Today was our last day in Beijing and we decided to have a lie in. I woke up reasonably early and switched on the TV looking for something interesting to watch. Until now, from the little I had seen, Chinese TV was about as compelling as a dripping tap. Had I been Chinese or at least able to understand Mandarin, I'm sure I would have been riveted. I switched on and hoped for the best. And what a surprise I got.
I am a great fan of action films, in particular those involving large amounts of martial art fight scenes. One of my favourites is Enter the Dragon with the legendary Bruce Lee, although recently, people like Jackie Chan have captured my interest, not only because he is a very skilful artist and the fight scenes are choreographed to perfection, but also I enjoy their humour. So imagine my surprise when I was confronted by the most incredible fight scene I have ever seen in my life.
I did not understand a single word uttered by the actors but to be honest, I didn't need to. Picture the scene. Around ten men are chasing a woman. She is running down a fairly busy street as fast as her legs can carry her. But the men are gaining on her. What should she do? Scream for help? Try to run in a shop or flag down a taxi? No. She stops, turns around and begins to kick seven colours of shit out of her pursuers. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, appear at least another fifteen blokes who join in the melee. At first I thought that the new gang of men were her allies but was surprised to see that they too were attacking her. Now we have twenty five men trying to beat a woman…or so I thought. Half of the new gang of men started fighting amongst themselves. The original pursuing gang of men also started fighting each other. Everybody was fighting everybody else. The woman was being kicked in the stomach, then recovering in a nanosecond to punch the lights out of her assailant. Politically correct film critics would have been appalled at the level of violence being directed at this female, had she not been able to defend herself and dish up her own beatings. Ruthlessly and with totally evil malicious intent she punched and kicked and chopped. I lost count of the number of times men rolled on the floor in agony, having just received a swift kick in the gonads, only to get up a second or two later and resume the battle. But there was one thing about the carnage in front of me which wasn't right. The fighting itself!!!
The film producers had meant to portray a scene of gross violence and skilful martial arts. What they actually presented was the most hilarious fight scene I have ever seen in my life. The choreography was so bad that my two young boys could have acted out a more realistic kung fu fight. The woman would lash out at one of her assailants with a huge whooping cry and completely and visibly miss. Yet the man would drop to the ground as if he had been poleaxed, then get up again, only to receive a swift kick in the balls (which also missed incidentally). One guy punched another in the teeth and tomato sauce flew out of his mouth. Except he hadn't actually made contact.
Sad as it may seem, I timed the fight scene, starting my stopwatch at least two minutes into the fight. Eventually, leaving lots of men groaning on the floor, our heroine ran across to some of the secondary group and together they fled. My stopwatch read (and I swear I am telling the truth) fifteen minutes. And there was not one ounce of sweat on any of the combatants. Not one single drop.
My giggling and chuckling failed to wake up Lisa who was deeply in thrall to her Sleep Monster. I would have watched more of the film to try to work out whether our heroine would kill the bad guys or just miss them to death but I thought I'd try to watch something more intellectual (forgetting for a moment that I was in China). I flicked over and found a Chinese soap opera.
Soap operas, the world over, are terrible; so terrible in fact that you can't help being sucked in and totally addicted to them. For years I watched Brookside, EastEnders, Coronation Street and (get ready for this - I trust you now so I will open up a little and tell you one of my darkest secrets …) Crossroads. Yes, that's right. I was one of the many people who sat in front of the TV watching Miss Diane, Meg Mortimer, Benny and all manner of embarrassingly dreadful actors attempting to convince us that a hotel, sorry, motel existed in the suburbs of South Birmingham, which was run by inept staff each of whom had a personal life to make Jack the Ripper appear to be an easy going guy. The sets were so unrealistic that many of its audience used to stifle their laughter as scenes of confrontation and scandal took place. I made the decision to stop watching soaps and Crossroads was the first casualty, followed by EastEnders (I hate that show so much now), Brookside and, the most difficult, Coronation Street. I haven't watched them for years but I still feel myself being hypnotised when I do accidentally tune in. I almost succumbed a year ago when I watched two consecutive episodes of Brookside. British soaps are bad but they are the best.
