My Visit to China

A short account and a selection of photos from my visit to China in April 2002

With Charlie Liao, restaurant manager at the Shangri La Hotel.

We stayed at the Shangri La Hotel in West Beijing where we had a large comfortable room overlooking the city with a panoramic view. Most mornings there is a pall of smog hanging over the city due to pollution and desert sand dust. The first three days we were there in early April the desert sand storms were so bad that people were wearing masks and almost being blown over by the wind. Everything was quickly covered in fine white dust. This is due to the erosion of the desert and the alarming fact that the Gobi desert is creeping nearer to Beijing every year, seriously threatening to engulf it if preventative steps are not taken.

A beautifully ornate porch waiting to be demolished.

The day after we arrived Robert took me to see some of the old "hutongs" or lanes that are fast being demolished to make way for high-rise buildings. These lanes used to spider their way all over the city and would be home to many thousands of people. Here real life takes place and markets abound, selling everything from cabbages to canaries. Men play chess on upturned boxes and women chat as they hang out washing alongside clusters of garlic. The warm earthy smell is wonderfully intimate and familiar - the smell of humans living in close proximity and cooking for the evening meal, garlic in oil and fresh spices. Here, beside the market near Fuchengmen Qiao, we found an old chap making traditional black cotton slippers for martial arts, but with leather soles and hand-stitching. We came across an ancient man making tiny dustpans from old tins - his workshop was on a small barrow, including a soldering lamp. All kinds of wild birds were being sold in cages, some with their eggs, and I later regretted that I hadn't bought some to release them. The Chinese love caged birds and make a great fuss of them, covering their cages in white fitted cotton covers and taking them to the park every day to hang the cages in the trees. It is mostly the older people who do this. Puppies, kittens and rabbits and dayold chicks are all on offer from baskets on wooden trailers that are hitched onto the backs of bicycles. There were cicadas in buckets, being fed spiders. Cicadas are prized for their "song" and are stuffed into cut up cardboard tubes to take home. Shop-keepers often keep one in a small box on the counter.

Chess players in a hutong.

We returned to the area the following week only to find that the whole place had been demolished, there was nothing left, just dust and a few trees and piles of rubble. This was a terrible shock and sadly not a unique event. I felt an urgent need to see more in case the whole of old Beijing is destroyed before my next visit. An ominous Chinese character is painted crudely onto the doors of buildings destined for demolition, like a death sentence. One evening Robert wanted to take me to his favourite Russian restaurant, The Baikal, so we got a taxi and set off. However the taxi-driver couldn't find the place and nothing looked familiar. It slowly dawned on Robert that not only the restaurant but the whole street had been demolished. An elegant trail of trees was all that was left. Strangely enough, trees are very much revered and great efforts are made either to move them to a new site or to leave them where they stand. Some of the ancient ones are propped up and protected by fencing and huge efforts are made to prolong and preserve their lives. Many of them are hundreds of years old, particularly in the grounds of the temples and former Imperial palaces. As often as we could we explored more of the "hutongs" and managed to see many wonderful old courtyards, doorways and porches. The roof tiles are a beautiful misty grey colour with a hint of mauve and the shapes are fluid and graceful as if they have been stroked in place with a calligrapher's brush. We never tired of looking at these remnants of old Beijing and were glad that the more we looked the more we found. We also visited several small museums which were once the homes of well known artists or writers.

Ring road access ramps are being constructed day and night and appear like giant noodles slung overhead, as if from nowhere. The speed of construction is daunting and huge slabs of road are erected overnight, hanging perilously in mid-air as if broken off by an earthquake. All this causes dreadful traffic jams and detours so that getting to a meeting on time can be nerve-wracking.

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