Archive | August, 2011

Chicken feet – found?

26 Aug

OK, apologies in advance for this – and maybe it’s only people who are in Beijing who’ll appreciate what I mean – but I think I’ve had my I-bloody-love-Beijing epiphany moment.

It was evening. I’d just had my Chinese class and it had gone OK-ish (apart from the moment when my tutor refused to believe my surname was Buchdahl, as it sounds too much like the Chinese for “don’t know” – bu zhe dao).

I wasn’t set to meet other people for a couple of hours, so I headed off along the road that skirts Chaoyang Park for an aimless wander.

It had just been raining, and everything smelled fresh. It was cool-ish, but the  inevitable re-heating process had started even though it was night, and the roads were almost steaming.

A man pushed a glowing metal bin of roasting sweet potatoes past me.

Street jazz, Beijing

I walked on, and heard music playing. In the pitch darkness at the side of the road, a makeshift jazz band had set up. They had hauled out a full drum-kit; another guy played the saxophone – not well, but to the delight of the small collection of old men surrounding them, and the one woman dancing and clapping her hands in time.

About ten meters off, standing by a car at the side of the road, another lone saxophonist was standing and tootling away. He wasn’t part of the other group – he wasn’t even playing the same tune as they were. He obviously just wanted in on atmos.

And that was it. That was the moment. This couldn’t happen anywhere else but in Beijing. I felt my chicken feet for the first time.

I walked on and saw a man swinging his four-year-old kid back and forth – they stopped to say hello to me then carried on.

I bought a juicy hunk of corn on the cob from a street stand and for the first time managed to ask for it in Chinese without soliciting nothing but a puzzled expression.

A little later I popped into a supermarket to buy mooncake (flaky pastries eaten at the mid-Autumn festival), then managed another Chinese conversation with a man selling spicy skewers and big flat bread. The general gist was that he didn’t have a “nu pangyou” (girlfriend) and I was “piao liang” (beautiful), and oh yes, did I want my skewer “la” (spicy).

But I didn’t care. I was speaking Chinese. I was in China. And I fucking love it.

Die Mauer ist da!

25 Aug

Good God, but there are a lot of German students in Beijing. Or at least, those that are here seemed to all want to hike the Great Wall this weekend. One even came in Lederhosen.

Ready to take on the jungle (pre sweat)

Together with my friend Damian – Scot-cum-Yank and fellow thunderstorm survivor – I signed up to a guided tour with the Hutong School to walk from Jiankou – the “wild great wall” – to the more touristy and repaired section (complete with Subway sandwich shop) at Mutianyu.

There are two caveats to this trip – and the Hutong guys had mentioned both in the email invite.

First is it takes bloody ages to get there – we’re talking about two hours. Go to the toilet BEFORE.

Second, China in September is hot. Humid and hot. The whole walk isn’t miles and miles by Appalacian Trail standards, but it feels a lot further with the sun baking down on your head – especially if you’re from a cooler, more Germanic clime. Cue extensive moaning from a number of our Teutonic companions.

Somehow, amid cries of  “ach” and “ich kann’s nicht mehr”, we survived the steep climb through the steamy jungle to the top of the Great Wall.

Gawd, ain't it lovely

Even the worst of the moaners gasped and gaped at the view and rummaged for their cameras. It was one of those Byronic, far-as-the-eye-can-see moments. You stand giddyingly high with the wall snaking down below and rising out of the dark greenery, all seen through that thin Chinese haze that hangs in the air.

We scrambled over rocks and trees, fearing somewhat for our lives as we slid dangerously close to plumetting off the side of the wall.

Eventually we paused for lunch in a run-down watchtower. “The soldiers use the wolf dropping to send messages,” said our guide. It wasn’t till we probed a bit further that we realised he meant they made smoke signals by burning wolf droppings – I had been envisaging some kind of complex system like that perfected at the coke drop-off on South Lambeth Road.

As you come closer to the more walkable sections, the number of other hikers increases – and Chinese hikers like to come equipped.

