fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Friday, September 22, 2006

28th August – Beijing

Beijing’s West Train Station is just one of 6 around Beijing and its 8 platforms are linked by one underpass to the single exit. There is a bit of a squeeze since all tickets have to be collected and destroyed but after this, it is amazingly well-signposted right down to the various bus berths.

No. 802 brought us to Qianmen, just right in font of Tiananmen Square which is in fact an extremely large rectangle. We were lured from our initial plan to stay at Leo Hostel by an offer of an 80 yuan room. The old tout asked his friend to ferry us there in his tricycle and we got our first glimpse of the Beijing hu tong. These maze of tiny houses look really old but quite a few have air-conditioning units installed. Those which are really old or have some historical value will be gazetted as national heritage and spared demolition. These supposed to have a white plaque in front but I haven’t spotted them yet. We weave through the tiny lanes and come to a new road slicing through the hu tong. By the side you could still see one half of a house that lay in the unfortunate path of destruction.

The cheapo hotel turned out to be too grimy even for us and the toilet’s scent chooses to cling to you after your visit. So we called it quits. Our rider tried to find us another location but I decided that we get back to Leo’s on our own. That’s when he demanded a tip for ferrying us here. The first tout told us that the ride would be free so I firmly refused payment. When soft reasoning doesn’t work, forget all the Zen-Peace nonsense and try the loud version which did. The guy said I am worse than the locals. I took this as a compliment and left. This was also the seedier part of town with some very dubious pink hairstyling saloons with their sex shop sidekicks.

The beef la mian we had for lunch deserves some special mention. The regular plain la mian costs Y2.5 so we upsized to the deluxe Y3 beef version. It arrived and we dug around the noodly mess to confirm that there were indeed only 4 tiny beef shavings. The old lady sitting at the same table actually scoffed!

Farang-filled Leo was everything we hoped for and we willingly paid for the 50 yuan AC dorm beds before crashing. We woke up with visa-extensions on our minds hoping we could get them extended by Friday and move on.

The Metro is a ten minute walk from Leo’s and the Visa Office another ten away from the Lama Temple Metro station. It was hot and third time unlucky with visas as we didn’t have a document called the Certificate of Temporary Accommodation which we were supposed to get from our hostel. The guys at Leo should have told us this when we asked them about the visa office. I also wasted 30 yuan to take 5 passport photos which I had forgotten to bring for the application form. Beijing being big is the main excuse visas here need 5 working days to be processed excluding the day of application. Since the office doesn’t open over the weekend that means being retained in Beijing for at least 7 days! What a way to cash in the tourist dollars! I guess we will know this capital really well. Fortunately there are enough worthy sights to occupy at least 5 days.

The colourful Lama Temple did lessen the frustration, especially after a good Cornetto at its entrance. (A bad one is one that had melted when the freezer malfunctioned and had been refrozen for sale.) The pair of stone lions here are especially grand and menacing with claws that resemble the talons of dragons. The lioness looks like she is plunging hers into her cub who tries his best to resist with his mini-talons. The male’s side of the entrance was unfortunately under construction. The temple gets grander as you make your way to the end, with the drama peaking at the top of a 55-foot sandalwood Buddha in the penultimate hall. The temple custodians are men with shaved heads in a red long sleeved shirt and black pants. They look like trendy modern monks who could know a bit of kungfu.

I entered one of the side halls and overheard two custodians arguing about the Dalai Lama in India. The older guy said ‘The Dalai Lama must be a good person, the whole world cannot be wrong.’ This prompted a whack from the younger guy who said something like ‘you must be mistaken’. Whatever the argument on who is the true Dalai Lama, this Tibetan temple, the largest outside Tibet is worth a visit, Besides the old karma-sutric statues, paintings, colourful décor, thankas(cloth paintings) and ornaments, there are lots of people, young and old praying to the various statues even to one painted a eye-popping luminous blue.
Normally, three incense sticks would do the trick but one lady decided to file her major request to the guys above with a fist full of them.

The Foreign Languages Bookshop in Wangfujing street probably has the best collection of English titles in the whole of China. You can get The Da Vinci Code for Y66 and A Farewell To Arms for 80. Fantasy novels are cheaper. Karen found a book about Empress Cixi and the concubines. They all looked at most 12 to 14 and I think his highness has really strange taste.

If you are into exotic food on a stick, come to the Food Street between Donganmen and Wangfujing Jie. Skewered on long thick sticks are scorpions, baby sharks, lavae, crickets, starfish, lizards, mini-lobsters, squid, smelly toufu, sheep spare parts and snakes. There are even sea urchins for sale. We conservatively stuck to Y5 mutton and squid chuan (satay) and a Y10 fish which was really fresh. At the end of this street is a restaurant offering a 400 intercontinental buffet spread for Y250!!

We walked back to Leo’s to let dinner have time to go down the system. Illegal hawkers show how quickly they can pack up and bike away when the authorities arrive. The Olympic are more than 700 days away and they are selling mascot keychains and other paraphernalia. China has five mascots. Unfortunately they remind me of the powerpuff girls. They are also going to need 100,000 volunteers. Foreigners can sign up next March after the locals do in December. As we walk, we gawk at how up-sized everything is in Beijing. The street in front of Mao is broader than our ECP. Pavements, underpasses, government buildings, hotels, shopping complexes and public parks are all designed with the masses in mind and the intention to impress. It takes about 10 minutes to leisurely walk the length of Tiananmen. A squad of soldiers overtake us as we walk. They march in step briskly but so gracefully soundlessly and effortlessly, they create an aura of lethal confidence. People just instinctively hop aside. Tiananmen is heavily guarded by uniformed soldiers who stand at attention under umbrellas. The only thing that moves are their eyes. The police seem to have a more relaxed time, mostly on patrol or stationed at underpasses. There is a policeman at every underpass, sometimes more at the major ones! And there are probably some plainclothes guys (I saw them marching with the uniformed guys) to paralyse any incident that may spark off the 1989 demonstrations.


