The essentials for staying in Beijing.
Hotel should have:

  • 4 stars Fitness room, sauna, spa pool, business centre and access to swimming pool and bowling alley in sister hotel next door.
  • Bar (although cheaper beer would have been nicer).
    Huge breakfast buffet.
  • Staff with thigh high splits in their frocks. (Unfortunate for the poor lassie given the English name – Fanny). Surprisingly this choice was very popular with the men.
  • Meeting area for going to the park and discussing evening’s adventure.
  • Rooms to have: En-suite bathroom with real toilet. A must, especially for the ladies – squatting may be good for the ankle tendons, but it’s nice to know that upon returning to your room, there’s a nice seat waiting for you.
  • Bathroom to be well equipped with all sorts of toiletry goodies so you don’t need to take these things with you, hence leaving more space in the luggage for the shopping.
  • Fridge and bottle opener (on the wall in the bathroom for those of you who missed it). Essential for beer drinking.
  • All rooms should be located on the same floor to allow fashion shows of new silk / cotton / Daoyin suits recently purchased.
  • Alarm clock – very important to ensure occupant is awake and in reception by 5.45am to go to the park.

I know one that fits the bill completely – Trader’s Hotel, Beijing.

Ritan Park – My Park.

I’m a morning person, but I don’t do 5.30am normally. However in Beijing, getting up at 5.30am isn’t a problem, it’s a must, even after just 21/2 hours sleep.

I meet my fellow early risers at 5.45am and off to the park. Crossing roads is easy when the traffic is almost non-existent. I walk beneath the now green Willows, just brown twigs when I first walked this way last week, passing the many Embassies each with their own “eyes and ears of China” (Chinese Army Cadets), towards Ritan Park – my park.

The old men swinging their bird cages, some with 2 in each hand, are just in front as the gate nears. Not a sound from these covered cages until they reach the park. Once uncovered and hung on a branch, only then do the occupants start to sing.

Shouting Qigong, 24-step music and the occasional spit, as the dry dust is cleared, add to the morning chorus. The park is full of classes learning 24 step, long form and sword form with many smaller groups and individuals all practising some form of Taiji or Qigong. Onto our spot. Here the faces are becoming familiar – the old man practising Shinji behind us, the two classes by the trees, the lady in the red tracksuit who always arrives just as I have to leave. To practise Taiji and Daoyin, outside, in the early morning sun, in a park in China.

This is what I came here for. For this time in the park I am not a tourist.

Shopping in Beijing

Whatever your taste in shopping you’ll find it in Beijing.

You may not even want to shop but you will have no choice in the matter – from the moment that you decide to leave the hotel your fate is sealed – you are beyond the point of no return. Now this may be difficult to comprehend but even grown men, who never shop at home have gone shopping in Beijing, and dare I say it – gone back for another trip to try to “ get a better bargain”. You may not believe it but they actually enjoyed it – now that I never thought I would see.

The shopping experience ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. From the swanky designer shops under the hotel to the silk market a mere 5 minutes walk away. From ordinary shops to street hustlers

But the silk market …………..that was an adventure! It was like a typical Saturday market, but with high-class tat – sorry I meant to say designer copies – as well as some real designer stuff too. But the best part was the haggling. Some of us were better that others but no matter how you felt about it when you first entered the market you soon got into the swing of it. Back at the hotel you compared your “bargains” and then went back the next day to try to get an even better deal.

We also visited a couple of the Friendship Stores. Now they had a different angle. They seemed to assign each customer their own personal sales attendant who followed you around the shop like a puppy – but always 2 steps behind. If you made the mistake of glancing at something, they had every colour pulled out in your size telling you how beautiful it was quicker than warding off a kick!

We went on several sightseeing trips to some of the places in and around Beijing and here the street hustler reigned supreme, but no matter where you went you were accosted in the street to buy something. It could have been anything but the favourites seemed to be Postcards, CD music, silk scarves, or Chairman Mao lighters. When it got a bit much for us, we would to say “bu neow” (get lost in polite Chinese) but perhaps our pronunciation was not what it should have been – they only laughed very loudly and kept trying

Some of the hustlers in Liulichang Street were really sneaky. They wander about the shops posing as poor students to lure unsuspecting tourists into their teacher’s studio to see their paintings. Before anyone has any ideas to the contrary, this is not a variation on “come up and see my etchings”. When you get there you find half of your party has already been captured and are trying to get out without buying anything. These people are very very good at this particular ploy and I think most of us got caught at some point.

