blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Life happens

Image borrowed from the Côte du Sud website
There will have to be a short pause or hiatus in my blog posts about China because Chris and I are intending to fly our 'plane to the Isle aux Grues tomorrow, a little island (or archipelago) in the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec, to spend a couple of days and nights at the Auberge des Dunes during the August Long Weekend.

As my daughter predicted, it's proving impossible to record what I'm experiencing this summer while more and more experiences keep coming. "You'll never catch up with reality!" she said.

Since I started writing my China report in Ottawa, I have been to twelve as yet unmentioned concerts.

As my husband observes, shades of Tristram Shandy!

Sericulture and a wealth of silks

National Silk Museum, Hangzhou
May 26th, Thursday

I took a taxi through a couple of tunnels to the National Silk Museum on Yuhangshan Lu, up the hill from the southern end of West Lake. The museum is free; after my driver dropped me at the foot of the steps I walked straight into an almost empty modern and spacious exhibition hall, finding silk worms, fat, white caterpillars about 5 cm long, crawling around in a display case crammed with mulberry leaves. It takes 30 days from egg to silk. The smallest grubs, emerging from the hundreds of eggs laid by each female moth, are black; they turn gradually whiter as they fatten, sloughing off skins. They spin their cocoons onto a nest of sticks which is the point at which the silk fibres can be harvested, traditionally by hand, the ladies making a sort of glove out of them that they dip in water to wash. Eventually the pretty, silky white moths free themselves from the cocoons, mate with the males, lay their many eggs and promptly die. Fascinated, I watched this process on video.

At the museum: silk worms on mulberry leaves
Silk worms were first cultivated 5000 years ago, it seems, in the Neolithic age, and the silk trade has been international since the 7th century Tang Dynasty. In fact the cloth was used as currency for the slave trade, a 15 year old slave, for example, being worth about 6 bolts of silk. This area was an important source of silk which was then transported via Suzhou and Nanjing, thence to Beijing by sea, following the coastline. In the 3rd century BC, silk manufacturing methods influenced the invention of paper.

I saw several displays about the Silk Road, used from the 5th century BC, stretching all the way from China to Syria, to Turkey, to Hungary. Some of the "road" was across the ocean, to Madras and Arabia, even to Somalia, the Philippines and Rome. The bales of silk were either carried by camel or transported on ships such as the 12th century one I saw a model of; these vessels were 24 metres long, with 13 cabins.

There are as many as fourteen main types of silk cloth, including gauze, chiffon, crepe, brocade,  velvet ... Different shuttle patterns in the weaving too, tabby, twill, satin, etc. Looms have been found near here by archeologists, their ornaments 4000 years old or more. I saw examples of the different kinds of dyeing. To decorate the cloth, they used wax or ash (if wax was scarce) and tie-dyeing techniques. Styles of embroidery and types of stitch were regional, though the subjects didn't differ much: cranes, dragons and winged horses. These "auspicious symbols" are still to be seen all around Hangzhou, engraved on paving stones on the side walks for instance, expressing "people's yearn for a well-being life," as the info board at the silk museum quaintly puts it. Bats, lions, peonies and the Chinese character meaning longevity. By the time the Qing Dynasty came along, the Chinese were also exporting silk in patterns created for western tastes (e.g. "greater western flowers" for Louis XV's mistresses in France). The tiny embroidered silk shoes, for the Qing Dynasty ladies' and children's bound feet made me feel sad.

Mulberry bushes at the silk museum
Outside the museum was a mulberry grove. I walked through that too and at the back of the building came across five shops selling silk from bales.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Qian Liu, good king of Hangzhou

May 25th, Wednesday

Peaches ripening by West Lake
The sun had come out, so I stayed under the shade of the many, many trees near the West Lake. I'd intended to take a boat ride but enjoyed the waterfront so much that I simply ambled along, taking things in, for five hours, through a park called Orioles Singing in the Willows. Not sure about the orioles, but I saw and heard blackbirds and some more of the birds I'd first noticed in Suzhou with the flecks of yellow and black and white crowned heads (which I now believe to be Chinese bulbuls, Pycnonotus sinensis), and there were willows all around me, also plane trees with mottled trunks (platanus orientalis, I guess). What an idyllic place. One little tree hanging over the water was a peach tree.

