China Weirdnesses

As you’d expect, things are a lot different in a country like China than they are at home in Australia, or even when compared to travelling in other Western Countries.
There are so many things, it’s hard to know where to start so if this seems a bit choppy and all over the place it’s because I was making little notes for myself over the last two weeks that are sometimes just snippets…

Let’s start with driving shall we? The first few forays out onto the road for us were in small vans or tour buses. There are road rules in China, I am certain of it, though no one seems to obey them and we never saw a single cop the whole time we travelled through so many different cities (until we reached Shanghai, and then they seemed to be everywhere). They drive on the right, but have a tendency to just go where ever they want. We saw our tour bus driver do a very impressive u-turn across 8 lanes of two way traffic, by sheer will, and by virtue of 1) being bigger than every other vehicle in the vicinity and 2) generous use of his horn. No bus drive in Aust would even consider such a thing. Horns are a necessity, being used at every single moment to let people know they are about to run into you, or that you are about to run into them if they don’t get out of the way. There is no waiting for people to move, you just honk them until they do.  

Red lights don’t really apply to motorcycles and mopeds – they seem to be more of a suggestion than anything else. Also, pedestrian don’t have right of way. If you want to cross the road, you have to simply stand your ground, walk into the street and hope that people will slow down (they won’t stop) enough for you to cross – even where pedestrian crossings are painted on the road… I don’t know why they bother with those, it’s like they’ve seen pedestrian crossings in the movies or something and believe they belong on the streetscape, but have no idea what they are for.  

Mobile phones while driving seem to be totally allowed – bus drivers, taxi drivers, MOPED riders all on mobile phones all the time. This is a recipe for disaster, but somehow the only accident we saw was when a taxi swerved out of his lane a bit and side swiped our bus. We later found out the reason for this is that the fine for using your mobile phone while driving is 50RMB – about $10. The driver was horrified when I told him the penalty for using your phone while driving in Australia was about 1500RMB.  

The vehicles themselves are an oddity. We saw many three wheeled taxis that seem to be just a moped with a double back seat – a modern day rickshaw. We saw enormous luxury vehicles covered in scrapes and bangs from the way people drive, we saw overloaded motorcycles, and my favourite weirdness on a highway near Xian – a small produce truck driving along stacked high with watermelons that were held together with two inch sticky tape.

Then there is the high speed train. They look the same as Japan’s bullet trains, but they couldn’t be more different. In Japan, you knew which platform you were going from, and even where to stand to wait for the correct carriage for your allocated seat and you could arrive ready for your trip and await your departure in your own time. In Beijing, you are not allowed on the platform until 15 minutes before you train is to depart, and there is one solitary ingress point for everyone to move down tot he platform. That means that approximately 1275 people (most toting luggage) were all crushing the one single ticket inspector across a 15 minute period to get to their platform. Fucking ridiculous.

Once on the train you notice it is not as clean as the Japanese counterparts, in spite of the fact that there are two ladies on every carriage whose jobs appear to go about sweeping and cleaning the bathroom facilities. If you have the misfortune to require the bathroom during the 5 hour journey, you will end up holding your breath, cursing that you didn’t bring more tissue with you so you could wipe down the seat, and then try hard not to touch any surfaces after washing your hands to exit the bathroom. Ewww… Additionally, your fellow passengers will be: playing video games out loud. Playing music on speaker. Playing movies aloud… and eating foul smelling dried out meats or extremely pungent pickled mystery goods. Just no consideration for other train passengers.

Smoking! Everyone still smokes. It’s like they haven’t got the memo yet that well, the damn things actually kill you. And smoking is still legal in most public places – including restaurants. Nothing worse than being asked if you want a non-smoking table, knowing full well that right beside you somewhere in the same room, someone is going to light up. You see people smoking on their mopeds, smoking in fast food places, while walking through shopping malls, hotel lobbies (right under the ‘no smoking’ signs), in public parks, on ferries and boats, in taxis… just about anywhere – even if it is suppose to be a non-smoking area. They just don’t are. It’s really horrible to find yourself a nice spot to look at something and then someone comes along and lights up right beside you. I think I have consumed more second hand smoke in two weeks in China than I would have in the last ten years in Australia.

Which I personally think is a bit weird really, considering the Chinese have a very particular, and frequently discussed, obsession with longevity. They have Happy Buddha, you can rub his tummy for ‘luck and long life’, they have turtles everywhere – in ponds, in statuary, in tokens and charms, for ‘longevity’. Rivers stand for longevity, twisting walkways, long covered corridors, knotted tokens, certain foods – every time you went to a shrine or a temple, you would be encouraged to make wishes and prayers for a long life. Make a donation here, tie a string there, hang a token over there, write you name over here and always, always, make a wish for long life. It is just a ‘thing’… and a long standing thing at that. Wishing someone a long life is the traditional way of offering well wishes to someone, anyone. Which I find odd… because so many of the Chinese have endured god awful suffering over the millennia. It’s not like many of them have had easy or pleasant lives at all. And I am not just talking about rural peasants eking out a living, working on farmlands for rich landlords, I am talking about privileged families too who were persecuted through the Cultural Revolution, the Taipings, the Great Leap Forward, famines and so many wars. No one quite does suffering, like the Chinese do. I am not quite sure why, historically, you would wish longevity on someone who lives a miserable downtrodden and oppressed life. Obviously things in modern China are improving – ‘We have partial freedom in China now. Can do what we want so long as government say it okay, not like before.’ (direct quote from our first tour guide) – but they have such a long way to go. Still, the obsession with longevity seems prevalent everywhere you go.

Their only other true obsession that runs as deep, is the obsession with wealth. The Chinese people, who have suffered so much deprivation in their history, seem obsessed with the protection that being wealthy can offer. They have several tokens that represent wealth – the fat toad with three legs and money in mouth, he is constipated so that the money comes in and never goes out – we saw the fat toad a lot in Northern China, in the Southern areas, it was a dog set high on a families roof that ‘has no anus’ who is also ‘constipated’ who brings in wealth to the household and it never lets the money out.

 In the North – Beijing and Xian, we discovered that foreigners were known as ‘big nose’. Given that many in the north have Mongolian ethnicity in their genealogy somewhere, it is quite common for them to have broad, flatter features, so they are quite frequently fascinated with the ‘big noses’, and would want to stop and take photos with members of our group who had narrower features and larger more protruding noses. In the South, Guilin, Yangshou, Yi Chang, foreigners are known mostly as ‘hellos’… so when you go to the ‘Hello Market’ you are going to the tourist market for foreigners. It comes from the hawkers saying ‘Hello, fan?’… ‘Hello, jade?’… ‘Hello, bag?’ … ‘Hello, watch?’ etc. Yes, as places like this, foreigners are pretty much viewed as walking wallets, which you get in tourist destinations the world over.  

We discovered that the Northern Chinese have a none too high opinion of the Souther Chinese and vice versa. The Northern Chinese say they are all wheat eaters and they are strong and they speak all gruff and ‘herrr-harr!’. While the Southern Chinese are rice eaters and are weak and they speak all squeaky, ‘mi-mi-mi-mi ‘. The Southern Chinese believe the Northerners to be course and uncultured, while there in the South they are more refined and delicate.  

