Hutong Sweet Hutong – China, March 2013

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The panda reaches the top of the escalator. It seems to be familiar with its surroundings, and we watch it wander slowly in the direction of an Italian restaurant.  Suddenly it stops, and reaches for something in its winter coat.  If I knew anything about phones, I’d probably be jealous.  At least I don’t walk around Shanghai airport dressed as a panda.

When it turns around, I expect to see the face of someone dressed against her will, possibly in tears. But no, she seems quite proud.  It reminds me of photos of myself as a kid dressed for school with an uncanny resemblance to Rupert the Bear – but this bear is old enough to have chosen this outfit herself.  I’ll see other pandae in similar surroundings during the trip.  No-one else gives the girl with the hairy ears a second glance, but they stare at me.  Clearly I’m doing something unusual if I’m getting more stares than the endangered bear on the phone.

A girl with “Juicy” emblazoned across her butt nonchalantly strolls by. She’s on the phone too, possibly to a panda. I can think of no situation where I’d be comfortable with that word  on my arse.  I suspect that this is going to be an interesting trip. Apart from reports on the major tourist sites, I’ve heard two things – the food is fantastic, and the food is awful.

K and I have flown directly from Auckland to Shanghai, and have a few hours to spend before our flight to Beijing. It’s not enough time to get into the city, so we’re confined to the airport.  There’s no escape from the muzak, and after a few hours caught between the moon and New York City, we finally take off for Beijing.  The flight itself is uneventful, with all scenery covered by thick cloud. The landing is more memorable, being more like a series of short landings on alternating sides of the plane. It feels like we’ve just done Air China’s version of the triple jump as we bounce along the runway. No-one looks surprised at that performance, and that worries me. We have three more domestic landings to go.

Our accommodation in Beijing at Michael’s House is in a hutong, a neighbourhood of alleys lined with traditional courtyard homes. Hutongs first appeared in Beijing in the late 13th century, but by the beginning of the 20th century many had been replaced by wide boulevards and high rise buildings.  Many surviving hutongs have been designated protected areas.  Others are used by tourists recuperating after unnecessarily dodgy landings. I’m glad we’re staying here, rather than in an anonymous chain. There’ll be time for that later.

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With the attractions of Beijing being so scattered, we’re planning on being regular users of the Metro. Fortunately there are plenty of signs in English, and getting around the city is easy. The main challenge is getting on and off the carriage, but the rulebook is clear. Be prepared to shove or you’ll never leave the platform. And don’t be fooled by the old lady with the thick glasses and the limp. She’s not afraid to drop the shoulder if some stray panda is blocking her path.  Personally, I’m taking great pleasure in pushing others. I’m a guest and not giving people a bit of a nudge would be disrespectful.

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If the elderly of Beijing aren’t terrorising visitors on the Metro, you can find then in the gardens surrounding the Temple of Heaven. Traditional music plays for a group of costumed couples, and for those looking for something more energetic, gymnastic equipment is in constant use. It’s like a Chinese version of Cocoon, as old men and women swing on the parallel bars, play volleyball, or practise their hacky sack skills.

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It’s clearly important to stay active here – both physically and mentally. We see groups of older people  playing instruments in the Botanic Gardens, practising Tai Chi, or playing the local version of chess – always with onlookers eager to suggest the next move, or shake their heads as they mutter their disapproval.

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Our next challenge: eating out!

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