It was the controversial author Boris Vian who is credited with that infamous saying: Si tu as envie de travailler un peu, assieds-toi et attends que cette envie te passe… which roughly translated means if you feel like doing a bit of work, sit down and wait for that feeling to pass you by.
I was reminded of it this weekend when I had the urge to go explore some of the private gardens of Beijing, espoused by that disaster of a web site china.org.cn. Yes, I know. I should have known better. It is so full of mistakes that only the foolhardy would ever truly use it as a guide to the delights of Beijing; and you often get the impression that the writers have never even visited the sites that they write about. But, as they say, there is a fool born every minute.
On this occasion, this fool was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Lianqing – a work colleague who was looking to get some fresh air in her lungs for a change (fresh air in Beijing? Well, that’s a new one!) and so the day was not quite the disaster it could have been had I struck out on my own.
Up at the crack of dawn, and we meet at our local station and head on off to Chaoyangmen, around which the majority of these famous gardens appear to be located. Normally I alight from the Line 2 exits, but today we leave via Line 6 which I discover has a rather nice stained glass canopy at the top of the escalators, showing what presumably was the old Chaoyang Gate itself.
Mistake number two: yours truly has printed off a number of maps from Google-maps; and we all know that in Beijing that is another recipe for disaster, since they could easily have been put together by the webmasters of china.org, they are so badly off kilter.
We pass by the Galaxy Soho buildings. They always remind me of a pair of breasts, remarks Lianqing, which immediately shows me the way her mind works, and miss what is probably the turning to the first featured garden, since Google has the breasts marked too far north on the map.
But on the basis that every cloud has a silver lining, Lianqing’s enquiries – which elicit just a shrug of the shoulders from everyone we meet – result in a woman (who is obviously intrigued why a laowai should possibly be seen wandering down a tiny hutong searching for a garden that no one is the slightest bit interested in) pointing us in the direction of something else which looks slightly touristy… namely number 11, Fangjiayuan Hutong.
We creep in to a number of attractive courtyards but are soon stopped in our tracks by a super-efficient guard who wants to know WTF we are doing in what is obviously private property. He is soon joined by a female companion and we are asked politely but very firmly to move our carcasses outside pretty damned pronto.
I notice a sign posted on the wall by the Beijing Dongcheng Tourism Industry Association in June 2009 which refers to this place as having "the most distinctive courtyard" – but obviously they interpret the word tourism here in a slightly different way from what I am used to. We make our excuses and leave.
According to the map, our next port of call is only a short walk away – and so it turns out to be. Liu Garden at 129 Lishi Lane, china.org.cn notes, should be noted for its fine landscape gardening.
We have no problem finding Lishi Hutong, and sure enough have no difficulty in finding number 129. The only problem is that this garden is well and truly closed off to the public, with a Private Property No Trespassing notice gracing the grey stoned wall, in front of which is a pair of quite cute looking Pi Xiu.
A self important man in a black Audi drives up to the gate and hoots imperiously to be let in; but he is given very short shrift by the guy inside who tells him in no uncertain terms to get lost, and we decide at that point that discretion is the better part of valour… and move on ourselves.
Despite telling me not a short while ago that she had eaten breakfast before leaving for the station, Lianqing has obviously got food on her mind. She disappears off into a restaurant of sorts before quickly popping out again and asking me if I like donkey.
To be honest I’ve never even considered whether I like the beasts or not; but she is not talking about what I think of the poor creatures, simply, do I like donkey meat? I’ve never ever tried it, but always willing to try anything at least once I give her the go-ahead and in she pops once more to order a couple of donkey patties.
I am led to believe that donkey is much more yummy than mere horse meat, and certainly the happy faces of the clientele would seem to support this proposition…
Minutes later I am the proud owner of my very first donkey pattie, and I have to say she is absolutely right. It is really nice and definitely more-ish!
Suitably fortified, we trudge on towards Huangmi Hutong where, china.org.cn tells us, we will find Half-mu garden at number 9. Apparently this is one of the most famous Qing dynasty gardens in the whole of Beijing. Strange then that there is no other mention of it that I can find on the web. But hey – let’s not lose hope… yet!
