A Foxtrot In Beijing
Miss seeing the Great Wall and a park full of elderly dancers? Not for all the tea in China, says Jane Labous in Beijing
‘A Japanese car, American salary, British-style house and a Chinese cook. Yes, yes. These things make you a rich man in China nowadays.’
Michelle, a student who guides tourists in her spare time, is telling me about Beijing. Her real name isn’t Michelle. The Chinese translate their names into English before you even try to pronounce the Chinese version; I find myself having conversations with locals called Henry or Phyllis.
We’re having tea in Wanfujing, an area just off Beijing’s glitzy central shopping street where formica-tabled restaurants are doing a fast trade in dumplings, noodles, omelettes and the other fast bites which are the Chinese city boys’ equivalents of a quick sandwich. How Deep Is Your Lovedrifts from the kitchen (another puzzling Chinese phenomenon. The Beegees track seems to be playing in every restaurant and shop).
The cooks in one kiosk stretch dough into impossible shapes; in others fried scorpions, baby sharks, seahorses, octopuses and exotic fruits are dipped in sugar. The waitress appears with a glass teapot. ‘Watch,’ instructs Michelle, as she drops a ball of what looks like dried grass into the water. The ball explodes, expanding in a flurry of petals before crouching like a small creature in the bottom of the pot.
‘Lotus tea,’ explains Michelle. ‘It makes you live longer.’
We’ve been talking about the impact of China’s sudden growth into an economic superpower on the population’s mood. It’s a subject you can hardly avoid in Beijing, where new wealth and old values seem to collide so palpably.
‘In my grandparents’ day,’ says Michelle, ‘a boy had to have three treasures – a bike, a sewing machine and a watch - in order to ask a girl to marry him. For my parents, it was a black and white TV, a fridge and a washing machine. Nowadays, you need a beautiful apartment, a great car and a really good job with a good salary. No woman will even consider marrying you without those.’
It's clear why riches are driving Beijing’s residents. Just around the corner from Wanfujing are smoothly paved shopping streets lined with the glittering window displays of Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci; multistorey shopping malls piping musak as teenagers browse for designer jeans; cinemas flashing giant, pixellated screens; Macdonalds, Haagen Daaz, KFC. I could almost forget I’m in a communist country. Until that is, I find Michelle reluctant to talk about the one child policy that’s still a major law in China.
‘Our government’s one child policy is a very good thing,’ she replies automatically. ‘Without it, there’d be too many people. Look around you – there are already enough. Yes, yes. The government does it for our benefit.’
It’s only now, after two days in Beijing, that I’m beginning to burrow further into this vast, impenetrable, intimidating city which is, as one traveller rather gloomily informs me, ‘roughly the size of Belgium’.
Arriving alone is to be confronted by its faceless skyscrapers, its identical, ruler-straight, often grid-locked roads and its kaleidoscopic eight-lane motorways spiralling concentrically from the centre of town out to the residential outskirts, is disorientating. Put together with the realisation that the vast majority of Chinese do not and are never going to understand me, it's not a very rapturous introduction.
Not to mention the awful weather. I’m here in late autumn and there’s a chill in the air. The flat, grey, washed-out sky is heavy with pollution. I can imagine how exhausting winter must be when the temperature plummets to minus twenty and the pavements are slippery with slushy, traffic-stirred snow.
I soon realise that it’s worth persevering. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours, but the one I’ve joined, which will take me down from Beijing to Shanghao, via Xian, proves that if there’s anywhere you need a guide, it’s China.
Whilst on the surface this city appears almost inhumanly vast, unfriendly and certainly unconcerned about Western tourists (there are no translated road signs and you’ll do well to find a translated menu), its charm is very much in the detail. The more I delve, the more I find; and the sun even comes out sometimes. I wander into night markets where housewives shop for fruit, meat and fish. I pay Y7 (approximately £4) for a single moon cake and leave the stallholder giggling. I tuck into roasted sweet potato from a roadside stall.
