Intense Istanbul – Day 3 – The Holy Trinity

Today was the day that I handled the holy trinity of Istanbul: the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and the one that I was particularly looking forward to – the Basilica Cistern. “Why,” you ask? Do you like James Bond, and by that I mean the real Bond – Sean Connery? Well if the answer is yes, then you’ll remember the scene from “From Russia With Love” where Kerim Bey takes 007 for a cruise in the underground network of columns and water to get to under the Russian embassy. Although you can no longer navigate the cistern for your espionage fantasies, it does remain quite a fascinating draw. But first, the Blue Mosque.

But why is it called Blue? It’s concrete and plaster!

First impressions of the Blue Mosque have been published widely. And I have to disappoint you, because mine aren’t very different. It is quite a stunning piece of architecture in its own right. Built between 1609 and 1616, it is more popular than the Sultaniye Mosque around the corner for 2 reasons – minaret number 5 and minaret number 6. Most mosques around the world are built with 4 minarets at the corners of the perimeter. Sultaniye Mosque was no exception. It was royal architect Sinan’s masterpiece, and the biggest in Istanbul. But unfortunately he planted only 4 minarets in it. And thus lost fame to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque – aka Blue Mosque.

As a photographer, it was interesting from almost every angle and approach. Leave aside the full frontal which is garnished and ruined by the poles and the strangely planted palm tree on the right hand side of the symmetry. The best time to shoot would be around 8 am or just before sunset, mainly because the concrete picks the light very moodily.

Once you walk on to the premises of the mosque, you are bound to see and feel the bustle of people coming in and going out. The entrance to the main structure is right in front of the main gate. You will find people from everywhere here. Looking up, looking around, looking amazed, or simply dazed. Once you get to the inside you will be on the courtyard which has raised platforms running around the four sides. You could imagine people resting here after prayers in the days gone by. But right now I just saw… you guessed it… tourists.

Waiting for the Blues

The courtyard has an entrance to the main mosque, however this is for people going for prayers. So if you are a tourist (which most of us are) keep walking straight and through the gate opposite from where you entered. You will have exited the structure and you will know this is the right place because you will see the line snaking up all the way to the stairs (I would say on a decent day – 300 people), but it moves fast.

You get back on the stairs towards the end of the structure and get into the structure again. You’ll be asked to remove your shoes and place them in plastic bags and carry them around. Once that is done, you’re good to enter the mosque. And then you realize why it’s called the Blue Mosque.

It’s the predominant blue on the domes on the inside.

You'll have to imagine the blue!

Over 20,000 handmade tiles, ranging from elaborate to colourful, run around the ceiling. Although the luster has faded over the centuries the charm still hangs around. And thanks to the heavy usage of the colour blue on the tiles towards the top end of the dome, it earned its moniker “blue”, the In fact, the elaborate domes when viewed from the inside, and the massive lamp holders suspended from the top create a certain aura of spiritualism.

The quiet calm of spirituality.

However this spiritualism lasts only as long as your neck is turned looking up. Because the instant you look down, the an instant as kids run around and flashes go off and the damn tourists chatter away. Luckily the mosque decided to divide the area into two parts – for the devout Muslims who want to pray and everyone else. You cannot enter the mosque during the 5 prayer calls. And the times you can enter, it is a great contrast on both sides. One side feels like a place of worship. And the other feels like a marriage hall gone wrong – you know, where parents are busy talking amongst themselves as their kids go crazy high on sugar. I would recommend catching the blue mosque early in the morning between prayers.

Ummm... the not so quiet side of spirituality.

You cannot spend more than 15 minutes inside the mosque. As in you could if you wanted to, but unless you have done your thesis on the Sultan Ahmet Mosque’s interiors or have a great level of patience you would, like me, try to get some fresh air outside. And for me the interesting people were outside. From the Istanbul punks to the old Japanese gentleman clicking away incorrigibly.

After getting a few good portraitures, I decided to amble across to the next big draw, and personally a more explorative one.

Aya Sofia – Architectural Grandma of Istanbul

Albeit the Hippodrome, or rather the remains of it, is older in age – when it comes to aging gracefully, it is blown out of the water by the Hagia Sofia aka Aya Sofia.

Innaugurated in 360 AD, it was one of the larger churches in the world and befitting the stature of Emperor Constantine. I can hear some historians voice their discontent with the previous line – because Constantinus II also called dibs on having built it. Whichever be the case, it is an impressive piece of work.

From the gates of the Blue Mosque

Although its external appearance might have faded a bit when compared with its younger and larger neighbour, its glory remains intact. Personally I found that you could spend quite a bit of time inside the Aya Sofia in comparison to the Blue Mosque.  It’s no wonder that when you enter the premises (ensure you stand in the foreigner’s line and not the one for Turkish citizens) you find the booth for audio tour guides – which is recommended. At 10 TL it’s quite useful.

As soon as you walk towards the main entrance of the Sofia, you will be transported to a different era and even geography. The architecture with the sunken garden moat doesn’t feel very Turkish and neither does the style of architecture. The first thing you see upon entering is the mosaic cross close to the ceiling which is roughly 20-25 feet high (this is before you enter the main structure). The aisle in which you enter leads to the upper level of the Sofia from the left. But for now I proceeded straight in.

Ready for a crick in the neck?

Everybody looks up to the Aya Sofia.

First impressions? “How the hell did they get up there to do that?” The main dome is roughly 50 metres high. Yes. 50 metres! Notice all the people around you with their heads arched up. Once you follow suit you will begin to see the confluence – or conflict, as some might call it – the Christian murals and mosaics being overpowered by Islamic symbolism covering the corners.

Loud and proud!

The Aya Sofia probably best represents the history of Constantinople-Istanbul. It has outlasted empires, Sultans and a raging torrent of tourists looking straight up and firing away their flashes into the oblivious heights of the dome. It is a structure full of character, history and nooks and corners that tell interesting little stories. Like the Imperial Gate, where only the Sultans could pass through. Or the library of Sultan Mehmud, which has bronze walls running along its length.

After exploring the ground level I decided to make my way up to the higher level. That involved a mini climb on the ramp running in the top left corner of the building. The upper level has quite a few mosaic paintings depicting Christ, archangels and Mary. But for me the most stunning view was peering out of the windows just before the Imperial Gate and seeing the Blue Mosque beyond the domes of the Aya Sofia. Still suspended in time, it makes for delicious photographs should the light support you.

Coexistence comes to town after 1600 years.

Needless to say, you’re closer to the top, and therefore at a better vantage point to observe the work on the inside of the dome. They say that the dome was an advanced creation for its time, especially the fact that they placed the windows lacing the dome. The windows lead to interesting lighting across the Sofia at different times of the day.

You could easily spend the afternoon wandering lazily and discovering these little nuggets of history. And if the weather is good, as it was in my case, enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream in the cafe just outside the main structure.

Lunch at Rumeli Cafe.

By the time I finished with Aya Sofia, it was late into the afternoon. I decided to catch a bite and walked across to the side street behind the Basilica Cistern. There are a number of cafes lining with waiters trying to fill their numbers by enticing tourists with the badly shot food photographs and promises of “authentic Turkish” dishes. Walking through at least 10 such peddlers, I found myself at the corner of the side street and this inviting little cafe with tables laid outside and in seemed quite inviting. I chose a table inside, since it was a bit nippy and the head waiter sat me down and handed me the menu. The service wasn’t the fastest and the food wasn’t the best. But it was good. A word of advice: In Turkey, stick to the Turkish fare – kebabs and platters. Continental cuisine will tend to disappoint you, unless you’re at an upscale restaurant.

The Cistern “Chapel”

After lunch it was time to savour what I had been looking forward to the most – the underground wonder from the Byzantine era – the Basilica Cistern. Its entrance is most innocuous. At a first glance it is a simple little house with 2 windows and a door on the street. Fairly insipid, only to be betrayed by the line of tourists snaking down the street.

Open from 9 am till 7 pm, the Basilica Cistern is quite the draw and for good reasons. I will insist that you pick up the audio tour (5 TL) to get those reasons. But this much I will tell you, it will blow you away when it comes to aura, mood and architectural wonderment.

One of the sections of the cistern.

The municipality has actually done a very good job of lighting up the pillars that hold up the structure that used to provide water to the neighbouring mosque and the palaces around it. The water still remains but well below its capacity and the footboards you can traverse across. You will find fairly large carps swimming across but the authorities do not take too kindly should you try to go fishing.

Talking of fishing, did I mention how many people I saw fishing across Istanbul? It seems to be a citywide hobby. Fathers teaching sons. Friends hanging out with friends. All of them with their trusty fishing rods. The best example of this is at the Galata bridge. It makes for quite a visual.

The Turks take their fishing quite seriously!

Coming back to the Basilica, do make your way to the very end where you will find Medusa’s head pillared under and the myths and tales will follow.

How to beat Medusa - Her head must be inverted!

The Cistern doesn’t take more than 30-45 minutes, but makes for a compelling visit and you won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.

Aloran – A feast. A show. A most kindest host.

A short walk further ahead from the Blue Mosque and next to Four Seasons Hotel (which incidentally used to be a prison before being transformed into a luxury destination) is Aloran Cafe. Topping tripadvisor’s recommendation, and also recommended by Kamer at Hotel Amira, I thought I’d check out what the fuss was all about.

I was greeted, most politely, by the maitre’D – Yusuf. He made me feel welcome as he seated me down and asked me whether it was my first time in Istanbul and how I was enjoying my stay. As he left me with the menu, I noticed a different name on the menu. For a second I felt conned, like someone trying to ride the fame of a number one restaurant by keeping the same name. Yusuf allayed my fears and explained how they are in the process of name change and there was no other Aloran. I decided to stay on. And I am glad I did.

For starters I ordered the mixed mezze platter. Before the platter came a rather gigantic warm bread (somewhat similar to a Naan) came along, smelling delicious and tasting as good. The platter, with various salads and hummous followed and I have to say that the spicy salad was tangy-brilliant. But my favourite on that plate remained the Kashkush salad, which is a mixture of red bellpeppers and aubergine. Simply amazing. The hummous left a bit lacking, but that could be because my taste buds are hummous-trained thanks to my numerous trips to Beirut. But still, over all a very good experience.