Sculpture of the legend
To my delight, I found a tourist attraction that had hardly any other people going round it and which only cost me 15 CNY to explore: a restored temple with subsidiary buildings and courtyards dedicated to the memory of the founder of Hangzhou, Qian Liu, and his successors.

There was a legend about this good king's birth illustrated by a sculpture in one of the courtyards. When he was born in the year 852 a red light flashed in the sky and his parents, local peasants, were frightened by "the sounds of troops and horses"-- a thunderstorm, I daresay, but the baby's father took it to be an ill omen and decided to throw his newborn son down a well. An old woman, Po Liu, prevented him from doing this. The Poliu well is still there, by the way. The child grew up as a seller of salt, but at the age of 20, upset by the riots flaring up at the end of the Tang Dynasty, he joined the army. He made his way up through the ranks of the military and finally became king of the 13 cantons of Wu Yue prefecture in the year 923. He was the first ruler to have walls built around the city of Hangzhou and encouraged peaceful pursuits among his subjects, weaving, agriculture. He also built an extensive dyke along the Qiantang River to counteract the tidal bore that still happens regularly (like the Severn bore in Britain).

Inside the temple
King Qian Liu, sculpted far larger than life in the main hall along with his four immediate successors (slightly smaller in size) was revered to almost godlike status. The medieval writer Su Shi wrote about Qian Liu's achievements on four stone tablets, three of which I saw, re-inscribed by a Ming Dynasty carver. He died at the age of 81, having set a high value on children's education, inventing codes of conduct for his family which basically amounted to
  1. Don't be arrogant. 
  2. Don't be extravagant. 
Wikipedia lists 38 sons of Qian Liu! His descendants have largely been philosophers, educators, literary men, scientists. I saw a wall of their faces, some of them photographs because the line has continued to the present day. The king's grandson was also "remarked highly by historians" for peacefully "submitting" his territory to the Song Dynasty regime, thus taking responsibility for the peaceful unification of China in those days.
Stele at the temple, inscribed with the good king's history

Entrance to Orioles Singing in the Willows

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

To the lake and back by bus

May 24th, Tuesday

Gardens by West Lake (Xi hu)
The front desk staff burst into beaming smiles when they caught sight of me––"Hello Mrs Hobbies, how are you? Is everything OK?"––but were horrified when I told them I'd be going to go into town by bus. "Can't we order you a taxi?" But I insisted, and one of the girls scuttled into the office to provide me with the names of the stops on the B2 bus. The nearest stop, not unlike a station on Ottawa's transitway, is just a block away down the Jiefang Lu. I was recommended to get out 6 stops further on at Wulin Square on the North Ring Road.

At the wicket, I bought a ¥4 single fare (four times as much as a bus ride in Beijing), and was allowed through the turnstile without needing a paper ticket. The red, express buses are smart, clean and modern, broadcasting a different TV station from the older, green vehicles on the slower routes. I followed the map without difficulty until we emerged from the tunnel and started turning right. More streets were on the ground than on my map and hardly any of them had names displayed in Pinyin or English, only the major roads, so I counted the stops and identified the names of the stations over the loudspeaker.

I'd told the hotel girl I wanted to go to the city centre, and where I got off was indeed at a very large crossroads with imposingly large buildings all around it, but then, so are most of the other intersections in Hangzhou. I worked out later that I was actually off the edge of the map, but I had a rough idea of the area. My mission that morning was to buy a local SIM card without fail. I entered a suite of offices / shops advertising China Mobile on its doors, where cellphones were on display in a big foyer with settees and desks. Several people approached to offer their help and someone asked for my passport, but only one girl spoke a smattering of English. I know the words for "need," for "mobile phone" and for "SIM card" in Chinese and could say "one month," but that's about it. In the end, after I'd chosen an auspicious number for my new connection, we worked out that I'd come to the wrong place, because these people only sell permanent phone numbers, and I'd have had to go to he trouble of cancelling my account before leaving China (crossed fingers and a shake of the head to indicate "cancel"). The girl kindly offered to come with me to the humble roadside newspaper kiosk round the corner where I could buy a temporary, local connection. Again, the man here showed me a selection of lucky numbers on little blue envelopes from which to choose. I chose one at random.