29th August – Beijing

Leo’s is located in a hu tong or old settlement and the area teems with life, local and foreign, young and old. I was on one of my morning walks while Karen slept. I like relish these rare moments when I am alone to wander very slowly along a short stretch of the street waiting for the photographic moments to fall in place. I spotted a shop entirely devoted to shoe-shining, a roaring trade since most Chinese men wear work shoes whatever the occasion. A duck roasting machine and the fragrance that wafted from it down the street also caught my attention. Only Y15 per duck. One shop’s speciality was donkey meat, something we have been wanting to try even after Mr Nibbles. There is one sex shop on this street buried in between two provision shops. Daylight seems to come quite early this season and the streets get busy by 7am. Lots of milling old folks, going for their morning walks, stretching, chatting, buying breakfast etc. One whizzed his diablo for exercise.

A new road is eating its way into the hu tong and old houses have been demolished. You could see half a house standing by the side with some of the furniture still intact. By the road are makeshift canvas tents where the workers sleep, cook and eat. They work fast and by the time we leave Beijing, most of the underground piping is completed. One pipe burst and a cute old lady with her dog asked me why I didn’t photograph the resultant geyser which got all the locals excited. She told me that the demolition was good for her as she could now see Qianmen from her gate! She invited me to come in for some tea if I had the time.

We finally got our visas done in the late morning. The German behind me was sent back to his hostel to get his certificate after queuing for almost 30 minutes. The LP Beijing guy should have been more thorough in his research. In fact the China LP 2005 edition is quite outdated – a testimony of how fast China is changing (especially its ticket prices). Karen and I congratulate ourselves and head for a good lunch at The Four Seasons. We asked an European if we paid for our visas upon collection and he replied in Mandarin! In so many places, we have encountered westerners who can speak Mandarin reasonably well. How long can Singaporeans claim to hold the language advantage?

The Four Seasons is a simple restaurant not anything near our Four Seasons back home. (Mingai, if you are reading this, thanks for your wedding invitation, it was about the poshest wedding dinner I had ever attended!). Our bad luck with the visas decided to play its final card to move the restaurant from the sports stadium which was undergoing some renovations. Seems like quite a few things are under renovation or construction. Bloody Olympics!

We settled for a porridge place where I had a yellow corn-blended porridge with a chicken-mushroom-udon-MSG claypot dish. Here on TV was a Journey to the West episode which we saw in Anshun, many moons ago.

I think most of Beijing’s charm lies in her hu tongs which are all arranged in a grid, front doors facing the south and connecting corridors running east-west and north-south. On the hu tong exploration just behind our lunch place, we stumbled into one princely white furry cat (fur for winter), one girl who has trained her pet sparrow to fly fro its cage and eat from her hand and one kind lady who invited us into her home after I asked her some questions about the hu tong.

Her hu tong is as old as her, 50 years. It will be levelled in two or three years to make way for high-rise apartments. There is one development just next door towering above the hu tong like an imminent spectre of destruction. I ask her about the eviction and compensation procedure and she ushers us into her unit so that she can speak freely.

The door opens into a tiny kitchen (approx 1.5m by 3m). With all the fittings, there is barely enough room to move. The sink here doubles up as the shower. In winter, the folks go to the heated baths where a shower costs Y8. Behind the kitchen is the main living area (3m by 4.5m). At the far end is a double bed and a standing air-conditioning unit. A cupboard, TV, utensil racj and fridge line one wall and a computer terminal the other. The last piece of furniture is a sofa which her 20 year old son sleeps on. Her hubby has decided to call it quits with the family. It is small but cosy and newly renovated. The story begins…

You cannot resist eviction. One man did and came home to find the police, firemen, ambulance, lawyers, movers and demolition team waiting. He watched as they carted all his things outside and all 17 units flattened in 2 hours. They checked him into his new housing and deducted the costs for all the units deployed (I presume I case he should decide to do something foolish) from his compensation. Well, I am glad it is not the case where they destroy his home with his possessions in it. The lady described his reaction as ‘shaking but nothing to say’. Compensation is of course not enough to buy the apartment that will sprout of their land. This lady was offered 200,000 for her unit plus 40,000 for the sum invested in the renovation works and because her son stays with her. Despite having stayed there all her life, she is bubbly, positive, kind and funny. She keeps telling us that we are luck to meet her since she is a ‘hao ren’ or ‘good person’ and gives us advice about rip-offs. ‘Don’t say that you are from Singapore. Tell them you are form Guangzhou!’ and ‘Don’t go to the hotels for your Beijing duck. They should only cost you 60 to 80 yuan.’ She recommends that we visit the hu tong near Bei Hai Park where the houses being hundreds of years old are gazetted as National Treasures and are thus immune to development. One really old house used to be a brothel she says,

The newest building in most hu tongs is the toilet, probably a gift from the government. We went in and found it in much better than most public toilets in Singapore. I think if you take the toilets out of our HDB flats, you get better social cohesion and eventually cleaner toilets. It’s one big family here. The houses are so small, private life spills into the open.

