Monday, September 25, 2006


First stop, the largest public square in the world, Tiananmen Square, full of milling crowds. At the south end sits the Front Gate however the walls are now gone and the gate is fenced off. Heading onwards Mao’s Mausoleum draws flocks of Chinese tourists as does the Gate of Heavenly Peace where a portrait of Chairman Mao resides below which tourists pose for photos. Around the park stony faced policemen and soldiers keep things in order, standing beside socialist statues. About the only thing allowed seems to be kites, some are large, others are strung together to create a line of twenty or so small kites.

Continuing North you get to Forbidden City, a million square metres and 999 rooms, although not all opened to the public. The Forbidden City is actual a museum, hosting all sorts of exhibits of how life was for the Emperors and friends. Seems like they basically stayed walled up in the centre of Beijing unless they really had to go out, in which case get the sedan chair. Maybe they spent their days drinking tea beside the rockeries in the garden.

I headed off to see the Chinese acrobatics at night. They were excellent! All sorts of displays from spinning plates to somersaults. People flicking five bowls through the air from one foot onto their heads, while riding a unicycle! There was one bendy gymnast doing impossible things. If you can do this you might want to join the Chinese acrobatics.

1) Lie on your back and do a full length wise 360 revolution, like a slow roly-poly.

Okay, now point all limbs up and repeat with a wineglass (or nine) on the palms of your hands, base of your feet and on your forehead. Yes, they always have to face the ceiling as you rotate. You would bet your mortgage it couldn’t be done, sounds impossible right? But somehow it was done!

Next day it was off for a stroll along a few of the old shops. Some guy was trying to sell me tiny shoes “Ming Dynasty!!”, yeah sure. A few old posters being sold with translations such as “You workers are going good.”. As well as the usual chop shops where you can get your named carved on a stamp, of course they convert your name into Chinese and then you come back later and pick it up. They probably give you a stamp that says “Duty Paid” or “Made In China” and claim it is your name!

After that it was down to The Temple of Heaven park, a pot pourri of all sorts of activities going on here. From people practising acrobatics to playing tennis, and everything inbetween such as hacksack, dominoes, bat & ball, selling rolexs, Chinese checkers, ballroom dancing or playing cards, it was all going on. I demonstated my acrobatic atheletism by catching hoops on my head! I had been watching these a handful of people practising with a soft aeroba/hollow frisbee throwing and then jumping up and catching round their necks. Then one guy motioned me to join them, actually pretty easy as the skill is more in the throwing than the catching, just duck your head a little at the right point.

Speaking of ducks, that night I headed to Quanjude Restaurant for the famous Beijing Duck or Peking Duck as it’s still better known. Yummy! It was delicious. Didn’t get a whole lot of meat off half a duck, but it was good quality, although I left the head/brains.
Just for comparative purposes I tried it somewhere else again whilst in Beijing, more meat but not quite as nice.

Next day I had a stroll through the commerical district where modern Beijing is found. Shopping malls line the pedestrianised area, as the tills ring out. In contrast to this the old alleyways (called hutongs) are a step back in time. People live, work and shop in these narrow lanes. At the entrance rickshaw drivers holler “Hutong! Hutong!” trying to entice lazy tourists to hop on for a tour, but these are perfect streets for walking.

For some food I headed off to Xuan Wang Home Cooking restaurant where I had some tasty sweet & sour cucumber, a dish for all those cucumber naysayers! Along with this deep fried spare ribs with pepper salt, another very tasty dish. Although a bit too much fat for my tastes. Then it was off to the Summer Palace a large park complex with the old buildings inside. This took quite a while to stroll around!

I went along to the Beijing Opera. This was a performance aimed at tourists, so they had subtitles broadcasted on a big screen throughout the show. Although sometimes the English was a bit wonky, it started with “I have left the nunnery in a hurry!”. A girl runs away to find her boyfriend, she is helped by an old boatman. It was quite clever the way the old boatman and the girl moved around as if in a boat. There was a couple of other stories and even some gymnastics thrown in as people somersaulted through the air.

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” – Mao Zedong.
With that thought in mind it was up early(ish) the next morning to jump on the bus to Badaling where a portion of the Great Wall resides. It was actually fairly tough going, it was a lot steeper than I imagined it would be, but there was some handrails. Great view across the countryside where the wall snakes along the mountain ridges off into the distance. Whilst quite touristy it wasn’t as bad as the Lonely Planet suggests, although I didn’t go on the weekend. Plenty of space to move about, and I was expecting vendors selling stuff anyway. Some people cheat and take the cable car up, strangely enough there was a camel lurking on a section of the wall. I think he was just there for tourists to jump on and get there picture taken though. After knackering myself out, it was back to Beijing where I decided to stay for the Beijing Pop Festival.