Pleased with my mission accomplished I decided to walk in a random direction towards trees in the distance which I hoped would be near the lake. There was a pretty park to walk through––a common feature of this city––and some canals to cross, down which men in straw hats angled for fish. I saw somebody catch one. I asked at an information booth for another city map, but as there was no English nor Pinyin on it, it took me a while to make out the street names. While I was at it, I asked if I was anywhere near the lake, and understood the answer which meant go down there and turn left ("wang zou"). I must admit the hand gestures help. Down there and turn to the left meant another few kilometres' walk. The Chinese think nothing of walking long distances-- they're really fit. I don't mind it either, especially when there are leafy, wide avenues and further parks all the way, the paths, walls, seats and park buildings being kept clean all the time by teams of people wielding reed brooms or mops.

I found the lake, a walkway skirting it with many trees, flower beds and sculptures. Souvenir shops too, of course. There were hundreds of punts for hire (with an awning for shade and a man to steer you) or you could take a ride on a larger pleasure boat with a pagoda-like roof. The misty hills on the far side looked enticing, ancient pagodas on some.

My internet research before leaving Ottawa paid off. I knew I could catch a K96 bus directly from this part of town almost to the hotel, so I gave it a try. I found a K96 waiting to leave and got on to speak to the driver, showing him the name of the hotel on a card. He didn't recognise the name and waved at me to get off, telling me to try at that big shop over there because he couldn't speak English. I got off, gave it a bit of thought, and got on again, this time asking him if this bus would stop near the Civic Centre near the hotel (the name of which I also had written down––the shi min zhong xin). No problem, he knew that place! And it was a much quicker ride than on the B2. Although this older bus rattled and swung around far more, its route was a recognisably straight line down the Jiefang Lu till it reached waypoints I could recognise.

The word for "directions" in Chinese is "dongxinanbei" (literally: east-west-south-north) and the four gods of orientation are
Hangzhou IC hotel at night
  • Dong –– a green dragon
  • Xi––a white tiger
  • Nan––a red bird
  • Bei––a black turtle
I hereby acknowledge their help on that day and on other days.

In the evening, back to the MixC mall with Chris where I introduced him to what I'd discovered on its seven levels the previous day and where to his amazement he discovered for himself bottles of Old Speckled Hen beer and Cadbury's chocolate in the Olé supermarket. We sauntered back along the riverside, the cityscape and promenade dramatically lit, with the lamposts (not to mention the lamps themselves) incorporating neon lights and the illuminated steps down to our hotel changing colour as we walked down them. The hotel itself and other high buildings were also lit up like Christmas trees.

Beside the Qiantang River, Hangzhou, after dark

First rainy day in Hangzhou

May 23rd, Monday

A cleaner in the IC hotel's entrance hall
About to spend seventeen days by myself in Hangzhou while Chris was working across the river with the QNX customers, I was taken aback when the first of those days turned out wet. I'd imagined sitting on a bench beside West Lake on my first day of independence, soaking up the sun and the local atmosphere. Rain or no rain, I still had to work out how to reach the lake (half an hour's drive away) without relying on those scary taxis without seat belts. For the sake of reassuring Chris of my safety and whereabouts, I also needed to buy a sim card for the unlocked Chinese cellphone that my Ottawa friend Yiwen had lent me.

I used the computer in the club lounge before breakfast and lingered over the breakfast too, with close attention paid to me by the hotel staff, all young, slim, and immaculately attired. Then Emily the chambermaid returned our laundered clothes to my room in a wicker basket, cleaned, folded and packed in cellophane. It was a pleasure to unpack them.
An established pond in the CBD gardens

I chose to borrow a hotel umbrella and walk to the MixC mall to see whether I could buy a sim card there. I couldn't; it was the wrong kind of place, but I explored the complex, finding a lackey to fold my umbrella into a plastic bag for me at the entrance, a drug store, an upscale supermarket called Olé (mentioned on the Hangzhou Expat Forum, a far cry from the Beijing Wumart), many high end clothiers (Dior, Armani and the like), a bookshop––selling a few books in English: fiction by bestselling authors Ian McEwan, Alain de Botton, Paul Coehlo, as well as a wide range of hardbacks on modern architecture and landscape design––an indoor skating rink and a large selection of dining opportunities. For lunch at the Tai Hing restaurant I ordered stir fried rice, beef, chicken and pea pods flavoured with ginger and garlic, with a glass pot of tea crammed with chopped fresh fruit and sweetened with honey, an excellent meal.

