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drawingbeijing

In the middle of an eastern whirlwind

Tag Archives: China

Images from the capital of the middle kingdom, snapped throughout the past year. No point, no grand story, no artistic intentions, just images of moments lived here.

Transformers are popular in China.

And one wouldnt believe sometimes..

..the loads one sees on anything that has (a) wheel(s)

Sometimes, roads get blocked for no reason but every single driver being an %ss…

mostentimes roads get blocked because there is simply too much traffic. This is what the third ringroad looks like every day from 4 pm till 6:30 pm.

Weather forecast: after the rainstorm, blue skies and sunny. A rainstorm can clean up the air quite thoroughly. This is a particular good day and rare view from our window..

..more often, the same view looks like this. The weatherforecast for this day: blue skies and sunny. pollution count: 420. 2.5 pm particle count: 250 (!!! instant cancer, all for the better gdp!)

In black and white: Beijing in 1956. (Though if you had told me it was 1930, I’d have believed you) The little colour insert is a picture from the same spot, last year.

in one of the many temples where old times linger

New fish, old fish. Fayuan temple.

What a rich home’s door looked like a few centuries ago (now a poor home)

What the door to a fancy disco/club/restaurant looks like nowadays

If you want to be classy, you can buy yourself some copies of western classics here

What does it take, to make a brand new China?

What does it take, to make a brand new China?

Nice piece!

Nice piece!

Music by an american to honour the revolution. Seen at the exhibit in Soong Ling Ling's house (former wife of Sun Yat Sen)

Music by an american to honour the revolution. Seen at the exhibit in Soong Ling Ling’s house (former wife of Sun Yat Sen)

What is strange about this poster?(Hint: two kids..)

What is strange about this poster?
(Hint: two kids..)

Someone once said: 'In China, one doenst need to make art, it's just there, on the street' And he was right. This is in Song Zhuang, an unintentional installation. Brilliant. The white plastic bag is the last detail that was really needed to make it perfect.

Someone once said: ‘In China, one doenst need to make art, it’s just there, on the street’ And he was right. This is in Song Zhuang, an unintentional installation. Brilliant. The white plastic bag is the last detail that was really needed to make it perfect.

Bread and play, is that liberation?

Bread and play, is that liberation?

In Song Zhuang, there is some serious cooking, as this kitchen exhaust shows..

In Song Zhuang, there is some serious cooking, as this kitchen exhaust shows..

A small town just west of Beijing

A small town just west of Beijing

Train  viaduct soewhere in the mountains west of Beijing

Train viaduct soewhere in the mountains west of Beijing

A cute bubble bike.

A cute bubble bike.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Snow in Beijing.

Zhong Guo.

Zhong Guo.

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..the police sent an sms to the main protesters not to show up anymore, which they promptly did. Playtime is over, back to your cribs!

For those whom do not know what I talk about, these past weeks, there have been anti Japan protests in China, and since the Japanese embassy is just north up the road from us we sometimes saw the demonstrators coming and going, weaving through the enormous congestions the demonstrations caused. We saw both old, dinged hatchbacks filled with people waving chinese flags as well as fancy, expensive cars, suvs that can only be afforded by the high classes, sporting slogans and waving flags out of the windos and sunroofs. It is interesting to know that, ordinarily, when demonstrations happen in China, police pops up at the scene within minutes and usually hoards the demonstrators off very quickly (unless the protest are really big, like in Qingdao lately) This time, however, police cordoned off the streets, stood and watched and let the demonstrators be, even helped them, and, in some cases in some cities where things got out of hand, didnt even jump in when japanese brand cars got overturned, burned and smashed, japanese restaurants and stores -more often then not chinese owned- went up in flames and got looted. (A rolex shop got also looted, because, you know, Rolex is so damn japanese!) The whole period prompted strange displays of what was considered ‘patriotist actions’ (which reminded me of tales from the cultural revolution, it bears the same madness)

A banner on a store called pattad reads: “pattad firmly defends China’s right to the Diaoyu Islands. / We will give a 15% discount to customers who yell THE DIAOYU ISLANDS BELONG TO CHINA! in the store / We will give a 20% discount to customers who yell JAPAN ALSO BELONGS TO CHINA!”
I got this image from the web somewhere, it might come from Beijingcream but I cant find it on there. If someone knows where this picture originated, shoot me a message, many thanks.

