By the end of the first week, I had more unusual experiences to recount. I had been for a meal in a Turkish restaurant, in China! It was different, to say the least, being served traditional Turkish fare, by Chinese waiters and waitresses. They even had the large Shisha pipes available, as well as totally authentic coffee. If it had not been for the staff, and the view from the window, we might well have been in Ankara. We had also been out with the previously mentioned hedonist, the Turkish friend, businessman, and ‘diplomat’. I got the feeling that he was a shady character, underneath his urbane, party-going exterior. If Turkey has the equivalent of the CIA, I would bet my car he was in it. We went to his large house, for drinks, before going out to eat. He had a ‘houseboy’, and other servants, and I was amazed at his ability to drink huge amounts of whisky, without any apparent affect on his demeanour. He then took the whole group of us to a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, in a very smart area of the city. This was a really exclusive place, and served delicious food, cooked in front of you, on sizzling griddles. I ate until I burst, as everything was so tasty. At the end of the night, this unusual man covered the whole bill, for everyone. When we left, he invited us to accompany him to a bar the following week, and my friend accepted on our behalf.
The weekend excursion was arranged through the Turkish Embassy, a family trip by small coach, to last all day Sunday, and including lunch. We left the apartment early, to get to the embassy by taxi for 8am. There was a group of around ten people there already, and I was introduced all round, instantly forgetting everyone’s name. I was also told the name of the place we were going to; a park in the hills, with amusements for the children, scenic views and country walks, and a hilltop restaurant. They had been before, as it was a popular summer day out for the more affluent Chinese, as well as foreign residents. I had forgotten the name of it, so looked it up; Muianyu. This is now called The Great Wall Slide, as on the way down, you can see a section of the Wall, at some distance. It was not called this, when I went there, at least I don’t remember that. This place is about fifty miles outside Beijing, so we got to see some countryside at last. On arrival, we went up the hillside on a cable car, that was a bit like a ski lift. The restaurant at the top was basic, but we had a lunch booked, and enjoyed a set meal, in excellent weather. The small rides and amusements were very old-fashioned, and only for smaller children. I don’t think that they are there anymore. We walked around a bit, but did not get close enough to the Wall, as we had not arranged to go to this section. For our group, the attraction (apparently) was the ride back down the hillside, on the famous slide. This is more like a toboggan run, the sort you see in the Olympics, though more sedate. That said, it does reach a fair speed at times, and the individual toboggans are supplied with a large brake lever, to slow you down. I was encumbered with an enormous, overstuffed camera bag, that I had to wedge in between my legs. I cannot recall seeing any of the Wall, at any time on the way down, as I was preoccupied with not crashing into the rider in front. I did enjoy it, but this was marred to some degree, by getting covered in thick grease, from the brake gears. As this sounds a little crazy, I have included a video clip from You Tube, showing what it is like. It takes over five minutes to descend, and it seems a long time, as you are clattering down.
There is a real time clip, if you want to see it, but I thought it was too long. This gives a rough idea.
The next week started with a suggestion that I ought to arrange some trips for myself, as my friends were busy for a couple of days. I went over to one of the big hotels, and asked about a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, and the Ming Tombs combined, with the bus agency there. I was assured that it would be a small group, only ten people, and we would have an English-speaking guide. It would last all day, from 7am, and lunch would be provided, with an afternoon stop for refreshments too. At less than $30US, I thought it was OK, so booked up for the following day. I had an early start, and met my group outside the hotel. I was the only English person, along with two Japanese, three French people, and four Chinese tourists, from other parts of China. The minibus headed out of the city, for the long trip ahead, and I got to see more of the China I had anticipated. Small villages, roadside shops and stalls, and a look at the agricultural lands outside the built-up areas. It was very hot, and I started to feel a little unwell. The rich food, heavy drinking, and constantly being on the move, was getting to me a bit. By the time we arrived at the Ming Tombs, I was not feeling too good. I told the guide to go in without me, and waited in the shade, with a cold drink from the cafeteria there. I was sorry to miss it, after coming all this way, but I had nobody to support me, and felt that I might pass out, or disgrace myself, by being sick. I had to content myself with a wander around the edges, and some of the sights there. It proved to be a wise move, as by the time they got back, I was re-hydrated, and feeling much better.
