Tuesday, 13 May 2008

I want to ride my bycicle. I want to ride it where I like.

I am quite prepared for much of my naivety and ignorance to shattered on this 9 month adventure. There is a bit of propaganda lodged in the back of my brain that tells me that the capital city of a Communist country should be dour, drab and very, very serious. A little old fashioned too. Beijing is none of these. It is a massive, impressively modern city that is full of life and very welcoming.

It is also a city designed for the bicycle. And there are thousands of them. There are also thousands of cars. Both the car drivers and the cyclists take the use of the horn and the bell very seriously. The result is noise. Lots of it!

It seems daft to be in Beijing without being on a bike. Sadly, our hostel only had reconditioned mountain bikes and not the basket fronted squeaky jallopies that all the locals had. After half an hour my souped up bike fell to bits and we carried the heap into the arms of one of the many bike repair stations dotting the roadside. 20 mins later the bike was ready to pedal.

Our mission was to seek out the Laos ambassy and obtain a visa. Mission accomplished we were both extremely hungry. There are so many options for eating in Beijing, that at times it can be overwhelming. But we adopted a good tactic that has proved very successful eversince. 1)Go off-book. Don't rely on the guide book. 2) Follow your nose 3) Follow the locals. We noticed lots of construction workers tucking into fantastic looking takeaways. Our stomachs and eyes followed their trail until we found a tiny place on the corner buzzing with activity and happy customers. No English menu, so we pointed. Two plates appeared. One with cold noodles with cucumber and lots of garlic. The other a chilli pork stir fry with rice. Delicious and cheap. We were joined by a retired University lecturer and his young English student. When we told him that we had no children but a cat (Pesto cover your ears), he joked that, "in China we eat everything!" And when he discovered that Kathy worked for the BBC and I was but a humble teacher, he took great delight in the fact that Kathy had a better job than me.

The visit to the Forbidden City was disappointing for one reason. Roger Moore no longer narrates the English audio tour guide. Kathy had built it up so much. Nevermind. When I was wee I remember watching a Bond movie and commenting that 'James Bond must have slept with more woman that anyone else." In this repect, I think the Emperors had even Mr Bond beat. 3000 concubines each of them had. And the Emperor would never even meet them all, even though they all lived in a strange harmony within the walls of the City. If a concubine got bored of waiting for the Emperor to honour her with a visit and decided to slope off with more her own age (quite frankly) then, if found out, the Emperor had the right to knock off the said flighty concubine and 8 generations of her family.

Having missed Lenin in Moscow, I made sure not to miss seeing preserved body / waxwork dummy of Chairman Mao in Beijing. Kathy had already been when she visited Beijing the last time, so I went alone. It is a strange experience and you don't get long to actually view the body. However, you do get plenty of time to buy souvenirs at the other end. China may be rapidly modernising and changing but it is clear that Mao's influence and persona is still a potent symbol for many Chinese and the China itself. Can't imagine this sort of thing happening at home. Which leader would we choose to soak in formaldehyde for all eternity? Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher, Tony Blair?

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