And of course it spawned a frenzy both pro and contra on the chinese internet. One netizen sighed; ‘We even need Japan to allow us to demonstrate freely!’ which is a very apt observation. In Shenzhen, three human rights campaigners mingled with the protests, bearing a banner that didnt say the obligatory ‘Fuck Japan’ but read: Freedom – Democracy – Human Rights – Constitutionalism instead. They were quickly picked out of the crowd and nothing has been heard from them ever since. I personally do not think these demonstrations were about the Diaoyu islands. This was orchestrated frustration letting.

Information to be found on many places throughout the web, amongst others here:

Chinadigitaltimes

An overview of links on Beijingcream

Several posts about it on tealeaf nation

The information on the original dispute about the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands on wikipedia

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Now that I have been at most well known tourist attractions in Beijing, I try out the somewhat lesser known spots. This last weekend, I went to the Taoist Dongyue temple, not too far from our home. This temple was once built outside of Beijing and is now surrounded by Chaoyang. Business driven, concrete and glass covered, expat filled Chaoyang. This is a spot of old China right in the middle of booming new China. I have seen plenty of Buddhist temples by now, of which the Yonghegong, or otherwise known as lamatemple, is the biggest and most reknowned, but not actually the most charming one (that prize goes, in my book, to the Guanghua temple, with the Fayuan temple on a very close second place, both several centuries older then the Yonghegong) My first encounter with a Taoist temple was in Hong Kong, an open space at the seashore with a pagoda, amidst several abundantly coloured, almost plastic looking fantastic creatures, depicting various Gods, Godesses, spirits and demons that rule over the sea, the streams, earth, wind, mountains, fortune, sexuality, commerce, health, houses and whathaveyou. This Hong Kongese temple was built and dedicated as late as 1972. The Dongyue temple dates back to 1319, and its colours are far more muted, its creatures displayed more austere. But this temple it is a haven of tranquility and wonder, and so very different of the several buddhist temples I have seen.

One of the generals guarding the entrance to the temple.

A poster for a festival displayed in the courtyard.

.

One of the cleaners taking a quick rest..

when the cleaning and the fire department come together, the result is a calm instalation.

I find it only logical, that Taoism departmentalized the supernatural world, mirroring the bureaucracy of their worldly affairs onto the heavens, or is it maybe the other way around? What was first, the chinese idea of a bureaucratic heaven which they fashioned themselves after, or the chinese tending to bureaucracy and fashioning their idea of heaven after themselves?

I know virtually nothing about Taoism (Or Daoism, as the chinese word it originates from is Dao, way or road or lane (of the road)) There are 76 departments through which the world is ruled, each featuring their officer and guardians and several ghosts, human or otherwise, pleading at the office. All of these are featured at the Dongyue temple, in little booths displaying plaster statues of the creatures mentioned, and walking past them is like wandering an eerie, chinese netherworld display booth. Four halls are bigger, better maintained then the dark, dusty sidebooths with peeling wallpaper on the old wooden ceilings, with cracking walls and flaking paint. These four halls are dedicated to the main deities: the Gods of China (in a scene much remniscent of important generals having an audience with two emperors) the God of Mount Tai (which the temple is dedicated to) the God of Fortune and profit of fair commerce, (whose offerings box was filled highest) and the Gods of fertility and abundant kids. (which, I guess, the chinese cannot really pray to?) Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take pictures within these bigger halls, so the rows and rows and rows of golden statuettes in the hall of fortune and the warrior clad burly chinese men with beards that have numerous of those typical chinese kids with just one lock of hair on their laughing bald heads crawling all over them I cannot show you. For that, you will have to go yourself should you ever find yourself in Beijing and I highly recommend you do.

