Tuesday, April 10, 2007 China China

Ending our tour of China

Temple of Heaven [Enlarge]

After visiting the Great Wall at Badaling we took in one of the nearby Ming tombs, then the emperors' Summer Palace. Next day, the last day of our pre-booked tour, we did all the usual tourist stuff in Beijing: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Our Beijing photos are here.

Beijing feels much more Chinese than Shanghai. It is less cosmopolitan, and rougher around the edges. Some things are the same though, like the ridiculously congested traffic and the construction sites everywhere for example.

Having seen Ho Chi Minh in Hà Nội, we would very much have liked to add Chairman Mao Zedong to our tally of pickled communist leaders (the only other available ones being Vladimir Lenin in Moscow and Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang). But we discovered that Mao is closed for pre-Olympic renovations and he won't be back on display until 20th September. Who knows where we'll be by then!

Carved at your table, at the very restaurant patronised by a list of famous names including George Bush Snr, Ted Heath and Yasser Arafat. [IMG_2082]
Beijing Roast Duck [Enlarge]

In addition to the tourist attractions we also had a sumptuous dinner of traditional Peking roast duck at the "Original, century-old Qianmen Quan Ju De restaurant". The duck is carved at your table by a knife-wielding chef, and served for self assembly with pancakes, sweet noodle sauce and shredded Chinese onion. On the way to the bathrooms, the corridor was lined with photos of the numerous world leaders and other dignitaries who had dined there before us.

We followed dinner with a memorable, but probably not to be repeated, evening at the Peking Opera. This is a strange artform, even stranger than Western opera. It involves a lot of loud, high-pitched shrieking, some skilful fight scenes, and some very bad English translations on the dot-matrix displays either side of the stage.

We were treated to two separate operas. The plot of the first one was as follows: a young man woos a young lady (whose family keeps chickens) by dropping a jade bracelet on her doorstep so that she will find it. She finds it. A matchmaker is employed. The girl hides the bracelet from the matchmaker. The matchmaker finds the bracelet. The matchmaker gives an embroidered slipper to the man. The end.

In the second opera, the white snake fairy's husband has disappeared. She and her sister go looking for him. He has been kidnapped by a monk. The white snake fairy's army of sea creatures does battle with the monk's army. The end.

One exchange went like this:

White snake fairy: Please do me a favor and give back my husband.

Monk: Buddha is just to every body. Bai Suzhen, don't be fond of dream. Only if the Changjang River can flow backwards, you could meet Xu Xian. How could we let the demon live on the earth? I have to safeguard the kind people.

Fairy: I have cured sickness and saved patients for many times. The people of Jiangnan all speak highly of me. Everybody knows who is an evil man. And who makes us separate from each other.

Monk: Don't you know I have Black dragon Buddhist monk's staff? I'll never let you flaunt your superiority.

Fairy: We have not enough digressions to say.

It continued, but you get the idea. According to the programme, the monk's army won, but to be honest we couldn't tell that there had even been a victory, let alone who the victor was. It was all good fun though.

Mao picture, Tiananmen Square [Enlarge]

So, that's China. We have not even scratched the surface of this huge, complex country, in terms of the number of places we've seen. The last couple of weeks have been quite touristy and we are keen to get back to a more 'normal' existence. However, it's going to be another two weeks before we can do that: where we're going next, the normality meter is going to take a dive. This country is the reason why we had to get a double-entry Chinese visa—pretty much the only way in or out is via China, so we will be back in Beijing again in a fortnight.

We're going to the weirdest, most unknown, least visited country in the world. The last true Stalinist dictatorship. A place where the people know almost nothing of the outside world—only that people from other countries are all so envious of their blissful existence that they need to spend 31.3 percent of their GDP maintaining the world's fourth largest army to keep out the millions of people who are just desperate to enter. Yes, on Thursday we are going to North Korea!