North or South however, all of them are equally fascinated with people like me – pale skin, blonde hair. There are some areas that rarely see a tourist, and when those people are playing domestic tourist themselves (and I’m told about 90 million Chinese travel to the major tourist sites in China each year and that foreign tourism makes up only about 10% of tourism income), many of them have never seen a Westerner in real life – only in the movies. The fascination with fair skin runs in their own history too – beauty ideals have tended towards the fairer for centuries. In much the way Georgian Britain valued a woman’s ‘indoorsy’, peaches and cream complexion, the Chinese too value a fairer complexion when judging beauty – no small commodity when marriages were traditionally arranged and bride prices were negotiated the highest for those of fairer ‘indoors’ skin and tiny Golden Lily feet. Traditionally, Chinese women would wear talismans of white jade around their necks or against their belly, while pregnant so as to bring their unborn children the fairest of complexions. So someone like me – who is of Scandinavian and British descent and who has spent the better part of the last two decades fastidiously avoiding the sun – well, I’m quite the oddity. 

So much of an oddity, that I was frequently having people stop and wanting to take my photo, only they weren’t so prepared to approach me as the brunettes in our group – perhaps I looked so ‘indoors’ as to be high in station as well! So people didn’t approach me so much as attempt to surreptitiously take my photo… point a camera in my direction and look a different way while clicking away. Stand and face away from me and take a selfie with me in the background. I couldn’t even escape this sort of thing over breakfast in the Grand Mercure Hotel in Xian, a major city. I had people constantly just stopping dead in their tracks and staring at me, poking their friends and pointing at me to make sure their friends didn’t miss the sight, one guy nearly twisted his own kids head off to try and turn him in my direction. This I didn’t mind so much, if only they had wanted to keep their distance. But I had many, mostly men, wanting to touch my hair. The guides gave me no clue as to why this was so – they just said it was because maybe they had never seen blonde women before, Mr K kindly suggested they had probably seen plenty of blonde women – in porn. I did not like it at all, and when someone in the jostling crowd at the Terracotta Warriors on day three, yanked on my plaited pony tail so hard as to jerk my head back – that was it. For the rest of the trip, my hair was in a bun and under my floppy hat. I’ve been stared at for being blonde in Greece and in Italy in the 90s, in Dubai, in Istanbul and Pakistan in the ’00s, but people always kept their distance. Not in China. In China there is no sense of personal space. It was so bad and so pervasive that I have come to love China and it’s amazing natural beauty, culture and incredibly rich heritage, but I came to seriously dislike the Chinese people themselves. The only ones who were nice or respectful in anyway, were the ones we were paying. Which is kinda sad… I eventually learned to say “Bee pung wua.” = “Don’t touch me.” and it seemed to help. :/

Anyway… Food! The favoured way for us to eat as travellers wary of the water and food preparation was in nice restaurants, which we could well and truly afford as food is cheap in China. There is a saying in China: “The Chinese eat everything flying except aeroplanes; everything with four legs except tables and chairs, and everything in the water except submarines”, and it appears be true. In Beijing, we saw scorpions on a stick at the night markets, in Shanghai we were offered bullfrog soup in a nice restaurant, they eat donkey, snake, turtle (for longevity of course), we were told quite openly in Chongqing that people eat cats and dogs, ‘no problem’ – but apparently not ones that come from pet stores, just specially bred dingos. People also have a different attitude towards food, probably from years of deprivation still being in living memory… get in, eat and get out. No one lingers or savours their meal, and they hoe into their food like they will miss out. We were at a banquet meal on the Yangtze cruise, and the Chinese sat down and started eating through the welcoming speeches while the Westerners were politely listening, clapping appropriately and only ate after the formalities. The Chinese were all: sit, eat, run out the door. Done in 15 minutes or less. We also noticed that after four weeks of eating sushi and Japanese prepared vegetables, noodles, soups etc, that Chinese meals are extremely oily. Even a dish of eggplant or something will be drowning in oil. And probably loads of MSG too.

  Some more random thoughts…

Harking and spitting up globs of phlegm is quite acceptable, whether you are on the street or in a hotel lobby. Spitting on the pavement or into a polished brass rubbish bin is fine. The very sound of it makes you want to hurl sometimes.  

People seem to be fine with having their conversations on speaker as they walk along the street – no bluetooth headsets, no microphone headphone cords, just talking with the phone in front of their face, but also kinda yelling at the person as though they are across a busy street. Again, it feels like people don’t understand or don’t value privacy at all. 

In Xian, a coffee at the airport was 56RMB, that is over AU$10, and I thought our airport coffee shops want to rip us off – that is the same as the price of a lovely meal at a nice restaurant. Talk about taking advantage of a captive audience.

Airport announcements are usually nonsense – they seem to be recordings on loops that start with a ‘ding, ding, ding’… and they WILL be ear-splittingly loud for no apparent reason. Like, occ health and safety hazard, LOUD. Actually, I think it is fair to say that the Chinese are louder than Americans. They do not possess inside voices at all and they do not speak to each other in a way that might keep any conversation private. I was actually quite glad most of the time that I could not understand what people were saying around me – they often sounded very aggressive when all they were doing was setting a table or maybe asking someone to move things around in a shop.

Tour guides – they are everywhere given the number of rural Chinese in the big city. When Australians travel their own country, they rarely take an organised tour, we just strike out on the open road and do our own thing – not so the Chinese it would seem. The bulk of tourists we saw – about 90% or more – were domestic tourists from rural areas, and they use large tour companies that deal with logistics for them. Tour guides should probably note, there is not much point carrying a tour guide flag for your group to follow, if you are carrying the same colour flag with the same company logo on it, as the other guides from your company. It was nothing to see ten of the same yellow flag marching in front of us and Chinese people confusedly trying to figure out which yellow flag belonged to their guide.

We discovered that the Chinese like desserts for breakfast but not after dinner. Every buffet breakfast we encountered in the various four and five star hotels we stayed in, always offered trays of cakes, slices and even puddings at breakfast. Especially in the South, apparently the further south you go, the sweeter the tooth… by the time you get to Shanghai, even a peppered beef and onion dish will have sugar added to it. What else? We were in China for a full week before we saw ANY blue sky, and that was in Guilin. We had weather forecasts that suggested that the weather would be between 34-38C, clear and sunny, hot and very humid – but there was so much smog and air pollution hanging about that literally it felt like you were walking around on an overcast day and some days it was so bad, city visibility was down to barely a kilometre or two. 

  Many of our fancy hotels have Western inspired revolving doors… you know, the sort of large round revolving doors that you see in big swish hotels in New York or Las Vegas or London or Sydney… well, they had the big round shape of the door bit correct, but rather than revolving doors that keep the weather in or out, that patrons use to walk around to get into the hotel – these ones just had the big round shape, but with a regular automatic opening sliding door in the round space and a wee garden just taking up the leftover unused area…? They don’t revolve. No idea. Don’t ask. 

  We saw many what they locals call, ‘three generation t-shirts in the marketplaces. They are so called because you buy them for yourself, then wash them once and they shrink to fit your eldest kid, they you wash them and they shrink again and fit your youngest. Three generations shirts.

We found out there are only 400 golf courses in whole of China, and that the nouveau riche Chinese love their golf. But this country of 1.3billion people are not allowed to build any more golf course because it uses too much arable land. To put that in perspective, South East Queensland has about 150 golf courses with a population in the area of about 3 million tops. 

We discovered that the numbers, 3 – 6 and 9 are all lucky numbers for special dates and that people will still go to diviners to check the best days for them to marry or to have a baby – now medical science allows elective c-section births, many women choose to have their children born on the most auspicious date available according to the local diviner. Some country markets only occur on the 3rd, the 6th, the 9th, the 13, the 16th, the 19th etc of the month, as to use other days would be unlucky.