We find Huangmi after a couple of wrong turns and work our way round to number 9. Definitely no garden here. Inside the courtyards are clusters of houses that look like they have been standing here since time immemorial.
Lianqing asks a passing workman if he knows of a famous garden around here, but he shrugs his shoulders. However, a guy dressed in an orange boiler suit who appears to be some kind of caretaker pipes up that yes, there used to be a garden here a very long time ago, but that it was demolished – probably around the time of the Cultural Revolution, if the present houses are anything to go by.
Yet another own goal by china.org.cn!
I feel a bit bad having brought my erstwhile companion out on a wild goose chase, but she assures me that she is still having a better time than she would have been sitting indoors watching a film. We make our way to yet another entry in the China.org.cn list of places that have been invented for gullible tourists.
Maguitang Garden at 44 Weija Hutong, with an area of 7,000 square meters is one of the largest private gardens in Beijing, the bloody web site enthuses. But when we finally get there we find there is simply a gate leading in to two apartments. Not a garden in sight, let alone the largest in Beijing. Across the road at number 57 is a pair of gates that could possibly be hiding some kind of garden, but upon enquiring from a workman wheeling his bicycle along the hutong, we are told the only garden around here is at number 18, and that is never open he adds helpfully.
We wander along to number 18 and find a doorway open, so we creep in. Apart from a couple of gardens about the size of a pocket handkerchief, there is nothing of note here either.
In short, the china.org.cn web site has yet again shown itself to be the load of codswallop I had reckoned it to be many moons ago. Not that it is in the slightest bit unusual in this country for that. As we regularly learn here in the People’s Republic, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!
We decide on a change of tactic. Another website, beijingimpression.cn waxes lyrical about Dongdan Park. It’s half an hour’s walk (or two stops on the subway) but we decide to keep up the good exercise and head south.
Despite a terracotta warrior beguiling us to part with a fistful of the readies for a bottle of something that might have passed muster a long time ago for something that came out of an orange, we choose instead to down an ice cream – green tea and jasmine flavours respectively. Yummy!
And then it’s on to Dongdan Park.
Dongdan Park covers an area of 47700 square meters is located right in the middle of the busting city, we are told, though what it means by busting, quite irrespective of the bad grammar, is not too clear. There are over 8000 trees here and at the same time, blooming flowers are everywhere throughout the park. Well, I hate to break it to you, but despite boasting a snazzy rockery that greets you in the entrance way, there isn’t a single flower in sight.
The southern part of Dongdan Park is facilitated with ponds and children playgrounds while the eastern corner allows visitors to take a stroll along the artificial mountain, it continues. Hang on a minute, there is no mountain – artificial or otherwise, and definitely not a single pond, nor a children’s playground, though perhaps it means these adult keep-fit stations?
There is a hill at the northern part of the park in which the land is covered thoroughly by trees. Ah. Now we are talking! We climb up a crazy-paving path to get a view from the top…
… and wonder why we had even bothered.
Perhaps the Chinese were fans of the British music hall star Gus Elen who, in the 1890s sang about the living conditions of the working class and about the cramped housing conditions in the East End of London. Commenting on the overcrowded residential neighbourhoods, in one of his songs, he takes on the persona of a proud tenant boasting about the dismal place he lives in, and in particular the view from his 'garden':
“With a ladder and some glasses
You could see to Hackney marshes
If it wasn't for the houses in between”
Back down on ‘terra firma’ there is, in the middle of Dongdan Park, a military statue that everyone studiously ignores…
… though a few couples dance the Chinese Waltz to renditions in Chinese of Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits.
But for some, the excitement is evidently far too much…
I turn back to beijingimpression.cn… Frankly speaking, this is really a great place for you to relax and take a short stroll. It is hard to find such a wonderful place within the city center of Beijing, it sums up.
Are they kidding? Have they actually been to this place? Oh, silly me – this is China, FGS. How could I forget that!
I have only one word to say to the web masters of china.org.cn and beijingimpression.cn and their ilk … BULLSHIT!