Lady gardeners in the rain, Hangzhou CBD
Slipping on the marble flagstones as I wandered slowly back to the hotel in the rain through the local gardens, I took in the sculpture park. Gardeners were squatting on the wet lawns to weed them, wearing plastic ponchos and conical straw hats. Others were sweeping out the brand new decorative ponds (the ones not yet filled with water or planted with water plants) with their reed brooms.

Chinese security measures!
Before Chris came home (as it were) in his chauffeured limousine, I had tea in the club lounge and tried watching the BBC World Service in our room, but the reception failed in the middle of a report about Tibet. I wonder why. In the evening we once again walked along the promenade by the river, under the suspension bridge and back finding a Bamboo Grows Coffee Pond, not yet open (did they mean "Grove"?) where massages will be offered, in time. We stayed at the hotel for a very pricey buffet supper, choosing to eat a combination of European and Asian food; eating cheese with chopsticks is an eccentric thing to do. Chris liked the chocolate fountain at the desserts counter and entertained me with tales of his working day. When first arriving at his place of work, all the ports of his notebook computer had been sealed with tape, the seals inspected when he left the premises as well, a procedure which happened daily all the time he was in Hangzhou, presumably to prevent any industrial espionage. After lunch, all the employees had unrolled their office mats and had lain down side by side for an obligatory siesta, like children at a nursery, while Chris had taken the opportunity to sit quietly, catching up with his emails.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In the CBD

A sign above the road near our hotel
In the Central Business District of Hangzhou (a city whose population is approaching 10 million) where we were staying, the authorities seem to like translating signs into English, even the admonitory ones, although we wondered how many of the population could read the language. We couldn't read theirs. It was an astonishing part of town altogether. The spherical hotel (first opened less than a year ago) seems to have been one of the first buildings to go up in a recent wasteland that had been transformed with a network of elaborate gardens and crisscrossed with empty 6-lane roads / cycle tracks / footpaths / tunnels before any vertical construction had begun. Opposite the sun-like hotel a crescent moon shaped Grand Theatre has just opened with a pool like the stage of an amphitheatre in front of it. And now the skyscrapers have begun to spring up around these central structures like mushrooms, with the shi min zhong xin (civic centre? city hall?) on the western side, like an otherworldly space station. Between the aforementioned buildings is a sculpture garden more extensive than the one we saw in central Washington.

Shi min zhong xin beyond the sculpture garden
The construction work continues 24 hours a day, so that at night you still hear the thwack of the pile drivers, the clanging of metal on metal and see the sparks cascading like fountains from the arc welding high overhead. Construction sites glow eerily under the floodlights in the mist, and by day you can see the extent of them, with their blue roofed, prefabricated, three storey huts for the migrant workers and their muddy thoroughfares.

Typical construction site in the CBD (photo taken from the MixC mall)

May 23rd, Sunday

A corner of the CBD gardens, seen from our window
We rested, mostly, with a couple of walks in between, exploring the landscaped gardens along the Qiantang from the base of our hotel to the MixC shopping mall (that had only been opened a month previously) and back and then in another direction towards a more chaotic, older part of town where the clothes markets (fúzhuāng shìchǎng) are, under the motorway flyover. What a contrast. There were street vendors everywhere selling pancakes, fruit and clothes, and workers lugging heavy bales of material or garbage on their bikes, all wrapped in sheets of plastic. The department stores had plastic curtains in their doorways. At a hole-in-the-wall eating place a waiter took us into a tiny, windowless side room that vibrated from the traffic and served us a bowl of uncooked, chopped cilantro leaves, strewn with tiny, salty shrimps. Worried that it had been washed in contaminated water, we hardly touched it. Chris didn't touch the chicken either, which was all bones. Asking for Cola he got Sprite instead and we picked at some noodles with strips of tofu and gelatinous mushrooms.