(Then you might also spot a few of those kids in the hutongs. Its not as prevalent anymore, but still one can see some very young chinese kids with just this single tuft of hair on their foreheads..)

One of the 76 departments

The department for raingods..

Brawling mongolians in the ranks..

In the Urging department. The what? The department for urging. ‘Tis what you need in a bureaucratic world. You need the talent to stylishly, relentlessly, ever so subtly urge whomever needs urging. This blue guy will help you.

The department for wandering ghosts, with its extra tough official..

When you’ve wandered along the 76 departments, do wander on into the courtyard behind this main space, to find an even older hall, in which you’ll find even older, and dustier, wooden statues, from the looks of it they date from before the Ming era and are surrounded by even older, thicker wooden beams and patterned windows filtering what little light there is. Here, too, taking photographs is prohibited, alas, and the rule enforced by a sleepy Taoist monk behind a little table. Which is a shame, as here truly, you get transported to old China as you would have imagined it to be many centuries ago.

Typical guards..

..and shy demons..

and everything else that lives under your bed..

So, what are these departments called? What kind of departments are there, in the Daoist otherworld? How is the world, and the heavens, organized anyway? And does that tell us something about the world the chinese live(d) in?
I jotted their names down in the order I walked past them, from the big main hall in the back to the left and around. I have no idea if that was the right way to walk (there is, after all, one right way..) but it gives a good glimpse of the bureaucracy that permeates the chinese worlds, existing and non existing:

Department of signatures.
Department of signing documents
Department of recording merits
Department of determining individual destiny
Department for three month long meditation
Department of confiscating unwarranted property
Department of official morality
Department for examining false accusations
Plague performing department
Department of forest ghosts and spirits
Animal department
Department of the hell
Department for implementing 15 kinds of violent death
Department of rain Gods
Measurement Department
Abortion department
Monk and taoist priest department
Department of controlling theft and robbery
Department of earth Gods
Department for demons and monsters
Unjust death department
Interrogation and examination department
Department for preservation of of wilderness
Department for distribution of medication
Punishment department
Department of betrayal
Department for bestowing hapiness
Egg birth department
Insect birth department
Longevity department
Urging department
Toxicant department
Department for resurrection
Department for raising descendants
Department for upholding integrity
Supervision and examination department
Department in charge of suffering and distress
Department of instant rewards and retribution
Department of Zhenguan earth Gods
Department of pity and sympathy
Department of judging intention
Inspection department
Escorting department
Timely retribution department
Department of accumulating justifiable wealth
Jaundice department
Department of reducing longevity
Aquatic animal department
Water birth department
Mammal birth department
Department for indiidual destiny
Department for upholding loyalty and filial piety
Department for rewarding good conduct
Department of halting destruction of living beings
Department of opposing obscene acts
Department of reclaiming life
Door God department
Department for controlling evil spirits
Department of mountain Gods
Department of city and township Gods
Department of controlling bullying and cheating
Department of suppressing schemes
Department of wind Gods
Department for wandering ghosts
Department for promotion of 15 kinds of decent life style
Department of river Gods
Deep rooted disease department
Flying birds department
Department of petty officials
Evidence department for issuing a warrant
Department for increasing good fortune and longevity
Execution department
Final indictment department
Scripture reading department
Department for giving alms to taoist priests
Death and life department

Ming official, very han chinese guard.

Mr Piggy in the animal department.

Guess which department this was…

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In Beijing, spring has come. It comes slowly here. Temperatures do go up, till about 10 to 12 degrees celcius, but it is too dry for the trees to sprout until the first rain arrives at the end of april. It is solid rain, real drops, for almost three hours straight. For me, a dutchie used to daily wetness, a huge relief after near 5 months of no rain at all. Shortly after this, it rains for a full day. A full day! Having waited for this signal, all the trees pop out their blossoms and leaves all at once. Within a few days, the park in front of our house turns from brown to green.