I wont try to describe shopping in the martial arts shop – to say it was like “flies around a proverbial dog turd” is perhaps the best and most accurate description I can think of. On our first visit, the poor wee lassie in the shop nearly suffered apoplexy from the sheer delight in seeing Yuan from Heaven descending into her till!.

The people of Beijing make shopping the most wonderful and enjoyable experience and one certainly not to be missed. Not once did we have anything but fun and friendship with traders who expect you to haggle – it is their way of life so don’t be afraid of it embrace it and enjoy it.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China has to be seen to be believed. Stretching across the mountaintops in all directions, it’s a fascinating site to behold while sitting on the steps gasping your last few breaths and spitting up phlegm realising why the Chinese of this area gob so much.

At the top (well one of the high points of the many junctions of the Wall), traders sell T – shirts and other objet d’art and Wall memorabilia. Having scaled upwards for a height of goodness knows on uneven steps for a length of time of goodness knows, nature eventually calls. There are no toilets on the Wall! Neither did the traders have a “I peed on the Great Wall” T – Shirt. A fabulous and memorable experience all the same.

The Forbidden City

Definitely the windy city the cold day we visited. Some tumbleweed would not have been out of place to complete the desolate atmosphere of this vast emporium, with its stone clad courtyards that are big enough to house 2 Hampden parks between the groups of buildings. These buildings, as with the many palaces and temples in the region, are colourful and impressive with a stark austerity about them

It’s ironic and paradoxical that these beautiful buildings are called the Forbidden City where the resident emperor could avail himself of any one of his 8000 concubines! No forbidden fruit here, and not an apple or any other tree allowed within the city walls. The reason being that nothing was allowed to tower above the temple including trees that could offer cover for any would be assassins.

One consolation that the Emperor had after a hard day of judgements or “servicing”, was to relax in his private garden, which by contrast to the rest of the palace had an aura of peace and tranquillity. In the midst of this place was an ornate pagoda, the marble floor of which had been carved into a meandering river that was often filled with wine – more than enough to quench any Emperor sized thirst. After drinking his fill he could then retire to one of the 9999 ½ rooms wherein his wives were accommodated. To have more than 10000 rooms, as there is in the temple of heaven, just would not have been etiquette.

Another bright aspect of this visit was a display of ancient jewellery and artefacts of life at court housed in yet more marble floored rooms. A one – size designer foot ware was supplied for a small fee to help to maintain the highly polished surface of the floors. Once inside all variations of the skaters, waltz and moon – walking could be seen trying out their foot ware.

On escaping from the final display a rumour quickly spread that there were heated shops serving FREE green tea. Those surviving the stampede sought solace sipping this welcome hot beverage with cupped hands, and on thawing out we did what we from the West do best, SHOP.

The Opera

So Maria said: “How about a little Chinese culture, some Chinese Opera, juggling and acrobatics?” So we all said, “Yes”, being the good, obedient souls that we are. And so, the adventure began, with Mr Pang (our tour driver) at the wheel guiding us skilfully through the meandering traffic of Beijing.

We were placed at tables next to the stage; “Great” we thought. The food arrived, and the beer flowed, more food arrived and the beer flowed, more food arr….. I¹m still wondering, if this was a form of Chinese anaesthetic; for the opera, though obviously very good, intense and loud; was definitely not based on any culture most us had ever experienced. In fear of a diplomatic incident, we did not make a formal complaint to the management about the lack of provision of ear – plugs. As a mere male, I thought the juggler – esses were something else; bits seemed to fly in all directions defying gravity and natural laws of flexibility. I was prepared to be bored out of my skull by the onset of the comedians, but laughter proved to be an international language transcending all boundaries.

The Summer Palace (or How to Move Mountains)

The back of Mr Pang¹s head featured large, (this is not quite the right description, as it was actually quite normal) throughout the visit. On this occasion, he was taking us to The Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), One of China¹s largest parks dating from the Qing Dynasty. Its main features are the man-made Kumming Lake that covers 200 hectares, and Longevity Hill that was created using the earth from the lake. As we strolled along the The Long Corridor, a covered walkway some 728 metres long (+/- 2.3 cms) that is decorated on every surface with classical paintings, the wind off the Gobi Desert brought a swirling dense yellowy dust cloud causing us to don glasses, scarves, hoods, etc. for protection. We intrepid explorers then fought our way past the many pavilions up to the summit from where we were able to imagine the stunning view.

