Archive | October, 2011

Peace is… returning to Beijing after a day in Fragrant Hills

24 Oct

There are moments when Beijing can get a bit too much. I for one have days when the twisting hutongs and quirky little street-stalls dissolve into a mire of hysteria, spitting, honking motorbike horns and jabbering stinky tofu salesmen.

Ever since I moved to Beijing in August, people had been raving to me about Fragrant Hills – particularly Fragrant Hills in Autumn. My Lonely Planet guidebook promised “an all-embracing view of the countryside” and a chance to “leave the crowds behind” and see “the maple leaves saturate the hillsides in great splashes of red”. Along with two friends – all three of us bumbling, naive laowei with 20 words of Chinese and one phone app dictionary between us – we set about planning a day trip. I packed my battered Nikon zoom into my bag, excitedly anticipating memory cards full of snaps of  glowing autumnal leaves and persimmons thudding to the ground. I couldn’t wait to smell the spiced smell of the pines in the crisp October air.

We took a taxi from Bagou, it being the furthest West we could be bothered to go by subway. Our taxi driver turned out to be an active member of the Beijing Women Taxi Drivers union, and proudly showed us all her union badges and stickers. She then took us on a scenic tour of the stops on the way to Fragrant Hills. These included the Summer Palace and (apparently) one of Hu Jintao’s residences.

Finally, amid swearing and rapid Beijing-accented Chinese, we popped out onto one of those vast Beijing ring road interchanges, boiling with traffic and people from all angles. Our driver flicked her meter off and hurled us into the maelstrom.

Fragrant smog and sweaty raincoats of a thousand tourists

Even without the guidebooks and the eulogising, the words “Fragrant Hills” alone conjure up an image of natural beauty and harmony. They do not, however, conjure up the scene that we found – Ibiza-like rows of tat shops, greasy spoon cafes, and bawling vendors hawking drinks, pancakes, roast sweet potatoes, souvenirs, ridiculous fluffy bunny ears to attach to your ipod or head, and umpteen other utterly unnecessary things.

And then there were the tourists. It seemed that all China had decided to come to Fragrant Hills that day – most had bringing their cars, motorbikes, or tin tuk-tuks with them. Hysterical families collided with vehicles speeding up and down the roads, children howled, grandmothers bellowed at their daughters-in-law, and my head began to pound.

It took about half an hour of struggling through the sea of bodies to get to the gate and secure the tickets – luckily only 10 yuan.

Thank God we packed the salmon pate

Inside the park, we bought a map and reasoned in despair that the part coloured brown and with a dotted line for the path was likely to mean “off the beaten track” and therefore less rammed with people. A hectic scramble up and down flights of stone steps ensued.

All pretences of polite “Britishness” were washed away as we bodily moved people out the way with two hands – the only way of making progress.

A couple of times we attempted a bit of off-piste, only to be brutally stung to pieces by poison ivy. Fearing anaphylactic shock, we sadly returned to the throng.

Then suddenly, just past Shansen Temple, we spotted a dirt track. The people vanished. Aside from one or two couples quietly strolling along, we were the only ones there.

There were our golden leaves and peaceful pine forests. Yet even so, through the trees, a strange bubbling sound was still distinctly audible – an ominous reminder of the crowds lurking a few hundred feet below.

Exhausted, we collapsed onto rocks and brought out our picnics of sandwiches, peanuts and little lunchbox biscuits, naively packed for a hike in the wilderness. Thankfully we also had some whiskey too.

From the upper slopes of the hills, the haze of pollution could almost have been a melancholy Scotch mist. Jingcui Lake came with the requisite drooping golden willow branches, even if the shores were decorated with mac-clad tourists scoffing cold vacuum-packed sausages. We  actually found one tree that was orange enough for a few posuer snaps.