But that would not prepare me for my main dish – the “Testi Kebab.” I am assuming the spelling would lean towards “tasty” and not otherwise. The dish arrives in a closed earthen pot being heated over an open flame. The waiter then begins to crack open the pot, and with great finesse cracks it clean open to pour the dish – piping hot and steaming – into your plate. Needless to add that the lamb preparation I chose was utterly delicious. You could ask for the same preparation with chicken or beef. I do recommend that you get another ‘hot’ bread to go along with the main course.

After the meal is over, make sure you walk to wherever you must, because you will have to. The food is indeed a culinary journey, but it takes its toll on your stomach capacity.

At the end of my meal, Yusuf very kindly insisted on desert – on the house. But in the same spirit, I kindly refused. He might have mistaken it for politeness, but it was simply the incapacity to swallow another spoonful of anything.

Turkish Coffee, Art and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Walking back to my hotel I came across Cafe Palatium. It looked inviting from the outside. A combination of a Turkish rug store and a coffee shop. I decided to step inside and take the quieter corner. With low couches and bean bags made out of Turkish rug fabric, it is a nice place to lounge for a bit. As I got to the corner I noticed I was standing on a glass surface. Looking down I saw a mini grotto of sorts. The glass was supported by beams. But for a second, it does throw you off… literally. I made myself cosy on the couch and ordered a Turkish coffee, also known as ‘coffee’ in Turkey. Stiff and strong and sweet was the order of the day. And it came in a rather interesting little cup. At the end of my beverage I wished I had a coffee cup reader. Mainly because I saw a bird in mine. Any interpretations?

I left Palatium and walked on further and came across this small art gallery cum coffee shop. It was around 10:30 pm and although the neighbourhood had wound down, this store remained open. With anything from beadwork to fine art paintings to mini sculptures, the Constantine Art Gallery seemed to have it. I walked in, inquisitive. What got me was not the art, but the music that filled the space. It was undoubtedly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Specifically ‘Sweet Pain’ from the Night Song album. Very moody. Very atmospheric. “Nusrat, always good, anywhere.” I remarked as the gentleman behind the computer screen arose. What’s amazing is how music can help you bond with almost random people. The same happened with me and Emre, who started discussing the better works of Nusrat and moved on to Nitin Sawhney and Niraj Chag. We exchanged music tips and I walked out of the store with much more than I had bought.

In Conclusion: I will be back!

The next morning it was time to wish Istanbul goodbye. All in all, I had a superb experience in Istanbul. Almost all people had been friendly and quite helpful. The city is a mine of ancient structures and discoveries to be made any way you turn. A four day trip can only help you scratch the surface. My facebook status stated “I think Arnie had Istanbul in mind when he said, “I’ll be back.” So I promised myself, unnecessarily, that I would return shortly. Why unnecessarily? Because I know I will.

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Intense Istanbul – Day 1 – Welcome to the middle-Earth

Istanbul: Be charmed by a City

They say that East meets West in Istanbul. Maybe it’s because of the history. The Byzantine era followed by the Ottoman empire. Maybe it’s the present. The physical state of being placed smack between two continents – Europe and Asia. Or maybe it’s about the future. The prospects of an essentially Asian country (93% of Turkey lies on the Asian side) joining the European Union (a dream since long, still to see fruition).

However, after my recent visit, I have a slightly different view of this East meets West theory. And it goes something like this:

East meets West.  West overpowers East. East pummels West. East wants to be West. East just cannot be West.

Allow me to explain. Romans conquered the city. Named it Constantinople. Created the ‘western’ influence. Then the sultans conquered Constantinople. Named it Istanbul. Then time was spent reversing the ‘western’ influence and asserting the ‘eastern’ influence. Then a republic is born, which is secular and doesn’t swing either way. Over time the republic realises the advantages of being on the European side and wants to really, really be a part of it. So far so good, but now we come to the “East-just-cannot-be-West” bit.

Even though historically and geographically Turkey remains an amalgam, the true essence of the people of Istanbul remains predominantly East (read: developing country). The moment I landed in Istanbul airport, the usual chaos ensued. People rushing and running (OK, so this happens in the West too) and cutting queues. But the funniest thing was waiting at the passport control. As some of us waited patiently in the snake lines, a few people just leaned and passed through the steel separators and jumped to the front of the lines. I was reminded of the developing country mentality. And this is found almost everywhere – restaurants, museums, ports. You just have to push your way through to the front, if you don’t want to be left behind.

Culture, history, art at the turn of every corner.

But if you take that with a pinch of salt, you will be able to savour a heady mix of history, geography, culture, art, commerce, tourism, spiritualism, secularism and all the things that make it a very charming cosmopolitan city. In other words, the East in West and the West in East is a pretty good place to be.

Staying at Sultanahmet’s – An Amira Experience

I decided to take tripadvisor’s recommendation this time. The number one on the Istanbul hotels – Hotel Amira. OK. For the design conscious, you might be slightly averse to Amira for its 1980s kitsch interiors. You know, plastic flowers in the lobby or a bulbous chandelier. But where they might lack in style – they make up in service – in spades. As soon as I walked in, I didn’t have to check in. Instead I was ushered to the restaurant where a Grey Goose on the rocks with a splash of lime juice was offered on the house. At this point I must mention the ultra-polite and ever-friendly barkeep – Aziz. (Through the trip, I did not see him once without a smile on his face.) Then the coordinator, Kemar, came over and brought the tourist maps with him and explained to me where we were and where all the attractions were. He marked the good restaurants and the spots to visit. I have to say most of his recommendations were good. My passport was brought to me and my bags were delivered to my room. Again, barring the kitsch red velvet curtains, the room was very comfortable and clean.

I told myself, “You’re just going to sleep here.” As if to convince myself, however, as mentioned earlier, the service would make me forget most of my qualms. More importantly, the top 3 attractions in Istanbul – Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern, among others, are within 10 minutes walking distance from the Amira. In the coming 4 days this would matter a lot to me and my photographic moments.

Thunderbolt Taxis

After freshening up I decided to head to Istiklal – as suggested to me by my Turkish friend Omer, who defined it as the street in Istanbul. But before I got there I got the true Istanbul experience when I sat in the taxi. I had read that taxi drivers drove fast, but to experience it is another thing altogether. It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride going over bridges and through aqueduct bridges at blinding speeds. But in their defence (if there is one) there is a system in this chaos. If you’re too scared, belt up. I personally had no issues but would break into a ever so slightly nervous laugh at the crazy bumps. The driver just gave me a strange look and probably wondered “Tourists, who can understand them?”  I am sure there are quite a few tourists who would squeal in fright and scream. However I made it just fine, and at the end of my journey I paid him by the meter and he was very polite. I presume people in Istanbul understand the value of tourist dollars and therefore put up with us as well.

The street of Istanbul

I got off at the Tünel end of the Istiklal street.  And almost instantly I saw the similarities between Europe and here – It represented the ‘Main Street’ or ‘HauptStrasse’ concept from England and Germany respectively. The Istiklal winds over 1.3 kms and makes for a great walk to Taksim, if you get off on the Tünel end (and vice-versa). It’s a great place to people watch and just watch life go by. Beware of the weekend crowd though – it is said that over 3 million people traverse the street on a Saturday or Sunday. And I can tell you it is quite true.

Well it still wasn’t the weekend so it was quite decent as I walked down to the Ada Cafe – a concept I have desired to own for as long as I know – books and cafe. Basically the cafe is split into two parts: One that sells books which are lined up against a wall and the second which servers food and drinks. Quite modern in design, Ada offers inside and outdoor seating. If the weather is good choose the outside seats, although service might be a touch slower.

Dude and dudettes, aplenty on Istiklal.

The food at the Ada was good, but not anything to write home about. At this time it would be appropriate to mention the music in Istanbul. For some strange reason the city (or at least the majority of the places in it) are trapped in the 80s sap section. From Lionel Richie to Kenny G to Gary Moore, the music was probably the only weird bit in this city.

Into the Tünel

Having said that, the music becomes better as the night progresses. And the night does progress on the Tünel end of the city. It is most certainly the hippest part of town right now. The Sofyali Sokak area is crammed with cafes and bars and hip restaurants that line the streets or spill into the street. One of the charming by-lanes was the Tünel Geçidi. Since it’s a cordoned street, the tables are out on the narrow street and the three floor high houses form a natural shade in the day and an interesting complex in the evening. Do give it a whirl for one of your evenings.

I headed back via another roller-coaster ride to my slightly kitsch yet genuinely welcoming hotel room as it was late and I planned on rising early the next morning.

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Intense Istanbul – Day 2 – Cruises and Palaces

Intense Istanbul: Day 2: I see tourists everywhere

The Blue Mosque from any angle, it looks beautiful.

Except for the time when I woke up at 6:30 am to get magic hour shots of the blue mosque and Aya Sofia, I noticed that Istanbul is a city over-run by tourists. I know it’s great for the economy and keeps the place going, but I would pause and wonder about the citizens who had nothing to do with it. I mean, we have tourists in Delhi too, but not like the way I saw in Istanbul. For me Istanbul was a bit like living on the Taj Mahal or Vatican City premesis, constantly seeing tourists everywhere. This, or the fact that I was in predominantly touristy places. But herein lies another conundrum – Istanbul can be touristy anywhere.

Well as I said, I was up at 6:30 and making my way through the nip in the air (it was around 9 degrees mid November) and leave aside the occasional pedestrian, the cobbled streets were quiet. “Perfect” I thought to myself. As the road split into two where an arcade market – the Arasta Bazar was, I took the road to the right which follows the boundary of the Blue Mosque. I noticed the number of small hotels that lined the street. A small museum on the left. The Bazar selling ‘genuine’ freshly printed maps of the Ottoman empire. In Istanbul, if there is a tourist dollar to be made, it will be made.

The trinity in Sultan Ahmet

I got to the Blue Mosque, and there was me and the other two Japanese fellas who had decided to get a decent shot of the mosque. We exchanged the serious photographer’s nod out of respect for getting up at that hour to get the shot and then got busy clicking.

The Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is quite a beautiful architectural piece of the Ottoman era. It’s speciality is that it has, unlike it’s compatriot mosques, 6 minarets. But what I was drawn to was the domes and the semi-domes lower around the main structure. They created beautiful angles and you could shoot the mosque from any angle and make the shot look interesting. The mosque is accessible for most of the day leave aside the praying time – which of course is 5 times a day.