The collection from Australia are so mind-bendingly appalling that you want to put the planks of wood playing the characters out of their misery with a shotgun. But if you want truly, truly abysmal shows, just tune into "Sunset Beach", an American export where every word, every sentence uttered is scandalous, confrontational and, worst of all, completely overacted. You know you're in trouble when the actors "think aloud", something which never happened on shows like Dallas. Every scene is traumatic, for the characters, who are suffering unrealistic personal problems such has finding out that your brother's daughter's ex-husbands new wife is the sister of the man who murdered his mother's ex-husband's long-lost daughter's grandmother, the actors, who overact more than Jim Carrey on speed and deliver embarrassingly cheesy lines with alarming incompetence, and the audience who sit watching this drivel in total disbelief and such despair that they cannot drag themselves away from the TV to get a life. I've suffered with it, I can tell you. I was flicking channels and caught it on Channel 5. The scenario is always the same.
"What's this?" you will ask yourself and you will watch it for five minutes. Then you realise but its too late. The part of your brain which is addicted to sad pursuits will take over and force you to watch the rest of the show (in this case a three hour omnibus edition). Even the advertisements can't take your mind of it. By that time, the TV remote control has dropped from your hand, your mouth, open in horror and incredulity, is dribbling saliva down your shirt, and your other hand is pointing at the screen as you try to say "This is the worst acting I have ever seen in my life". If there is nobody there to rescue you and turn the TV off, you are hooked and will religiously watch the daily shows AND the omnibus repeat for the rest of your life, despite warnings from every other part of your mind that this inane drivel should be dumped into TV Hell and forgotten about.
Such is Chinese soap opera, except that it is more garish and, if possible, the acting is worse. I lay in bed, allowed the remote control to slip from my hand onto the bed, pointed at the screen and tried to enunciate the sentence "My God, this is even worse than Sunset Beach" with a permanently open mouth, spilling dribble like a waterfall. Honestly, the facial expressions made me laugh out loud. I couldn't understand a word of what was being said but I knew that the plot was taken from episode 253 to 257 of Sunset Beach. When it finished and the credits rolled up the screen (all in Chinese of course) I tried to memorise the symbols so that I could confirm that this series was called "Shanghai Beach" or something similar. Thank heavens that my lack of ability in reading Chinese characters saved me from a terminal addiction otherwise I may have ended up being trapped in China for weeks dribbling in front of a TV somewhere.
After the soap came the news. As you would expect, the bulk of the coverage centred upon Chinese issues. I couldn't understand a thing, of course, but every person in every report was Chinese. Except at the end, that is. The newsreader briefly covered an item about Kosovo but that was all. I still had an edition of the China Daily in my possession from yesterday, that I had picked up in the hotel foyer. The first article I found was written by a Chinese economist who said that the USA use bullying economic tactics and want to hold the entire world to ransom so that they can ultimately control nations by using sanctions. I guessed that the Chinese TV news would be equally biased. The paper also had an article saying that Tony Blair had apologised about the embassy bombing and that Sino-British relations had improved as a result. So it wasn't all doom and gloom from the West.
After a while, I was bored with TV and bored with the newspaper, so I got up and had a shower. By the time I'd finished, Lisa had surfaced. I finished packing and waited for Lisa to sort herself out.
Today's plan was to visit the Forbidden City. We weren't leaving Beijing until this evening so we still had the best part of a day to say goodbye to the city.
We arrived at Tiananmen Square searching for the entrance to the Forbidden City. It was not easy to find. Our combined sense of direction on this trip had let us down many times and this time was no exception. Having said that, the entire area was saturated with people, and there were no signs evident to lead us to our goal. We did discover a smaller historical site, which we entered by accident thinking it was the Forbidden City. Red wooden buildings and pagodas adorned this small park and, in many ways it was very similar to the Forbidden City. There were very few people here so Lisa took the opportunity to capture the buildings on film. In the meantime, I wandered around in search of refreshment. I spotted a woman with a cart full of cold drinks. What a great opportunity to get rid of the fake 50 yuan note. I approached the woman and pointed to a large bottle of mineral water holding up two fingers to indicate that I required two of them. She grabbed two bottles, put them in a thin plastic bag and handed them over. In return, I passed her the offending banknote and smiled as I patiently waited for my change. Surely she wouldn't be able to check its authenticity. Wrong! Horribly wrong! She knew as soon as the paper touched her skin that it was a fake. She didn't have to run it under an ultra violet light to discover its shady origins. With a grimace accompanied by numerous Mandarin words (which may well have been expletives), she passed the note back to me and tried to take the water back. I reverted dishonestly to my actor's role as stupid tourist and shrugged my shoulders.
"I haven't anything smaller," I shouted. In turn, she raised her voice pointing to my wallet. I fished out another 50 yuan note, which she snatched from my hand. She gave me the fake back and stroked it, trying to explain that it felt different. I feigned ignorance so she actually handed me the two notes and motioned that I should rub them. Sure enough, they felt different, something I hadn't noticed last night. Bollocks! It would be impossible to get rid of the thing. I reluctantly handed her the genuine note and she obliged by handing me change. I walked away looking sad and ripped off. It wasn't an act this time, though.
