Leaving Beijing, but will be back soon

The weather has changed to cool, but muggy with occasional down bursts which evaporate pretty quickly. Cooler and sticky still. The day of the parade approaches and there seems to be a holiday as places are closed for a change and the trains are full of people getting out of town. Miraculously I negotiated Beijing west station successfully and I didn’t spend so long in the seething crowded hot waiting room for it to be unbearable. I’ve never seen so many people waiting to go to the same place. I can tell the ride to pingyao won’t be too chilled out with people around me. Already shouting into their phones.

Yesterday was the Great Wall adventure. The lonely planet info wasn’t quite accurate in. Terms of time, distance and effort involved to get to the jinshanlin wall. In fact I did need a ride from the persistent local taxi driver to get. Me from the the highway to the east entrance, which was staffed by one sleepy non- verbal woman, who looked like she hadn’t seen a soul all day. After a slog up some windy steps through a forest populated by bright green and black and orange striped catapillars, as well as beautiful long tailed blue. And white birds I emerge at the longest man made structure on the planet. The mountains rise and fall in a windy ridge as far as I can see and beyond, dotted with watch towers. Mongolia to the north, China to the south. It’s a bit misty and wet. There is silence. I would like to say I was a lone but out of the watch tower appears a wizened leather skinned old man who asks to see my ticket the scampers down the sloping wall to catch up with the peaches that fall from my bag. My original plan had been to walk from gubeikou to jinshanlin, and I still wasn’t sure whether I had made the right decision to abort that plan. However on heading east to the next tower where the restored wall gave way to wild wall I quickly realised the clambering up into the towers is very difficult, and that doing a wild wall trek would have been really too challenging. In fact the walk along the restored jinshanlin section was at times tough enough with steep climbs and descents. I think I saw enough of the wall in any case, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

I guess the strangest thing was what I encountered in the general tower, which is halfway along a spur wall which extends out into a pass from the main wall, with a beacon tower on the cliffs East and west. On clambering through the tower there is a mirage. The semi-ruined Qing dynasty tower, open to the sky has been turned into a fairytale dining space, with rose petals strewn on the ground a large round table elegantly set for dinner and fine wine. What was happening? Some kind of romantic reception, but all who was there was a black guy in a polo shirt and a slim blonde woma in large sun glasses. I don’t know who was more embarrassed and surprised, me or them? This is my wife he told me, when I asked what was going on. Congratulations, I replied. Perhaps this was their honeymoon. Too Bad it had started to rain. Looking back I realised that this guy was probably a footballer. Only they have the money and the delusions of “taste” to do something this tacky…or maybe an athlete. Perhaps from the world championships happening in Beijing.

Coming down from the wall after 4 hours walking I mean Israeli couple who I go back into town with. They are a bit naive and got fleeced by a taxi driver. I take them to the vegetarian restaurant (they are also veggie) near the lama temple. We have a great meal, but the woman begins to fret about hygiene and hairs on food etc…

What else to report? Well 972 art district was a big surprise: a vast former industrial area, with the factories now used as galleries and workshops. Communist slogans adorning the wall. Some of the plant has been left in situ like some massive art installations. Saw some art by xu bing which made me ponder more on written language. There seems to be much more around you in China than in UK. And of course it is all rather abstract to me, who can’t understand it, just recognise fragments. Oliver was unable to read the xu bing scrolls, and it led me down a line of questioning about why he didn’t understand it. Could it be that these are characters that he hadn’t seen before? If that is the case then what does being able to read mean? Can you ever say you can read everything? At what point can you say “I can read”? Can I read because I recognise a number of Chinese characters? It seems knowledge is encoded in written form, so our ability to know is restricted by our ability to read. Here, in China, I know virtually nothing. I know, from studying xu bin that he plays with the written word, and indeed uses characters that are “correct” in form, but have no intrinsic meaning. But, from the little I understand from Chinese writing, should it not be the case that a literate Chinese could make a stab at deriving some meaning from a “nonsense” or unfamiliar character? Why couldn’t Oliver do that? I think my philosophising over language is above his level!

I often think I have some awareness or sensibility to other cultures, but there is so much I will never get my head around, and inevitably I will make comparisons and use what is familiar as my reference points. I’ve been reading “the narrow road to the deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and some of it has really struck me. The central story is one of pow slave labourers working on the Death Valley railway in Thailand, which not exactly coincidentally, I visited last Christmas. The narrative voice rotates between several of the characters and you get a disturbing insight into the Japanese soldier’s take on the slave labour and their sense of ethics. To them honour and duty are central. They see the allied pow’s as sub-human as they have degraded themselves by surrendering: suicide would be the honourable thing for a Japanese to do. As for slave driving, torture, punishments, the Japanese major believes that he cannot be considered a war criminal as he was merely fulfilling his duty of carrying out his emperor’s wishes. These are very weird standpoints, and it makes you feel, though without empathising, that the Japanese guards were also victims of war. This Japanese thread is quite topical with the approaching Beijing parade. All around the city are posters of glorious soldiers and the number 70. This seems to be a celebration of winning a war, rather than a remembrance of losses, and a marking of peace. This is all rather explicitly anti-Japanese.

 

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