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…..

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Beijing (3), A Duck and a Rant: Part 15 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

"Gungo smiley face Harvey Ball"
                                                                                                                               legend seen on a tee-shirt, Beijing*

We walked 2km along Dongchang’an Jie, first retracing our steps of two weeks ago to the Ming Observatory, and then continuing over the Jianguomen flyover in the direction of the Friendship Store. This venerable institution, once open only to foreigners, diplomats and high ranking officials, was created to ease the lives of the Soviet experts sent to assist with China's economic development in the 1950s. In the early days of western contact it was the only place the new western tourist could shop. Not allowed local currency (as in North Korea now) the Friendship Stores were the only places they could spend their Foreign Exchange Certificates. They sold good quality Chinese arts and crafts, western luxuries and uncensored western newspapers while guards on the doors kept out the ordinary people. Foreign Exchange Certificates disappeared in the 1990s, western luxuries became widely available and restrictions on who could use the shops were abolished.

Crossing the Jianguomen flyover
We first visited the Beijing Friendship Store in 2004. In 2007 it was still the best place for Chinese oddities - the particular bamboo trays needed for tea ceremonies for instance - but the Friendship Store concept was beginning to look dated. This time our mission was to find a set of tea tools - our daughter wanted them to go with her tray.

As we should have expected, the Friendship Store is no more. The building was still there, draped with banners bearing names you can find in every major city on earth (except Pyongyang). I cursed Armani and Versace, and Baskin Robbins whose stall is next door and u-bloody-biquitios Mc-sodding-Donalds for their homogenisation of the globe. ‘Our world is a duller, less varied place because of you,’ I thought as I readjusted my Ray-Bans on my nose (and I cursed Ray-Bans too, smug in the knowledge that I bought mine for £2.40 in a Buddhist Temple in Myanmar, so I know they are genuine fakes).

Having failed in our tea tool mission we made the long walk back and found a place near the station that would sell us a coffee - not a drink much liked by the Chinese and not easy to get if you are determined to avoid what our daughter calls with a shudder ‘the Scottish Restaurant’ (though Ronald McD is no sort of Celt I recognise).

Back at our hotel we showered, changed and checked out before returning to Dongchang’an Jie, this time heading west towards the city centre. Walking slowly in the hot sunshine it took us a while to reach Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s main shopping streets.

Dongchang'an Jie - not quite the last bicycle left in Beijing
Much of Wangfujing is pedestrianised, what the Chinese call a ‘walking street’, and we made a gratifying detour round the huge queue at the Jasmine Ice Cream stall – Chinese produced ice cream with an essentially Chinese flavour and nothing to do with Baskin Robbins.
Wangfujung walking street, Beijing
We turned right into a hutong decorated in such a way that, had it been in anywhere else in the world, we would have called it ‘Chinatown’. The Chinese relish playing up to their stereotype sticking Ming gables (largely plastic) and red paper lanterns everywhere. On one side of the street is a jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant, and everyone from out of town has to have their photograph taken with their statue. Lynne saw no reason to be different.
Lynne wants a jiaozi, near Wangfujing, Beijing
Our goal, though, was the restaurant opposite. Having failed on our quest for roast duck at Bianyifang on Lynne's birthday we had decided to herald our departure with a duck lunch at Quanjude, the oldest and perhaps finest duck restaurant in Beijing. After a tricky day’s negotiating it was over roast duck at Quanjude that Henry Kissinger and his Chinese counterparts patched up their differences.
Quanjude Duck Restaurant, Wangfujing, Beijing
The restaurant is expensive, by Chinese standards. Beers were 25 Yuan (£2.50) each; the previous evening our entire dinner (including two of the same beers) came to less than 50, but here we were paying for the ambience and the theatre.

Our duck was wheeled out by a young man in a chef’s hat, surgical mask and latex gloves who set about carving it for us. We had a brief demonstration of how to fold a pancake round spring onion and slices of duck smeared with plum sauce – a task we had failed at before and failed at again. Looking round the room we were gratified to find that other diners – overwhelmingly Chinese – were equally inept.

Carving our duck, Quanjude Duck Restaurant, Wangfujing, Beijing
The questionable structural integrity of the wraps did not detract from our enjoyment and just as we finished the leg and breast meat, along came the soup and the wings and other bits to nibble.

I love duck but a question remains unresolved: for my final meal on earth would I prefer duck in Beijing or confit de canard beside the Dordogne (before, of course, fresh pineapple and coconut ice cream)? Further research will be necessary.

We ate a whole duck between us, which cost £35, extravagant by Chinese standards but cheaper than the bottle of wine which accompanied our wedding anniversary meal at the Yorke Arms in Pately Bridge.
Quanjude Duck Restarant, Beijing
We left Quanjude happy and replete and applied ourselves to the serious business of finding tea tools. And what are tea tools, you ask? They are a collection of nicely polished wooden scoops, prodders and brushes; the Swiss Army Knife of the tea ceremony.

