bratsch's New Travelogue on China
Thursday, April 20. After a long but quite pleasant flight we arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport at around 9 :00 AM. Emerging into the main arrival hall after clearing customs, Anne got her first taste of where we were. Swarms of people, hotel touts, taxi touts, all in fast and furious Shanghai-hua. The men at the hotel shuttle counter would not let me go out to the taxi rank until I told them where I was going, « yin yue xue yuen - in my rusty mandarin, almost impossible for them to understand. « What ? I’ve been working here a long time and I never heard of that hotel. - « It’s not a hotel, it’s a music school -, I offered, but he was not believing a word. Once installed in the taxi we chose the elevated highway route by which it’s only about half an hour to the conservatory.
I had never seen the conservatory’s guest house. When I taught there in 1982 it didn’t exist and when I visited in January , 1999 I was on tour with the orchestra and lodged in the nearby Jin Jiang tower, so I had no idea what to expect. The legthy registration formalities were overseen by a severely grim woman and I was beginning to have doubts about staying. These doubts were compounded upon Anne’s inspection of our luxurious bathroom (private bath and toilet more than doubles the price of a room from 80 to 200 RMB). « Mouse turds everywhere ! - The staff obviously never expected anyone to be so foolish as to pay $25 for a room when the place wasn’t even full, so they didn’t bother to clean it. I suppose they don’t like to lose face either because they didn’t clean it that day or the following day. In fact it was not so bad. The bed was comfortable and there was even a television. I was happy to avoid the kind of atmosphere one finds in the big hotels, full of tour groups, businessmen, and rip-off artists. At the conservatory we were in CHINA.
The first thing on the agenda was to look for my former colleague, Shen Xi-Ti. The unbelievably squalid barracks that served as studios and practice rooms have now been replaced by an 18 story tower and I approached with some trepidation the guard at the entrance. I was informed that Professor Shen had not arrived but I was unable to find out anything more. It was impossible to reach her by phone as well. A recording said simply that the number was not valid. It was foolish of me not to have written ahead.
Lunchtime approaching, we set off on foot down Fuxing lu. As we walked I tried to imagine these first glimpses of the streets of China through Anne’s eyes. I was hoping she wouldn’t be put off by the dirt, noise and general insolence of the Chinese city. I remembered fondly a restaurant located in a disaffected Russian church (not the famous Grape restaurant on Xinle lu, but another church near Fuxing park) called Lucky City. I had no trouble to find the church again but Lucky City has become Ashanti Dome with catastrophic consequences : 1) it’s closed for lunch 2) it’s incredibly expensive. The Rough Guide directed us to Moon Shanghai Food World, a small restaurant in an alley off Huahai lu, where we sampled some real Shanghai cuisine : Cold salted duck, soy beans with pickled mustard greens,steamed huang yu, a wonderful river fish.
The section of Nanjing lu between Peoples Park and the bund is now a pedestrian zone for the first two kilometers. One has the impression that everything interesting in the way of traditional boutiques, workshops, etc. has been eliminated in favor of the huge shopping centers that now line both sides of the street. A walk along the Huangpu waterfront allowed us to take in the art deco facades of the bund on one side and the ultra-modern steel and glass towers of Pudong across the river.
(photos 1 Nanjing lu )
Just before leaving Geneva, a last minute fax allowed us to get in contact with Wang Ya –Cheng, a clothing designer whom we met in Carouge where she spent several months in 1999. She lives with her husband and 10 year old son, Wang Lu in a third floor apartment located in the easternmost part of the old French concession, a very traditional neighborhood with women in pyjamas doing their evening shopping and close to the Dongtai lu antique market where we browsed with pleasure. Ya-Cheng wanted to fix dinner for us but it was clear that they were unprepared and we wanted to invite them out so we proposed various restaurants and styles until Wang Lu finally suggested « let’s go to food street and look around to see what’s good -. Every Chinese town has one or several food streets, lined on both sides with restaurants of every description. No need for the guide Michelin, just go down to food street and see where the crowds are eating. Ours was on Yunnan lu and we had stewed eel, fried shrimp, steamed fish, roast pigeon, stir fried vegetables, fresh bamboo shoots with mushrooms, corn with pine-nuts, simmered tofu, and noodle soup.
Friday, April 21 : Ya Cheng had been overflowing with enthusiasm for our visit and insisted on organising our itinerary for at least our second and last day in Shanghai. She was to meet us at the conservatory at 9 :00 in order to take us to the Batik museum, to see her new apartment, and to meet again for dinner at their home. Before setting out we went once more to the conservatory tower to ask for Shen Xi-Ti and this time we found her in. She shrieked with surprise to see us and we quickly agreed to have lunch together. The new studios are certainly an enormous improvement and are well heated and air-conditioned (the old buildings frequently lacked window panes which made winter practicing extremely difficult. Summer temperatures are often in the 90’s with equally high humidity) The Chinese Batik museum is located in a residential district not far from the conservatory. One enters by means of a narrow alley which opens into a pleasant garden where the freshly dyed indigo batiks are hung to dry. We couldn’t get permission to observe the work in progress but the interior boasts a collection of old clothing, shoes, wall-hangings, and other objects from eastern China along with displays of dyes, stencils and implements showing the batik process.
