Red and Gold


“Hey look, a museum about how great Mao is. You don’t see those too often around here!”


The Communist Party was engaged in an extensive meeting here. You may have heard about it. It took longer to get through than the Council of Elrond, and was about as interesting. The bright side, though, is that the shopkeepers’ doorways and community workers’ armbands aren’t the only thing turning the colours of the flag.

There are two reasons that I hadn’t been to Fragrant Hills (on the outskirts of Beijing) until last week: one is that this epic mountainside park is located literally the opposite side of the city to my flat; the other is that every other bugger in the Jing always seems to be there. It’s the sort of place, along with the relatively nearby Summer Palace, that any tourist simply has to ‘do’: a vast region of parkland that changes colour with the seasons. When the gf, probably hungering for the wilderness of Mongolia again, heard that the leaves were shifting into autumnal hues, we packed some snacks and set an alarm for 6am.

Neither of us are natural early risers (the morning shifts in Vancouver hostels used to wipe me out) but the two of us got out of bed on time. By 8 o’clock we had travelled a vast chunk of Line 7 and almost all of Line 4. At Beigongmen metro station we found the bus to Fragrant Hills, along with the central throng of other buggers. It took us two attempts to reach the end of the cattle-like enclosure that had been installed to deal with the endless flow of would-be mountaineers, listening to shouted instructions over a megaphone by a little old lady who had wandered in from the mysterious realm of Jim Henson’s subconscious. “Do not wait for seats,” she roared over a megaphone in Chinese, “you will find no seats here. Mwahahahaha!”*

The bus took about three chapters of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and almost every inch of my patience before we mercifully reached the gate at about 9.30am. Those of us who had woken at 6 were in no mood for the boiled eggs or jianbing being proffered by the street food vendors, nor for the public toilets that tried to rob ‘Smells Good Mountain’ of it’s otherwise deserved moniker.

Red and gold koi carp swam around the ponds of Tranquil Heart Garden and Tea Shop (the ‘and tea shop’ portion sadly revealing itself as a haggard old pagoda shuttered up in shame at having revealed its last legs). We were a little surprised to see that hardly any of the trees were sharing the colours of the fish or flags, most of them stubbornly clinging to their green summer shades under a slightly hazy sky.

A chair-lift style cable car system connects the lower rungs of the park to the mountaintop above. Despite looking rickety and bringing to mind images of Clint Eastwood kicking people to death in Where Eagles Dare, I felt it would be nice to ride to the top and then climb back down. Future visitors beware, however, the city spoils you: we got to the gates and realized that card and WeChat payments are unacceptable for this venture, and neither of us had brought any cash. Putting conspiracy theories about forcing the populace to exercise aside, we began our two way journey up the stone stairs hewn into the mountainside, travelling across terrain littered with green trees, discarded water bottles and torn popsicle wrappers.

Our journey, like the endless meeting of papa Xi’s, became long and arduous. At one point we stopped, like Sam and Frodo, to eat a sausage on a stick. I lost my British reserve and became Gollum at one point, telling some hippy-looking chap off for tossing a wrapper on the floor about seven inches from a bin, but he just shrugged and probably pretended not to speak English.

We made it otherwise unscathed, drawing our imagined swords in victory, sipping a lemon tea and eating some pork and pepper at the top. The journey back was made a little easier by stops along the way: temples, pagodas, pavilions, souvenir shops.

All told, we were at Fragrant Hills for several hours. We sprung ¥20 each for a taxi home, something we both agreed that none of our British friends would have done; instead they’d have tightened their sphincter and joined the two-hour bus queue. We soothed our barking dogs with a foot massage and had a well deserved BBQ dinner. All payed for via WeChat, of course.


*No, I did not make that bit up.

