China Syndrome

One of the most shocking things about Beijing, for me at least, is just how Western it wants to be. Driven by the Olympics of 2008, the Beijing municipalities (at the behest of the omnipresent Chinese government) seem to have taken it upon themselves, in a fit of that beauro-logic nonsense that seems to creep into any large scale public project, that what the world really needs to see when it visits China for Beijing's 15-minute tap-dance in the spotlight, is exactly what they have at home. The City has constructed a near perfect, and beautifully manicured and maintained, simulacra of a major western business district, replete with ludicrous glass & steel monstrosities and wide, tree-lined boulevards that could have believably been spawned by the downtown district of any American city. The great sadness of this, and the depressing irony, is that in order to build this little slice of Metropolis, the government demolished acres of hutongs, those cramped, vital pockets of Chinese life, forcibly evicting the residents and replacing them with that most quintessential hallmark of western progress, the investment banker. Whether it's the loss of the vibrancy of the hutongs or the sheer banality of what replaced them, the Beijing model for Olympic-driven progress stands as a shadowy portent for London 2012; All appearance but no character - much like Keira Knightly.

It's not all bad though. The Olympic Touch as made it much easier for tourists to get around the city, with all road signs, place names and (beautifully) Metro stops now appearing in English. The Metro especially benefits from the makeover, converting what must have been a near-impenetrable experience (given how different Chinese sounds when spoken by the indigenous population - which is to say nothing like the 'Benny Hill Chinese for Beginners' tapes I got before leaving the UK) into a joyously accessible one. Stations, routes and signs are all translated into English, as are the on-board announcements. The staff are friendly and try their best to help ignorant foreigners, and (as previously mentioned) you pay only 20p per journey, no matter how far you're travelling, and everything is spotless (which is to be expected in a communist regime - they employ people to endlessly sweep dust off major highways so I'd expect the underground to be clean).

The marvels of the Metro system aside, Kate and I decided to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of the few remnants of Chinese Imperial architecture to survive the Revolution, as our group went off to see the Great Wall (funny how strange that sentence looks if I hadn't have used capital letters...). We hadn't fallen out with them or anything, it's just that our next trip includes a visit to the Wall - and Kate had heard the shopping in Beijing was good - so we decided to save our pennies. Actually, I might have been hasty to describe the Temple of Heaven as a 'remnant' before... 'Remnant' might imply a paucity of scale (or perhaps some kind of carpet off-cut) when it's actually a 675 acre site containing a menagerie of building types and culturally significant relics. After some initial confusion with the tickets - which was resolved by the lady behind the counter continually shouting at me in Mandarin, at various volumes, until I handed over my money and let her take what she wanted - we started our wander at what turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the whole trip; the Long Corridor. 

You see, such is the veneration of the elderly and ancestors (and I think there's a definite crossover between the two given the look of some of the people we saw) in China that they are charged practically nothing to get into the Temple grounds and so - thanks to the pleasant climate - they use the Long Corridor as an informal old people's home. Exactly as it sounds, the Long Corridor is a sort of structural pergola, open on one side and bearing all the aesthetic touches of classical Chinese architecture, but what makes it truly magical are the hundreds of older people who colonise it day-to-day; there are groups of wrinkled, old men sitting round playing unfathomable cards games or scrutinising a nearby game of goh, smoking and laughing whilst the women sit in tight groups knitting, sewing silk flowers or just chatting in the sun. People make and fly kites, there are the inevitable (but still amazing) tai chi groups and we even stumbled into an open-to-all sing-a-long, complete with song sheets, being lead by two old guys whom I can only assume are like the Dean and Frank of the Long Corridor (it's hard to tell as singing in China, at least in this instance, sounded like cats being slowly flattened out by a rusty lawn roller). It was amazing, and made me want to retire to Beijing when I get old.