The apartment where Ya Cheng and her family currently live is actually no more than a studio with a tiny kitchen on the stairway. They have fixed-up a kind of mezzanine space using a tiny attic to have a little more place but they dream about having more spacious accomadtions. This dream is now becoming reality as they have purchased an apartment in the same neighborhood as the batik museum. In fact the new apartment doesn’t have any more living space than the other one but they are negotiating to buy an adjoining room from the retired couple who own it. Now they have begun the lengthy process of renovation : floors, walls, plumbing, etc. The advantages : ground floor including a small garden and private entrance ; a miniscule dependence that was the bathroom but which they plan to convert into a kitchen. (otherwise they have to share kitchen space with the other tenants). Ya Cheng describes the apartment as « old Shanghai -, meaning 1930s. Cost of the two parts : $46,000.
At lunch time Ya Cheng left us, to take care of her son, and we went with Xi-Ti to a cantonese restauant off Huahai lu near the Shanxi lu subway station. Mostly we brought each other up to date, family, home, students, ex-students, colleagues, etc. At 59 years old Xi-Ti is of the generation that was the most hurt by the cultural revolution, but unlike many of her ex-colleagues she has stayed in China at her old job where she continues to train one of the world’s best viola classes. The cramped and ugly apartment where she used to live behind the conservatory was torn down with the rest of the houses on that street a few years ago and Shanghai is not an easy place to find lodging. At first Xi-Ti and her husband (a leading cardiologist) moved to Pudong where she had an hour and a half commute by bicycle and bus to the conservatory. In 1998 they bought a duplex in a new development to the southwest and it is very spacious and comfortable by Chinese standards. It’s still a long commute by bus but it’s not far from the end station of the No. 1 subway line and this year Xi-Ti got her driver’s license and bought a car (a mini-van !).
The Shanghai Museum which moved to it’s new stunning site a few years ago is a testament to the good side of the recent changes in China. What is now People’s Park, in which the museum is located, was formerly People’s Square, an enormous expanse of bleak cement where revolutionary rallies were held. Now it is an oasis of greenery in the middle of town, within walking distance to the bund, the old city, the French concession, Nanjing lu, Huahai lu, etc. and one has at the same time a view of the skyscrapers of Pudong. In 1999 I hadn’t enough time to explore more than half of the galleries and I was exited to see the rest. And with good reason – this is a superb museum for it’s collection as well as it’s presentation. Our eyes were getting tired by the time we got to the fourth and final floor of exhibits but when Anne saw the section on China’s ethnic minorities, their dress, jewelry, textiles, carpets, artifacts, etc., she was moved by the force and beauty of their art. Later when I asked her what she enjoyed the most she replied « the minorities section, the bronzes, the pottery, the porcelain, the calligraphy, the paintings, the jades, and the seals. -
Dinner at Ya Cheng’s was an extravagant affair prepared in their staircase kitchen and included Peking duck, steamed fish, roast goose, winter melon soup, and a whole array of vegetable dishes. Making a concentrated effort, we managed to polish off about 30% of the food. Ya Cheng announced that she had something for Anne –chinese slippers, the model that Anne wanted to buy that morning but couldn’t find her size. Those slippers rarely left her feet for the duration of our trip and were incredibly comfortable during our marathon walks. Ya Cheng pointed out that some slippers have as few as three layers of cotton insoles whereas these had six. We weren’t really sure before coming to China that we would meet Ya Cheng and therefore hadn’t much in the way of presents for them : a shawl that Anne brought back from Egypt in February, a box of chocolates with pictures of Swiss scenery, a lego toy for Wang Lu. We took leave of our hosts with our hearts even fuller than our bellies.
Wangfujing has been Beijing’s principal commercial strip since the last century when it was known as Morrison street. As in Shanghai, most of the old established boutiques have made way to new shopping centers which for the most part offer wares at international prices, often four times what one would pay elsewhere in China. I guess that between my last visit 13 months before at least ten to twenty old stores had closed and been replaced by luxury shops. Others had changed their look, like the famous tea shop Bichun which has subscribed to the latest Beijing trend installing bench swings in place of chairs for tea tasting. The other big change is the street itself which was always choked with traffic and has now become a pedestrian zone with only busses permitted. The southern half of Wangfujing is beautiful now with brick paving and they are working to finish the northern bit.
