I had always wanted to see China. Ever since watching films as a child, and later reading about Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and others, it seemed a place of mystery, and home to a totally different idea of culture. Later interest in the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s, and the Communist dictatorship formed by Mao, and I was more than ready to go and see this legendary country. But it never happened. Despite travelling to lots of other places, China had always seemed too daunting, too vast, and also too expensive. Over the years, I often wondered if I would ever get to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and the other spectacles on offer.
In the late 1990’s, an old friend contacted me. He was working for an advertising agency, and he had been offered the management of the Audi contract, through an agency in Beijing. He was off to China, and he would be in touch, and let me know how it was there. His wife and son were going too, as it might be a long contract. After a period of settling in, and adjustment, he contacted me. At the time, I was single, and living in London. I had recently moved to a flat in Camden, subsidised by being in my job. (The LAS) I had a reasonable amount of savings, and a fair bit of disposable income, courtesy of that reasonable rent. I had two weeks holiday booked for September, and with a bit of shift-jiggling, I could manage a few days either side as well. The world was my oyster, and I was looking to do something extravagant. My friend suggested that I come to visit him in Beijing. He would put me up, in his luxury high rise in the city centre. Although he would have to work, his wife would be around most days, (and I knew her already) and he would arrange some weekend trips, as well as some interesting evenings out, after work. I made some enquiries, and found that I could fly direct, with British Airways, for around £700 return. With Visas, spending money, appropriate gifts for my friends, and a reasonable crop of souvenirs, I could definitely do fifteen days, for around £1500, maybe £2,000, at an excessive pinch. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and booked it all. I could never see a time in the future, when I would have such an opportunity again. OK, it was ‘only’ Beijing, but as that was my first choice anyway, so what was the problem?
I went to Oxford Street, and booked a scheduled flight with British Airways, which came in at a shade under £650, for the chosen dates. I also applied for my visa, to be collected from the Chinese Consulate, in Portland Place, a short walk from my flat. My friend was really happy that I was coming to visit. I went shopping in Camden, and bought his son a model car, and his wife some perfume. He would be content with booze, which I would get at the airport. I sorted my camera gear, ready for the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, and arranged all my leave, and finances. When the day came, I was more than ready. I took a cab to Paddington Station, and the Heathrow Express out to the airport. It was nice to be travelling on a scheduled flight again, so much more civilised than some of the package tours that I had become accustomed to. It was a little disconcerting to be travelling alone, though the prospect of being collected by, and staying with a good friend, assuaged any concerns. The flight was long and uneventful, but very comfortable. My arrival in Beijing was exciting, but the time of day meant that my friend had to drop me at his flat, and get off to work, arranging to meet four hours later, for lunch.
I learned the first rule. Do not sit behind the cab driver with your window open. Despite a humid temperature, in excess of 35 degrees, my old pal closed my window, and I soon discovered why. The Chinese spit. They do this constantly, and habitually. Everyone does it, from old men, children, housewives, to attractive young girls. All the time, day and night. Their culture demands spitting, to expel the things in their system that they believe are bad. They see nothing wrong with this, or with contaminating their walkways and paths with gobbets of spit. It is accepted, even encouraged. It is very different to what we regard to be acceptable behaviour, and it takes a great deal of getting used to. I also discovered something else that I had not expected. Six-lane highways, choked with cars, and wall to wall traffic. Tower block offices, western advertising signs, neon, and garish illuminations. Subway, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, and any other Western-influenced product or establishment you can think of. Every high street bank, familiar from the UK, and chain hotels from the same companies known so well here. I was left wondering what had happened to the China that I had imagined. I felt that I could have just as easily been in Chicago, or Hong Kong perhaps.
The flat, right in the heart of the business district, was luxurious. On the nineteenth floor, with panoramic views, tiled floors, and a well-staffed concierge entrance. I was taught my first words in Mandarin; ‘Neih Ho’, and ‘Shei Shei’, Hello, and thank you, both addressed to the immaculate staff in the foyer. I did not learn much more, save for something that sounded like ‘Jella Ting’, said to taxi drivers, when you wanted them to pull over on the right. After settling in, I met my friend in Subway, of all places, for lunch. I told him that I was disappointed, that Beijing was too modern, too western. He assured me that I would see the ‘real’ China during my stay. He also told me about his contract and salary, and the fact that his Chinese female ‘boss’ was only earning $200US dollars a month, and she spoke three languages. She also supported her family on this salary, as well as running a new car, so she wasn’t doing too bad. However, this was only a tiny percentage of what he was getting, over $200,000 a year! So some indication of how economics worked there at the time. It was nice to see his wife and young son again, and we spent the first night in the flat, catching up.
The next day, his wife took me to the shopping district, and to a large department store. We went everywhere by taxi, as it was very cheap, comparable to bus fares in the UK. I got cash from an ATM, a branch of my own bank in England, with the same pin number, and no formalities. I found the Yuan notes colourful, and the exchange rate was good. I bought cigarettes, at half the price compared to England, and we went for a light lunch, in a reasonable outdoor restaurant, that was acceptably cheap. Things that did prove to be expensive, were red wine, and some western sweets, that I bought for their son. We ate at home again that night, and I was introduced to someone from the Turkish Embassy (my friend’s wife is Turkish) who was a heavy drinker, and a complete hedonist. My head was spinning, as here I was in China, and I was eating Turkish food, and getting drunk with an Englishman, and a Turkish diplomat. I resolved to see more of the city, and decided that the next day would be spent exploring.