Then the sand comes. Not a storm as such, more a sand-drizzle. I only noticed after looking down at the balcony floor and realizing the sand had made pretty windpatterns on the tiles. The roads turn yellowish brown. The buildings turn yellowish brown. The cars turn yellowish brown. Then come the windblown seeds from the willows that grow all over Beijing. So many, that often it looks like it is snowing.

Then come the southern winds.

Temperatures go from aforementioned 12 degrees up to 22, then straight on to 30, all within a mere two weeks.

The southern winds block the plain that Beijing lies in, surrounded by a half moon of mountains to the north and west, which means the pollution gets locked above the city and the days turn bleakishly white. Sometimes, one sees the sun, but it stays orange the whole day. Sometimes the mist darkens to a mid grey, and that usually means there is rain coming, from clouds invisible as they meld into the smog.

Beijing municipality is monitoring the smog. Environmental goals are announced in the China Daily, new laws passed for industries to clean up their work processes.
China has the most environmental laws in the whole world.
Unfortunately, as long as any industry captain, a member of the party of course as all major industries are party -and therefore government- owned, can buy him or herself out of these laws, progress is going to be slow. Undeterred, the China daily counts the ‘blue sky days’ that Beijing experiences. Last year the newspaper triumphantly announced that, in the new year, Beijing had already had 250 blue sky days! An impressive feat indeed, given that it was only the first of may.

Time has raced by. It is truly, in Beijing, that time moves twice as fast here. As if this asian continent has loosened itself from the rest of the world and shifted into a different gear.

We had our first visitor around, at new years, and we stood on the balcony, the three of us, at exactly midnight, heaved our glasses in the middle of a city that did not care one bit about western newyear. Our brave “happy newyear!” shouted from the balcony on the umpteenth floor dissapeared amidst the sound of traffic. What a difference that was compared to the festivities of the chinese new year, that marked the beginning of the year of the dragon, a happy, strong as well as ominous sign. There were fireworks throughout the day, but at midnight the whole of Beijing just blithely exploded. 18 million people blasting all they could afford into fire in the sky.
I saw more fireworks in one hour on that balcony then the 30 dutch newyears (!!!) I saw before it. And that, indeed, is saying something.

We went skiing in Japan. The differences between China and Japan are enormous. From chaotic indifference to stiff civilness. From brutal pushing to immaculate waiting lines in front of the train that the British would be proud of. From haphazard skyline trying to emulate greatness in the dust to a scene straight from a science fiction movie with white mountains as a backdrop. So much lights flashing in the city of Tokyo my eyes grew weary after a couple of streets.
The Japanese mountains were awesome. The japanese resorts a flotsam and jetsam of western styles: french, austrian, swiss chalets with american patio’s and english timbered houses that look like they came straight from the setting of a shakespeare play. A perfect copy of a little austrian church. Even the ridges of mountains have german names. And, of course, the belltower chimes the melody of the Big Ben.

I wonder how many towers in asia chime the melody of the Big Ben. And if there is even one of those that actually has bells heavy enough to come at least a little bit close to the original.

The locals were complaining they hadnt yet gotten a real snowstorm yet. That the snow didnt reach to the roofs yet. Those 20 to 30 cms they got every night didnt count. It was, apparently, a bad winter and I had the best powder I had in five years. (Two weekends after we left, they had their real dump: 3 metres in one weekend!!) Business was slow in the resorts. Japanese tourism has fallen a stunnning 60% since the tsunami.

We went skiing in China, which I wrote about further down. We had lantern festival and Qing Ming, we walked over the ice of Kunming lake next to the summer palace, we got invited to a chinese hot pot over at the house of a chinese friend. Grey winter days came and went. It took ages for spring to arrive.

