On the trail of the Pilgrim Fathers…in Delfshaven

Founded in 1389 as the official port of Delft, and like the herring fisheries which played such an important role in it’s development, Delfshaven is teeming with history. A history that is still visible as you stroll down the narrow streets amongst wonderful historic buildings, many of which were built with profits from the herring trade.

Delfshaven was one of the six ports of the Dutch East India Company, the legendary VOC, which dominated trade with the Far East for centuries; it was the birthplace of Pieter Pietersen Heyn, one of the Netherlands’ most famous sea captains, a notorious pirate he was the scourge of the Spanish fleet; it is home to Jenever, the Dutch gin responsible for the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’; and from this very same spot, some of the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World of New England.

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Delfshaven, Netherlands

Delfshaven, Netherlands

Modern-day Delfshaven sits gloriously compact in a Rotterdam suburb, home to an eclectic mix of artists, students and young families. It gives the area a bohemian feel, underlined by the numerous restaurants and bars, as well as all the houseboats.

While the rest of Rotterdam was flattened during the Second World War, Delfshaven survived the Allied bombing and retains a strong sense of history. Walking through the area early on a Sunday morning, traditional Dutch barges were moored around the beautiful inner port; the famous Delfshaven windmill stood stoically observing the tranquil scene; and the sunlight struck the golden weathervane of the Pelgrimvaderskerk, the Pilgrims’ Church. History seemed to spring to life.

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

It was in the Pelgrimvaderskerk, and on the quay in front, that some of the Founding Fathers prayed before setting sail for the unknown.

Plaque to the Pilgrim Fathers, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Plaque to the Pilgrim Fathers, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Netherlands had long been home to English religious dissenters, those who refused to acknowledge the control of the Church of England because they didn’t believe it had been ‘purified’ of Catholicism. In a period when Church and State were one and the same, such views were seen as traitorous and fanatical by the English authorities. Across the North Sea, Dutch religious tolerance led many Dissenters to leave England for the land of the windmill.

Delfshaven, Netherlands

Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

I came across this connection while wandering East London’s Rotherhithe earlier this year where I discovered the departure point for The Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrim Fathers departed for New England in 1620. Rotherhithe and The Mayflower were just one half of a bigger story though; in the Netherlands another group of religious outcasts were preparing to make the same journey. They left from Delfshaven, a 30-minute and 400-year journey from my current home in The Hague.

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church and boats, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church and boats, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed down the Thames in July 1620 they went to Southampton to rendezvous with a second ship, the Speedwell. The Speedwell had been purchased and refitted in the Netherlands before sailing from the port of Delfshaven. Its cargo was human, English Religious Dissenters who had based themselves in the Dutch city of Leiden before seeking new horizons in North America.

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Speedwell and The Mayflower were supposed to sail the Atlantic together, but the Speedwell leaked badly and proved unseaworthy. It was destined to be left behind in England. A number of passengers from Speedwell crammed onto The Mayflower and, in horribly cramped conditions, sailed into history.

The Great Wall of China, Jinshanling to Simatai

The Great Wall of China has a tendency to make you feel small, more accurately, insignificant. When placed alongside the size and history of this extraordinary achievement, one’s own accomplishments gain an unflattering perspective. The fact that the Great Wall proved completely inadequate as a means of defence, shouldn’t take away from the fact that it is an utterly spellbinding place to walk in the early morning sun.