Right in front of the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sofia or the Aya Sofia as it is called. It is quite a stunning structure considering it has survived 15 centuries and still is standing tall. Its history is richer than most other edifices in Istanbul, and it has seen Istanbul transform many times over. But right now, I must profess my disgruntlement with Istanbul municipality and urban planning which has created no sort of a cordon to get a decent picture without an electric pole or a shabby tree in it. Frustrated I decided to come back to this one later.

The Aya Sofia. Older. And much more beautiful on the inside.

Finally, completing the trio at Sultan Ahmet square is the Basilica Cistern right next to the Aya Sofia. Quite non-descript (well, it is underground, so…) However this opens only at 9 am and it was barely 7:30 so I decided to come back tomorrow for this wondrous work of architecture along with its two, more visible, neighbours.

I walked back to the hotel to grab breakfast and get ready for my ‘touristy’ tour.

Tourists – So predictable

I had decided to do the day tour with Package Tour Turkey, and to be very honest I was a bit let down. There were three main legs to the tour:

1)     Cruise on the Bosphorous

2)     Visiting Dolmabahçe Palace

3)     Visiting the Asian side of Istanbul

There were other things mentioned on the site when I signed up, but I don’t remember seeing a couple. My disappointment came mainly from the fact that the tour was rushed and there was no time to savour any of the environs at any given point in time. But let me talk about the day in a bit more detail.

The Bosphorous Cruise: As obligatory as Döner Kebap

The ‘Golden Horn’ is the ginormous creek that extends about 7.5 kilometres into the heart of Istanbul’s western side. It is 750 metres at its widest point and around 35 metres deep, should you choose to dive. It is a way seeing Istanbul weave up and down from the fringe. If nothing else, it is a great way to relax for a couple of hours.

Spanning continents. Europe's link to Asia.

My tour was filled with a lot of trivia, unfortunately in an accent of English that I struggled to understand.

What I did see was the various forms of architecture Istanbul has to offer. From the archaic to the modern. From the cultural to the hip. From the dilapidated to the uber chic. Apparently there are over 2800 mosques in Istanbul and you will see one with every head spin, if not earlier. My issue is that after the Blue Mosque, they pretty much all seem the same to the untrained, non-ottoman-architecture-specialised-eye.

I mean the dome and the minarets. It seemed that after the Suleimaniye Mosque, built by the great Sinan, there was no originality at all. The Blue Mosque, for your information came after and is more popular amongst the two simply because it has 6 minarets. Talk about stealing thunder. But really, do give the other mosques a look and they feel like poorer cousins of the Suleimaniye.

Looks the same? It isn't. But it is.

Coming back to the cruise, there was quite the nip in the air and that’s why the hot tea they serve on the boat was quite welcome for my freezing knuckles. I decided not to brave the winds for a bit and shoot from the comforts of the indoor deck.

I saw various span bridges, most of them modern, but probably one of the most important one is the Galata bridge. Built in 1845, it spans the Golden Horn, nearly at the mouth. Probably if Leonardo Da Vinci’s design for a 720 metre long span bridge across the Golden Horn would have come to fruition, the Galata wouldn’t have been all this famous. But it is, and it is also where my cruise came to an end.

A graveyard with a view

We drove around 20 minutes or so from the harbor up into a hilly area which lies in the Eyüp district of Istanbul. The highlight (if you can call it that) are the covered hills of Eyüp overlooking the Bosphorous. “What are they covered in?” I hear you ask. Cemeteries.  Think of this as Istanbul’s answer to Paris’ Père Lachaise. Probably not as many celebrities or nobel laureates lie in Eyüp but the magnitude is interesting.

The road got narrower and the bus seemed to slow down much more towards the top. When it could go no further, the bus stopped and we were asked to disembark and follow the guide who was barely over 5 feet high and her only marker was her folded red umbrella held up, well as high as she could. My fellow tourists – which included a rather lound bunch of Chinese ladies, amongst other nationalities, followed like sheep. As we walked through the cemetery I felt awkward passing through a place where some were mourning and others praying for peace. And then you have a group of disconnected tourists and 5 Chinese ladies with verbal diarrhea passing through. But once we got to the Pierre Loti Café I realized how popular the spot was – I am assuming with tourists – because mourners don’t look that cheerful. The morbid location aside, It was a rather charming open restaurant with magnificent views of the Bosphorous meandering through Istanbul. However if you go there anywhere around lunch hour, don’t expect to find a table without a wait. I have no clue how the place would be for dinner, and frankly, I am quite fine not knowing that.

The view from the Pierre Loti Cafe.

After getting a couple of shots of the view we all rushed to the funicular station. Where we lined up, waiting for our turns to wait. There were some 30 of us after all. And the funicular can take up to 8 people in a go. You can purchase the tickets at the top of the station and then take the rather short ride down. It’s not much really. I was quite disappointed. I presume, stopping at the café would have been a better idea. But I think at 50 Euros for the day tour, lunch could not be afforded at Pierre Loti Café.

Lunch, with a dash of indecision.

Lunch was horrible. Imagine a restaurant with 3 people trying to serve 30 within record time. Set menu – and by menu I mean watered down lentil soup, chopped cabbage and an impoverished mixed grill – that would come in intermittent waves. At this point in time, I considered quitting the group. I was just not enjoying myself. But the Dolmabahçe Palace held sway over my decision and I gulped down the lentil soup with a squeeze of lemon. In hind sight, the bread was the tastiest thing on the table. Although I have to add that some of my fellow tour-takers weren’t as compromising and I heard arguments at the end of the meal about the price of the meal and the worth of it.

My suggestion: If you do choose to take a tour, do lunch on your own. Better to spend 20 Euros and get a great meal than suffer with every bite.

Dolmabahçe Palace. ‘Ostentatious’ is a very poor synonym.

We arrived at Dolmabahçe Palace, and I have to be honest with you that I almost chose not to go in because I saw the Dolmabahçe mosque which lies outside the Palace and on the riverfront. The light was gorgeous and I thought I would get some amazing shots. But my fellow tourist goaded me into coming saying it would be interesting. I am quite glad I took the advice, because Dolmabahçe turned out to be a lesson in what royal whims and waste could mean. I say this, but a lot of people will tsk, tsk me at this point.

A quick history lesson that I got from my tour guide: Dolmabahçe literally means “filled garden.” The sultans had been living at the Topkapi palace till the mid-19th century but felt modern luxury lacking there. So the Sultan decided to build the palace near the recently demolished Beşiktaş Palace on the Bosphorous.

As you walk into the Palace ground the first thing you see is the ornate clock tower. You then get to the main gate, and then to the front gardens of the Palace. There is an interesting fountain with a circular path and you could imagine the Sultans relaxing here, listening to the sounds of the Bosphorous on one side and the spouts of the fountain closer by. We got to the main entrance of the Palace and our guide familiarized us with the rules. “You must cover your shoes with red plastic before we enter.” OK. “No touching anything in the Palace.” OK. “Follow me at all times, and stay on the red carpet.” OK. “No photographs inside the Palace.” What? Yes. Everything inside is original. The carpets, the floors, the paintings, the banisters (I mention this for a reason), the tables, chairs, tea cups, etc. So I understood the reason for all the precautions. But no photographs. Damn. (Apparently you can take photographs, but there are separate charges and permissions for that. Should have researched it before going there!)

At this point it would be useful to mention that you cannot enter the main Palace without an official guided tour. Just in case you were to think.

We walked inside, and I was blown away, room after room, chamber after chamber, hall after hall. It was like the brief to the architects and interior decorators was, “Make me a palace that makes all other palaces in the world feel like poor cousins.” Everything is gilded in gold. Everything that seems like glass, is crystal. Everything is still intact and that made me appreciate the precautions. Although the thought of Ocean’s 14 did cross my mind, but then it didn’t make sense. Let me tell you why. Some of the highlights of the Dolmabahçe Palace:

  • A 4.5 tonne Baccarat crystal chandelier (a gift from Queen Victoria) and it is the largest one of the many
  • 14 tonnes of gold used to gild the ceilings across the Palace
  • The crystal staircase – a twin pronged, massive staircase whose banisters are in Baccarat crystal
  • Elaborate carpets measuring up to 94 square metres (1011 square foot) as big as a generous one-bedroom apartment nowadays
  • Paintings from French, Italian and Dutch masters
  • 285 rooms
  • 42 ballrooms
  • 4 Turkish Baths

The banisters. The crystal banisters.

You get the picture. If you don’t I will try to help as much as I can. But you have to see it to believe it. I lost all sense of direction passing from one room to another. From the administrative side to the harem side. My tour guide kept saying “There are 68 toilets in the Dolmabahçe Palace.” Very interesting. But here’s a tip. Go before you enter the palace. Because you can’t use any of the 68 royal crappers. And a walkthrough the Palace will last you a good 2 hours.

The biggest chandelier in the house - Caremonial Hall

I walked out of the Palace, disoriented. I had never seen such a show of obscene wealth. So I decided, I will reserve my comments on how ostentatious some people are nowadays. The Dolmabahçe Palace would make the West-coast rapper look like choir-boys when it comes to bling.

Asian Side? No, thank you.

My tour was to continue to the Asian side of the town. I asked my tour guide what to expect there. “Aaah some house on the hills.” She didn’t do a good sales pitch on that one. And personally I was quite tired of following the red umbrella. So at this point I wished my fellow tourists fun on the Asian side and decided to get some photographs of the Dolmabahçe Mosque, and then head back to my hotel. And to be truly honest, I don’t think you need a tour guide for Istanbul. Merely the will to walk around the corner and discover something 1,500 years old.

Café Kovo at Tünel Meydan

The restaurants at Tunel Meydan.

The evening was pleasant as I decided to have a drink at the street I had mentioned in Day one. Café Kovo (or Keve, the logo wasn’t very well designed) had thrown its table out along with the other 3 bars/restaurants. The weather was gorgeous at 12 degrees C and the local Turkish brew – Esef, felt rather smooth. Side note: Esef starts of great but by the end has a strange flavour. I experienced this the few times I drank the ale. Did I mention I generally feel sleepy after beer? I took another fun taxi ride from Tünel to my hotel and lights out.

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Made in China – Day 1 – Welcome to XXL

China is still exotic to my set of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. “Why China?” was the most often question asked before I left. In all honesty, hadn’t it been for the visa about to expire in my passport and my itch to get out of office for a short while, China might not have figured up top.

There were 9 million bicycles in Beijing.

