Toys for boys

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9m long limo. It’s roof is about 9″ high (I couldn’t reach the roof).

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Nothing more to say other than “I kid you not!”. 2300 cc engine.

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Mr Bean.

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Bits and pieces

Didn’t really have a plan today. Spent most of the morning reading up about the history of China and Beijing. Felt is was necessary to understand where they came from to understand who they are today. Also, all the buildings and monuments are worthless without the history to attach to them.

Chinese civilisation goes back 5000 years and it was unified as one country about 2200 years ago. Since then they’ve been beating the crap out of one another. It’s just a continuous stream of one emperor taking power and then the moment he, or his descendents weaken someone else comes along to boot him out. There are some well known names in the mix – Ghengis Khan and his grandson Kubla Khan, all the dynasties (Ming, Quin), the Manchu family (Fu Manchu), and so on. In between the peasants get peeved with the opulence of the emperors and revolt, and get beaten back, and it was only in the 20th century when finally the peasants got a leg over and deposed the emperor. It could have happened any other time in the past 2200 years, and when the peasant revolt eventually succeeded in 1949 they had a charismatic leader (Chairman Mao) and a communist blueprint from the Soviet Union to learn from.

Up to about the late 1800’s they were constantly one of, or the most powerful nation on earth. The communist era was really just a minor speedbump in a very long highway of events. The common thread throughout all of this is that they have prospered when they have had strong leadership and suffered when they didn’t. We shouldn’t think of the Chinese resurgence as a flash in the pan.

Anyway, I went back out on the streets again at about 2pm heading towards the National Museum which apparently has more information that would add to my knowledge. Decided to walk and got sidetracked and only got the the museum at 4.30. I didn’t realise it closed at 4 so I’ll head back there tomorrow. Got a great shot of the original city gate on the way.

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Sadly this was the main gate in the wall and they took away the rest of the wall in the 1960’s and used the void to make a freeway. The wall is about 25m high and 30m thick.

On the way back I went through the “1000 year old trees park”. Very humbling experience. Here’s one of the old folk (an Ent).

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Then saw Buddy’s long distant cousin fishing in the moat around the Forbidden City …

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… and finally ended up at the Donghuamen night food market for some munchies. The things on the left are starfish.

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Full tummy, off to bed.

Jingshan Park

I mentioned previously that Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City run along a straight line. Well seeing as the ancient Chinese were excellent astronomers this line is exactly north-south and is in the very centre of Beijing (or at least it was in ancient times when the foundation stones of the city were laid. I did some further exploring around this axis this afternoon and went into Jingshan Park which is also on this axis and just to the north of the Forbidden City. In the centre of the park is the one and only hill in Beijing and this hill has a temple on the top. It’s actually quite high and the tallest vantage point in Beiijing.

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This is it as you approach the top of the hill.

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When you get to the top you have an uninterrupted view of not only the Forbidden City but also the entire present day Beijing. Or at least.you would have if the air wasn’t so polluted.

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The Forbidden City is about 3km long and the air was so bad that I couldn’t see that far. Talking about the pollution, I haven’t seen the sun since arriving 10 days ago. Even in the countryside. There has always only been this brighter part of the sky. Eyes always itch, throat is often scratchy.

Anyway, back to the present. I had a good enough of a view to see that this north-south axis actually extends for probably about 8km with a number of really important structures along it starting with the original southern outer city gate – Tiananmen Square – Forbidden City – the shrine where I was standing – clock tower – Bell tower – north outer city gate. The top of the hill was also smack bang in the centre of Beijing.

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I then went back down into the park. It is a Sunday which is a day off for most people and there was quite a festive mood. People were hanging out and doing their thing – achoir practice, folk dancing, a littlele band. None of them were doing it for ninety, it just looked like a community thing where they used the park as their gathering place. Then I came across some guys doing Chinese spinning tops.

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This was fascinating.and owners up spending about an hour ons park bench just watching them do their thing (I have video footage which I will show when I get home). I’ve never seen it before and it is a mix of ribbon gymnastics, yoyo, ballet, … They have two sticks with a string between and a spinning top about the size of a sideplate. They twirl the string around the spinning top and keep it running up and down the string in mid air. If you remember a few years back there was a market craze where you would hold a stick in either hand and flick a third stick between them? This is a similar concept but much more sophisticated. It is the kind of thing which you would say “make it a sport and put it in the Olympics”. Can’t wait to show you the video.

Then back to the hotel and I purposely walked through the back alleyways. Lots of people around, perfectly safe, and a chance once again to sample a bit of the real life in Beijing.

Subway hopping day

Get on the subway and head for the coolest looking name. Get off and see what’s there.