Bridge across the Qiantang, also seen from our window
Supper, after Chris had been working hard on the slides for his first presentation at work the following day, was rather different. We were driven to the exclusive Club Golden Bund in the Binjiang district across the river, crossing the suspension bridge to share a meal in a private room with three young Chinese gentlemen, Andy (whom I mentioned in the last post), Howard and Henrry (sic.)––not their real names––clearly proud of being pioneers in their field of work. In most cases, the generation before them hadn't been allowed a university education, élitism having been frowned upon in those days. So a "grey beard" software engineer like Chris in their midst is considered a great novelty.

Shark fin soup again, as well as a clear soup, plus that Mandarin fish in sweet and sour sauce, with chicken, beef, duck, lotus root stuffed with sticky rice and a formidable number of other dishes. It's just as well I can't eat so fast using chopsticks.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


May 21st, Saturday (continued)

Hotel interior showing the lift shafts
In the hope that this might expedite our check-in at the hotel in Hangzhou, I'd sent a photo of us to Jennifer, our contact there. What I hadn't anticipated was that not only Jennifer but practically all the other 600 or so staff members––from the general manager of IC hotels in Zhejiang province to the car park attendants and chambermaids––would also find us easy to recognise! The hotel being very new, the staff had been having regular training sessions, at one of which their future patrons Mr and Mrs Hobbs (generally pronounced Hobbies) must have been the focus of attention.

We were given an extraordinary reception which reminded me of the opening of John le Carré's novel, The Night Manager where the "worst man in the world" and his entourage check into a luxury hotel.

Chris and I, checking in for four weeks, weren't required to go to the reception desk on Level 5 but (leaving our luggage in the charge of a bellboy) were swept straight up to the 16th floor in one of the five great glass elevators with their vertiginous views. The golden ball is hollow within, with all the rooms built into its steel walls.
Hotel interior as seen from the 12th floor

Up in the club lounge we shook hands with the senior personnel––"If there's anything we can do for you, don't hesitate to ask!"––while lesser personnel almost tripped over one another in their eagerness to assist, pulling out our chairs so that we could sit down, bringing us juices and teas. After about half an hour of polite conversation, the Long Stay Agreement forms were finally brought across to our table to be discreetly laid down amid the orchids and the porcelain, for Chris to sign while our passports were being photocopied.

Finally, a posse of staff accompanied us to our room on the 12th floor, the luggage delivered there a few moments later during demonstrations of how to work the automatic blinds, how to turn on the three TV sets, the three showers, and so on. We discovered calla lilies in our room and a bowl of fresh fruit, a box of gourmet chocolates and another of gourmet cookies. Bath towels fit for a giant, fluffy bathrobes, slippers and a cushion for the tub were laid ready, and at one side of the window was a circular sofa (with satiny cushions) that could have doubled as a spare bed. The glass desk on the other side had chairs on two sides, 'his and hers'. From the river we had a panorama of the 1500m wide Qiantang River, its traffic, its bridges and skyscrapers on the far bank and the gardens on its near bank.

Buddhist Pine at the hotel's entrance
Finally we were left alone, but our welcome to Hangzhou wasn't over by any means, because Andy and Jennifer, the prime instigators of our lavish welcome, had also promised to treat us to dinner at the hotel followed by a show downtown––the sound and light show known in English as Impression West Lake directed by Jiang Yimou––this too turning out to be fantastic entertainment, which we watched wrapped in plastic capes to protect us from the light drizzle and the breeze off the lake. Chris was so entranced by the show that he described it immediately afterwards (we had come rattling back to the hotel squashed intimately into a small and dangerous taxi) in an email to the family:
"I've seen some impressive sights in my time but nothing comes close to the West Lake show. Together with thousands of others, we sat on tiered seats (front row, of course, for MR AND MRS HOBBS) and I was wondering how they could do a light show on something so big and wet. There was a small jetty affair but that seemed inadequate ... But promptly at 19:45 the "house" lights went off and the credits were projected onto a small screen held up in a boat. Andy explained to us that it was to be in five acts: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl get married, boy and girl have to part, boy and girl meet again as spirits (or something like that: there was also a sea-serpent that was integral to the plot).

Anyway, the credits finished and everything went dark. And then a single spot light lit the man, dressed in formal robes, standing on the water in the middle of the lake. The music was magnificent and, as we watched, the man started to walk across the surface of the water towards us. The performance finished an hour later and we were stunned. There had been ... boats and an incredible serpent lying and thrashing all across the lake. No photographs would do it justice.