But it all works out and so I found myself upgrading my seat from economy to business the moment I stepped aboard the Emirates A380. I was a bit shocked at the sardine like arrangement of economy seats. Didn’t A380 promise more space? I fly Emirates very often, almost exclusively, and I have to say that I was sorely disappointed. Not just in the economy, but also in the business class. The seats are modular but boxy. I am not a broad person in built. Tall – yes, broad – no. However I felt uncomfortable in both axes when I tried to sleep on my seat. All said and done the 8 hour flight passed thanks to a couple of movies and my tired state of mind and body thanks to the situation in office, also known as hell.“What was China like?” is the most common question I get now that I am back. And I have to say, the first thing that comes to mind is XXL. The Beijing Capital Airport is nothing short of Olympic size – well for that very reason, I presume. I clearly remember the walk from the plane to the immigration counter, followed by the 8 minute rail journey to Terminal 3, followed by a long trek through the public lounge and to the parking lot which stretches forever. Yes, everything is big in China, except the people. They are small. Well in comparison to me at least. Beijingers are taller than the southern Chinese folk, like those from Shanghai. At an average height of about 5 feet 5 inches, it made me wonder about the overhead landscape in Shanghai.

I was glad to get into my pick-up which I had arranged using www.tour-beijing.com. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, but after a 12 hour journey, you don’t mind the peace and quiet. The ride into town is fairly unimpressive – leading from one expressway to the city arterial roads. The thing going for me was the weather. The temperature through my journey stuck around the 14 degree Celsius mark.

Raffles Beijing

The Lobby

My VW Passat rolled down East Chang Avenue, which leads up to one of the (surprise, surprise) biggest city squares in the world – Tianamen Square. I was now beginning to believe that this whole XXL business is about overcompensation for the diminutive statures. But just before we got there, it turned to my hotel – The Raffles Beijing. Raffles has made a name for itself thanks to its service, and I experienced that as soon as I stepped out of my US$ 30 drop off. Unlike all other hotels where you would line up to check in, the welcome staff at Raffles seats you down in the reserved Lobby area and serve you jasmine tea. They took my passport and credit card and checked me in. By the time I had sipped through the warm goodness, the lady came back with my documents and the key to my room.

Large, spacious, luxurious. The Raffles Beijing Heritage room.

She then led me to my room and patiently, albeit painfully explained literally everything to me – from the reason why temperature control cannot be altered of tampered with (Chinese government regulations) to the channels available on my TV set (Chinese government censored). The room itself, if I might add, was luxurious in size. After all, in the West that’s what you’d call a 46 square metres wide room. It had all the amenities you would expect from a five-star property and a bit more.

Wangfujing Avenue

After a quick freshen-up, I decided to take a stroll down the block. It was already 7 pm and the sun had set. I wouldn’t get much opportunity for photography but that was no reason to not go see and live the evening buzz in Beijing. I took a walk down Wangfujing avenue, which is the largest and probably most post shopping avenue in Beijing. History has it that this road has been central to trading ever since the establishment of the Ming dynasty. Although none of the Mings remained, the street still does roaringly well. Anything from restaurants, bookstores and the unavoidable gift stores, Wangfujing offers something for everybody. Be it the Beijingers, the visiting countryman or the occasional Indian in my case.

I walked into this appropriately named “Foreign Language Bookstore” about 500 metres into the street which had some very interesting books on Beijing in English. Moderately priced, you have to browse on your own as store help is limited. I picked up a book on the Forbidden City for around US$50 which would be on the steeper side. Remember that China does remain a pirateers paradise, but this store would not be the place to look for those bargains. For that you will have to head to the Panjianyuan flea market on a weekend.

“Do you speak English?”

As I stepped out and walked around I noticed something. And I am sure as a foreigner this happens a lot. On a stretch of about a kilometer, I was accosted 3-4 times by women. The opening salvo is the same, “Hello, do you speak English?” You could choose to ignore and walk on, or you could acknowledge. Should you acknowledge in the spirit of politeness, the next question will be, “Where you from?” Clearly Wangfujing is a tourist trap and probably the one place in Beijing where the locals speak decent English (any other hutong off the main street and you begin to struggle). Although I never made it beyond the second question, I got a gist of where the conversations, or the lack thereof, was heading. Sorry to disappoint you, but I trudged on.

Snack Street

Seeing snack street from another persective.

Moving beyond the jade gifts and intricately designed combs and fans (Carpenter Tan), I turned left onto Dong’anmen Street where the main attraction is a row of street food stalls set up with a couple of red lanterns marking each. And there were about 100 or so lanterns. Yes, this is where you find snakes, scorpions, silk worms, sea horses on a stick ready to be barbequed, grilled or deep fried to your liking. Besides the shrieking tourists upon one of their lot exhibiting the audacity to tenaciously chew down a scorpion, the Beijingers probably go for the more ‘normal’ fare – eel, pork or beef. I have been told the silk worms are a speciality. I unfortunately was ‘chicken’ and didn’t have a band of friends to egg me into swallowing an adventure. What I did notice were the bemused stall owners who smile at the effort and applause and flashes going off. I assume they feel a bit like jaded rockstars. I walked both in front of the stalls and then behind them to get a different perspective. I would suggest that to anyone. It’s just interesting to see it from their point of view.

Bargain Alley

Bargain. Bargain. Bargain. You must!

Coming back to the “huge” nature of Beijing. There was a toystore I had noted on my map which I thought I could visit on this leisurely stroll. On the map, it looks beguilingly close. But after having walked a good half hour in a straight line or so, I realised I had merely walked one fifth of the distance. I wisely gave up that quest for the evening and chose to head back to the hotel for a well deserved meal. However just before I got back on the East Chang Avenue, I found a tiny hutong running perpendicular to Wangfujing. This is where you have street stores for all kind of Chinese curios – Mao memorabilia, freshly produced antiques, or actually some relic from another generation. Although at this time I would like to refer you to Panjianyuan flea market which is probably the world’s largest flea market and great fun to navigate – you find all this and more there.Having said that, I managed to find myself a Chinese knock-off of the Rolliflex from one of the hustlers. The starting price was CNY1,800. I hate bargaining, I really do. So I was pleasantly surprised when I picked it up for CNY300. I am sure a more practiced bargainer (like my friend Ashutosh) would have probably secured it at CNY180. I am told that depending on the price you should only offer 10% of the price – as shocking as that might sound, it does work at times. My trick was to say, “I am not carrying that much cash.” After a couple of “last-prices” the lady simply asked, “how much money are you carrying?” She took my CNY300 alright. I also picked up some small knick-knacks that make good gifts – masks, trinkets, abacuses, etc. Remember – bargaining is the word and is utterly essential, as much as you might detest it.

I walked back to the hotel and relished my Yuanghzou Rice and Sweet and Sour Pork. The food at the Raffles is very good and flavourful and must be recommended. To top that off, the room service is good and polite and serve you properly. OK. time to hit the bed for tomorrow’s sideway adventure.

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Made in China – Day 2 – Beijing, Like Never Before

Time warp hadn’t hit me yet, or it had hit me too well, because i was up at 7 am. That would be 3 am Dubai time. Whatever the reason, I managed to freshen up, pack my lenses and get to East 33, the art-peddling cafe in Block-E of the hotel.

East 33 reminded of the colonial roots of the hotel (as mentioned in the previous blog) as it served my ‘Heritage-package’ breakfast. The spread was varied and I got a choice of local cuisine as well as intercontinental and a bit more. I would suggest mixing it up as the food is well prepared and fresh. Unfortunately the pre-cooked French toasts, American pancakes or Spanish omlettes don’t live up to expectation. Better to stick to other things there.

The people around felt completely at place in the hotel and the restaurant, a bit like the Brits from the Raj days – a select minority in a largely otherwise indigenous setting, still maintaining a certain air around them as the ‘locals’ jetted around to service their morning whim and fancies. All that like the colonial bit I mentioned – only a bit more civilised and with modern clothes. Well, for all you would know you could be in Dubai where the setup is pretty much the same, except you can replace the Chinese with the Filipno waitresses. I chuckled as I dug into my rather tasty pork dumpling.

Easy Rider

My ride and my guide for the day.

I managed to get to the lobby in time, as sharp at 9 am, my guide arrived – looking quite out of place in the Raffles Beijing lobby. 22 years old. Ear, tongue, nose pierced. Shoulder-length ruffled blond hair. But a tall lanky Irish bloke, with a big smile, Dillon effused friendliness.  I walked out with him to see our ride – a Chinese motorcycle, a bit reminiscent of the Royal Enfield along with its sidecar. Army green in colour, with a nice bright red star painted on the side car. Beijing Sideways already seemed perfect for the capital city.

The temperature was hovering around 10 degrees Celsius. I had worn the layers – t-shirt, sweater and a thick corduroy jacket, but Dillon advised on a wind-breaker as the wind chill factor would set in at 60 kmph. Luckily for me he was carrying a spare (or rather they are used to carelessly planned tourists on a daily basis.)

After a quick chat up, we decided to skip the tourist traps that Dillon would take the normal customers. Instead I briefed him to take me to the more ‘characterful’ side of Beijing. I am glad I did, and ‘Dill’ didn’t disappoint me. The day would lead us both through the various ‘hutongs‘ of Beijing – some Olympic ready, and others not so much. But first breakfast (well at least for Dillon).

I got on the bike – not in the sidecar, because i wouldn’t quite fit in it – and almost instantly started getting looks. I think two tall chaps – one Irish, the other Indian, would get looks anyway in China – where the average height is not higher than my nipple-zone. Now put these two on a bike with a sidecar and they won’t be able to peel their eyes off them. We both would just smile to the people staring (which is the best thing to do, because that disarms them and they smile back).

First stop: Breakfast

The roadside restaurant owner’s next in line little chef.

It was exciting to be back on a bike again. Last time was a few years back. OK fine, it was 14 years back. College days. Aaaah. The wind in the hair, the feeling of freedom, and all that jazz. “Put your helmet on.” Dillon reminded me that I had just signed a “I-won’t-sue-you-if-I-get-hurt-in-an-accident-or-worse-Die!-clause” Mind you, he said that with concern. So much for wind in the hair. But as we started speeding, the wind chill set in and the helmet started feeling snug.

We went slightly south-east of the hotel to a place called Dongting Hutong. It’s a rather dilapidated part of town, and according to Dillon serves very good breakfast. As soon as we turned into the hutong, familiar faces started beaming smiles at our easy rider, and me in turn. We parked the bike and sat down on a ricketty bench in front of the roadside table and the lady dropped a bowl of dumplings in front of Dillon. Although it looks street tasty, I kindly refused since I was still full of E33 goodness. As Dillon ate, I decided to walk around the neighbourhood and take some pictures.

