(November 2001)

Two things worth commenting on from the journey through China: a view of the Great Wall as we stopped in one station or another, and, on another station, an elderly lady with the tiniest feet I have never seen. It is just possible that she was one of the ever-diminishing number of women with bound feet. The practice was banned officially from around 1912 onwards although I think it still happened unofficially for several years, so it was technically possible for her to be one of the women affected.

Highlights of my three days in Beijing? The Forbidden City, which was ginormous. And ‘boasted’ a Starbucks. I didn’t fancy a coffee – not one from Starbucks, anyway. I was, though, rather tempted by the idea of having my picture taken dressed as an empress and sitting on a throne, by one of the professional photographers loitering in an outdoor ‘studio’ within the City. I wasn’t brave enough, but lots of other tourists were (although no Western ones, as far as I could see). As a non-smoker l didn’t have to heed the public information sign: “No Smoking. One small match can destroy a 100-year-old Palace”, but I did wonder if it would be worth trying to get a ticket for the band “High Five of Teenage Boys”, as advertised on a poster elsewhere.

Even from the outside the Forbidden City was stunning – as I learned when I looked down on it from Prospect Hill Park. On the (long) walk to the park, I crossed a bridge over the moat around the Forbidden City. For some reason there was no one around. It was sunny and I stood looking at the moat, getting quite overwhelmed by the thought of just where the bloody hell I was (Beijing!) when some bloke cycled past hoiking his lungs up. (Mind you, people were spitting everywhere in Beijing; some tourist sites had signs up, warning people against spitting there.)

I checked out the Mao-soleum (har har), where Chairman Mao, preserved, lies in state. There were the same rules here as with Lenin – no cameras and no stopping; you’re in a queue that is perpetually moving, so you can’t really study the leader before you. The mausoleum fills one side of Tiananmen Square. After checking out Mao, I stood in the square and paid my respects (not publicly, of course) to the victims of 1989 and wondered if the lively, cosmopolitan, glossy shopping malls stuffed full of consumer goods would have been any different if 1989 hadn’t happened (or, for that matter, if the democracy protestors had succeeded in their aims). Not so far from Tiananmen Square I wandered through what I assume were hutongs; these narrow alleys of tiny properties right by this massive public space. (They might not even be there in 2016 – I read somewhere that most of them were being demolished to make way for buildings more representative of ‘modern Beijing’.)

Another new experience was dinner in a vegetarian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. While it wasn’t the first time I’d eaten in a vegetarian restaurant, it was the first (and so far only) time I’d been confronted by a menu like this. “Stuffed goose intestines”, anyone? “Prawns”?  I’ve consumed countless meat-like-but-veggie sausages, burgers and pies during my life, but vegetarian offal? That sounded too unlikely to be true. I’ve since found out that Chinese cooks are geniuses (genii?) at turning agar-agar, starch, soya and the like into something almost identical to meat, seafood or offal, but even if I’d known that at the time I doubt I would have been brave enough to try them.

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