Late to bed late to rise. It was 11:30 before I finally managed to brew up, book a tour to the Great Wall, and slowly ease myself into the day. It was 2pm when I headed out to greet the chilly day. I could hardly believe the weather – the sky was a brilliant blue, not a cloud in sight, and visibility was perfect all around. There was no sign of the blanketing smog Beijing has become infamous for. I headed to the DongCheng district, and visited Lama Temple, which houses a pretty cool 25m high buddha, carved out of one piece of Tibetan sandlewood. It’s a beautiful compound, and, despite the crowds, had that peaceful spiritual air like a calming breeze blowing through it. People lit incense sticks, threw Chinese fortune sticks (or Kau Cim) to the ground, worshipped on their knees or with heads bowed in sorrowful contemplation, eyes scrunched up hard, some of the harder faces had emitting from them a life endured rather than enjoyed. It was fascinating, painful, and wonderful to witness all at the same time. After this interesting wander, I retired to Xuxiangzhu restaurant for noodles and tea. Very nice. Refreshed, I pottered about taking photographs of people, places, ancient bicycles parked up in narrow alleys, life around me, all under what seemed like a deep ocean of blue above.
I couldn’t go to nearby Confucius Temple as it was closed, so got the train to Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s most famous shopping streets. Big buildings, and big brands. Modern Beijing. A bustling area of dense markets, food everywhere, and posh shops. People seemed friendly here – they were well used to foreigners, and they all had something to sell or some scheme to extract Yuan from your wallet. I was wary of any groups of young students who approached and invited me to a tea shop to ‘practice their English’. Once in the tea house, you’re suddenly stumped with an astronomical bill of thousands of RMB for tasting various teas and ‘interacting’ with the locals. A nice little scam, which dupes many an unsuspecting tourist due to the seemingly innocent way in which it is carried out.
I found a food street – choca with all manner of edibles– dead and alive. Starfish, for example. And scorpions. Scorpions have long haunted my dreams and churned my stomach since I saw them here squirming grotesquely impaled on sharp sticks. Order a bag and the sticks get shoved in hot oil and you enjoy the scorpions lightly fried. I walked past the dizzying assault on the senses that this food street was, and came across another food street, where I bought some vegetable dumplings to play it safe. It was manic, but this side of Wangfujing felt more ‘lived in’, somehow, with food stall workers all competing with each other for custom by shouting out at passers by, as they do in street markets the world over. After this I disappeared into a futuristic and highly less personal shopping mall to escape the bitter cold that had wrapped itself around the city as soon as the sun had given up for the day. Went to good ol’ dependable Yoshinoya for dinner, one of my old time budget favourites from my time living in Japan.
I got a cab with surprising ease (the third driver I stopped was happy to take me) to Nanluoguxiang – a lovely area of hutongs (old alleys) and one long street lined with delightful bars, restaurants and trinket shops, each with a character all of its own, far removed from the brash formulaic ‘aquarium’ bars of Hou Hai by the lake. Sat in a good café that brews its own coffee. Red covers hung over old wooden doors, a huge vase in which goldfish flashed around meaninglessly, sand timers that hadn’t been turned for a very long time…indeed, time had stopped in this place. I wanted to stay forever. The chilly streets outside the window didn’t look inviting at all. The house cat, a creamy ginger tabby, was strolling around like it owned the place (which it probably did). There was magic here.
I got on the subway to the airport to pick Vero up, who would be spending the next day visiting the Great Wall with me (not bad for your first day in China) and an annoying TV ad was stuck on an annoying loop the all the way. I managed to remember the whole damn thing:
“Mummy, my teacher says we need to think about the way we travel, cause it’s hurting the world. And if we carry on travelling on our own things will get worse and worse. But, my teacher also says, if we all travel together, things could get better and better. “
I was glad when I got to the airport, and met the beaming Vero. We caught a taxi back to Michael’s House. I couldn’t subject her to that maddening loop for an hour. It had been a nice day, all in all. Beijing was revealing its charms little by little, and I was enjoying it.