Selfies By the Sea


“Wtf is that chicken looking at?”
“He’s staring at you because he can sense you are a foreigner.”


The gf and I rode the bullet train to Dalian, a seaport city in Liaoning province. We took pot noodles and sausages with us, and tried our best not to buy any wildly inflated thing on the train. When I wasn’t distracted by the stunning Chinese scenery (which was not often), I read a magazine and did a little writing.

As we left the Jing, one of the old green sleeper trains was chugging into the station from Qiqihaer, Mongolia, a two day journey that made our own six hour hop seem like peanuts. The travelling was effortless, but buying the tickets and navigating Dalian would have been damned near impossible for me without a Chinese-speaking companion.

Our first mistake was checking into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Whereas the centre of Beijing is easily accessible from Fangshan or Tongzhou, Dalian only has two metro lines: the Dog Arse Line and the Cat Shit Line. We relied on a taxi for the first night, before moving somewhere closer to downtown for the remainder of our stay.

After that it was plain sailing: strolls along the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf, cold drinks in the sun at Binhai Road, way too much Scezhuan food near the hotel. We met up with an old University friend of the gf’s for BBQ one night. She spoke about as much English as I speak Chinese but my people spoke to her people and we all had a lovely time (and a wonderful meal, as usual).

D6B7D47F-37F3-4E5F-A5A8-168C12811AC7-983-000002EA0598A4B6_tmp

No trip to Dalian is complete without popping into both the Forest Zoo (rated AAAA) and Tiger Ocean Park (rated AAAAA), but our second mistake was trying to cram both into the same day. My feelings about zoos and aquariums are complicated,* and Asian zoos tend to get a bad rep, but I found both of these to be  comparable to the equally well-tended Coex Aquarium in Seoul and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. We saw sea lions being fed and we watched sharks and turtles swimming overhead. Penguins posed for photographs and other birds ran about, as free as… well, birds. We rode the cable car and we drooled over The Castle Hotel (¥3000 a night), both of which reminded me of childhood favourite Where Eagles Dare (because relating actual experiences I have to movies I grew up with is something of a hobby of mine, as you must know by now).

129D4B47-4711-493A-8B51-23711766D27E-983-000002EA6A1BEB93_tmp

We don’t have a telly at home, so it was novel to see a little international news (in English) at our more modestly priced hotel, including coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I downloaded a film for the return journey: Sick of Ben Stiller comedies and underwhelming horror, I chose Spike Jonze’s surprisingly touching Oscar tale of a charming pervert waking up with a boner for his silky-voiced computer. It was partially shot in Shanghai: somewhere that’s still on the very-slowly-shrinking list of Chinese cities to visit.


* some of them summed up here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/a-zed-two-noughts/

Advertisements

Level Six


“I had an idea that everyone here spent their lives in making little sacrifices for objects they didn’t care for, to please people they didn’t love; that they never learned to be sincere and, what’s as bad, never learned how to enjoy themselves.” -E.M. Forster (about 95 years before Fight Club)


Midway up the bubblegum hued ‘SoShow’ shopping mall lies a dragon’s horde of West meets East nerdvana: Beijing Comic City. Transformers, Gundams, vagina-mouthed predatators (including some from the actual movies), all are here. Plastic Schwarzeneggers, plastic Tyler Durdens, even plastic Adrien Brodies if that’s the way you choose to swing.

I know several people who would almost literally excrete some substance or other into their underpants just upon arrival. I, thankfully, am not one of them (but I’m pretty sure some of the other gentlemen that were wandering about are).

I went in like Malkovich: baseball cap and sunglasses, not because I wanted to ride the portal to a world that no man should see, but because I feared a SoShow-induced migraine. Far from looking or feeling like some sort of bell end, this fashion disaster helped me fit right in with many of the pasty faced, shifty eyed, non-descript customers. The whole mall looks like it was designed by a psychopath with synesthesia, possibly while wearing the tie died skin of his dead mother as a pair of overalls.

IMG_2447

If I haven’t made the place sound enticingly horrifying enough, just imagine how much of an eco-system can be generated by a plethora of sweating, smoking overweight Beijingers obsessing over Naruto and One Piece. It’s like Comic Con dreamed up by a seedy, unclean Trump-era heteronormative man sitting around in his underpants and guffawing like Jabba the Hutt.

To the right kind of (slightly south of clean) mind, a whole afternoon could be spent on floor six (let alone the rest of the mall, which hosts a KTV, an ARG gaming center and the hippest of hipster bars). That’s why I went in the late evening.*

There was no piece of plastic powerful enough for me to give up some hard earned qian to fawn over and unbox, although I was admittedly taken with some 90s era turtles of the ninja/mutant/teenage variety.