I started out early, and took the reasonable walk to Tianenmen Square. This was a long time after the televised demonstrations, and excessive reaction from the authorities, that have since given this place an infamous, rather than famous name. It is certainly huge, and home to many official buildings, heroic sculpture, and hundreds of tourists. I was a lone westerner that morning, and could feel what it was like, to be so out of place. Opposite the square, the huge portrait of Chairman Mao, so often seen on TV, marks the entrance into the Forbidden City, the main destination for me, that morning. Built in the fifteenth century, this vast complex, of almost 1,000 separate buildings, was the Imperial Palace of Chinese emperors until 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave. It has since been a museum, and an amazing one too. To go into detail, would take a complete post in itself, but it is an overwhelming place, that cannot all be seen in one visit, let alone one day. The entrance fee was very reasonable, and the large numbers of tourists, almost all Chinese, really did make it feel as if you were wandering around in a populated city, at the time of the Ming Dynasty. The architecture is fully restored, and each level into the deeper depths of the city, towards where the Imperial family would have resided, is crammed with interesting statues and carvings, with the numerous buildings each housing exhibits. My camera was on overdrive, and I was so excited, I almost ignored the 35 degree heat, that was sapping my energy. I stopped and bought water, and a strange twisty bread confection from a vendor, and had a break. Carrying on later, I realised that I would never see it all, and even after almost five hours inside, I still felt that I had not done it justice.
On the way back, in the late afternoon, I noticed how many cycles, mopeds, and motorcycles were on the roads, and alongside them too. They all seemed to be heavily laden, often having to be pushed instead of ridden, so high and wide were the loads. Crowds of brightly-uniformed children were getting off buses and coaches, returning home from school, and street vendors were beginning to set up for the evening, in the streets around the main station. Crowds gathered around their stalls, which all seemed to be selling food. On closer examination, I realised that they were selling fried insects of some kind, grasshoppers, or similar. They were selling fast too, as hundreds of people walked around with the stiff paper cones, full of the crunchy creatures. And no, I was not tempted to try them. As I strolled back to my friend’s flat in the business district, I took in the sights and sounds of the approaching rush hour. Thousands of people, and almost all of them, including children, and young women, spitting constantly. The traffic was already at fever pitch, and the strangely old-fashioned looking vans and trucks all belched black smoke into the sky. Looking across at the horizon, the pall of pollution was easy to see, hanging over the natural basin that Beijing is built in, like a cloud of low fog. I had to almost pinch myself. Here I was, wandering in Beijing, as if it was nothing. I could never have imagined this, thirty years earlier. I felt fantastic, but as I was alone, I had nobody to share it with. Perhaps the only downside to being a lone traveller, on that occasion.
That evening, we went to an expensive restaurant, housed on the penthouse floors of the same building my friend lived in. I was raving about my day, and how much I enjoyed this strange city. They were unhappy living there, they told me. They found the Chinese to be ‘difficult’, and were hoping for a transfer to somewhere else. They had not even bothered to visit the Forbidden City at that stage, though they did recommend a trip coming up that weekend, that they had arranged, along with a group of diplomats from the Turkish Embassy, and their families. I ate the best Chinese food that I had ever seen in that restaurant, though I confess to refusing a huge black scorpion, deep-fried, and offered as a complimentary starter. I just couldn’t do it. I had delicious braised eel, snake ‘cooked in its own blood’ (according to the translated menu), and various delicacies, best not elaborated on here. Other than the insects and arachnids, I did not refuse to try anything. We had numerous courses, and copious amounts of alcohol, and I went to bed thinking that it had been a great day indeed, one of the best ever.
The next morning, I took myself off to the famous street market, to buy souvenirs, and to get a feel of everyday life once again. I was a bit early, and many stalls and shops had not yet opened; but as soon as they saw me wandering around with a camera, and a presumably bulging wallet, they waved me in anyway. Disappointingly, most places specialised in clothes. Padded jackets, winter gloves and hats, ski wear, mittens, and waterproofs. This seemed strange in late summer, when I was sweltering, but this part of China does face harsh winters. I did buy a watch with Chairman Mao on it, his arms serving as hands. I still have it, but it no longer works, unfortunately. I had to haggle fiercely, even worse than in Egypt, or Istanbul. The start price was just laughable, hundreds of dollars. The whole transaction was carried out on a calculator, due to the language problems. After spending an eternity with this lady, I finally bought the watch for $10US, about £7 at the time. My friends later told me that I was too easy, and should have paid no more than £1, but it was acceptable to me. I took a taxi to Sanlitun, the embassy district popular with ex-pats, to have coffee and lunch. Taxis were all metered, and no attempt was ever made to rip me off. If you gave the driver a tip, he would be very appreciative. Sometimes I could see them cruising the area, hoping to get me as a return fare, waving at me as they went past.
I had not even been there a week, and felt that I had seen and done so much. The rest of the trip will be covered in part two, otherwise this post will be far too long.