At the other wing, we bumped into a group of boys playing on one of the corridors. A half–naked plump guy, the most sporting of the lot struck hilariously candid poses and got everyone laughing. One man came up to me and asked if I thought the hu tong is good. I said it was and he bellowed ‘Pi(4)!’ or ‘Bullshit!’. I was a little stunned but it somehow got everyone laughing rather cynically. I guess these guys didn’t want to move, their hu tong was in pretty good shape and everyone seemed contented here. Their compensation will of course be only a fragment of what the land is going to be worth.

One old man has a huge pigeon cage above his home. The birds are his pets and do fly home after being let out from the cage.

In the evening, the cute cats of Bei Hai Park come out to be fed by the cute aunties who bring them cat food and milk. The first one we saw was a tiny bloated kitten. Karen who has kitten experience says that it has worms. One lady thought it was because she fed it too much! Anyway this little black fellow is the most psychotic cat I have every seen. The next was a tri-coloured fellow (someone told me that tri-coloured cats are always female but I didn’t check), it looked so regal until the auntie army came to inspect and play with it. The cats here are so used to people, they don’t run and let you pat them. ‘That fat blob got abused by some boys’, one auntie laments. They threw some charcoal at him that burnt off his right ear and tail. In this park is one 9 dragon screen which has 635 dragons on it. According to Karen’s brother, the nine in Singapore has only four talons on each claw. The ones here are entitled one more.

The evening crowd is lively and out to have a good time. Public parks in China seem very well utilised and the regulars probably have some way to evade the 15 yuan entrance fee. Bei Hai is so big you could get a good workout running two rounds around the lake.

The sesame beef skewers we had for dinner was big value for money. 11 generous skewers for Y22. For those who eat lots of sesame seeds, you will know that you will usually see them once again a day or two later when they come out through the rear.


30th August – Beijing

Simple day. The morning rain persuaded us to drop the Forbidden City plan and stay in bed. We woke up in time for lunch. Hopped over to Mac’s at Wangfujing Jie to used their WiFi which Karen discovered was non-existent only after I paid for the drinks. The hot chocolate(Y7) here is not bad but it shouldn’t follow a fresh orange juice, also not bad(Y6.5). Karen’s coke was bad.

Then began the intensive blogging which lasted 3 or 4 hours. Karen went for a walk leaving me alone with $6,000 worth of electronic equipment on the table and an urge to pee I couldn’t postpone.

I approached a young couple in the table across and asked the girl (since she was facing my table) if she could ‘kan(4)’ or look after my stuff while I went to the loo. She was halfway through her 50 cent ice-cream cone.

‘Mei Wen Ti’

‘Xie Xie’

‘Bu Yong Xie’

Off I went on one of those quicker visits to the kid’s urinal nearest the door. I returned about a minute later to find Miss Conscientious at my table, in my seat, still about halfway through her ice-cream, hunched over and literally watching my stuff.

‘Xie Xie’

‘Bu Yong Xie’

*China is the second largest fast-food consumer after the US and their Mac’s menu have a wider variety of chicken burgers. The Y11 Big Mac looks a little shrivelled and a hamburger, small fries and coke costs Y10. It is also always packed.


31st August - Beijing

Some amateur tried to pick Karen’s camera pouch as we entered the underpass leading to Tiananmen. When Karen felt the tug, she looked behind to see some guys fleeing upon the whistle signal given by their leader. She alerted the guard below who ‘did something about it’ by stopping the elderly man behind us to check his plastic bag and ID! He also told us that there is a syndicate from Xinjiang.

It takes about ten minutes to walk under Mao’s portrait to the ticket booths of the Forbidden City and probably two full days to go through what this massive attraction has to offer. It is really a huge museum with tens of thousands of artefacts on display in the various palace buildings. 8000 of these have been classified as National Grade 1 treasures and could well be in a vault in some other forbidden place.

The U-shaped Meridian Gate is all out to impress with its thick red walls and sturdy watch-towers. The Supreme Harmony Gate on the other side is under renovation and covered with a green rectangular mesh. Of course no signs are placed at the ticketing booths to mentally prepare us for this stunner. To compound the damage, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the grandest ceremonial building, was also under restoration. This time the green mesh had an apologetic image of the hall painted on it, not that it made any difference. This Hall is the one you see in the movies which overlooks the courtyard that all the emperor’s subjects would be waiting in. The emperor emerges at the top of the central staircase and all 100,000 full house capacity will kneel and press their foreheads to the ground. ‘wan sui wan sui wan wan sui!’

Right now, the grandeur is gone and we want our money back.

Karen’s gone off with her new boyfriend. He’s the audio guide which we could only afford one of. It’s this hi-tech thing which tells you stories about the various parts of the Forbidden City as you wander around the maze of buildings. It seems to detect where you are and fill you in on the relevant trivia. The only problem is that you cannot repeat the commentary!

Initially, I went from artefact to artefact from each showroom to the next. They were generally varied, interesting, intricate, well-crafted and well-preserved. Too bad the little English text (when there was) was not very informative. We were not supposed to take any photos but the guards didn’t seem to mind and blatant camera flashes were going off every other minute. There was nothing much the guards could do and the emperors (and Mao) were long gone. Below are my sneaks of those which I found more interesting before I suffered from treasure fatigue. By the tenth showroom, I checked the map and realised that I had to speed things up or settle with covering only a quarter of the grounds today. At the rest points, armchairs were loaded with tourists too concussed to carry on. Many, especially the older folks were taking a nap. I found this universal feeling of tiredness quite humorous.

