Monthly Archives: June 2015

Empress no more!

I was dethroned. My upgrade to the family room was downgraded when a real “family” showed up. So back to the servant girl’s quarters. Not that much of a difference, except for the bed and the size of the room. It’s just as dark and claustrophobic as the previous one, but it has portraits of Mao above the bed.
Everything has been so easy so far that I expected China to follow suit. It might have been if it wasn’t so unbearably and character-undermining hot. And the rest of the country, unless I had chosen to go to Tibet, doesn’t bode well for a cooling down.
It must be the first time in my life that I complain about the heat, but it makes me feel like staying in my room all day, naked under the air-conditioning. But that’s not an option.
So I went to the Forbidden City yesterday. I felt I had to, even though I’d already visited it 20 years ago. I had been underwhelmed then and so was I this time, no that it’s not one of the world’s spectacular sites, but like the Taj Mahal, you’d have to have it to yourself. And it was as thronged and as foreboding as it probably ever was. Huge courtyards to hold thousands of soldiers and their mounts, but this time the soldiers were us: a few foreigners and every Chinese on a summer holiday and out to visit their capital. No shade anywhere and I was juggling an audio-guide, a guide-book, a fan, a bottle of water and that darn little telephone that’s supposed to take pictures. I feel like an elephant, as if each one of my steps is hoisting a few tons. Everybody pushes and shoves, steps on your toes and threatens to poke your eye out with their parasol.

From the other side of the moat

From the other side of the moats

Mind your eyes!

Mind your eyes!

Nobody apologizes, but they do it with such innocence. I suppose that when you’re accustomed to live cheek by jowl, apologies become overly repetitive and therefore redundant. Next time, I’ll wear my steel-toed boots.
Two women said “Hello!”. Lots of people say hello to ” white ghosts”. You’re expected to say “Hello” too and it usually stops there. But those were kindergarten teachers from Northern China and they did speak English. “Are you Chinese? ” asks one of them. Chinese? Me? “Do I look Chinese?” “Yes, you look a little bit Chinese.”. That was news to me, I can’t find anything remotely Chinese about the way I look. Maybe did they mean to pay me a compliment. That left me totally confused.
I walked back to my hotel, not that I needed the exercise. It was nice to return to the quiet of the hutong where, next to a closed “sex shope” a child, presumably, practiced his piano scales in minor.Sex Shoping

I think it means

I think it means “Keep off the grass” in Chinese…

And another interesting translation...

And another interesting translation…

Surprisingly, there are extremely quiet areas in Beijing. Some are even completely deserted. That’s what I found today as I was trying to reach Beihai Park. I got off the subway (very efficient if you don’t mind being packed solid and frantic to grab anything, post or handle, that will keep you in a vertical position) at Tiananmen West, which looked on the map as if it were just at the southern end of the park. What I didn’t know was that the southern end of the park was “closed” and that I had to enter through the eastern gate. So off I go along a wall quasi-identical to the Forbidden City’s outer wall. I walk and walk, one kilometer, two, three. It seems to go on forever. Wide empty sidewalks, police posted everywhere. A few official looking gates. Not a soul but me and the policemen every few yards. I finally found out that I was walking along the Communist Party headquarters that have walled in and commandeered the southern half of the park. It’s the new Forbidden City, which might explain that I was the only ignorant fool to walk by.

Communist Party Headquarters

Communist Party Headquarters

By the time I got to the park, I was famished and no restaurant in sight. I nibbled on a few nuts that I carry with me, along with the rest of my equipment. Today, since it threatened to rain, I had added an umbrella to my panoply. As everybody knows, carrying an umbrella is the infallible guarantee that it won’t rain. Not carrying an umbrella has the opposite effect. So, I was just as loaded as yesterday but the proximity of the lake and the psychologically cooling effect of willows and lotus ponds made it a lot more bearable.Parc
Fewer people, musics intermingling: a lone man plays something at the same time jazzy and oriental on his saxophone, further on it’s traditional Chinese songs, then the Lambada on an accordion and a few kids dancing to rock music.
That park, in my eyes, was in every way lovelier than anything I’d seen here so far in Beijing. Madame Mao must have felt the same, since she had made it her private garden. I wonder if she had all the flowers pulled out as detestable symbols of bourgeois decadence. Good thing too that the white stupa, erected in the 17th Century for a visit of the Dalai Lama – who was still welcome at that time – was allowed to stand.

Getting out of the Park got me good and lost. Rickshaws were hawking their services, a guy on a motorcycle wanted to give me a ride

“Aller où?”

(I think that was French), but then I wasn’t so sure if he was trying to speak French or English or if it just sounded like that. Go where? I only wish I knew where I was.

I entered the first restaurant that looked decent. I needed sustenance. Sunday night family crowd, a few bawling babies and all red decor. It so happens that it specializes in Chinese fondue or Mongolian hotpot, I’m not sure. You pick your ingredients, they bring you a pot of boiling water, a couple of sauces and a bowl of…coriander!!! which I had them take away, tout de suite! And then you cook your own dinner. That’s quite time-consuming, distracting and certainly keeps your hands busy and your iPad greasy, so if this is badly written, put it on the account of the hotpot. I was trying to cook my supper as I was writing.

