There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 6 September 2013

Beijing (2): Xicheng and Beihai Park. Part 2 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

We spent the next day, Lynne’s birthday, in Beijing, settling our heads into the right time zone before heading off to Pyongyang. Having seen the city’s major attractions on other visits we decided this time to explore the Xicheng region north of Tiananmen Square.

We took the metro round the circle line to Fuchengmen (not to be confused with Fuxingmen, the previous stop) and walked up Fuxingmen Street towards Fuchengmen Street, which crosses it at right angles. Following me so far?

On the north side of Fuchengmen we paused at the former residence of Lu Xun. According to our aged Rough Guide we were in for an overly reverential look at the life of a writer who was not keen on undue reverence, but at least his old house would give us an idea of how well-off Beijingers lived a hundred years ago. Not so, his courtyard dwelling has been completely rebuilt as a modern museum.

Lu Xun, we learned, originally trained as a doctor. In Japan he was forced to accompany a squad of Chinese soldiers to witness the execution of one of their comrades. Observing how some of the soldiers seemed to enjoy the spectacle, he concluded that China’s sickness was in the head not the body, so he gave up medicine for writing in the hope that his work might contribute to a cure.

He lived, as the Chinese curse goes, ‘in interesting times’. First he opposed the Qing Emperors and then the warlords who took over the north when the empire fell. Later he became disillusioned by the Kuomintang but never quite brought himself to join the communists, though Mao admired his work. Although one side or the other seems to have executed most of his friends, Lu Xun survived to die of tuberculosis in 1936.

Lu Xun's house, Beijing
The museum preserves some of his household objects which are, for the most part, unremarkable, but a multitude of well-chosen photographs tell the story of his life through the turbulent years of the early 20th century. Surprisingly, for a museum about a man I had never heard of, it was fascinating and - even better - free. [I have since read his complete works of fiction - three volumes of short stories published by Penguin in a single volume of 300+ pages. They give a fascinating insight into life in early 20th century China, and into the Chinese way of thinking, often very like ours, sometimes surprisingly different].

Continuing east along Fuchengmen we reached Baita Si a dagoba dating from the Yuan Dynasty (Kublai Khan and his descendants). The 35m high 13th century dagoba towers over the surrounding hutongs – but not as much as the scaffolding does. The complex was closed for ‘restoration’, a word which rings alarm bells in China.

Baita Si and some scaffolding, Beijing
We ambled down one of the hutongs, past the sort of courtyard houses that were home to most Beijingers before they were bulldozed and replaced by high-rise flats. It was an interesting walk through the real, if unglamorous life of the city.

Lynne in a hutong off Fuchengmen Inner Street, Beijing
This hutong was genuine, but many of those that survive have being restored (or rebuilt) as tourist attractions. After forty years destroying everything old in the name of ‘modernisation’, the Chinese have rediscovered their heritage. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but they have yet to grasp the distinction between ‘restoring’, ‘rebuilding’ and outright ‘faking’, so this new enthusiasm sometimes does as much damage as the old one. Extensive building is going on along Fuchengmen, not of high-rise flats but of new traditional style houses, as self-consciously archaic as thatched cottages in Islington.

Back on Fuchenmgen we passed a pleasing row of old shops, most of which seemed to be selling sport’s trophies. Are they survivors from the early 20th century, or brand new?
Sports' trophies shops,
Fuchengmen Inner street, Beijing

Further along the road is the Temple of Ancient Monarchs. Originally built in 1530 during the Ming dynasty, it had a major makeover under the Qing in 1729. It may have had another more recently as the wood looks new and the paint is sparkling and fresh. I cannot believe the temple fared well under Mao or during the Cultural Revolution. It is not mentioned in my 2002 Rough Guide and journalists were invited to an opening, of sorts, during the 2008 Olympics. Clearly, what we saw was heavily restored, if not entirely rebuilt.

There are three halls, with the usual urns in front.....
Urn, Temple of Ancient Monarchs, Beijing
..... and stele riding on the backs of turtles to the side.
Lynne and a stele riding on the back of a turtle
Temple of Ancient Monarchs, Beijing

In the Great Hall each of the 167 emperors on the approved list, whether real or mythical (the list goes back to 2000BC), has a section - not quite a chapel - devoted to him. The emperors may have lived in the Forbidden City and communed with the regular gods at the Temple of Heaven, but they came here to worship their predecessors. What better religion could an emperor hope to promote? This thought resurfaced regularly in North Korea where the Kims have gone about the business of ancestor worship in a style that would make the Ming blush and might even have impressed the Emperor Augustus and Pharaoh Rameses II.