Against a backdrop of jagged mountains, the Wall snakes over hilltop-after-hilltop into the distance. From Jinshanling to Simatai the wall is mostly well preserved or renovated, making it a straightforward walk without a group or a guide – its hard to lose your way when walking on top of the largest man-made structure on the planet. You still have to climb some very steep sections but, when you’re gasping for breath and cursing those who built it so inconveniently on a mountain top, you just need to take a look around. It is magnificent.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

I’d left Beijing early – very early – intending to reach the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall with enough time to avoid walking during the heat of the day. 12km without shade under a hot sun isn’t my idea of  good time, plus the light and air quality are much better in the early morning. I’d expected to see some people, but with the exception of a couple of women selling t-shirts and cold drinks I spent four hours in splendid isolation. It was a wonderful and tranquil walk, only close to Simatai did I start to meet other people.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

This section of the Wall was built during the Ming Dynasty towards the end of the 16th Century, although there have been fortifications here since the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th Century. The Wall is seven metres high, six metres wide at the bottom and about four metres wide along the walkway on top. I didn’t count, but I’m told there are sixty-seven watchtowers on this route. These are mainly regular towers, but there are some large two-tiered towers.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Close to Simatai the landscape is less mountainous, but never stops being a series of ups-and-downs. Eventually you drop down to a reservoir and then a road, which was once a strategically important pass protected by the Great Wall. I could have headed to the visitor centre at this point, but there was one final bit of Wall to walk. I headed back up a jagged ridge, at the top of which awaited the most spectacular views of the day. I could see to where my walk had started hours earlier. The Great Wall of China is breathtaking.

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

More than the views though, the top of the ridge at Simatai is home to something very exciting…a cable car with open air gondolas to transport you back to civilisation. It was a fun, if a little hair raising, way to end a extraordinary walk.

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

Cable car, the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, China

“As numerous as the hairs on a cow”, Beijing’s hutongs

Before they were systematically destroyed and replaced with communal blocks, Beijing’s hutong alleyways were home to the majority of the city’s population and teemed with life. Walking around the Houhai district you can still get a sense of what Beijing must have been like before the 1960s. It is a fascinating area where modernity seems, temporarily at least, to be held at bay. In this corner of Beijing, it is almost possible to feel a centuries-old rhythm to the daily life of the communities who live here.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A woman cycles in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman cycles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Even today the dense network of alleys and lanes constantly throw up surprises: turn a corner a group of men are animatedly playing cards, people are preparing and selling food, beautiful temples are hidden behind grey walls and there is a constant buzz of life, simultaneously familiar and alien. The grey walls of the streets are interspersed with sound, colour and beauty. There are more bicycles than cars.

Doorway in a hutong, Beijing, China

Doorway in a hutong, Beijing, China

Fruits on a window ledge in a hutong, Beijing, China

Fruits on a window ledge in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman sits in a hutong, Beijing, China

A woman sits in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

hutong is really just a narrow street and the name dates from the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century. As Beijing grew into China’s capital so did the number of hutongs, leading one Chinese commentator to claim that they were “fine and more numerous than there were hairs on an cow”. Probably something over an overstatement but by the 20th Century there were estimated to be more than 6000 hutongs.

A temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

A temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Candles at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Candles at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Incense burns at a temple shrine in a hutong, Beijing, China

Hutongs were labyrinthine places through which only those with local knowledge could navigate successfully. Wandering around reminded me of the utter confusion I felt when trying to work out which way to go in the medina in Fez, Morocco. In Fez it was necessary to hire guides, normally young children, to take help you find the way. Given the language barrier, that wasn’t going to be possible in Beijing.

Communist posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Communist posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Military recruiting posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Military recruiting posters in a hutong, Beijing, China

Men play cards in a hutong, Beijing, China

Men play cards in a hutong, Beijing, China

It seemed pointless to try to follow a pre-planned route around Houhai, and being lost doesn’t have any disadvantages for someone who hasn’t got anywhere to go. I had time and, surrendering myself to the inevitable, explored the hutongs by following my nose.