I caught up with Lisa and explained that I had failed to get rid of the counterfeit note and would probably never succeed. We had been ripped off again, albeit on a smaller scale. And it hurt.
The Forbidden City, as it turned out, was very close. Eventually, after wandering around the main entrance like two lost sheep, we found the ticket office and waited in the queue. It took ten seconds for a tout to latch onto us (I know because I timed it). Lisa dealt with him brilliantly. The conversation went something like this:
Tout: I will be your guide and show you around the Forbidden City.
Tout: You need a guide for the Forbidden City - 100 yuan. I am the best.
(Tout looks puzzled)
Tout: Guide for the Forbidden City? Do you speak English?
Lisa: Comment? (To me) Qu'est-ce qu'il a dit? (to him) En franςais s'il vous plaît?
(Dave shrugs shoulders)
Tout: (very loudly and very slowly): ARE YOU FRENCH?
Lisa: Ah, franςais (deep breath) …
Lisa then bombarded him with French, quickly and expertly. With my very limited knowledge of the Gallic tongue, I could pick out the odd word but I had no idea what she was saying. For all myself and the tout knew, she could have been describing how to bake a chocolate cake. But her accent, mannerisms and the sheer pace of the words as they left her mouth assaulted the tout's ears, driving him into a confused mess. And he simply turned away.
"Tres bon," I said patting Lisa on the back. "What did you say?"
"Oh, I was just bullshitting," she said with a smile. I was very impressed, having just played a bit part in the proceedings.
Armed with tickets, we made our way back to the main entrance and found two of them; one for foreigners and one for Chinese. The entrance for foreign nationals was full of stalls trying to sell memorabilia souvenirs of the Forbidden City. I would have been surprised had the Chinese entrance been so tacky. I made one final attempt to rid myself of the fake 50 yuan note, by buying a small book of photographs of Beijing. I was about to hand over the note when I spotted one of the small ultra violet machines. My heart sank. There was no point trying to get rid of the thing. I decided to stash it away and keep it as an unwelcome souvenir.
Inside we were hounded by touts wanting to be our guide, charging US$10 for their skills. Lisa pretended once more to French but I lost my patience. Once more, the constant pressure to relieve us of our money finally took its toll.
"No, we DON'T want a guide." I howled at one particularly persistent tout, giving the game away that we really weren't French at all. Waving my arms, I walked away. Lisa followed, still trying to speak French to those ignoring me. This time, we weren't pursued.
The Forbidden City was the home for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is now known as the Palace Museum. At the time of the emperors, commoners were forbidden from entering the grounds, hence the name. This was the case for 500 years, where 24 emperors ruled here in total. The emperors very rarely left the grounds of the place, which is hardly surprising judging by the size of the place. As the name suggests, it can be regarded as a mini city within a city. To help keep the proletariat at bay, the Forbidden City was, and is, surrounded by a six metre deep moat and a ten metre high wall. At either end of the complex, there is a gate. We were about to enter from the Tian'anmen Gate in the south, the other, from which we would subsequently be leaving, being the Gate of Divine Might in the north. There are also gates on the west and east side of the complex.
The construction of the Forbidden City began in 1407, early in the Ming dynasty, and took 14 years to complete. Many of the buildings, however, had to be rebuilt in the eighteenth century, because an earthquake destroyed the original structures. These buildings have actually been expanded.
The Forbidden City was huge. We actually spent three hours wandering around the place and we still didn't see all of it. The distance between the north and south gates is 960 metres and 750 metres between the east and west gates. In total there are 9999 buildings so as you can imagine, it is very easy to get lost in there. It is the largest complex of its kind in the world. We could have spent the entire day there and still struggled to see everything there was to see. Lisa and I gatecrashed some of the tourist groups briefly so that we could be told about the history of the place. Some of the more impressive buildings, containing statues and historical treasures and artefacts were off limits. Tourists were able to look into the dark interior to make out the shapes within, but sometimes it was difficult to appreciate the full beauty of the contents. I imagined that the fear of fire had fuelled the determination to keep the more valuable objects hidden. In some cases, the poor visibility added to the mystery of the place and allowed my imagination to create a more impressive picture of life in this magnificent palace.
