Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Home from Home

Today's post starts with a bright photo of a fairly typical Hunan dish, which often beats Szechuan for punch though never lacks other interesting flavours to boot.

Shockingly, I've become dad! Not a dad, as far as I'm aware but for a week I've gone into protective fatherly mode. Two of my good friends from back home have just left Beijing having stayed here for a week. Two extremely self-sufficient women who would have survived absolutely fine I'm sure without my help but somehow when people come out here I take on the guise of protector, feeling that a hidden danger lurks around every corner. Despite the fact that together with my over the top sense of looking after my two girls came a new repertoire of dad-style jokes, it's been an absolutely wonderful week, seeing old friends and laughing till the early hours like I haven't done for too long.

To round it all off yesterday we headed for a foot massage which soothed the feet of S and E who had been out for a trek on the Great Wall all day. In a rather murky basement the heating pipes had been decorated with fake greenery and the damp walls had been painted with classical Chinese garden scenes. The place came on recommendation but now that I think about it, this recommendation had been particularly expressive of the fact that this place was cheap. Anyway, 80 minutes of battery and kneading left us all rather calm, despite the television which had smoked and sparked when turned on and the fact that my masseuse had insisted on concentrating on putting all her weight on my lymph nodes. As I contorted in agony, feeling like she was putting red hot pokers around my groin, she asked if it hurt, I yelped "yes" to which she smiled gently and continued a little harder, presumably knowing that it was therefore doing good. S's masseuse kept repeating ba guan to me and when I pleaded ignorance she gave me a look which made me feel like it should have been the first word I'd learnt. Though she repeated it several times I didn't know what she was talking about (though I knew I recognised the word). She left the room and came back with two glass cups, a lighter and some unknown liquid. Of course, as everybody knows, ba guan means the Chinese medicinal technique of cupping which is used in reflexology to help circulation amongst other things. When the masseuse came at S's foot with a blue flaming cup her natural reaction was to back away. However, on the second attempt the cups were securely fastened and the ba guan did its thing. Anyway, the three of us, all rather ticklish, had minor hysterics at various points in the evening but left relaxed and light-footed, if a little dazed.

Before the final night's activities we'd spent a great week, with S and E exploring in the week-days and meeting up in the evenings but with a full weekend. Having been to the Temple of Heaven for Christmas day, I thought it only proper to go to Yonghe Gong, the Lamasery, for Rosh Hashanah. As one of the few working Buddhist temples in Beijing it's a hive of activity with the locals coming and praying for good luck, wealth and health, something that I find distinctly strange knowing the little I do about classical Buddhism. One of the four noble truths in Buddhism being the cessation of craving which leads to the cessation of suffering, many Chinese I've spoken to say that they're not religious until they need something, then they go and pray to Buddha to get it.

Anyway, with the incense burning and people gently milling around, it's a relatively relaxing place despite the crowds. The highlight of the temple is the sandalwood Buddha. At 18 metres tall (plus 8 metres underground) it's the largest carving in the world made from a single piece of wood (plus extra ornamentation). Its size is truly startling and you really have to crane your neck to get the full view.

From Yonghe Gong we wandered to a tea-house near the Confucius Temple and sat down to sample some brews, a little wary of stories of people getting ripped off for hundreds of pounds in these places. However, it all went smoothly and we tried three very different teas, each one prepared in the careful, classical style appropriate to it. The three teas we tried not only had different flavours from one another but changed their own flavour dramatically over time and with temperature. It's a wonderfully relaxing way to spend an afternoon and the road that leads to the Confucius Temple is one of the last authentic tree-lined avenues left in the city, making for a pleasant stroll after your thirst has been sated. We only spent an hour or so in the tea-house but you can easily spend two or three in there as, once they've explained about the tea and its subtleties, they will continue to refill your cup as long as you have room for it.

Onwards to the theatre where we watched a sometimes spectacular, sometimes farcical but always enjoyable display of Chinese acrobatics, Kung Fu and Szechuan mask changing. Impressive diabloing and body-crunchingly confusing contortionism was contrasted with Kung Fu masters hitting themselves over the head with metal poles and getting attacked with swords. The farce came from the fact that though they were clearly very good, they kept mucking up routines, dropping cups, hats, swords and each other all over the place which only added a dimension to the enjoyment.

As we still had some time before the clubs started to fill up we made our way towards Gongti (The Worker's Stadium) along a lantern lit avenue which must have had somewhere around two or three hundred restaurants of all styles, from Guandong to Russian, from Arabic to Yunnan. We went for the latter and though the menu was full of the most incredible delicacies, we were all pretty stuffed from lunch and had a light meal. I will have to go back there some time soon and try the dishes of bee pupae and bamboo worm which look exquisite. The fried milk snuff I'm not sure about but will probably give that a go too.

Our final appointment for the evening was a trip to show S and E the Beijing clubbing scene and so we decided on Mix, where one can see all ends of the spectrum of the Beijing style-conscious. This place is also nice as it hasn't got too many expats in so somehow it feels more authentic. One of the things I like most about the Beijing clubbing scene is that though there are people who are there looking beautiful, who clearly know it, there is none of the attitude you usually get in British clubs. People are there to have fun and whether you've just stepped out of Prada or the local outside clothes market, nobody really cares as long as you look happy to be there. From those who really know how to dance (a troupe of modern dancers from my gym) to those who know how to spend money, there's no code and no rules except to enjoy yourself.

This seems to be in rather stark contrast to the night before when we had gone to Sanlitun where there are a lot of expats along with locals drinking far too much cheap booze and occasionally getting aggressive. When I've been there before we usually stay inside in a bar but we found a seemingly nice, cheap spot to sit outside and have a few beers. In the couple of hours we were sat there we witnessed a couple of pretty nasty fights between Chinese and foreigners which included broken bottles and chairs being thrown around. Frankly I'm not surprised that the locals get pretty irate with the arrogant foreigners who come in to take advantage of the cheap drinks, lack of imposed night-life laws and overly affectionate local women. It all sounds pretty extreme but this is the first time I've ever witnessed a fight in China and my feeling is that a night in most British cities will see a lot more action than that.

Anyway, Mix was a complete contrast and we stayed with friends until the early hours having a great time and dancing like fools (I speak for myself, there's photo evidence so I should probably come clean now!).

For anyone looking for a bargain and some enjoyable haggling I would recommend going to the Qianmen street market before it's bulldozed. This was the first restaurant I went to in Beijing, nearby the market:

We spent Sunday with some other English friends buying tea, fans, paintings and other miscellaneous odds and ends which make great presents. Again, having friends out here has given me a boost of confidence for my slow but steady progress with the language. Though I still spend most of my time in a state of confusion I do have moments of lucidity where it genuinely appears that I'm having a conversation.

So, now I have a week in which to get lots of work done, next week is the national day holiday though I shall probably work for some of that too. The current projects are progressing nicely and both the local project with my boss, another postdoc and a PhD student and the collaboration between here, Poland and Japan is making steady, interesting progress. Postdoc applications should really be getting first priority now but the lack of a single definitive deadline is detracting from my motivation to drop the work and get on with what I know must be done. Speaking of which...


Anonymous said...

Should you go to a massage parlour in England and request 'cupping' I suspect you'll get an entirely different treatment. Enjoyable nontheless, I'm sure.

Just emailed you with details of a restaurant you and I should visit when I come a-visiting...

Anonymous said...

I often enjoy a good 'cupping', especially when executed with the use of a fine lathering agent.