I always though Chinese opera was more akin to cats wailing, but have come to realise it is music with people shouting at each other rather than actually singing. Not pleasant, even our local Chinese guides would screw up their faces at the suggestion off sitting through traditional Chinese opera.

We tried to learn some basic Chinese while we were here, but failed miserably, particularly after having spent four weeks trying to nail down some Japanese. All I managed to absorb was (and this is probably all spelled incorrectly):

  • Xie xie – thank you
  • Duo show tien – how much 
  • Ma ma hu hu – it’s so so 
  • Ni how ma – how are you 
  • Ding ding how – I’m very very good
  • Xiong Mao – panda
  • Bee pung wua – don’t touch me! 

… and now I am going to have to reset my phone dictionary because it is going to accept these non-English words after typing so many place names etc.

What else? Many years ago people only married in the same district and nationality as the one they were born into. This has kept the ethnic minority groups quite strong in China. Now of course, people marry where they please and the government is trying to preserve the cultures of the ethnic minorities. In the past, you would ‘marry your daughters out’ to some other village, not many marriages would be arranged between people who knew each other and if a girl was lucky, her natal village would be relatively close to her in-laws home, as she was required many times a year to travel back to her family for festivals and holidays. And of course this being the case, your sons ‘married in’, which means their wives came to live in their family home primarily under the control of their new mothers in law. Can you imagine that? Getting married and going to live indefinitely with your mother in law and be at her beck and call and follow all her instruction until she croaked and (if you were lucky enough to be married to the elder son), you would then become the matriarch and torment your own daughters in-law?  Sounds like hell on earth to me.  

Another tid-bit: pomegranates are considered very lucky and of course is a powerful symbol of fertility (that one seems to translate to Western cultures too…The Chinese character for ‘many seeds’ is the same character as the word for ‘children’, so it is considered especially auspicious to give brides pomegranates or decorate her dowry gifts with pomegranate motifs.. 

Speaking of children, many of us would be well aware of the seemingly bizarre, One Child Policy that was instituted in 1978 to try to stem the tide of over population. At first, many families rebelled against the directives, having children and keeping them in secret (raising their own less preferred children as household servants). Also a tragic systematic disposing of girl babies started to occur as it was too important to have a son to carry on the family name – interestingly this has now swung the other way… after the initial generations all desired sons, they have finally figured out that their sons have no daughters to marry, and there is a little discussed problem with girls being kidnapped from country areas by wealthy family to be raised in their families to be wives for their prized sons. O.o This is happening now according to our most informative guide Sue in Guilin.

In the last couple years, the One Child Policy has been relaxed a bit and some families are allowed to have two children. To be eligible, both parents must come from single child families themselves OR come from one of the many ethnic minorities I mentioned earlier. If you meet this criteria, and you already have one child, when that first child reaches five years old, you may apply to the government for permission to have a second child. So, if a farmer from an ethnic minority background has a first child that is a daughter, then five years later, he is allowed to apply to have a second child. In spite of this relaxation of laws, apparently most eligible people have not taken up the offer to have a second child – child birthing and rearing is very expensive business in China. It cost over AU$2000 to have a baby in a hospital, and education can run to thousands of dollars a year, even at the most basic kindergartens and schools. 

 And of course no discussion of Chinese weirdnesses would be complete without a run down on toilets. All travellers will tell you of the vital importance of finding clean, free toilets when you’re out and about all day every day. China has some of the best and some of the worst ‘Happy Rooms’ I’ve ever seen. They also have some of the best worst ones too… Our first guide Kelly in Beijing set us off on a star rating system so we could report back to the group what to expect before venturing forth to test the facilities: 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Happy Room:  Western toilet. Clean. Paper available. Soap available. Automatic taps. Hand dryers available. View optional. 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Happy Room:  Western toilet. Cleanish. BYO paper. Water available. Sometime soap, but BYO hand sanitizer in case. 

⭐️⭐️⭐️.5  Happy Room:  Western toilet. People may have been standing on the seat. Need to clean first. Floor… questionable. Hand washing water available, definitely no soap. BYO paper and sanitizer. 

⭐️⭐️⭐️ Happy Room:  Asian squat toilet. Clean. Paper available. Soap available. Hand dryer available. Somewhere to put/hang your things while you balance to use the loo.

⭐️⭐️ Happy Room:  Asian squat toilet. Cleanish. BYO paper. Water, but no soap. BYO hand sanitizer. 

⭐️ Happy Room:  Asian squat toilet. You will smell it before you see it. Urine visible on the soaked floors. BYO paper – sewerage system doesn’t cope with flushing paper and used paper is placed in a waste bin. Many will refuses to flush at all. Sometimes no doors. No sink. No way! Oh, and someone might be smoking in the stall next to you.

It was not unusual to go into a lovely hotel for lunch, with marble floors, beautiful chandeliers, granite vanity tops, and lovely well appointed western style bathrooms, only to find there is no fucking toilet paper… I mean, not an empty dispenser, just no toilet paper roll holder even. The weirdest toilet experience I had was at Guilin airport, where the cleaner, ever dilligent, didn’t even wait for me to exit the stall to mop the area and literally pushed the mop under the door and yelled at me to lift my feet WHILE I WAS USING THE TOILET! Bloody hell.  

And last, but not least, in my list of China weirdnesses – which I found both weird and annoying… but which probably won’t even hit anyone else’s radar.  Souvenir lapel pins.  I collect them from all over the world. In fact, I’ve been collecting them since my first major overseas trip in 1995, when I bought pins from all over Europe (except Romania, but they were only a few years independent and hadn’t got the hang of the whole tourism thing yet). But no…. Chinese souvenir stores don’t seem to have them at all. Which is just fucking weird!  Because the world over, whenever I pick up a souvenir pin in Alaska or New Zealand, or Japan, or Turkey or wherever – it will invariably, and inevitably, be in packaging that says that the damn thing was made in fucking China! 

Chinese Airlines

  Flight one: Tokyo to Beijing 

Our first foray into the delightful land of Chinese air transport was our flight from Tokyo to Beijing.  It was scheduled to leave at 10:50 and was changed to 10:00.  That’s okay – Tripit told us all about it and we were able to adjust our timetable accordingly.  Had to get up before 5am, find a cab, get to the Shinkjuku JR line in time for out 05:55 shinkensne train to the airport.  Hour later, arrived at the airport, check in wasn’t even open so we were in a queue for empty service counters for a while. But they turned up around 07:30.  It was relatively painless, but for the fact that our seating allocation was lost in the rescheduling and we ended up at the arse end of the plane – Row 63F.  We were all loaded and squared away and ready to go and then our flight was then delayed due to ‘air traffic control issues’ in Shanghai (the flight went Tokyo -> Shanghai -> Beijing… no idea why, but potentially because they don’t fly over North Korea) and they missed their window and we ended up leaving at 10:50 anyway.  So being at the arse end of the plane was initially no big deal until they served up lunch, the people in front of us got the last beef/rice combo meals, and we were offered ‘fishy noodles or fishy noodles’.  Which turned out to be completely inedible, and if you’re an allergy sufferer – suck it up. 

