Saturday, October 02, 2004



If there's one thing the Chinese love to do, it's spit. You can't go down a street here without someone nearby gobbing on the pavement. Walking around the Temple of Heaven earlier, the peaceful ambience of the gardens was regularly shattered by a local desperately trying to hack up enough phlegm to empty all over the grass. Yesterday I was walking down the street past a cafe when a man opened the door, spat on the street right in front of me, then shut the door again. It wouldn't surprise me if they make it an Olympic event for 2008, at least they'd be guaranteed a home win. I've never seen a nation with a bad habit to compare. I'm sure Bob Carolgees would like it here.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Just A Face In The Crowd


A stack of beers followed the duck down last night which meant I began Chinese National Day with a shocking hangover. The whole country is on holiday as the people celebrate 55 years of the People's Republic. Tiananmen Square is rammed, and given the size of the place that means there's an awful lot of people out. Pushing through the crowds earlier was quite an experience, my obvious height advantage giving me a great view of the masses. No tanks and a real paucity of giant placards this year but there were plenty of red flags on all the buildings and in everyone's hands. It all looks a bit sinister at first but the atmosphere is very relaxed, people have come from all over the country to fly kites and generally mill about looking happy. The level of national pride here is greater than in any other country I've visited, even America. Being just one foreigner in the midst of tens of thousands of Chinese makes you realise something very important about China: There are loads of people! Everywhere! Just incredible, I still can't get my head round it.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mine's A Number 32


Eating Chinese food in China is interesting. Last night I went to a little place round the corner from the hostel. Thinking the dishes would be small I ordered a couple with some rice, forgetting that here the portions are often huge. The chicken with peanuts I had was a vast pyramid of food and tasted great too. A lot of it is considerably spicier here than the Chinese food you get at home, they just love whacking loads of chillies in stuff, but then I suppose you'd expect the lame British palate not to be up to that sort of thing. I hate leaving stuff on the plate but I can tell you getting through dinner last night was a monumental struggle and I barely got through any of the rice although that's not unusual for China. Most people just have a tiny bit with their meals for fear of diluting the great food. After washing all this down with a beer I slowly got up and was amazed to find it all came to just 25 yuan which is less than two quid. So next time you pop down Honest Harry Chan's you'll know you're getting properly ripped off.

I've not had any Peking Duck yet but I hope to remedy that tonight. It's been throwing it down all day which has at least cleared away some of the smog. Last night was the fullest moon of the year although I only know that because I read it in the paper. All the citizens of Beijing got to see was a very blurry faintly circular glow coming from the general direction of where the moon usually is. They're really going to need to sort it out by 2008.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

An Afternoon With Roger


Last night was the mid-Autumn festival. A tenuous one I know, much like the mid-Autumn sales they used to have at MFI. Everyone's supposed to gather round eating special 'moon cakes' and looking at the full moon. The thick smog means you can't really see the moon at the best of times and yesterday was no exception, but the cakes were ok as long as you avoided ones with egg in the middle.

Made my first trip to Tiananmen Square today. It is enormous, although the pollution makes it difficult to see one end from the other so that may be a slight optical illusion. No sign of any demonstrators being crushed by tanks, or of any tanks at all really. Chairman Mao's huge memorial hall dominates one part of the square. It's much bigger than Lenin's although his body is naturally much smaller. His face has a very suspicious luminous green glow that seems to come from within his brain. Presumably that's what too many moon cakes does to you.

Checked out the Forbidden City this afternoon and I was delighted to discover the voice on the audio tour guide is none other than Roger Moore. The pictures of him around the ticket office seem to date from the 1970s and his voice over sometimes slips into full on James Bond mode. He can't resist a 007-style smirk when he's talking about the harem the various emperors used, and how one died after apparently "over indulging" in one of the 27 beds. The palace itself is certainly grand with all its buildings but it's not absolutely stunning, no matter how much Roger tries to convince you otherwise.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Let Them Eat Snake


A few of us went out in the centre of town last night and found a long strip of stalls selling all sorts of fried food. The little menus were translated into English and the people running the stands were doing their best to entice us to buy stuff. One guy held up a snake on a stick and went "ssssssss!" while waving it at us. Obviously I couldn't refuse such a tempting invitation so he stuck it on the fryer put some seasoning on it and gave it to me. It was just the snake skin and was so covered with different spices they were just about all I could taste, but the slimy texture was just as you'd imagine. A bit better was the fried scorpion I got at another stall. In fact they fitted three little ones on a stick and they were very crispy and actually not bad. The legs and tails just tasted of batter but the body was definitely fishy. Even I drew the line at the doubtless delicious "goat cock with testicle" though. I think I made the right decision.

Went along to the Sky News bureau today. It's considerably nicer than the one in Moscow and because not much was happening I was able to have a good chat to everyone there. Correspondent Dominic Waghorn took me out for a long and very civilised lunch which I managed to get through only swallowing one very spicy chilli by accident. My chopsticks technique still needs quite a bit of work though, in the end I gave in and used a fork.

Not sure about what to do tonight although I've discovered there's a brothel underneath my hostel. Thankfully it's probably beyond my budget, but watching Chinese dolly birds taking drunk Western businessmen down there is entertainment enough for a few hours.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Wall


A few of us from the hostel took a trip a couple of hours north to see the Great Wall today. And it really is a great wall. The stretch we visited was pretty much free of tourists so there were plenty of quiet spots to admire the spectacle. Eschewing the cable car we decided to walk up the hill and even for someone as unfit as me it only took twenty minutes or so to get up the thousand steps. Lots of dodgily translated Chinese warning signs ("no push, no run, no horse play!") kept us amused on the way up, then we spent hours walking slowly along and looking at the amazing views. I'd still be there now if our minibus driver hadn't told us we had to set off for the city again at two to beat the awful rush hour traffic.

The route the wall takes is what surprised me. It snakes around at high altitude, up and down steep slopes and usually over the top of the mountains. Why couldn't they just build it on a flat bit? Surely that would have been much easier? The way it was built is certainly dramatic and I'm sure the advancing Mongols were impressed by the sight, but it didn't stop them marching over and through China. But although it was useless for the purpose it was actually built for and you can't see it from space after all, it still looked pretty good seeing it for real.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Future Is Here Now


Christ, what a place! A few of us went out drinking last night and I continue to be amazed by how modern and built up everything is. It may well be the most modern city I've ever visited. Everyone seems to be very rich as if all the poor people have been exterminated or locked up, which admittedly may not be too far from the truth. There's been conjecture for years about when China will emerge as a major superpower to rival or surpass the U.S. - well, while everyone's been looking in the other direction that day has just about arrived. Preparations for the Olympics are already stunningly advanced. Passing the Workers' Stadium (where Wham! played in the eighties) I spotted the signs and logos already up for 2008. They could probably host it tomorrow, let alone in four years.

The mark ups in some of the bars reflect the cash swilling about the city. You can easily get a beer for 15p in a shop that will cost you ten times that if you get it in a pub. In one such place I ran in to a guy I met a month ago in St Petersburg, which proves that even in a country of 1.2 billion people it's still a small world.