You can tell the importance of the building by counting the number of mythical animals lined up along the eaves of the roof. Always in front is a man riding a huge chicken. At the rear is a large dragon’s head. The lesser buildings usually have about 5 of these creatures and the most important one, which incidentally was the Hall of Supreme Harmony, has eleven.

Keeping with the August 2008 Olympic schedule, many buildings have been restored. I don’t know if the painters have succeeded making the palace look authentic but they have certainly made it attractive with bright matching colours coated with lacquer. The blue-red-gold-green combination looks like a classy Japanese-Korean gift wrap.

The northern half of the City is devoted to the living quarters of the royalty. Many of these smaller palaces have been converted into showroom museums with loads of ornate mirrors, furniture, porcelain vases, jade products, paintings, calligraphy to gawk at from the glass windows. One particularly large throne room had a dragon’s head looking down from a large recess in the ceiling. From its mouth hangs a shiny silver ball a little larger than a football. One guide explained that according to legend, if a pseudo-emperor sat on the throne, the silver ball would drop on his head!! The recess in the ceiling is actually an inverted water basin, a symbolic ward against fire. If a fire did break out in the old days, there are ancient fire-extinguishers all over the City. They come in the form of huge metal urns filled with water. In winter, they will be covered and heated to prevent the water from freezing.

Empress Cixi had a silk sock fetish and demanded a fresh pair everyday or its ‘off with your head buddy!’ ‘Fresh’ meaning ‘just sewn’ not ‘clean laundry’ so this created quite a few low-pay-high-risk jobs since each pair took about five days to sew.

One display featured the Emperor’s dining table. It had 40 gold plated bowls all containing different ‘ho(2) liao(3)’ or good stuff. Unfortunately, I think he ate alone.

Amidst the bonsai, twisted trees and rockeries at the northern most end of the City is the Hall To Usher In The Light. Here the emperor saw the light in the form of concubine selection. Must have been an ancient China Idol equivalent since looks didn’t seem to be the determining factor. Another funny Hall is the one of Mental Cultivation. It’s basically a study room with a funny English name.

Inscribed on the red doors of one of the ceremonial halls is a pair of ‘suang xi’ or ‘double happiness’. The guide leading her group started to get everyone, especially the young couples to run their hands over the inscription as it supposed to bring them a son. An European tourist who was walking by let out a condescending ‘Oh Please…’ scoffing at their superstition. Who are we to judge? as Gilly wisely said.

The Forbidden City with all her exquisite antiques is well worth a visit despite the restoration works. Just be prepared to spend the whole day there which means bringing along some stomach fuel.

Japanese food is more expensive in China except for sashimi. The Y117 worth of sushi included one surprisingly good chocolate sushi. I think it was Snickers they used.

As the sun went down on Beijing, so did the flag in Tiananmen. All traffic on the ECP sized thoroughfare was stopped as a contingent of 32 rifle bearing soldiers marched out under Mao’s kindly gaze across the road to the flagstaff at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. The gasps and gawks of the hundreds who had been waiting for the past half an hour were respectfully suppressed as the soldiers marched swiftly and formed up in front of the flagstaff. Their drill coordination was flawless and their belts were tight enough to get girls envious of their waistline never mind the puffed out shirts looked a bit comical. It was a hi-tech flag that slid its way down automatically, no screechy HKSS pulleys here in Tiananmen! What followed was the most violent flag-keeping I have ever seen. The soldiers motions were so sharp, strong and exaggerated, I was worried that the flag might be torn apart. After the fancy snatching, coiling and folding during which one short powerful auntie managed to ram her way through the human wall in front of me, the soldiers formed up and escorted the flag back into the Forbidden City and the traffic flowed again. After watching them, I think the SAF parade drills needs some revising. Here they look relaxed, yet in control and lethal. Back home, we stomp around trying to make boot noise sound good.

During the wait for sunset, some touts were trying to sell a pack of cards for 2 yuan. The main selling point is that each card had a different picture of a Beijing attraction on it so they were shouting, ‘See Beijing for 2 yuan! 1 attraction a card, 54 attractions in all!’ Just like in India, whenever someone was selling anything, there will always be at least one buyer.

The new toy on the block is a rather strange and irritating one. Touts throw the black pair of metallic cocoon shaped beads in the air and they knock against each other emitting a loud shrill buzz. We’ve seen them in India too and when you get every other street tout flinging it into the air, you get noise pollution, especially in the underpasses. I think you can get one pair for 2 yuan.


1st Sept – Beijing

I met two Singaporeans today on separate occasions but both concerned food. The first guy was trying to find a restaurant in Oriental Plaza. The address he found on the net was nowhere to be found in the shopping centre’s directory. I was standing next to it while waiting for Karen to finally emerge from the twilight loo. The directory is a muddle as even the indexed shops couldn’t be found on the map. Anyway, this guy is serious about finding his food. I was the eighth person he approached for help. The second lady sounded off her unique nationality as she dashed into a designer bakery call ‘Brothers’.

‘Wah! This one my favourite, sure can fill me up like anything!’ said the foreign publishing house employee as she zeroed in on her pastry. Singlish is a Singaporean Sign.

In the morning, we visited the tree-filled 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park. One long tailed bird was thrashing a snake and having it for breakfast up a tree. The Temple of Heaven being fully restored was thus not under any green mesh of sorts but our luck held and The Vault of Heaven was, so no echoes and whispers going around the Echo Wall surrounding it.