A hutong I realised is most often a narrow alleyway connecting bigger roads. The most common parallel I can draw is that of a Indian gully. Dongting was at best a two lane road (barely) and mostly I saw cycles and the occasional car. More importantly I peaked into the open doorways to the houses. The front doors were characterful, even if time had weathered them down. A few doors had carved inscriptions on them – luck, fortune and the usual goodness of home, sweet home.

As I walked around taking photos, I noticed people being generally friendly – smiling, giving the typical Chinese victory symbol and almost posing. It was a nice change of pace. I got back to the roadside-michellin-restaurant and joined Dillon. The lady serving us had very kindly put down a mandarin for me (aaah the puns!). Dillon told me about how the certain hutongs keep getting relocated to make “fashionably-correct” houses on hutongs. Surprisingly, the people around seemed happy. I mean smiley faces happy. As I clicked a few photos of them they offered more smiles. I left them feeling good about the day already.

“Learn Some Mandarin” or ‘break-down-the-Wall’ at Fa Hua Si Jie

My Mandarin master for 2 minutes.

We swung around to another characterful hutong where I saw interesting entrances to houses the passageway that connects the door to the house. As you could imagine, every passageway inadvertently has a bicycle parked in there. Although the Fahuasijie hutong was a bit better off (I presume due to its proximity to a major tourist attraction – the Temple of Heaven) it still was tight in space, compared to the rest of China. Dillon picked up his cigarettes at a particular store where this gentleman standing outside started chatting me up – in Mandarin. For the first time I had no clue what he was saying. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a polyglot. However, I do have a sense of languages. I speak English and Hindi – fluently. I understand Punjabi and German fluently but sometimes struggle speaking them. I pick up words and by placing them into context I understand coversations in French, Arabic and Japanese. However Mandarin – this was a whole new fruit. So, I have this gentleman rambling on, as I nod my head – partly like a moron and partly like I understand. “Dillon… a little help please?” Dillon stepped out and told the man that I spoke no Mandarin. “Well I must teach him then!” was the reply with a chuckle. Another man who was setting up his stall outside concurred and beamed.

This is the friendliness that surprised me. I came thinking that the people who built 3,700 kilometres of a wall to keep foreigners out, would be a more closed race. And so far I had proof to the contrary. I got a couple of nice head shots of the Mandarin teacher and his dog. Another surprising thing. Dogs are loved in Beijing, and by that I don’t mean as a culinary delight. More like back home in the West. Like pets. And I saw plenty of proof for the same. (Although my friend jokes with me by calling them ‘back-up ration’.) We departed from Fahuasijie to see a typical market street – and by that I don’t mean the fancy Wangfujing Avenue off Tianamen Square.

Liuxue Lu Market: Abuzz with stories, if you choose to read

Designer? Godfather? Musician? Your guess is as good as mine.

Instead of simply riding through this market street, Dillon suggested I walk through it to get my shots. It was a great idea as found tons of material. From the guy hacking away at a meaty chunk of breakfast to the dude shaving himself to perfection – on the street, while smoking. Sometimes I would just feel the street swell with people and me saying to myself, “1.3 billion. 1.3 billion.” And then quickly firing off my camera.

Needless to say, the street is full of characterful people. Stories written on their faces. Going on and about their day. Not really caring if a really tall darker-skinned fella is taking pictures of their humdrum existence. An older woman being passed by a younger one. An older gent looking down upon the three young men laughing loudly. The lines for the pork buns or maybe dumplings (very common across Beijing).

The market itself was an amalgam of different stores. Clothes, pickles, cycle repair shops, toys, shoes, meat shop, you name it and it was there. Narrowing down in parts, it opens up to the main street – Zhushiku West Street. After haggling with the parking attendant for the parking rate, Dillon and I sped away to our next uber-modern spot.

The Egg

The Egg, also known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts

One of the many new prides of Beijing – The National Centre for the Performing Arts, or the Egg as it is called quite aptly,  is right off Tianamen Square. If you think about it, it is quite out of place in the architectural map of Beijing – being organic amidst monolithic, or modern amidst the ancient. People love it or hate it. As for me, it was a moment of peace in the bustling town. Or maybe it was the fact that I was there at 10:30 am. I walked around a bit, took a couple of shots of  the amazing architecture created by monsieur Paul Andreu – who is incidentally the planner of many modern airports, including – Paris, Dubai, Shanghai amongst many others. Upon inspecting the picture I took (above) Dillon quipped, “Looks a bit like a zeppelin.” Egg? Zeppelin? Which do you think represents Chinese pride better?

Cishou Temple Pagoda: Defaced memories

The Cishou Pagoda reflecting in the pools amidst the surrounding gardens.

Next we headed to another interesting hutong, west of the Egg. “It’s where I get my duvets fixed.” A bit dilapidated, Linglong 1st Alley is on the bank of the canal running through Beijing. And on the other side of the canal is the Cishou Temple Pagoda. Once again, this was a serene spot in the middle of a flat-grey-bustling-Beijing. Surrounded by gardens, the main pagoda is over 430 years old. The artistry on the sculptures looked intricate – well at least what’s left of it. The surrounding temple was demolished and the pagoda’s sculptures were defaced during the Qing dynasty.

Chipped faces. Damaged arches. Ended artistry.

Am sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘The victor writes the history.’ Once you come to Beijing, you start seeing the proof of it. Be it a vandalised pagoda or an industrialised temple.

Once you get beyond the pagoda, you come to the gardens which were very quiet. I saw the occasional Beijinger limbering up for a run or more likely a dawdle at that age. Although I would think this makes a nice place in the mornings for a walkabout and gathering your thoughts. I recommend a visit – mainly because it isn’t your typical tourist trap.

And because of the quiet the mind does travel a bit, and mine slipped into a different era. I wondered how it would have been 400 years ago, pristine and ideal, away from the Forbidden City.

I didn’t have a lot of time to ponder on that as my next bizarre stop on the Beijing Sideways was coming up.

Guanyuan Market: Birds, Dogs, Fish and Neons

Tight lanes with little headroom and tons of pets.

Dillon decided to take me to the pet market in Beijing. I had no clue what I was in for. “It’s quite bizarre,” he told me. When we got there I saw what he meant. It’s a bit of a warehouse with lanes drawn up with various little shops selling anything from parakeets to fish to dogs to cats. But that isn’t what gets you, it’s the neon lights. You can walk out of there possibly visually disoriented – seeing a greenish sky. I wonder if it matters when  you’re picking up a Persian cat? Does it seem more Saudi? I didn’t hang around too long to find out, as the words ‘avian flu’, ‘swine flu’ and for some odd reason ‘mad-cow-disease’ kept coming to my head. No there were no cows there and there was no fast food burger joint either. I did manage to get a nice picture though (above) and with we decided to move to Beijing’s hipper part.

HouHei: Means “Backside-lake”

The crowd is younger at Houhei.

Having a flat grey sky for the day you want to shoot can be a good thing and a bad thing. First the good. You get diffused light which let you shoot some very interesting face shots, close ups which are evenly lit with soft lines. The bad news is that you cannot get a great landscape shot to save your life.

So there I was at Houhai lake in Beijing, and once again I refer to XXL, it was huge. But thanks to the utterly flat sky, all my images were short of presentable. The temple in the far back was almost merging with the sky.
Getting beyond my photographic vent, the area is very interesting and makes a great walk along the lake. There are various bars and restaurants lining the lake. The people demographic at Houhai is also younger but from various backgrounds.

You’d need a good couple of hours to complete a leisurely walk around the lake.

Guanghua Temple

Inside looking out. It’s a small entrance (for tall people at least).

One of the surprise survivors of the Cultural Revolutions of the late 60’s is this small little Buddhist temple. Flanked by a drum tower and a bell tower, the main temple is one of the very few Buddhist temples in Beijing.

As Dillon explained to me, the Drum tower which is a miniature of the Drum tower we visited later, announces the time where as the Bell tower announces the time for prayer. In essence both were meant for keeping time.

OK. Enough. Time for lunch.

Fang Jia Hutong: Up-coming, arty, underground.

For lunch we went to a cozy restaurant at 46 Fang Jia Hutong. This used to be a run down hutong which is now being converted to a more arty and boutique sort of street. But it is still a far way from being entirely hip. The hip street is probably Nanluoguxiang right now.

Irrespective we entered this restaurant on the first floor after walking through a myriad of trinkets, old photographs and handicraft work. After driving around in the chill, the warmth of the restaurant felt nice. We were instantly served hot water as we ordered an array of dishes. Pork, chicken, beef. It all tasted great. My memory doesn’t serve me well, and upon looking up in google maps I found Shaoxian Extreme in that location. But I am certain that the place is on the first floor once you enter from the main gate at compound number 46. Do go there, and support the local (culinary) artists. It’s not a Michelin star affair, but it’s pretty good.

-10 Metres: A city below a city

A city below a city

After a hearty meal, I was treated to something straight  out of the Saw series of movies. I had read about the underground city that exists under the main city. But I never thought I would actually be able to descend into it on my journey. But I did. Stepping down some odd 10-15 metres I was in a chamber – pitch dark. Upon cranking up the torch I saw pillars on both sides lined up for hundreds of feet. It was massive. And that’s what the city is. It’s a network of chambers and tunnels and rooms and roads that exist under the main city. No one is allowed there, because every now and then the water floods the place and it is a hazard. It was built during the cold war era and is said to be able to house over 100,000 citizens (first priority to the government, military, administration – but of course). At some parts the chamber are said to be broad enough and tall enough to let three tanks pass running parallel to each other.

Personally, like I said, it was a bit out of the Saw movies. One tunnel connecting one chamber to another room. The fixtures were right out of the 60s and it was eerily quiet and pitch dark. You could imagine up your own horror movie if you like here, but it is an experience if you can get it.

The players at Zhonglou hutong

Chinese Chess. Popular everywhere (in China)

The government has made several ‘exercise’ parks around Beijing for the elderly to get their daily dose close to home. But while the occasional runner on the manual cross-trainer works up a sweat the crowd surrounds that interesting game of mah-jong or Chinese chess.

As we drove to the main drum and bell tower, Dillon made it a point I get the shots I need of the elderly working up a sweat on the mah-jong table at Zhonglou hutong. And boy, these guys were serious about their games. Full on concentration, their moves are cheered – with “haaaws” and “aaaaws” (in Mandarin of course).