It was one o’clock and as Anne had been out of sorts, we decided to forego lunch and head out directly to the Wall. We hired a car with driver (comfortable !) and negotiated the price for a round trip to Mutianyu plus wait down from 500 yuan to 450, about $55. A normal taxi (bumpy !) would be around 300. The road to Mutianyu, including the mountainous ascent, is remarkably good and our ride was smooth and fast, taking no more than an hour and a half. Catching our first glimpse of the wall from the car we felt gripped by a strong emotion and the glorious spring day added to our elation. At Mutianyu one has the possibility to take a cable car up to the wall itself, saving a 20 minute climb, which we decided to do. Once on the wall one can go in either direction. Most people go to the right, the section which leads to the path for going down, thus saving the expense of a second cable car ride. We took a left. Between 2 :30 and 3:30 we saw a maximum of 20 tourists, after 3 :30 we had the wall entirely to ourselves. The section from the cable car station to the seventh watchtower was restored in 1983 and although there are some very steep parts, it’s fairly easy to walk. After the seventh watchtower there is a very steep flight of about 300 steps which lead to the unrestored, Ming dynasty wall built in 1368. One must proceed carefully here as the ground is covered with loose stones, dense shrubbery and debris from the wall. This was one of the most exhilirating moments of our trip and Anne was close to tears, moved by the powerful beauty of the rugged mountains capped by majestic wall, and by the human effort and sacrifice necessary to realize such a monument. The most important aspect of the wall is not it’s age nor it’s architecture, nor even it’s ultimate futility, after all it’s just a wall, but it demonstrates, more than any other example, the incredible level of vital energy and organization in China in the middle ages.
We caught the last cable-car down and slalomed through the stalls of trinkets (t-shirts 2 for a dollar asking price) to the terrasse of the restaurant where we treated ourselves to cold drinks and a red-bean ice cream bar, then found our driver and daydreamed in silence on the way back. The route was so quick that we were back at the hotel by 6 :30. I had contemplated taking advantage of the swimming pool but our legs were in such a state that it was impossible to imagine anything but a shower and a rest.
Our pharmacist in Geneva told us about a restaurant in Ritan park that she said was the most romantic place to eat. When we entered we found ourselves in what looked like a German beer-garden in a Qing dynasty style courtyard. The setting was pretty enough, with a covered promenade set with tables jutting across the pond, but the sea of Heineken parasols did seem superfluous at night. The best dish was the thick noodles fried with vegetables but I liked the tea-smoked duck as well. This was the only restaurant in China where the service left anything to be desired.
Friday, April 28
The last day of our trip was entirely devoted to shopping. We did Wangfujing, the silk market, the Friendship store and Dongdan. Highlights : At the silk market it is possible by bargaining hard to buy clothing and accessories at rock bottom prices. Example : we got a Jansport backpack for Camille, a very stylish yellow model, for one dollar. One has to be careful because the quality is not always apparent at first glance and it is a notorious dumping ground for fakes and factory seconds (or thirds). The Friendship store, twenty years ago the only place in town to have any decent merchandice, has gone upscale but in general the prices reflect superior workmanship and quality. The five story arts and crafts store on Wangfujing is still a good address to buy all kinds of traditional Chinese items such as jade, teapots, laquerware, silks, etc., but the enormous shopping mall called Sun Dong’an plaza is depressing as is the old Beijing department store. We looked at a shop on Dongdan Beidajie that had modern creative versions of Chinese clothes for women and they were very attractive if difficult to wear for all but the slimmest of dames.
We had contacted our friends by telephone and asked them to reserve again at Xiangmanlou for another round of great roast duck. We took a taxi to the restaurant and Jianguo and Yuehua arrived a few minutes later saying Tong would be delayed 10 minutes or so. When he arrived we ordered beer and after a round of « gambei - he handed a small package to Anne, « for you -. Inside were five beautiful enameled bracelets, a specialty of Beijing and something which she has always adored. Yuehua slipped them onto Anne’s wrist and we all admired how well they looked and how nicely they went with what she was wearing. Jianguo said with his deadpan delivery « Oh, you are very beautiful -. I ordered up another feast including lotus root slices stuffed with glutinous rice, stir-fried balsam pears (jicama), braised fish in the shape of a hand, and other interesting dishes but again it was the roast duck that was most memorable.
After dinner they invited us to their apartment, a few minutes away by foot, and which they share with Feng and at least one other man. Our artist friends curiously had nothing at all in the way of decoration and the apartment, although not at all squalid, was in the state of perpetual disorder normally found in bachelor’s flats.. We sat in Tong’s room which also served as dining room and drank freshly pressed apple juice. In that relaxed environment we chatted until nearly midnight and we were in no hurry to take our leave, if not for the fact that we had to leave for the airport at 7 :00 the next morning. Before parting Jianguo presented me with a jade seal on which he had engraved his name in ancient seal-script when he was 14 years old. I was loth to deprive him of such a nostalgic relic of his youth but he would not listen to reason. We didn’t have much to offer in return – Swiss chocolates and a Swiss knife for Yuehua. As they escorted us to our taxi Jianguo said, as a simple matter of fact « I will always remember you -. We will certainly remember them.
