My second tour, to all the classic sites – Tian’anmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace – is far less fun than my trip to the Wall. As I said before, it’s all about the company you keep: the two German girls of Turkish origin were perfectly nice, but kept to themselves, and the guide – who proudly showed us photos of him with Daniel Craig, Bill Clinton and other celebs – was, as a result, rather big for his boots and decided that the three of us did not merit any more than a cursory whizz around. He also had a smartass answer for everything, which grated after a while.
So we had ‘done’ Tian’anmen Square before I realised it, skirting the edge in order to enter the Forbidden City. His intentions, however, might have been pure, not only was it knocking 40C but it was also packed with large local groups, all elbowing, toe-stepping, and queue-barging. ‘Country people, very rude,’ observes the guide as I am overwhelmed by yet another surge of flag-waving humanity.
It is much calmer and cooler in the Temple of Heaven, the Ming complex visited annually by the Emperors to pray for good harvests and atone for their sins. It reminds me more of some of the larger buildings in Samarkand with its blue tiling (I suppose it’s the Mongol heritage). Nowadays it provides the perfect backdrop for bridal couples, the bride always arrayed in auspicious red.
As you enter the shady wooded park, your ears are assailed by a cacophony of karaoke: on all sides there are beat boxes and groups of people, some in matching outfits, trying out their jazz moves. I really wanted to wander round and see more of them, but was not allowed. In fact, everywhere you go in Beijing, especially in the cool of the early evening, and even by the side of the road, you find groups of people dancing the night away. Are they dancing with their husbands I ask? Oh no, this is where people come to escape from their marriages; it’s a place to meet someone new!
Lunch is a great disappointment: as I expected we lǎo wài get European versions of Chinese food while the locals get much yummier-looking fare. Everywhere you go in China, pampered children, ‘little emperors’, can be found surrounded by doting parents and relatives – a throwback to the one-child policy. I discover one such little girl in the loo, who is mesmerised by me and tries out her English – at two-and-a–half. China is changing!
No trip is complete without the hard-sell; on the Wall trip we had the jade factory; and en route to the Summer Palace, we troop into the Pearl factory. Freshwater pearls were cultivated by wicked Dowager Empress Cixi for her complexion – ground pearls make a very good anti-wrinkle cream. She eschewed investment in the Chinese Navy, instead restoring the Palace to its former glory after looting by the French and the English in the Second Opium War (1860). Thus one woman’s vanity left China open to further invasion by foreign powers, notably Japan, but also provided a lasting legacy to the Imperial lifestyle.
Our guide was very keen on telling us this at every opportunity. In fact he was a funny mixture of being very westernized – excellent American-accented English – while simultaneously rather xenophobic. Singapore, he tells me, is not a country, it is a city; a country has to be able to be self-sufficient in all things. Like China, obviously! I tell him that many rich Chinese come to Singapore with their millions. The younger generation, by all accounts, do not have the same suspicion of America as those in their 40s, although the editorials are full of criticism for Obama’s recent speeches on the spat with Vietnam. The timing of China’s aggressive defence of the disputed islands is seen as testing the US’s allegiances – too pro-Japanese and pro-Taiwanese our guide tells us, too pro anyone but China in fact!
Now it’s the heat of the day, and we are thankful for the pleasant stroll down the Long Corridor (half a mile long and decorated with intricate paintings of Chinese myths and historical events), fanned by cool breezes. I have developed a blister on my toe from my Wall exertions and have tried to diminish the pain with a tissue stuck between my toe and the shoe strap. Everywhere I go, the Chinese are fascinated by this limping foreigner; it’s not considered rude to stare, so stare they do before muttering comments to each other. As I stagger along, I feel a tap on my sleeve: have I dropped something? I look down and there is a smiling woman, proffering me a couple of plasters. I am touched.
We end our tour with a ride across the Kunming Lake in a dragon boat; from there we get great views of the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, which bestrides the man-made hill.
I am completely exhausted by 7 hours on my feet in such temperatures and fall asleep in the bus on the way back to the hotel. But apart from the blister, the leg is holding up OK, just slow and stiff. It makes me feel old!