The Temple of Heaven is a fine piece of architecture indeed but it looked too new. So radiant are the colours at the whole place has no sense of Ming antiquity. I like the metre wide central marble spine that aligns this temple to The Vault of Heaven and the Round Altar in the southern end of the park because even the emperor couldn’t walk on it in the old days. In the new, plenty of new emperors treat it as an odd slightly bulging part of the main causeway.

Via this temple, the Son of Heaven aka The Emperor could MSN God and ask for the year’s solutions to disaster problems, permission to go to war or forgiveness for the sins of his people. Sacrifices were also made here. A calves would be thrown briefly into the fire and then boiled to death as if to ensure maximum agony. The meat will then be distributed unseasoned to his officials in attendance who will try to better the taste with smuggled salt or bribe the eunuch to throw his portion away. Leftovers are considered impolite and you cannot afford to offend the host.

It is a pity we are not permitted to enter the Temple of Heaven. I think the roof structure is very intricate and complicated. The dummy white calves in their boiling troughs also spoil the atmosphere.

China is good. It’s the first day of school and some schools chose to start the term by taking its students out for an excursion. There was a noisy Cantonese-speaking bunch here which spoiled the peace but showed that they were enjoying themselves.

The Round Altar was also partially under restoration as shows the obsession with the number 9. The top tier has a round centre-stone around which marble stones in multiples of nine are arranged to form 9 concentric circles. The balustrades and stairs are also in multiples of nine. Your voice is supposed to be amplified by this arrangement if you stand on the centre-stone but I didn’t perceive the difference. Still it entertained the tourists who hollered and stomped from it.

Mao in his mausoleum didn’t want to see us or anybody that afternoon so we went for a quick lunch at Mac’s the nearest cheapest option near Tiananmen Square. Seeing Mao was also kind of a hassle. You cannot take anything into the mausoleum except our clothes and there are no lockers available. The Y11 Big Mac wasn’t big and the beef tasted industrial. Karen’s fish-o-fillet was fine. A small booth here was selling lottery.

In the afternoon, we explored more hu tongs between the Qianmen and Chongwenmen area and agreed with the government’s plan to knock them down. These were dilapidated, mosquito infested and unsafe. To convince the inhabitants here to move, big red banners are hung over vacated dwellings. They ranged from warnings of structural instability, friendly assurances that their future neighbour ‘upstairs’ would be as good as the one ‘next door’ to a tickle at their kiasuism since those who get the hell out first have a high chance at getting the flat of their choice. One small isolated cluster housing 12 families probabl managed to secure some connection-protection. Theirs was a hu tong island in an orange sea of fresh earth. I went in to investigate, got a hostile look from a lady coming out of her kitchen. All she told me was that her hu tong would not be cleared. Her tiny kitchen was built around a tree.

In the middle of the pervious hu tong is Beijing’s Underground City, the result of Mao’s 1969 paranoia with Russia’s nuclear armament. He sent his army to dig the tunnels which took 10 years to complete since they were dug by hand. We thought a warren of tunnels would be quite stimulating for out imaginations but the lady at the ticketing booth told us to spend our Y20 on food instead!

‘It’s just a hole in the ground, for 10 minutes, not worth your Y20’

She certainly doesn’t earn any commission.

Dinner was at Mega Bite, a huge foodcourt in the basement of Oriental Plaza at Wangfujing Jie where the food is not as good as it looks. Should have gone for the famous Liqun Roast Duck(Beixiangfeng hu tong) fired by fruit tree wood.


2nd Sept – Beijing

Today is the best day in Beijing because we got out of Beijing City to walk The Great Wall, an adventure which began at 7 in the morning. Leo runs a Secret Wall tour that brings you to a remote section of the wall where you are likely to be the only humans there. So no horror stories of the body jams at Badaling. In true backpacker spirit, we turned down the Y180 offer and did our own walk from Jin(1)Shan(1)Ling(3) to Si(1)Ma(3)Tai(2) which is supposed to be non-touristy and 4 hours long. Our dorm-mate, a rather inconsiderate Norwegian paid Y90 to a tour operator to arrange transport for the same tour but we thought we would save heaps taking the public bus. Final calculations at the end of the day amounted to a staggering Y19 saved per person. The monetary difference wasn’t great but what a major difference in everything else!

To reach Jin Shan Ling, we first had to get to Mi(4) Yun(2) which we did not by the comfortable public buses but by the Black Bus or ‘Hei(1) Che(1)’. At that point, we thought it was the public bus till it picked up far more people than it was built to carry. For most of the way, I was crammed into an uncomfortable seat with the people standing bumping and leaning against me when they go tired. We were considered lucky to have gotten seats at all. To make matters worse, a golden-haired middle-aged woman behind us wanted the window closed so that the wind would not interfere with her hairstyle. When we reached Mi Yun, the big lady with the big hair asked the ticket guy to help her find her some cheap and clean accommodation which despite a long list of demands, he did using his handphone to make the calls. She was so happy, she insisted on having his phone number so that she could recommend his illegal bus to her friends. This had everyone onboard, especially the driver giggling as politely as we could.

Mr Helpful and his amazing handphone also got us a minivan to the Jin Shan Ling trek-head. Two local guys on the bus overheard us and asked if they could come along to split the cost of the van. Strength in numbers means lower costs and more bargaining power which we soon put in action.

Ruo Shan is the specky guy in the photo. He’s 40, looks 35 and has a talent for striking the funniest poses when the camera is on him. His other forte is bargaining. Basically our van driver didn’t really get the chance to speak when Ruo Shan dictated the price. All we had to do was get in the van, make a pretense of getting out, get out and get back in. The ride was sealed at 80 yuan and the driver complained all the way. Ruo Shan is from Dali and has a 15 year old kid.