Saturday, April 22
Buying train tickets was for a long time the scourge of travelers in China. Endless lines to wait in with never any indication that one was in the right one, prices more than double for foreigners, all that has changed for the better. There is now only one set of prices for trains and planes for everyone and the waiting time has been greatly reduced by the computerization of the system. In Shanghai there is also a special ticket office in the soft-seat waiting room for foreign visitors which is available for same-day travel. The one-way tickets to Suzhou cost about $1.50 and the trip takes a little over an hour. There are twenty trains per day so one needn’t reserve. The train passes through landscapes of canals and rice fields with little villages in which the houses are all aligned in the same direction. Suzhou, which has been described by travelers including Marco Polo as the Venice of the Orient is not at first glance a charming or beautiful city. Our hotel being located south of the « moat -, a branch of the Grand Canal which en-rectangles the town, I proposed taking a boat from the launch near the train station. From the boat we had a view of the most terrible kind of industrial urban landscape and when the boatman took us into a smaller canal to see the old stone bridges we were horrified by the quantity of garbage in the water as well as the stench. Almost the only sign of continuing beauty to be seen were the hundreds of Paulownia trees in bloom. Arriving at Pan Men, the only existing gate of the old fortifications (5th century B .C.) we disembarked and crossed the Wumen Qiao, a stunning high-arched bridge, on foot. According to my map we were two hundred meters from the hotel. In reality it was much further south, in Wuxiang – about a 45 minute walk along a busy and polluted thoroughfare. Once checked-in we were escorted by the bellhop (who didn’t offer to help us with our bags), down a labyrinth of corridors to the back where the cheaper rooms are located. The Royal Garden Hotel (Suyuan) is a vast complex with a pleasant garden in the middle, several large restaurants, banquet halls, etc. Our room was spacious and nice but the bed hadn’t been made and we had to wait while they prepared it. As hot and tired as we were, a shower and rest were called for, but as it was getting late in the day we settled for the shower and took off for the gardens.
"Suzhou Wangshi Yuan"
Unlike it’s canals, Suzhou’s gardens still merit the acclaim lavished upon them. At one epoch over 200 gardens were to be found in the area at least twelve of which are exstant. Our tour began with what is considered to be the finest, if one of the smallest gardens, the Master of Nets (Wangshi Yuan), so called because the retired official who built it dreamed of fishing away his days. Being late in the day there were no large groups visiting, only small gaggles of admirers, foreign and Chinese. All Chinese gardens, whether from the Song, Ming, or Qing dynasties, have certain essential qualities in common. To me the most amazing is that the same scenery glimpsed from different angles gives a totally different impression. Within the limited space of the Master of Nets this game of perception is at it’s most cunning with points of view changing every few feet.
"Suzhou Canglang Ting"
Afterwards we had just enough time to take in another famous garden, the Blue Wave Pavillion (Canglang Ting), built in 1044. The artificial mountains of this garden, which contains less water scenery than the others, were supposed to be echoed by the view of the distant hills to the north, but between the incredibly ugly buildings that have been erected in that direction and the thick veil of pollution I doubt that anyone can see them anymore. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful garden and is worth seeing also for the Five Hundred Sage shrine, three walls of stone tablets showing the names and portraits of the notables of the region. We enjoyed especially the solitude and tranquillity as there were almost no other visitors at that hour but, unfortunately, we will always remember being just under the incredibly loud siren when it sounded for closing time.
"Suzhou Lion's Grove"
Leaving the Canglang Ting we had a lovely walk through one of the unscathed traditional areas of Suzhou – old houses lining small canals with numerous arched bridges and small barges going about their business. If only these scenes could coexist with the people’s need for better conditions, and why not ? There is the primordial question of space. Ten families sharing a one story courtyard house will be more comfortable if they have an eight story building. That is as long as they don’t fill it up with forty other families.
Finally we came to restaurant row where Anne’s guidebook indicated a « vegetarian noodle restaurant with Buddhist recipies -. Feeling secure with that I ordered and we were served two bowls of noodle soup heaped with mounds of pork ! They were nice enough to exchange the pork for mushrooms but the broth was 90% fat and there were plenty of bits of meat tangled in the noodles. It wasn’t so bad but I suggested to Anne that we look for something else. Back out on the street we were amazed to see that every one of the twenty odd restaurants on the block had at least one, sometimes as many as three wedding parties with the brides, in traditional Disneyland princess dresses, and their tuxedoed grooms posing on the entry steps. We knew we weren’t going to find our happiness there so we crossed over to the other side of Renmin lu, the main north-south drag and I saw immediately what I was looking for.
