When I had suggested going for a Chinese for my birthday, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I pressed my nose against the glass and peered out. Thirty-thousand feet below me, beyond the inky darkness, Central Russia lay slumbering beneath a blanket of stars.
I was heading for Beijing…and dinner with a duck!
Back then, Beijing was still a city of a million bicycles. Tourism was still very much in its infancy and the sparkling glass towers of the twenty-first century were nothing more than an architect’s wet dream. The sight of a gweilo on the streets of the Chinese capital was cause for excited gesticulating in those days and I can still remember causing a major bicycle pile-up by simply stopping to look at a map at a road junction.
For centuries this enigmatic city had lain at the heart of the Chinese universe. It was the sun around which the empire revolved. Established as a capital by Kublai Khan in 1264, today it still holds sway over the vast landmass that makes up the Peoples Republic of China, its directives as much a mystery to the peoples of its outlying provinces as they are to us. This was a sprawling mass of glass, concrete and humanity, hiding within it some of the finest examples of Imperial splendour anywhere in Asia.
Away from these glass towers and wide boulevards, Beijing is riddled with a wonderfully confusing network of dark alleyways (hutongs), which snake and twist away from its central core. Crammed to overflowing with produce, people and livestock, these narrow backstreets provide an endless cacophony of noise, colour and smells. I remember wandering past stalls and carts creaking under the weight of all manner of exotic oddities. At my feet, bags and buckets thrashed about wildly, their occupants, a bewildering mix of frogs, snakes and fish, all apparently desperate to add to the general melee and confusion. I allowed myself to be swept along on a wave of humanity; a ceaseless river where, as a space became available, it was immediately filled…by a cart, a bicycle, a person. I flowed along with it, a stranger in an even stranger land.
I rarely feel much affinity with cities. To me they are just crowded and dirty and serve only as a means of escaping to more interesting places. Beijing back then was somehow different though. I can remember sitting in the late afternoon sunshine, soaking up the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, whilst all around me families were making the most of the rapidly disappearing summer. Amongst the stone memorials to past and present empires, children played and laughed and above my head huge kites of dragons and eagles swooped and twisted in a colourful dance across the sky. My plan had been to stay and watch the flag lowering ceremony at sunset, but the overwhelming mass of humanity flooding into the square made me think again. I left the square to the growing masses and headed for my date with a duck.
The Chinese love to eat. In fact, there is very little they won’t consume. Everything from a starfish on a stick to a plateful of jellyfish, is fair game once the Chinese gastric juices get flowing. Peking duck though is probably the capital’s most famous culinary offering. Not for the faint-hearted, the unfortunate duck is first force fed a diet of grain and soybean paste to fatten it up. Then it is lacquered with molasses, pumped with air, filled with boiling water, dried and finally roasted over a fruitwood fire. At some stage during this process one would hope that it is also killed. The whole process may appear a touch barbaric, especially if you are a duck, but the end result, I can assure you, is delicious. I feasted on duck soup, tender strips of duck with plum sauce and crepes, fortune cookies and Chinese beer, although I am pretty sure that the last two were not directly attributable to the duck.
The following morning found me creeping out of my hotel and into the waking city just as the sun was beginning to rise. Early mornings in Beijing are a time for the good citizens of the city to indulge their passions, before beginning the rigours of the day, and I was headed for Tiantin Park in search of culture, excitement and ballroom dancing! It was a strangely discordant collection of sights and sounds that greeted me as I entered the park. Even at this hour it was full of people. Old men strolled past, deep in conversation, their hands tightly gripping bamboo cages that echoed to the warbling tones of solitary songbirds. Beside me an old man went through the unhurried trance-like forms of Tai Chi, his sword reflecting the morning sun as it cut a gentle curve through the still air. Next to him, middle aged couples dipped and spun to the distorted strains of a waltz. Suddenly the air was filled with the screeching wails of Chinese Opera and all around me the park seemed to come alive with movement and noise. Shaken from my reverie I moved off to explore.
Tiantin means Temple of Heaven and the park itself is widely regarded by many as the perfection of Ming architecture. It was conceived as the meeting point of heaven and earth and for 500 years was the heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism. Once considered sacred ground it would have meant certain death to enter. Nowadays the price is slightly less exacting at just a few yuan. Set in an area of some 270 hectares, the Temple of Heaven is a bewildering array of colour and symbolism.
The four gates that lead into the park are set on the four compass points and the structures within are a numerologists dream. The temple buildings are all circular and set onto square bases, deriving from the ancient Chinese belief that heaven was round and the earth square. The centrepiece of the whole complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a magnificent structure mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace and topped by three blue tiled roofs. It was to this majestic structure that the Emperor came to pray for the coming harvests and seek divine approval for the coming year.
For a city that suffered such wanton destruction at the hands of the Japanese, the Kuomintang and the Communists, it is surprising how much of its imperial past still remains. In the 1940s there were 8000 temples in old Peking, by the 1960s these had been reduced to just 150. Little wonder then that the likes of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace get so many visitors. I headed next for the Lama Temple though which, according to my guidebook, was not only the most colourful temple in Beijing, but also the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple in China. Originally the former domicile of the Emperor Yong Zheng, it became a temple, as was the custom, upon his improved social status. In 1744 it was converted into a lamasery, becoming the residence for large numbers of monks from Mongolia and Tibet. Miraculously it survived the Cultural Revolution intact and today serves as an active Tibetan Buddhist Centre, although that is a somewhat contentious title given China’s policy towards Tibet.
Politics aside though and irrespective of any religious authenticity, the Lama Temple cannot be faulted as an aesthetic experience. Everything about it is a visual delight; its gardens, its frescoes, its tapestries and the heavy smell of incense, all lend a magical quality to the place. At its heart sits an 18 metre high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, sculpted from a single piece of sandalwood and clothed in yellow satin. The walls too are a work of art, covered with the erotic couplings of the Nandikesvaras, copulating figures that earned the lamasery its reputation as China’s most illustrious sex manual, one regularly used to educate the sons of the emperor himself.
I ended up spending the better part of a week in Beijing, exploring its treasures and losing myself amongst its alleys and backstreets. On the surface it is a city like many others, drab and dirty, a seething mass of humanity. But within its vast boulevards and crammed hutongs it hides a breathtaking array of beauty, reminders of an age of opulence and splendour at odds with its communist doctrines.
It is a living paradox today, especially with the onslaught of China’s new Imperial age and its headlong rush to embrace the trappings and trinkets of the twenty-first century. Let us hope that these remnants of its golden epoch are not entirely forgotten in its new empire.