Riding the Waves to Eternity

Hangin' with the Cosmic Surfer

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Beijing 14 – 21 Feb 2013

We had breakfast at Hangzhou airport. After a couple of weeks of dim sum and then street food, the breakfast seemed overpriced and poor value. Goodness knows, I thought, what UK prices and value will seem like when we get home.

The flight was fine. I was reading the in-flight magazine and was taken by a comment in a piece about the Temple of Heaven in Beijing which remarked on “the Chinese classical philosophical emphasis on the unity between man and nature and the Chinese perception of the Universe that the sky is round and the land square”.

After an overpriced (compared to a cab) people-carrier drive to the hotel we left our stuff in our room and set out to explore.

Street Food

Street Food

Beijing has a very different feel to Hangzhou. The “old” China is still here but the ever-present bikes and trikes sit side-by-side with Maserati and Ferrari showrooms. The street food is still good though! I wrote the following on TripAdvisor about the main food strip in the centre:

The street food of China is a great way of keeping going during the day without spending much money at all. Dong Hua Men Night Market is a more organised version of the usual collection of traders with BBQs on tricycles and other contraptions which can be found in any town or city.

This market was originally for local foods and produce but has gradually been taken over by traders with food styles from all over China, the differences being partly ingredients but also sauces. I particularly enjoyed the style of pork bun from Xi’an at this market but you can get anything.

However the market also sells a variety of other foods, notably the insects on sticks, which are mostly there for the tourist market and for gullible westerners to try and then be quietly mocked. The trick is to keep an eye on what the locals eat and what they avoid.

We wandered as far as the walls of the Forbidden City and found that the moat surrounding it was frozen solid. People were out walking on it, whacking it every so often with metal poles to test the soundness of the ice. A dubious strategy I thought.

We had a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, by way of a good bookshop with a reasonable selection of Chinese literature in English translation. I picked up a copy of The Water Margin. After my reflections on “China in transition” while in Hangzhou I noted a comment in Edwin Lowe’s introduction to the Water Margin that China had enjoyed 4000 years of recorded history, twenty four dynasties and 2 republics. How quickly could that be lost, I wondered.

We found that we had not left the fireworks behind, loads of them were still being set off. Every street seemed to have the scattered remains of strips of fire-crackers dancing in little circles with the dust whenever there was a breeze.

The next morning at the hotel breakfast I finally managed to get the one Western food I had missed – decent breakfast cereal! Suitably ballasted, we set out for the Forbidden City.

Crowds at Forbidden City

Crowds at Forbidden City

I’m not even going to pretend to find words for the Forbidden City. Even crowded with tourists – and it was crowded – it was spectacular. The Lonely Planet guide suggests allowing half a day to look around but that is ridiculous. Really a day is not enough if you want to take in the exhibitions as well (as you should). The immensity of the place staggers the senses.

It isn’t that “words can’t describe it” just that the size of the place assaults the mind in ways that make words seem inadequate. I could write about courtyard after courtyard separated by grand buildings and accessed through magnificent gateways. I could write about the intricate painted decorations around the eaves and the ceramic dragons and the ridge decorations and the glinting of sunlight on the gilt-work. None of that would in any way convey the real size or impact of the place.

I can’t help thinking, mind, that life there may well have been pretty tedious.

Woushen with Man on Chicken at the right

Wenshou with Man on Chicken at the right

One aspect that Amy and I wondered about a lot was the Wenshou – the zoomorphic figures ornamenting the ridges of the buildings. The basic idea was easily understood: the ridges feature a number of glazed creatures which always follow the same sequence. The more important the building (or its occupant) the more creatures there are. The one that intrigued us was the one we instantly called “man on a chicken”. The intrigue was to work out exactly what it represented and I discovered that there is ongoing controversy about this with a number of commentators insisting that it represents a God or other immortal figure riding on a Phoenix.