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Here’s the bike for the man who has everything (Pete) – a BMW urban cruiser. But here’s the thing – if you can afford to buy it, would you be riding it in the streets of Beijing?

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This is a candy animal. The person poured hot candy out on a plastic board in the shape of the animal and waited for it to cool a bit and then inserted a straw and blew it up. Amazing to watch and he was so quick about it.

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Then came across a silk shop where they had a display showing how they get the silk. First the silk worms (I think everyone knows that part) and then they drown them in water and spin the threads while it is still in the water (if you look really closely you just might see the 4 threads coming out the bath).

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161 Hotel

Spent last night going through booking sites to find a hotel in Beijing. Looking for a reasonable price but something that has good reviews (Tripadvisor). Settled on a place called 161 Hotel which is really a hostel with a few private rooms (went for the private room). It describes itself as a “homestead in a traditional hutong”. A hutong is a Chinese home built around a courtyard.

Didn’t know what to expect so I only booked for 1 night just in case. Let me take you on a journey.

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Seedy part of town. Coming around the corner on the left which will lead to the hotel.

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The hotel is there on the left about 4 buildings along.

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Ta da.

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Lobby.

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Snack room / bar.

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Mezzanine lounge area.

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Bedroom.

And you know what? It’s a flipping lekker posi. It is a good lesson for our guesthouse back in SA. They concentrate on the things that matter to this level of traveller:

– spotlessly clean bedroom and bathroom (clean carpet – the first clean carpet I’ve seen in the Middle Kingdom) – crisp linen
– free wireless in the rooms
– reception staff that speak English (whoopa) and are happy to help
– it is not pretentious and has a vibe

My window looks out at a concrete wall,, the furniture is cheap (but stable), everything is all over the place. These things don’t matter unless you’re Hilary Clinton.

So I’ve just booked for the remaining 4 nights until I leave.

What do you guys think? What do you look for when you travel?

Chengdu airport

On the way now to Beijing. Chengdu airport is really modern and spacious.

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Whats interesting for me is that I keep on yoyo-ing between slumdog and millionaire. I’m staying in 2-3 star hotels to save money (of course) and also with the theory that if your hotel is too nice you will spend too much time indoors and not outside on the tourist stuff. The same goes for the transport – trains and buses are cheap but can be a bit of a hardship post. I took trains to Chengdu and arrived pretty smelly and disheveled and it was fine – I got to speak with the other people in my compartment – but it is a slow process. The train back to Beijing is 26 hours and that’s why I’m taking the plane.

The price difference between say a plane and a train (RMB1100  VS.  RMB700) makes a huge difference in the comfort levels. At the stations you are in the developing world and have to put up with huge volumes of people. The airports (so far) are like 5 star hotels and the people are, well, normal.

I’ve been through some really smelly swamps in the cities as well as New York 5th avenue type shops – 5th avenue is comfortable but boring – the swamps can get really interesting.

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Chair massage in the airport waiting area.

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This is a really clever device. Haven’t seen them in SA but I’m sure they are throughout the world in airports. (Actually maybe they were in South African airports at one time but got stolen. Sitting in a shebeen in Crossroads). It’s a landphone that doubles up as an internet screen/airline info/and whatever else – all on a touchscreen.

Next stop Beijing for a few days then back home.

Streets of Chengdu

Chengdu is really a great city. The best way to compare the cities I have been to – Beijing is like Washington or Pretoria (government buildings, monuments), Xian is just crappy (Brackenfell) and Chengdu actually feels a bit like New York, strangely enough. At least in the city. But then again, it isa city of contrasts – glass and granite skyscrapers down the main stretch and then grimy small shops as you go further afield.

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The above picture is a pedestrian mall with Leads on the one side and Gucci in the other and the mall is called – wait for it – Times Square!

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The picture above gives a very nice contrast – peasant lady probably bringing her harvest to market in the plush streets of Chengdu. Nancy told me that there’s a tremendous pull from the cities to get more cheap labour. A subsistence farmer could earn, say, RMB 500 or less per month and in the city or manufacturing areas a starting wage would be RMB 3000 pm. As they come into the cities they stay in the really dingy parts of town and the people from these areas then upgrade to something better. You are always passing one or another apartment development – its just a country that is growing fast.

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Most of you should know that I worked as a traffic engineer in another life and that’s why I took the pictures above. What do you do when you have a main city street that is congested and you can’t widen it? Well you just build another 4 lanes – underground! And then they did the same for the pedestrian flow – two big city department stores on opposite sides of the street, so you bridge between the two (nothing surprising) but then extend the pedestrian walkway along the length of the road above the cars.

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This ones for the ladies – Chinese weddings are also in white.