So we land in Shanghai – late… and there is no gate for us.  So we are stuck out at the optimisitically named, Gate 204, which is to say, just parked somewhere on the tarmac waiting for buses to take us to the terminal.  Our layover having been swallowed up in ‘unavoidable’ delays, we now experienced the worst airport/customs clusterfuck I have ever seen in my life.  They raced us off the plane, onto the buses, about a 10 min ride away to the terminal, where we were greeted by people plonking blue stickers on our person, and a woman with a high vis vest waving a folder in the air yelling at everyone to follow her (we think – Chinese isn’t my thing), and then we marched through the entire airport.  Up flights of stairs, down back corridors, through building construction areas, eventually through a security screening (the guy behind us picked out of the queue for having a high temperature, further through the back alleys, up two more flights of stairs, into a customs queue, back through a security check, down more corridors, and then down some escalators (wtf?  escalators for the downstairs bit and just regular stair for the running upstairs bit?) and eventually corralled to a space that I will generously call a ‘waiting lounge’ to wait for… who fucking knows what?  Eventually the buses came back, ferried us all back out to the tarmac and straight back onto the same plane and we were led back to the exact same seat.  Whole thing took about 40 mins and according to my phone was about a 3km sprint with waiting in queues for security checks and immigration processing in between.  

Well, we think, at least we won’t have to go through Customs in Beijing when we arrive… feeling none too generous but looking for a bright side.  Yeah right.  We get off the plane in Beijing, someone with a sign for people from Tokyo directs us to a different baggage carousel where we collect our luggage and have to go through customs again anyway with our luggage.  COMPLETE CLUSTER.  None of the staff on the airline are apologetic about the delay, and none of the staff in the terminal apologised for the lack of organisation, allowed time to make sure the group was together or for even time to use the bathroom.  Seriously – what a mess.  I overheard a French couple near us complaning about completely ‘merde’ the entire thing was.  

Flight two: Xian to Guilin

Arrive at airport at 15:20… our group was going in three different directions – to Shanghai, to Chengdou and to Giulin, so I guess we were bing droppped off early enough for the first lot to fly out.  Our  flight was scheduled for 17:10pm and we figured we would potter aroudn the airport a bit and find a coffee shop. Our guide, who bundled us all into the airport, failed to mention, when she did all the talking at our check-in, that our 17:10 flight was now changed to a boarding time of 18:00 and not sure what the departure time was at at that point.  We couldn’t easily read the monitors, but without any notice or reason, once we got through security, we noticed the monitors were now saying we were delayed until 19:40 with boarding to commence at commence at 19:05.  Fuck off.  It was now only about 16:30.  Le sigh.  Might as well just enjoy being stuck at the airport with people staring at me for a while.  *insert much waiting music*

Around 19:20 close to our scheduled departure time – we notice that a gate change has been made from H13, where we had been waiting to H02… the first notification of this was someone writing it on a white board in front of the H13 gate entrance.  About an hour later, the monitors catch up and show the H02 gate change.  Everyone duly wanders around to find Gate H02. 

So we get downstairs, it must be 19:45 by now, to gate H02 to discover a  huge long line of people waiting to get on this flight.  We have given up the will to live at this point and don’t join the line and instead find a seat.  Then outside the doors, a bus turns up – presumably to take us to the tarmac somewhere – but after looking at it for about 15-20mins, around 20:00 it drives off empty much to everyone’s consternation.  After everyone expresses a collective ‘Oh shit or bloody hell or similar’ in Chinese, they the scramble away from the queue to find a seat.  No one knows what is going on, there is one tiny female hostie standing near the gate being yelled at quite a bit and security is eventually called as people seem to be getting rather cranky.  We’ve now beeen at the airport for going on five hours, so are well and truly over it.

Eventually another bus turns up outside the doors, and the natives get restless again, barging themsleves into more of a mob than a queue.  Boarding of the first bus began at 20:10… and they crammed themselves into that thing like sardines – we kinda thought there would have to be a second or even third bus and decided to wait for that to occur.  With just one hostie scanning boarding passes we could see that this was going to take a while.  We boarded our buses, got ferried to who knows where, then dumped off the buses and directed to a very steep stairwell that took us up two high flights of stairs so we could walk back down an air bridge past a single flight of stairs that led directly up to plane.  I saw one woman trying to ask if her mother on crutches could use the single flight of stairs up to the plane and permission was refused… though God knows why?!  We weren’t being shuffled through security or anything, just past another person ripping another section off the boarding pass.  All the boarding passes have two perforated sections on them.  ONe will be ripped off at the gate entrance, and another just before getting on the plane – so usually within about 50m of each other… where are you going to go for fucks sake?  Between boarding gate and air bridge.  So stupid.

People are well and truly annoyed at the delay… we were mostly just resigned to the inevitable.   As we were boarding the plane, we saw a woman smash her rolling cabin bag into some mans leg and look down, see there was a leg in the way and actually pull at the suitcase harder to try and make the leg yield to her desire to pass. The poor guy couldn’t move, but she was just rude as all shit. 

Then when we found our seats, there was a woman in the aisle alreaddy who didn’t want to stand up to let us take our seats. I stood there, and shook my head and motioned for her to get the hell out of the way.  She seriously expected us to clamber OVER her to get to the window and middle seat. Then we watched as she couldn’t figure out how to put her seat belt on and she fastidiously watched the air safety video… First time flying, I guess. I wanted to whisper to her, ‘Oh god! Oh god! We are all going to die!’ but Mr K wouldn’t let me.  A few minutes after we were all settled and waiting to go… she then takes off her belt, stands up to turn on her reading light and forgot to put her belt back on (She didn’t notice until landing when she removed her blankie, that she’d no seat belt on for the whole flight and she looked enitrely freaked out).  

Anyway, we are finally seated and ready to go when we get another announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen our flight has been delayed due to air traffic control issues. Thank you for your patience ” Firstly – What fucking patience?  We are now pushing four hours later and have been at the airport for nigh on six hours, the last thing any of us are feeling is patient!  And secondly, I call bullshit on your air traffic control issues. BULLSHIT, I say.  The plane arrived late, they missed the scheduled departure time hours ago, and now had to just wait for another slot… probably made vacant by another late fucking plane.  Also, where’s my free alcohol to apologize for the inconvenience?  Nope. This is obvious just BAU.   

After staring at green run way lights out the window for a full 25 mins, we finally take off at 21:15, a full four hours and five minutes later. Right we are up, we are off, we are all good. Until a cabin announcement at 21:40pm that I thought wasa going to cause a riot:

“Ladies and gentlemen there is some turbulence (seriously? you call that tubulence?), please keep your seat belts on and the food service will be suspended until further notice…” At this point I’m wondering if the pilot is trying to cause a fracas, no food after a four hour delay? Eventually there was more inedible slop thrown in our direction and we tried to get a bit of rest.

As we were landing in Guilin, we noticed that the staff on China Eastern Airlines are not smiling and not at all welcoming… I realised that as shit as our day had been, they too were having a pretty bad day AND being yelled at by cranky Chinese people. As we were leaving I endeavoured to say, ‘Thank you’, or ‘Have a nice evening’ to every staff member I passed (mind you I felt like yelling at them too), and they looked variously shocked and suprised. Poor bastards – their primary function does not seem to be to make your flight more pleasant. They’re totally there to control the passengers. 

  Flight three:  Guilin to Chongqing – China Southern Airlines

At the airport early again.  Our guides insists on dropping us off at least three hours before a domestic flight, and this time, our guide Sue watched to make sure we went through the security and didn’t skive off or go off missing on her watch.  Guilin airport must be the loudest most noisy airport in the world.  Not because it is so busy with passengers, but because of the constant announcements.  It was so bad, I took a recording on my iPhone and when I figure out how to do it, I am going to upload it here for your err.. entertainment.  