The best explanation we put together came a few days later when we were discussing it with Alice, our guide on a trip to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. The first thing she pointed out was that the Phoenix was the symbol of the Empress and therefore was not going to be ridden around the roofs by anyone, immortal or not. It is therefore what it appears to be: a chicken and specifically a cockerel. Secondly, we had concluded that the rider was either a god or at least an immortal because the rider invariably had elongated “Buddha” ears (something Alice hadn’t noticed previously). She pointed out that at the Ming Tombs the assorted functionaries and officials from the Imperial retinue were invariably sculpted with “Buddha ears” as a sly comment by the artisans on the relative life of ease that Imperial functionaries were said to have. So the probable explanation is that it is indeed an Imperial functionary riding on a cockerel.

Goodness knows why.

Buddha ears are so called because one thing that history is clear on is that Siddhartha Gautama came from a wealthy family and had elongated earlobes as a result of piercings.

Child in Tiananmen Square

Child in Tiananmen Square

When we left the Forbidden City we crossed the road into Tiananmen Square, where there was a discrete but definite military presence and no doubt several people out of uniform too. This was not oppressive but neither was it entirely subtle. The square was also full of families and children. We spent some time there but it was getting chilly and we were hungry.

We wanted to try a Pecking Duck and found a restaurant not too far from our hotel which seemed to come widely regarded. It was probably the only poor eating experience we had in the whole of our trip. My subsequent review on TripAdvisor read (slightly edited):

We were looking forward to trying Beijing Duck and went into this restaurant with high hopes. The greeting at the door was warm and friendly and we selected from the extensive menu. That was when things went wrong. By this point we had been in China for two weeks so we were well aware of different expectations of service but in this case a line was crossed.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

Firstly the waiter did not take the order properly. I think he had been trained to offer a particular set menu and he kept trying to insist that it was what we wanted while we repeatedly said that it wasn’t. In particular we wanted the half duck with other items from the menu to make up the meal. Nonetheless what they attempted to deliver was the full duck set menu and the other items we had ordered had not been recorded.

The waitress was brusque and rude and got a fright when Amy spoke to her in Mandarin rather than English, as did the manager to whom we tried to complain while he tried to make himself scarce. And they wanted an automatic 10% service charge which we declined to pay.

In fairness, the actual food, what we got of it, was quite good. However in the three weeks we were in China this was the only restaurant which let us down – the service was a lot better in the back street noodle houses of Hangzhou!

Alley off Hutong

Alley off Hutong

The following day was put aside to explore the Hutongs and we made our way to the one highlighted in the Lonely Planet Guide – Nanluogu Xiang Hutong. It was an odd experience because, like other places I have commented on, it has become thoroughly touristified and in the process is losing the very things that made it an interesting destination in the first place. I got no kick at all from the stalls selling western fast food – it is hotpot, noodles and steamed dumplings that get my attention. We found an excellent wee place just off it for lunch which in my case was pork and rice.

I have to say I was slightly irked in the Hutong by someone who thought nothing of pointing a camera lens at me from close range and clicking away. I spotted someone else discretely looking the other way and trying to hide the long lens which had been trained on me. At least he had the grace to look embarassed so I gave him a friendly wave, which only increased his discomfiture. When writing these notes over lunch, I became aware of a face looming beside me – a young woman keen to smile and say “hello” before leaving. I didn’t mind the latter – it was just friendliness with a slightly different conception of personal space.

It struck me quite early that Beijing has not only swallowed the tourist shilling it has made a three course meal out of it. We later realised that, as Amy described it, in Hong Kong and Hangzhou we were treated as welcome visitors but in Beijing we were rarely allowed to forget that we were tourists. And that is to its detriment.

Beijing is a big place that compresses a lot of different influences into a small space: Imperial, Communist and “street” and, of course, modern State Capitalism, of which more later. The swallowing of the tourist shilling has not, on the whole, changed it for the better I think.  Beijing is not alone in that of course – nasty tourist tat is for sale everywhere. It is self-defeating though: what I want to remember China by is emphatically not a mass produced trinket or a laughing Buddha key fob.

Man on Chicken! At bei Ta  Pagoda

Man on Chicken! At Bei Ta Pagoda

Despite that it was good to see the surviving examples of vernacular architecture. I liked a lot that there was very little graffiti, the occasional scribble perhaps but not the ugly, vainglorious daubs which scar European cities and which misguided fools attempt to claim is a form of art. Also, picking up a recurring theme, from my earlier notes, Buddhism is surprisingly resilient as can be seen by the offerings quietly placed around statues and by the small symbols on car dashboards. This strikes me as being a good thing.