Despite the 30-plus degree heat and cloudless sky, every one of them was clad in full waterproof mountain gear, with sticks designed for scaling the Mattahorn and bags of maps and compasses – clearly entirely necessary for navigating a line so straight that you can see it from space.*

Techno music is of course a must in the peaceful, awesome natural beauty atop the Great Wall. The best-prepared had brought along a beat box, while budget climbers  made do with portable radios.

Stalls started to spring up. One man selling dodgy bottled water soon became a whole bazaar of hawkers and hagglers thrusting CCP caps and “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts at us. Needless to say, I bought both.

There is an option of taking a “slip-down” (variously described as “taboggan” and “zip-wire”), and most of us were keen. However, the heat had got too much for a certain member of our group, who sat down on the ground and refused point blank to walk the extra couple of miles. In the face of a minor tantrum, we capitualted and coughed up 45 Yuan for a cable-car down the mountain.

A surfeit of sausage and haggis

Back at the bottom, we piled into the bus, pink from the sun, reeking to high heaven, and bitching about the fact that we hadn’t been “allowed” to do what many call the “best thing” about this section of the wall.

But – and this isn’t just one of those cheesy summing-up lines – it genuinely was incredible. The glut of scenic Great Wall snaps now clogging my camera memory is testimony to that.

Plus my German has come on leaps and bounds.

*NB: You can’t actually see the Great Wall from space. Apparently there are motorways that can be seen from higher up. Disappointing, but the point still stands that it’s big, straight, and should not require specialist orienteering equipment.

Anorexia does not exist in China

23 Aug

The other day, I was chatting to one of my work colleagues, and managed to get onto one of my biggest rants – models. Which naturally came round to one point –  they never eat anything.

“Why not?”  My colleague asked. “Aren’t they hungry?”

I admit I was a little taken aback. Maybe she hadn’t understood my English. No no, they want to be thin. They’ve got eating disorders. Anorexia, bulimia.

The blank look remained.

I tapped around online and hauled up a picture of Isabelle Caro, the poor French woman who died last November, and who leant her face (and emaciated body) to a campaign against size zero models.

I immediately felt incredibly guilty at the horror in the face of my colleague. Unlike those of us who have grown up alongside the size zero debate, she simply could not believe that anyone would literally starve themselves to this state to be “beautiful”.

This was despite the fact that the same woman had described herself moments earlier as “too fat”.

According to Bupa statistics, about one in 250 women in the UK and one in 2,000 men develop (recognised) anorexia at some point in their lives. Nearly one in 100,000 under-13s in Britain were treated for the condition over the past three years, and admission rates have been increasing steadily.

Yet even the fact that we gather these horrific statistics shows  people are at least aware of the condition. After all, why else would Kate Middleton get so much slack when she shed the pounds to an estimated size zero (UK size four) for her wedding – and managed to make it onto “pro-anorexia” websites?

In China, the weight problem on everyone’s lips (and, apparently, hips) is obesity.  In 2010, for example, China Daily reported that one in three school-age children in Shanghai were overweight.

Sure enough, my colleague reckoned that “people in China are too fat”.

“We don’t have things like not eating to be thin,” she said.

Much of China is still developing, and people in traditional farming communities worry about getting enough to eat rather than squeezing into a size eight.

However, walk down a Beijing street and I guarantee you will spot at least one young, well-dressed Beijing woman every ten or so minutes who has clearly been skipping lunch, and looks a likely candidate for those guilty secret trips to the ladies’ after every meal.

Some people have noticed it. On ex-pat blog, one concerned teacher wrote:

“I taught my highschool students that word and they told me that they never knew it was a bad thing. Of the 25 17-year olds in my class all but 4 of them are anorexic and 3 are bulimic.

“The assistant teacher was surprised but she thought it was an interesting topic so she took a poll. Apparently most of the girls in our high school are anorexic – like existing on a diet of a 3 tomatoes a day and that is all.”

It took a while for China to recognise obesity, and it will take a while to recognise anorexia too.

Let’s hope the counsellors and doctors get there before the size-zero billboards make it any further.