The Ming Tombs

Some cemetery! – 40 square kilometres of it, but only 13 tombs. The sheer size of the site comes home to you as you look across the countryside and see the pavilions dotted about in the distance. We were able to walk through the chambers of the Dingling tomb to get some idea of the grandeur and significance of the place. Of course, the Ming Emperors were VIPs, and this is the Chinese equivalent of the pyramids in that the underground palaces were filled with treasures.
Again, this is a treat for the eyes and ears. The pathway to the tombs, and the pavilions were decked with colourful silk flags rippling in the breeze. We had to step over a foot -high lintel at the entry gate especially designed to prevent ghosts from entering, as they can’t bend their legs. (Obviously Chinese ghosts don¹t float through the air or vanish through walls or go round the open sides!)

Guang An Men Hospital

One of the largest Hospitals in Beijing was founded in 1955 as an affiliated Hospital of the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This was the first time since our arrival in China that I witnessed Gordon, Maria & Bob pretty well gob smacked. We were treated with every cord

iality and respect from our hosts: Miss Shen Qin, Chief of the Hospital and Mr Huang Lin, Director. Having assigned us a Doctor to ourselves, we visited the Neurology and Orthopaedic Out Patient Departments where we were presented with case histories as patients were being treated with Acupuncture, Moxa, and Tuina. Then we were whisked up to the Pharmacy Department where we witnessed the many ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The day concluded with the Chief and Director providing a lecture on the Hospital and the new phase that will be opened sometime around August 2000. This Hospital also caters for foreign students and provides a learning syllabus.

The Medical Lunch

There is a Chinese Proverb that says ‘Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook’. As we found out during the Medical Lunch, the second part of the proverb goes something like ‘Fried scorpion is a delicacy best left to those that do not wish to retain their breakfasts’.

I’ll come to the scorpions in a minute, but suffice to say that this was a meal to be experienced rather than enjoyed.

The concept is sound – for each part of the human body there is a corresponding foodstuff that complements and enriches the appropriate body part beyond mere nourishment. As I say, the concept is good; unfortunately, where it all falls down is in the implementation. You would think that with hundreds of years of practice, the culinary sages of Beijing would have come up with medical foods that were at least edible, never mind having even a hint of doing you good. But no.

Maybe I just have an overly delicate palate. But when someone tells me that I’m about to have a healthy meal, I don’t expect to be subjected to a menu that seems to be a cross between a wild life outing and some imaginatively presented road kill. Fish – I like.

Fish, complete with scales, fins, tail and head, it’s back opened up to reveal the ribbed fleshy interior suddenly seems less appealing. As it lay there, the poor creature seemed to have a surprised look in its eyes – maybe it was just appalled that some folk deemed it worthy of consumption. I, however, passed in the hope of more esculent fair still to come.

Unfortunately, my wait proved mainly to be in vain. Apart from a few bites of the ‘safer’ looking chicken-esque meats, I refrained in the hope of preserving what little I had consumed and thus not present my tablemates with a more colourful display of regurgitated matter. Not that they would have noticed – merely believing that the next course had arrived.

Finally, I come to the piece-de-resistance. Fried whole scorpion served without relish and regarded with even less relish by myself and other sane diners. The animals were a couple of inches long, but some foolhardy souls determined that this arachnid played some deranged part of a wholesome meal. These said colleagues must also have missed the food that enriched the brain. I cannot recall which part of the body benefited from the scorpion. Maybe there was none. Maybe it was there purely to fight with all the other strange creatures that now resided in the stomachs of my fellow eaters. I, however, had had my fill – so to speak – and took my leave, staggering into the hazy sunlight where the lure of the unhealthy McDonalds beckoned.

White Cloud Temple

We were strangers, in a strange land, but our few days of visiting the sights of Beijing had convinced us of one thing: We were not tourists. We had seen them at the main tourist hotspots; snakes of baseball hatted clones following a flag, afraid of leaving the group lest they get swallowed up in the faceless mass that was the imperial capital. This was not us, and it was with great relief that we arrived at the entrance gate to The White Cloud Temple, the primary Taoist temple in China. Yes, there was an entrance fee, but no coaches, no tourists, just ordinary people going about their religious observances.

Like most of the temples and palaces visited, White Cloud was the usual structure out courtyards leading to temples, leading to courtyards and so on. Here, however, was a welcoming feeling of calm, of vitality. The first place of interest was a bell suspended under a bridge. Our new friend and guide to our trip, Michael explained that it was good luck to be able to hit this bell with a coin. Within seconds, fellow student Mike had appeared with what seemed like a hundred coins from a nearby kiosk. Imagine a sacred place with 20 people cascading coins towards a bell, each hit reverberating around the temple, the giggles and shouts. And yet this was no silent guilt-inducing cathedral, but a living Taoist temple. The sounds of the bell repeatedly struck was as much a part of this place as the monks wandering around in their habits that were straight from the ancient tai-chi textbooks.

