Beijing, China

Outside the Forbidden City (as taken by the 'tea leaves')

The Chinese capital is a fantastic place, despite the odd scamp trying to charm money out of your wallet (see previous My Beijing Tea Party post!)

Gali, Santi and I at the 'Birds Nest' stadium

After the episode in the tea shop, I went on to meet Gali and Santi at the site of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The famous Birds Nest stadium looms large as you walk through the neighbouring park, and I have to say, its even more impressive up close than it appeared on the television.

My memories of watching the Olympics are dominated by the incredible opening ceremony, and as I peered through the railings I could just see through a gap into the stadium. It was quite quiet around, despite for a few hundred tourists doing the same as me, and hard to imagine what it must have been like back then. A few people, when they find out you’re English, start talking about London 2012 and ask if we’re ready for it. Of course, I tell them we are, but I’m not quite sure whether our opening show will quite match the extravagance in China.

The Water Cube and Olympic Stadium

Next we went to the Water Cube, the famous venue that housed the swimming and diving competitions. Its also famous for its impressive appearance, a big square box covered in a material that makes it look like giant bubble wrap, and at night lit up in a dazzling blue.

The Water Cube

Inside we’d learnt they had created a waterpark, complete with slides, wave pool and lazy river. I’d lugged my swim shorts and towel around all day as we’d agreed we would go, as long as both Santi and Gali found somewhere to buy something to swim in. We tried the shops around the venue, but the Chinese must have a liking for tight Lycra-style long Speedos, which as well as being far too revealing, cost about £20. With entry to the pool a ridiculous £20 too, we decided to give it a miss.

Inside the Water Cube

When we got inside, we were glad we gave it a miss – although the waterpark looks fun, there were very few people in there, probably due to the pricing structure. But the sad thing was, although the waterpark has only been open for a year or so, it looked to be in a fairly poor shape. The pool bottom looked to be falling apart, there were signs of extensive repairs, and it just seemed a little underloved considering the famous venue it was in. The same could be said for the Water Cube in general – the carpets on stairs were threadbare in places, tiling was chipped and cracked, and the moat around the outside of the venue was discoloured.

By the Olympic pool

It was a real shame, as a little bit of TLC would bring it back to life again. It was still impressive and worth a visit – and it was great to see the pool where, thousands of miles away, I watched Michael Phelps smash records and win eight gold medals.

The diving pool

It also seemed much smaller in real life – I always imagined Olympic pools to be some enormous stretch of water. Instead, possibly because of a fairly high vantage point, it seemed about the same size as Scartho Baths!

The following day, after retrieving my passport from the Vietnamese Embassy, and retrieving my defrauded £60 thanks to the Chinese police, I took in Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Chairman Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square

There’s an understandably high level of security around Mao’s mausoleum – all bags have to be left at a separate building across the road from Tiananmen Square, there are three checkpoints before you reach the steps of the building, and armed guards and secret police are everywhere (you just know that the guys in suits wandering around could kill with a single prod!)

There’s a steady line of people walking through the building from the moment it opens until its closure at midday every day. Chinese tourists and Beijingers alike flock to the building to pay their respects to Chairman Mao Zedong, the communist leader who led the revolution. He’s still very much seen by the Chinese people as the man who saved the nation, and this was clear by the outpouring seen at the building where his body lies.

People buy white flowers to leave in the entrance lobby, in front of a giant marble sculpture of Mao sat in a chair. You are then ushered through into the hall where his body lies, softly lit in a glass chamber. Many Chinese visitors bow and quietly say words for him. It was strange to see him, as although he died well before I was born, he’s still such a famous face. His image is everywhere in China, including on the back of banknotes as well as the huge portrait hanging above the entrance to the Forbidden City. The light seemed to reflect slightly off his face, almost as if it was a waxwork – but of course, its not. It was a very sombre atmosphere.

Stepping out into the vast Tiananmen Square, the full scale of the area hits you. It’s the largest public square anywhere in the world, and it certainly feels like it as you walk around.

Mao

The giant buildings either side mean you lose a sense of perspective, and it takes a surprisingly long time to walk from one end to the other. The square is known in the West for the so called Tiananmen Square massacre, and that famous image of a man in a white top standing in the way of a tank during the protests for political reform in 1989. Strangely, in China, its all just known as the June Fourth incident – but nobody can research it, as I found everything blocked on the internet.