Needless to say both Dillon and I were two outsiders amidst the fairly vertically challenged and age defying crowd. But they didn’t mind as I went trigger happy all around.

Poker Face – we just couldn’t tell what game he was playing

As we walked the neighbourhood, we came to the majestic Drum Tower (Gulou) facing the Bell Tower (Zhonglou).

Drum n Bells: Ancient Top of the Pops

As mentioned earlier, the Drum Tower (Gulou) told the time for the common folk. This tower is considerably huge. When I went up the tower I counted the steps – 56 before my breath completely ran out. Mainly because the steps are huge, typically twice the average size found in modern architecture. So be ready for a bit of a climb.

As soon as you get to the top, you see the massive drums and the various time-keeping devices from centuries ago. Try to catch the drum performance which takes place every half hour from 9:30-11:30, 13:30-17:00. The ticket costs RMB20.

You can then step out to the ‘balcony’ which overlooks the main road that connects it with the Forbidden City. The views on a clear day would be amazing as you can see the lakes (Houhai, Beihai), Forbidden City, Jingshan park, etc. Unfortunately you only get to gaze from one face of the tower as the other sides are restricted zones.

The climb down is fun (not) as it is a very steep climb down. I really wondered what was up with it, as Chinese people are short with relatively shorter legs. So why twice the step height? Shaolin training? Dillon suggested we go to the museum at the base of the tower, but when we walked in we were told we entered through the exit. Upon trying the door on the right, we walked into a bunch of security guard in the middle of a card game. It was hilarious like a scene right out of a Guy Ritchie movie. We left before the guns started going off and headed to the hip part of town.

Nanluoguxiang / South Luogu Alley

Designer shot on a designer street

This was a fun street with local designer stores and boutiques. If you want to pick up some nice gifts which are ‘well’ made in China, I would suggest you come here. I managed to pick up amazing notebooks, bags and jewelry from a couple of stores here.

The rates are fixed and you don’t have to haggle. I presume it is because it is a cooperative street. But the rates are not high and you don’t mind shelling a bit for well designed articles.

Last stop: Jingshan Park

The Jingshan park is just north of the Forbidden city. It’s an elaborate garden space with a man-made hillock on the top of which a temple rests. Yes, it’s again a time for a climb, but the view from there is simply worth it. And for once you can go on all four sides and see Beijing spread around.

But I think the best view is that of the Forbidden City. As a certain axis, you get all the main buildings lined up like one massive temple. It is simply beautiful. By the time we got there the sun had gone down so I had to hurry, and this is the shot I got.

It was almost like looking across time.

I was told that this was somewhat of an extension of the Forbidden City, and the park was off-limits to public back then. I am sure the Emperor’s must be having a conniption in their graves with so many commoners now everywhere. For those who want to feel likethe emperor, there is one of those cheesy photo-ops where they dress you in the Yellow Emperor’s robes (apparently the most lascivious Emperor) and headgear (for the missus too, if a couple) and give you a commemorative visit photo.

However I would suggest that you plan to spend at least 2-3 hours at Jingshan Park, walking around the environs and climbing the hillock. We climbed down and were about to call it a day, when Dillon offered to take me to one of the places I had mentioned earlier.

Bannerman Toys

Mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, this small store is a generation of family craftsmen who make toys for a living. Some of the stuff is quite basic, some silly and then there are the little gems. I found these hand made flat-puppets that are intricately designed based on Emperors and Empresses. I also found a beautiful Chinese kite, complete in a hard-box, with string and all. Needless to say I am not going to be flying the kite any time too soon. More like frame it. And the toys here are priced from reasonable to ridiculous. I say ridiculous, but some collector who wants a traditional Chinese opera mask made by a famous local artist can shell up to RMB 10,000. As for my kite, it was a humble RMB 80.

I also believe that a few stores down from Bannerman is a store that has a massive collection of Far Eastern manga and comics. If you can, do check that out.

The day ends

At around 7 pm, Dillon dropped me off back to the Raffles, safe and sound and loaded with almost 4,000 words of experience to write and some great pictures to share. As I said earlier, this was one of my better decisions while travelling and I would strongly recommend Beijing Sideways to anyone.

I decided the day was over as I hit the bed. Bad movie on HBO (rare) followed by a nice hot meal, and I’ll see you on Day 3.

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Made in China – Day 3 – The Forbidden Attraction

Laziness prevails over thousands of years of culture.

Before I crashed last night I set the alarm at 8 am for today morning. I think I woke up at 6:30 am. The perfect time to go to the Temple of Heaven, which lies south-east of Tianamen Square. Why? Because you find a whole lot of people working their Tai-Chi’s. I thought it would make a great photo opportunity. Unfortunately my body did not agree with me. And I passed out again. Yesterday’s jam-packed Beijing zigzag had been great, no doubt, but just a little bit exhausting. And I still hadn’t caught up on my sleep.

So I slept. Through the alarm at 8 a.m. Through the breakfast till 10:30 am at East 33. Through midday. In fact I only managed to get up at 1:30 p.m. Yes, yes, I know. How could I? Well I did. So let’s move on. A quick bite in the room and I made rush to get to Tianamen Square. It was only 2 blocks away from my hotel, which in Tianamen terminology is a 15 minute walk.

What’s big, red and all mixed up?

The Forbidden City, would be the answer as communism and imperialism blend at its gate. As I started approached the Gate of Heavenly Peace or Tianamen as it is more popularly known, I started getting an idea of how big it really was. Massive red walls (7.9 metres high) stretching both sides of the gate. Of course Chairman Mao’s portrait hanging dead centre, gazing endlessly upon the creation of his thought and sheer will. And there were the good folk of his country who wanted to shoot with the man himself, even if he was a photo. I had hoped that by now the crowds would have thinned, as Dillon had warned me a lot of group tours go there in the morning and then to the wall or vice-versa. However I had no such luck. It was already 2:30 pm but the tourists had far from thinned in front of the huge red walls of the Forbidden City (FC).

Coming back to the posers – the Chinese way to pose for a pic is to flash a V for victory sign to the camera with a big Cheshire grin. If the grin isn’t possible, it’s fine. Just ensure the “Communism-will-always- be-victorious-and-prevail-over-imperialistic-propaganda” gang-sign is thrown in.

For the victorious glory of our Chairman.

I decided to get some portraits of people posing in front of the man. Now being 6 feet 4 inches tall  (that’s 194 cms for the imperially-challenged) really helps. I simply stood one or two step behind the person taking the photograph and clicked almost as he or she did. You can get some great pictures here. The paradox between unquestionable authoritative architecture and the frivolities of the proletariat (another fancy word for ‘common folk’ made popular by Marx, another hero in China), is just too delicious to be left to memory. After getting a few good pictures, I moved with the crowd towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Nothing peaceful. Nothing heavenly. More like sardines walking in step over a bridge. But it gets better once you get to the other side.

The fun side of communism.

Now most of you would be interested in the history of the place, etc. But for me, the people around were like a goldmine of photos to be taken. Tourists from the world over and Chinese from all over China is what you’ll find inside the FC. I read an interesting fact that the villagers in China need a pass or a permission to travel to Beijing. I found that quite shocking but understood the reason, which is to control the migrant labour problem. I see that happening in India for instance, where cities like Delhi or Bombay are bursting at their seams. Correction, have burst at their seams. Urban planning has gone down the drain (literally) as the city planned for 12 million people exploded to 18 or 20 million. Beijing is not short of population. It is more populous than Delhi for instance (Beijing – 22 million; Delhi – 19 million). The difference is in population density. Remember I said Beijing is huge? This is where it plays a role. Beijing’s population per square kilometre is just a bit over 1,300 people. Delhi on the other hand is a whopping 11,500 people. Get the picture? But in India, it’s difficult to say no to anything. So it’s no wonder that our population is quickly chasing down the number one spot. But I digress. Back to the villagers from China in FC.

Prettier gang signs!

The awe is common. For foreigners and Chinese alike. The only people who seemed blasé were the myriad tour guides with little flags overhead to keep their respective group together. By the time you get to the Meridian Gate, you can see a mini congregation of the flags and the annoying speakers bleating out commands or requests to the groups.

My guide in blue

“Please look here. Behind me is the…”

Talking of guides, I strongly recommend getting the electronic version from the Meridian Gate entrance. It costs merely RMB 40 with a refundable deposit of RMB 200. You get them in various languages, of course in English.  It is controlled by a local GPS system. So depending on where you are and where you go, the woman starts telling you about what’s around you. And there’s a lot in there. Even if you casually wander around the City, you could easily spend a full day and get through only one-third of the City. (The entrance closes at 5 pm and the ticket sales shut down at 4:30 pm.)

A little bit of history. The Meridian gate has 5 entrances. The middle one, through which the public passes was reserved only for the Emperor. The Empress could pass through it only once – when she was married to the Emperor. And the top three scholars of the civil examination – a way of keeping the best minds close to the Emperor. Being none of the above, I thanked Chairman Mao and walked through it with the rest of my proletariat brethren. Yet another side note: the Chairman almost destroyed the FC too during the cultural revolution, considering it was the ultimate symbol of imperialism. Luckily the premier then, Zhou Enlai, had the foresight of seeing serious tourist money decades later and so had the city protected.

Walk, walk, walk

To ensure I at least make it from end to end of what Mr. Enlai had so preciously protected, I chose to walk in a straight line, without deviating (I know, very boring) stopping only to get my photographs. And that took me 2.5 hours. It is, after all, 1 kilometre in length, end to end. It’s also 720,000 square metres in area. That’s almost twice the size of the Vatican City – a country in itself, if I might add. The FC has 980 buildings with over 8000 chambers and rooms. The only thought that kept coming back to me as I walked down to the Hall of Supreme Harmony was, “All this for one person.”

The gang sign training begins at a young age.

I say one person, but here’s a fact that made bewildered me: During the Qing dynasty the Emperor had 20,000 concubines. And the rooms I mention were concubine quarters. Sorry, did you get stuck at doing the math of 20,000 women to one man? Let me help you. If the Emperor lived to be 70 and considering he started shagging from the age of 15, he would not repeat a woman through his life. Don Juan has nothing on this Casanova.

What the Emperor saw every morning (minus the people, of course.)