‘Please cherish your health’, losing yourself in Beijing’s hutong alleyways

Old Beijing, the one before giant skyscrapers and BMWs, is rapidly vanishing from the map. There are still pockets of the tightly knit hutong alleyways that used to characterise life in Bejing, but vast swathes of these plain looking streets have been demolished to make way for progress. Mao’s communists, capturing Beijing in 1949, immediately set about reshaping and rebuilding the Imperial capital in their own inimitable style: erasing symbols of the past became official policy and Communist Party dogma.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

In 1940 there were over eight thousand temples and monuments in Beijing; by the 1960s there were around one hundred and fifty. The entire city had been transformed by the communist sledgehammer. Since the liberalisation of the economy, and official Communist Party blessing for rampant capitalism, greedy developers, in cahoots with corrupt officials, have seen to it that much of the traditional courtyard housing of the hutongs has been demolished.

From the outside, hutong alleyways look uninteresting, but they are home to beautiful courtyard houses. Walking off the street, through a doorway and down a small passage, the transformation between the public and the private couldn’t be greater. This contradiction was despised by Mao and his fellow-travellers, who saw courtyard houses as an expression of individualism and a threat to the Utopia they planned to build in China. These streets smacked of the feudal and were targeted for destruction.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

The destruction of hutongs followed a general pattern of madness wrapped in the garb of modernisation and progress. In 1950 Mao ordered all the dogs in Beijing to be killed. This was followed by the Kill a Sparrow Campaign, itself part of the Four Pests Campaign. Blamed for eating too much grain the sparrow’s had to go, but all this achieved was an infestation of crop eating insects. One of many disastrous policies championed by Mao leading to the deaths of 45 million people in the Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62.

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

That there are any areas of hutong left is largely due to luck, but their tourist attraction potential means some have now been preserved. I spent a day wandering around the Houhai district of the city which is home to most of the remaining hutong. Although some have been turned into upmarket shopping streets, and others have been taken over by a new and affluent middle class, many are still traditional residential streets as they have been for centuries.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

One of the completely unexpected aspects of the hutongs is that they are well provided for with public toilets. There appears to be a public toilet every few streets and for the slightly desperate traveller this is, quite literally, a relief. Having said that, even in my limited experience toilet quality varies dramatically. Don’t expect many Western comforts, these are squat toilets that are literally open to the rest of the world – you can happily chat to your neighbour because, if there is a partition at all, it isn’t big enough to give you privacy.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

Beijing’s public toilets have a (well deserved) reputation for being unclean and smelly, and by smelly I mean ‘could knock over a bull elephant at 100 metres’ smelly. In recognition of this fact, and that the air inside toilets might actually be explosive or toxic, or both, the government has put up some handy warning signs. Please, please don’t smoke when in the toilet, and remember to cherish your health…

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

If the threat of death doesn’t assist with a speedy ‘movement’ I don’t know what will. The government finally decided to take action and, with a slogan that echos the Kill a Sparrow Campaign 50-years earlier, introduced the Two Flies Only public toilet policy. Flies were also a target of the Four Pests Campaign; whether people respond with the same fervour as in 1958 is to be seen, but now is probably not the best time to be a fly in Beijing.

Beihai Park, proof that China invented the Flashmob

China has given the world a lot. The list of Chinese inventions is long and often surprising: gunpowder, paper, printing, the compass, fermentation and alcohol, the banknote, dominoes, fireworks, kites, matches, playing cards, restaurant menus, the stirrup, tea and the teapot, nail polish, hot air balloons, porcelain and, perhaps most critically for Western society, toilet paper. Personally, I’m extremely thankful for the 13th Century invention of the teapot.

Entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Sign at the entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Sign at the entrance to Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man With caged songbirds near Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man With caged songbirds near Beihai Park, Beijing, China

To this list must now be added the Flashmob. I know this for sure, because I saw it happen in Beihai Park before the West had even heard of the term.

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flashmob exercising in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

In my wanderings around Beijing I was constantly surprised by the outdoor activity. Not just the number of people, but by the activities themselves. Go to any public park and you will find people performing the most extraordinary array of activities. Dancing and playing music are popular, but to this you must add: choral singing, flag dancing, birds in cages, Tai Chi and a variety of martial arts with swords and sticks, backwards walking, stretching, bumping your rear-end against a tree and a thousand other weird and wonderful pastimes.