Thankfully our flight was on time – had to be at least one right?  But if I thought the noise in the waiting lounge was bad, you should have heard the people on the plane!  Some were watching movies on iPads, playing games on devices or listening to music… and hardly anyone seemed to think it was necessary to use headphones!  Seriously the whole flight was pewpewpew from the row behind, screeching that passes for music from the row in front and some angry sounding dialogue from across the aisle.  People in this region must just be loud for some reason (As a side note, they also queue weird in these parts.  When I went to the ladies at the airport, they didn’t line up in one line and wait to see which stall would be available first, they went and stood in front of the loo they wanted to use and waited for the occupant to come out.  So often people who came in after went in first… fucking weird.  Additionally, I saw three young women cram into one squat toilet and I don’t even want to know why).

Once on our flight Mr K got in trouble by the air hosties for using his phone to play a little game, called Jet Pack Joyride.  It doens’t require the internet and the device was in flight mode, but no go.  No mobile phones are allowed on while on the plane.  My iPad on the other hand with it’s 3G, wifi and bluetooth capability (all the same connectivity as the phone), was fine.   Go figure.  And no, we really don’t expect logic here at this point. 

Again the in flight service was suspended due to a few bumps being mistaken for actualy turbuence… but you can hardly call a small water bottle and a packet of peanuts an inflight service anyway.  

On the positive side, at least the staff seemed less agitated and aggressive than Eastern China Airlines, and our flight was almost on schedule.  Almost.
Flight Four:  Yi Chang to Shanghai – Shanghai Airlines

Our guide, Ginger dropped us off in a timely fashion… not three hours in advance and not rushing around which was good.  Our flight was actually boarded, loaded and took off two minutes ahead of schedule!  Will wonders never cease!

Our seats were pooched again though but it’s all out of our control as the head office is making the bookings.  We asked for a window and a centre seat, and got given a centre and an aisle.  I don’t konw if that was Ginger not communicating what we wanted or just typical China inability to process simple requests.  Seems to be a running theme.  Thankfully the flight was not full, so we just moved a row back and I got my preferred window and Mr K took the  aisle and some space for a change.   Most of these flights were only about 2.5 to 3 hours, so it’s not that big a deal, but when you’re going every other day, it gets a bit… meh.

Yet again on Shanghai Airlines, it was still ok to use iPads for games and movies and what not, but no phones in flight mode for the same thing.  China, this inconsistent shit makes you people look really bloody stupid.  Also, why do I have to turn my iPad off 30 mins before we land?  We haven’t starte to descend, and you lot are preparing the cabin for landing way out then sitting there strapped in yourselves twiddling your thumbs and stopping people using the loos.  Why?

We noticed that this flight was rather quiet – and then noticed that there was about 50 westerners from our Yangtze river cruise all sitting everwhere around us.  Everyone’s onward itinerary was taking them to Shanghai. 

All up, not a bad flight.   Out the window I noticed that China looks really pretty and clean from 33,000 feet…  

 Last flight : Shanghai to Hong Kong 

So here we go again.  Leave the hotel at 06:00 for a 09:20 flight in order to all us to arrive at the airport 2 hours before flight, given it’s a one hour cab ride and with some wiggle room.  Checking out of the hotel was relatively paintless and the drive to the airport was uneventful.  Yay…  Good start.

Walk through the door into the airport and are reeted by a queue of about 600 people waiting to check-in … with only 8 staff working the counters!  Holy fuck, it was like a goddamn queue at Disneyland snaking back and forth, back and forth, then across the concourse towards the door and along a wall obstructing the entire airports foot traffic – only instead of lining up for a thrilling ride, we were lining up to thow our luggage at a cranky airline employee.  Fuck.

And of course, this is China.  So people were attempting to queue jump all over the place and were bumping into each other constantly as if jostling for better position in the queue was going to help them get through it quicker. After about an hour Mr K had to ask for help – it was first thing in the morning and very little time on the heatpack, not enough sleep, standing still that long and my fucked up back just don’t mix – I was gritting my teether, but there were tears (Nothing like being stared at by loads of Chinese people who aren’t used to westerns, while I’m trying not to have a complete melt down and sort of, kinda, half failing). We got taken out of the queue and thrown through the special care line, only to be cut off without so much as an ‘excuse us’ or a ‘thank you’ by a pushy Chinese tour guide checking in an entire group.  

We finally get to check-in, this time my bag is back up to 22kgs (depending on which airport we were at it’s been 22kgs, 18.8kgs, 19kgs, and now 23kgs, even though the shopping has been at an absolute minimum because well, all this shit for sale is made in China.   Anyway, they somehow screwed up our seats again – I think every time the flight schedule changes, our seat allocations go out the window, and we end up just getting dumped up the back of the plane again.  Grrr.  Finally checked in, which meant we were now at our leisure to find the queue for security.  :/  

We manage to get through security, which can I just say, has been stupidly painful at most of the airports here.  You emplty your pockets, that is fine, put your carry on through the scanner that is fine, but the metal detector goes off for every single person going thorugh it and they stand you on a pedestal and wave the handscanner over you or do a rough pat down body search anyway.  Every single person – I watched them frisk down a six year old girl.  What’s with that?  I know for certain I have nothing on me that would set off the metal detector, I ensure this quite deliberately so I don’t have to stop – but they just set them damn things to beep at everyone… and tehy don’t fucking care if there is 200 people queuing to get through to their flights.  By the time we go through the security check, and frisky fun bit, we had gone from being two hours before our flight to barely five minutes before we were scheduled to board.  Scheduled to board…  :/ 

We found our gate at 08:30 for the scheduled 08:35 boarding. And waited and waited. 

At 09:05 approximtely 30 minutes after boarding should have commenced, an announcement came over that our flight was delayed due to “cabin cleaning”.  Bull-fucking-shit!  That there plane has been sitting at the gate longer than I have! The fricken delay is due to the fact that about 100 of the people who are supposed to be on this flight are still in damn queues waiting to check in and/or get through security. 

Eventually we get on the plane and find out that we are in Row 61 which are bulkhead seats – yay. Unfortunately, this is where they usually seat families with small babies so the whole area smells like piss because the Chinese from the souther regions don’t use nappies on their babies, they have weird little crotchless jumpsuits in order to toilet train their babies as young as possible.   Eww… I just tried not to think about it.  

At 09:47, we get another announcement letting us know of “air traffic control delays”.  I can see by the hostie’s face that this isn’t even remotely uncommon even given this is the first flight of the morning.  It’s just going to be one of those days.  We eventually take off about 10:15… just shy of an hour late.  Late just seems to be how these companies operate, there is no other way.  The rest of the flight was predictable, I tried to watch a movie, was interrupted by people walking past us to get from one aisle to the other – one kid must have walked in front of us about four times, he even stood on my food once, the ignorant little shit.  So glad this is our last flight in China and we won’t have to deal with them again.

So… to sum up our Chinese airlines experiences.

Shanghai Airlines 7/10 – if I absolutely had to somewhere within China, I’d use them.

China Southern Airlines 4/10 – nope, not happening.  so disorganised, absolute chaos.

China Eastern Airlines 0/10 – they are so fucking bad, I would never ever agree to fly with them again.  Ever.

Beijing – Temple of Heaven

  Today we went to visit the Temple of Heaven which is a famous Taoist temple built in 1420 on a site that has historically held important harvest worship festivals. The site is about three times larger than the 44ha of the Forbidden City – 80% of which are lovely garden spaces that are largely used by Beijing’s retiree population for dancing, tai chi, chess, cards, mahjong and matchmaking… yeah. 

Matchmaking. It seems the parents and grand parents of young people who work too long stuck in their offices with no time to meet people, get together with official matchmakers in the park to overlook profiles of young available men and women. Their profiles are written on cards and laid out on the floor and list such into as: Age. Height. Clean background. Height. Weight. Apartment. Car. Education. Chinese Horoscope for compatibility. Sometimes there were photo attached. The matchmakers arrange dates for the young people and get paid according to satisfaction and also more generously if they make a ‘good match’ for the young people.