We moved steadily around the grounds, seeing pretty much everything you can over the course of about 4 hours, and whilst the architecture was impressive and the gardens were beautiful, it was great just to wander at your own pace and enjoy what had become an absolutely blistering morning. Hopping from shady patch to shady patch, sitting and enjoying a cold drink or just admiring the landscape, it felt like Hyde Park or Green Park seen through a lens of finest Chinoiserie - a lovely escape from the sometimes frantic pressure of the group tour and a real-life oasis in the middle of China's smog-blanketed capital. As we left we decided to try out a few pieces of apparatus in one of the urban gyms that have become ubiquitous throughout China - essentially rugged, low-resistance gym equipment, outdoors and free to use in the hope it will encourage people to stay fit and limber. Given that most of the equipment's handles had been worn to a mirror finish and the amount of barrel chested 60+'s that were in abundance throughout the park, I'd say it's working. And as if we'd needed further evidence, we were treated to the sight of a man, around 55 in my estimation, leaping up onto the parallel bars and doing dips with his legs parallel to the ground. Proof perhaps that some of the older Buddhists must feel the effects of their next incarnation before they've truly used all of their last one. 

We left the Temple of Heaven and wandered into the nearby Pearl Market, originally (and unsurprisingly) Beijing's premier destination for fresh water pearls; whilst you can still buy these, the Pearl Market now specialises in all manner of fine electronic goods - all fake of course. Resembling a kinda of dodgy Harrods, tiny concessions pack the floors with young men and women attempting to seduce you into buying iPhones and iPads (which definitely didn't come from Apple - one 'iPhone 4' had keys for crying out loud), memory cards, USB keys and cameras. It was all very interesting but the experience became indicative of Chinese shopping, or tourist shopping, as we later found out. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped in an enormous shopping mall, truly American in scale and presentation, yet another sign of China's ironically unstoppable march towards western consumerism. It's hard to overstate just how western Beijing feels when you're around monuments to disposable income that try so hard to be Yankee. I can't help but think that Mao must be almost screwdrivering himself out of his mausoleum at the thought of what his glorious revolution has become, especially when you compare it to the enduring communist legacies still clearly visible in Russia. Laziz put it very well - 'Russia is a communist country pretending to be capitalist, China is a capitalist country pretending to be communist'. 

Once the rest of the group had gotten back from the Wall, we were offered the choice of a tea ceremony followed by a tour around some of Beijing's oldest hutongs with a local guide, who was called Kevin. I'm not sure how many people know of this quirky Chinese custom, I'd ran into it at school, but it's common for Chinese people to choose an English name for use with English-speaking people, rather than using their sometimes complex sounding Chinese names. Knowing this, and intrigued by his choice of name, I asked him why he'd picked it. He said he just liked the sound of it. Fair enough. The tea ceremony was held in the Bell Tower, another 'remnant' of the Imperial regime and a pin through the heart of old Beijing. The 'ceremony' itself was actually more of a tasting, set, strangely enough, in a tea salesroom (albeit lovingly decorated in the Imperial style) and was good fun. We tried several teas, most of which where unfamiliar, and were given some pointers on the etiquette of tea drinking. The rampant salesmanship we'd become accustomed to did rear it's head occasionally, no instance more strange than when the hostess showed us 'the Magic Cup' - one of those mugs that changes colour when it gets hot, like Hypercolour t-shirts - as if it were genuine magic (hushed silences and all), only to be made stranger when half the group actually treated it as if it was sorcery by theatrically 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' like the better half of a Paul Daniel's audience.

After a hasty retreat through the tea shop/showroom (some people actually bought Magic Cups - you know who you are), we had a quick walk through some surprisingly smart hutongs, discovering that 'hutong' is actually a Mongolian word left over from Kublai's domination of Asia, and headed back to the hotel to get ready for our farewell meal. I won't go over it in any detail, as it was mostly just laughing at silly stuff and reminiscing about the tour, but it was good to sit down together one last time before we went our separate ways. I'm not sure if any of you are reading this, but to Loz, Marnie, Sheena, Nessa, Shotgun, Doris, Shaffi, Charli, Tom, Clare, Ilya and Håkon, we'd just like to say thank you. The trip wouldn't have been worth writing about without you guys being there. And special thanks to Laziz, for being constantly patient, understanding, helpful and, most importantly, always having the Wifi codes. We'll really miss you all and good luck in whatever you're doing. 

Anyways, seeing as I've written the beginnings of a dissertation here, I'd best be off. The next tour starts tomorrow, so it'll be a new group to go with the new post.

Take care beautiful people.