We pushed on to the Wall, and it was worth the effort. This was a section that I had not seen on TV travel shows, and consisted of small forts, or bastions, connected by long stretches of the Great Wall. I was unprepared for both the sheer scale of it, and also the incredible steepness of the stepped sections. After being shown around some of the first parts, we went for lunch in a lovely old building, with an airy terrace, where we could get some relief from the 38 degree heat, and humidity. The guide then told us that we had two hours to explore, before leaving on the journey home. I suffered badly, mainly from taking too much camera kit. My large Billingham bag was stuffed to capacity. I had three camera bodies, five lenses, a flash, two power winders, as well as an assortment of accessories, filters, and ten rolls of film. In the heat, on the near vertical steps, it became very difficult to manage. Ironically, I shot almost every picture with a Canon T90, on a 24mm wide-angle lens. I could just as well have left everything else behind, and I was taught a valuable lesson that day. The Wall was a sight to behold. It stretched as far as the eye could see. At one stage, I put a 400mm telephoto on the camera, with a x2 converter, just to see how far it went. I needn’t have bothered, as I later realised that it followed the contours of the hills and mountains for hundreds of miles, of course. I had to keep resting, because of the heat, and also from searching for photo opportunities that didn’t show too many other tourists, which was difficult. When it was time to leave, I was very pleased that I had seen it, as there could be nothing like this, anywhere else on the planet. The afternoon stop was at a cafe that was part of a shopping ‘opportunity’, somewhere that sold expensive Jade souvenirs, and other carved items. I didn’t buy anything, but presumed that the guide must be on commission, as he tried so hard to get us to purchase things. The rest of the evening at the flat was very peaceful, with a visit from another Turkish diplomat, who came for dinner. After he left, we spent some of the time on the small balcony, getting the cooler air, and drinking Jack Daniels, chatting about the old days in London. When I went to bed, I put on the noisy but welcome air-conditioning unit, and slept like a baby.
I decided to stay in the city for my next trip, which was to be to the Temple of Heaven, in a large park in the Chongwen district. This was about as far from my friend’s place as you could get, so I decided to take a taxi. I showed the driver a picture of the temple, from a tour leaflet, and he took me straight to the entrance. I bought a ticket to go in, and looked at a map on a board there. I suddenly realised that the place was vast, it actually covers an area larger than the Forbidden City. There are various temples, including the iconic building seen in so many photos of Beijing. The grounds are full of the most amazing trees, and it is all very peaceful there, despite a considerable number of tourists. I spent a couple of hours there, taking in the most impressive sights. I could easily have stayed the whole day, as there was so much to see. Opposite the gate, was a modern indoor market, full of local people shopping. I crossed the road, and went inside, finally coming face to face with real life in china. There were no tourists or foreigners there, and no prices, or signs in other languages. The sights, sounds and smells were wonderful, and I saw everything for sale, from strange live amphibians (for eating), to jewellery. I bought a small piece of jade jewellery as a gift, once again bargaining with the help of an electronic calculator.
Leaving the market by a different entrance, I resolved to walk back, at least to see how far I got. I had travelled from east to south-west in the city, so I reasoned that a right turn would do to start with. I was soon wandering inside the fascinating Hutong district. This quarter had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The Hutongs were small dwellings, with outside taps, shared toilets, and no bathrooms. The families lived in one or two rooms, in a communal fashion. Were it not for the modern clothes, I felt that I could have been wandering around in the seventeenth century. People looked at me suspiciously, unused to tourists. Before the Olympics, eight years later, the government demolished many of these dwellings, and forcibly re-housed the occupants. They did not want the outside world to think that people still lived that way, in modern China. Some remain, and are now a tourist attraction. I walked around a large area, as I was no longer carrying all my camera gear, having restricted myself to one camera, and one lens for the day. I did get a bit lost, but in a good way, as I later found myself out on the main thoroughfare again, approaching Tianenmen Square from the west. It was more by luck than judgement though, I am sure. By the time I arrived back, I had been walking all day, including the trip home from the park, which took just under three hours. I was pleased with myself though, as I had got off the tourist trail, and managed to find my way around, unable to ask for help from anyone.