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Musicians in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Music and choral singing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

These activities are often done alone, but more often in large groups. As I entered Beihai Park – which legend has it was built by Kublai Khan – I was immediately faced with several hundred people doing a series of coordinated exercises. As I walked further into the park there were dozens of groups of people participating in all sorts of activities. It was brilliant. I have never been so entertained, and the best part was that everyone was really friendly and welcoming.

An old man plays a tiny instrument in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

An old man plays a tiny instrument in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

If you want your perceptions of China and the Chinese to be completely blown away, go to Beihai Park on a weekend morning.

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Flag dancing in Beihai Park, Beijing, China

Between Heaven and Earth, The Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, and the large and beautiful park in which it sits, is a truly impressive place. Constructed in 1420, it was one of the most important religious sites in Imperial China, and host to the single most important religious ceremony of the Imperial calendar – when the Emperor prayed for good harvests on the winter solstice. The Temple of Heaven was symbolic of the relationship between man and heaven, which was central to Chinese cosmology. It wasn’t just a temple though, this was a sacrificial altar.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

After three days of fasting, the Emperor came to the park accompanied by the entire Imperial Court in all its splendour. Here he would meditate and ‘converse’ with the Gods before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. As a precaution, in case the Gods weren’t paying attention to all this ceremony, the following morning the Emperor performed a series of animal sacrifices in front of the Throne of Heaven. Amazing how often in human history blood sacrifice was seen as a guarantor of fertility.

A man knits, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

A man knits, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Ancient Chinese beliefs would have it that the Heavens are round and the Earth square, which explains why the Temple of Heaven and many other Chinese temples are round and stand on square plinths. It was in Beijing where Heaven, the realm of the Gods, and Earth, the world of men, met. Unsurprisingly, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth was the Son of Heaven, the Emperor – another theme common to those seeking to legitimise their power.

Musician, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musician, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Musicians, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven is a 2km walk from the Forbidden City. The route from one to the other was a grand ceremonial procession for the Imperial household; when the Emperor made his way here just before the winter solstice, commoners weren’t allowed to look upon the Imperial procession. Forced to lock themselves indoors they were instructed not to make any noise. I suspect that if the Emperor saw the mass of people swarming over the site today he wouldn’t be too thrilled: ‘silent’ is not the word that readily comes to mind when I think about my visit.

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Card players, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven has to be one of the most impressive places to visit in Beijing, but it is the park and the people in it that make a visit here truly worth while. I could have spent all day wandering around observing. It was an eye-opener to be amongst this crowd of people playing music, playing cards, knitting, chatting, practising calligraphy with water and a brush and exercising in a variety of peculiar ways. This was the first, but not the last, time I saw people doing backwards walking and, what can only be termed ‘rear end bumping’ against trees.

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Calligraphy, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

On my way out of the park I heard music and shouting. A wedding party, resplendent in traditional red wedding clothes, was making its way through the park, bringing to mind the Imperial Court when they visited the Temple of Heaven. The couple posed for photos and I was encouraged to join the photo shoot. It was fascinating and very cheerful. The bride had her head covered the whole time by a red cloth, a non-seethrough bridal veil. More intriguingly she also carried an apple.

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The perfect way to end my visit to the Temple of Heaven…

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

Chinese wedding, the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The vast and sterile Tiananmen Square

There is too much violence and extinguished hope associated with Tiananmen Square to visit it and not feel like you’re participating in the cleansing of history. The Tiananmen Square protests that broke out in 1989 – a Chinese version of the 1968 Prague Spring – happened in the year I started university. Television news, newspaper reports and photos of the vicious suppression of genuinely popular protests – and mainly of Chinese students – had a profound impact.