Now it is may, it is a solid 30 degrees plus during the day, cooling to a 27 or 28 with a mild breeze in the evening, when the city comes to life. Games are played on the streets, in the park, people dance everywhere. Whole groups of people practising a studied dance together, accompanied by a portable record player (with old fahsioned tapes, yes!) creaking the music into the mild summer air. Every weekndnight there is a kite let up from chaoyang park, just opposite our balcony, with strings of lights attached to the kiteline. Gently the lights sway above the light and smog of the city, the lights of the rows of cars slowly moving, honking, the deep roar of the big trucks that are only allowed to drive at night, people’s voices, the sound of the bank’s fountain down below, drowned out every now and then by sirens.
Beijing city spring nights.

I have chinese lessons. Two times two hours a week. Only now, after 10 of such sessions, does the utter frustration abide a bit. I start to hear some difference in the tones, even though I still mix them up, especially the second and the fourth tone. A quarter of the time. I start to correctly say them myself. A tiny quarter of the time. Chinese people on the street and in the shops actually start to understand my Chinese, which is the surest sign of progress. It melows their reactions enormously, they smile widely when they hear me mutter my barbarian chinese, and repeat the words so I’ll learn them correctly.

Some semblance of logic emerges, where before, everything sounded just the same to me and most sounds uttered in the chinese language are something I broke my tongue over, especially if uttered in a complete sentence consisting of more then three words.
I have to diligently do my homework though, just like in the old days at school, to be able to remember most of the words I learn. A few days of procastrination invariably get punished by an utter blank mind the next lesson.

I asked my teacher to also teach me some characters. To my surprise, there is a set stroke order. One cannot just start anywhere and produce the character one sees. If you dont start with the right stroke, and do not write the next strokes in the right order, your character is not deemed good. Even though the one you just wrote looks the same as the character you were told to write, and even though anyone who knows that character can read it and discern it’s meaning, it is still ‘not right’ I asked why this was important, if I could write a character that other people can read, what difference does a stroke order make?
The answer was that, once the characters get really complex, if you do not abide by the set stroke order, you mix up the lines and dots and get lost.

I have the suspicion that everything in chinese written language was meant to make it impossible for the layman to master it. It is a scripture one can only learn by diligent study. Unlike the roman script, where once one has learned the alphabet of a mere 26 letters, one can read and write words. Bar spelling mistakes, one can then get oneself at least understood.

If you want to learn to read Chinese, you have to learn by heart all these characters. Thousands of them. Four thousand to be able to read the newspaper. And the character itself will not tell you which tone you’d need to pronounce the word. It has been the privilege of elite all over the world in all times to be able to read and write, but in China, this privilege is exceptionally hard earned.

It is funny to see young western boys here (its predominantly boys) who are exactly what one would expect of a western nerd: walking around in crumpled but fashionable shorts, sneakers, quirky t shirt, apple computer in front of them, working on their internet project they either got hired for by a chinese company here or they try to set up their own company here in Beijing, since space and employees are still within the reach of an upstarters’ budget in China. They sit here in the western hip coffeebar amidst the western clad hip chinese, but the chinese workattire is strictly suited, immaculately ironed and demurely black or grey. Even the young chinese that are not in worksuit, carefully assemble their attire, and rarely have even one hair out of place. The studied neglicence that the western boys display is lost on the chinese office employees, that are so seriously working on their career.

My girl gave a speech at an university for a hall full of young promising students, kids of privileged parents, who could afford to go to priviliged schools. Many of them will be in high positions later on. She said it was the best, most fun speech she had done so far in Beijing, because the atmosphere in the hall was so palpably excited, eager and positive. She held her speech about how the framework of any society needs the rule of law to make that society work, to make it strong. How from that follows that institutes like the UN are inevitable, as the framework of an international society needs rules and laws as well.
The subsequently published university paper called the speech ‘brilliant’ and even though I know the chinese language is prone to using exaggeratingly poetic sublime words -it is in the words, in the language itself, and one uses these words because the culture prescribes it, because using more moderate words would be deemed an insult- they meant it. My girl told me how enthousiastic the students were, how eager, how excited and serious at the same time. How open and earnest their questions, questions on many things that are censured in China, and they didnt even blink asking them. How the atmosphere in that hall was permeated with a sense best described as a ‘Yes we can – and we will!’ spirit, a spirit that the west has lost and for the moment cannot regain. They know they have a future, they know they are going places, they will not lead the lives their parents led in relative poverty, let alone the lives their grandparents led, in pure famine (the last serious famine in China only ended a mere 50 years ago after all. Every young Chinese has grandparents that lived through and maybe died in, the great Chinese famine that cost anywhere between 15 and 43 million lives)
Now China has come back on top, as they believe is where it should have been all along, and they want to go ride that wave and make an impact on the world, they expect to be doing so, and they can’t wait till it happens.
But they do know things are seriously wrong in their society and they do want to put it right. And they emanated the excitement of going to do exactly that.

