surprising after five years – I don’t think I’d seen her since 1991. We caught up on gossip for a few moments, then another visiting friend arrived. Joyce was Tansy’s boyfriend’s sister, and had been in Beijing for about one and half weeks. The three of us went out for lunch, eating from a food stand. The food wasn’t bad, kind of burgers made from fresh meat, peppers, etc and wrapped in pita bread. We also drank some of the local beer, a bit weak and hoppy but pretty good for about $0.20 a bottle. Odd to be in a country where beer is literally cheaper than (purified) water.

Joyce led me back to the flat. It was pretty nice, and the apartment block wasn’t bad if you only looked at the inside. Outside was still a major construction site as there was a rush to build new housing in Beijing for the people moving in from rural areas. This was one reason why everything was so dusty.

Tiananmen Square

We chatted for most of the afternoon. Joyce was spending a few months travelling after her employer made her redundant, and said that if she’d read the Lonely Planet guide before she bought her ticket then she wouldn’t have come out here. Luckily the guide is two years old and China has changed a lot in that time. I grabbed a shower and another change of clothes. The ducts in the bathroom seemed like something out of ‘Brazil’.

Tansy’s flatmate returned around 6pm, by which point I was dozing on the sofa while Joyce wrote letters in her room. As we talked while we waited for Tansy, there was a knock on the door. A couple of students were outside, both carrying pagers prominently on their belts and clearly either entrepeneurs or entrepeneurs-to-be. They invited us to the college administrator’s flat-warming party downstairs.

The stairs had very little in the way of lights, and what did exist we switched on as we went down. Our trip had the feel of a group of archaeologists descending into an ancient tomb. The echoey walls, dust-covered floor and steps only added to the experience.

A number of guests were already there munching on the dishes provided. The very tall and jovial student was soon handing out beer. I grabbed a selection of spoonfuls from the various dishes and dug in. The food was nice, though I wasn’t too sure about the thousand-year-old eggs. I ate most of one before I gave up. Hmm.

Amongst the guests were a couple from England. The wife was born in London near Joyce’s birthplace and now lived near my parents, the husband last worked near my last workplace. Small world, huh? We chatted about that for a bit, then the main dishes arrived. The fish was very nice indeed, but a bit tricky to eat with a spoon. I think I would have preferred chopsticks.

Tiananmen Square South Gate

The TV was showing a special presentation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Party and the handover of Hong Kong next year. It wasn’t bad except that the singers couldn’t mime. The beer flowed freely and one of the students was soon singing happily along and translating for us.

Back at the flat we found a place for me to sleep on the sofa. I was happy as I finally got to use the towel, sleeping bag and mosquito net that I’d been carrying all this time! Sleep was comforting after a long and heavy day. I was really glad that I’d come to China and even happier that I’d come to visit Tansy rather than doing it myself. In fact I don’t think I would have come here if I didn’t have someone to visit. As Joyce said, the guide books were just too forboding.

In the morning we spent several hours on teaching stories. Tansy’s flatmate had worked as an art teacher in the south-west of England, teaching the lowest class of farm-kids. I knew the type well and could understand why she found it a bit trying. I told her about some of the crazed kids at my school and we wondered if they were that way because of the teachers, or vice-versa.

Forbidden City Entrance

Joyce and I finally left to visit the Forbidden City, one of the Beijing tourist sites that I wanted to see. We took one of the very small ‘bread-loaf’ taxis (so-called because they’re yellow and shaped just like a loaf of bread), which charge only Y10 for the first 10km but are banned from some of the more upmarket parts of the city. They’re pretty good because you can cover much of the city for a fixed price, but rattle a lot and wouldn’t be much good in a crash. The way Beijing taxis drive the latter could be a big disadvantage.

On the way to Tiananmen Square we stopped in traffic. To our right was a city bus full of people. One began waving at Joyce, who eventually waved back. I joined in and by the time we’d started moving most of the bus passengers were waving at us. That was rather nice.

Again the square was full of people with cameras, mostly Asian, who I assumed were tourists. The city walls used to end here and there is a large gate on the South side which is all that remains of them. Lots of birds circle around the tower on top.

Being photographed with famous and ancient monuments seems to be a big pastime in China. The square was full of stalls selling film and also offering to photograph you for a fee. I guess they had instant cameras, or mailed the photos on to you.

Me And Mao

Mao’s tomb is directly before the entrance to the Forbidden City, with his photograph prominently displayed. We had to cross the road and took an underpass. Chinese people lined the walls, recovering from the heat in the cool darkness. Some of them were gambling at various games, which seems to be another big pastime in China.

We climbed up and took each others’ photos in front of the picture. Hey, I get to be a tourist sometimes, right? Joyce was grabbed by a Chinese woman who wanted her photograph taken with her, even upstaging Mao. I guess she’d never seen a black woman before. As we left, she took a photo of the two of us as I waved at her. I think that made her day ;-).