Li Rong from Su Zhou is Ruo Shan’s colleague at The Bank of China in Beijing. They are both there on contract because ‘the Beijing guys don’t know how to do the work’. Li Rong is 29 and has a 6 month old baby. They sure get down to family business early. According to Karen, Li Rong’s Mandarin is superb. No wonder I could only get the general drift of what he said. Our new found friends are funny and thoughtful enough to ask if we wanted to change our less comfortable seats with them. We ended up doing the whole walk together.

At the entrance, Ruo Shan asked if we were taking the cable car up to the Great Wall. When I told him that we do not usually take cable cars, I detected a small pang of regret. So I compromised by leaving out a short detour to make the trek a little shorter. Li Rong also bought us a bottle of water each when he went to get some for Ruo Shan and himself. Off we went, joking and getting to know each other till the steep stone steps silenced us. There were quite a few fairly large millipedes on these steps. Quite a few were also trampled on.

The Great Wall is GREAT. Far more magnificent than in the photos and they really seem to extend to infinity and beyond especially on a hazy day like this. It’s equally hard to imagine the Mongols coming into China over such unfriendly terrain as it is to visualise the sheer amount of man and will power needed to ferry the bricks and plaster for the massive project that roller-coastered over it.

Man is always pushing his boundaries and as I killed my legs during last year’s Standard Chartered Marathon, a few European maniacs were doing not quite the same run on the Great Wall! It is both inspiration and embarrassing to see much older men and women running or trying to run what you would normally consider insane to do. Fortunately for them, it was cloudy and they were running on the restored section of the Great Wall where there are few loose bricks to break your ankles.

Since we were trekking from Jin Shan Ling to Si Ma Tai, it made prefect economical sense to double charge us for entry into both parks. There is also a 5 yuan toll fee to cross the suspension bridge 200 metres from the end point at Si Ma Tai. The alternative was to swim across a clam river. At the border between the two parks was China’s prime example of job creation. Instead of one guy manning the ticketing booth, there were three. The first issues you the ticket, the second collects the money and tells the third dude to hand you your change! At least they were enthusiastic about their job.

Along the great walk, we were constantly trailed by aunties who sometimes had their daughters with them. They are farmers trying to earn something extra by selling coke, mineral water, beer, postcards, T-shirts, snacks and all other things which you don’t want to buy especially when they cost 5 times the usual price. Banking on your sympathy, these aunties tell you they are headed for Si Ma Tai and follow you over the ridges, sweating and panting as they carry their wares and give you some information about the Wall and the walk. Some of which were very useful especially the garrison tower countdown.

‘You are at tower number 3. Only 27 more to go.’

‘Is that the tower number 4 just way way way over there?!!’

‘Yup’

‘Ok thanks a lot’

‘You want a coke? Only 10 yuan’

‘Not really, I’ve got 2.5 litres of water in my bag which I want to get rid off.’

‘You want a T-shirt?’

‘Errr… It says: ‘I Climbed the Great Wall’ and I’m not really the megalomaniac who wants to tell everyone that especially when these folks are running 42Ks up here.’

‘You want film?

‘There’s a 2GB card in here, that’s a few thousand shots’

‘You want beer? I got one bottle.’

‘I don’t drink and I don’t want to die on the Great Fall off your Great Wall’

‘You want…’

‘No BYE.’

Thank goodness there are four of us to spread the touting. They follow us even when we told them from the start that we had all the food we needed and we weren’t the souvenir-crazy kind of tourists. Most of these women only had one bottle or can of each drink. Ruo Shan told them that he wasn’t buying anything drinks unless they could produce four of each, one for each of us. When soft-selling didn’t work (remember Chinese touts aren’t 10% as bad as the ones in India) they went back to the heart-warming tactics saying that they were simple farmers trying to make a living and our purchases would help them greatly. We walked on and wished that they would save their energy and leave us alone.

No auntie no matter how fit would follow us for 4 hours to sell a can of coke. These ladies had their territorial divisions all sorted out and knew exactly between which towers they had to make their killings before we and all relevant info (like our nationality) were passed on the next couple of touts. Some looked really pitiful when it was time to give up. One Polish girl I spoke to actually cried but she stuck to her resolve not to buy anything she didn’t need. Throughout the trek, all the touts save one were women. The only guy wasn’t selling much but he had a strange flower hat on which he charged to be photographed with. Some enterprising ladies managed to get electricity up to one tower and made a killing off other tourists by selling ice-cream.

On this trek, we got the best of many worlds. Jin Shan Ling’s sections were well-restored and a breeze to walk on and admire the views of the forests and rolling ridges. Si Ma Tai is mostly original and thus in bad shape meaning that we had our eyes on the ground most of the time and had to scramble off and back onto the wall when things got to crumbly. The walls here also climbed more steeply with some long stretches exceeding 45 degree inclination. Towers began to lose their roofs and look more ancient and atmospheric. The restored towers on the other hand offered stunning views of the wall and scenery. We had most of the wall to ourselves, so wonderfully few tourists – even the aunties need a quiet breather now and then. It was an excellent escape from the urban giant of Beijing. We took frequent stops to take photos, joke, discuss food options in Beijing, exchange emails and get to know each other a little better.