Andy then secured a taxi for us by pushing in front of several thousand people and we returned to the hotel ..."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Arriving in Hangzhou at high speed

On May 20th I succeeded in posting an immediate report of our train journey from Beijing to Suzhou, so I shan't repeat all that now. I hadn't succeeded in taking many photos on the way, but here are one or two, plus one of the crowded concourse at Suzhou the following day, where we waited for the connection to our destination, Hangzhou.

Beijing Nan station, where we said goodbye to Sha and George

Hilly scenery on the journey south, somewhere between Jinan and Xuzhou

A more typical view from the train–I took this one as we rode through Nanjing

People waiting for their trains at Suzhou central station
May 21st, Saturday

Our bed at the Marriot in Suzhou
We'd stopped overnight at a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Suzhou, something of a culture shock after our recent, more down to earth experiences.

In the morning we had time for a walk near the hotel before catching our midday bullet train to Hangzhou. We were curious to see whether a southern city would be much different from Beijing, not a fair comparison of course, because we were in a different kind of neighbourhood in any case, an "industrial park" according to the official description, between the old, walled part of Suzhou and Jin Ji Lake. I won't include links to those places because we never saw them, but it would be interesting to go back one day.

Kite stall in the Huxi park, Suzhou
We wandered through the Huxi Community park, brand new and pleasant, featuring sculptures, oleanders in flower, palms and bamboos and an international row of flags. Children were playing with kites; we passed the kite vendor. The park was close to a primary school that looked like a high tech institution, kids in uniform lining up inside even though it was a Saturday and an "experimental" middle school (its name translated into English for the benefit of outsiders).

As the bellboy called a taxi for us on his cellphone a barrage of firecrackers went off behind the opposite buildings; he thought it might be to celebrate the opening of a new store. In the China Daily that day it was reported that a murderer's life sentence had also been celebrated by firecrackers outside the court. This had been a road rage incident, the perpetrator a piano student at the conservatory whose parents had been forcing him to practise. A sad story.

Peking Opera on the Departures board at Suzhou
The taxi ride to the station was terrifying, then we stood around for two hours watching the Peking Opera clips screened on the Departures board before leaving Suzhou on train G7383. This one reached a speed of 280 kph within five minutes of pulling out of the station and eventually 350 kph (twice as fast as we can fly in our Cessna 172). The ride was very smooth and comfortable. We realised later that the tracks lay on concrete stilts for the whole distance, a tremendous bit of engineering; the height above the surrounding terrain gives passengers a good view, albeit a rather monotonous one, of the high rise blocks, cranes and the series of canalised rivers. Motorways also appeared to be on stilts while below were leafy avenues. We were in red, plush, reclining chairs with more legroom than on the previous day and complimentary newspapers in Chinese (though more of the announcements broadcast through the train were in English this time): "Welcome to CRH ... next stop Hongqiao, Shanghai. Please have a pleasant journey on our train!"

We crossed a wide river (the Huangpu?) full of barges, after which came a view of wheat fields and rice paddies with scarecrows in them, many lotus ponds, and old fashioned canal boats, this quasi rural scenery lying between residential areas with whitewashed houses that looked almost European, but I couldn't identify the trees. Many crops were being burned that day, which added to the smog. The Shanghai suburbs effectively continued all the way to Hangzhou, itself a city of around 10 million.

Our first sight of the Intercontinental Hotel
Chris had emailed Andy, the QNX sales manager from Shanghai, to confirm our time of arrival in Hangzhou and there he was to meet us in pink trousers and a smart T-shirt––a very friendly and very helpful young gentleman, with his QNX programmed Blackberry and Playbook ever at the ready. We got to know him better as time went by because he kept coming to see us in Hangzhou. On our arrival he snapped his fingers and a minivan driver pulled over to take us and our luggage to the Intercontinental Hotel, our home for the next four weeks.

"If ever you get lost in Hangzhou," said Andy, "ask any taxi driver to take you to the Golden Ball, the jīnsì de qiu!" and as he spoke, we saw it loom through the haze ahead of us on the road.