Anyway, James Miles, the BBC reporter who originally covered the protests, has since said the violence of the protests did not actually happen in Tiananmen Square, but instead in the streets outside the square. In any case, I can still remember watching it on the television when it happened, and the name of the square immediately brings those images to mind. Its also staggering to know that more than a million people would march for Mao in the square.

Chinese soldier at Forbidden City

Today, theres a very friendly feel to the place – many people are sitting on walls, eating lunch or relaxing with friends. And that’s the first place where I noticed a strange phenomena. I was simply taking a few photographs, when I noticed a Chinese couple moving closer to me. A man nearby had a camera, and was taking a photo of them – but deliberately trying to get me into shot. I thought nothing of it, and walked on.

Five minutes later, it happened again, except not so discreetly. It was all a bit embarrassing really – I had no idea Look North was so popular in the Far East! I’m used to the occasional person coming up to me in and around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and asking ‘if I’m that bloke off the telly’ (it’s the glasses that get noticed!) but it started getting stupid.

The third time it happened, when a woman was shuffling up next to me, I just said ‘would you like a photo?’ She nodded, and her friend said ‘yes please’. I agreed, but asked why.

“Brown hair, blue eyes, from Europe,” came the reply.

Suddenly, a lot of things became clear. While it wasn’t uncomfortable travelling around Beijing, I had noticed that a lot of Chinese people seemed to stare at me. Its quite weird being on the underground, as sometimes there are that many people looking at you, you have no idea which way to look to avoid eye contact! But now I knew why – being white, with blue eyes and brown hair made me completely different, but the Chinese people, as lovely as they are, have no discretion when it comes to checking you out. Infact, most are quite blatant about it!

Many of those in Tiananmen Square were Chinese tourists, who just like British tourists from around the UK who visit London, were visiting their own capital. Many of them are from smaller, unvisited towns around China where tourism is still probably a bit of a novelty – and therefore, seeing ‘a foreigner’ is a new experience.

Still wary from the tea shop incident, I happily stood for a photo as their friends pointed and stared at me, before taking it in turns to also have a photo with me in various poses, as if I was some sort of dummy (insert your own joke Dad)

I got my own back though – she seemed slightly nervous when I said I wanted one of my own!

Random Chinese woman who wanted a photo!

Next was the Forbidden City, where the entrance fee was £11. Not so far back in history, the entrance fee would have been instant death, as for 500 years it was the private palaces and homes to Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

It’s the worlds largest collection of wooden structures anywhere in the world, and impressive they are too. The Emperors thrones have all been preserved, and its not hard to imagine how this city in a city would have once been.

Forbidden City

One of the strangest things I learned was that much of the Forbidden City burnt down every now and again, mainly due to celebrations and fireworks that were frequently set off from there. As a result, huge gold-plated cauldrons were dotted around – and still sit to this day – that were filled with water to be used if another huge wooden building suddenly takes a dislike to fireworks.

Many of these cauldrons had scratch marks on them, where various attacking armies had got in and tried to nick all the gold in the place, including the gold plating off the statues and other items. It was fascinating stuff, but a lot to take in.

Scrapings still show where attempts made to steal gold

I spent about four hours wandering around, but needed about two days to really do it justice. Unfortunately, I didn’t have two days spare, so I went to the top of a nearby park and took some shots of the Forbidden City stretching out into the distance.

Old and new

Except I would have done, but it was foggy again. I say fog, but in actual fact we’ve learnt it was pollution – smog. It had been on the news about how Beijing was struggling with its worst pollution of the year, and boy could you see it from the high vantage point.

The Forbidden City...and smog

When you think about it, you can almost taste and feel it entering your body. Despite all the work that was done to clean up Beijing’s polluted image around the Olympics, there is still a long way to go – and it can’t be good that visitors go home with cloudy pictures of some of the world’s most historic sites.

This may affect your health...

That night I went to the railway station and booked a seat on an early bullet train to Shanghai the following day, while Santi and Gali tempted me to a nightclub for our last night together. This could get interesting!

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