Great Hall, Temple of Ancient Monarchs, Beijing
If ancestors are gods, they need to be prayed to, and prayers can be helped on their way by writing them on silk and burning them in the green toilet-tiled incinerators by the entrance.
Prayer incinerator
Temple of Ancient Monarchs, Beijing

We just about had the place to ourselves - Beijing has enough major monuments from this era to keep tour operators happy - and I cannot imagine many people bothering to venture to this ‘new’ attraction on a first, or even second, visit to the city.

Next stop, still on Fuchengmen, was Guangji Si, headquarters of the Chinese Buddhist Association. Originally built in the 12th century, most of what can be seen now is (genuine) Ming.  It has some important sculptures and pictures which we missed but, despite its age, it is fairly ordinary as Buddhist temples go. (For the Yonghe Gong, probably Beijing’s most interesting Buddhist temple, see Three Favourite Buddhist Temples). It also has many closed doors behind which are, I assume, offices - as you might expect at the headquarters of an association.
Incense incinerator, Guangji Si, Beijing

At the end of Fuchingmen a right and left put us on Xianmen Street still heading east and, as it was lunchtime, we stopped at the first available restaurant. We ordered two bowls of soup – which was an error; one would have been plenty, but you cannot always tell from the menu pictures.

The first was rather bland with floating tofu and gelatinous noodles, though redeemed by strips of fresh, fiery ginger. The other was slightly more interesting, brown with an egg whisked into it, assorted vegetables, strips of spam-like meat and black mushrooms, all well spiced, mainly with pepper. It was not a memorable meal but at under £4 (including two half litres of beer) we could not complain.

We continued to Beihai Park. Reputedly created by Kublai Khan whose landscapers created an artificial lake with an equally artificial island. It was turned into a classical Chinese garden by the Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735-96) and later became a favourite haunt of Jiang Qing, the widow of Mao and notorious member of the ‘Gang of Four’.

Kublai Khan’s lake still occupies much of the park and we strolled up the west side looking in at the various heavily restored palaces and pavilions, though sadly the information supplied on site was rather sparse.
The lake, island and dagoba, Baihai Park, Beijing

We took the obligatory boat ride over to the island, thinking we might take a rest in the teahouse there, but it was not very welcoming. We could have paid extra to walk up to the large dagoba, built in the 17th century to commemorate a visit of the Dalai Lama, but it did not seem worth it. The Chinese authorities would react with horror to a visit from the present Dalai Lama, which is a shame. We enjoyed the pleasant, shady gardens before taking the boat back and walking on to the northern entrance. On the way we missed the 27m dragon screen, one of the oldest and largest in China [but we did see an even larger and finer one in Datong,17/09/13]. We also missed the marble bowl reputedly owned by Kublai Khan himself, which was near the entrance, but on the far side of the lake. It would have been a long walk and we were flagging.
Lynne in the formal garden on the island
Beihai Park, Beijing

The northern entrance, we thought, should be close to Beihai North metro station but, being on a new line, it did not appear on our old map.

Outside we found a huge parking lot full of buses, and crocodiles of Chinese tourists obediently following their leaders’ flags. They had not been in the park; the area to the north contains most of the ‘restored’ hutongs used for the hutong tours, popular both with foreign tour groups and the huge, and fast-growing, Chinese tour market.

One guide tried to rope us in to a tour, but we declined and asked him for directions to the metro station which, as we had guessed, was not far.

In the evening we took a 20-minute walk to Chongwenmen, heading for the Bianyifang Roast Duck restaurant, which seemed a suitable way to celebrate Lynne’s birthday.

We had been there twice before, but this time the whole area looked different and there was a park where my memory said the restaurant had been. After fruitlessly wandering around what had become a vast intersection since our last visit, we lost our bearings, so to cut our losses we took the metro the one stop back to our hotel.

After visiting the right hand of the two nearby restaurants yesterday, we tried the other one this time.

I wish I could read the menu

A mushroom dish provided us with a substantial heap of sliced fungi, but they were cold and, if not actually pickled, drenched in rice vinegar, which was not quite what we wanted - but if you cannot read the menu, you can only go by the pictures. With it we had a dish of ‘sweet pork’ which came with squares of tofu to wrap it in. It was good, if rather too sweet, but partnered with the acidic mushrooms we discovered that, entirely by luck, we had stumbled on a pair of dishes that complimented each other perfectly.

Sweet pork, pickled mushrooms and a glass of beer

It seems a shame to finish on a picture of me when it was Lynne's birthday meal.... but so it goes.

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