Mongolian Hot Pot

Mongolian Hot Pot

Foodwise, I haven’t been too lucky so far. The first time, I pointed a dish on the menu that looked like chicken with spinach and peanuts. But what looked like pieces of chicken was actually walnuts. So much for the protein.
Last night dish was smothered in a delicious sauce of garlic, hot pepper and ….coriander. I had forgotten how to say 不要香菜 or bu yao xiang tsai (no coriander). Also, Chinese food is a convivial kind of food and a conviviality of one doesn’t make for much variety.
I’ve shunned street food so far. Eating on the run doesn’t agree with me and neither did the last fare I came across: scorpions – some still moving – on a skewer, crisp-looking starfish on a stick and larvae which, an American told me, tasted like

Scorpion Kebabs Anyone?

Scorpion Kebabs anyone?

Crispy, crispy starfish!

Crispy, crispy starfish!

double-baked potatoes, whatever that tastes like.

Gotta find a cab now and get back to my hutong. Not an easy feat! Found the cab, got off at the right corner. In front of the Dongsi metro station (pronounce Dongsheu), an aerobics session was going strong: young and not so young exerting themselves in spite of the persistent steambath. It distracted me and I missed the turn to my hutong. Everything looks so totally different at night. As a last resort and feeling quite stupid because I knew I was in the neighborhood, I went into a McDonald’s where I found what I expected to find: someone who spoke English. She bought her ice cream, walked me to my corner and got quite excited when I told her I was from Canada. She confided that she hoped to study at McGill.

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Through the Gobi Desert to Beijing

That name: “the Gobi Desert” always sounded romantic to me. I wonder what I possibly could have imagined. From what I could see at least, it is the harshest, most inhospitable land one can imagine.. Flat and grey green, more grey than green, with spiky, coarse tufts of meager grass.

None too inspiring Gobi desert

None too inspiring Gobi desert

This year must be a lucky year ( a bit of rain perhaps) so that some of that grass seems edible. On unlucky years, the cattle is said to die. Not that I have seen any cattle. But they must be somewhere as there were bales of wool, ready to be shipped out of Saïnchand (meaning good pond, although of a pond I have seen no trace) station. We didn’t see sheep but a sudden cavalcade of dusty wild horses and two camels.
The “towns”, including Saïnchand, are more like outpost settlements: decrepit barracks, dirt and more dirt, gravel here and there.

Saïnchand Station

Saïnchand Station

Totally depressing. it might have been a lot more exciting had we seen a few of the fantastic creatures that are said to inhabit the Gobi: for instance the “allegorhoi horhoi” or death worm who spits venom with its mouth while it electrocutes you with its tail or the “almas”, a yeti or bigfoot-like, half-monkey creature that eats marmots! But it must have been a bad year for them as we saw none.
I had started to feel so comfortable in Ulan Bator, thanks to the Zagdaa family and to the very cosy UlaanBaatar Hotel, that I could have stayed a few more days.
The train going from Ulan Bator to Beijing seems to be entirely occupied by tourists, among which a group of Australians, some of which I’m sharing my compartment with. For a change, I got an upper bunk and, next to me, the Australian tour guide: Will, a 25 year-old on the Moscow-Beijing beat, soon on the Silk Road beat from Istanbul to Beijing. He must have infinite reserves of patience and resourcefulness. I hope he’s well paid because his is a tough job. A lot of the people in the group are seniors, which makes me feel like I’ve lost my status as the “matriarch of the train”.

This promises to be a long trip: 2 hours at the Mongolian border, maybe 5 more at the Chinese one. By the time the Great Wall would become visible, it will be nighttime.
At the border, I handed my passport to a sinister looking Chinese agent who was barking orders in clipped English.
I finally slept through the change of bogies, which I could tell through my torpor, was causing a lot if moving and shaking.
In the morning, we had entered a new world of canyons and craggy hills swaddled in fog and willows.

Entering China

Entering China in the fog

The world had turned green again. Among too many threatening chimneys, ancient villages with corniced roofs peeking behind brick enclosures. It takes forever to enter Beijing, an hour perhaps from the faraway suburb to the station.
From there, I was entirely on my own. First, find a cab. They are all full or, if empty, don’t even bother to look your way. One stopped, looked at the address of my hotel which I had painfully “calligraphed”, shook his head and drove away. The heat was suffocating and when one taxi finally accepted to take me for 100 yuans (about $16), four times too much I knew, I took it being in no negotiating mood and/or ability.
My hotel is located in a hutong, one of old Beijing’s alleys where you feel that time has stopped, where goldfish are for sale and people sit on their doorstep, fanning themselves.

Hutong 2Hutong 3

It is one of those ancient residences built around a courtyard where it would be lovely to sit if it wasn’t so bloody hot.

Hutong 1

A minah bird guards the entrance and whistles with an air of saying: “Who made that sound? Certainly not me!” The house is a bit over-furnished, which could induce a sense of claustrophobia if one had a propensity. They upgraded me to a “family room”, which means that I have a choice between two beds: the servant’s bed or the Empress of China’s bed. I was tempted to sleep in the servant’s bed since the Empress’ bed with all its red silks and canopy seemed a bit intimidating, perhaps even threatening (it’s just like the bed in “Goodbye my Concubine” or “Hang the Red Lantern”, but they made the Empress’ bed for me and put the chocolates on my pillow, so I guess I’ll sleep here.

The Empress' Bed

The Empress’ Bed

There are horrid, screaming boys in the courtyard (Brits or Americans), perhaps should I have them beheaded.


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