We kept walking and encountered another renovated Hutong (I didn’t get its name) that was still touristy but had been more attractively done. It led us round to frozen lakes where there was lots of skating activity and fun happening. I caught some of that on video and my plan, once this final written element of the blog is published, is to run together a lot of my photos as a slide show with video interspersed and make that public too.

We went in to look around Bei Ta Pagoda on an island in Beihai Lake but legs were getting tired and we made for the hotel and a rest, pausing only to get the concierge staff to sort out a cab driver who was attempting to rip us off.

Paining at Bei Ta - a scene from The Water Margin I think

Painting at Bei Ta Pagoda – a scene from The Water Margin I think

I had noticed a couple of sculptures and carvings of what appeared to be mandolins and some Googling taught me that there are two similar instruments in China, a small one called a liu quin and a much larger one called a pi-pa. I was also led to reference to a “Progressive Folk” band from Shanghai called Cold Fairyland and their leader LinDi. Once again I visited Amazon to ensure that cds would be waiting when I got home. (Check them out on YouTube)

An evening meal involved the local beer, Yanjing. This is much better than the ubiquitous Tsing-dao but is a long way from real ale, sadly. I have discovered that there is local real ale to be found in Beijing, but I didn’t find it.

As ever, the evening was full of endless (and by now tiresome) fireworks. We couldn’t quite understand why they were still being set off because the New Year holiday was over. The next day (Sunday) the morning paper reported that a lot of the recent fireworks have been set off by companies to allow their employees to celebrate returning to work!

I mentioned in my Hangzhou diary that I had bought a copy of Journey to the West in Shanghai. I enjoyed it but think I probably need to find a better translation to do it justice. One of the things which I found intriguing is the character of Buddha who plays an occasional role in the story. Unlike in the Indian tradition, this Buddha is a magical immortal and one of a pantheon, NOT the Siddhartha Gautama who found enlightenment. I found the conception of him in the stories to be surprisingly reminiscent of the “magical” Jesus of some of the the apocryphal gospels and mystery plays. Even more strikingly, the Heavenly Court of the Jade Emperor is very like a manifestation of the earthly Imperial court – just like the structure of Roman Catholicism reflects that of the Imperial court in Rome around the time of the Emperor Constantine.

Reflecting on this in both Buddhism and Christianity I recognised once again the disjunction between the man at the centre of it all and the myth which is built around him. It is the myth which grows and becomes much more important than (and comprehensively obscures) the historical figure. It seems to me that in both the sacred and the profane spheres, as soon as a priestly caste emerges you’re screwed.

We took the excellent (and heavily subsidised) underground to the Summer Palace. The underground is heavily subsidised to try and persuade people not to use their cars because Beijing’s air pollution is notoriously bad.

Flautist at Summer Palace

Flautist at Summer Palace

As with the Forbidden City, I can’t do justice to the scale of the place.  The day we went was bitterly cold and the breeze was coming straight off the mountains. All open water, including the Kunming Lake, was frozen. It would be very beautiful in summer as, indeed, was the original intent – a place to which the empress could retreat when Beijing became unbearable in the summer heat.

Embarrassingly, signs at nearly every building explained that they had been rebuilt in C19th because the originals had been burned down by an Anglo-French alliance. No doubt the French led us astray. As they do.

Roofscape and frozen lake at Summer Palace

Roofscape and frozen lake at Summer Palace

As we found elsewhere, because it was the holiday period, most of the tourists were internal visitors from elsewhere in China and we westerners were a curiosity, particularly when it became clear that Amy spoke Chinese. And, wonder of wonders, I did find some traditional music – a musician had a stall in the grounds where he sold varieties of flutes and also cds of flute music, a couple of which I bought. He was playing as well and the sound of the music floating over the lake and through the woods was haunting.

Within the grounds there were a number of temples covered by multiple Buddha tiles as if a superfluity of icons bestowed multiply magnified blessings. Many of the tiles were obviously replacements and one or two had either bullet marks or showed signs of the faces being deliberately chipped off at some point.

