Fear & Loathing in Russiatown


“My only feeling about this place is that it’s [a] shithole.”

Ritan Park is decorated with murals of solar mythology and decals of three-legged phoenixes. ‘Ritan’ translates to English as ‘temple of the sun’. Turns out that ‘sun worship’ once meant more than lazing about in the garden wearing a pair of budgie smugglers. Who knew?

When it comes to irrational fears I’ll admit that I have a wee handful: organized social events, confined spaces, things that live underwater, pretty much everything invented by man or woman since 1993. But I’ve tried never to use being afraid of something as an excuse not to try it. For example, potholing, sleeping on tour bus bunks and riding the Batong Line at rush hour have all contributed to desensitizing me toward claustrophobia. And I still attend parties even though I would absolutely and with every fiber of my being rather take a one way trip across the event horizon of a black hole.

The gf is really only afraid of two things: foreigners, and the feeling of embarrassment that comes with not quite understanding what foreigners are saying. She has, of course, been taking the occasional leaf out of my potholing manual by confronting some of her predjudices.


And so, after a visit to the solar temple of Ritan Park, we crossed the road to Ya Bao Lu, Beijing’s ‘Russiatown’ (and its front running candidate for Weirdest Street). My only personal experience of Russia was a five hour stopover at Moscow airport with nary a ruble for a cup of coffee, so for all I know Ya Bao Lu is as Russian as Omar Shariff. There are Russian speakers (and pidgin Russian speakers) there, many of them hidden away in underground garment markets.There’s also more Cyrillic signage than you can shake a Yevgeny Zamyatin paperback at. There are even places that look suspiciously like Fat Tony’s legitimate businessmen’s club, including establishments that can apparently figure out the logistics behind shipping even more Russian-style crap from the motherland into the heart of China’s capital, presumably on your dime.


Walking around one particularly monstrous shopping mall (four entire floors of which were devoted to shoes lurking behind curtains), we both tired of broadening our horizons. Having had our fill of fur coats and Doctor Zhivago hats and, realizing that I had scraped the very barrel of ironically xenophobic clichés, we left Ancient Treasure Road and headed over to Wangfujing for beer and glass noodles.


Bombed into the Stone Age (a.k.a. ‘Another Apocalypse Now Reference’)


“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Centre. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club

In a weird little subterranean corridor of Beijing, tucked between a subway station and a shopping mall, is the Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum. It’s the sort of place that an estate agent would describe as ‘cosy’ or ‘intimate,’* but interesting and professional enough to justify the ¥10 entry fee.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an archaeologist. This ambition lasted until a living, breathing archaeologist came to visit our school and told us that she spent 80% of her time studying. Fuck that noise, I thought.

A friend of mine actually studied archaeology at university, and told me that the first thing her sleep-inducing professor had said to everyone was “if you think this course will turn you into Indiana Jones, there’s the door!” Had I been there, I would have instantly leapt through it, returning at the last possible second to grab my fedora.

I may not have the patience to be an archaeologist or paleontologist or even one of those rogue Egyptologists who turns up on the History Channel talking about pineal glands and alien helicopters, but I’ve always had a passing interest in human history. How and where we live (and have lived) is something that fascinates the hell out of me.

I even sat through the film version of Assassin’s Creed recently just to watch Fassbender get medieval on everybody’s ass. Alas, half the film was in Spanish, and what little of the language I’ve picked up from Breed 77 albums stretched about as far as sangre, fuego, and listening to the gf’s whispered translation of the Chinese subtitles:
“He is to be, how you say, washed in the…”
“Fire! Purified by fuego!”

When I returned to England from Canada as a kid, I started studying British history at school for the first time. With a rich tapestry that included Viking invasion, Roman occupation, the battle of Agincourt, the battle of Rourkes Drift, and probably a few events that didn’t involve violence and bloodshed, I was so disappointed to end up learning about what is literally the most boring historical period imaginable: the 17th and 18th century agricultural revolution. I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d rather go water boarding in Guantanamo Bay with my balls wired to electrodes than hear about selective breeding, four course crop rotation or Jethro Tull and that fucking seed drill of his.**


China is something of a Mecca not only for those who want cheap trainers, but for archaeologists and paleontologists too. When the New Oriental Plaza mall was being constructed in 1996, the workers hit historical pay dirt by discovering nearly 2,000 bone fragments and primitive tools. The resultant underground museum has done a sterling job of preserving the find and telling the story of early humankind, including some stunning CGI visuals that put you right in the heart of the Stone Age.

I would argue, and have argued, that there are two historical events where the human race really (and I mean really, seriously, heinously) fucked up. If you are thinking it’s Brexit and Trump then sit down, son, you have not been paying attention.

One of them was the Industrial Revolution, which I will inevitably bitch about in a future entry that I’ll loosely link to life in Beijing. Long before that, though… way way back in the early chapters of pre-history, there was this faulty O ring that blew our species up on the launchpad something like 12, 500 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution (or the original agricultural revolution; the more interesting one) was when most humans shifted from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence to a more sedentary, agricultural-based society.