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Land of the Badasses


“I am Temujin. Barbarian. I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian” – John Wayne


Mongolia in autumn is witch’s tit cold. At 9am one October morn, our party of seven* piled into a Soviet era P.O.S. van and hit the badly paved road. Our tour guide was a female Mongolian hipster with a taste for beer and punk rock attire. We were also accompanied by a seemingly nameless (and seemingly clueless) driver dressed like Albert Steptoe.

UlaanBatar shrank into the distance as we began our drive to the east. Soon enough, badly paved became unpaved, and urban became a distant memory. I felt like Martin Sheen in the oft-referenced (by me) Apocalypse Now, travelling further and further back in time with each step of the journey. This was a landscape that bled history: home to an angry nomad so aggressive and rapey that he slaughtered about 22% of the world’s population and sired a bloodline that may well reach to about one in every 200 living men.

Knowing a photo opp when we saw one, we asked the driver to pull over at a Buddhist shrine near a gnarled, Tolkienesque tree between two peaks. Eventually our seven hour hemorrhoid-risking journey led us to Blue Lake. Conflicting legends have it either that the lake is where young Temujin was bestowed his fearsome new moniker of Genghis Khan, or that it is where he and thirty horsemen, smarting from defeat at the battle of Dalan Balzhut, settled for a decade or so and started making their plans for world domination.

We didn’t stay quite as long, just a single night in the ‘ger’ (aka yurt) of a nomadic family. By the look of it, our accommodation had been until very recently some bloke’s garage. Our host family kept themselves to themselves, mostly staying in their own yurt watching international TV shows dubbed into Mongolian.

We took a short hike into the hills to watch the sun go down. The mid-autumn moon was so bright that it cast our shadows on the frozen ground. The following morning some of us rose before the dawn to watch the sun rise once again over a dramatic landscape that brought back childhood memories of the Rockies and hallucinogenic daydreams of the ole rape and pillage.

Our wonderful guide (who had traded hipster hoodies and black leather for traditional pink pyjamas) cooked everyone a rice pudding-style dish for breakfast before we set out over more rough terrain. Our second night of yurt-ery was spent at a tourist camp in Terelj National Park. The family we stayed with seemed a little more open (one of them acquiesced to be interviewed for an article that a friend was writing for Leeds University), but the camp itself felt a little like Mongolian Butlins. We managed to keep our distance from other tourists, wandering through the woods amidst animal carcasses stripped bare by wolves, before retiring for the night.

No Mongolian trip would be complete without trotting about on a horse. We rode up to a monastery in the mountains surrounding the park. I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid, but these were well trained beasts who knew where they were going. Upon returning from the monastery we packed up the battered old van and drove to the Chinggis Khaan** statue, which presumably beat little competition from Guinness for the prize of World’s Largest Equestrian Statue. It is impressive, and almost impossibly huge. So huge that the World’s Largest Mongolian Boot (fashioned from 445 cow hides and four km of rope) occupies only a tiny fraction of its foyer. Beneath the statue’s hooves lies a wonderfully edifying museum on the history of the Mongol Empire.

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The contrast between the city and the countryside could not be stronger. Modern Mongolia is home to more than 3 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in UlaanBatar (and, bizarrely, all seem to drive a Toyota Prius). After dirt tracks on which we encountered not a soul, the city took a shocking hour-and-a-half to cross through gridlocked traffic. We had a short time in the centre before departing for Chinggis Khaan International, which may tie with Astana for World’s Least Overly Impressive International Airport (in fairness, they did have some nice hats and English language history books).

Our flight, lagging behind on its way from Seoul, left the airport late; and so by the time we began our two-hour flight to Beijing the sun had already set on another adventure.


*(we had lost the American chap. His flight home was the day before ours and he’d opted for a shorter, cheaper tour)

(**preferred Mongolian spelling of the founding father, complete with Shatner-esque pronunciation of “Khaan!”)

Python References on the Trans-Mongolian


“And now for something completely different.”