Other trips that week included the TV tower, a very high building affording great views over the whole city, and a trip to a different market, a special souvenir market, run by local people selling lots of interesting stuff from the Maoist era. I did buy a fair bit of stuff, including a classic ‘Mao’ hat, a ‘little red book’ in Chinese, and a nice assortment of posters and painted ceramics. I had to leave it at that, as I needed to cram all this extra stuff into my suitcase. We then went out for the evening trip with the Turkish diplomat, arranged the previous week. It was just the three men, and we started off once again, with drinks at his house. He then took us to the Sanlitun district, where I had been during the day. At night, it was very different, with flashy bars and night clubs, all catering to well-off foreigners, and the more affluent Chinese. He was well-known everywhere, and relished his popularity. This was soon evident, when he was draped in a couple of Mongolian prostitutes, within minutes of arrival. I declined the offers of some of their friends. I wasn’t being prudish, I just found them unattractive; their gaudy make-up, and incredibly flat faces didn’t ring my bell. They did seem very popular with most of the men there though, and I was told that they were ‘incredibly good value’. My friend and I spent most of the evening buying pirate DVD films from vendors who came into the bars. They had every film imaginable, and at $1US each, I couldn’t resist. Most of them played well when I got them back to London, though the three rows of subtitles, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, did get wearing, after a while. We eventually left the mysterious Turk alone with his girls, and got a taxi home. I didn’t see him again, and I wasn’t sorry. Despite his generosity, I felt uneasy around him.
Before departing for home, my friend’s Chinese boss insisted on taking us out for dinner. She viewed me as a kind of visiting dignitary, and despite telling her that I was only a Paramedic in London, in a very normal job, she seemed to imagine I was some sort of government executive. Anyway, her sense of hospitality would not allow her to let my visit go uncelebrated. She took us to the famous duck restaurant, Quanjude. Arranged over seven floors, and able to seat 2,000 diners at a time, this is one of the most famous restaurants in China. With the menu in Chinese, she ordered for all of us, telling me that we would have numerous courses, which would all be different styles of duck. It was a veritable duck feast. We had it roasted, boiled, in a terrine, a soup, and fried with noodles and ginger. There were also the shredded duck pancakes, as well as duck livers, and other offal. I managed it all, and found it delicious, with the exception of duck feet. These were served as you might imagine, webbed and clawed, as if they had just been severed from the unfortunate bird, and fried. They were almost impossible to eat, with a texture like rubber bands. The Chinese diners actually ripped them apart with their teeth, but I had no appetite for these , and after sucking them politely for a while, left them on my plate. It was a very enjoyable evening though, and a great experience. After paying the entire bill, the lady mentioned that she would be in London early the following year, and that I could return the favour.
(I am pleased to report here, that I did just that. I collected her from her Knightsbridge hotel, and took her to a specialist English Food restaurant in Bayswater. One very strange evening, I can tell you. She asked me what was good, and I recommended a few dishes, so she ordered them all. Unaware of the starter/main course tradition, she expected to get a variety of small dishes. I didn’t have the heart to correct her, and she must have wondered what was going on, when it all arrived at once. She did manage to eat most of it though, so full marks to her. I spoke to her that evening about how we found eating small dogs distasteful, as they were so loyal, and we had them as pets. She thought about this for a while and then said, ‘but you eat baby sheep’, before forking in her next mouthful. Back in Beijing, she told my friend that she had really enjoyed the evening, and that she found me interesting company.)
My trip came to a close, with a taxi to the airport, where I had to wait in the ‘luxury lounge’ reserved for foreigners. This was the only place where smoking was allowed, and all drinks and snacks were sold at an extortionate price. A small coffee was $5US, and it went up from there. It was their last chance to get your currency, I suppose. I had really enjoyed the trip, though it was more of an experience, than a holiday. I had met some nice people, some strange people, and eaten some fantastic meals, the like of which I have never seen since. I am the first to admit that I did not see a great deal of this vast country, or a lot of the ‘real’ China that I had expected to encounter. But I was glad that I had gone, and even looking back today, I would do it all again.