In Tiananman Square it’s just as fun watching the crowds of Chinese tourists in their matching yellow baseball caps flocking like birds across this enormous mile-wide space, as it is listening to Michelle tell us about its history. Interesting too, that she concentrates on the early history of Tiananmen – the name literally means Gate of Heavenly Peace (this is at the north end, separating it from the Forbidden City) and it was built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty – and fails entirely to mention the infamous Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, when protesters against corruption and lack of reform were shot by the military.
The mausoleum containing the embalmed body of Chairman Mao is closed on Tuesdays, so I bypass it and wander across the square, stopping to take photos of some bohemian-looking stragglers engaged in conversation near the north end – are they beggars, gipsies, prostitutes? Some good-humoured touts offer me miniature copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, the volume of quotations which members of the communist party were encouraged to carry at all times during the sixties and seventies. I haggle for a more frivolous Mao watch whose hour hand is formed by Mao’s left arm – it’s fifteen Yuan, a bargain for such a great piece of kitsch.
A police car containing two expressionless officers trawls slowly through the crowds, inconspicuous but noted, I sense, by everyone. I realise that although the square is crowded, it’s very quiet. No-one makes a fuss; no-one shouts or runs; there’s a general atmosphere of earnest concentration, well-behaved interest and slight awe. One of my group whispers in my ear that there are cameras overlooking Tiananmen which can zoom in on individuals and listen to their conversation. I don’t doubt it. It’s certainly not the place to have a dissenting conversation.
At the north end of the square is the entrance to the Forbidden City, patrolled, beneath the red flags of the People’s Republic, by armed soldiers and bearing the slogans in Chinese: ‘Long Live the People’s Republic of China’ and ‘Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples’. The scene though, is dominated by the huge portrait of Mao hanging above the gateway. It’s at least three metres high and set in a giant gilded frame – to see it in the flesh, as it were, is to realise quite how strange it is to paint a portrait of such magnitude, let alone hang it on an outside wall. Apparently the Chinese get the joke too.
‘Every year Mao gets a little younger,’ confides Michelle. ‘Yes, yes, he gets darker hair, less wrinkles, sometimes he changes his posture a bit. Sometimes he has a hat on, sometimes not. He likes to change around.’
Inside the Forbidden City, which was the palace of the royal family during the Ming and Qing dynasties, I’m a little disappointed. It’s vast – the Chinese obviously like to do things big – with 800 buildings and 8886 rooms covering almost 178 acres. But the massive squares beneath the high walls lack atmosphere and again, it’s more interesting to listen to Michelle’s commentary as she explains the emperor’s somewhat paranoid habits. He would sit hidden, she explains, surrounded by officials, in case someone tried to murder him; he banned flowers or trees because he feared someone would hide behind them and try and murder him, and he had the square’s foundations constructed in 15 separate layers, because he was afraid someone would build a tunnel beneath and try to… Yes, you guessed it: murder him. Each area has a name: the forbidding sounding ‘hall of mental cultivation’ and ‘hall of scrupulous behaviour’. Best of all is the concubines’ quarters - the ‘hall of consolation’
The hutongs, a labyrinthine area of tiny, twisting, unexpectedly pristine alleyways lined with traditional siheyuan (the compound of rooms around a courtyard where most Beijing residents used to live), show a whole other side of Beijing. We arrive to find rickshaws lined up on either side of the street, their drivers snoozing and chatting beneath red canopies while they wait for business. We hire one and jump in - these little bicycle-driven vehicles are the best way to get around.
Here is old China – barrows selling long kebabs of sugar-coated crab apples; two old men hunched over a game of chess. A group of men crouch on a step, poking at tiny pots. One of them grins and holds a pot up – inside is a huge, rasping cricket. Insect fighting is still a popular Chinese pastime. Delving further, I find bars with curtained entrances, chill-out dens for the city’s students. It’s early evening and we stop for a lychee martini in the Beijing dusk. We’re soon drinking shots - Red Squares, Kamikazes, Flatliners; is this what Beijing does to you?
