Saturday 4th August
Painfully early start to Heathrow for the start of this Far Eastern mathematical adventure. In the cause of economy, I’m flying on Finnair with a six hour stop in Helsinki. At this point I should mention how grateful we all are for the generous donation from an anonymous Hong Kong businessman which means this part of the trip has been covered. It turns out to be entirely possible to slip into the town centre for a few hours, rather than stay confined in the clean but rather sterile Finnish airport. The weather is beautiful, with not a cloud in the sky as I stop for freshly grilled salmon on the harbourside then wander round the stylish waterfront shops, the two cathedrals and a sprawling park with a stunning greenhouse complex at its centre. The now scorching conditions do nothing to deter the legions of stallholders attempting to shift arctic fox stoles and reindeer fur throws. I return on the regular airport shuttle bus and head for the gate, albeit two hours early, but unbelievably there is an almost infinite supply of flat sofa-chairs, so I can settle down with Fifty Shades of Grey inconspicuously stored on my Kindle. In many ways, Finland has been an excellent, if brief, preparation for China. Firstly, the language is completely unintelligible. Secondly, I stand out like a black sheep amongst the perfect Nordic specimens, at least until the rest of the passengers turn up for my Asian flight. On the other hand, the price of everything here is absurd. Nothing plausible for lunch comes to less than 10 Euros. I’m informed that might well supply several three-course dinners in Beijing… In any case though, my stay here is short, and I’m on the evening flight East.
Sunday 5th August
I get some sleep leaning against the bulkhead, but am still disastrously tired as I yawn my way through border control at 6am Beijing time. I can’t quite face rush hour right now, so have a snooze in the arrivals lounge before making my way across town. I realise I am being royally ripped off by a taxi driver, who refuses to turn on the meter, but I fail to be demanding enough at the appropriate moment. I think he realises that I realise, and looks suitably sheepish, so I only pay a quarter and he seems happy enough. My room contains a bed, which right now is all I want. After a nap, I catch up on some of the Olympics on Chinese TV while I sort my life out. Evidently I missed the British Gold rush, but unfortunately since none of the remarkable medal haul lay in table tennis or badminton, it’s hard to find any relevant highlights. Later, I head out for a stroll through North-East Beijing. It doesn’t take too long to get used to the humidity and the traffic. I’d been apprehensive about the logistics of crossing the road, when right turns are allowed at all times, but as in Vietnam, it seems that if you just keep going at constant velocity the mopeds will swerve around you. I end up at Gui Jie, the ‘Ghost Street’, and location of hundreds of neon-lit, red-lanterned restaurants facades. Amid the imprenetable character displays, I pick one at random. My phrasebook Chinese and frantic gesticulation on both sides is enough to produce a beer and a serving of the Sichuan speciality, Gongbao chicken, with a worrying mountain of chillis and peppercorns piled in a corner. I proceed with caution.
Monday 6th August
Breakfast is a further adventure. I’ve been a massive fan of the jiaozi dumplings at Dojo in Cambridge for ages, and something similar appears here – a bit odd at 8am. Truly odd, however, are the thousand-year eggs, which are pickled raw in mud (thankfully for only two weeks or so) until the yolk turns a dark green-black and the whole thing carries an aroma of the stable. I’m sure they are an acquired taste. I have not acquired this taste yet. On the other hand, the selection of exotic fruit is excellent, and I always approve of plenty of fish in the morning.
Thus fortified, I descend into the efficient underground realm of the Beijing metro to make my way to Tiananmen Square. It is grey but enormous. Even with thousands of visitors you still feel isolated. I wander round Mao’s Mausoleum, but the queue deters me from paying my respects up close. Instead, across the small moat, and under his famous portrait which gazes down on visitors entering the South Gate of the Forbidden City. The crowd meanders through the collection of gates, hall and palaces that make up the residence of the two dynasties worth of emperors and their extensive entourages. Everywhere there is red and blue, and the copper of the elegant roofs. Some of the most interesting sights are to be found in the less grand arcades and more intimate quarters ranging around the gardens at the back of the complex. In many ways the life of the Emperor doesn’t sound all that fun. From as young as three years old, they had a daily schedule of rituals, sacrifices and administrative meetings, with only the court officials and the intriguing eunuchs who guarded the concubines for company. The best bit in a way was the view from the top of the Coal Hill Park opposite, looking down through the lingering mist (or possibly smog…) at the intricate layers that made up the fascinating enclosed city.
One of the more surprising aspects of today’s sightseeing was how few international tourists there are here. The overwhelming majority of the enthusiastic camera-pointers were Chinese. It felt nice, and a pleasant novelty after the likes of Rome and Istanbul to be with the locals even during the most stereotypical of tourist activities. Dinner tonight was much more of a success. On a terrace by the Houhai lake, a picture menu made life much easier, and I enjoyed my whole roasted duck Sichuan-style, even after the disconcerting moment where I discovered the charred remains of what had once evidently been the head, lurking under a pile of peppercorns.