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martedì 15 gennaio 2013

Life in a Hutong. Once in Beijing do as the Beijingnese.

This is a picture taken in Tian an Men square more or less two months ago when I went to Beijing to attend the Comitè Maritime international Conference. I have to say my trip didn't start in the best way : two days before I had to go to the dentist for an urgency root canal work which lasted two hours and took 4 phials of anestaetic, and the day before I left i got a terrible cold and cough which lasted for a week. I had never been to China except for Hong Kong a few years earlier which apparently is a world apart. Well my first approach wasn't an easy one but it is my fault. Instead of taking the fast train from Beijing airport I took the bus.. (a local bus I then realized since I was the only foreigner on board ) where you had to take your luggage with you on board and which got filled like an egg. It stopped in a place near to my hotel but from where it was impossibile to reach it . In Beijing in many streets i noticed you just can't cross but you have to take passageways where of course there are only stairs, and which you have to reach walking miles. Everbody was watching this apparently crazy woman with a big suitcase wondering around, looking completely lost and with a terrible cold and no voice . Yes that was me and believe me after walking miles and carrying my luggage up and down on the stairs, after a 12 hours flight with jet leg and a cold I was not happy to notice that the Airport train stop was just outside my hotel... After basically being in bed for a whole day with my damn cold and jet leg I decided to then go and visit the biggest square in the world amd the fabolous Forbidden City. Now, all of you who have been to China probably have noticed the crazy amount of people everywhere, everytime, which doubles up during public holidays and sundays. When I got to Tian an Men I was told by a "student" (scam)to start from another entrance and actually that was a good suggestion because i got in a park where there was incredible peace, a beautiful channel and incredible old buildings where just married couples (dressed in red) were taking pictures. I sat for a while watching all the people doing tai chi and I found it incredibly relaxing before entering the actual Forbidden city. When I actually got in I had no idea of the dimensions of this incredible monument nor of the number of tourists (mainly Chinese) who I would find. Believe me : in both cases they were a lot, a lot, a lot. I walked with my audio guide from one enormous square to the other and it took me hours to see most of the city. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the quantity of people: I could not come close to a building without basically being stomped on and squashed by the crowds who would push and elbow in order to go through. What do they say ? When in Rome do as the Romans so I started using the same tecnique and nobody got upset whereas in Europe I guess that the mildest thing I would have received is a swearword towards my ancestors. Forbidden city After I got out since I was starving I looked for a place where to eat. Now, for us Europeans or Westerners in general the hygenical standards of most places where to eat is absolutely insufficient, thus it's very tricky to find a place where to feel really comfortable. Listening to some friends who lived in China I had the confirmation of what I already thought i.e. you get used to it and you don't notice dirt anymore plus you start eating everything without questioning what it is. This is where being a vegetarian can come very handy. I have to say I love Chinese food and I have tried it all over the world. For some reason I did not like it very much in Beijing but i guess I did not choose the right places. Menus are very funny in my opinion: everything is illustrated by pictures and there are no courses not even between let's say main and desserts: you have a picture of chicken with vegetables, and then next to it one of candied fruit, a picture of fried scorpions ( oh yes) and next to it some sweet pie with lychees. I once was taken to this very elegant and nice restaurant just above Tien an Men square to find out it served Continental food and was very expensive, however if you spend a long time in the city and want to eat some Western cuisine in a very refined and elegant ambiance it is definitely worth it. Be prepared to spend a lot especially by Chinese standards . (everything is incredibly cheap). Capital M. Another place where it is worth going is the Lama temple a Tibetan Buddhist temple where peace and quiet and a lot of colours will welcome you. Just next to it there are quite a few Hutongs which are the typical narrow streets where old one storey buildings are located. They are one of the very few authentic and original things left in Beijing. " Welcome to the hutong; centuries-old, tree-lined alleyways that are the true heartbeat of this unique city and a real-life link to its fascinating past" Lonely Planet. I would definitely suggest to take a stroll around the old area close to the Drum and Bell Towers and get lost in the never ending alleyways where you can find groceries stores, hairdressers and bars where people play chess, but most of all little houses each next to the other where bicycles, plants ,electrical tools, food pets and people are all contained in one or two little rooms. In any case it is a very enlightning and nice experience especially when I did it at sunset far from the confusion of the streets outside. Lama temple and Hutongs Hutongs Last but not least we have finally come to the Great Wall. Situated 60 km or so from Beijing it can take from one to five hours to get there depending on the traffic. Fortunately I arrived (with all the other conference attendees about 400 people)in quite a short time. There can be a considerable change in temperature (10 degrees) compared to the city plus it can be very windy. Luckily the sky was clear blue and it was very sunny so the view was fantastic. The only two things are : the amount of people (thousands and thousands ) and the fact that you basically have to walk miles on the the wall in order to get a nice view. It means that it takes two hours to get to a decent point going uphill with steps which can be so steep you literally have to climb. On the way down it's even trickier: it can be really slippery. About this : guess who was the only one to fall that morning? I had a bruise on my side for two weeks. However I carried with me a copper plate some guy incarved with my ame saying that I climbed the Great Wall and I now proudly display it in my living room. Oh well next time I'll do even better ( most of all without falling) and explore some more of this very strange and different city. I'll probably manage to get into Mao's masoleum which I missed and improve my Beijingnese attitude especially during rush hour in the underground (believe me: you really don't want to be there at that time. Zài jiàn Beijing!