If you ever watch anthropology documentaries about some middle class, military brat type in chinos who goes to stay with headhunters or other tribal peoples for a week, they usually spend a lot of time sitting around a campfire eating meat and laughing with the locals. Telling jokes and stories is an important part of your day when you haven’t got much to do (trust me on this). The morning is for hunting, the afternoon is for eating, the evening for telling campfire stories, and the night for worrying about your children being snatched by a leopard.

The Neolithic Revolution fucked all this up for most people. Staying in one place meant a denser population*** as well as a surplus of food, but the menu shrank considerably. A side effect of putting a stake in the ground and penning yourself in with your plants and pets and livestock is that your available sources of food instantly narrow. If you become a sheep farmer then your staple food is lamb or mutton, if you become a turnip farmer, then your staple food is turnips. The combination of restricted food and sudden backbreaking labour led to a downturn in nutrition. Archaeological evidence indicates that people’s teeth very quickly began rotting and their growth became stunted (it supposedly took until the 20th century for the human race to return to a pre-Neolithic Revolution average height. That’s a long time spent as shortarses!) Another side effect was absolutely rampant disease. Poor nutrition leads to a poor immune system, and poor sanitation leads to an awful lot of people rooting around in each other’s effluent.

It wasn’t all bad. This period gave rise to some pretty cool things like architecture, mathematics and, I imagine, that cliché about not shitting where you eat. But it also gave rise to human hierarchy and, therefore, wealth inequality for probably the first time.

Whenever I get homesick for England (which is less often than last time, especially because I’ve been back there since) it is for a chat about pumpkins with a pipe-smoking Bilbo Baggins or a bawdry chat down the pub with Friar Tuck. It is, in other words for a place and time that doesn’t actually exist (and, if it ever did, would almost certainly have smelled of rancid feces).

The perception that I’m some kind of cantankerous armchair anarchist who thinks the wheels of industry should screech to a halt while I start pulling back my bowstring and taking aim is understandable, but the distant past or the post-industrial future are not where I actually want to spend my time. Living in the past is for people who listen to Jethro Tull. The present is exactly where I belong. And there is nothing wrong with staying in one place (even if it does make one’s feet itchy) a long as it’s the right place for you.

*(or what those who aren’t selling anything and don’t have a thesaurus would call ‘very small’)

**(To this very day, whenever I see anyone wearing a Jethro Tull t-shirt I want to leap forward and punch them in the flabby jowls, and not just because they have a shite taste in music).

***(kids of different ages can be raised at the same time when you don’t have to carry them around hunting, right?)

The ‘p’ is Silent

Me: “You see why I keep losing my temper?”

My Co-Teacher: “Yes, because  you are on [your] period.”

There’s a scene in the kung fu classic Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee is traveling on a Junk boat, where he ends up explaining the ethos behind his own badassery. In this scene Lee is approached by a shadow-boxing New Zealander who belligerently asks “what’s your [martial arts] style?” Lee’s character, imaginatively named Mr. Lee, can barely stifle a yawn as he replies “I suppose you could call it ‘the art of fighting without fighting’.” His Kiwi assailant narrows his eyes suspiciously and says, in no uncertain terms, “show me some of it!” Lee agrees, explaining that there isn’t enough room on the boat to demonstrate. He suggests a trip to a nearby island. The New Zealander gets in a wooden rowboat and Lee immediately casts it off, leaving the swearing bad guy adrift in the ocean, stinging from the realization that he’s just been had by the art of ‘fighting without fighting.’

Wangfujing, in central Beijing, has become one of the training grounds for my own martial arts style, which I have dubbed ‘the art of telling people to fuck off without actually resorting to telling them to fuck off.’ I like to imagine that if Bruce Lee was alive today he might nod with approval at the name of this style, and at its clever acronym: ‘tatpfowarttfo’.

Like any seasoned martial artist, I only unleash the power of the ‘fo’ as a last resort, and it is reserved almost exclusively for people who try to take me ‘tea shopping’*. Whenever I am approached by an individual who tells me how handsome I am or how they would like to help me improve my Chinese I resort to monosyllabic answers before unleashing an animal cry, tearing off the metaphorical black shirt and unleashing a deadly dose of tatpfowarttfo.

Note that when I mentioned the tea shoppers, I used the qualifier ‘almost’ (as in, “not entirely exclusively”). I have also body-slammed unsuspecting attackers with the more subtle moves in the tatpfowarttfo arsenal, often as a way of escaping the cast-iron death-grip of a night out in Sanlitun, which I usually find about as enticing and rewarding as my job doing the night shift in a care home run by nuns…

…Which, coincidentally, was where the very first movements in the training manual of tatpfowarttfo were stealthily developed. Yes, I know: If there is a hell, then my adventurous week-and-a-half working for the Nazareth Sisters or whatever they were called has guaranteed me a ticket there on the one-way bullet train.