Walking through this vast and troubling place, the dystopian future of ‘doublethink’ and ‘doublespeak’ which George Orwell predicted in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, seemed only too real. This couldn’t be better illustrated than by the huge, monolithic Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Great Hall of the People. A monument to a man who shares responsibility for the deaths of millions; and a gigantic building where the ‘representatives’ of the people gather, but from which the ‘people’ are barred.

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

If you want evidence that under the right conditions ‘doublethink’ can survive into the internet age, Tiananmen Square is it. Thousands of people queued to gain entry to Mao’s Mausoleum; inside they solemnly file past one of the world’s most notorious mass murderers, performing acts of reverence wholly unfitting for a man of Mao’s despotic ‘achievements’. It is both bizarre and horrific, but there are millions in China who still worship Mao.

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldier and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldiers and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Soldiers and painting of Mao, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square has seen numerous protests, most of which have been crushed violently. It is something of a Chinese tradition, regardless of the type of government. In Europe we remember the Treaty of Versailles as the moment the First World War officially ended. In China it brought protesters into Tiananmen Square.

Despite providing over one hundred-thousand labourers to the Allied war effort, the Chinese were humiliated when the Treaty of Versailles granted former German concessions in China to Japan – we all know how well that ended. This was the start of a series of 20th Century popular protests in Tiananmen, culminating in the massacre of 1989.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is a modern invention. Traditional Chinese town planning never incorporated squares where people and protestors might gather. In that sense it represented the vision of Imperial China as absolutely as it currently represents the vision of Communist China. It was once part of a great ceremonial route between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven to the south; a ceremonial gate stood where Mao’s Mausoleum now stands. The old Imperial buildings were torn down and today’s vast concrete desert appeared in their place.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, ChinaTiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Revolutionary statues, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The only surviving Imperial buildings are Tiananmen (North Gate), famous for its giant picture of Mao and as the official entrance to the Forbidden City, Zhenyangmen (South Gate), which you can climb up to get a panorama over the whole square, and Qianmen gate. Seen from up here the true size of the square hits you. Down on the ground the whole area is full of people happily snapping photos of each other. Most people were clearly enjoying themselves, but for me the square was a sterile place.

Mao's mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Mao’s mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Zhenyangmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Zhenyangmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Qianmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Qianmen gate, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

I walked through the square en route to the far more interesting Temple of Heaven. Although it is an obligatory spot to visit on anyone’s trip to Beijing, I felt underwhelmed by the experience. The scale is intentionally inhuman and Beijing is essentially a city of humanity. Plus the square is reputed to be awash with undercover police. Time to move on…

Road into Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Road into Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Walking the Wild Wall, off the beaten path on the Great Wall of China

I’d read about the ‘Wild Wall’, an alternative to the hyper-touristed stretch of the Great Wall of China close to Beijing at Badaling. I’d seen enough photos of thousands of people crowded onto the Wall, to know that I didn’t want to experience one of humanity’s greatest feats of engineering with hundreds of tour groups for company. Saying that, I hadn’t expected to end up in the Chinese countryside clinging to crumbling rocks with a drop of several hundred feet below me.

Warning sign near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Warning sign near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Countryside near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Countryside near Xizhazi, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Searching online I came across a name on a forum, a man who facilitated visits to the Wild Wall. A while later I had an email address and had sent a request for more information. It turned out that Peter Zhao was an old hand at taking people into the countryside and along overgrown, decrepit and little used sections of the Great Wall of China. I arranged to meet Peter before dawn one morning, and we set off through the quiet streets towards a small village north of Beijing called Xizhazi.

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

One of the vertical climbs, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

One of the vertical climbs, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Jiankou section of the wall where we were headed was constructed in the 1360s during the Ming Dynasty, although its origins are older. Its a dramatic sight from a distance, the white rock easily spotted even on a day as hazy as it was when I was there. Getting out of the car in the middle of nowhere, above us the wall snaked across jagged mountain tops. Our first hike of the day involved trekking across farmland and up a long steep hill until we reached a gap in the wall and started our trek along its spine.

