Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unfathomably, somehow Dan turned up on time, with his luggage, looking relatively fresh from a gruelling trip from the UK. Beijing airport is a pretty simple affair and his first taste of real Chinese life was a trip to Starbucks in the arrivals lounge.

Not only did Dan bring his good self but he brought me, as requested, a few books which I'm stupendously happy at receiving. Two new Steinbeck, the latest Murakami, another Marquez and a Kundera have lit up my rather sparce book collection here no end and shall keep me entertained for some time.

So Dan arrived on New Year's Eve. My third of the year, and for this one I couldn't work out what we had in store for us. My campus is an absolute ghost-town. Usually one has to push and jostle to get anywhere around the campus. Now generally I'm the solitary figure roaming the deserted paths. Almost everyone else has returned to their families for some time. This means that with Dan's arrival I really didn't and still don't know how the trip will pan-out. There is talk that almost everything will be closed this week but I'm sure we'll be able to keep ourselves entertained with careful choices.

After a bit of a kip for Dan, we headed to my local for a quiet drink before going to the Chaoyang district to meet another couple of friends.

Ah, yes, the fireworks...from four in the afternoon Beijing turned into a war-zone! Firecrackers and rockets gave a constant barrage of bangs, cracks and whizzes to ward away the Nian spirit and probably any chance of hearing in later life. As the sky darkened with the setting sun and the increasing smoke in the air, illuminations joined the cacophony to give eight hours of the most spectacular fireworks display I've ever scene. As I mentioned before, fireworks were banned in Beijing for over a decade until this year. It's a strange logic but basically many, many people die in Beijing every year from illegal fireworks (almost 200 in the last six months) so the authorities have legalised it. However, from what I can tell, because the illegal ones are cheaper it just means that far more illegal fireworks are bought. Anyway, also because the authorities aren't really happy about them, I don't believe there were any organised displays. People in the city don't have gardens which means that families peppered the roadside with their displays as we rode in the taxi on the eight-lane highway.

We were aiming to celebrate the New Year with a traditional Beijing duck meal but it turned out that all the restaurants were closed. Tiananmen square was completely deserted and the streets were eerily quiet, save for the deafening noise of firecrackers.

After much running around and rumbling of stomachs, the four of us finally found a restaurant which was willing to serve us. We were the only customers in this large Beijing duck eatery save for an enormous table where the proprietors, the waiters and the chefs were having their enormous celebratory meal. I'm still not sure who cooked our dinner which was good though completely chaotic with much singing, shouting and confusion as we finished our dumplings without finding the lucky coin that they only told us afterwards was hidden in one of them. I have a feeling I may find it today!

Anyway, a couple of relatively empty bars later and Dan (tired from jet-lag) and I (tired from getting up at silly o'clock to get to the airport) headed back to watch the fireworks display from my flat. At midnight the sky was truly lit up with what must have been 1000 simultaneous displays that we could see in the near vicinity. Pretty awesome stuff. Unfortunately no great photos but we managed to get a movie of it which I may try to link to the blog sometime.

The next day after a really decent rest and a stroll around the local areas to orient Dan a little, we headed to our first real taste of New Year's celebrations, Chinese style. Within many of the major temples there are huge festivities so we went to Ditan park (The temple of Earth) which is supposed to hold the most extensive Miao Hui.

It turns out that the reason that the streets have been completely empty everywhere else in Beijing is because everyone and their dog is at Ditan park in a huge moving crush of people bumping between stalls serving all varieties of festive food to games and incense burning ceremonies, performances of classical tales and fashion shows.

We went there with one of the PhD students from my department. She's one of the few people from the department left in Beijing and not spending the day with their families.

A few decent photos from the Miao Hui (Please correct me if you know the right spelling).

Dan and Laura on the bridge on the way to the temple.

The enormous crowds of people.

The year of the dog celebrated with true kitsch

Dan eating scorpion, Laura eating starfish. Scorpion tastes pretty good. The legs are kinda crunchy but the bodies are a tasty little treat. It turns out the starfish tastes a little like sand.

Cicadas, scorpions, locusts, squid, starfish and sparrows were all on the menu.

Dan attempting not to be stung during his gastronomic adventures.

New year is a time here for colourful decorations everywhere.

Dan with luminous green drink complete with flour balls.

One of the traditional stories being reinacted with songs, dancing and drums.

Making some form of culinary delight with a big mallet looks like fun. Couldn't quite work out what was being produced.

After the delights of crowds of millions of slightly hung-over Beijingers we headed back to the flat before finding a Japanese restaurant and warming ourselves up with some sake before hitting the clubs. It appeared that we were the only club-hitters that night as we sat alone, playing pool and chatting in what is usually one of the busiest live music venues. The folk singer who was supposed to be performing clearly didn't think that we were audience enough so we had to be content with the entertainment of the Chinese version of Jeremy Beadle on the bar TV.

Next day we headed Tiananmen way, wandered around the hutongs and a few shops before going to the natural history museum. Listed in the guidebook for its gruesome preserved specimens, I was mildly impressed with some of the lepidoptery displays and the dinosaurs which were just like those in any natural history museum I've ever been to.

We did find the human display which surprisingly had quite a few families taking their children round what were pretty gory specimens. Perhaps because of this it wasn't a terribly shocking display but interesting to see bits and pieces of preserved folk at various stages of life including a couple of whole specimens in different states of bodily undress!

We headed back home but first stopping off at a spa to have a massage. This is the first massage I've had in China but felt that this was a good time to try and unwind after a tiring three months. We found a reputable looking place and with a mixture of bad Chinese and slightly better English had a whole hour's massage. Dan's it seemed was a little too gentle but I came away feeling slightly more tense than before having spent most of the time with clenched teeth trying not to groan from the pain of thumbs and elbowed poked very hard into knotted muscle.

Anyway, I think I feel better for it today so it seems to have been worthwhile.

As the hang-overs of the locals have worn off they seem to be going back to the clubs now and we spent a decent night in one of the locals relaxing, drinking cocktails and dancing till three in the morning.

...and so the adventure continutes.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the brilliant photos! Really captures the spirit of things. Glad we can't hear the crackers going off this far away at least. Hope you are continuing to enjoy the break and we can catch up soon.

Jonathan Shock said...

Thanks K,

Either the noise is slowly fading away or my hearing is. Much calmer now.


I've been informed that starfish is an endangered species. If anyone knows whether this is true, I'd be interested to know. I shan't be having it again anyway.

Leopold Lepidoptera said...

Good pictures Biscuit. I like the look of Bailey's green drink but am dismayed to hear his balls were floury. I know how much Dan dislikes a fine dusting of the stuff and can only imagine what manner of unholy batter resulted from him sprinkling it all over his balls. Anyway, say hello to the chap from me. There's a fair amount of Chinese New Year gubbins going on here in London Town too, complete with parades, lanterns strung along Oxford Street (http://english.people.com.cn/200601/28/images/0127_B20.jpg) and Chinese poetry on the Tube-posters. Marvellous. I went to see the 'China: The Three Emperors' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts at the weekend too. Awesome.

Leopold Lepidoptera said...

That weblink up there should finish (underscore)B20.jpg.

Jonathan Shock said...

Hi L.L,

Dan is well and sends his regards. I'd like to hear more of what you saw at the exhibition in London. Just been to a decent Italian exhibition here which I'll talk about more later.

New Year on Oxford Steet looks like fun too.