Summer Palace

Summer Palace

Back at the hotel I read a Guardian article online (this one I think) about pollution in Beijing. I then read through the comments which was, as so often, a major mistake. I know that these comments are the outpourings of a self-selecting sample of eejits but that doesn’t lessen my despair at the ignorance on display. The attractions of moving the the Highlands and subsisting on kelp and fresh air increase daily.

On Monday 18th we had booked onto a guided trip to the grounds of the Ming Tombs (though not the Tombs themselves) and the Great Wall at Mutanyu. In retrospect it would probably have been better to book a private tour but we enjoyed the event well enough.

The road took us out by Tiger Mountain, which we did not take by strategy. Outside of the city the areas we passed through were very rural and surprisingly ramshackle. This got me thinking about the malign effects of trickle down economics to which I will return.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

The Wall was a fantastic place to visit. There was one moment as I stood there with Kirstin and wondered what our younger selves would have said if we had been told that we would one day stand together on the Great Wall. I would like now to go back to an even more secluded section and to spend some more time walking along it without the time pressures of being on a tour.

I shot some video there too which will end up in the projected slide show in due course, there isn’t enough to stand alone. We came down by cable car but Amy, who had taken a different route, came down on a toboggan and filmed it on her way down …

When we got back to the hotel we belatedly discovered the Happy Hour to which we had access – free food! free drink! This was a snack though and we went out for supper on “Ghost Street”- where there were loads of local foods. We didn’t stick around the first restaurant we went into because of the amount of cigarette smoke in the air but the second was good enough although for the life of me I can’t remember what I had.

I said in my Hangzhou blog that my thoughts on China changed while I was there. In Hangzhou I was thinking about the direction China seems to be travelling and the adoption of the things that I most dislike about the West. I came to a different view in Beijing because there came a point that I noticed that just underneath the surface of the glitz and growth, China is still there. One of the other things that I concluded was that, whatever you may hear to the contrary, China is not a Communist country. Whatever else they may have, the workers neither own nor control the means of production.

Detail from painting, National Museum of china

Detail from painting, National Museum of china

Despite the communist revolution and the subsequent horrors of the Cultural Revolution, China is now indulging in a large scale experiment in trickle-down economics and is facing the classic consequences of such an experiment: widespread inequality. I found myself thinking hard about whether biggest issue here is “oppression” as media would have you believe or inequality. I didn’t reach a conclusion, and it would be presumptuous to do so on the basis of the limited time I was there, but it is something that still nags at me sometimes as I check out the news from China or listen to the routine news reports.

I also spotted that in one of the English language dailies the topics of inequality and corruption of officials came up quite frequently and it was stated clearly, presumably on official authority, that the ways and means of the Cultural Revolution were not amongst those contemplated as solutions.

Kirstin became unwell again and the next day Amy and I went to the National Museum of China at Tiananmen Square. This was spectacular and is an absolute must if anyone reading this should visit Beijing. It is free though you need your passport to get in.

Flying Buddha

Flying Buddha

Amy and I managed to spend all day there without intruding into the displays from the Communist era at all. The paintings were wonderful and also intriguing – they featured little or no linear perspective as found in western art. Often there was a suggestion of detail rather than actual detail and some were reminiscent of the art of both JRR Tolkein and Pauline Baynes who illustrated both Tolkein and CS Lewis’s Narnia tales. I suspect that she was well aware of the Chinese tradition.

One hall was devoted to statues of the Buddha retrieved from archaeological sites and once again I was struck by the degree of open and semi-surreptitious paying of respects by all ages. In the context of my earlier comments about the Buddha in The Journey to the West it was interesting, too, to observe how representations of the Buddha and his Bodhisattvas changed over time.

The Spirit of Beijing!

The Spirit of Beijing!

The whole of the ground floor exhibition is superb – it tells the history of China and simply starts at 5000BC and works forward. As I have hinted elsewhere, one of the key thing which struck me about China was not so much modern discontinuities but an overall sense of continuity. Despite the march of the years and the turns of the dynasties and republics, it is still China and it is that enduring continuity which is the fascination. With four thousand years of recorded history, twenty four dynasties and two republics, sixty-odd years of the communist era may well be a footnote. As Zhou Enlai is frequently misquoted as commenting, it is too soon to say.