We passed below Mao’s picture and walked on to the Forbidden City entrance, then paid up our entrance fee. We walked in, to find a sign proclaiming that we had now entered the ‘Forbiden City’. Ah well…

I’m not as impressed with Chinese architecture as I was with Thai. I think part of that is because they like cold colors like green and blue rather than the red that’s so common in Thailand. The actual design was nice, but the colors let it down a little. So did the large, rectangular green plastic wastebins that were liberally scattered around… Lots of brass cranes, turtles and lions and huge vats. Most were used for incense-burning on major occasions so that the smoke would fill the city. A couple of elephants too. Lots of Chinese tours walking around, the tour guide carrying a large yellow flag.

Forbidden City Buildings

Joyce told me about how emperors in the past had often got so involved in Forbidden City life that they just left running the Empire to their subordinates. Apparently one loved carpentry so much that he spent all his time working on the buildings and was ecstatic every time one burnt down because he could build a new one. She also explained that fires are very common there with so many Chinese people smoking.

We ended up in the garden at the north end of the site. Very nice with lots of little pavilions and hidey-holes, but a little spoilt by all the people standing in front of everything scenic to have their photo taken with it. This seems to be the big difference between Chinese and European tourists. The former always have to be in the photo, whereas the latter often just take photos of nice views and prefer to have noone in them. I wonder where the difference comes from?

We tried to go back through the City to the Nine-Dragon Wall but Chinese speech and music began playing from the speakers. We were turned back and left the city through the north entrance. As we walked along the road looking for a taxi we saw four or five groups of men fishing in the moat. Crossing the road was exciting. There was a red/green man signal but even when it was green the taxis just ignored the lights.

Forbidden City Gardens

By the time the taxi returned us to the college I was amazed by how exhausted I was. We had no time to freshen up before heading out to see videos with one of Tansy’s students. Her husband was off on a business trip and she wanted some company. ‘First Knight’ had been requested for a Richard Gere fix. Me, I just wanted to see the computer effects.

We walked to the flats, buying some fruit to take with us, apparently a Chinese custom. When we arrived, we were glad to discover that the lifts were still working. Most of them close in the evening and aren’t available overnight. In true Chinese entrepeneurial spirit the lift attendant had set up a small stall in the lift selling cigarettes, water, soft drinks, etc.

The first problem we had was that the video didn’t work. Tansy explained that I knew about these things, which is true if the instructions are in English rather than Chinese! First of all I tried the obvious step of plugging the video output into the TV, but that didn’t help. After messing around with the Chinese menus for a while I was still stuck.

Our host went to visit a neighbour, and he came in looking like he knew what he was doing. I ate watermelon and peaches while looking at the view off the balcony. In the distance I could see one of the nearby parks and the block where Tansy’s flat was and far down below the street stalls were still busy. The view from so that height was really impressive.

Eventually they worked out that the channel needed to be tuned in, and to our amazement Richard Gere’s face appeared on the screen. Then vanished again as the auto-tuning decided it didn’t like the look of him. Another few minutes of manual tuning and he was back for good, with a round of applause from the audience.

The movie wasn’t great, kind of an Arthurian Western. But it was quite fun as silly movies go, and the computer effects on Camelot were fairly well done. However, at one point the video seemed to skip about ten minutes of the story and what we did see bore little resemblance to the traditional Arthurian tales. I guess that Hollywood couldn’t live with that kind of thing. I still prefer Excalibur.

Tansy wanted to leave to get up early for her class, but we were persuaded to stay for ‘True Lies’ instead. I’d only ever seen the first five minutes on a plane over the Arctic and gave up, so I thought I’d give it another try. Again it was very silly, but funny. Of course, I’m a James Cameron fan, so I’m not too surprised that I liked it second time through. Minor problem – the video ended two minutes before the end of the film. Aargh! Oh well, I’d seen some of that on TV before, and Tansy explained the rest to us.

We left the flat to discover that the lift was closed and there were no lights on the stairs. As we had twelve flights to descend, this wasn’t too appealing. One of the girls had a torch, but it provided only a small amount of light. Luckily I still had my camera bag with me so I pulled out the video light which was far more illuminating. We just had to rush down the stairs fast enough to get there before the battery ran out. Yay, first time on this trip I used that too!

On the walk back to the flat I was surprised by the lack of street lights (Joyce explained that this was a new area and they hadn’t had time to plant any yet), and the number of cars, buses and bikes driving past with no lights on. Why? The travel guide claimed that people do it to save fuel. Hmm, I don’t think I’d go quite that far myself. On the dirt track to the flats we saw a bunch of men outside the shop playing Mahjong under the spot light. I don’t know whether they’d already lost their shirts or were just stripped for action.

Ah well, another well-deserved (or at least well-received) sleep, even if I only slept in bursts because of the temperature. The living room had no airconditioning or fan. China was turning out to be far more relaxed and far more fun than I’d expected.