True to form, our group started to splinter into smaller and smaller units, each of us wanting to explore this fascinating place, and to find something special. We all did.

In one of the smaller courtyards, a life size brass sculpture of a horse, its nose polished to a shine by hundreds of years of affection. In the central temple a ceremony was taking place, with singing and music. Strange foreign voices, unusual rhythms breaking up and coming together into new, exhilarating, chants, before breaking down into the component parts again.

At the entrance gate, a carving of a dragon, no different from the rest that surrounds the passageway, and yet rubbed to a smooth darkness by each of the visitors. We never did find out about that one.

Then there was that moment. We had got talking with one of the monks about some carvings, through Michael, when Gordon asked about martial arts. Did they do their own Taijiquan forms? Why yes. Was it unique to the temple? Oh yes. Could we, maybe see it? “Absolutely not. Taijiquan is a special thing within the temple; it was not to be performed to entertain tourists”. Fair enough. “Ah but wait”, said Michael, taking the monk aside, “These are not tourists, they are different” He had noticed this too. On discovering the Taiji connection, all the barriers were dropped, and the next thing – there he was showing parts of the temples Taiji type form and the Wushu form.

Why describe it to those who have not seen it. Watch the video. Suffice it to say that the ward off starts from a gusset-on-the-ground snake stance. But there was more. Enter Mister Wong, the possessor of the happiest, most open and expressive face in the world. With apologies to us all he explained that he would show us some of the sword form, but we must understand that he was a painter, really, and calligraphy was his thing, not swordsmanship. It was blistering. We felt honoured by this display, feeling that we had seen something that few in the west had seen. It was a few days later, when we described the events to a friend who we knew was a Taoist, that we discovered that having gone to the White Cloud Temple most of her adult life, she had not seen these things, and did not know anyone who had. We had witnessed something very, very special.

Before leaving this place that had become so special to us all, we wanted to buy something to remind us of all that had happened here. Incense was purchased, most of which was burnt in the braziers as a thank you, and the shop was visited. Amongst the trinkets and Taoist talismans, there was a small selection of Monks’ tunics. We too could dress like these men who had impressed us so. And so, after an almost embarrassing frenzy of purchasing, we had our souvenirs, and incidentally had solved the long-standing issue of club wear for the Chanquanshu School.

Beijing University of Physical Education, 2000

The University is set in the north west of Beijing and is the centre of excellence for all forms of physical education. It is from there that the fabulous Chinese gymnasts are trained, as well as all the Chinese martial art forms. It is also the home of Daoyin Yangshen Gong, under Professor Zhang Guande.

We were there to train with the Professor each morning. This was a special event for all of us as we had all been studying various parts of the Daoyin Yangshen Gong system, and this was the man responsible for creating it.

What would he be like? We knew that he was quite old, and had been recovering from a nasty accident, and there had been some doubts beforehand whether he would be well enough. During the classes, students of Daoyin from the university were joining us, and we couldn’t understand why they would wish to join us, being a group of rather mixed experience. We found out later that they were wishing to work with the professor, as this was a rare event that he actually taught students that were not his own disciples. They were, at this point more aware of how privileged were this group than we were ourselves. It is evident that this training week was very much a personal favour for Gordon. A further sign of the regard in which the professor holds Gordon was the ceremony held during the week where Gordon was initiated as the 34th disciple of the professor. As there will only ever be 35 disciples, this was one for the history books.

The professor was teaching us the second Taiji palm exercise, a Daoyin form that rather than being a series of repeated exercises, was a sequence of movements similar to a Taiji form. While we had a translator present at all times she was mostly redundant. The professor is one of those teachers that command your respect and attention at all times, and also has an amazing ability to communicate a great deal of knowledge despite the language barrier. Somehow you always knew what he meant.

The professor is an incredibly supple man with the most expressive fingers that I have seen.

Within five short mornings, the professor had us all going through this form as if we actually knew what we were doing. This was a great achievement considering the range of previous experience we had brought to the class. After the classes there were opportunities to investigate other goings-on on campus. We had the pleasure of watching classes taking place in the main auditorium, where the young gymnasts were going through their paces. This was a fine display of suppleness and skill from girls that must have been under 12.

We had a chance to watch the Wushu class warming up. Time constraints meant that we could not watch the whole class (6 hours), but what we saw was awe-inspiring. These young people, slipping into the most difficult of moves with perfect timing were destined to become an elite within China and throughout the world.

Contributors:

  • Anne Gierthy
  • Peter Christy
  • Hilary Christy
  • Rena O’Brien
  • Brian Lewis
  • Dubh Hardie
  • Mhairi MacKenzie

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