Welcome to "The China Chronicles", the story of two hapless English travellers who visited China for two weeks in the summer of 1999. The travellers were myself, Dave (author of the blog "The Plastic Mancunian") and my girlfriend and partner, Lisa. Also accompanying us were fear, excitement and a spirit of adventure that, quite frankly, surprised me.

I hope you enjoy it.

Day 11 – 15th June 1999 - Beijing

I woke up with a hangover, hardly a surprising occurrence given the stupid amount of Beijing beer I had imbibed last night. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling trying to recall the events of the previous evening while at the same time trying to quell the wave of nausea rising from my stomach. After an hour of feeling sorry for myself, I decided on an extreme course of action; a cold shower.

I've made some mistakes in my life but having a cold shower with a hangover was initially probably one of the biggest blunders in my portfolio. I screamed as I was attacked viciously and without remorse by needles of ice-cold water. My cries woke up Lisa, another mistake.

My head felt as if it was being chopped in half by a blind madman with a blunt axe. I desperately tried to switch the water temperature to something above absolute zero but, without my glasses to clarify the features of the shower, I found it difficult to focus on the controls. It seemed like an eternity but eventually I managed to raise the temperature of the water to an acceptable level. The torture had lasted around a minute although it felt like an hour. I basked in the warmth of the water and felt my hangover begin to subside.

When I had dressed I checked on Lisa. She was in a very sorry state. Not only did she have a similar hangover to mine, her stomach problems had returned. To consolidate her discomfort, it was her "time of the month" and she was wracked with period pains. Lisa spent the remainder of the morning on the toilet. By midday I felt almost human again and spent some time making notes on our experiences so far. Then I thought about the noodles from last night.

I recall that there was a huge amount of them and that they were very tasty. But I also remember putting them to one side because the sheer volume was too much for my already bloated tummy. I turned to the table where I had left the noodles and found the tray was completely empty.

"Did you finish those off?" I asked Lisa.

"No," she said. "You did!"

Apparently, I had gone to sleep then woken up sometime later and devoured the remaining, now cold, noodles. The disturbing thing about this is that I have no recollection whatsoever of this event. I feel certain that Lisa was winding me up and had herself finished them all, or disposed of them in some other way. She still claims that this is not the case and that I staggered out of bed and slurped up every last one of them, waking her up in the process.

The plan discussed last night, amidst the alcohol, had been to visit the Summer Palace, but Lisa couldn't really face it. She felt brave enough to find something to eat, though.

We caught the subway to Qianmen in search of food. Western influence here was rife and it was also a tourist trap due mainly to its proximity to Tiananmen Square. There were touts everywhere and we were immediately targeted as we ascended the subway stairs. Water, maps, tours, food and assorted trinkets were offered to us. The area was very busy, yet Lisa and I stood out a mile. Most of the people were used to tourists and merely glanced at us. But the touts were incredibly persistent. The overindulgence of the previous night was still evident and I wasn't at my best. I was annoyed at the constant attention yet I couldn't summon the anger and strength required to get rid of them. Lisa and I simply ignored them and walked towards a sanctuary; Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes I know it is utter junk but a bucket of chicken made to the Colonel's famous recipe was exactly what both of us needed to ensure that our journey back from oblivion to the land of the living was complete.

Our entourage of persistent touts continued to dog us all the way to the door and finally got the message when we slammed the door in their faces. And the meal was just what the doctor ordered. Never before have I enjoyed a bucket of deep fried crap so much in my life. The chicken tasted divine, the fries were just what a benevolent doctor would have ordered. The transformation from hung over Neanderthal to human being was now complete and I was ready to face the rigours of the remainder of the day. The food had a similar effect on Lisa who visibly improved. You can say what you like about junk food, but sometimes it really hits the spot.

When we had finished, we looked out onto the area just in front of Qianmen Gate and watched the few tourists around being hassled by touts. What could we do to evade these nuisances? Then it struck me. We could pretend to French. All touts we had encountered so far had spoken Mandarin and a varying degree of English. Yet nobody had uttered French to us as a greeting. And to make things even better, Lisa was almost fluent in French. I, myself, could get by. If we could manage to dismiss touts by pretending to be the same nationality as our Gallic neighbours, I would willingly bullshit in franglais. To be honest, in Xi'an I might even have considered pretending to be a demented maniac to be rid of them. Lisa agreed to take the lead with me using my limited French vocabulary to create the illusion that we weren't English or American.