All that fragrance can go to one's head

At last we gritted our teeth and plunged downhill, getting flashbacks of  those blockbuster movies in which the gung-ho hero thunders towards an army of orcs (or similar) that can be heard massing for the attack. As we fought tooth and claw through towards the exit, a volley of – and I kid you not – budget fireworks started exploding not thirty yards  from us, scattering empty shells and gunpowder over tour buses.

Darkness had descended by the time we staggered back to the ring road. It then took another half hour or so of fruitless waving before we collapsed into a taxi, feeling that the 60 yuan we were being charged for a 20 yuan trip was an absolute bargain.

Eventually, at about 7pm, I stepped out of the subway at Huixinxijie Nankou. Home sweet home. I almost hugged the biker who honked his horn at me as I crossed the road. It was almost…. quiet.

I had found my Fragrant Hills, my oasis of calm, my harmony – just around the corner from Chicken Feet’s King.

Chinese personal banking in chaos

20 Oct

I have just been paid my wages for September – nearly two weeks late.  My work had, of course, done the transfer – but that was beside the point. Bank of China takes a break over the ten-day National Holiday. Bank of China needs its me time.

As the “economics” section of every China guide book declares in bold letters, Chinese banks are now the biggest in the world in terms of market capitalisation and the most profitable in absolute terms.

Yet personal banking in China is, quite frankly, a farce. And this is coming from someone who has long struggled with the nightmare that is British personal banking, complete with its surcharges for international transfers, endless branch-to-branch calls, and tediously complex cheque deposit forms.

It’s not only the bank employees who go on holiday in that first week of October. Bank of China’s computers, it seems, need their beauty sleep too.

Having been kind of relying on my monthly pay packet, I had to initiate a bit of panic-budgeting. But this was nothing compared to the debacle last year’s Bank of China Beijing customers had to go through.

Take Mike Peters, foreign editor on China Daily. Mike had planned a nice autumn break in Dali, Yunnan province. Lovely little hotel, friendly staff, great holiday – right up to the point when he tried to settle his hotel bill using his Bank of China Union Pay card (BOC’s chip-and-pin system). Card rejected.

Knowing that Union Pay can often be dodgy, Mike went to the ATM round the corner. Still no joy.

It was only then that the hotel staff asked whether his branch was in Beijing. Having had this problem with a number of guests, the hotel had called the bank and had ascertained that the capital’s BOC branches had decided to do “necessary” ATM maintenance over the National Holiday. Every single account was therefore out of service.

Luckily Mike had his visa card on him. But, as one highly comprehensive rant on the Beijinger expat blog site illustrates, not everyone had such a nifty option B. I won’t spoil the full impact of said blogger “marjysd”‘s story, other than that it involved hours on the phone, calls switched from Beijing to Shanghai and back again, and a big fat damper on an otherwise pleasant trip to Thailand.

It’s not just Bank of China. Jamil Anderlini vented spleen all over the Financial Times Inside Asia blog back in August, when he tried to get a replacement for hislost China Merchants Bank debit card. Apparently, the clerk refused to let him get a new card without proof of identity in the form of his old (um… lost) debit card.

Even HSBC China isn’t the same as HSBC-the-rest-of-the-world – you still meet with the same piles of forms to fill out and the same service charges for transfers.

Everyone has their own tale of China bank woe, from wrestling with reams of red tape to actually lashing out at bank employees. One particularly entertaining incident involved a certain former presenter of China Daily’s “The Week” feature, who, when trying to withdraw a substantial amount of money, flew into a rage at the clerk, then ran full tilt out the bank clutching her cash, pursued by bewildered pubescent security guards (all bank security guards in China seem to be 15-year-olds dressed in their big cousin’s hand-me-down uniform).

I have tried to work out how banks in the most powerful banking country in the world can get away with this sort of service. Could it be that foreigners are the only ones who experience problems like this? Perhaps Chinese people actually don’t use banks, so there is no demand for personal banking…

I put the question to my source of all info Chinese – the Great Albert.

“People have patience in China – especially the old folks,” he said. “They just like going to the bank every day to talk to their fellow old folks.”