I’m beginning to think, not for the first time, that the greatest perk of my job is all the time off that I get. Mid-Autumn, or ‘Moon Cake’ Festival, is one of the two major breaks in China, a time for people to exchange sweet cakes and journey home to their families. I have yet to acquire the  taste for moon cake, and home to me (as Burroughs said) has never “meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room.”  So I took another trip, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express with the gf and a handful of friends and colleagues.

The Beijing-UlaanBatar express is a 28 hour journey with a handful of stops. The train itself was bookended by dining cars: one Chinese, one Mongolian. After departing the big smoke and setting up camp in two adjacent sleeper rooms, our party of eight (a Brit, an American, a Filipino, four young Chinese women and myself) descended on the Chinese dining car for lunch, laughing and chatting over ribs, chicken wings and bottles of Yanjing.* Every time I tried to open the curtain to peek at the glorious Chinese countryside, the rail collapsed into my lap. This did not deter me from stubbornly trying several times.

Returning to our carriage (which we had virtually to ourselves), we played card games and chatted politics (a conversation we cut short when it became a little too heated) before going our separate but interconnected ways for the evening. Dinner was composed of pot noodles and snacks that we brought with us.

At approximately midnight, we reached the Chinese border at Er Lian (and were immediately told not to step off the carriage). As we all climbed into our beds, the train was undergoing a procedure to change the gauge of the rails. None of us could tell if this was a literal placing of new rails in front of the train, or an exchange of every single wheel on the train carriages, but whatever was happening was accompanied by regular banging, an oppressive industrial thumping, and a broken sleep filled with Lynchian nightmares. At 2am we were awoken and scared shitless by Chinese soldiers with flashlights who returned our passports to us. A few hours later we were woken by the slightly more attractive (and less heart attack-inducing) ladies at the Mongolian border.

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At 6am, the bedroom shutter rolled up with an enthusiastic “Dude, look at that sunrise!”, which I reluctantly complied with. We were chugging along the ridiculously flat steppes. I could not have been more elated (unless, of course, I’d have had 8 hours sleep). We went to the Chinese diner only to discover that it had remained in China: we were staring out the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into the impossibly distant horizon.

And so it was Mongolian food for breakfast. No curtain rails this time, just good food and Pythonesque banter: one of the delights of travelling with a fellow Brit is that we never ran out of things to talk about or of Monty Python references. We even improvised Palin-esque commentary on our adventure**. Tired of ‘lol’ing at our own wit, we spent the rest of our journey chatting and larking in the sleeper, trying to practice a handful of Mongolian phrases, and scraping the absolute barrel of Monty Python references (28 hours is a very long time!)

The foothills appeared. Then the mountains. By this time we were talking about Ben Wheatley movies as I dug wax from my ear. Eventually, the suburbs of UlaanBataar  crept into view. Yurt after yurt after shipping container. We all agreed that the UB boonies appeared quite the fuck hole to our travel-weary eyes.

We stepped onto the chilly platform and entered the city itself with no game plan. We exchanged RMB for MNT and then started walking. First port of call was a Mongolian greasy spoon for lunch. None of us could read Mongolian, but one of our party suggested ordering the first few dishes on the menu and splitting them between us. So lunch was made up of five different soups and a bowl of rice.

We then descended on the Main Street of Peace Avenue and found a cheap hotel (at our second attempt), before tracking down a tour company that could facilitate the rest of our trip. We all discussed what we would like to see during our Mongolian stay. A trip to the Gobi was not possible with our limited amount of days, so we settled on camping East of the city.

So for one night only, we bedded down in UlaanBatar. I slept for 10 hours.

Cue Palin voiceover, and bombastic BBC music.

FADE OUT.


*(lunchtime drinking is discouraged in Chinese companies. We were truly in holiday mode)

**“The tea in the dining car is a little too hot, but the desert outside is only ten degrees centigrade.”

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).

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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).

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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/

The Jing in the Spring

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“Anyone for tennis?”


Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.

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Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.


*or ‘ex’-English people

Selfies in the China House

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“It’s very European style, yes?”


