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Phlegm, Dumplings and Minor Celebrity Status
Rating : (4.9 stars)

Beijing, China
Oct 16, 2003 04:46

Pros: spectacular sightseeing, place full of surprises, friendly locals
Cons: spitting, traffic

After a quick breather in the UK, we take on Beijing. And by and large I'd call it a draw. A massive place, the size of Belgium apparently, but probably with less chocolate, the Chinese seem intent on making their life difficult with drawings instead of words, a traffic system that operates like the Wacky Races on speed, and enough phlegm to keep Bob Carolgees in showbusiness for years to come.

If ever you've felt a little lost shouting a dinner order at a Spanish waiter when in The 'Rife, I'd advise against coming to China. At least the Cyrillic in Russia made some sort of sense, but here it's as if you're on another planet. Now I'm not one to make excuses, but since the word for 'hello' in Beijing may become a serious slur on someone's mother 30 miles down the road, we've restricted our attempts at learning the language. Somewhere between Charlie the Cat and Clouseau's Kato might get the job done, but for now we've restricted ourselves to the please, thank yous again, and have become adept at pointing, shouting and the odd bit of acting. You should see Melissa's chicken. And you can make up your own Big Bird gags there.

Biggest factor in China so far has been our minor celebrity status - everywhere we go we seem to encounter members of the Chinese Olympic Staring Team - for them it's a national pastime. But unlike Russia where we found the staring quite intrusive, here the people are very friendly and you can see that they are simply curious, happily smiling and giggling and trying to engage us in conversation whenever they can. We spent a good half an hour in Tianamen Square posing for pictures with men, women, couples and at one point a whole family, complete with babe in my arms.

They just seem fascinated with us, particularly as we've been surprised to barely encounter any other Westerners. And they're keen to practice their limited English whenever they can - we were approached in one part of Beijing by one man asking us if we knew where he could catch the local bus, and it was only after we'd gone through quite a lengthy explanation that we ourselves were strangers, but he might perhaps try up that road there since it looked busy and we seem to have recalled something on a map etc etc that we realised that if he was seriously searching for a bus he might have asked one of the four thousand Chinese who were in the immediate vicinity instead.

Now, the spitting. We were interested to learn that it's actually against the law here now, but someone seems to have forgotten to tell the people. Along with staring, I'd back the Chinese in a hacking competition any day, and it certainly takes some getting used to. I suppose it's a result of the smog problem here, but the shamelessness of open spitting by all ages and sexes is a bit of an eye opener. As is the practice of dressing children in trousers with huge slits in the undercarriage to allow for toilet breaks whenever - and wherever - the mood takes them. Nappies seem something of an alien concept, and given the state of some of the toilets, I'm tempted to take a knife to my trousers as well.

Our executive backpacking mode has taken something of a hit, since we decided to plump for a youth hostel in order to get the inside track on where to go, what to do etc etc from other travellers. At 12 pounds a night the Fei Ling hostel isn't as bad as it sounds - a fair room, clean, with hot water and a great service in organising tickets, info on local attractions, travellers tips etc etc. It even has its own Karaoke Bar, but I'm of the opinion it might not be the place where couples necessarily go...

Obviously Tianamen Square is a prime draw, as is the Forbidden City, Summer Palace etc etc. All are as spectacular as you would imagine - and some.

But of course pride of place goes to a day on the Great Wall - just awe-inspiring. Our chosen day turned into a mini-autumn heatwave, and the clear skies and day-long sunshine made it a truly unforgettable experience. As Nixon imaginatively put it, it truly is a great wall.

Special mention must go the other peculiarities we've encountered on the way: the daily dances that take place in the evenings in public squares all over town; the morning work outs; a penchant for an afternoon nap wherever the mood takes them; the chaos of road travel; and the truly awful opera singing. And of course we were also "present" (ie in the same city) for a piece of history, as China - in the form of 38 year-old Yang Liwei - became only the third nation to send a man into space. The first Chinaman in space joins an exclusive list of just under 250 to have ventured so far. While we didn't actually see much of either his take off or landing, we were with him in spirit.

I'd have Beijing in my Capital City Top Trumps hand any day. It's probably a work in progress, but given the amount it's been through with revolutions, communists, Great Leaps, revolutions, famines, Cultural Revolutions, mass murders, egomaniacal leaders and revolutions, it's not hard to see why it might struggle to have a clear and secure identity. The Beijing of 2003 will probably be a distant cousin of the Beijing of 2008 when the Olympics come here (and the job of presenting an acceptable and attractive face to the world is completed) but I'm sure there'll be continuing problems behind the scenes. Apparently there's a massive drive to teach millions of Beijing-ers to speak English by then - just a few years too late for us!

Beer watch: Nanjing, available at Fei Ling luxury hostel for 2 yuan per 640 ml (16p). Tastes OK, but for its lack of effect on anything other than my bladder, I may as well cut out the middle man and pour it straight down the whole in the floor.