All in all it wasn’t a troublesome flight. It left about two hours late, which was not ideal, but we’d eaten in the lounge so, as soon as the seat-belt sign was switched off, I had an eye-shade on and was going to sleep. I managed a good five hours before waking up – at around 6:30am Beijing Time – which suited very nicely. As it happened, I was awake for sunrise which, flying East, I didn’t get to see directly, but briefly lit up the engine intakes in quite a special way.
On arrival, we navigated the airport without incident and, apart from getting diverted into a rather expensive car hire, rather than a taxi, we got to Mark’s place in good order. He was there to welcome us; we had lunch and roughed-out a plan for our stay. After he had gone back to work though, the comfortable sofa took its toll on both of us and, after a shower, we took a nap.
On waking, we felt we should venture out at least a little, so took a stroll a few blocks over to Ritan Park. It’s quite the lovely enclave, with lawns and flower beds, but also an outdoor climbing wall, ping pong and a variety of keep-fit equipment, and some pretty lakes and grottos, littered with small pagodas.
We found ice cream for ¥5 (about 50p/80¢) each but, as we sat down to enjoy them, realised we were being swarmed by mosquitos; Brett must have had a dozen or so on his legs. A marathon, and in retrospect probably comical-looking, session of juggling day bags, cameras, Boot’s Jungle Strength Insect Repellent and Coconut Cream iced-lollies followed before we determined these beasties were not to be dissuaded and we beat a hasty retreat back to more friendly parts of the park.
On our way back to the flat, we passed several embassies and ambassadorial residences. Each of them had a gate outside with a young, uniformed Chinese guy standing ramrod straight, watching you out of the corner of his eye. It seemed a bit of a pantomime, though; there was a group of three we approached across an intersection who were quite relaxed and chatting when we first saw them from a distance but, by the time we crossed the road and passed them, the supervisor was in his box, looking stern, and his junior colleagues were at Parade Attention to be impassive as we passed.
Beijing is known for its air pollution but, between the ongoing Athletics Championships and the parade taking place next week, the government have shut down many local factories to keep the air clear. It seems that we are seeing Beijing at its best, with sunshine and the blue sky not obscured by smog. So when Mark got back from the office, we took advantage of the afternoon sunlight and had welcome drinks out on the lawn.
From there, we took a stroll to a local Sichuan restaurant to begin our education in what proper Chinese cuisine should taste like. Mark is a bit of a foodie, so he ordered for us. Lots of spicy foods – but nothing that was inedible as a result –all really savoury and delicious with a nice mixture of meat, fish, vegetables, noodles and tofu – but curiously, no rice. We ate like kings, each had a beer with dinner and the bill only came out to ¥270 (£27/$42)
I normally drink water with my meals so, along with the beer, I asked for some. This became a talking point because the Chinese don’t drink cold water, believing it causes you to cough a lot. Consequently, after a little negotiation on Mark’s part, we received a kettle of hot water and a bucket of ice, which we had to mix ourselves. Mark summed it up by noting that every Chinese person watching us would think we were completely mad. So, we ended the evening as the crazy foreigners. Hey ho.