Clocking up two new* Chinese cities in as many weeks is not too shabby, really. This weekend I took a 35-minute journey from Beijing South Railway Station to our southeastern neighbour, with the gf as my enthusiastic guide.

Tianjin is so close to the Jing that it isn’t too difficult to imagine them one day merging together like the municipal equivalent of a supermassive black hole. But it’s a slightly different world; one of European architecture, polite taxi drivers and lower wages. A world where a stroll along the river Hai acts as compensation for the fact that the air is still thick enough to taste.

We arrived fairly late at night, grabbed some food from the finest establishment we could find (7-11), and drank a glass of rosé with our cheap Korean noodles. In the morning we had some French cakes and listened to The Clash** before hitting the streets of northern China’s largest coastal city.

Tragically, the city is best known (if it’s known at all) for randomly bursting into flames a couple of years ago and killing 173 of its hardworking citizens. But there’s more to this place than chemical explosions and online conspiracy theories about American missile attacks in the wake of a decreasing yuan (shh!)

Tianjin is a hipster’s paradise: antique shops, pretty gardens, clean one-way streets with bicycle lanes that people actually stick to; half an hour away from the big smoke and not in danger of becoming cool anytime soon.

We packed a lot in over a weekend, strolling through the Italian Style Town, taking a river cruise to Ancient Culture Street, shopping in aleys that could easily have been Oxford or Exeter. We had coffee in Wu Da Dao, surrounded by world architecture (Tianjin has a huge English, French, and Italian influence, adding to the weird sense of otherworldliness). I sipped a couple of G&Ts in a bar near the hotel, and we sampled BBQ tofu at Liao Ning Lu snack street.

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The China House was a highlight: a AAA grade tourist attraction (whatever that may be) and Tianjin’s ‘Selfie Central’. The building incorporates pots and pottery into its design, including snaking tentacles of porcelain throughout. I’m not quite convinced it was worth the ¥50 entry fee (or required quite so many uniformed private security people), but it was worth a visit.

Hopping on he train to somewhere that is closer than London is to Northampton is an absolute no-brainer,*** and we’re very likely to take a return trip in the not too distant future. Not bad for someone who’s comfort zone once ended pretty much on the doorstep of the Racehorse pub.


*(‘new’ for me, that is. I hear they’ve been around for quite awhile. This one since 1404)

**(“What is this? Pervert music?!?”)

***(at least with a Chinese speaker to book the tickets!)

The Fellowship of the Jing

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“It’s a shit’ole, but a loveable shit’ole.”


After weeks of clear blue skies, the smog has rolled in again, just in time for a British mate to feel the tang of disappointment during  a fly-in visit from Shanghai. The two of us took in some of the sights around Line 1 together, but halfway through our little tour the heavens opened like The Wizard of Oz, leaving us dashing through the dusty wet streets and swearing casually.

We visited a couple of bookshops and wandered through Xidan’s ‘garment city’, which is Beijing’s version of a Guillermo Del Toro set (right down to the hirsute beasties trying to sell you sweatshirts at inflated prices). After spending too much money on books and hipster glasses, we took a couple of Beijing babes out to dinner for buy-one-get-one-free ‘burger burger’ in Sanlitun, keeping the ladies absolutely enthralled by discussing our most used phrases as bewildered foreigners in China (mine is “what the fuck is this arsehole doing?”)

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I was not surprised to learn that my ‘brother from another city’, although enjoying Shanghai immensely, was glad to be back in the Jing and has missed it to some extent. He likes the food here and he says that the subway is slightly cheaper (even if its users are a little on the vaginal side). Mostly he missed the banter. We had more banter than you could shake the proverbial at.

This morning I woke up with a skunk of a hangover so I ganbei’d a couple of strong coffees, watched that David Duchovny ‘comedy’ where he saves the world from an alien sphincter and wondered wtf had become of my life. The sky may look like Laurence Fishburne’s living room in The Matrix, but I’m still happy to be here.