Chinese monuments impress with their sheer monumental size. The Great Wall, for example, is over 3,000km long. After popping up there from Beijing in the morning, which isn’t expensive or tricky at all thanks to the local non-stop bus that runs all the way to the wall at ¥12, I had plenty of cash left for other types of fun.
Next, I spend the mandatory three hours touring the 9,999-room multi-palace Forbidden City built by a million workers as a fancy home for the Ming dynasty’s emperor Yongle in 1410s, whose family also constructed much of the Great Wall and sent marine expeditions to the West, including to India. (The latter activity, incidentally, led to the introduction of those picturesque Chinese fishing nets in Kerala and possibly also the curious south Indian noodle-idly dish known as idiappam). The palaces of the Forbidden City were last lived in by Puyi, the last emperor, who was forced to abdicate in 1912 and got evicted in 1924, and died, childless, in 1967.
In front of the Forbidden City, at over 400,000 square metres, Tiananmen is the largest public square in the world and it takes a pretty long time to walk from one end to the other. Almost at the centre of it is the massive Mausoleum of Mao built in 1976, where the chairman is on public display inside a crystal glass coffin with advanced fibre-optical lighting designed to give the appearance of eternal life. On one side of the square is the gigantic National Museum that has a priceless collection of antiques. Much of it is in cavernous halls deep underground, so what one sees from the outside is only the tip of the iceberg. Facing it is the pillar-fronted pale-yellow 1950s Great Hall of the People with millions of square feet of floor space, where the communist parliament congregates and foreign dignitaries are received.
Immediately to the south of the square, the old town begins. Its main drag, Qianmen Street, was once upon a time a slummy settlement outside the Qianmen gate, with opium dens, brothels and Peking opera shows. The brothels were shut down in 1949 and opium was banned in 1952, but one or two odd venues still showcase Peking opera. The 500-year-old Qianmen Street has been turned into a 2km-long pedestrianized upmarket tourist shopping zone with posh shops and a faux tramcar operating as the last reminder of days gone by.
Behind the façade of poshness, I find interesting backstreets crammed with noodle eateries, and just a few blocks west I come to Dazhalan, a bazaar established during the Ming dynasty. Due to its proximity to Tiananmen it has a touristy feel with backpacker lodges and overprized eateries serving terrible food, but it is nevertheless dotted with a handful of old shops – the oldest is said to be the Liubiju pickle shop, and the second oldest is a traditional, gaudily decorated, Chinese herbal pharmacy, Tongrentang, court suppliers of tonics to the emperors since 1700s. Such shops tend to have an official metal plaque in front declaring themselves a ‘Time-Honoured Brand’ which generally means that they are family-owned businesses that predate the 1949 Communist takeover.
The area is quite lively with plenty of shopping opportunities. I pick up one of those old communist era tinware souvenir tea mugs for ¥15 or about 160 rupees, and a miniature doll house-sized Chinese tea set for ¥7.50 (80 rupees) – fully functional but at the same time completely useless, as the quantity of tea one can steep in it roughly equals a teaspoon sized gulp. Nevertheless it is really cute, with a tray, teapot and four cups. I realise, looking at my tea souvenirs, that I badly need a nice cup of real tea now.
Although a hundred years ago every street in Beijing had a tea house, it is surprisingly hard to locate a single good one today in the centre of town. Most eating houses will fix you a pot of jasmine, no worries, but to appreciate Chinese tea one needs a quiet place, a nice chair to sit in, a thermos of hot water to keep refilling your cup from, and unfussy waiters who let customers linger at their own leisure. A lengthy day of sightseeing, including that walk atop the wall in a minor snowstorm, calls for extra hot tea. By a stroke of luck, after I leave Dazhalan behind, I chance upon another nearby old market, ‘Liulichang Culture Street’, stretching out on either side of Nanxinhua Street.
Even if Liulichang, like much else of the old Ming era Beijing had become slummified by the 20th century and was therefore partly demolished during the hardcore communism of the 1960s, it was subsequently completely ‘redeveloped’ in the 1980s. To make it attractive to tourists, it was given a classic, almost genuine feel – lined with shops that sell artist’s material, brushes, ink and reproductions of scroll paintings, and fine books on art, it feels cultured, civilized. Which is an interesting reflection of the bazaar’s past origins.
The story goes that in the times of Yongle, the early Ming ruler who had the Forbidden City built, Liulichang which means ‘Glaziers Workshop’ was a village where tiles for the palaces were glazed. Later, during the Qing dynasty it became the centre of book trade and general arts – which explains why every other shop sells traditional calligraphy brushes in all shapes and sizes. I pick up a brush (rates begin from ¥12) and in one curio shop I find a communist era tea room waitress badge for ¥20. It is then, after having pinned the badge to my jacket, that I finally spot the Ji Gu Ge Teahouse (136 East Liulichang). It looks very attractive from the outside, with a huge teapot adorning its roof to dispel any doubts. I head upstairs and find that it is both a restaurant and a shop where superior quality teas are for sale alongside tea-brewing equipment – from very delicate tea sets and porcelain cups, generally with lids to keep the tea warm, to high-end pots and storage jars.
There are just a few tables but since I’m the only guest I can sit down and nurse a cup of tea for as long as I like. After having gone through the vast selection available, I pick two teas to sample – sweet osmanthus tea, which is actually oolong perfurmed with with tiny leaves of a plant related to jasmine, and silver pekoe which comes in the form of a round knob that, when hot water is poured on it, unfolds slowly. Nothing in this exclusive tea house comes at bargain rates, though, because when I get the bill it is ¥75, or something like 800 rupees, which perhaps explains why I don’t see any other customers during my visit. But then again, if there’s one thing I’d splurge on in China, it is this – tea, tea and more tea.
Photo courtesy Zac O’Yeah