During the 1999 tour the orchestra had a travel day to go from Shanghai to Nanjing and Olivier suggested going independently to Suzhou, which is on the way, to buy tea. He had been to Hong Kong one year earlier where he found a marvellous tea shop which sold one of the best high mountain oolong teas from Taiwan. That shop has two other branches, one in Singapore and one in Suzhou. The Suzhou shop and tearoom is actually located in a tiny garden and is an oasis of calm. I was kicking myself all day because I hadn’t remembered to note down the name and address and it wasn’t featured on any of our maps, but luck brought us to it and with our tea we tasted an assortment of snacks, lotus root slices stuffed with sweet white bean paste, sesame seed fried buns, steamed dumplings. The best tea is very expensive, about $18 per 100 grams or $6 a pot.
Sunday, April 23
After obtaining tickets for Monday night’s sleeper to Beijing at a little travel agent booth by the front gate of the hotel (no problem !) we set out for what is certainly the grandest and most popular of Suzhou’s gardens, the Humble Administator’s (Zhouzheng Yuan), so called because the important official, an imperial censor, accused of corruption and forced to retire from service became thus, administrator of one garden. There is nothing humble about the scale of this garden which is about three times as big as most of the others, and the teaming hordes of baseball-capped tour groups pouring out of busses did not lead us to imagine that we would find peaceful humility within it’s walls, so we did an about-face and headed for the nearby Shizi Lin (Lion’s grove). The specialty of this garden is rocks, although there are all the other elements : water, pavillions, ancient trees, flowering shrubs, but the rocks are everywhere. Eroded, tortured, twisted rocks in all sizes evoking all kinds of images from lions and dragons to mountains and ocean. There is even a kind of labyrinth path which takes one through the enormous rock clusters to emerge from time to time on top to enjoy the different views. As far as organic matter is concerned, a 330 year old ginko was especially handsome. The garden was well visited by mostly Chinese tourists but there were nowhere near the huge crowds we saw entering the Zhouzheng Yuan.
"Suzhou North Pagoda"
We still had a little time before lunch so we decided to check out the Ou Yuan (Lotus garden or Lover’s garden). The rickshaw (actually a tri-cyclo) ride took us through some of the most traditional quarters of Suzhou. And the garden itself had a more popular feeling to it. The Chinese visitors here were not being led by tour guides with megaphones, they were enjoying Sunday in the park. The Ou Yuan would have been much more impressive had we not just come from Shizi Lin.
There is another food street in Suzhou, branching westward from Renmin Lu just north of the Yi Yuan (garden of harmony) and we decided to try our luck there. In front of each restaurant were people trying to hustle us in. One of them was quite insistant and we went with him but when we saw the interior of the restaurant (and the baskets of live snakes) we turned heel and continued down the street. As we passed the last two establishments there was a pitched battle between them for our custom and we chose, in a spirit of pure sexism, the girl. We didn’t have to regret our choice because the food was great and the beer cold ! Some excellent fried shrimp from Tai hu (the lake near Suzhou which is the biggest in China, four times the size of Lac Léman), spicy Ma Bou Dofu, and some good vegetable dishes followed by a superb mandarin fish, expertly cut, fried and served sweet and sour.
Stumbling back out into the street, we caught a bus up to the North Temple Pagoda (Beisi Ta). It’s nine story pagoda is the tallest south of the Yang zi and it’s gardens are very pleasant. Another temple worth visiting in Suzhou is the taoist Xuanmiao Guan where a carnival atmosphere animates the courtyard. I loved especially the beautiful ceilings which have escaped the restorer’s paintbrush for the last few centuries.
By this time we thought it might be safe to try the Humble Administrator’s garden one more time and I’m glad we did. No more than two or three tour groups were visiting at that hour and a handfull of individuals – nothing at all in a garden that size, easily three times bigger than most of the others. The garden is divided into three main parts with water playing a large role. We enjoyed the variety of bridges, arched, zig-zag, bamboo, iron. There was also an astonishing display off to one side of Pengzhai, more commonly known by their Japanese name bonsai. Of all the gardens this one also had the most flowers in bloom, especially azaleas.
We were exhausted after these two days of intensive garden visits so we decided to take a good rest and a good soak in the bath and take our chances with the hotel’s restaurant. After negotiating the labyrinth of corridors we arrived at the dining hall which has a capacity of at least 200 people. It was dark and totally empty but a waitress turned on the lights and assured us that they were open to serve us. I don’t know whether it was because of the late hour (9 :00, late but not unusually so by Chinese standards) or whether they hadn’t any customers at all, but we had a perfectly good meal and no more expensive than anywhere else.