There is no telling if and how they will, how much of that excitement will die in the daily grind, the long walk up the ladder. How many of them will be swallowed by the system, or which one, if any, will be at that place or time where history takes a turn. There is no telling how much real influence any of these kids will have on that. But the will, the enthousiasm, the sincerety, is surely there. They believe in progress, and they want to make it.
This, too, is China.
An exhiliarating, exciting and intriguing China.

The challenge they face is a many tentacled monster. Corruption is China’s greatest adversary. That, and the inability to see things in perspective (these two characteristics blend into each other and are an important part of all the diverse problems that plague this gigantic country) There is no greater danger for China then China.
Not many people in the west know that China is floating on an housing bubble of chinese proportions. Some searching found a film on youtube, a documentary produced by journeyman.tv about the strange but true phenomenon of gigantic ghost cities. The biggest of those are Ordos, in inner Mongolia, and Chenggong in Yunnan province near Kunming. These are cities built at amazing speeds, sometimes in less then five years, meant for literally millions of inhabitants that never move there. Street after street empty, surrounded by expensive apartment blocks, shopping malls, fountains, sportfields and schools. Ordos even has a state of the art modern art museum – that cost 79 million US dollars to build – and it’s all empty. The apartments are invariably for the wealthy, and are invariably empty as for most, they are either too expensive or just simply too much out of the way. In the case of Ordos, there is no economic activilty in the empty city, so no one goes there except the few thousand state workers that were ordered to go there. I wonder how their daily life is, driving over empty streets through an empty city out there on the mongolian grasslands.

The total of empty high end apartments reaches 64 million all over China and it takes an exceptionally hopeful mind to think that there will be enough wealthy middle class to fill those up anytime soon enough to avoid the bubble bursting.

The most stunning part of this whole story is, that it seems these projects were solely made in order to boost up the GDP numbers of China to please the world bank.

How many times do I have to tell you guys that you simply cannot rule the world with numbers? That this world does not fit in numbers? That reality can’t be caught, explained, controlled or tamed by numbers? Is there really any leader anywhere in this world still left who actually realizes that?

Suddenly, the bleak emptiness I saw in Songzhuang makes sense. The high end gallery buildings in the middle of nowhere. I remember the enomous deserted lanes in Zhangjiakou, the rows of apartment blocks painted brightly red. I remember the apartment blocks of ‘the Davos of the east‘ the spa resort with is sparkling new highway, and I realize they all fit in the same story of overbuilding.

Someone characterized China as ‘a supertanker travelling at the speed of a speedboat”
That is an apt description.

I was also told once, that it is a Chinese custom, to wish someone one doesnt wish too much good the following: “may you live in historically interesting times”
And boy, these times are so interesting, historically and otherwise, my head is spinning with it.

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In Beijing, there are quite some pigeon breeders. Especially in the old hutongs, one can see haphazard cages built on roofs, with pigeons fluttering in and out.
Often, these pigeons get a wooden whistle bound to their backs, that makes an eerie, eerie sound when air flows through it at speed. The first time I heard it, I needed a few minutes before I understood what it was that I was hearing. The wildest thoughts entered my mind, from UFO’s to radio devices, from the secret chinese pigeon squad to electricity wires going crazy in the cold, until I realized it must be the pigeons and it musty be that bulb on their backs…..

