Friday, September 02, 2011

Staring At The Sun

During my first week in Beijing the sun, when it was visible, was a faint, brighter dot in the city's enveloping haze. An apt symbol for the sea-change between Mongolia and China. The former has wide, open spaces with barely a soul in sight, the calm serenity and blue skies only broken by the whup-whup-whupping of a crow's wings as it passes overhead (when was the last time you heard a bird's wing beats?). Beijing is another planet entirely: loud, chaotic, bustling, choked with traffic, pavements spilling over with street vendors, air wafting with odours both salivating and unpleasant mixing with the sweat of humanity brought on by the humid summer. Beijing out-populates Mongolia by four to one (despite being only one thousandth the size of the latter). The smoggy haze is an inevitable by-product.

The obligatory holiday snap of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'AnMen) at the entrance to the Forbidden City, along with its portrait of Mao and watchful soldier.

Beijing is my third "intersection point" on this trip (i.e. a place I have been to before in previous travels) which meant that I was reasonably comfortable with the city and finding my way around the giant metropolis, which could easily be daunting for first-time visitors. I was also quietly pleased with myself at how much Chinese I had remembered from my last visit six years ago (admittedly not much, but most of it was still there). Having visited before I had also seen the big, must-see sights (the Forbidden City, the Imperial Summer Palace and Great Wall). Not that that mattered much as Beijing is one of the true world cities where there are always things to see and do, and in this case I used the opportunity to explore some of the lesser-visited, outlying attractions that may not immediately set pulses racing (anyone want to visit the Peking Man site?) but were interesting nonetheless, not least because I managed to stay away from the throngs of tourists that besiege the Forbidden City. But it also allowed me to see the outskirts of Beijing where construction is going on at a ferocious pace with several highways and raised high-speed rail tracks under construction, not to mention plenty of apartment blocks in the outlying commuter belt. China is certainly making up for lost time with a vengeance.

One of the most interesting places for me by far was the 798 art district. An old complex of disused factories, power stations and railway sidings has been given over to the arts community who had turned it into a giant art studio, with galleries, cafes, boutiques and tons of modern public art lurking around hidden corners. It is the sort of bohemian place you would expect to find in trendy new urban rejuvenation projects in the UK and France, but certainly not in China, where censorship still weighs heavily on public expression. Indeed, I found quite a number of works that I interpreted as being openly subversive of the regime and many that conveyed the message slightly more subtly. I'm hoping that bodes well for the future directions of the country and that currently issues deemed sensitive will come out in the open.

One of the paintings on display at 798 and entitled F-U-C-K. If you look closely the guy in the boat holding the baby is the famous dissident artist Ai Wei Wei and all the onlookers (the Chinese people?) are being herded away and not allowed to look. Quite blatant iconography in my opinion.

My greatest joy though has probably been culinary. People often moan about Mongolian food as being horrible and tasteless. I, however, quite liked it, but it is hard to deny that it is hard to do much when your only two ingredients are meat and milk. Given what they have to work with Mongolian food is actually very inventive. But there's no denying the far greater richness of China's cuisine that spans so many different regions, ingredients and influences. And I am taking full advantage, stopping at every street stall where I see something I don't recognise and having a go. Sometimes with undesirable consequences (I rediscovered a while back that I am allergic to frog meat) but usually my tastebuds are kept contented. And joy of joys, there is now cheap, fresh fruit in plentiful supply. I had almost forgotten what bananas and apples (not to mention persimon, pomelo and peaches) tasted like after the fruit-deserts (and not desserts) of Mongolia and Kazakhstan).

One of Beijing's many street vendors selling cheap, delicious, and usually quite healthy, food (in this case a sort of crepe). Mmmmm.

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