The pop festival was held in Chaoyang park in the east of the city. A two day festival where a few Western bands were playing. It was certainly a bit different from the festivals in Britain. For a start there was no beer! A huge police presence kept things under control. The area in front of the stage was cordoned off for around 500 seats. The standing area was a 100m back from the stage. In the centre, from front to back, of the standing area police sat every 5m, no people were allowed to stand there. Every hour or two they would stand up and march off as new police came on duty. I did see one Westerner getting carted off with two policemen a limb, legs over head. He was taken off to a policevan with blacked out windows. The music was okay although the headliners on the first night gave the impression of wanting to be elsewhere. Not much crowd feedback, fairly quiet and subdued. The only time things got going really was with big haired 80’s spandex rocker Sebastian Bach (didn’t he die in the 18th century?) took the stage! The Chinese seemed to know his songs and sang along. After a bit of pushing at the front, extra police were quickly drafted in to sort out the barriers. Supergrass finished off the event and within 5 minutes, they annoucement that the festival has finished please disperse came over the tannoys and so I headed for Shanghai.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I got a hotel opposite the train station in Datong, they didn't speak much English. Turned out I don't get a key for my room, I have to fetch the service person to open the door for me, strange. And I had to pay what I thought was a key deposit! (Still I got it back when I checked out)

I headed downtown to have a look at the nine dragon screen. Which is a screen with nine dragons on it (What would you do without me??). It's 45m long and apparently the oldest glazed dragon wall in China. At least that's how it's advertised. As that took all of about 5 minutes to see, I headed off for some food. Californian Beef Noodles from Mr. Lee was the dish of the day. Seems a bit strange for an American to be selling noodles to the Chinese, no? Or maybe it is the beef that is from California, anyway not nearly as good as Pingyao beef. Although not that far from Beijing the locals don't seem too used to tourists. When I was walking about town, you would often hear "Hello!?"

The next day a visit to the Hanging Monastery. A monastery perched on the side of a mountain. The reaon for this was that the local people were having troubles with floods and so put the monastery 100m above the river safe from harm. Now after the 1500 years of silt it sits 50m above ground. The river had now been dammed. Due to it's location, it is protected from the wind at the sides and rains from above and most sun (a mountain opposite blocks the light for all but 2 hours a day). This had allowed the wood to survive for such a long time, which is just as well given that we were traipsing round the narrow passageways. Inside many of the buddhas were headless having been hacked off by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The fingers were cut off the main ones, the guide said the guards were too scared to chop off the head of the main buddhas.

Next it was off to Yungang caves. The caves are reputed to hold over 50,000 buddhist statues! The main caves are 5-20, these are in the best conditions and hold the largest buddhas. Buddhas everywhere! Some big, some small, some painted, some bare. The big buddhas were carved from the rock, a small tunnel is created 20m above ground level and then the process of carving begins downwards. Dragging the dirt back out the entrance tunnel, the buddha emerges from the rock and finally the main entrance is carved away creating the cave.


Back in the good old days of the Ming and Qing dynasty this was a boom town establishing China's first bank. After the dynasty collapsed Pingyao remained pretty much unchanged and still has the old city wall round the centre. In 1997 Pingyao was listed as a Unesco World Hertiage Site.

I bought the ticket which allows you in to see most of the sights. The trick is finding them, as they are all listed in Chinese and you don;t get a map. Many old banks and their courtyards. Some job descriptions on the walls such as eyeing the colour of the silver. Stopping off at the main museum to have a look around. The exhbits range from a prison complete with brick bed and wooden pillow, to torture equipment and stocks. A strange wooden horse with a bed nails on its back confirms my intention to stay on the good side of the Chinese.

For some reasons lots of fire fighting equipement everywhere from buckets and spades to small bags of sands, they used to make sure a well had heated water in the winter in case of fire, no use trying to dip a bucket into a frozen well. Still most of the buildings are brick. Rather wet the next day and it just rained all day. I headed out for a quick look about and decided to pop back at 15.30 for a play. After getting soaked I found out the play wasn't on as it was supposed to be outdoors. Bit of a non-event.

I tried the Pingyao beef which is famous throughout China as being yummy and it is!
Very tender served up with potato a filling meal but excellent. So good I had the same next day as well. Set off the next morning on a bike to a temple a short distance outside town with a Canadian guy. Ended up pedalling through mud due to the amount of rain yesterday some of Pingyao was flooded, and where it wasn't muddy it was dusty. Not allowed any photos in the halls of the temple, which was a shame as the Canadian had brought a backpack full of photgraphic equipment. Inside was some strange carvings, reminded me of a backdrop for a play, with the mutiple levels of the carvings.

In the afternoon I headed up onto the city walls and took the 6km walk round the perimeter. Take some photos of rooftops and I even snapped a picture of the Ready-Brek pigeon. Pingyao is a bit more shambolic than most of the cities in China, more rubble and bricks holding down the roofs.