The Chinese horoscope is very serious business when it comes to marriage and some matches are considered far more favorable than others. A chicken married to dog no good, apparently. But a tiger married to mouse/rat is good. Tiger married to tiger is also ok… ‘You can have two tigers on a mountain, so long as one male one female. No two male on one mountain’. 
I am a Pig but sort of on the cusp with the Rat – and the description of both is scarily accurate in some ways:

PIG: pig people are kind, honest, generous, and good humoured. They usually love their homes but are generally not very good housekeepers. They like indulging in their pleasure and would rather spend their time buying, preparing and eating good food. They are steadfast, patient, and enduring, good at organizing without being bossy. Pig people are very trusting and very trustworthy. Very sensual lovers and may enjoy love between satin sheets with caviar and champagne nearby. 

RAT: outwardly cool but charming and sociable, endowed with intelligence and observant. Rats are quick to grasp a situation, and can easily size up what is going on from everyone’s point of view. This enables them to give good advice to others who are slower to catch on, though rat people may say more than people want to hear.   

LOL. So much of both these sounds like me. I had an opportunity to buy a personalized Jade chop with my name and a pig on it. He’s very cute and I have red ink, ‘just like Emperor’. It seems the Emperor chop was with red ink, the Empress in blue ink, and the common people, black ink.    

Mr K is a Water Rabbit which with my Metal Pig make good match, “you make him”. 

RABBIT: peace loving rabbits generally like to keep out of arguments and as a result can be very diplomatic and also good at negotiating. The rabbits strength is in observing the game, assessing the situation, and coming up with a solution or innovation when the time is ripe. 

But I digress- back to the Temple of Heaven and the beautiful gardens which are predominantly comprised of beautiful shady juniper and pine trees some of which are up to 500 years old. 

  According to traditional beliefs, the Jade Emperor is the Emperor of Heaven (which is, we remember, round – heaven is round, earth is square). And in his round heaven, the Jade Emperor has a palace of 10,000 rooms to be bigger than the Earth Emperor’s 9,999 room Forbidden City. 

  At the centre of the Temple of Heaven is the Hall to Pray for the Good Harvest. Again, the building has been created in a large round pagoda shape because heaven is round and earth is square. There are three levels of the pagoda as well as three tiers of marble resting under the pagoda representing: earth, human and heaven. Each tier has 9 steps leading to the next which represent power and longevity. 

 The roof of the Temple is blue – unlike the Imperial yellow of the Forbidden City – which represents the sky (‘600 years ago, you know, the sky is blue every day, now it is sometimes blue because pollution’). Additionally it has many green and blue decorative accents, the green of which represent the harvest and jade which is the colour of the Emperor of Heaven.   

  The Chinese people believe that jade is a treasure from the earth, and that jade can protect yourself and your family. So they worship the Jade Emperor but also the jade itself to protect the people and have a good harvest.

Inside the Temple of Heaven pagoda is a throne for the Emperor for when he comes to pray. Also there are 28 tablets inside that symbolize the 28 stars. Further in Taoist temples there are often prominent dragon and Phoenix designs that depict the yin and yang – male and female balance of the universe. 

The Emperors of China visited the Temple of Heaven on this site to carry out the rite of worshipping the Jade Emperor from the 26th century BC until the early 20th century AD. While this particular pagoda was built in 1420AD, there has been a Temple of Heaven on this site since 2600BC.

 The rites are performed on December 22nd and at Chinese New Year at 4:15am when the Emperor would come to pray before sunrise. The Emperor of Earth made prayers and gave offerings to the Jade Emperor in heaven – offerings of rice, silk, jade, and roast ox, pig etc. He prayed 9 times to protect the country and also offered large animal sacrifices. 

Whenever the Emperor went out of the Forbidden City, all the common people would be ordered to stay home, as it was forbidden to look on the emperor. Palace spaces would clean the streets and lay down special clay and water to prepare a smooth royal street for the emperor. If someone did look on the Emperor it might be okay if you were to stay quiet, but if someone disturbed the Emperor he may have them killed so ‘wise not to look at Emperor’. 

After the ceremony all the people offer congratulations to Emperor for worshipping the Jade Emperor in the the heavens, and then edicts were issued to proclaim the worship is complete. The rites continued until the last Emperor in 1912. 

Buddhism came to China 1800 years ago. Christians came to China 1000 years ago with Marco Polo. Judaism came to China only 500 years ago and Shanghai has a famous synagogue and Jewish Quarter. 

In 1942-45… Jewish were forced from Shanghai but the Chinese secretly fed the Jewish people who were detained and 500 babies were born in this period. 

So after all this culture and religion we were off to the experience the wonders of China’s billet trains as we head to the ‘small city of Xian, only 8.5 million people, you know’, this afternoon. Bye-bye Kelli Family. We will miss your Happy Rooms in Beijing (the Four Star Happy Rooms that is … not the Two Star ones!).  

Beijing – The Great Wall of China

So this was a Bucket List Day. We went this morning to climb up to the Great Wall of China. I’m not sure what to say about it really, it is one of the most famous endeavours of man in the entire world – up there with the pyramids as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

  The building of the Great Wall started over 2200 years ago during the Qin Dynasty, when the then Emperor decided to build a wall to stop the Tibetan invaders from the North. The Tibetan people were stronger and more fierce than the Chinese and they were rightly fearful as they were constantly under attack. The Qin Emperor who started to build the Great Wall set 100 years of construction in motion, with farmers, soldiers and ordinary people shanghaied into building the wall. Over 1,000,000 people died during this first 100 years of construction – all of whom were buried within the wall.  

  After the Qin Dynasty came the Han Dynasty and the work on the wall continued for several more generations … another 120 years of work on the wall and approximately another 1,000,000 died working in the hazardous and freezing conditions of the mountainous terrain. Rock was all moved by horse and camel, and by men over land. 

  From there the Song Dynasty took over (approximately 1400 years ago now), and the wall continued to be built, with rock being moved over 1200km over water by rivers. The workers would dig trenches to allow water to freeze so rock could be dragged more easily over the ice by pack animals – horses, oxen and donkeys. Another half a million people died during this period of building.

When the Tang Dynasty took over another 150 years and several generations of Emperors prioritised securing the northern borders throwing more and more resources to continue building the wall. Another 1,000,000 workers are estimated to have died during this 150 year building period.

  Following this, the Ming Dynasty also continued to build the wall for another 200 years. The Ming Dynasty had three priorities – Build the Wall. Save food to feed the people. Give the people property… (Ming Emperors must have been a bit Machiavellian way before their time).

  It was a section of Ming Dynasty Wall that we visited today in Mutianyu, built over 600 years ago. The Great Wall stretches over 21,000km across the northern Chinese border, and when you look at the mountain ranges it crosses, it is a truly remarkable feat of human endeavour. All up around 5,000,000 people died during the construction and all are buried deep within the walls.  

  We walked ten minutes up a neat, modern paved walkway that was ridiculously steep, to reach a modern and convenient cable car that took us to the top of the mountain so we could walk a section of the wall… and once on top of this incredible fortress that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction, all I could think was how on earth did those men get these huge building stones all the way up here without any modern machinery?! It beggars belief.

  In China, our guide Kelly, tells us they have a saying, ‘You are not true man until you climb the Great Wall’, and I can well understand that idiom stems from people making a pilgrimage (sans cable car) up the mountain to spend time walking on the Great Wall.