Wangfujing has several of what appear to be department stores, so we wandered into the nearest confident that a Chinese department store would have a tea department. It was not, we discovered a department store, at least not one I would recognise. I might be out of touch, the department store is not my natural environment, but last time I was in one it consisted of departments selling various related items. This store housed a series of individual stalls, each selling one particular brand name, some we knew and others we had never heard of. There were six floors like this - yes, we went up the escalator to the top and checked every single one with a growing feeling of disbelief. As market stalls go they were certainly posh, some were larger than many shops, but market stalls was what they were and clothes were pretty well all that was on offer.

We tried another ‘department store’ and it was the same. Brand names here are everything. For the second time that day I found myself cursing Jimmy Choo, Hugo Boss and their ilk. I am sure there are people in the west who are obsessed with brand names and feel themselves naked without an Armani suit or Gucci handbag, but I doubt there are very many and they include nobody I know (or want to know). The Chinese have a fascination with all things western and the advertising campaigns of Vuitton, Versace and others are attempting to convince (have already convinced?) a gullible section of the newly wealthy that brand names are the pinnacle of western culture. When they eventually see through it, and see through it they will, the Chinese view of western culture will have been damaged beyond repair. If all we have to offer is KFC and Oakley sunglasses, then we truly are culturally bankrupt.

That was the rant.

On a lighter note, the obsession with western culture has led the sweatshops of Guangdong to produce tee-shirts by the million bearing slogans in English, very few of them making any sense. For some choice examples see the top of this, and the preceding three posts (here, here and here).

We eventually found a tea shop giving tastings and actually using tea tools. We inquired, mainly by mime, whether they had any for sale. The assistant looked blank, but fetched a colleague whose slightly more agile mind deduced what these weird foreigners were after. We soon became the proud owners (if only until we passed them on to our daughter) of the cool tools below.
Tea tools
Leaving Wangfujing we continued to the city centre. On the way we encountered, and not for the first time, the 'art exhibition scam'. A couple of personable young people fall into step with you and strike up a conversation. After a while they tell you they are art students and invite you to their end of year exhibition. The idea is that you go to the show and pay high prices for cheap mass produced prints in the belief that you are buying the student’s own work and helping fund their education. We did not fall for it in 2004 when we first visited Beijing and were not going to fall for it this time, though Dan Cruikshank did when he was filming 'Round the World in 80 Treasures'. I don't think the story was in the TV series, but he writes about it in the book.

We rested on a low wall near the portrait of Mao inTiananmen Square. During a ten minute sit we were approached by two different touts trying to sell guided tours to the Great Wall. They each gave us business cards, should we change our minds. They were identical except for the name.
Near the portrait of Mao, outside Tiananmen Square, Beijing
with a bag of tea tools in my hand
We walked to the entrance of the Forbidden City but did not go in - we did that in 2004. The Forbidden City is big and to do it justice requires several hours. After a long, hot walk we lacked the energy.

Instead we decided to stroll across Tiananmen Square. On our previous visits we merely walked through the underpass and emerged on the square, but now we had to negotiate a security check. There is nothing the Chinese authorities like more than a bit of intrusive security to remind the people who is in charge. [a month later (28/10/13) a car was driven deliberately into the crowd by the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames killing five (three of them the occupants of the car). ‘Security’, I repeat, exists to remind people who is in charge, it rarely makes anyone safer.]
Tiananmen Square, a vast concrete wasteland
Despite some imposing buildings around it, and Mao's mausoleum in the centre (we visited him in 2004, too) Tiananmen Square is largely an ugly expanse of bare concrete. It is a vast space and there is usually an event of some sort going on and a soldier or two prowling round to ensure everybody behaves decorously, but the only thing worth seeing, apart from Mao's mausoleum, is the Qianmen Gate at the southern end.
Qianmen Gate, Tiananmen Square
After seeing that there was not much to do except descend to the adjacent metro station and head back to our hotel to pick up our cases before setting off for the airport and the start of the long journey home.

*Gungbo (not gungo) is the pinyin transliteration for a dish of chicken, chillies and peanuts which might produce a smiley face. Harvey Ball was a commercial artist credited with designing the 'smiley face'. Unlike the others, which are pure gibberish, this tee-shirt has some sort of narrative, or at least stream of consciousness. How aware of the narrative the designer was is another issue.

1 comment:

  1. Hi dandy!

    Chanced upon your blog while searching for information regarding dala village in yangon(I am currently in yangon while typing this) and will be heading there tomorrow! Would like to say I love reading your travel blog and I share the same interest: travel! Usually solo backpacking thr Asian countries, and planning to visit places like Bhutan and Mongolia, hopefully next year! I realized that Singapore is not on your travelled list, and would love to bring you and your wife around and try local food(skip those tourist traps) if you have plans to visit! Or if you need any information if you are travelling to Singapore please feel free to email me!

    Here is my email address:

    Cheers and safe travel wherever you are!
    Lee, Singapore