“So it’s not that they just keep their money under the materess or something?” I asked.

“No,” he assured me. “They get their money out, count it to assure themselves how rich they are, and deposit it back into their account.” Albert’s wife works for Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) – not only top bank in China, but now the world’s most profitable bank. This is bona fide insider info.

Of course, as as with everything in China, the option most people go for – or at least those who don’t get a kick of of queuing – is online.

Other foreign cynics I’ve spoken to add that Chinese banks – being all, to a greater or lesser extent, government controlled – aren’t that bothered about ordinary people’s funds. As long as the bosses are happy, then the clerks can get back to updating their Weibo pages.

ICBC has already opened branches in Abu Dhabi, London, Luxembourg and Frankfurt, to name but a few, and is planning many new sites in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Canada. Our old favourite BOC has set up shop in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Turkey and Brazil, and also has ambitious future plans.

So stop moaning about the half-hour queue in Barclays. If China carries on as financial king of the next few decades, then it could get a whole lot worse.

As for me, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be keeping a nice wodge of yuan in my knicker drawer from now on, and perhaps a crisp hundred sewn into the lining of my bra just in case.

More edible appendages emerge from fridges

19 Oct

Down a random Beijing side street in God-knows-where, near-ish to Andingmen Station, I come across a small, shabby restaurant that calls itself “Roast Mutton”.

God knows what the hygiene standards are like. But for two very good reasons, I have to go in there. One, of course, I’m hungry. And two, I’m bored.

That amount of meat would make anyone sheepish - I thank you

If there’s anything that’s guaranteed to alleviate both these things in Beijing, it’s plunging head-first into any eatery that looks mildly bizarre (but also relatively patronised by others) and pointing and whatever is on the menu.

So in we went. Cue usual surprised expressions and chuckles at the stupid laowei who have staggered cluelessly in. Yet as always, these are accompanied by a friendly jostle to a table – a table, that is, with a large rectangular hole in the middle, over which hovered a low, anvil-shaped funnel, like the smoke vent over a blacksmith’s forge.

We went through the usual ritual of jabbing a finger at a random mystery “vegetable” dish to go with our meat (it turned out to be surprisingly tasty, vinegary cabbage with noodles). Then the waitress stomped over – all Beijing waiters and waitresses stomp everywhere – to a large drinks fridge in the corner.

The door opened. The hand went in. Out came an entire sheep’s leg, plus hoof.

Flashbacks of the fated bird-in-freezer incident sped through my mind.

Grub, as they say, was up.

The leg disappeared out the front door of the restaurant, and after about fifteen minutes or so, the maitre d’ himself emerged, bearing a lit portable barbecue about the size of one of those rectangular window-ledge plant pots. Balanced between two forked prongs over the glowing coals was said mutton haunch, now browned on the outside, sizzling merrily, with juices oozing down onto the fire below.

Into the table hole it went. We were handed hacking tools – a large toasting fork and an equally large blade. And then we got down to it, searing great hunks of still-pink meat off the bone and shovelling them into our gobs, with the occasional dunk back into the coals when it looked just a tad too rare.

Forget the Christmas dinners Up North London, with the weeks of planning, the multiple trips to Waitrose, and obligatory howls of guilt following consumption of “oh my God, that was like all my calories for the DECADE”. This was a meat feast to end all meat feasts. But it was enjoyable, it was easy, and it was dirt cheap, at the equivalent of £3.50 per kilo of juicy goodness. Our cabbage, along with the plates of complimentary pickles, were abandoned.

Suffice to say that we did, of course, manage the entire leg between the two of us, before staggering back out into the night, protein oozing from every pore.

Of course, there’s always the golden arches of Mai Dang Lao or the Subway sarnie joint round the corner. Or, dare I say, chicken’s feet.

But if you’re up for something different in the old BJ, the best thing to do is – cliché drum-roll coming up here folks – go just around the corner.