Notes from the Far East: Part 1

In October last year, I went on holiday with my parents, starting with a few days in Beijing, then boarding the Quantum of the Seas for a journey across the South China Sea – stopping at Fukuoka (Japan), Taipei (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), and finally Singapore.

I’ve been sitting on notes and photos from the trip for months. But with one thing and another, now feels like a good opportunity to remind myself of happier times.

So here are a few notes from the beginning of the trip – three days in Beijing.

A quick point to flag early on: Yes it was a cruise; yes I am conflicted over the environmental and economic impact of cruises. I will cover it in a future post.

Forbidden City

After an immigration nightmare that I won’t get into here, our first full day in China was spent at the Forbidden City – a gigantic 15th century palace complex right in the centre of Beijing. The Forbidden City served as the home of the Emperors, and the centre of political power in China, for over 500 years. It now takes over 80,000 visitors a day.

We entered through the Meridian Gate, in the south.

The doors have 81 nails. In Chinese culture, 9 is “the greatest number”, so 9×9 is, like, crazy powerful. That’s why, apparently, only doors in the emperor’s buildings could have 81 nails.1

Inside the City, the architecture is just stunning.

The bronze lions (one boy, one girl) at the Gate of Supreme Harmony are 600 years old – apparently the originals that all other Chinese lions are based on.

Almost every roof has a little procession of animals and mythical creatures on its corners. The longer the procession, the more important the building.

The scale of the place is crazy. Lisa, our tour guide, told us the palace has 9999 rooms. The Emperor was waited on by 20,000 eunuchs,2 and thousands of concubines.

The Forbidden City also acts as a giant museum with almost 1.8 million artefacts. When we visited, the imperial clock collection was on display.

On the way out, we passed through the outer courtyards, with their centuries-old trees, and the nine dragon screen…

Can you tell which tile was broken by a workman during installation, and secretly replaced with a painted wooden replica, before the Emperor could notice?

Night out in Dongzhimen

Lisa, our tour guide, had recommended a place to eat, down the road from our hotel. So after sleeping off a bit of our jetlag, we headed out to the bustling Dongzhimen district.

This week was “Golden Week” in China, so the city was packed. People sat on makeshift benches in the street, and queues formed outside street food stalls serving buns, cakes, and peking duck.

We eventually found the restaurant (Huajia Yiyuan, or “Hua’s Restaurant”, on Dongzhimen Inner Street) and with some help from three burly members of staff who lifted Dad up and down the short flights of steps in his wheelchair, we were seated at a table, just as the evening’s cabaret entertainment was starting.

There were singers, acrobats, some noodle-making chefs, and even a short segment of traditional Chinese opera.

The food was beautiful.

Although I must admit we passed on the more adventurous looking dishes.

The Great Wall

Early the next morning, we met our second tour guide for a trip to the Great Wall. It’s just one of those things – if you go to China, you’ve got to do it.

Problem is, that’s what the hundreds of thousands of “Golden Week” Chinese tourists were also saying. Hence our 7am start – an attempt to beat the crowds.

We’d spent ages researching wheelchair accessibility on the wall. The offical line is that the Badaling section of the wall was made wheelchair accessible for the 2008 Olympic Games. But, as with all official positions in China, reality is some way off.

After an altercation with the security guards, who were demanding a “certificate” to prove Dad’s disability, our tour guide managed to persuade them to let us drive up the hill to the entrance building.

And, while it’s true that there’s a fairly wheelchair-accessible cable car (with an elevator to get to its start), once you get to the top there’s really nowhere for you to go, unless you can get out of your chair and handle the two flights of stairs to the wall.

Our tour guide refused to accept that the wall wasn’t wheelchair accessible. “Look!” she said, pointing to an old lady who’d been helped out of her chair, and was slowly tottering down the stairs with two walking sticks, while her folded-up wheelchair was carried behind her, “it’s wheelchair accessible!” Shameless.

Anyway, we took a few snaps from the viewing platform, then Mum and I started the hike up to Tower 8.

The wall was absolutely packed with people, all precariously working their way up and down the uneven, sloped steps.3 The Chinese already have an unusual relationship with personal space (ie: none) but up this high, with us all hanging on like mountain goats, it was every man for himself.

