Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Will do my best to post something coherent soon, but in the meantime, here are my jottings from Days 1 and 2:

18 January:

Arrive in Beijing mid-morning after excellent in-flight entertainment - watched a documentary on Peter Green (with contributions from that old bastard Clifford Davis and, bizarrely, Jeremy Spencer) and an episode of Paddington (obviously) and fell asleep to Simon Callow reading Peter Ackroyd.

New airport terminal rather beautiful - a hush seemed to descend when I entered immigration - designed by Norman Foster, very influenced by Ming-style architecture, lots of brilliant light, rather like a temple. Was bundled into a cab last time I was here, but all much more orderly this time - my driver was obviously connected to the airport in some way - dodgy cab drivers would not last long in "Newly Industrialising China" methinks. Lots of "How am I doing?" surveys, "your comments are appreciated" etc where you can press a button between 1 and 5 to rate the member of staff - this is the future of democracy - opinions limited to consumption, workers assessed on crude numerical scale and punished ("appraised") accordingly etc.

Beijing much more built-up than in 2004, feels like a very new (glamorous) concrete jungle. At first glance, buildings slightly better here than at home - Brutalism still in, but worst bits of pomo pervade as well - remind me of those greasy 70s / 80s films of Manhatten, where the sun shines off the banks and exchanges and you wonder "where does everybody live?"... - lots of kitch adaptations of Chinese / neocolonialist styles - no diminutive charm - everything is huge.

Forbidden City and Tian'an'men still breathtaking. Wangfujing Street brash and I walk down it, I recognise various malls and restaurants and stumble on the hotel where we stayed last time.

-2 degrees here apparently - must say, it does feel pretty fresh. First meal: braised lamb and garlicky snowpeas with a sesame bun and a beer (they don't grow much rice in the North apparently, don't have the right climate, so they eat much more noodles and bread).

19 January:

Speak to Miss Vicarage (soon to be Mrs Vicarage - yey! - though not Mrs Paddington - just doesn't sound right) 7am Chinese time / 11pm British time - the time delay is perfect for first thing in the morning / last thing at night chats. Muesli and boiled eggs for breakfast with very weak coffee. Middle-aged Russian pipes up - obviously very drunk - huffs and puffs, tells me how hard life is, then asks me what language I speak - I tell him English - he then asks if I am Chinese (?) - I tell him I don't know any Chinese so he starts quoting loads of bad Chinese at me, trying to stare me out - I leave him mid-slur.

Go to Olympic Park - often beautiful and impressive but dead, preserved in aspic after only six months - will write and post photos later. So much construction in last five years - the subway has more than doubled in size. Walk down Qianmen Dajie - lots of gorgeous buildings and beautiful flowers and big pots and old hutongs running off it, everybody preparing for new year, but I keep finding myself wondering, "is this real or fake?" All that Olympic stuff earlier I guess, but Beijing feels a bit bigger and brasher and tackier and more willing to sell itself than before - no easy distinction between authentic-old and pastiche-new here.

End up in rather posh restaurant in the evening - have a casserole of "cow's intestines and tofu" with boiled lettuce and minced pork and steamed rice. Intestines taste ok, same oddly silky consistency as tofu.


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