Along the way, two ‘lao(3) wai(4)’ or foreigners who lost their tour group joined us. At the start, they went into the toilet and found that their group had disappeared when they were done. They became quite anxious and needed our help to ask the touts if they had seen their group. We also overtook two hungry Germans who didn’t bring anything to eat. I gave them half a pack of biscuits and became their best friend for the day. Apparently, they had no issues with 10 yuan cokes and became their lucky tout’s best friends of the day. Again, it is a price-poverty-principle debate.

The tower count began to increase and morale was high when we passed the mid-twenties. We were doing good time despite the relaxed pace. Some white sheep made it up the side of the mountain and Li Rong commented that they should taste really good on a spit. He had mutton satay last night. Ruo Shan asked about our religion. He thought we were Buddhist since we weren’t used to have pictures of ourselves taken (Something about our spirits being retained on this Earth when our image is captured by the camera). Li Rong, said that he was a Buddhist when he was young but it didn’t seem to make a difference in his luck and life so he gave it up. Ruo Shan provoked some cynical laughter from his colleague when he said he didn’t pray at temples but was a Buddhist at heart. ‘Fuo Zhai Xin Zhong!’

Ruo Shan would strike kungfu poses when the more stoic Li Rong photographed him and draw laughter from us all. While most of us prefer to trek at a constant comfortable pace, our ‘lao hero’ would screech a battle-cry and lead his solo charge up the steep steps only to concuss at the top. I think must be enjoying himself, six months in Beijing and this is the first time he has been here. Ruo Shan also generously paid for our toll fee at the suspension bridge at the end of the walk.

‘We should all spit and litter. Otherwise the thousands and thousands of cleaners in China will be jobless and hence turn to crime to eke out a living. If China was as clean as Singapore, there would be chaos! In our office, all of us operate at 20% efficiency so they have to hire 5 people to do one person’s work. In this way jobs are created’, says Li Rong half-jokingly.

At the Si Ma Tai end of the trek, you could pay do a tandem flying-fox over an artificial lake to end the trek and then pay the boatman to ferry you back to the car-park. The Chinese are good at finding every possible way to squeeze money out of tourists!

Our mini-van driver, as expected was waiting for us at the car-park even though we told him not to wait. When he dropped us off, I paid for the whole group with a 100 yuan bill. Ruo Shan had to wrestle and wrench the 20 yuan change from him. It is quite interesting to observe how the two men had progressed from fierce bargaining enemies to chatty friends once money issues had been settled. The journey back was long but comfortable this time in an air-conditioned public bus which all of us drifted in and out of sleep in.

We were looking forward to a nice dinner with our two new found friends but Li Rong had to meet someone and Ruo Shan swallowed his mutton soup and made a quick and rather strange exit before conversation could flow. Perhaps a shower and sleep was more of a priority for him at that moment. Still we managed to exchange emails, promised to send him his photos, shook hands, agreed to meet if we entered each other’s territories and said goodnight.

One long day of walking justified more than a bowl of mutton soup so Karen and I went for more mutton and squid satay at a roadside joint. Each mutton stick costs only 0.5 yuan (S$0.10) and really fresh mutton slivers are used, not the processed mutton used on the tourist food street. There are two types if squid satay here, one skewer has only the tentacles while the other the whole squid. The seasoning has some tangy mustard in it.

Before I slept, I gave some information about South China to a Polish doctor-trainee and told our Swiss dorm-mates about our day’s adventures. They are going on the same walk tomorrow and intended to spend a night at Si Ma Tai. They told us that some adventurous French travellers actually camped out on the Great Wall. I slept at about 1am after uploading the first batch of 100 Beijing photographs.

3rd Sept – Beijing

It was a rainy morning that led to an overcast day. Our Swiss friends might be very wet on the wall. We took a bus and got caught in a jam to the Summer Palace which was touristy and had more beauty in the gigantic adjoining park than in the seal cluster of odd shaped palace buildings. There are two types of tickets, the basic 30 yuan ticket that gets you in and the 50 yuan ‘through’ ticket that includes all the other minor attractions in the park except the major attraction which is a temple that is under restoration! Blatant con-job! Still people pay for the temple’s entrance fee because the temple is the main building that dominates the skyline of the Summer Palace.

The large part of the palace grounds is taken up by a lake about 1.5km in length! Everyone was delayed at one end by soldiers, policemen and bodyguards on this cold, windy, drizzly dark day thanks to some VIP delegate’s visit. This unlucky combination probably kept most pedal-boats harboured and the lake very clean.

We took the wrong way out of the park and that meant a 30 minute walk to the nearest bus-station. Mostly in China, whenever there is a long walk, there will be a cycle-rickshaw or a taxi waiting but we decided to save the yuans and walk the distance.

Some bus stands in Beijing are very labour intensive. There are separate queues for the different routes and order is well-maintained by aunties wearing luminious orange vests, waving a small round sign with the bus number on it. The bendy bus (quite a few of them) stops, aligns the boarding doors with the queue and discharges all alighting passengers through the rear-most door (Each bendy has three). Sometimes you get up by the back door, so you have to watch out for the green ‘shang (up)’ or ‘xia (down)’ signs by each door. Besides the driver, there are two conductors who are cordoned off from the mayhem in a narrow corridor by the side of each segment (remember it’s a bendy). There is the EZ-link equivalent but these eagle-eyed conductors watch for those who don’t use the card and ensure they pay the minimum two yuan fee. We still get tickets struck off with a pencil. On most buses is an loud automated voice that tells both alighting and boarding passengers what to do at each stop. That includes at least six safety rules like ‘Use the underpasses’, ‘Watch out of cyclists’, ‘Don’t walk on the cycle-lane’ and ‘Remember to take all your valuables with you’.