Listen for yourself: Beijing pigeons flying overhead.

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Often I have lived strange moments here in Beijing. Walking out of the lift in a shopping mall and finding oneself amidst four severed heads of Michelangelo’s David, reaching halfway my tighs. Renting a handmade ice pick and chair made of particleboard to slide over the ice from a smiling, wrinkled guy that is playing the carmina burana on his pocket radio. Sound on highest level. Right in the middle of the lake that borders the summer palace. Walking out of the doors of the shopping mall into the loud blaring music of Disney’s Mary Poppins, standing eye to eye with giant plastic mushrooms and puppets of snowwhite, her dwarves, some animation characters unbeknownst to me and a few smurfs thrown in for good measure. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Rounding a bend in the road to meet a plasticlooking, enormous bulging disneyesque castle, pink round turrets included. Walking through Ritan park on a nice warm autumn day and suddenly hearing a voice telling you in half broken english the thirteen rules of your obligations according to the civilisation conventions of the capital citizens, while a chinese lute is playing softly in the background.

(A link to that video I posted in february, see below: https://drawingbeijing.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/some-fine-newspeak/ )

During one of our visits to the summerpalace, we wandered into the buddhist temple that sits there atop the mountain. In the temple there is a stall where one can buy souvenirs. Buddhist armbands, jade stones, puppets of emperors and palace guards, that sort of thing. But also playing cards. Sets of playing cards depicting Beckham, Michael Jackson, The chinese emperors, Madonna, Justin Bieber, Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi…. what?

That is exactly what we thought. Out of curiosity, we bought the Ghadaffi and Bin Laden one. In a temple!

To read the backside of the package was a telling thing.

The cardgame is telling the chinese homefront that Ghadaffi was okay: didnt smoke and never drank more then two glasses a day and he got many people out of poverty. It were his children who misbehaved themselves and abused their power who gave him a bad name. The link between Ghadaffi and the wealthy chinese currently wielding power in China is easily made.

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It has rained in Beijing!

Last time it rained here was, I do not even really remember, mid november. It is the beginning of march now. And this city could really need some washing down. The dust that settled an inch thick on everything thats left standing outside is washed away, and the humidity the rain brings is a big, if temporary, relief.

It is not real, heavy rain, more a persistent drizzle, but it revives the city which has been, for the most part of this winter, a smokey, dusty, grey brownish misty affair. Not even that very cold either. Just dusty, dusty, dusty. And I still have to experience my first sandstorm.

We were invited by the austrian embassy to the austrian charity ski race that is held in Wanlong every year. For the sake of meeting other expats, and checking out what other ski resorts the surroundings of Beijing have to offer after seeing Nanshan – five flat runs, an impressive kicker park and a totally neglected halfpipe topped by a stretch of 100 meters of reasonably steep buckles in manmade snow, grouped around a mock Big Ben tower and a couple of restaurants and equipment shops just a 45 minsutes drive from Beijing – we loaded up the car and headed up there. 250 kms to the northwest of Beijing, nearly in Inner Mongolia.

The actual highlight of the trip was just going out there. Leaving the last outstretched suburbs of Beijing behind (it took us nearly an hour to get from our house to the sixth ring road, the somewhat official border of the Beijing city sprawl) past the signs that lined the highway propagating the seventh strawberry convention, past a nearly unbelievably plastic looking building site of a disneysian castle complete with sugar coloured rose pointed rooftops and bulging towers, to the hills of Badaling, where the highway climbs steadily through a beautiful rugged landscape of dry rocky mountains with the wall winding over the tops and crags, with reconstructed -and dutifully disneyfied- medieaval chinese towers and fortresses along it.

It looks like driving through an adventure film filmset. At the same time it is not unlike driving from my flat country to the alps, rushing over the french highways towards the mountains. The chinese highways in the province that encircles Beijing, Hebei are new, modern, wide, and go all over the map.