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

It is not a trek for the faint hearted. The wall climbs up and over seriously steep mountains, precipitous drops on all sides. The wall seems to hug the mountains as if its life depends upon it; on more than one occasion I found myself clinging to the wall because my life did depend upon it. The wall is overgrown and sections were in very poor condition, forcing us to scramble and climb up near vertical sections of crumbling rock. As always, going up is only ever half as bad as coming down again.

Not for the first or last time in my travels, I found myself musing on the fact that abroad you put yourself into situations, and into the hands of strangers, that you’d never countenance at home. There was the time when I allowed an old bloke called Juni to convince me to swim with sharks off the coast of Belize; the incident of the stampeding bulls in Bolivia; and the stupidity of accepting a lift in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the middle of the night. Just some of the many joys of travel.

Peter my guide, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Peter my guide, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Precipitous drop, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Precipitous drop, the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Despite the adrenaline inducing climbs and descents, this has to count as one of the more magical places I’ve ever visited. It is a truly beautiful area, with the ever present wall as a reminder of the history you’re walking through. A history imprinted in the evocative names of the guard towers and other features of this enormous construction, Arrow Nock, Sky Stair, Eagles Fly Facing Upward, Beijing Knot and Nine Eye Tower.

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

After walking, climbing, scrambling and sweating for several hours we suddenly came across a group of people from Beijing. The only other person we’d met all day was an old farmer from a nearby village, yet mirage-like there was a group of people in the middle of nowhere. They worked for a finance company and walking this section of the wall was a odd form of team building. Remarkably they all spoke English. We took the obligatory photos – someone always does the ‘V’ sign – and exchanged email addresses.

Meeting people on the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Meeting people on the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Peter and I trundled off towards the much anticipated Sky Stair. The only man-made structures I can compare this with are Inca trails, also constructed over ridiculously precipitous hills. The Sky Stair has an angle of 70 - 80 degrees, and they are so narrow that you have to squeeze through while desperately searching for a foothold. My heart was racing by the time I reached the bottom, but the views were spectacular. I couldn’t begin to imagine the effort needed to construct this section of wall.

The Sky Stair, Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Sky Stair, Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

The Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

We were finally descending back to another village where Peter had arranged for food with a local farmer. It was like stepping back in time: villagers were collecting crops and the overwhelming quiet of the village was a complete contrast to the madness of Beijing. However fleeting, this was a glimpse of a China that is disappearing, I felt privileged to be there, but even more privileged that the farmer had bottles of cold beer.

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Drying chillies, China

Drying pods, China

Drying corn, China

Drying corn, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Chinese farmers ,the Great Wall of China at Jiankou, China

Fire and smoke, scenes from Yonghe Gong Temple

There is a real mixture of the ancient and modern on show at the Yonghe Gong temple. The buildings provide the ancient, their contemporary visitors the modern. You see the same thing in the great cathedrals of Europe, but this is slightly different. In Europe people are there to take photos, at the Yonghe Gong people were their to perform devotions and rituals - and take photos, obviously. Besides, most European historical sites tend towards caution when it comes to visitors wandering around with inflammable materials.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

There is a lot of action swirling around the temple as people go from building to building, burning incense and praying, chatting and snapping photos of each other and bits of architecture. You can spot rare moments of contemplation amidst the hubbub, moments full of meaning and, to the casual observer, otherworldly. One thing is certain, people bring an informality and joy to their observances, unceremoniously performing ceremonies that have been passed from generation to generation for well over a thousand years.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

This juxtaposition between the old and new could not be better illustrated than by the woman I saw lighting her incense sticks while wearing a jacket with the words, “I don’t give a fuck” sewn on the back. Appropriate for a pub on the Liverpool docks maybe, but a Buddhist temple? Then again, modern clothing generally looks out of place in historic settings. Something summed up perfectly when an elegant young woman strode past me wearing bright pink Doctor Martin boots. Welcome to the modern China.