Since most of the day had passed us by we didn't really have time to begin a major sight-seeing expedition. Although we weren't exactly struggling for cash, the robbery had forced us to tighten our belts somewhat. I wanted to spend the remainder of the trip safe in the knowledge that, even if we ran out of cash, we would have tickets back to Hong Kong. With that in mind, we set off for the subway, our ultimate destination being the CITS office in Jiangnomen.

Unlike yesterday, the weather was gloriously and almost oppressively hot. The sun was beating down and I spent most of my journey to the CITS office trying to find shade. We purchased our ongoing tickets and made our way back to Qianmen to have a walk around Tiananmen Square.

Beijing is a huge place and full of historical monuments and buildings, which makes it difficult sometimes to work out exactly which way to go to find what you are looking for. Qianmen is such a place. Trying our best to avoid touts we walked around searching for signs to Tiananmen Square. I assumed that, being one of the major tourist magnets, it would be signposted. The guide book map although fairly detailed, wasn't exactly clear. Lisa and I stood around wondering where to go. Tonto had returned.

Lisa spotted what appeared to be a shopping centre being opened for the first time. Outside the building, decorated with Western sign shop signs, including the ubiquitous McDonalds, a brass band was preparing to play. Behind the band we could see two dragons, not real ones obviously, being supported by a group of men. A fairly decent sized crowd had congregated in front of the entrance waiting for the opening ceremony to begin. Then the band started to play. We decided to go and watch. The men carrying the dragons began to run around in apparently aimless circles. I couldn't work out exactly why they were doing this. We tried to get as close as possible so that Lisa could take a photograph. Lisa got into a great position. I, on the other hand, was pushed aside by a rather large policeman. I stood on the sidelines watching Lisa's attempts to take a photograph and avoid the attentions of alert policemen, when suddenly I felt someone poking my arm. Thinking it was another policeman trying to move me along I turned to look at him, ready to nod my head and smile like a dumb tourist. It was not a policeman. It was a human tiger shark.

He was a very old man with a craggy, wrinkled face and messy grey hair tinted with black. His smile, when I turned to face him, revealed a totally disorganised array of teeth, some pointing outwards, some pointing inwards, some pointing left, some pointing right and some doing battle with other teeth to find a decent position in his mouth. He was dressed in a dirty white vest and scruffy brown trousers with a pair of scuffed brown shoes. I didn't know how to react and neither did he. From his behaviour, I concluded that he had never seen a foreigner before. The look on his face was one of nervous incredulity. He must have poked me to check whether I was real. He uttered a few words punctuated by uneasy giggles. Evidently he hadn't expected me to turn around and perhaps his words had been an attempt at embarrassed apology. His appearance, especially the teeth had surprised me and the expression on my face had almost certainly contributed to his nervy reaction. I smiled and said "Hello" in an attempt to mollify the situation. My actions had the desired affect. He smiled and tried to speak to me once more but I held up my hands and, still smiling, apologised for not being able to understand his words. He turned to his friend and began to talk openly about me, any embarrassment now gone, pointing to my hair, my clothes, my skin and my now week old growth of ginger hair pretending to be a beard.

Lisa returned having succeeded in her quest to photograph the dragon. She caught me smiling to myself at the antics of the tiger shark man behind and asked what was so funny. I explained what had happened and she, too, laughed. Tiger shark man then began to point to Lisa and continued his monologue analysing our appearance. I waved as we left and he immediately waved back, smiling as he did so to reveal his menacing dental configuration.