Upon reaching the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the place where the Emperor would conduct his morning meetings with reps from all over, I tried getting a shot without people in it. It’s impossible. Tourists are all over the place. I wondered again, “What was the Emperor’s view?” And I think it must have been divine. Apparently, when the Emperor held meetings, you could not even cough. Talk about commanding attention!

Red Relief

I couldn’t possibly tell you all the history. For that the little blue device with all the nuggets of information in it is your best bet. And like I said, there’s a lot – so unlike me, make sure you keep at least half a day for the FC. My favourite part came right at the end of my walk, past the Gates and the Halls. It was the royal garden. It is simply amazing. Old trees, really old trees, well manicured pathways – pure nature after pure construction. Don’t get me wrong, the edifices are amazing, but after a kilometre of that, this comes as a relief for eyes seeing red.

I would have liked to spend more time there however it was 5 and the exit beckoned. I returned my e-guide and got the deposit back. As I left the last gate – the Gate of Divine Might, which was also reserved for royal usage only, I overheard Hindi being spoken. I turned to see college students from India. “India and China.” The Russel Peters joke came to mind. “In the end all will be beige.” I chuckled and walked down along the moat running around the palace walls.

The Gate of Divine Might

As I walked down the street skirting the FC, I noticed entrances on the right side of the street. It made me wonder about the life during the centuries gone by. Peace and quiet within the walls of the FC and chaos and population on the outside. These gates were the houses that skirt the moat of the FC. I would assume these would have been the administrative offices back then.

Hotel Emperor and Yin

I decided to stop at the Emperor Hotel, to get a drink at Yin, the bar mentioned in Lonely planet as the having the best view to the roofs of the FC. Give it a skip and hop across to Jingshan hill instead. You’ll get the best view from there. From Yin, all you see is tree tops and the occasional roof corner. Having said that, it’s a peaceful bar when you can grab a pint after the long imperial trudge.

Tomorrow: the Great Wall.

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Made in China – Day 4 – Conquering the Wall

The Wall – Made in China

After getting enough rest yesterday, I managed to be up on time, grab breakfast and meet up with Dillon for my second trip with Beijing Sideways. The weather unfortunately had not cleared up, as my trusted iPad app had been promising me, and the sky remained a flat grey. The thermometer was also stuck around 13 degrees, which I didn’t mind coming from the heat in Dubai. So I got my camera gear in my bag-pack and sat in the sidecar today. The reason was that today we’d be negotiating some sharp turns and the motorcycle needs to be balance in order not to topple to the left (sidecar is on the right.) I somehow fit inside and off we went.

The wall is around a 2 hour drive from central Beijing and there are various ways of getting there. Of course, you have to define where your ‘there’ is. As you might know the wall is only a mere 3,700 kilometres long. There are various points on the wall around Beijing that are popular with the tourists. Of course, with Beijing Sideways you will go to a path less travelled, as promised on their site. We were going to go up to the Lakeside part of the wall, some 75 kilometres north-east of Beijing, where you find very few tourists. There is a reservoir there, with a government guest house which offered very good views of the wall (to the government officials of course) and a small village – of 50,000 people or so, in true Chinese proportions. But before we get there, we were going to join up with 4 other sidecars also heading up to the wall.

Off-the-wall

“I am not lying honey, I really was in China.”

Chateaux Laffitte is around 30 kilometres from central Beijing and it takes about 45 minutes to get there. Dillon warned me that there is nothing like it in China. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, till I saw it. I shot it, and whenever I show my friends this picture the question is, “But I thought you went to China?” It is a colossal mish-mash of architecture none of which is Chinese. Coming in from the front you see Roman Columns, as you swing to the back it is French baroque and on the other side of the canal you find British mansions.

The story goes that a real estate mogul, who became a mogul during the recent expansion years, was in France and saw the Château de Maisons-Laffitte just outside of Paris. He liked it so much, he managed to find the blueprints and decided to recreate it brick by brick… just outside of Beijing. He wanted to keep it to himself, but soon realised that the upkeep would drain his wealth  (he had already blown US$ 300 million) and so decided to convert it into a hotel. We parked the bike in the backyard, if you can call it that. You see expansive manicured lawns with hedges making intricate designs, roman sculptures, golf carts shuttling players across the bridge. After all, it claims to be ‘a luxury hotel, spa and wine museum in one.’ What I can guarantee you is that it is out of place.

“If you’re gonna shoot, shoot…”

Before the other bikes started coming in, I noticed two big vans parked at the back entrance. Then I saw people streaming out of the hotel into the laws. Some wearing traditional Chinese robes, others in ill-fitting western costumes. Yes, it was time to bring out my trusted 5D. As I started clicking away, I realised that these were extras for a film and the vans were wardrobe and lighting vans. As you might have guessed by now, the Zhang-Laffitte is a popular site for shooting films that don’t have a big travel budget – especially to Paris. And that’s not all. It’s also quite popular with wedding photographers, whose customers want to have their marriage to be made more memorable in a royal European setting. All in all, something to be seen.

Convoy

The bikes came in around 30 minutes or so, and we quickly introduced ourselves to each other. It was a couple from Canada and another from England (the husband was American) who had recently moved to Shanghai. After the hellos we got underway.

The convoy.

As soon as you start leaving the suburbs of Beijing behind you, the air seems to change. The reason of course is leaving industrialisation behind you. The air felt fresher and there was much more green around. As we progressed into the journey the terrain began to change and the hills emerged. It was simply great. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, and something I needed to. It reminded me a bit of the trips I used to make with my friends in India – going to the cooler hill stations in the warm summer months. Just like now, we would sense the air change when we’d hit the foothills of the Himalayas. Same sensation, just on the other side of the Himalayas.

We passed through a couple of villages and I noticed more similarities with India. Both the countries are going through the economic up-turn and it affects everyone. From farmers with mobile phones with GPS to fancy cars parked outside farm house. I personally feel that the urbanisation of villages is the worst thing growth has brought to our nations. Some innocent charm of rural life has been lost in our countries. Although I am certain the villagers feel very differently.

As on the second day, we would get looks from the villagers in the street and laughter from the kids. The convoy isn’t the quietest way to travel through the valley but it sure is fun.

It took us around 1.5 hour from Laffitte to get to our destination – the village Huanghua Chengcun.

Settled? Let’s go walling.

We parked the bikes in this little restaurant where we caught some warm jasmine tea and hot breads. I am not a big fan of flavoured teas, unlike my friend Ashutosh who prefers softer tastes (read: feminine) for his palate. Give me the Punjabi chai any time of the day and I’ll gladly drink it. English breakfast tea, if that isn’t available. Black, one sugar. In my years of travelling I have learnt with many sugary, creamy, cinnamony experiences that keeping it basic and simple is the best. But today was slightly different. As the air had cooled even further when we started gaining altitude, my otherwise tanned knuckles seemed relatively pale. The hot cup of ‘jasmine’ tea felt good in my hands. But it was the bread that tasted brilliant. Hot and fresh and full of flavour.

After resting for about 15 minutes it was time to go see a wonder of the world .

The hike to the wall isn’t very long – around 20 minutes from the restaurant, but it is strenuous. OK so I am not in the best shape of my life, but I do recommend a good pair of hiking boots. The path is rough and broken. Even if you do go to the more touristic spots on the wall, parts of the wall are in disrepair, and the boots will remain a good idea. Coming back to my hike, I think I had to pause a couple of times as my legs began giving way. Too early in the day, if you ask me. For it’s when you get on the wall is when the hike truly begins.

We got the ‘Yellow flower’ gate, a small tunnel like opening in the wall to let traders pass into the valley below. All of us wondered how back in those days traders traversed this tricky mountainous terrain with goods on horses or mules.

As far as the eye goes, and a bit further than that.

We climbed the wall and I saw the wall stretch as far as my eye could go. Amazement is a word you can use to describe the feeling. Others could be awe, wonder and joy. Joy for having walked the wall. Well, the walk was about to begin after we absorbed the experience of being there.

The wall has been repaired in parts and in some it remains broken. It isn’t an easy climb or descent by any measure. And you should really be careful on rainy/snowy days as it is quite slippery and dangerous. The biggest problem I faced was the uneven step sizes as I began to climb. Whereas one step would be standard size the next would be double or in some cases even three times the size. Think of it as training on the stair-master with incline set to shift between 4 and 7. If you’re not a marathon runner or at least a regular runner, your haunches will hurt a bit.

The climb to the first post was steep but short. We passed through the post and kept moving to the second post which was bigger and had rooms and resting spaces. It would be where we would break for lunch. But the climb was alternated with steps and slopes. I really felt old on this climb. I was tailing way behind, even if I had my bag-pack with the camera and lenses in it. Having said that, Dillon was carrying lunch for all of us, and he seemed quite OK. In my defence, he does this for a living and he is 22 – so it is a bad comparison.

The second post was indeed ‘roomier’ and had a narrow staircase leading to the roof. We all climbed there and tried to absorb the view. It was magnificent. And for the first time we saw the extent of the wall. It simply carries on and on and on. It moves over mountains and looks almost organic when the details begin to blur – curving with the humps and dropping down to the valleys. I got a few good shots, even if the weather wasn’t helping.

Lunch ala Français, Horror stories ala Globe

This is one of the only two pictures of me in China.

It was time for a well deserved bite. The lunch was simple but delicious and homemade. Well technically wall-made, as we were making the sandwiches right there with many different cheeses, cold cuts and sauces. The rose felt particularly good in the chill. We sat exchanging stories and travel disasters. During the discussions I found that as an Indian, I have had better luck and have a far better propensity to enjoy places than most westerners do.

Allow me to explain. I come from India. I am somewhat used to the chaos, pollution, crowds, general un-organisation, etc. I say somewhat because I am currently living in Dubai, which is far more plastic and clinical in comparison (don’t get me wrong, I am not endorsing Dubai nor am I saying it has soul – which India oozes wherever you might go.) So, when I get to Beijing, the pollution doesn’t really bother me. But for my fellow climbers from Canada, who breathe fresh Rocky air back home, the pollution is a deal breaker, at least from complete enjoyment. I can always find such examples from wherever I have travelled in Africa (Egypt or Morocco) or Asia. Europe is more refined travelling in comparison.

I also have a philosophy of trying to find and learn something good from every country, which really helps to enjoy the place. I guess it is applicable to everything in life but I will not try to Dr. Phil you right now.