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

People pray and burn incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses and a Guinness World Record

Back in Beijing after my trip to the ‘countryside‘ I decided to indulge in some more Buddhist temple action. I’d naively imagined most, if not all, Buddhist temples had been turned into pigsties during the Cultural Revolution, so my visit to the Jietai Si temple was a surprise and made me want to discover more about the relationship between China and Buddhism. It turns out that Buddhism is alive and well, not to mention enjoying a remarkable revival, albeit under the ever watchful, suspicious eye of the Government.

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

I asked the receptionist in my hotel for a recommendation, she told me to visit Yonghe Gong temple. This, it turned out, was an inspired recommendation, and not only because it was an easy journey on the metro – you can’t get lost, the metro station is also called Yonghe Gong. The name means Tibetan Lama Temple, and in the 18th Century it was home to monks from Tibet and Mongolia. It had been home to the future Emperor Yong Zheng, only becoming a monastery when he moved into the Forbidden City.

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Stepping out of the metro station I was confronted by shops selling brightly coloured temple paraphernalia – incense, candles, statues, flags – alongside a lot of tourist tat, including hats and bags decorated with images of Mao. If there was any justice the tourist tat would carry the image of former Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, whose personal intervention is reputed to have saved the temple from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Worshipers at Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

As I entered Yonghe Gong I felt personal gratitude towards Zhou Enlai, because this is a truly wonderful place, full of colour, noise and life. I was also glad that following the Civil War the building was closed to the public for 30 years, probably saving it from serious damage. My guidebook said it was touristy – meaning Chinese tourists – but this only added to the experience as people, keen to show their devotion, burned vast bundles of incense and prayed in front of statues of Buddha.

Guinness World Record, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Guinness World Record, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The halls, pagodas and ornamental gardens are home to extraordinary sights. The Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses contains an 26m tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood - good enough to get it included in the Guinness Book of Records. Coming across the plaque marking this event is nothing short of bizarre.

A 400 year-old building which survived the Cultural Revolution only because the second most powerful man in China prevented its destruction, has a plaque signed by Norris McWhirter. If this needs more context, the statue was a gift to the Emperor Qianlong from the seventh Dalai Lama, it took three years to have it shipped from Tibet to Beijing. Yet someone thought it was appropriate to call in the Guinness Book of Records because the statue happens to be quite tall. I hope the Emperor liked it when it finally arrived. Really, really liked it.

Incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Incense, Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

In the Pavilion of Eternal Happiness are a number of carvings of Buddhas having sex, which were used as educational tools for the sons of Chinese Emperors. Apparently eternal happiness was only for boys. Who knew? Today they are covered by curtains. I suspect an over-zealous government believes it needs to protect the moral fibre of its citizens from such shocking images; although its possible they want to protect the carvings from prying eyes and cameras.

As I wandered around I couldn’t help but marvel at all the activity, and the amount of smoke being produced by the incense burning. It suddenly occurred to me that Beijing’s fabled air pollution might just be incense from this one temple. People were actually disappearing in clouds of smoke billowing out of the incense burner. The smell was overwhelming; to prevent asphyxiation I had to keep moving when the wind blew the cloud toward me.

Now you see her...Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you see her…Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you don't...Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Now you don’t…Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

The Yonghe Gong is a Geluk (Yellow Hat) School of Tibetan Buddhism, and is one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside of Tibet. That said, this one is firmly under the control of the Chinese government who, it must be remembered, control Tibet with an iron fist. You won’t find many pictures of the current Dalai Lama around here. Whether the monks have real religious freedom is disputed, in fact there is debate over whether the monks are truly genuine.

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

In a country with a long and vicious track record of systematic abuse of minorities and religious groups, it is a dilemma whether to visit a ‘government approved’ religious centre. I’m glad I went though, it was a revealing experience, infused with an infectious fun generated by the worshipers. I doubt your average Tibetan would feel the same way though.

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Shops near Yonghe Gong Buddhist temple, Beijing, China