Lama Temple

Lama Temple

On our last full day we took the underground out to the Lama temple which represents the Tibetan lineage of Buddhism. The Temple buildings themselves are ex-Imperial (with men on cockerels and other Wenshou). Despite the obvious sensitivities with regard to Tibet, nevertheless the Temple was flourishing both as a place of devotion and as a tourist destination and there was no attempt to inhibit the former. It was an attractive site but, without wanting to sound blasé, we were kind of templed and pagoda-d out by this point.

I did get fed up with the local tour guides leading their groups while talking into mics and portable amps – grrrr!

At Lama Temple and many other sites I was struck by the odd juxtapositions of relative poverty and disrepair next to tourist sites to which attention had obviously been paid and on which money had been lavished. For all the descent of Beijing into the seductive charms of the tourist economy, there is clearly a distinctly uneven redistribution of the resultant income.

Let me observe that there is nothing a Chinese man likes more than a good hawk and spit. This is anecdotal rather than empirical but observed sufficiently frequently to make it a robust hypothesis. Walking in park we saw a fellow giving it the full throat scraping gurgling while contorting his face into an astonishing range of gurns and grimaces before letting fly with a great gob of phlegm. All the while his wife walked next to him chattering away and paying no heed.

Photo Bomb at the Temple of Heaven

Photo Bomb at the Temple of Heaven

This was in the park around the Temple of Heaven which is at the other end of the underground line from Lama Temple. It is quite a nice park. We were worried when we got there because of what we thought was a huge queue to get in but was people playing cards and chess and the attendant spectators. As we saw in a lot of places, almost everyone was carrying a flask of tea which I thought both charming and sensible.

We finished off our last day with a decent Korean BBQ! How else?

We had a final breakfast in the hotel before Amy went to catch a train to Hangzhou and we went to the airport. I was listening to the piped music in hotel over breakfast. It featured Jazz trumpet in a Miles Davis vein, with drum and bass playing around the offbeat and burbling synths and sequencers. I found it interesting that styles of music which were once on the fringe had become mainstream muzak with the rough edges smoothed away.

The cab taking us out to the airport went past the old city walls on way out and I would have liked to have visited them had I only known they were there. Next time maybe. We also became aware of our first serious looking smog descending.

Leaving Beijing

Leaving Beijing

The flight back, although very good, was very subdued. It seemed like we had been away for and age and it was hard to believe that after all of the preparation and expectation it was all over. I spent a lot of time gazing out of the window at great views of the mountains outside Beijing and then Mongolia, Irkusk and Urals. In my ears I had Misty in Roots, Jean-Michel Jarre and Frank Zappa before I turned them off and watched movies.

And it was hard to leave Amy. I have great pride that she has grown up to live an independent life in a far country but the pride was tempered by the sadness of putting eight hours and five thousand miles between us again.

When we got home I caught up with the most recent edition of Private Eye and found myself downcast beyond belief at the magazine’s endless narrative of shite in British public life. More than ever the option of flicking the off-switch and dropping out appealed. It isn’t going to happen, of course, but that was my feeling. I think there is a link there somewhere to the Buddhist concept of “The Hungry Ghost” the appetite that can’t be fulfilled. Maybe. That’s something to ponder as I wonder when we’ll be able to go back.


Comment from Rachel
Time July 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Lovely Chinese blogposts, Ian, thank you. The concept of Man on Chicken reminds me of the old Russian folk tales in which the witch lives in a house on chicken legs, and also of some of the illustrations in the Macclesfield Psalter :).

Comment from Ian Burdon
Time July 4, 2013 at 11:55 am

Thanks Rachel.The mention of the psalter is interesting because of something I didn’t put in the blog. Outside of the museum in Shanghai are a number of sculptures of mythical chinese beasts, one or two of which were similar to the beasts that inhabit the margins of illustrated manuscripts, especially those from the Celtic tradition. I think it is probably coincidence but it was something to think about