After our monumentally mind blowing morning, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for a ‘farmer’s lunch’… which sounded like it would be simple fare, but turned out to be another overwhelming Chinese banquet consisting of about 8 different dishes for our table of six adults and two small very fussy eating children. So much food. I tried a couple of dishes, but avoided quite a few of the spicier looking dishes.

We had a long drive back to Beijing – Mutianyu is a less popular area of the wall as it is 90 minutes drive out of the city, and obviously much favoured by foreigners as we simply do not enjoy the crush and press of the crowds. So there was a higher percentage of foreigners where we were today, and less domestic Chinese tourists. Mind you it was still plenty busy enough for my liking, so I can’t imagine what it is like where the Chinese tourists (who are used to the crush) go to see the Wall.

When we arrived back in Beijing, we stopped for a quick look at some of Beijing’s newest landmark architecture – the 2008 Beijing Olympic’s Athletics Centre, also known as The Birds Nest, and the Aquatic Centre, known as The Water Cube. As soon as we returned to the city, the cloying heat smacked us in the face again and even the short walk to see these buildings was draining. Personally, a photo op like these doesn’t really do it for me, and I wasn’t really paying attention when we were told who designed them etc, but all I really took in was that neither building was designed by Chinese architects, and that they had been done by some famous designers from the Netherlands.

 Yesterday we spent the entire day looking at how the Imperial family lived, so this afternoon’s plan was to show us how the common people live. So, after lunch we we to see the Hutongs by rickshaw – these are basically Beijing suburbs (the word Hutong originally meant ‘water well’ in Mongolian, but now refers to the Beijing suburbs) . Personally I am not comfortable with this sort of ‘slum tourism’. I feel it is an invasion of privacy and I am pretty sure if I lived there I would not be too pleased with a string of wealthy tourists traipsing through the neighbourhood in rickshaws every afternoon. Anyway, it is what was on our tour, so off we went. The Hutong areas used to be filled mostly with very wealthy ‘Four Beam’ families. You see, the number of ‘beams’ represented out front of your home marked your status in society. Some people have Four Beams, some had Two Beams, and some had none. Four Beam families only married with other Four Beam families and so on and so forth. Nowadays, people marry whomever they want and less arranged marriages occur in China than tradition used to dictate, however the profession of matchmaker still exists and these people often help very busy working Chinese people meet their prospective mates.




 Anyway, the Hutongs are no longer dominated by Four Beam families as during the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao made an edict that the wealthy families had to make way for less fortunate ones, and spaces that held one Four Beam family were suddenly supporting up to ten families of all levels of status – many of these merged families were the slaves of the former Four Beam families.  So now, the relatively rich live right next door to the very poor with the houses being passed down through only a couple of generations so far. Land in the Hutongs fetches around 200,000 yuan per square meter (about AU$50,000 per square meter)… though it is hard to believe once you see the area. Many of the private homes here don’t even have private bathrooms, and rely on communal bathroom areas which I have to say are positively disgusting, you can smell them a mile off. I took a video of us traversing through the Hutong by rickshaw to capture the chaos and colour and noise of the area, but it certainly doesn’t captures the strong smells encountered as we rode through – from gasoline, to rubbish, to incense, to sewerage, to fresh fruit and flowers, to the stench of urine. It was quite the experience.

From here we reached for the hand sanitiser and head off to our dinner at the famous Bian Yi Fang Restaurant. This restaurant has apparently been on this site serving Peking Duck for 800 years now. Kelly was kind enough to inform us that our duck would not be 800 years old, but that they would get us a fresh one. 🙂 We were served another enormous banquet – at least 9 different dishes on the table for 7 people before the duck was even served. While we waited, we tried a local rice spirit called, Bai Jui – with 56% alcohol!!! And bloody hell doesn’t that stuff pack a punch. It tastes like rubbing alcohol smells! That or really cheap and strong tequila. Whoa.  


 The Peking Duck was absolutely delicious, probably the best Asian meal I have ever tried, well worth trying if you are in Beijing. So it seems in just a few short days we have hit a lot of the Beijing highlights – The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, The Great Wall of China, the Hutongs and tried the famous Peking Duck. So tomorrow, onwards to Xian.

PS: sorry if I got some of my dynasties mixed up! Our guide has fantastic Enflish but a thick accent.  🙂 

Beijing – Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

This morning after an iffy night’s sleep at the Novotel Peace Hotel, Beijing, we head down for breakfast which is included in our accommodation. To be honest, I was expecting the sort of continental breakfast that you get when you stay at most Australian, UK or US hotels – muesli and cereals, toast and muffins, a couple of danish or croissant if you are lucky – and discovered the most lavish buffet breakfast I have ever seen.  Waffles, eggs done three different ways, bacon, sausages, chicken, turkey, vegetables, cereals, porridge, Asian breakfast foods (rice, pickles, radish, tomatoes, all sorts really), yoghurts, juices, seven different pastries – you name it, they had it.  Which would have been lovely if my stomach weren’t doing flip flops from whatever weirdness they served us on the China Eastern Air flight yesterday.  They kinda had us captive all day so we were forced to try it, and whatever the ‘fishy noodle’ was … it disagreed with me.  So breakfast was one egg, half a piece of bacon, and toast.  Then we were picked up by our tour guide extraordinare, Kelli.

First stop Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is the largest public square of its type in the world – at 44ha it is enormous, and we were told there would be around 500,000 people there today given it is summer holidays for all the Chinese schools so we were warned not to lose sight of the group.  God knows once we got there she was absolutely right – it was packed full of people.  Large school groups from the countryside come to the big city to see the sights, families on vacation, I’d say if there was 500,000 people there today, about 95% of them were Chinese touring in their own country.  

The Square itself is only 70 years old, built right next to the ancient Forbidden City.  Directly front and centre is Chairman Mao’s imposing mausoleum designed according to feng shui principles and apparetnly supposed to look like a chop (name seal) though not being tha familiar with Chinese chops, I couldnt’ see it.  Directly outside the tomb was a line of Chinese tourists waiting to go in to see an effigy of the famous leader – it’s not him of course, and you can’t touch it or take a photograph of it, but the line up to go see this effigy snaked for literally kilometers back and forth across the square.  It would have taken hours to line up to go in, just to have a look at the effigy of this contenious and divisive political figure.  Anyway, we weren’t doing that!

To the right of Chairman Mao’s enormous tomb is a monument to fallen soldiers – a simple and stark brick monument designed to remember ‘all the heroes in heaven’ from the wars China has fought in, but most particularly WWII and the war with Chang Kai Chek (sp?).  Most of the local tourist seemed to barely pause at this monument even though it represented the lives of millions of their countrymen, and yet were willing to spend hours waiting to see an effigy of Mao… I found this rather odd.   Overlooking the entire Square is an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao on the outer gate of the Forbidden City, and he seems to be watching you as you walk around the area.  According to our guide, Chairman Mao never step foot into the Forbidden City, due to being superstitious.  He was a Water Dragon (I’m a Metal Boar/Pig according to Chinese horoscope) and he felt going into the Forbidden City would tempt fate as the Emperor’s were all traditionally from the mountains and were Clay/Earth Dragons. Apparently Earth controls the Water, and Mao who wanted to set himmself up as some sort of God, did not want to risk being controlled.   Or something silly of that ilk.