All of the buildings I saw were made of wood. As if it wasn't obvious, there were constant reminders dotted around the place in the form of "No Smoking" signs. Throughout its history, the Forbidden City, or palace, has constantly been accidentally set on fire, usually from fireworks or accidents involving lanterns. My imagination began to stray towards the evil side of my personality, which manifested itself in my youth when I found myself in possession of a magnifying glass and a trapped beetle. I saw myself, for a brief instant, armed with a flame-thrower and portable petrol pump, spraying these magnificent building and guffawing insanely as each was reduced to rubble. Then I saw myself being summarily dismembered and tortured with maximum prejudice in front of the Chinese population, and World War III erupting as a result. Thank heavens I didn't have an evil tendency to commit arson.
Of the buildings we were allowed to enter, most contained paintings, murals, statues and historical artefacts from centuries of Chinese history. I couldn't help but marvel at the artwork and attention to detail, especially on the corners of each roof, where small animals had been carved into the woodwork with incredible accuracy and care.
Before we left, we spent around ten minutes standing in one of the courtyards, allowing ourselves to drift back in time to imagine life in the palaces throughout history. I was thoroughly absorbed in it and imagined myself walking across the giant courtyards to the magnificent buildings, seeing ancient emperors strolling around, dressed in full imperial regalia. It would have been wonderful for an outsider to witness, but such invaders would never have managed to tell the rest of the world. The punishment for ordinary people trespassing within the Forbidden City was instant death, a very harsh sentence, but a punishment which in a perverse way would have preserved the mystery of life as an emperor.
Finally we left, satisfied that we had had a superb insight into life in China's history. Once again, I was overcome by the magnificence of the place and, though not as impressive as the Great Wall, I knew I would remember the Forbidden City in a similar way.
Outside the Forbidden City, mayhem reigned supreme. an army of touts waited for hapless tourists to leave, so that they could sell them tacky souvenirs or cajole them into taking a (probably expensive) ride. We had great difficulty controlling our impatience as tout after tout offered us a ride aboard a rickety tricycle. Worse still, having beaten off the attentions of touts, we tried to flag down a taxi and succeeded only in grabbing the attention of yet another trike riding tout, who wasn't best pleased when I tried to explain that I was after a taxi. Persistent touts are a pain in the arse, but angry persistent touts are amongst the world's worst forms of humankind. Eventually we hailed a cab and, with great relief to both of us, set off for our final sight in Beijing: the Temple of Heaven, which is situated in Tiantan Park in the south of the city.
On the way, the sky suddenly became much darker, with a heavy rainfall threatening. We decided to risk getting soaked anyway.
The Temple of Heaven was constructed in the year 1420 and is the largest group of temple buildings of its kind in China. It is situated in the 660 acre Tiantan Park. The purpose of the temple is give the impression that you are as close to heaven as possible, something I appreciated as I stood in front of it. The design of the temple reflects an ancient belief that heaven is round and the earth is square, which is evident if the temple is viewed from the air; the temples are round and their bases square.
At the southern end of the site is the 5m tall Round Altar. Built in 1530, the altar was used by emperors to offer sacrifices to the god of heaven. The construction revolves around the number nine, which is regarded as the most heavenly of all numbers. Hence, the number nine is predominant in everything from stairways where the number of stairs is a multiple of nine, to the nine rings of stone, each of which contains multiples of nine stones. Apparently, if you stand in the centre altar and speak, your voice is amplified, possibly nine times but this is just speculation. The three stone slabs at the altar are called the Three Echo Stones for this very reason. Furthermore (and theoretically because I didn't try it), if you stand close to the inside of the circular wall and whisper, your voice returns along the wall from the opposite direction.
Dominating the entire site is Qi Nian Dian, the most well known and certainly the most attractive building. Qi Nian Dian means Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Ming and Qing emperors came here for that very purpose; to pray for abundant harvests. The ceremonies, held twice a year were spectacular. Over a thousand ministers, eunuchs, courtiers and servants would be involved. Eunuchs! It's always puzzled me what makes a man allow somebody to cut off his balls. I'm sure in some cases these were not "voluntary" eunuchs, but I imagine that some said "Yes, I don't mind if you lop off my testicles"). Perhaps in the case of imperial China, the prospect of living with the emperor and all of the privileges and comfort accompanying this, might have appealed to these men. Perhaps they were just stupid - "Wow, I get to look after the emperor's concubines. Weheey!!" - and didn't release the prerequisites for the job. I, personally, would rather live in poverty with my tackle intact. The night before the ceremony, the emperor himself would sleep in the Palace of Abstinence, which as the name suggests, meant that he had to fast and remain celibate, something I imagine would be extremely difficult for the man who had everything. He would then perform the ceremony the following day. The temple is 38 metres high and circular in shape with a diameter of 30 metres. The vivid blue roofs are coloured such that they reflect heaven. The most remarkable feature of this magnificent temple is the way in which it has been constructed; the whole structure is built from a series of interlocking wooden pieces, none of which are held in place by nails or cement. Inside, there are 24 wooden columns supporting the ceiling but nothing is attached. It is a work of remarkable genius.
