Friday, 3 August 2012

Fabbo day!

Very murky and humid today, with tall buildings disappearing into the low cloud. And hot too, although not too bad early , and we got up and out and hired bikes, as we've been threatening to do for a while. It was good because it allowed us to cover a lot of ground, and have a good old explore without the footache, which was a bonus.

One of the best things about today for me was finding the old legation quarter; it is just behind the hotel – literally in the next street, and it is of particular interest to me because my great aunt lived there back in the day, when Beijing was Peiping (before it was even Peking). She lived in the British Legation for a while, which we now know is just off Tienanman Square, having come to China as a nurse in 1924. She moved in when she married; her husband was an ex pat academic who taught at Peking University. She later established herself as a credible photographer and produced photographs for various artists to work from, as well as recording contemporary Chinese life. Her and her stuff is one of the reasons I wanted to finish the Gobi Girls trip in Beijing.

The legation buildings are now all in Chinese hands of course, although most have plaques on them detailing their former use. We found the Belgian and French, American and Swedish buildings but couldn't find the British one, so we gave up, intending to try another day. But then I saw a funny picture- guard peering through a head sized window with his feet sticking below the fence that was covering his body. So I stopped to snap it – and was immediately accosted by by a policeman ' no photo, no photo, give me camera, give me camera'. Nope, not likely mate and I tried to escape but he caught me, even though I accidentally ran over his foot. In the end I did delete the picture as he was so insistent, and he let me go. But unbeknown to him, I'd taken a few and still had them, and when we got back to the hotel and were going through where we'd been and what photos we had, Nadine realised that he was actually guarding the old British Legation. Coincidence or what? I am dead chuffed, both to have found it and to have a photo!! Yahoo. The building is now some important government security building, hence the stringent – but now breeched – security.

Had a good ride through one of the hutong districts. These are little courtyards made of walls between dwellings, and although many are being cleared – they are a bit like courtyard slums with several families living very close together – some remain. They are in central Beijing, and are really higgledy piggledy – apparently they were built like this to keep out spirits because the latter apparently can't turn corners. Mind you, we didn't do much better on our bikes, and had a few close calls, but the locals seemed to find it quite amusing, particularly as we tried out our three words of Chinese on them as we picked our way around the bird cages bicycles and babies being washed in doorways.

Nipped along to the old Astrology Centre too. Its now surrounded by modern buildings but is the home of Chinese astrology and houses eight important celestial measuring contraptions. Not sure what they're for other than measuring celestial stuff and we didn't go in, but I am sure they were very useful. And there was another odd sign there.

Spent the afternoon in the hotel room, watching China stuff everybody else at every olympic sport going, eating crisps and drinking gin and tonic. Well, the heat is tiring.
Now off to Wangfujing – aka Snack Street to inspect scorpions and other insects on offer as delicacies. This could be interesting......

Later..... well snack street didn't disappoint. Imagine a busy high street type road, full of designer shops and people dripping labels, and then stick some little but noisy and crowded alleyway markets on the side and you've got a pretty good idea of what the place looks like. Go down an alleyway and it turns into an Aladdin's cave of all sorts – the usual toot that is found in markets the world over, but then the food, and that is something else. Crazy food.; bats, frogs and snakes on skewers, still wriggling scorpions covered in sauce, tarantulas on sticks, skinned baby chooks, and big black scorpions, roasted but still with claws, all lined up waiting to be bought and scoffed by clamouring locals. It was like a restaurant version of the bar scene from Star Wars,, but neither of us were brave enough to partake. But we did buy a sweet peanutty thing that a bloke offered us to taste. That was good. Also had dinner in a local eatery. Ordinaryish food where you just pick a plate of stuff and they cook it for you. That was OK too.

But the coolest bit of the evening passing the park just down the road. People were dancing , ball room type dancing, in the open space.. Nothing particularly odd about that, except it is very near to a hospital, and there were about 10 patients also dancing, in their pyjamas, in couples or on their own, just for something to do. Beats watching NHS TV I suppose.