Still, the views were magnificent.

On the way back from Badaling, we visited Chang Ling Mausoleum, at the entrance to the Ming Tombs world heritage site.

There are some seriously beautiful artefacts here, belonging to Zhu Di, the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty.

Outside, you’re meant to throw a coin into one of the five pots, to see whether you get the prize they represent – “Happiness. Employment. Longevity. Luckiness. Wealth” our guide said.

The characters at the top of the monument on the hill say “Ming Dynasty”. They know which hill the Emperor’s tomb is under, but they haven’t found the entrance yet.

The bricks of the monument have stamps, showing which brickmaker made them, and when. Apparently this is partly as a mark of pride, and partly quality assurance – “If the bricks failed,” our tour guide said, “the brickmaker would be found and killed.” Take of that what you will.

We ended the day with a tea ceremony, just outside the city centre.

We tried six types of tea. The oolong with ginseng was lovely. Lychee was my favourite – apparently it’s the tea you give to kids 😉 Pu-erh tea comes in a compacted cake, like a block of dried peat, and can last for decades.

You hold the cup with your thumb and forefinger at 12 and 6 o’clock, and a third finger underneath to suppport it. Women spread their ring and pinky fingers out, while men clench them into a fist. And you have to finish the first cup in three sips.

Part 1 verdict: China

It was lovely to finally see a bit of China, even if it was only two days in Beijing.

But it’s an uncomfortable city—and I assume, country—to visit.

You’re aware of the authoritarian government from the moment you arrive. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you it was literally a miracle we got in at all – twelve hours earlier, the Chinese government had decided to refuse almost all 144-hour transit visas with no explanation, and we were some of only a handful of cruise-goers who actually managed to get in under the arrangement.

Once we were in, we quickly worked out that China is a country completely happy on its own. There are enough people in China that it can happily function as its own, self-contained world. You get the feeling that almost nobody leaves – I’m not sure whether that’s because they can’t or just don’t want to.

The isolationism becomes even clearer when you compare China to its neighbours. As I’ll cover in future blog posts, when we visited Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore, the tour guides, retailers, and hotel staff were desperate to help us, desperate to show their country’s best side, to make happy memories for the visitors. I’m the same when I bump into foreign tourists in my home city of Liverpool. Kindness costs you nothing, and it feels good to make people happy.

But in Beijing, that was surprisingly hard to find. It’s like there’s a “take it or leave it” attitude to visitors. From the moment we landed, there was this subtext to all interactions: “You’re lucky to even be here, the greatest country in the world.” Even our hotel—a self-proclaimed “international business hotel” in the centre of the capital city of the world’s second largest economy—only had a single member of staff who spoke even rudimentary English. God knows how they fare with other world languages. It was just surreal.

Most worrying is the sense we got that nobody questions the status quo. When we spoke about our crazy immigration experience—mothers separated from babies, tourists held under police guard in a pen, whole planes turned around without explanation—people just looked at us blankly, as if waiting for us to tell them something unacceptable. When we told the same stories to Chinese staff on the cruise ship, they were shocked and, frankly, embarrassed. But on the mainland, it was like “Well, if the government did that, it must be right.” We quickly started to understand what the people of Hong Kong were (and still are) protesting for.

Speaking of which, next up, in Part 2 – our ship sets sail, to Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

  1. If you visit China, you’ll hear a lot of these “only the emperor can have that” rules. Oh, only the emperor can use that central doorway. And only the emperor can have yellow tiles in his roof. Only the emperor could have dragons with five claws, or cooking pots with nine feet.

    As a modern westerner, these rules sound totally crazy. But I think they’re all just part of this great big, centuries-long ball of myth and faith, that, as a tourist, there’s just no way to fully understand. Some people love this aspect of Chinese culture. I’m not convinced. 

  2. Castrated so they could never have families to challenge their devotion to the establishment, apparently. 

  3. We were told the uneven steps were a design feature. The soldiers who built and manned the wall knew its idiosyncrasies off by heart. But foreign attackers, reaching the wall for the first time, would be completely thrown by the higgledy-piggledy steps, and lose their footing, making them slower and easier to fight.