Our arrival at the hotel and first evening in Hangzhou merits a blogpost all to itself, so bear with me: I'll write about that anon.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Last day in Beijing

May 19th, Thursday

Wangfujing Dajie
We were on a mission to buy a map of China for the next day's journey. With Daniel and Jonathan along (these two Australians about to depart as well), and Rob and Sally (not flying home for a few days yet) we let George lead us once again to downtown Beijing, via the subway, this time to Wángfǔjǐng Dàjie, the commercial centre. Dàjie means "big street."

We had not seen any part of the city so westernised before: this was a wide, pedestrianised street, with advert hoardings, benches and big stores, though the jam-packed side-streets were not the same. These were hung with red lanterns and crammed with stalls selling, for example, wriggling sea horses and scorpions on skewers for immediate consumption from the barbecue, a delicacy that all of us found pretty repulsive. I almost suspect they were there on purpose to draw the attention of foreigners; I didn't find such shocking food for sale anywhere else in China (apart from the mention of "snake" on a menu in Hangzhou).

Fresh snacks on skewers
The menu at the quieter spot we found was another source of bemusement, Daniel taking photos of it. Jonathan ordered our meal with an impressive flow of phrases he'd picked up; he'd soon be fluent if he lived here.

Then we went our separate ways, George and I spending about 40 minutes in the Foreign Languages Bookstore where I did manage to find a suitable map that not only depicts the whole of China and its bordering countries but also includes area maps of Beijing, Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta, Hangzhou and Suzhou: a valuable resource. I have spent hours studying it. Well, I love maps anyway.

A Chinese letter box
In a shopping mall that would not have looked out of place within any international airport, we sat at a Costa Coffee booth to write some postcards that I slid into one of Beijing's few postboxes, the slot on the right (see photo) being the one for long distance mail. An international stamp costs ¥4.50.

Chinese public conveniences
On our return to the subway we failed to enter a park closed for renovation, that looked frustratingly attractive. I visited a WC en passant: very clean but with no doors on the booths––I should emphasise that this facility was not in some obscure suburb, but very close to Tiananmen Square at the heart of the city. Imagine coming across publicly visible holes in the ground for Ladies and Gents alongside Trafalgar Square, in London! I doubt they'd be tolerated.

Roses in full bloom at Mudanyuan
We ambled back to our hotel from Mudanyuan park where we had sat for a while watching the gardeners hose down the reeds. For the evening we had a date with the Du family again. The plan was to meet them with Rob and Sally at their apartment then walk to a nearby restaurant where a private room had been reserved for our last meal in Beijing. Sha's chauffeur cousin and his wife were invited too. By this time, Daniel and Jonathan were boarding their flight to Sydney at the airport, so weren't included. George and Sha were also going to be flying home to Sydney the following day, so the supper was a poignant occasion for us––despite the problems with communication we had become very fond of these particular Beijingers during our visit and I think they felt the same about us, too.

Walking from the hotel to the apartment

Small shrine at the restaurant
The people at our farewell supper, photo by Chris

Munching on watermelon slices at the apartment before supper we sat in Sha's bedroom to watch The Wedding Video, very professionally done. It had just been delivered that day and Sha had already seen it three times! The atmosphere at supper was really convivial, with many thanks exchanged, but it is a shame to be so short of words on both sides. After Chris had taken photos of our group around the table we picked up our chopsticks and tucked into our plates of kongpao ji, lotus root slices, stir fried beef, vegetables with black mushrooms, herb stuffed pancakes, tofu strips and a meat stew bubbling over a table top stove. There was a choice of beer, orange juice and green tea to drink with this meal.

Chris, trying out a Chinese treadmill in the park
Afterwards, after dark, we lingered over a walk back to the hotel through a circular community park between the flat blocks, which had a wonderful sort of playground for adults. Such fun! As well as trees and park benches, it included an outdoor chess set, a seesaw, swing bars, a treadmill made of rolling pipes and a standing device for strengthening the arms, two elderly ladies using it. There was a sort of ski-ing device as well. None of this simple equipment needs to be plugged in. What a good idea, we thought. In fact, why does any exercise equipment ever have to be plugged in, or cost so much? The whole North American fitness industry is based on an unnecessary con.

At the end of our two weeks' visit, I wrote in my diary, "We have enjoyed Beijing!"