Whenever my western or western-oriented friends want to head to India, I need to set their expectations right. When I say right, I mean down-grade them. I warn them of everything I can, and then send them off. They often come back saying, “It was nothing like that.” And I am happy. On the other hand, Michael, who was one of the wall hikers from Canada visited India and did the whole golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) and the thing he mentioned was the insane pollution in Agra. I mean, I am Indian and I have read and heard about the Taj Mahal since I was a child. And Delhi itself is a fairly well endowed city when it comes to Mughal architecture. So when I was on my way to Agra, I didn’t expect to be wowed or anything close. But once I got there, I was simply blown away. It got me. I loved it. But what Michael remembered was the pollution. See my point? Complete enjoyment versus choking.

We finished our lunch and Dillon and Steffan (the second guide) cleaned up the environs responsibly leaving the place as it was. We had another upward hike before we would start descending down to the valley. I had no clue that I would get the express service shortly.

Going down?

After getting to the top of the peak on the wall, we looked forward to the descent. “Easy on the legs,” I thought. Rookie mistake. The descent is always trickier. And the descent on some parts of the wall is steep and a slope. Steps would be fine, but slopes you have to be particularly careful of.

On the way down.

While walking down, Dillon suggested we do a ‘leaning picture’ as a memory. Basically you’re at an angle while descending so if you lean slightly back you get a greatly distorted picture. “Good idea,” I said. Almost famous-last-words. I had my bag-pack on my back as I leaned backwards to get the pose for the photograph.

“Wow! Just like MJ in Smooth Criminal!”

Click. Done. As I straightened up, my bag-pack prodded me slightly and I began to move. The ground was slippery and had very little grip. I began to move faster, even as I tried to stop.  I began to run, now really not being able to stop. Before I knew it, I was hurtling downwards, out of control. I think I tried to stop with sheer will for around a 100 metres, after which I yelled, “GOD DANG IT, I CAN’T STOP!!!” The rest of the hikers were way ahead of me and Dillon, and there was little anyone could have done. I began looking to the sides of the wall to somehow stop. Moving images of me falling on my face and rolling off the wall were flashing before my eyes. I thought I’d jam my hand in the stone rails on the side, but for around 100 metres there was no stone rail. Finally, I did do that and luckily fell to the ground arse first. Skid, skid, skid, stop.

I started at the green. Skidded to a stop at the red.

I grazed my hands and bloodied my arse (I found out later), but that was great news considering I could have a been a small headline on page 5 of the China Post the next morning. I got up as my worried wall-walkers gingerly rushed over. I ensured them of my well-being as they informed me, “You fell rather graciously.” The rest of the walk down was quite un-eventful, minus the fireworks that went off in the valley just as we started getting off the wall. “Arranged by Beijing Sideways?” I joked to Dillon. Around 5 pm, we got to the other side of the mountain to another restaurant where we enjoyed Baiju – a locally brewed spirit and beers. More stories and I spun my Spinner360 to take a panoramic photo of the group around the table.

At dusk, it was time for me to head back to the city but the rest of the gang would stay over at the wall for the night as part of a different package. I said my goodbyes and Dillon and I started making our way back. The wind was super cold on the way back and I thought this would be a great trip to make during Autumn or Spring when you can be in a t-shirt and don’t have to cover yourself up with layers. After a 2-hour ride, Dillon dropped me off at the hotel. It had been a great experience and I had to thank him for it.

Tomorrow, last day in Beijing.

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Made in China – Day 5 – Making the last day last

Doing a 10 hour flight for a 5 day journey is not what I would have done six months ago. For me, the flight time to duration of vacation equation has always been critical. Mainly because, you have to be able to relax to savour the place. But this time, I am quite glad I did set out on this journey. It was a departure from the mundane, an adventure into the unknown and a discovery of cultural similarities for me. But the 5 days were almost up when I woke up, packed my bags (which were overflowing thanks to all the knick-knacks I had been picking up from everywhere), got my breakfast, and finally checked out by 12 pm.

My flight was at midnight, so I had a few more hours to explore Beijing a bit more. I asked the concierge to write down ‘Panjiayuan’ on a piece of paper for me to show to a taxi driver to take me there. The concierge at the Raffles was rather kind, as he hailed me the cab and then explained to the driver where to drop me off.

Panjiayuan. An endless amount of fun.

About a twenty minute ride from the Tianamen Square lies Panjiayuan Market. It is arguably the world’s largest flea market. It comes to life on the weekends and especially in the morning hours when it is full. I reached there at around 1 pm, and it was still fairly busy. If you’re truly looking for bargain prices, the locals recommend you go later in the evening on Sunday when the sellers are itching to get rid of merchandise.

Mao, a man of the masses, right at home at Panjiayuan.

Coming back to the size, I was amazed at the number of rows that went on and on. I walked through one of the first rows on the left of the entrance. It was packed with stalls, lined up on both sides, all selling art reproductions of some form.  If I am not mistaken, the one row had around 24 stalls. There were probably 20-25 such rows in one block. There are two such blocks in the shed-cover area. You will find art, sculptures, Mao memorabilia, war memorabilia, jewelry, clothes, engravings, coins, oxidised coins made to look 200 years old, musical instruments, knives, swords, you get the picture. If you looking for something, most probably you’ll find it at Panjiayuan Market.

As I mentioned I turned left from the entrance. It is where the more organised part of the market is. It is also where ‘antiques’ or wares are a business. These are more like shopkeepers than somebody selling his stamp collection. If you go towards the right from the entrance, you will hit the pavement part of the Panjiayuan market. That was the more ‘flea’ market if you like.

I perused through the art as some of the things caught my eye. The moment the stall owner sees you seeing in his direction, even for a fraction of a second, he or she will invite you towards him… in Mandarin. I found out that soft hand gestures and a smile work just fine to communicate. And for bargaining, God bless the calculators. First the owner punches in his price, you shake your head violently and turn to go, he grabs your sleeve and shoves the calculator in your hand, nods at you to fill in your price, and the bargaining begins. Repeat till satisfactory price is achieved.

See the rows behind the dude?

I walked on, deciding to get some paintings on my way out later. I passed through all the various rows of open stalls in the shed space. What was interesting was watching people bargain, some really good at it (locals); others not so much (Westerners). I saw a lot of foreigners picking up gifts before they left for home, and that does make a lot of sense since this market has a lot to offer at very little price.

The Red Dragon

After doing a round of the two blocks, and checking out some very cool Mao-morabilia, I headed to the other side. Between the two sides and in front of the main entrance, there is yet another block of stores, but these are regular shops (as in the bricks and mortar kind). Selling everything from jewelry to precious stones to art. On the other end of this row of stores, you will find engravers – about a score of them or so. All of them chiselling away in stone. Be it a name, an initial or something that I picked up – symbols of fabled beasts. I got myself a raging dragon. I didn’t bargain too much as I really liked the piece and it felt reasonable at RMB 40. That’s another thing, although many websites will advise you to start at 10% of the price quoted by the seller, it’s not a rule. Remember you must know what it is worth to you. If it feels ok to pay that much for someone’s work – do so. Which is why I also picked up a few paintings for me and my friends. They might not be original Chinese pop-art, but they aren’t short of character.

Craftsmanship lies in the details.

Once I got to the right side of the entrance, I saw merchandise sprawled on the ground in rows. Once again the same bustle of checking, bargaining, selling, moving on. To be very honest, I was quite tired and I knew I had no space in the bags to carry anything else. So I just watched people, some in animated conversations (which is natural for the sellers, as they have little else to do) to suspended animation – this one particular girl caught my eye who was lost in a world of her own even though she sat amidst a thousand people. I think seeing the range of people like this made my trip quite worth it.

Lonely amidst us all.

Books, maps and posters

I went into the book section of the market which is further down to look for maps, especially older ones. I saw tons of books at fraction of the prices on Amazon. Piracy is not restricted to the software alone in China. Even books are copied, reproduced cheap and sold. As much as I wanted to pick up a few Phaidon published books, I resisted. The only map I found was just not worth the ask, so I settled for a run-of-the-mill-made-for-tourists map. But I was happy nonetheless, especially with the paintings and my dragon seal. Anyway, it was already 4:30 pm and I decided to return to the hotel.

I got a taxi quite easily right outside the entrance, and decided to get to the hotel. But midway I decided to go to this quaint little cafe I saw on the street adjoining the Forbidden City called ‘Grandma’s Kitchen.’ But how was I to communicate this to my taxi driver? Taxi drivers in China speak almost no English and it can be a challenge. I had barely managed to explain Raffles to him, this after I had an illustrated map with the names of places written in Chinese. How the hell do I explain Grandma’s Kitchen? Luckily for me, I had taken a picture of the place and managed to capture the address panel too. The taxi driver picked it up instantly and smiled back to me as he gave me the thumbs up.

Grandma’s Kitchen – A home away from home

Grandma's little house cafe.

I got to the cafe in about 30 minutes with traffic holding us up as usual at Tianamen Square. The cafe felt like a different world from Panjiayuan, Tianamen or even China for that matter. It was really comfy with sofas and lamps and very relaxed atmosphere. There were not too many people when I entered. I chose a comfortable sofa and ordered a Denver Skillet and fried mushrooms. Don’t ask why the greasy fix, could have been the cold. The waitresses are quite proficient in English and they will politely tell you if you over-order (I did). There is free wifi in the cafe and you can ask for the number password from the waitress. The music playing is a good mix of jazz and modern alternative pop. I discovered ‘The Show’ by Lenka there.

The food arrived and it was quite good and homey. I took my time, as I had plenty of it. When all the customers had left except me, the waitresses decided to take it a little easy. The music was soothing and my tea felt good.

Goodbye or Zài Jiàn

Along the garden street, an interesting entrance.

At around 7:30 pm I decided to walk back to the hotel to collect my bags and head out to the airport. I walked through a garden running parallel to the East Chang Avenue to get to my hotel. My ride was already waiting, and it was time to wish Raffles goodbye. My stay here had been memorable and I would gladly recommend them in Beijing.

The journey to the airport was uneventful and the check-in fairly quick. As soon as I got into the Emirates business lounge the familiar strains of Arabic started filling my ears. The holiday was winding down to an end. But all in all, I had had a great time in the last 5 days and would recommend Beijing to my friends as a great vacation choice.

There is a Chinese proverb that literally translated reads: “Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long period of time, you get to know what’s in a person’s heart.” In simpler language, character is revealed over time. I might have spent a mere five days in Beijing, but what was revealed of its character to me, left me wanting for much, much more.

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