China In Your Hands….

4 Jun

Tuesday

So, what’s to be done here… well, there’s the Forbidden City for a start. It was off limits to everyone but the emperor and his closest servants for 500 years.. but it’s a gorgeous set of buildings that form the heart of Beijing. There’s no McDonalds (contrary to rumour – that used to be in Tianamen Square, just to the north of the Forbidden City) – but there used to be a Starbucks, now replaced by a local coffee shop.

Entry is through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, adorned with a huge picture of Chairman Mao, which occasionally becomes the target for vandalism… hence the security. Passing through the gate brings you into an open courtyard full of souvenir stalls, and then to the City proper. It’s all soaring rooftops and palaces with wonderfully lyrical names such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Forbidden City (60)Forbidden City (59)Forbidden City (69)Forbidden City (72)Forbidden City (83)Forbidden City (88)Forbidden City (95)Forbidden City (106)

After a while, it becomes impossible to take yet another shot of a Chinese style roof that’s towering above me – so the Imperial Garden comes as a relief, with aging cypresses bound to force them into unusual shapes (like the Chinese word for ‘man’ – ren 人)

Forbidden City (116)

And perhaps it’s time for an interesting digression – the Chinese essentially think in pictures and concepts – each ‘word’ is a symbol. Complex words are made up of multiple symbols – so the Chinese character zǎo 早 is a composite of two characters – 日 (meaning sun) and 十 which means “first”. A literal interpretation of the character zǎo 早, therefore, is “first sun.” And zǎo does in fact mean ‘good morning’. Because the Chinese don’t need to go through the same process as us to translate letters into concepts, then their language is essentially visual, as opposed to ours, which is digital.

Anyway, there’s plenty to see – and then a chance to climb to the highest point of the Forbidden City. Beijing is essentially flat, and only recently has it been possible to build higher than the Forbidden City (by the emperor’s edict) – so anywhere high gets great views.

Forbidden City (6)Forbidden City (111)

The City also has a wonderful collection of old clocks, which used to fascinate the Chinese… there’s even one (made in England, as a lot of them were) with an automaton that writes Chinese characters when the hour strikes.

Forbidden City (3)Forbidden City (4)

So, after a few hours wandering the streets of the Forbidden City, I take refuge in Jinshan Park. The park is mostly a hill created from the excavations for the City moat. Marco Polo observed that the emperor would bring trees from around the country and plant them here. The views are fabulous, including the rooftops of the City just below.

Jinlan Park (7)Jinlan Park (10)Jinlan Park (12)Jinlan Park (19)

I finish the day off with a stroll through Beihai Park, the site of Kubla Khan’s palace, and the heart of Beijing before the Forbidden City was created. A peaceful place, mostly lake, full of artificial rockeries, temples, and pedalos.

Belhai Park (8)Belhai Park (14)Belhai Park (1)

Wednesday

Well, let’s leave Wednesday for another blog post. Who says these have to be chronological? I’ll just leave you to guess where I went on Wednesday…..

Thursday

A bit footsore and weary, I eschew the opportunity to visit the Summer Palace, and opt instead for an afternoon wandering round the grounds of the Temple of Heaven.. where the emperor would come every year to pray for a successful harvest at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. If I am honest, I am starting to get a bit jaded with all the architecture! I have to play ‘match the symbols’ to work out what I have paid for entry to – check the ticket, check the sign at the entrance, see if they match.

7 Star Stones (1)Temple of Heaven (13)Temple of Heaven (23)DSCF5526

So perhaps it’s a good plan to go for some good old fashioned entertainment with a kung fu show at the Red Theatre. It’s quite an eye popping combination of martial arts, dance, aerial acrobatic and what can only be described as Shaolin breakdance from the younger members of the cast. The snow scene is really gorgeous, too – they’ve worked hard at creating a really good visual spectacle that rivals Broadway or Covent Garden shows. I’m starting to look forward to getting back into martial arts when I get back to the UK.Red Theatre (2)Red Theatre

So, on the lookout for food near my hostel, I find a sign that says ‘Spicy Snack’. Closer investigation reveals a serve yourself collection of skewers of meat and vegetables… choose what you want, hand it to the chef who will price it up, stir fry it and then hand it back in a thick sauce with one simple question ‘ how spicy?’. For $1.50 it’s a huge amount of incredibly good food.

Friday

In further search of gastronomic surprises, I rocked up at this lady’s little hole in the wall servery which is only open at breakfast time. As far as I can see it’s a pancake servery. I establish my order by holding up one finger and then nodding my answer to the only question (actually Chinese doesn’t have a real word for ‘yes’ –’yes’ is signified by repeating the question as a statement.. although ‘ah’ is quite a good alternative). So what eventually manifests is a pancake with fried egg and scallions, with a spicy ‘Yee-Ha’ to it…. and for 40c…?

Pancakes

Last day in China proper today – tonight it’s the 48 hour train ride to Lhasa. Thank God I have a bunk on this one….

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