Monday, April 24
Gardens aside, we were extremely dissapointed by the lack of charm in Suzhou and their failure to safeguard any kind of nice atmosphere around the canals, but we had heard about some small towns in the area that have preserved the traditional architecture and ambience. Zhouzhuang is said to be the most beautiful of these and consequently receives an enormous amount of tourists, especially on the weekends. Tongli was reputed to be nice and had the merit of being only one hour from Suzhou, and with a famous garden as well so we chose Tongli. The bus from Suzhou was not overly clean and nearly everyone smoked while watching Hong Kong kung-fu videos. The round trip ticket was a little over a dollar. Disembarking at Tongli we were accosted by myriad rickshaw drivers who proposed a circuit covering the main sites. It was hard work to convince them, one after another, that we wanted to walk. Walk we did however and it was outstanding, with small canals gracefully crossed by stone bridges, many of them more than 300 years old, and stately old houses. If Suzhou was known as the Venice of the Orient, Tongli deserves to be called the Bruges. Anne was also impressed by the covered market which displayed a rich bounty of fresh water fish, eels, and crustaceans, as well as dozens of tofu products unknown outside China and high quality vegetables and fruit.
The Tuisi Yuan is a Qing dynasty garden that we shared for the morning with a small group of quiet French tourists and a large group of noisy Chinese. For me the best feature of this garden were it’s pavillions and the attached house with antique furniture. The weather was splendid and we felt totally relaxed there. Exiting the garden we finally cracked for the rickshaw driver who had been following us for a while. He took us to visit the residence of a famous actor, a pretty house to be sure, and then we payed up and sacked him because we were on antique street, and there were a number of shops selling Yixing tea-ware, where we wanted to browse. He was extremely disturbed to be paid after completing only 5% of his route but we were adamant.
We bargained for and bought tea pots and cups with a basket weave pattern, a stone tea pot in the form of a pumpkin, blue and white bowls, at least 50 years old,a celadon pitcher which Amber broke a few days after we got home, and a classic Ming type tea pot which might be worth a fortune if it is genuine (if not, I still love it). All of this cost about $80. Afterwards we still had time to catch the minibus back to Suzhou for a late lunch at Wencaiyuan Jiujia, a traditional courtyard house converted into a restaurant. Well, the courtyard was very nice – I wish we could have eaten there. Inside it was like any other restaurant and the cooking was no better, no worse.
"Beijing Confucian Temple"
Chinese trains have four classes : hard seat, soft seat, hard bed, and soft bed. In 1982 I undertook four extremely long trips in the hard seat class and although it was uncomfortable and crowded I enjoyed the close contact with a wide variety of people. For our trip to Beijing I was sure that we had soft-bed places but in fact our reservations were for hard-bed, akind of dormitory wagon with triple-decker bunks and no compartments. Once again we were grateful for the contact this permitted us. Our bunks were on the middle level which posed a problem : it was only four o’clock in the afternoon and we had no seats, only beds. Happily, after a few minutes the elderly Suzhou couple occupying the lower berths invited us to sit with them. Thus began a long conversation with them and everyone else who cared to participate. In the next row of bunks were a couple of young men who spoke a few words of English. They had been classmates at the Shenyang school of Fine Arts, a painter-graphic designer and a sculptor, and are now working in a media company. At first glance An Jian-guo, at 29 years old the senior of the two and manager of the company, looked like a small-time hoodlum with his black shirt, white tie, and long hair. Cheng Tong (28) was in jeans and Anne and I were struck by his good looks. They showed us scrapbooks of their work and it was very good indeed. After a few hours we adjoined to the dining car where the food wasn’t wonderful but the ambiance was. The most terrible thing about the Chinese night trains is that they turn the lights off at 9 :30 !
We arrived at Beijing around 7 :00 and our new friends insisted on inviting us for breakfast. We took the subway for about 20 minutes and when we emerged, the place where they imagined to treat us to a great Chinese breakfast was closed, so we went to McDonalds ! Afterwards they insisted on driving us in the company mini-van to our hotel. The Lu Song Yuan is unique among the hotels of Beijing. It is located in one of the few remaining neighborhoods of the center where the hutongs, narrow alleys lined with traditional rectangular courtyard houses (si he yuan), have not been torn down to be replaced by high-rise horrors. It retains the courtyard and entry gate of a Qing dynasty house but it’s 50 rooms have been equipped to a comfortable but simple international standard with excellent bathrooms, modern heating and air-conditioning systems, television, etc. Some of the rooms are furnished in imitation Qing dynasty furniture and many of the second floor rooms have balconies from which one sees only old hutongs with houses dating from the 16th century on. There is a peaceful courtyard where one can take breakfast or tea. We paid $50 for our room with balcony, expensive by Chinese standards but cheap compared to the big Beijing hotels in which 99% of foreigners stay.