On the long way back, we checked out a row of music shops selling mainly guitars but also some other Chinese instruments. They were mostly less known locally made brands and the few Fenders we saw were all wrapped in plastic. The Beijing Pop Festival stars next week and features Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, a band now unheard of but quite famous in my secondary school days.


4th Sept - Beijing

The lady at the post office suggested that we send Mr Metal’s photos via registered mail so we could check if they got to him.

‘So you mean there is a possibility that this may not reach him?’

‘Yes. You can call and check your mail’s status about 10 days after it gets to him.’

‘Ok thanks a lot. We will be out of China by then.’

Also in China, they write the addresses the other way around starting with the country, state, province, village etc. One Brit guy was sending a box of T-shirts back home asked this lady to smile after she was done processing his box. Surprisingly she did.

It turned out that Old Mao didn’t see visitors today so we decided to forget about him and visit the Great Hall of the People, a behemoth building just west of Tiananmen Square whose auditorium could seat 10,000 when the leaders were discussing the fate of the country.

Our compulsory guided tour took us from one meeting room to another so large you could enjoy a game of badminton in it easily. The décor ranged from silk screens, a large painting of China’s minorities paying tribute to Mao, jade sculptures, giant chandeliers and calligraphy works. The dining hall with a 5000 capacity is supposedly the size of a soccer pitch but it seems smaller. Unless you like large inefficiently imposing Soviet-style buildings, you money is better spent on a good meal. Bags aren’t allowed in The Great Hall so you have to deposit them in the locker room where in addition to the tag, your full name is taken down as an additional layer of security.

The cotton-dollop sky over Xi Dan, a shopping district west of Tiananmen was a sight to remember. See photo, the one with Jay Chou and SHE in the foreground. Karen came down with a fever so we headed back to the hostel for a rest.

Dinner was more mutton and squid satay for me and a very fresh and big ‘shao(1) la(4)’ fish for 30 yuan. The boss of this joint specialises in black and white photography with the hu tong and its old residents as his main subjects. Two French guys at the next table were picking out the skin from their Beijing duck which made the boss grimace in pain. He went from table to table complaining about their lack of appreciation!

Over the past week, we notice a leprosy beggar who stations herself on the Qianmen Da Jie road shoulder. She lies on a wooden platform all covered up except for her head and a pair of leprosy blackened legs. By her side is a long pitiful write-up about her plight. Something about how she was kidnapped from her village and displayed in a circus. Today as we were walking past her, two foreign tourists were kneeling by her presumably trying to comfort her. The day before, one young boy was spraying water, just missing her head, saying that she was a hoax. Initially I was horrified by the kid’s behaviour but when I looked more carefully, Lady Leprosy did seem to have her real legs crossed beneath her blanket and no one could really tell if the blackened stumps were false even if you stared.

Another personality we met was an Italian who drew a huge following with his extra-tall bicyle. Imagine two full frames merged together, putting the cyclist at least 1.5 metres above the guy on the ground. Strapped to his bike were a variety of packs, suitcases and busking equipment. He came up to me and shook my hand since I was wearing the Italian’s Football Team’s singlet Siew Ping gave me. Something good finally came out of that singlet after all the dirty looks from the countless French tourists here! One auntie came up to us and started asking us questions about him. “Oh…look at him, so skinny. Does he have enough to eat?’ she asked feeling genuine sympathy.


5th Sept – Beijing to Nanjing

I woke up earlier than usual to meet Camie for breakfast before she went to work. She remembered our meeting time wrongly so I ended up waiting at the Metro station for half an hour longer. Camie atoned for her morning sins by treating me to a good breakfast of shrimp wonton noodles and hot chocolate. We haven’t seen each other in years but the YVIP volunteer friend I made eons back in 1992 said we both hadn’t changed much.

It’s great fun meeting up with friends overseas especially with a Mediacorp China story-hunter who’s resourceful and intelligent to churn out an average of 20 stories a month! We share our experiences in China and agree that with the increasing number of foreigners learning Mandarin, soon Singapore can no longer claim an advantage in the language. The top 1 percent of the Chinese are the super rich and that’s 15 million blokes. The average waiter earns only 300 to 400 yuan a month with food and accommodation thrown in.

Go watch her news-clips on TV sometime soon, Camie has only 6 months left in China!

I rushed back to Leo’s (finally finding a shortcut from the Metro after 8 days) to find Karen recovered and able to survive the trip out of Beijing. If she was down, I had to go to the train station to change our tickets. You could cancel the ride and get back 80% of the ticket value if you do it a few hours before departure time. When we finally collected our visas, we clapped each other on the back. It was a troublesome process that was finally completed. For those intending to do a long trip to China, try to secure a 3-month visa at the embassy back home.

For the air-conditioning and a clean relatively quiet place sit, we lunched at the train station’s KFC. It wasn’t too bad and too expensive. They fries actually tastes better here than the ones back home. We found it strange that there was a beggar table-hopping here.

The lockers in all four waiting rooms were automated but there was an attendant there to assist you with the automation process. You showed here your baggage. She determined the size of the locker and the cost. You give her the cash. She pops it into the machine. A locker springs open. She tells you how to chuck your stuff in, kicks it shut and issues you the receipt. Classic assisted-automation, no key needed just one auntie. Right in front of this hi-tech lockers are men squatting and eating their cup noodles and roast duck, spilling soup and spitting bones on the floor.

It was a newer train and we slept comfortably all the way to Nanjing in a smoke-free cabin.

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