Instead I ate a tuna-and-egg sandwich and sipped a coffee to quiet my buzzing head, took off the They Live sunglasses… and went to another mall.


*(on Saturdays it’s open until 9.30).

Sanlitun is Still a Bit Shite


“Been spendin’ most our lives livin’ in a wankers paradise.”


Beijing is cooking under a chemical haze once again. Insects and arachnids have come out of the woodwork, like late-eighties/early-nineties Cronenberg. It’s hard to be motivated to do much. Even so, I went with the gf and a Chinese friend for a coffee in Sanlitun the other day.

Sanlitun (which genuinely seems to translate as “small area about half a kilometer from Dongzhimen”) is where wealthy tourists can go in order to fool themselves into thinking they are not in Beijing. It’s a westernized, gentrified section of the city that looks exactly the same as a westernized, gentrified section of any other city anywhere on Earth. It’s home to the world famous bar street, overlooked by the equally world famous Opposite House hotel, whose celebrity clientele (including ‘The Bieber’) almost certainly leave with a false impression of Chinese courteousness and plumbing.

This is a fashionable quarter of a pretty unfashionable city. It’s easy to imagine Camus and Sartre sitting in the Bookworm, perusing the lending library and shouting over each other between sips of cappuccino, while De Beauvoir mutters about patriarchy under her breath. It’s easy to imagine Hemingway ganbei-ing mugs of Yanjing and threatening to punch the locals at Heaven Supermarket, while Joyce sits outside with a dram, complaining about the sun in his eyes.

Sanlitun is that sort of place.

IMG_2305

During my last visit, this area was most notorious for the sex tape recorded in a clothing shop dressing room, and an unrelated grisly Samurai sword attack outside the same store a few weeks later. Since then, I had heard the rumours that large chunks of Sanlitun have been bulldozed, with local businesses disappearing to make way for more Ethiopian restaurants, vegan leather notebook shops and Mercedes showrooms. After seeing online photos of the reconstruction work, I was interested to see the reboot for myself.

It looks exactly the bloody same. The only noticeable casualties are the guy who used to sell black market DVDs, the most ridiculously chaste sex shop in the world, and a stall dubbed ‘the psycho pervert shop’ that sold hunting knives and fright masks to I-don’t-wanna-know-who. The ‘specialist’ coffee shop run by a grumpy American* seems to have mercifully changed hands, unless he now runs a wine bar that probably doesn’t serve any wine.

The bookshops are nothing to write home about, the steak is overpriced, and I still don’t know or care what The Largest Adidas Store In The World (TM) has to offer. The mugwumps and human-insect hybrids are all out in force. Sanlitun would be a great place to stage an IRL remake not just of Cronenberg but of Dawn of the Dead.

After a little wandering and a couple of Americanos that cost twice as much as dinner would half a kilometer away, a bus took us out of the sweltering heat and dropped us somewhere back in China.


* See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/wankers/

 

A Touch of Silk


“Oh, you come back again, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”


 

I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:

IMG_2301

I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”

Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the  seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street were pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”

One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club so that they have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive people who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.

Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of  English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”

If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.

The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A  Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Former Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the multicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spent Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.

IMG_2299

A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.

I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.

IMG_2298

I Walk The Line


“The fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labour.” – Walter Benjamin


Some of my days in the Jing are (deliberately or otherwise) busy and exciting. Others are more like yesterday and today.

It rained like Vancouver the other night. Happy Valley, for whatever reason, suddenly burst to life and is currently full of sounds. A  traditional funeral procession passed through the puddles underneath my apartment building. I was woken this morning by a man shouting Mandarin numbers into a megaphone for reasons that elude me as usual. There’s a lot of music coming from the nearby park.

Yesterday I decided that I didn’t want to spend all of my downtime watching two short seasons of Eighties telly, so I set off (collar up against the elements) with the original intention of investigating what lies at the end of Line 4. I don’t know what there is at Biomedical Base subway station, but the name implies some real Resident Evil shit.

I dismissed a trip there as just too damned far in such shitty weather, so I ended up at some hipster joint outside Hufanqiao: a place that did nothing to dispel the Vancouver feeling.

I treeked through the drizzle along a fair chunk of Line 7 (my own back yard in Beijing terms). I saw bugger all. Absolutely sweet Football Assosciation. I think there was a 7-11 at one point, that was about it.