Tiananmen Square was not far, at least that's what we thought. We knew roughly where Tiananmen Square was, at least that's what we thought. As ever, we were wrong. We walked for around twenty minutes and saw no signs and no indications at all that we were on the right track. The guide book didn't help much because the maps of Beijing were on such a small scale that it was difficult to associate landmarks on the maps with their real counterparts. As usual we had to backtrack and spent the next twenty minutes blaming each other for wasting time by walking in the wrong direction when in reality the fault lay with both of us. When we eventually found Tiananmen Square, I couldn't work out how we had managed to wander in completely the wrong direction. To get there we had to cross a major and extremely busy road. It took us five minutes to pluck up the courage to do so. I literally took my life in my hands as I ran across the busy street full of motorists whose only desire was to smear as many pedestrians into the tarmac as possible. The lights were, of course, on red. I wouldn't have been crazy enough to step out onto a Beijing highway otherwise. Drivers revved their engines as we sped past as if to say "Come on. Make my day." I didn't dare to even glance in their direction in case it gave them and excuse to squash me. Imagine the excuse he would give to the local constabulary had he done so: "Well officer, he caught my eye so I had to run him over with maximum prejudice." The relief when I reached the other side of the street beggared description. I turned to watch what the local Beijingers did to get across roads. The bulk of them were sensible enough not to bother. The remaining people simply took out their brains and walked into oncoming traffic. I couldn't believe it. Yesterday, I had noticed that there were very few people, if any, crossing the roads. Here, however, there were a handful of psychopaths intent on taking the cars, taxis and buses on. Without looking and unaware of the status of the traffic lights, these nutters simply walked out into the oncoming traffic. Most drivers stopped, others simply veered past them. I was flabbergasted. This minority of pedestrians were immune to both fear and traffic.

Cyclists had big problems with traffic. Cars and buses ignored them completely, giving them no room whatsoever. And the cyclists took it out on pedestrians, both the sensible ones like us and the psychopathic minority. Cars forced pedestrians onto the other side of the road, facing oncoming traffic. It was a miracle that none of them were killed. When they found themselves faced by a car, they would simply try to veer around it completely ignoring any psychopathic pedestrians who happened to be trying to cross at the time. Furthermore, cyclists used the pavement as a cycle path, forcing their way through the throngs of sensible pedestrians who, used to dodging bikes, simply stepped aside without as much as a "Do you mind? The pavement is for pedestrians you know." We weren't safe anywhere near a main road, so we made our way towards Tiananmen Square and a little bit of peace and quiet.

The timing of our arrival in Beijing was not brilliant as far a Tiananmen Square is concerned. On October 1st 1949, Chairman Mao created the People's Republic of China. October 1st 1999 would be the fiftieth anniversary of the event, about three months away. To celebrate this, Tiananmen Square was being renovated; the whole square was completely sealed off apart from a few gaps in the fences allowing workers through.

Each gap was guarded by a member of the PSB. Entry to the square was forbidden. All we could see above the fence was Chairman Mao's mausoleum. We tried to see through the gaps in the fence but the policemen on duty were insistent that we move along. From what we could see, the workers were completely replacing the entire surface of the square, tearing up the original paving stones. I was disappointed by this because I wanted to see the place where the Tiananmen Massacre had taken place ten years earlier. I can still recall the images of the students standing up to the PLA, an enduring image of the people opposing oppression.

Since that time Tiananmen Square has appeared as a peaceful place; images of people walking across in a leisurely manner; people standing in front of the picture of Mao Tse Tung and smiling; cyclists crossing the square with happy carefree faces. In other words a far cry from the violent images shown world-wide as the PLA murdered innocent people by running them over in their tanks and firing randomly into the crowds. I wanted to judge Tiananmen Square on its own merits. I wanted to stand in the same place as the student who defied the tank. I wanted to walk across the square and feel the atmosphere now as the people prepared to celebrate fifty years of communism. I wanted to judge for myself. It was a shame that I couldn't.

By now it was getting too late in the day to see any more sights and, to be honest, I wanted to chill out. Lisa had recovered from her stomach problems. There was only one thing left to do. Check out the Hard Rock Café.

Yes it was sad and narrow minded of us to seek solace in a place like the Hard Rock Café but at the time we were both a bit fed up and disappointed at not being able to see Tiananmen Square and we had had our fill of trying to fend off touts and risking life and limb on the busy roads. Also, sad as I'm sure you will say it is, I wanted a Hard Rock Café T-shirt from Beijing.