Early in the morning is a good time to visit Beijing’s parks, even with a hangover. But I’m not expecting the scene that greets me in Temple of Heaven Park, one of the city’s largest and most beautiful open spaces. It’s a tranquil spot where throngs of elderly men and women dressed in casual lounge wear, tracksuits and plimsolls are gathered on the paved areas shaded by cypress trees. Music floats around them; a classical tune from a portable cd player; a man warbling on a recorder; an outdoor choir singing in high voices and… is that someone yodelling?
Beneath the trees, men and women waltz as a dapper gentleman floats amongst them, quietly offering instructions. As one track ends, another begins – there are polkas, quick-steps; even a swift, chaotic tango. The instructor is 74 year-old Cao Anqi, a retired clerk. “I like to come most days,” he tells me breathlessly in Chinese, as Michelle translates. “Dancing wakes me up for the day. Everyone loves the company and learning how to dance.” Cao grins, revealing a set of crooked teeth, and spins jubilantly back to his pupils. As I wander off, I glimpse him launching himself into an energetic foxtrot with an elderly lady dressed from head to toe in red flannel.
Another group is practising tai-chi, moving in unison, no experts but graceful considering they have a mean age of approximately 67. Others wave plastic rackets – the kind you can buy at the seaside – each man or woman caught dreamily in his own solitary ping-pong game. There’s yet another group of people wielding long, rather dangerous-looking silver swords, jabbing and prodding at the air. Others simply stretch, hands on hips, limbering up with windmill circles in the air and energetic lunges and squats.
I wander further and find myself in a cloistered walkway where elderly people are gathered in each archway. Groups of old men cluster around Chinese checkers, frowning with concentration; the non-players, equally absorbed, dispense advice. There are women knitting and gossiping who laugh delightedly when I stop to take their photo. Further along is a forty-something hippy with John Lennon glasses, playing a folk tune on his guitar. He’s very good, and his elderly spectators listen appreciatively before applauding.
By this time I’m mesmerised, charmed by this utopian vision of old age. Can it be real? Michelle giggles.
“People in China love being retired. It’s the time to enjoy yourself.”
In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, it's really hard to find a spot to yourself. I’ve got so used to Beijing’s teeming streets that the sheer, breathtaking silence of the Great Wall of China is almost a shock. Just two hours north from the centre of Beijing, this section of the wall is just a small part of the ancient monument which snakes majestically through 4500 miles of Chinese countryside. Standing on one of its towers, I stop oohing and aahing and listen to the silence. The cross-wind whips around my ears, along the balustrades, up the uneven, time-worn staircases and through the crumbling watch-towers. Beyond and below, the dense forest is empty of buildings, people, even, at times, any sign of wildlife.
I feel a sense of deep, quiet, absolute stillness; a sense too, of the scale of this impossible structure, cresting mountains and bridging deserts. Not to get emotional about it, but it’s one of those moments. I’m on top of the world, face to face with the past.
Back in the city, the emotional day must be getting to me, because at the end of the Kung-Fu show at The Red Theatre that evening, I’m crying my eyes out. It’s action-packed, with monks (bona-fide monks) flying through the air, walking on nails and breaking enormous pieces of slate on their foreheads.
But it’s the story of the little boy who grows, after several hurdles and a teenage crisis, into a great, wise monk which sets me off. Sitting in the dark theatre as the robed monks, foreheads still dripping with blood, take their bows, I can’t help but wish that I was staying in Beijing a little longer.
It’s been difficult, intense, scary at times and often infuriating. But in the course of a week I’ve learned to like this formidable, complicated, unwieldy city and the concentrated shots of beauty it fires at me from nowhere; arrows from an emperor's bow.
This article was first published in Real Travel magazine.