First impressions were amazement at the beautiful Terminal 3 at Beijing airport (designed partly by Norman Foster, and larger than all five Heathrow terminals combined), and astonishment at the sheer number of ultra modern skyscrapers in the city. Everywhere we visited we heard the same story of massive investment in building work over the past 10 to 15 years transforming the appearance of the cities. Most of the investment though is centred on the Eastern side of China whilst the middle lags behind considerably and the West is still virtually untouched by modernisation.
So dramatic is the redevelopment in Beijing that it took one individual to draw attention to the fact that if some of the old buildings were not preserved no one would know what the original Beijing looked like. Because of his foresight an area has now been protected called the Hutong and we visited a family living there. Madam was none too impressed with the changes that had taken place around her – least of all the now thriving night life that has sprung up in this quaint and previously quiet, part of town. She did however take our visit as an opportunity to try and flog us some of her husband’s paintings which she displayed on her wooden clothes horse. They were very good.
It is now 30 years since China was once again opened up to the outside world, yet throughout our trip, and most noticeably in Beijing, we were the object of curiosity and interest. We kept being asked to pose for photographs with the Chinese, and others would none too subtly video our group, although my blond haired, blue eyed daughter was in particular demand – we should have charged for each photo taken of her! Whilst initially this seemed unexpected in Beijing it was explained that the vast majority of tourists to Beijing, not surprisingly really, are Chinese. Many of these tourists are from areas that scarcely ever see a Westerner and it was these people who were so fascinated by us.
The changes Chinese people of my age have seen during their lifetime are quite staggering – let alone what their parents’ generation have experienced. Our guide in Beijing was born in 1964. When he was growing up if he didn’t want to eat up all his dinner his mother would say “But you must eat all your food. Don’t you know that in America and Britain the poor children are starving?” The first wave of American tourists soon put paid to that illusion!
Less than a hundred years ago there were still eunuchs at the Imperial Court. Some actually volunteered for ‘the cut’ as it could be a lucrative career. The actual operation was performed by a ‘knifer’. The patient would be given a herbal infusion meant to anaesthetize (let’s hope it was effective), and was then held down and sliced with a specially designed knife. A metal plug was then inserted in the urethra and he was made to walk immediately. No food or urination was allowed for three days. The plug was then taken out and if he could urinate at that point it meant he would probably live. The severed penis and testicles, known as the ‘Precious’ were carefully kept by each eunuch as they needed to be shown when ever they were on the brink of progressing to a higher level of service. Sometimes they got nicked so they would have to borrow a colleagues ‘Precious’. They also needed them when they died in order to gain entry to heaven as men – though some may feel it would all be a bit too late by then. The reason the eunuchs were required within the Imperial Household was to ensure that only the Emperor and his male heirs got to shag the concubines and that their offspring were guaranteed to be the Sons or Daughters of Heaven.
Chairman Mao must be spinning in his grave. Designer goods were on sale all over the city – as well as some very convincing fakes. Attitudes towards Mao seem to verge from veneration, through acceptance that he did some good things as well as having made some horrendous errors, to those of the teenagers “Yeah. I’ve heard of him – but he’s ancient history man!” If you can see some writing high up on the hillside on the photo of the Great Wall ,that says something like ‘Worship Mao,’ and only appeared a few years ago. Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world – it is said to be able to hold a million people, and the queue of people waiting to see Mao in his mausoleum wound round the square at least twice. The people we saw waiting must be there still – although we were reliably informed that his body was badly embalmed and decomposed so was replaced by a wax work copy.
Our guide told us that when the massacre occurred he had a group of Australian tourists who cut their trip short because of it. He thus had some free time and the brother of one of his friends was missing so he went round the hospitals to see if they could find him. This man was a medical student who had just qualified. He had not been one of the protestors but had gone to the Square to assist with some of the students who had been on hunger strike. They eventually found him in a mortuary with four bullet holes across his chest. The Chinese government says 27 people died in the square that day. Following the massacre the paving in the square was all replaced with marble. Locals say this is because blood doesn’t stain marble.
Some of our family and friends were worried we may have been caught up in the typhoon that hit Eastern China whilst we were there. I guess the rain that fell in bucket loads on the first Sunday afternoon must have been connected to what was going on elsewhere, but it was the only time we got rained upon – as the photo hopefully shows there was rather a lot of it that day.
Coming next – how I sprinted up the Great Wall of China. Or should that read how I staggered up the Great Wall of China????
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