I basically did nothing all day, which can be a wonderful thing to do. It again reminded me of my Vancouver days, just walking and sipping coffees and wondering when the gf was going to get out of bed (this time without a time difference between us, she’s just lazy!)

Today is no more exciting. We’ve got the plumber in, which will hopefully go better than last time.* I’ve got to change some money at the bank and do other grown-up sort of things. I’ll probably have another coffee at some point.

I find it all quietly blissful… Apart from the megaphone, of course.


*See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/lost-in-google-translation/

Big Ben

img_1837
“I’m KING of the WORLD!!”
“Please stop saying this.”


The gf and I recently took a trip to the southwestern suburbs of Fangshan, my first visit to the boonies since I lived on the opposite side of the compass in Tongzhou. We had lunch in a little Muslim restaurant surrounded by smoking, spitting locals.

Then we explored World Park, which does what it says on the tin: it’s an amusement park themed around different countries of the world, featuring various scale models of famous monuments. Even the bridges that cross from Asia to Africa or America to Europe are tiny versions of Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Golden Gate, and so on. After towering over a Lilliputian Angkor Wat and worshipping at a 1:2 scale Stonehenge, we stopped off at one of the many snack bars and enjoyed an instant coffee for the decidedly non-miniature price of ¥12 each, warming our insides with the sweet tang of rip off.

The park was, like anything in Beijing (especially during off season), a little rough around the edges. The double staircase of Persepolis has loose paving slabs; grass is growing through the Taj Mahal; the Eiffel Tower is a no go because some hipsters from a trendy magazine are doing a photo shoot there. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.

Fangshan may not be on anyone’s bucket list, but I actually plan on seeing more of the suburbs in the near future. There’s always more of the world to see.

Where The Art Is

“This is where you cross the road to Liyuan station. If you’re really lucky you might even make it to the the other side.”


I recently acquired a roommate, a young Russian guy who is still in the wide-eyed, jet-lagged and slightly bewildered stage of his Beijing journey. So far, his most used phrases are an English one that can be reduced to the acronym ‘wtf’ and a Russian one that loosely translates as “fucking internet!” His sudden appearance has led me, and other colleagues, to dust off some of the hidden gems of Tongzhou and show them to him. It hasn’t taken us long.

Dagao is an art district here in Tongzhou, pretty much round the corner from where we work. Beijing is pretty hip when it comes to art. When I lived in Beiyuan I used to make frequent trips to 798 Art Zone, which is built on the empty shell of a former communist munitions complex. I loved 798 as soon as I set eyes on it because the artists have taken something ugly and pointless (a factory of death) and turned it into something quite beautiful (art).* Dagao is a mini-798, where you can look at subversive military art and dinosaur graffiti while sipping a coffee or a glass of reasonably-priced European wine.

What other delights does Tonghzhou hold? Well, before you pack your bags and book a flight, let me warn you that Dagao is about it. Unless you want more booze. Or coffee. There are plenty of Starbucks outlets here as well as Maan coffee, where they give you a sad-looking teddy bear instead of a table number while you wait for your piping hot Americano. There are also a couple of clubs, the best of which seems to be ‘WJ’. I have gone from stumbling around with one colleague desperately looking for a glass of Chivas Regal to stumbling around with another outside of the WJ club, where they give us a free bottle just for turning up and being white. Almost certainly the fake stuff, but it works just as well.

One night while exploring with a friend, I came across a massage parlour in the nondescript basement of a nondescript building. It was more respectable than you might imagine, they wore little sergeant pepper outfits but made it clear at the outset that no ‘extras’ were involved! I can’t tell you how nice it was to have a relaxing massage at half-midnight on a work night (right up until they put flaming hot cups on my back and twisted them until the flesh bruised. I could have done without that bit to be honest).

There’s a dingy all-night Internet cafe, thick with cigarette smoke and full of sweaty nerds hovering over the mouse, numbly playing violent war games. I only saw it from the outside but, creepily, it looked to me like everyone was playing exactly the same thing.

Tongzhou is, you may have gathered, not the most exciting part of Beijing. It somehow manages to tread that fine line between being heaving with people and being dull as balls (kind of like China’s answer to Kettering). It can be, as my Russian colleague has found, both overwhelming and yet somehow infinitely underwhelming at the same time. It is the strangest place I’ve ever lived (including the counterculture commune that I used to stay at), and yet for the past few months I have found myself referring to it as ‘home’…


*There’s also an art district in Shaungjing, which is frequented by wankers who think 798 has become “too commercial”. I went there during Spring Festival but it looked exactly the bloody same as 798 to me!