Fine China

With Chinese New Year just around the corner, where on earth does one start looking to experience its magnificence to the maximum? I concluded China would be a pretty good start, specifically Beijing, which was only a three-hour hop over North Korea from my home city of Daegu. This being a very last minute affair, I did little (nothing) in the way of research on the occasion, which came back to bite us later. The one arrangement we had made was for our visas into the country, which glistened in the centrefolds of our respective passports. Yugyeong and I packed light, although we didn’t compromise on the pollution masks – with enough in our bags to supply everyone in the capital for the next three months. One excessively bumpy flight later and we had landed in Beijing’s pristine airport, primed to battle the hordes that accompany the largest human migration on earth.

With visas scrutinized and face masks on, we began the journey to our ‘city centre’ hostel in earnest. Despite having arrived from a location on an almost identical latitude, it appeared to get darker far earlier than I was accustomed (even with the hour’s time difference), and we were soon attempting to locate our hostel in what felt like the middle of the night (actually 3 pm). It was also considerably colder than Daegu, which didn’t make the sprauchle through Beijing’s back alleys any more straightforward. The relief upon discovering a small red door with the hostel’s name written on it in a size eight font beneath a golden-lion-head knocker was palpable. Once the hefty wooden door was closed behind us, it was as if we had stepped into Wu Zetian’s courtyard itself. Golden lanterns, overhanging foliage, priceless ornaments (well ones that looked as such), and an incredibly warm greeting from our host: 张伟 (which I believe is Zhang Wei).

Not a second after dropping our bags by a waving fortune cat we discovered that tonight happened to be ‘Make Your Own Dumplings Night’ (or MYODN), which we would later learn involved making large quantities of dumplings on our own (the clue really was in the name). This wasn’t strictly true though, as Zhang Wei’s entire family decided to come along and join in the hilarity of watching two dumpling newbie’s fail, in quite spectacular fashion. After a crash course from his four-year-old daughter, we were able to produce something remotely edible, which is exactly what we did before heading back out through our small red portal and into the frigid Beijing darkness for a look around our new surroundings.

The following morn we were up with the cock, to make the most of our one (and only) full day in the Chinese capital on our all-too-fleeting visit. Our first destination was the ambitiously-named Temple of Heaven, a complex which first started construction during the reign of the Yongle Emperor in 1406. I doubt the workers who laid the cornerstone had to deal with quite as much smog as we did (people didn’t drive as much back in those days), although they did have an ever so slightly higher chance of catching the plague. At this time of year, the grounds appeared bleak and bare, with the only vibrancy emanating from the ornately-decorated halls and temples that lined the central thoroughfare. Even the infamous Echo Wall didn’t fancy working in these frosty conditions, although nobody had told the hundreds of vexatious children that insisted on testing it at full volume.

We were informed by a guide that the Forbidden City was located “a short walk” from the temple (which actually took us over an hour), and by the time we had arrived the queue to enter stretched halfway back to Korea. The novelty and intrigue of waiting alongside the landmark Tiananmen Square quickly wore off as the necessity to warm oneself, as well as urinate (not simultaneously), quickly took over. Two hours passed before we finally got our chance to enter the city, by which time the sun was retiring and the site almost closing. Nevertheless, we ventured to glimpse as much of its splendour as we could. Now I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, maybe a palace or two? Maybe even a temple or three? But certainly not the enormity of what greeted us through the elegance of the Meridian Gate.

Comprising almost one thousand buildings, over an area of one hundred and eighty acres, I could have spent several years wandering the enchanting squares, streets and gardens – and if it wasn’t for the colossal assemblage of humans, I would’ve happily have done so. Just when I thought I’d wandered through the last immense courtyard, another lay at the top of some stone steps further along. And so it went, on and on. As we exited the complex from the far side, we crossed the forlornly frozen Inner Golden Water River, which surrounds the city and acted as a moat during wartime (not that it would be of any use at this time of year). With darkness now upon us, we went in search of sustenance, and acquired it through the most unlikely source…

J

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