The thing that is different is the fact that cars, trucks, vans, just everyone, overtakes evryone everywhere. Left, right, emergency lane, you name it. that and the fact you encounter trucks that are so old they have to plow with a speed of nary 20 kms an hour uphill, overloaded to the max. Or that the middle of the highway, under the emergency fencing, is swept by a lone guy by hand, with an oldfashioned bristle broom, daring his life unflinchingly standing on the left emergency lane. Also, the highway is lined with advertising boards. And I mean LINED with advertising boards. Every 50 meters one on either side parading luxury goods and luxury lifestyles. Wines, spirits, watches, jewels, luxury holidays and fast cars, shining new apartment blocks, investment opportunities.

The road slopes to a plain after the hills of Badaling, crosses a river wider then those I know from home that is totally frozen over, stretches and stretches of dry hills dotted with bushes and a single tree now and then, cut through by eroded waterways falling deep below the highway. Villages that look like rows of barracks. Mines eating into the hills. A fuming nuclear reactor right next to the highway. That is about where we lost the way, and instead of finding the brand new highway leading directly to Wanlong, we drove into the city of Zhangjiakou.

Zhangjiakou is a city with promises. Dustier then Beijing even, with new apartment blocks rising everywhere, and wide new streets cutting through the city, eight, ten lanes wide sometimes with just us and three or more cars driving along it. Everyone else is in bike, trike, or foot, and generally the streets look deserted. One wonders where all the people are that inhabot -or will inhabit- these apartment blocks. Chongli, the county where the ski resort is located, is clearly enough indicated, we just miss the right exit in our gazing wonder, and end up under an overpass still being built, the road above still only a steel grid, the road under it a shaky, holed up sandride that we circle to find our way back to the main road.

After leaving Zhangjiakou we drive along provincial roads, well maintained and neatly asphalted, through dusty small villlages and past dry meadows seemingly used as a garbage dump rather then for pasturing the cattle. We see frozen streams and holes in the rocks with doors in them, not sure if those were barns or houses? Then we round the bend and see building sites. Many of them. And buildings already finished. Half american, half semi italian style apartment blocks surrounded by fences pasted with the words ‘Eifel town’ ‘foreseeable investment!’ ‘Hot spring apartments’ adorned with pictures of snowboarders and skieers in front of an alpine winter scenery that one finds in the alps, or Japan, but definately not in this arid corner of China. On advertisement flags on every lanternpole it says; ‘Fascinating Chongli, the charming capital of skiing’ ‘the Davos of the east’ A big modern styled block in the middle has the most intriguing text on it’s walls: Morte Fontaine (well, that is apt, in this climate..) Boutiqueloft Hometel.

Fighting for the 8 million or so possible clients of Beijing.

A few bends and desolate houses further on we meet the skihill, a bright white hill in the dry landscape, with a main building at the foot of the slopes and a one concrete block hotel further up the mountain. The resort sports several runs, around ten or so, long ones too, compared to Nanshan, and definately longer, wider and steeper. It is the end of the afternoon, the light is fading and temperatures are falling fast. The thermometer reads -12 already. That manmade snow must be rock hard. Later in that weekend I overheard one of the organisers of the race tell his colleague that we are lucky: last weekend temps were down to minus 20 during the day. Welcome to Inner Mongolia.

Here happens exactly what happened to the european alpine towns from the fifties onwards, but again, as everything in China right now, at breakneck speed. Skiing and snowboarding is popular amongst young prosperous Beijingers, and Nanshan is litterally overflooded with tourists every weekend. Wanlong, being a bit more within reach now the new highway has been finished, is getting a fair amount of clientele too. The queues in front of the ski hire -you rent everything here, just as one would in a Dutch indoor snowslope: not only the equipment, also the helmets, jackets, trousers, gloves one might need- were mind boggling on staurday morning. The hotel and skiresort itself is amply manned by local chinese, probably right now working their way out of the caves and dusty village dwellings to something bigger and more modern.

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