I returned a couple of weeks ago from my travels to China and Thailand and had no sooner unpacked and done the laundry than was off again, to the Cape. I have been on the move for almost 2 months now, and am loving it! Life outside of one’s routine is very invigorating and going away has helped me to see the events on the farm in a completely new light. I was lucky to have my family close to me at this time and we spent many hours talking about our futures and where we would like to be “when we grow up”. I know that my children really do have my best interests at heart, as does Peter, and so I’m now a lot more open to changing my retirement plans. The best is yet to come, as they say. More of that later, right now you are about to be subjected to the internet equivalent of my holiday slide show. At least this way you can bugger off without me knowing.
Alex and I flew out of Durban on a Saturday morning and arrived in Beijing at midday the next day, about 22 hours of travelling and hanging about in airports (taking into account the 6 hour time difference). That said, it was a relatively easy trip and I actually enjoyed experiencing it with Alex, who hasn’t travelled outside of SA since he was 10 years old. Kiera arranged for our hostel, the Red Lantern, to pick us up from the airport and we were whisked through the streets of Beijing to the hutong where we were staying and where Kiera and James were waiting for us. I had to keep pinching myself, was I really (at long last) in Beijing, was I really seeing my daughter after all this time and was it really so fucking hot? Our room in the hostel was small and the bathroom unbelievably minute. Alex was horrified to learn that the toilet paper went in a bin and I was horrified to find that the shower sprayed all over the bathroom. But it was clean, and I was super impressed that all the toilets I went to in Asia were clean. It was only when I returned home that I found broken toilets, no loo paper and broken locks on the door (King Shaka airport you suck!)
On our first evening in Beijing, we strolled through the bustling streets of the hutong. Children played badminton in the street; every few metres someone was selling food and someone was buying it; and everywhere people were on the move. A hutong is like an urban village. People live in traditional courtyard houses connected by higgledy- piggledy alleyways. I believe that a lot of the Beijing hutongs were destroyed in the name of modernisation, which is a pity because apart from the tradition and communities lost, they are like little oases (with trees, pot plants and ponds at their centre) in a very polluted and concrete city.
Authentic Pecking duck is not that easy to find in Beijing because it is cooked in an oven. Most Chinese food is cooked on a hob or barbeque so most restaurants don’t have ovens. Generally one has to go to a fairly larnie restaurant in the more touristy areas in order to find Pecking duck. Fortunately however, our hostel proprietor directed us to a nearby restaurant which served duck and claimed it was as good, if not better, than the more famous restaurants and a damn sight cheaper too. So my first evening in Beijing was spent eating the most delicious Pecking duck and trying to be intelligible while it felt as if the world was still whirling past me.
The next day we visited the Great Wall at Muthianyu, about an hour’s drive from our hostel. I foolishly declined the ski lift to get to the top and walked up thousands of bloody steps to actually get to the wall itself. It was a scorching hot day and when I finally made it up to the top, I collapsed in a sweat-drenched heap and could not go any further. The view from the wall across the countryside all the way to Beijing in the distance was spectacular, as was the birds’ eye view of the wall snaking up and down hills for miles and miles, across the landscape. The pollution however made the visibility quite limited.
We also visited Tiananmen Square and Mao’s mausoleum. The scale of it all is quite awesome. The surrounding roads are 6 lanes each way and the buildings lining the streets are very imposing. Throngs of us were marched into the mausoleum with uniformed guards barking instructions through megaphones at us. One couldn’t stop to get a good look at the body as we filed past but to me he looked very small (heresy!) and on loan from Madame Tussauds.
Across the road from Tiananmen is the Forbidden City, which again was mind blowing because of the sheer size of it, but was disappointing as museums go. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of cultural artefacts were destroyed and I got the impression that the Chinese people don’t respect their heritage in the same way that we do, perhaps partly because their history is so censored. The museums and historical buildings appear to be quite tacky, poorly restored and empty. If one compares the Forbidden City with Versailles, for example, there were very few clues as to what it would have looked like when the emperors ruled. It offered no historical insight; there were no guide books or explanations. Fortunately many years ago I saw the movie “The Last Emperor” and had a picture in my mind of what it could’ve looked like thanks to Bernardo Bertolucci. I trudged through the empty buildings and courtyards hoping like hell that the end would soon be in sight before I expired. A bit like a hike I once went on in the ‘Berg when a friend kept assuring us that our destination was “just around the corner.”
A visit to Beijing is not complete without a trip to a market. For my sins I accompanied the kids (aka my young travel companions) to two huge markets (the Pearl and the Silk) and as a result have developed a pathological aversion to markets. I experienced the Chinese vendors as very pushy and quite aggro. You have to be prepared to really haggle and be quite rude. Not how I like to shop especially as brands don’t mean anything to me. Fortunately we did have a secret weapon, Kiera. She would take the sellers completely by surprise by berating them in mandarin for charging so much for fakes and then proceed to knock the prices down to next to nothing. I felt too harassed by the whole scene and came away empty-handed, except for 2 “silk” tops that turned out to be too small for me anyway. It’s very disconcerting when size XXXL is too small!
One evening we took a taxi to a bar district called Houhai Lake and spent a pleasant evening knocking back cocktails and listening to karaoke. By the way, catching a taxi is not that easy in Beijing. Firstly I don’t think that there are enough to go around and secondly they don’t seem to stop for foreigners, perhaps because of the language problem. To get around we used the metro, which is cheap and efficient, but can get frighteningly crowded. It took some getting used to being squashed into a carriage with no space to move and literally having to fight one’s way off. I was terrified of getting separated from the kids and had visions of myself disappearing, never to be found again, in the bowels of Beijing.
Beijing was overwhelming. It is big, noisy, polluted and smelly but it is also fascinating and so very foreign. I’m pleased to have experienced it but have no desire to return there other than to have another meal of the most delicious Pecking duck I’ve ever tasted.