We chose our time perfectly to see the Temple of Heaven because there was hardly a soul in sight. The guide book told us that large crowds flocked to see the complex, usually in the morning, but it was now late afternoon and, with adverse weather conditions prevailing, we effectively had the entire site to ourselves. One or two other people were wandering around but, considering the popularity of the place, I was surprised to find it so devoid of people, despite the weather.
The Temple of Heaven has, for an unknown reason, become a symbol of China. I would like to bet that if you frequent Chinese restaurants world-wide, you will have seen a depiction of the temple on the walls or menus. I must admit that I was very impressed having seen it in the flesh, so to speak. The colour of the sky and the impending downpour produced an eerie backdrop to this magnificent set of buildings, which have become, over the years, one of the lasting symbols of the city. The vivid reds and blues complemented the leaden skies, transporting me to a far off place. For a while, I forgot where I was and when it was. I was lost in my own little world trying to imagine ancient ceremonies being performed by the emperor.
A brilliant flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a deep rumble of thunder signalled the beginning of the storm. By now it was beginning to darken significantly and the lightning had illuminated the temple in a most spectacular fashion albeit for a brief instant. When the downpour began, I stood in the rain and simply stared at the vista in front of me. Lisa was running around desperately trying to catch a lasting image on her camera but I was oblivious to her efforts. I whispered goodbye to Beijing at this point, knowing that whatever happened for the remainder of the day, I would regard this moment as the end of my visit to Beijing.
By now we were drenched. It was time to go back to the hotel and clean ourselves up ready for our last meal in the city. We walked through the rain trying to minimise the soaking by walking under trees. The park was beautiful and it was a pity that the weather was so bad. A quiet stroll would have finished off our sight-seeing perfectly.
We hailed a taxi at the main entrance to the park ad the driver found it difficult to suppress a smile at our condition. Next to the driver was a young boy aged about five, who I assumed was his son. The boy had only rarely seen foreigners, if at all, and was fascinated by our appearance. He was extremely cute and smiled shyly at us continually. Lisa said "Hello" in Mandarin and a look of surprise appeared on the boy's face. The journey back to the hotel was spent playing peek-a-boo with him.
Back at the hotel, we showered, packed, changed and checked out. We decided to eat in the Bianyifang Duck Restaurant again, this time opting for something other than the duck (though Lisa was extremely tempted by it again). Once more, the waitresses drew straws to decide who would serve us. The meal was superb and we washed it down with a few beers. Predictably, nature began to call and I had no idea where the toilet was, nor even how to ask for its location. I couldn't go back upstairs because we'd checked out. I had to ask a waiter. I waited until one of the male waiters walked past and pointed out the word "toilet" in the phrase book. He began to explain in Mandarin but I just stared at him. He realised that I had no idea what he was saying and beckoned me to follow him. Feeling strangely courageous, mainly due to a little alcohol, I decided to practice the word as we walked. The phrase book had an English pronunciation for the word and I attempted to say it to him. He smiled and said the word properly. I repeated it and got it slightly wrong, so he repeated it again. This continued all the way across the restaurant when I finally pronounced it in an acceptable fashion. Just then, I caught sight of a couple on the table next to the toilet staring at me with an ill-concealed look of mirth on their faces. I couldn't work out what was so funny. And then I realised. I had just walked across the restaurant with a Chinese waiter saying the word "toilet" very loudly and very badly and very often to him. He in turn had responded with the word "toilet". So two grown men had marched across a restaurant shouting "toilet" at each other. No wonder the patrons were laughing. Slightly embarrassed, I smiled at the couple, pointed to the door and said "toilet" in Mandarin. I thought the woman would have a seizure. Her hand covered her mouth and she grunted and snorted, trying to give me the impression that she was choking on her food. The man stifled a laugh, nodded and stared.
After the meal, we made our way to the railway station via the metro system. Our next and final port of call was Shanghai and we were due on the express train. The two cities are very far apart but the non-stop train service travels overnight at incredible speed. Once again we had opted for a soft sleeper and ended up sharing a cabin with two Chinese businessmen who spent the entire evening bellowing into their mobile phones. At one time, I thought they were talking to each other!
Too much beer and exercise had taken their toll. We both went to bed and settled in for good night's sleep.