Once confortably installed, we took a quick lunch at the hotel’s restaurant (not memorable, except for the lily bulbs with celery) and headed by taxi to the Forbidden City. Anne was dutifully impressed by the expanse of Tian An Men square but not at all interested to see the embalmed corpse of Mao Ze Dong, so we proceded past Tian An gate and into the City itself. Although the weather was sunny and windy without clouds, the air was misty with suspended sand blown in from the Gobi desert which gave a peculiar character to the light, mysterious and exotic, and this quality gave another interesting dimension to our visit.
Exiting from the rear of the palace we strolled over to Beihai park and treated ousrselves to tea at a teahouse on the island, then, continuing north we left the park and walked up to the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, 15th and 18th centuries respectively. From there we could return to the hotel by a maze of hutongs in which the atmosphere is so much more pleasant than the wide boulevards of the capital.
We had offered to take Jianguo and Tong out to dinner and we asked them to recommend a good restaurant. Without hesitation they proposed Xiangmanlou, located in their district near Dongzhi Men and , so they said, the best reference in the matter of Peking Duck. They picked us up once again in the company van and we arrived to find the restaurant full and overflowing but, as our friends had called earlier to reserve we were escorted to a table only recently vacated. Some of the notable dishes we tried were cold duck feet in hot mustard sauce, stir fried coriander, delicious steamed fish, fried potatoes (the first time I ever had this in China), and corn with pine nuts. But the duck, oh the duck ! The duck was magnificent. In keeping with the tradition the first service is not taken with steamed pancakes but with sesame seed buns (shao bing). I was a little bit nervous about paying for the meal because I had heard that at some of the « in - restaurants of Beijing one can spend a fortune, and we hadn’t been shy about ordering everything we wanted, including delicious draft Yanjing beer and Chinese schnapps, but when I asked for the check the total was only about $35 – less than $9 per person ! Jianguo explained to me that this restaurant was famous for it’s duck but hadn’t inflated the price like some others (notably Quanjude) ; our whole duck was only $8.
Reluctant to let us go without offering something, Jianguo proposed to drive us along the entire legths of Changan Dajie and Pingan Dado, the biggest east-west arteries, to show us the « sights -. Aside from Tian An Men we saw cars, trucks, roads, taxis, and more cars and trucks, but they were so sweet and when we said goodnight they asked if they could invite us for dinner the following evening, which we accepted.
Wednesday, April 26
One thing we hadn’t yet had in China was breakfast. Each day we took only tea, which is always provided in the hotel rooms, but this day we chose to break fast at the hotel because we saw that American or Chinese breakfast was included in the price of the room. To our dissapointment there was no Chinese breakfast available and we were served white toast with powdered orange drink and horrible tea. But the sandy wind was finished and we set of for the Temple of Heaven under a brilliant blue sky. I’m not sure how many of the numerous tourists visiting Tiantan that day had any notion of the astrological and numerilogical significance of the architecture, or of the historical background, but one thing is sure : they were all having a great time, especially the groups of schoolchildren dressed in bright colors (unlike their elders).
Exiting by the east gate there is a long covered walkway which was peopled by amateur musicians, at least four groups playing erhu, drums, and cymbals and singing at the same time, chess players, bird and cricket collectors and this had a warm, familial atmosphere. We headed across the street to Hongqiao market where we bought a suitcase and filled it up with pearls (exaggeration). The third floor of the market is shared by antique shops and pearl merchants of which there are at least 50. I turned Anne loose at Song’s (stand #140) which has a good reputation from Swissair personnel and where I had bought her some necklaces and earings in 1999. She chose about 8 or 9 different necklaces, mostly with natural pearls which are less expensive than round ones and which she finds more beautiful. That set us back not even $90.
Our late lunch was at the famous vegetarian restaurant near Qianmen, Gongdelin, where we took a set menu of four dishes plus soup and dessert. In one excellent dish, rounds of fried, pressed tofu were assembled with shiitake mushroom caps and white mushrooms and topped with the curious garnish of green maraschino cherries. After lunch we strolled down Liulichang, a row of antique and art supply shops, many of them dating from the Qing dynasty. We bargained for a shadow puppet and otherwise just browsed as the prices are not bargains and many of the antiques are said to be fake. One address that I didn’t want to miss on the street was Ten Fu’s tea. We spent an hour and a half tasting and choosing wonderful oolongs, jasmine teas, long jing from the recent harvest and exotic green tea from Yunnan. After this tasting Anne admitted that she understood the interest in Chinese tea I had cultivated since the previous year’s trip. From liulichang we walked back to the hotel, about five kilometers, and had just enough time for a quick wash before our friends picked us up, this time accompanied by a colleague, Feng, and Tong’s girlfriend, Yuehua.