Anyway – we were going into the Forbidden City.  Us and about 250,000 Chinese tourists, all following people with flags on poles.  🙂  As you do.  The Forbidden City was built in 1402 and covers over 7ha by itself.  It has 9999 rooms that the Emperor needed to conduct his business, house his family and very importantly, house his 3000 concubines.  All the buildings of the Forbidden City have yellow clay roofs – yellow was the colour of the imperial family because it represented good fortune and good luck (incidentally blue represents privacy and secrecy and pink was reserved for the concubines).  Other walls and various beams and doors were red to represent happiness and longevity – making for a quite striking and colourful complex.  The very outside gates were called the Upright Gates, and only people of good character were allowed to pass.

As we passed through each set of gates on the way into the centre of the Forbidden City, we walked by enormous red doors covered in huge brass studs.  Our guide told us we should touch the brass studs for good luck and even though personally I kinda though it was more a ‘touch the brass studs for a dose of Hep A’, we did it anyway.  Through the next gates as well, until we entered the Third Gates, also called the Phoenix Gates and we found ourselves in another large courtyard.  This was the Execution courtyard, where the Emperor had his prisoners executed, his ministers wait before being allowed in for audience, where petitioners waited for meetings, and where eunuchs were made.  Inside the third gates was the Hall of Supreme Harmony – the Emperor’s main digs.  The building holds over 3000 people – it had to accommodate his ‘family’ (including his concubines) for weddings, birthday and Chinese New Year events.  So is quite the impressive building considering it is now 600 years old.  

The Hall of Supreme Harmony rests atop three marble plateaus, representing the earth, the humans, and heaven.  The Qing Dynasty Emperor was the last ‘proper’ emperor to reside here.  The Qing Dynasty died when a once loyal General got angry at the Emperor for taking his beautiful wife as a concubine.  He decided to get even by allowing the Manchurian army into the Fobidden City and the Manchurians then made themselves supreme rulers.   (There is SOOO much history omitted here for the sake of brevity and not wanting to get my dates etc mixed up – all of it fascinating).

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the Emperor’s Office where he conducted most of his official business near the Home of Mental Cultivation.  Opposite the Emperor’s Office is one of the treasure’s of China – a 7000 year old Jade disc that represents the Heavens, set within a square granite block carved with 8 dragons.  The Emperor himself was meant to represent the 9th dragon (many things here come in 9s).  It was so placed, such that the Emperor if he started to lag in his work, could be reminded of how he was the connection between his people here on Earth and the Heavens.

The next area we went into was the visiting space for the concubines.  With the Emperor being just one man and having 3000 women to choose from every night, each lady had a ‘business card’ made out of gree and white jade.  On the green section of the jade was the concubines name, on the white section an artist would paint the concubines likeness.  Many of the concubines would bribe the artists to make them look even more beautiful on their portraits than in real life in the hope of securing the Emperor’s favour – because seriously, given that the Emperor was choosing only 3 women every night, that meant each concubine would only get a look in maybe once every three years… and pregnancy was her only way to elevation.  There were 9 levels of concubine, and each concubine was entitled to a certain standard of living.  If she was favoured and bore the Emperor children, her little household entitlements grew as did her status within this world of women.  If however she didn’t recieve the Emperor’s favour, she was at the mercy of the higher ranking concubines forever.   If chosen, eunuchs would fetch the women, bathe them, make them up to the Emperor’s liking and bring them to this meeting space naked.  They would wrap the women in a silver quilt and carry them to a room to await his visit.  The nakedness was to ensure they weren’t carrying any weapons – not everyone was happy about being chosen to serve the Emperor as a concubine.  With three ladies every night, he might choose all or none to lie with, so getting pregnant had pretty slim odds… that and the Emperor had his favourites who he would visit with regularly.  Not much of a life if you ask me.

After this we went into the private Royal Gardens of the Forbidden City.  Nothing like Japanese gardens at all.  This garden was full of enormous pieces of ragged limestone, which had been imported from the South of China and was an ostentatious display of wealth – to be able to pay to have such large rocks moved.  There were also large juniper trees and pommegranate trees and every tree was specifically selected according to feng shui desing principles.  The paths were made of tiny rock mosaics, apparently the work of bored concubines who had nothing else to occupy their days but to linger in the gardens and make the pavements pretty.  The Forbidden City was very impressive, and I could not help but wonder that it was an ulimate expression of what could be achieved with unlimted wealth, manpower and other resources.  Just incredible… though it would have been truly  a sight to behold when it wasn’t swarming with sweaty tourists.

After this we went for lunch at a 300 year old restaurant, the name of which I am unable to pronounce let alone write.   We had traditional Chinese lunch, and I am sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that is it nothing like the sweet, over-MSG’d food that passes for Chinese food back home.  There were fish dishes, two chicken dishes, a mushroom dish, some chicken dises (one, complete with disconcerting chicken head), a couple of pork dishes and a unique pear soup that this restaurant has been making for hundreds of years – the pears are boiled for five hours and distilled somehow to end up tasting like a sweet pear mead.  Very unusal, and of course with such a banquet laid out and so many dishes to try, and free beer, the guys all got stuck into it.  Me and my delicate stomach were rather less adventurous than one should be on such occasions.  But what I did try was absolutely delicious.

Once everyone had their lunch and had a chance to visit the ‘Four Star Happy Room’ (Forbidden City have Two Star Happy Room and Four Star Happy Room, you want wait if you can hold on – yes, the Happy Room is our guide’s euphemism for the bathrooms)… we made our way to the Summer Palace, so named because the Imperial Family (Emperor, Empress, children, favourite concubines) would move there for the long hot sticky summer months – we which can attest are postively putrid.  It was so hot today, that everyone was sweating like pigs, and struggling to keep hydrated.  Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure how the Summer Palace which is by all accounts not that far away from the Forbidden City, was going to prove so much cooler.  But it turns out the Summer Palace is three times larger than the Fobidden City and 80% of that space is taken up with an enormous lake.  So you have Forbidden City which gets breezes off the land, with a huge lake on the other side of it, and the Summer Palace across that lake – which means the prevailing wind there is coming off the lake and naturally very cooling. 

The Summer Palace had many of the same rooms and layout as the Forbidden City, but not as large or grand.  Emperor’s living quarters, Empress’ living quarters, meeting rooms, concubines rooms etc.  There is also a Confucian temple where scholars came to study – there were up to 3000 students at any one time and only 72 ever excelled.   To become a Confucian student, you had to provide 20kg of rice and 20 kg of pork, though I am not sure why… tuition I guess?  Those studying the Confucian systemp were considered to be ‘believer’s of that system and it was very much treated like a religion.  There was also a Taoist Temple and Buddhist temple in the Summer Palace, but all the religions got along fine.

The most striking feature of the Summer Palace was the 750m long covered corridor that follows along the lake’s edge.  It was long and elegantly decorated – some 14,000 individually painted pieces – with some covered gazebos spaces along its length.  Walking through there, even though we were surrounded by Chinese tourists who seem to want to stare at short blonde people almost as much as the Pakistantis in Islamabad did, was extremely pleasant compared to the close, fetid air of the Forbidden City.  You could certainly see why they built the Summer Palace there and I can imagine it was once a beautiful lakeside garden of much quiet contemplation and refined entertainment.  I could just imagine what living in this Palace would have been like 600 years ago – though knowing my luck, I would have been a slave or a concubine.  :/ 

After exploring the Summer Palace we took a Dragon Boat ride back to our bus and there endeth our exploring of Beijing for one day – everyone was tired, sweaty, footsore but happy.  So many beautiful sights.  Back to the hotel for a swim in the wonderfully cool indoor pool and then to hunt down a light dinner… After lunch, it’s a wonder if any of us want to eat!