Seventeenth Chinese Brother

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 20, 2010

Beijing, China

“I do hope Berlin’s cafes are well stocked because everybody seems determined to eat out the moment they arrive” – Captain Edmund Blackadder

“Whatever I need, I’ll go out and get it in Beijing” – Just about everybody on the trip

Tiananmen Gate, Forbidden City
The Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City, Beijing

THANKFULLY, our cunning plans to restock our kit and refresh wardrobes ahead of 15 days on a cruise ship have proved rather more successful than Blackadder and Co’s plans to eat as soon as they got “sausage side”.

Even with large chunks of stuff left back in Beijing for our return, our scaled-down bus which is currently whisking us from Xi’an (of which more in a later episode) to Pingyao (pronounce as if a bullet is ricocheting off a bucket, Ping-yao) is rammed with bags stuffed full of gear plundered from Chinese markets. And toy swords and cutlasses (again, more later).

It hasn’t always been easy.

Mike and Nick’s search for deodorant took five days before it paid dividends (much to the relief of the rest of us), Phoebe has discovered the Chinese are not all that big on pirate gear (as in Captain Pugwash, not knock-off gear – we know we’ve got plenty of that) and we have all been manhandled, chased and, in my case, physically prevented from leaving a market stall by three small Chinese women hanging onto me (tune in next time for that tale).

Marlo even got whipped by belts from eager sellers, but he lost any sympathy when he went back for more.

Marlo, Tiananmen Square
Coke, Mao and Marlo – Mixing it with three cultural icons in Tiananmen Square (and rescuing one from his adoring public)

But that’s all getting ahead of ourselves, let’s rewind to where you last left us, rolling towards the Mongolia-Chinese border (and the Great Firewall of China which has hampered updates, or would have done if we’’d had much time to write them) on the Trans-Manchurian Express.

It would have been a remarkably quick, efficient border crossing – once they had finally realised it really was Mike in his passport picture – if we had not had to wait for hours while the wheels were changed on the carriages to fit Chinese tracks.

The whole process involved plenty of shunting, banging and moving us into a big shed before lifting us off the ground and onto our new wheels.

Sadly, if you are looking for an informed, educated insight into exactly how such a mammoth task was undertaken, rather than watch on from the corridor window, the residents of Nick’s Bar slept through most of it.

That at least meant we were wide awake for the final approaches into Beijing which included a free breakfast (prompting much jealousy from Nick as he watched one of the staff tuck into one of his beloved dippy eggs), the discovery that my much-maligned railway platform biscuits went well with Freddie’s discarded peanut butter, a free lunch about two hours later (a first attempt at chopsticks for those of us who shunned the use of a ‘spork’) and endless miles looking for the Great Wall which finally stumbled into view on a green hill far away.

Beijing - The Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square

The sustenance and rest was needed as we rolled into Beijing, which lives up to its billing as one of the world’s great cities.

Having been escorted to our hotel (we are living in relative luxury on this leg of the journey) by Gary, our guide for the circuit of China, we spilled out onto the streets in late afternoon to get our first taste of Chinese life.

And what a taste.

Bang in the heart of the action, with Tiananmen Square and Mao’s Mausoleum at the end of the road, we scurried off down the side alleys (Hutongs) to experience what Beijing had to offer. Or find some deodorant.

It is a frantic, bustling mass of people, noise, smells (not all of them pleasant – even with deodorant) and sights. Nick, Mike and I fell instantly in love with the place.

Yes, it is daunting, yes it is in your face and anyone selling anything is onto you as soon as you go near their shop or market stall.

But it is a thrilling assault on the senses and the people are so good humoured and genuinely excited to try out their English or get to meet Westerners, that we were grinning long before our first encounter with Chinese food.

Crowds in The Forbidden City
The colour-coded tourist groups flock into The Forbidden City

That came from a street vendor with what we originally christened “sticks” – wooden skewers of cooked, spiced meat of occasionally questionable origin – which have become our staple snacks when out and about. Delicious, hot, filling and all for about 25p each.

By then we needed a rest from all this scurrying about, so found a bar down a side street and settled in for a couple of beers, only to add some Beijing Duck, a beef platter and some sweet and sour chicken – complete with obligatory rice – to the order.

It was our first proper taste of what was to come – the most beautiful food served in huge mounds at ridiculously low prices. That little lot, complete with beers, set us back about £5 each.

So enamoured were we with our new find that when we met the others back at the hotel – all wide-eyed and talking too fast from their own explorations – we took them back to the same place and, what started as one quick drink, eventually ended with our hosts waiting for us to leave so they could shut up.

In between there was much singing, drumming (Nick led us all in a version of Wonderwall on a drum), dancing (Phoebe led us all, and one slightly bemused young Chinese guy, through several versions of… well, not quite sure actually) and making friends (hello Katie and Rachel from Wolverhampton).

Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven

Which is why some of our number were still up and about for the 2am arrival of Dave – the latest (17th) addition to our ranks.

The rest of us met our second Irish tourist rather bleary-eyed over breakfast before heading out for a day seeing the sights.

And most of China had turned up to greet us when we descended on Tiananmen Square.

Either that or they were waiting, patiently and in co-ordinated hats to designate their different groups, to enter Mao’s Mausoleum.

It is hard to reconcile the friendliness, politeness and air of calm – even with so many thousands of people milling around – with the events which made this place so famous in the west 20-odd years.

Certainly any fears that we would be met with suspicion and doubt were quickly dispelled – as they have been wherever we have gone in China – by the welcome we received.

Feast leftoversBecause so many of the people in the square and the Forbidden City are tourists from rural China, they are not used to seeing Westerners and so we became tourist attractions in our own right.

At times it was surreptitious. You would turn round and find a camera pointing at you and any smile or wave would send the photographer scurrying for cover.

At other times, you would suddenly find somebody stood next to you while their companion took a quick snap.

But the braver ones would come up and, in whatever English they could muster, ask for a photo with us.

Think we all got approached at some point and such was the delight and interest they showed in us, it was a pleasure to help them out.

But nobody had to deal with as much interest as Marlo.

He has been a tourist attraction since we entered Russia and a black man in Tiananmen Square is always going to stand out.

Group Shot, Imperial Gardens
Reinforced group shot in the Imperial Gardens

And once one guy had approached him for a picture, a crowd soon gathered – our Dutch master of cool taking it all in his stride and responding to each request with a smile. He was even spotted signing autographs at on point.

While we were walking tourist attractions in our own right, there was plenty for us to see and photograph as we wandered through the Forbidden City (a trek of more than five miles evidently) and, via an exquisite banquet for lunch, the Temple of Heaven and a rickshaw ride through the backstreets of Beijing.

After all that, you could excuse us an early night but…

Gary came up trumps as we headed out to a district where a lake is lined with bars and restaurants and the bustle of people.

We instantly felt at home and tried out the facilities before retiring to the hotel and a few bottles of Tsingtao bought from reception and downed in the empty restaurant – complete with Mike using Fran’s mouth for target practise with M&Ms.

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