My black belt in tatpfowarttfo has earned me many accolades and nicknames: “grandad”, “letdown”, “miserable old bastard”. In fact, only the other day a friend was lamenting the fact that I wanted to spend a day off writing instead of ascending the stairs of yet another temple devoted to some Chinese god or other: “There’s all these great parks and temples in Beijing and you’re sitting in a fucking Starbucks!” He said.

I stared at him.
He blinked.
He looked down at his feet.

When he looked up again it was with the face of someone wondering how the hell he was standing on a little wooden boat, shaking a fist and thinking This is going in the blog, isn’t it?

*See previous blog: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/tea-shopping/


Tea Shopping

“Wow, you so handsome!”

When I first arrived in Beijing I felt like I was in a very small boat on a very large ocean. I had no map or compass or even any sense of direction. However, I soon heard a number of stories from a friend of mine, all of which seemed to end “and then I legged it down the street in a pair of flip flops.” The very idea of this particular friend successfully navigating the city made me realize that I was going to be fine.

In Tongzhou (where I live) and Beiyuan (where I used to live), foreigners are a rarity. Most people are not shy about staring, gasping or even taking your photo. Only the other day a middle-aged woman started poking the freckles on my arm without even asking. I’ve had people rush up to me to ask if I have an umbrella or if I speak Latin or just to tell me how shaui (handsome) they think I am.

In Wangfujing, though, if someone is telling you how shaui you are it’s because they’re trying to rob you blind. Wangfujing is a great place to visit if you like arcade games, or want to know what a squid on a stick looks like, or are easily distracted by really useless shit. It’s also the part of Beijing that is world famous for its teashop scam. I’ve been approached (or ‘tea-shopped’, as I like to call it) three times, and it always unfolds like this:

You are approached by either a ridiculously attractive woman or an hirsute old lady who looks like the villain from a Sammo Hung movie.

They say exactly the same thing as the last person who tried to tea-shop you: “Wow, you so handsome! Where you from? How long you been in China? You want to learn Chinese? I help you learn? Maybe we go grab a beer and coffee?”

At this point, if you’re the type of person who gives your credit card details to email contacts who’ve mysteriously moved to West Africa and run out of money, then you accept this offer of ‘beer and coffee’. You head off with your new Chinese teacher to a dingy little tea shop down a pungent alleyway. She orders you a pot of tea, then mysteriously disappears out of the squatter window, leaving you negotiating with some burly tea shop owner over a huge bill that’s landed in your lap.

Then you leg it down the street in a pair of flipflops.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid Chinese tea shops. There are some very reputable, enjoyable tea shops in Beijing. Not long ago I was in one in Nanluoguxiang with another friend of mine. We met a couple of Chinese students who we sat with for half an hour, sipping complimentary samples of oolong, jasmine, flower tea and various other delights. After awhile one of the students lowered her voice conspiratorially and said, “Is it true that there are real vampires in England?”

I considered making a political statement about the Tories, but my friend just said “No. No it’s not.”

“Ah,” sighed the young woman, sadly. “Unrealistic.”


How Not to Buy Stuff

“Confucius says: Wise man will not pay 30 kuai for bookmark with picture of Confucius on it!”

Seemingly simple purchases can be difficult in China, but there are certain things you can do to help yourself through this often baffling ordeal. It helps if you can pick up a little bit of the language. For example, “méiyǒu” (may-yo) is Chinese for “Don’t have”. If you point to a burger on the KFC menu and shout “No mayo!” then all you’re doing is telling the cashier that you don’t want to have the burger you seem to frantically want. That’s why she’s looking at you like you’re an utter tit.

It took me awhile to get used to the open-plan shopping malls, some of which have a ridiculously complex system that goes like this:
You show someone the product you want to buy.
They write you out a receipt.
You try to pay them.
They laugh at you.
You try to pay them again.
They somehow manage to communicate that you need to go to the cashier, who is conveniently located on a completely different level of the mall.
Somehow, you find this cashier and pay them.
They write you out another receipt.
You return to the original shop assistant who staples both receipts together.
You leave with the stuff you just bought, vowing never to return.

China also seems keen on unnecessary packaging. McDonalds will put your takeaway drink in a plastic bag, separate from the rest of your food. Subway will pack your foot-long sandwich as two six-inches. Locating your pizza can be a little like that movie Inception, a box within a box within a bag. Once, a Chinese colleague offered me a dried prune (I couldn’t think of a way to politely refuse) and I was shocked to reach into the packet to find that every single prune was wrapped in its own individual packet.

When it comes to goods, though, the most important rule I follow is that just because they sell it doesn’t mean you have to buy it! Did anyone else watch Star Trek: The Next Generation? Remember those weird salesmen creatures, the Ferenghi? I’m pretty sure the guy who created them has been to Wangfujing.

Tian-ber-land is NOT the same as Timberland, and there is a noticeable difference between New Balance, established Boston 1909, and New Bunren, established China circa whenever some dude just ripped you off.