Hailing a taxi proved to be quite difficult. Most of them ignored us. The only people who didn't ignore us were guys who rode round on tricycles ferrying tourists around. Call me a coward if you like but there was no way I was going to put my life in the hands of a man on a three wheeled bike as he attempted to take us to our destination amongst lorries, cars and buses. But could we get rid of them? Could we buggery. We walked along the road desperately trying to attract the attention of a taxi and these nutters on trikes shadowed us and basically hid us from view of vehicles in the road. I was beginning to get annoyed, as you may have guessed. Running would have been no good because they would have simply kept up with us. But running in the opposite direction, against the traffic would surely render their cause lost. Even these guys weren't crazy enough to cycle into oncoming traffic just to rip off a tourist. Wrong!

We turned and ran back along the road and our plight deteriorated rapidly. Not only did the guys shadowing us turn and cycle into the oncoming traffic, risking death to keep up with us, but we also had to contend with others who had missed us and were rapidly cycling to wards us, shouting and waving their hands in the air as they came. I felt like General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. We were surrounded. We needed the cavalry. And along it came in the form of a sympathetic and sharp-eyed taxi driver who had spotted Lisa and I frantically and desperately waving our arms. Without fear and not caring whether he ploughed into the army of trikes surrounding us, he screeched to a halt, barely missing the most persistent trikeman. I rushed for the door amidst shouts of despair from the trikemen and we crawled into the safe haven that was a Beijing taxi cab. The trikemen weren't to be beaten. Two of them positioned their trikes in front of the cab and began yelling at the taxi driver. He, in turn, waved his fists in fury and slowly moved forward. Thankfully, the trikemen relented and the driver was able to pull away. Now I knew how celebrities tracked by paparazzi felt like. When we arrived at the Hard Rock Café, we gave the driver a tip; next time, run the buggers over. Not really. We gave him a few yuan above his bill and made him a very happy man.

The Hard Rock Café was exactly like every other Hard Rock Café I have ever been to. On the way in I bought an overpriced, black polo shirt complete with Hard Rock Café logo and "Beijing" embroidered underneath, just to prove where it had been purchased. Surprisingly, it was fairly busy for this time of the day (around 5pm), with a few local people eating snacks and drinking beer. The prices were cheap compared to Hong Kong but compared to other places in China they were exorbitant. I was surprised to see Chinese here, but it did prove that not everybody was poor. The local people were all businessmen, perfectly groomed and dressed in immaculate suits. Moreover, they were fairly loud, laughing and joking, patting each other on the back and performing other rituals associated with a business lunch. It reminded me too much of work so we opted to sit at the bar and watch Tom and Jerry cartoons with a beer.

I am a grown man in my late thirties and I still love Tom and Jerry cartoons. I'm not talking about the awful cartoons made in the 1960's complete with cheesy 60's music and a "hip" version of the two creatures. The best adventures of Tom and Jerry are those made in the 1940's and 1950's, featuring Butch, the black woman whose head can never be seen and an array of little extras such as the baby woodpecker, the duckling who thinks Jerry is his mother and Jerry's hungry little nephew. I still roar with laughter when I see Tom smacked in the face with an iron, giving him an iron-shaped face or hit with a bowling ball and separated into ten pin shaped versions of himself. The fact that Jerry can eat double his own bodyweight in cheese and can throw objects ten times heavier than himself at Tom doesn't ruin the appeal. As with all cartoons, the best thing to do is suspend your disbelief, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. My all time favourite has to be the one where Tom Jerry and Butch make a pact to be the best of friends. It has all the elements I love in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Needless to say that, predictably, the three of them eventually tear up the pact and decide to spend all of their time chasing each other and inflicting serious and extreme violence on each other but, although I must have seen it hundreds of times, I always thoroughly enjoy it.

In the first cartoon we watched at the bar, Tom died and was told that if he didn't get a signed affidavit from Jerry stating that the mouse had forgiven Tom for all of his misdemeanours against Jerry he would burn in hell. In the second cartoon, Tom made the world's stupidest mouse trap and, of course, came a huge cropper. Fuelled with lager, Lisa and I cried with laughter, which just goes to prove that Tom and Jerry cartoons are even better when mildly inebriated.