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Wall

May 18th, Wednesday

We walked up The Great Wall; it was steep and wonderful. In Chinese, the name -- chang cheng -- means Long Wall. That's true; there are some 6000 km of it, more, some say.

Starting with an hour's train ride on the Y567 to Badaling from Beijing Bei (the North Station, clean and wide, where the trains were white) we rode through what seemed like endless dilapidated suburbs, industrial with rural touches––chickens and sheep searching for food amongst the rubble and neat little vegetable gardens under the poplar trees, people cultivating them with old fashioned tools. We spotted donkey carts and a goat. The greenhouses looked disused, abandoned. One modern touch, however: the houses, small as garden sheds, nearly all had solar panels. In the fields were occasional burial grounds amongst the vegetables, humpy heaps of stones, with little gravestones and sometimes flowers on top of them. A yard full of army tanks and a glimpse of soldiers in camouflage uniforms engaged in what looked like kick boxing. A wasteland full of coal heaps. Huge pylons.
A first view of the Wall, from the train

Suddenly the train turned a corner and we were in the Jundu mountains, precipitous, with orange-brown cliffs, boulders and shrubs all the way up. This is the Great Wall country. The rail tracks followed the narrow Guangou Ravine through the hills, through which the motorway also snaked, army trucks and tourist coaches on it. This was part of the Silk Road and the route Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, used to take to Xanadu, with his elephants. Mauve and white wisteria was in bloom everywhere. On one of the hillside boulders, seemingly inaccessible, a buddha was carved.

After a few tunnels and a stop beyond which we went backwards, the train pulled into Badaling and almost everyone on it piled out and walked up towards the Entrance to the Wall, 800m up the road. The usual hawkers were pestering us, trying to sell us Mao caps and other souvenirs. "Bu yào, bu yào!" (not want!) we said. We passed monuments to various heroes, including Mao, and peculiar shops, one calling itself a "Food drink sapermarket." We bought our tickets and decided to turn south onto the wall; we could have gone up the opposite hill but it seemed slightly more crowded.  Many people were climbing the slope up to the first watchtower on our side in any case, but the further we went, the more they thinned out; the last section was relatively quiet.

Chris, Mr Du and others climbing the steps

Rob, George, Daniel and I with other climbers

The hazy conditions added to the sense of mysterious history. As we gazed around us we were seeing disjointed bits of wall on various hilltops. The watchtowers used to serve as beacons as well; Sha told us that goat's dung was used to produce the best smoke. We spent two hours on the Wall, the men climbing to the furthest publicly accessible watchtower, though Sally and I stopped at the penultimate one. It wasn't unlike mountaineering; the steps were uneven. Handrails were provided but they were generally too low down to be helpful. An international crowd here on this hot day; the Chinese majority clearly much leaner and fitter than the westerners. A few one-child Chinese families were here––as in the city, the babes in arms wearing slit trousers: not a bad idea for avoiding the discomfort of a nappy rash, we thought. There were slits in the walls too, for arrows to be fired through, and fruit trees, maybe apricots, maybe peaches, grew on the steep slopes immediately below the walls, the battlements of which had been repaired and restored as recently as 1987, although some of the stones and the paving stones beneath our feet were genuinely old.
View of the wall continuing beyond our accessible section

George's energetic colleague Daniel was keen to scale the wall on the other side of the entrance gate as well, and did so while the rest of our party searched for some lunch. We found a remarkably quiet restaurant and ordered soups and other enjoyable dishes for sharing between ourselves. Sha's dad probably enjoyed his chance of a quiet smoke and a chat to the staff there after his valiant struggle to communicate with us on the Wall, having helped us up and down its steps in such a gentlemanly manner. We could tell how keen he was to share his knowledge of Chinese history with us; Sha not being present, he must have felt very frustrated by the language barrier. We felt it too. However, in spite of their lack of words, George and his father-in-law seem to enjoy one another's company, which is heart-warming to observe.
George and his father-in-law at Badaling
Beyond the railway station, beside a crumbling fragment of the Wall, we strolled around a walled, fairly deserted village that seemed to be in the process of reconstruction with low houses, cobbled streets, hanging lanterns and a stone arch under a gate tower. Then back on the train to Beijing Bei, where the train was promptly seen to by a team of cleaners brandishing their mops.