For this evenings repast they proposed a restaurant specializing in jiaozi (steamed ravioli) and reputed to have 48 different kinds. We drove the short distance to a spot west of Qianmen and turned into an ancient gateway that opened into a small yard behind which was a stately old mansion. That was not the restaurant, but the most beautiful parking lot in the world ! The restaurant was across the street and featured the neon lighting and formica tables that are universal there. Apparently among the 48 kinds of jiaozi there were only three that were meatless so we had vegetable, shrimp, and chicken. The jiaozi were enormous and it isn’t really easy to eat them without them falling apart. We had also some preserved duck eggs, some raw vegetables and pressed tofu sheets with a dipping sauce. Anne invented a new dish by taking a sheet of tofu and using it like the pancake for Peking duck, wrapping in it the vegetables suitably brushed with sauce. Everyone agreed it was a good innovation. There were also some sweet dishes, a kind of doughnut with sweet red bean filling, and candied apple pieces, served on a platter with the syrup still hardening and a bowl of cold water to dip them in, finishing the glaze and breaking the strings of syrup – delicious. This meal cost our hosts alittle under $3 per person. After dinner we were off for another round of highway sightseeing. We almost saw the Beijing television tower. Jianguo was cruising at around 40 kilometers per hour. Three wrong turns and 45 minutes later we were in the neighborhood of our hotel but he didn’t turn. When I asked him where we were heading, over the snores of Feng in the back seat, he replied « I don’t know -. We had the feeling that he really wanted to show us around but at that late hour there were no possibilities that he could think of. As we said once more good night, they once more suggested getting together the following evening, but we had to refuse as we were planning to go to the Great Wall and might get back late, so we made a date for Friday.
Planning our trip, we spent a lot of time examining the different possibilities for visiting the Great Wall. Ask any Beijing resident and he we tell you that Badaling is the best place, but it is completely restored and there are often too many people there. Mutianyu was said to be good, with a restored part and a non-restored part which my guide book said we might not be able to see because the guards refuse access. Also it said that it takes more than two hours to reach it. Simatai is largely unrestored but it takes three hours each way and is a difficult climb. The guides say to go early and all the busses leave in the morning, however Ya Cheng had told us that she went once by taxi in the late afternoon and there were very few people as they all leave by three o’clock. We decided to take our chances with Ya Cheng’s advice and to go to Mutianyu, thus leaving the morning free for more sightseeing in Beijing.
Thursday, April 27
Foregoing the hotel’s breakfast we set out on foot through the hutongs for the Confucious Temple where we were the only visitors as we were in advance of the official opening time. The temple is famous for it’s forest of steles, stone pillars with carved calligraphy containing an encyclopedia of Chinese classical ancient literature. More steles in the courtyard were erected by scholars passing the imperial examinations. What we enjoyed the most was the graceful nonchalance and patina of the old buildings and especially the gnarled cypress, paulownia and wisteria, nearly all of which were more than 300 years old and one noble cypress was said to be over 700.
"Beijing Lama Temple - helpful sign"
Just around the corner from the Confucian temple is the Yonghe gong, or Lama Temple, a tibetan buddhist temple built in 1694 as a princely residence and in use as a lamasery since 1744. It’s treasures include an 18 meter high Maitreya statue carved in Tibet from a single sandalwood trunk. There is a good quantity of Tibetan art worth looking at but the Temple itself has a burnished and freshly painted look which contrasts with the graceful patina of it’s neighbor. The visit is aided by helpful signs in English.
We still had time for one more sight before check-out time so we jumped in a taxi and went to see the former residence of Prince Gong (Gong wangfu), father of the last emperor. It’s garden, one of the nicest in Beijing had peopnies in bloom and lovely wisteria but lacked the charm of the older gardens of Suzhou. We were served expensive tea in the teahouse by a cute girl who seemed like the stereotypical image of far-eastern women, always smiling with her hand in front of her mouth and running with the tiny steps allowed by her tight-fitting
qipao. With our tea we nibbled some preserved prunes and it seems that they didn’t agree with Anne, she started to feel queasy so we left and walked a bit along Shisa lake, then took a taxi back to the hotel. After a brief rest Anne was feeling better and we checked out of Lu Song Yuan for the 1 kilometer trip to the Beijing Prime Hotel or Huaqiao Dasha on Wangfujing.
We had reserved at the Prime by internet from Geneva for our last two nights in Beijing. I wasn’t at all sure how many nights we would be spending in the capital, but I wanted to be sure to have comfortable accomodations for our last days. I had imagined that some of the other hotels might be a little rough and that we should have good conditions at least at the end. The Prime is a big five star hotel with all the amenities and our room was enormous with a king sized bed, couch, easy chairs, beautiful bathroom, and a view of the Forbidden City. It listed at $250 per night, normal for that category of hotel in Beijing. I found several sites on the web which proposed rooms at around $200, and then one which announced huge discounts. Rooms at the Prime were offered at $88, but when I received our confirmation the price had gone down to $77 !