When the cartoons had finished, we sat and talked for a while about plans for the remainder of the trip. While we were talking, I noticed a young Chinese girl come into the bar and sit down. She was around mid-twenties and very good looking. She was wearing jeans and a very flimsy red T-shirt (which didn't leave much to the imagination) with the words "Sexy Bomb" embossed on the front in large silver, glittery letters. I realised that I was staring and with a mild flush of red, turned to Lisa. Unfortunately, Lisa spotted this and so I came clean, saying what I had seen. I glimpsed over in Sexy Bomb's direction to show Lisa where she was sitting and noticed that she was staring right at me. Lisa turned round and agreed that she was very nice (but with a sinister undercurrent warning me to keep my eyes to myself - who said I wasn't psychic?). During the next half an hour, every time I looked at Sexy Bomb, her eyes were boring deep into my own. At first it seemed quite nice but soon it began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Although, if I'd been single, I would have relished the attention and convinced myself that I could have had a chance, in reality she was only staring because I was a blond haired foreigner with an untidy and wispy ginger beard glued badly to the lower part of my face (at least that’s what Lisa had ordered Captain Paranoia to convince me of).

Had I been single and available and had Sexy Bomb really found me tantalisingly irresistible and vice versa, any future romance between us would have been doomed to failure anyway. Westerners are not allowed to bring local people back to their hotel rooms. There can even be a problem if you are married to a Chinese person. Proof of marriage is required, failing that proof that you are a foreigner. Attendants on each floor of the hotel are there not only to take care of duties for the guests on that floor; they are also there to ensure that no locals are sneaked into hotel rooms.

Having consumed enough alcohol to make us a bit merry, it was time to go back to the hotel for a rest before going out for something to eat. Lisa is a keen fan of Beijing duck and, since we were in Beijing, it seemed the logical thing to try. After a taxi back to the hotel, we slept for an hour or so and then showered and changed ready to find a suitable eating establishment.

The guide book recommended a nearby restaurant called the Bianyifang Duck Restaurant. Its location was adjacent to the Chongwenmen subway station, i.e. within view of our hotel. We must have walked around for about ten minutes, up and down the subway stairs, risking life and limb crossing the horrific main road and generally wandering around looking dazed and confused. Tonto was with us once more. I was once again consumed with frustration at our lack of ability to find something within spitting distance. I was about to suggest asking someone when Lisa spotted it. And you'll never guess where it was. That's right - it was part of the Hademan hotel - where we were staying! How embarrassing is that?

All eyes were upon us as we entered the restaurant and were seated by a very happy attendant. The waiters once more argued amongst themselves about who was going to come over and serve us. A young waitress drew the short straw and, with a nervous smile, came over and uttered a question in Chinese before blushing briefly at the realisation that we would be unable to understand her. She looked around to her colleagues who were huddled in the corner, smiling at her discomfort at having to serve two foreigners. Lisa eased her pain by pointing to the menu, which was presented to us in Chinese and Chinglish, at the entry for "half a duck". In the meantime, I pointed to a bottle of Beijing beer on the table next to us and held up two fingers. She understood and walked off towards the kitchen with a very relieved smile on her face.

We didn't have to wait long for our duck to arrive. It waddled up to our table and greeted us with a quack. No it didn't. I'm just joking. The duck arriving at our table with a very professional looking chef was definitely devoid of feathers and judging by its layer of skin, had spent a lot of time enjoying the warmth of an oven. I felt sorry for it, mainly because its head and neck were still attached to its body.

Despite its appearance, the accompanying smell persuaded any negative thoughts to take a holiday for the duration of the meal. Even as the chef or sliced off the skin and snapped the neck off with a brittle crack, my stomach overrode any feelings of revulsion. Worse was to follow. We had ordered half a duck and that's exactly what we got. Having severed the neck and head, the chef proceeded to snap the head in half (bear in mind that this creature still resembled Donald Duck in a bizarre kind of way) and present it to us for our enjoyment. The remainder of the duck was skilfully chopped in half and the meat sliced off professionally and quickly and offered to us on two plates.

The remainder of the duck was removed and we were left to enjoy classic Beijing duck complete with plum sauce, crepes and shallots. While we were tucking into this excellent delicacy, the chef returned with a soup made up of everything left over from the duck; bones, gizzard, quack. The soup was very watery and greasy but tasted delicious. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was left sitting there covered in grease and bits of duck patting my ever increasing tummy in satisfaction and contentment. Lisa claimed that this was the best Beijing duck she had ever had.

We washed the duck down with a couple more Beijing beers and paid with a smile. We retired to bed feeling full and completely sated.

No comments: