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…..

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Return to Beijing: Some Things Change, Some Stay the Same. Part 1 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

Beijing has seen many changes since our first visit in 2004. Then we were told about the hundreds of hotels that would sprout up before the 2008 Olympics; we visited again in 2007 and saw building work in full swing and the start of a general tidy up following the (reputedly none-to-gentle) relocation of beggars and rough sleepers.

In 2004 there were 2 metro lines, now there are 13 plus an Airport Express which whisked us into central Beijing in 20 minutes, cutting both the journey time and the cost by a third compared with a taxi.

In the old days you shouldered your way through a non-queue to buy paper tickets which were torn in half a few paces away by inspectors perched on small stools at the top of the stairs. Now, shiny machines issue tickets with magnetic strips that open automatic gates. Stations on the new lines have escalators, but the originals do not. As the nearest station to our hotel was on the old line 2 we had to manhandle our heavy cases up and down the stairs. The Chinese are becoming increasingly obsessed with security and all baggage is X-rayed as you enter a station. This is done so speedily in crowded stations that it must be more ‘being seen to do something’ than a real contribution to security – which has never been a problem anyway.

Remarkably, while inflation has seen prices rise steadily, a ticket to travel anywhere on the new, enlarged system costs 2 yuan (20p), down from 3 yuan in 2004.

Jet-lagged and half asleep, we learned to use the new technology – all metros are similar but few are identical - and were pleased to be aided by the spontaneous kindness of two locals. A girl took it upon herself to explain the ticket machines, while a middle aged woman gave guidance on getting our cases through the barriers – you have to pull them behind you otherwise the machine interprets it as a fare-dodger and goes into a sulk.

As we would return from Korea and set off on the Chinese leg of the journey from Beijing Zahn (the city’s main railway station) we chose a hotel  nearby - actually the same hotel as we had used in 2004 and 2007, though with a new name and under new management.

Beijing Railway Station
We checked in at 10.00 (Chinese hotels are usually accommodating with early check-ins) and caught up with a night’s lost sleep.

Later we walked the 100m to Dongchang'an Jie the main east-west thoroughfare through the city centre. We had expected to pass a couple of small restaurants we had used on previous visits but one had now become a print shop and the other had vanished completely, perhaps it had disappeared under the 40 stories of the Agricultural Bank of China on the corner of our street and Dongchang'an Jie .

At that corner we turned east, away from the city centre, and after a 15 minute stroll reached the Ancient Observatory.

The Ancient Observatory, Beijing

Jianguomen still has wide bicycle lanes alongside the main carriageway but there are now few bicycles, though we saw the lane being used by several electric scooters and one in-line skater. At an intersection an old man wearing a fluorescent jacket and armed with a flag and a whistle marshalled the diminished band of cyclists. Such people used to stand self-importantly at every junction, but they have all but disappeared.

Jianguomen Da Jie, Beijing
There is (almost) nobody in the bicycle lane
There also seems to be little call for the Wangbikes (as Beijing’s equivalents to Borisbikes are not called, despite Wang Anshun being the mayor).

Beijing's 'BorisBikes'
In 2004 the Observatory, then partially closed for refurbishment, had lurked behind a patch of unmown grass. That could make a nice little park, I had observed, and lo and behold, in 2007 there was a gang of workmen creating exactly that.  The park is still there.

We bought our tickets and passed through a hobbit hole (guess what I had been watching on the plane) into a courtyard containing reconstructed armillary spheres, theodolites and moondials set among shady ‘heritage’ trees.

Through a hobbit hole into the Observatory courtyard
Beijing Ancient Observatory
The Chinese have a genius for creating spaces of calm and quiet in the midst of bustling cities and this was one such place. Exhibition rooms around the perimeter trace the history of astronomy in China. The observatory, completed in 1422, is one of the oldest in the world, but by the mid-17th century Chinese astronomers had fallen behind their European counterparts and after a competition the emperor gave Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit missionary, complete charge of the observatory. Jesuits remained in the forefront of Chinese astronomy until the 1820s, during which time many important books were translated into Chinese and much knowledge was shared.

Lynne in the courtyard of the Ancient Observatory, Beijing
The mathematician in me is delighted by the way Verbiest and his forerunner Matteo Ricci were able to communicate with their hosts. As Catholic priests their beliefs and practices would have differed from the Chinese in almost every sphere, but the certainties of mathematics gave them a common language which neither side could misunderstand. The busts of various other great Chinese mathematicians surround the yard, including Zu Chongzhi, who calculated π to 7 decimal places in the 5th century AD. Although the π notation was not introduced until the 17th century, it was exactly the same concept as had enthralled the Indus civilization, the Arabs and then Christian Europe, though no one matched Zu Chongzhi’s accuracy until 1585.

Zu Chongzhi, Beijing Ancient Observatory
As he died 1500 years ago, one might question the accuracy of the likeness
The observatory itself is alongside the courtyard on top of one of the few remaining sections of Beijing’s Ming city wall. It was once a good spot to observe the skies, but now encircled by higher buildings and bathed in light pollution and smog, it is a good spot only for a museum.

On top of the Ancient Observatory, Beijing
After our visit, we walked back down Jianguomen, which is lined with tall buildings, banks and government offices. The traffic roars past, but the wide pavements, kept clean by an army of sweepers and litter pickers, see few pedestrians. There are no shops or restaurants and the space feels unclaimed and impersonal.

Jianguomen Da Jie, Beijing
We turned into Youtong Street towards our hotel. This street is much narrower, the buildings on a more human scale. There are shops, people and the bustle of everyday life. The Railway Station/Youtong Street/Suzhou Hutong district has been the base for all three of our visits to Beijing and it feels familiar, strangely like coming home. It is a village, one among thousands within the city, an untouristy, everyday sort of place. Suzhou Hutong never sees the flag-following hordes on Hutong tours, nothing has been tarted up for show, but even here there have been changes and improvements. In the time we have been visiting it has acquired, among other things, a small local health centre and a clean and hygienic public toilet.
Youting Street, Beijing
If the restaurants between our hotel and Jianguomen had disappeared, a couple of simple eating houses remained on the other side and it was to one of these we repaired in the evening.

Restaurants on the corner of Youtong Street and Suzhou Hutong

We were the only foreigners in the restaurant (the one on the right in the picture), but they unearthed an English(ish) translation of their menu from somewhere. The waiter seemed unhappy with our choice of stir fried pork and green beans along with a dish of stuffed peppers but we lacked the language skill to understand why.

The peppers, we discovered, were not stuffed but sliced and mixed with strips of pork. Indeed there was as much pork on this dish – which we had selected from the ‘vegetables’ section of the menu - as there was in the pork and beans, and the two did look remarkably similar, hence the waiter’s consternation.

The peppers were very pleasant with a good thread of ginger running through them. I am not quite sure how to describe the saucing of the other dish but Lynne tasted a bean and said ‘yum’. I tried one and doubled it to ‘yum, yum’. The two dishes may have looked similar, but tasted very different. The food on other people’s plates looked as good as ours and it is a wonder how one man with a wok at the back of what is basically a small shop can produce a constant stream of different, distinctive, appetizing and wholesome food from such a tiny kitchen. Dinner for two, including two large (600ml) bottles of beer cost around £5.

Many things in Beijing may have changed, but we were delighted (though hardly surprised) to find the Chinese genius for creating peace in the middle of bustle, and for producing culinary delights from a hole in the wall remain gloriously undimmed.

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