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Russell Eagling


Epistle Two
More impressions...
It risks sounding trite, but China is a country of such contrasts and you have a sense that at some point there is going to be some massive change, but what form it will take in very uncertain.
In many ways there is much to be critical about, but all is in a western context.  The other observation is that the ancient sits side by side with the modern, the streets are litter free, capitalism is rampant and the age of the entrepreneur is certainly here, there is little waste, maximum recycling (partly due to the incredibly low wage nature of the economy - nothing is thrown away and everything is re-used) and crime is low and you feel safe even when it is very dark.
Yet walking past Chairman Mao's body which has been embalmed and lies in state and on view since 1978 you sense the tensions that clearly do exist here.  China has had a series of histories which have seen it subjugated and defeated and now harks to the era when it stands strong and defiant Ė Mao symbolises that for them.
The whole charade of Chairman Mao in state is so fascinating that Russell and I went round twice - the queue was short - and saw the yellowing, saggy and slightly odd corpse again.  In the schools here students are taught that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong - all the history books here openly condemn his Cultural Revolution of 1966 in which millions die, but he is credited with great and sweeping reforms in the period from 1949-1966.
Of course everyone in the West knows that there is an issue over China's population - but employment here is taken to a new extreme. Every gate has a security guard; bag rooms at state museums have someone who takes your money, someone who gives you a ticket, someone who takes the ticket and someone who takes the bag. The same is true of the metro (clean and on time!) - the ticket desk is 30 metres from the person who then takes the ticket to let you through.  Boredom and mind numbing activity is taken to a new extreme in China - I guess it is currently suppressed aspirations but who really knows...
The other issue is uniform fetish.  Every street corner has a policeman of a soldier or a security guard.  This is job creation combined with uniform - the chinese dream! In short uniforms are good, suits are good.  A uniform does not mean police or army, more that everyone likes wearing uniforms - it's very funny to see.  Of course, partly this is due to the fact it is so cold that the uniforms are largely heavy flannel cloth and keep you warm in the face of minus five etc...
Two nights ago was the Chinese New Year which was really interesting - we went to Ditan Park where there was a street fair - rows of stalls selling kebabs of various just dead animals, tacky toys and of course stamp stalls - China has embraced stamp collecting like nothing else.  It is estimated that there are 10 million stamp collectors here of whom 2.5million are members of the Chinese State Philatelic Society!!  My Dad would love it.
The night-time until 6am was peppered by fireworks and street fire crackers and generally everyone in good and jolly mood with a special tendency to spend the time making and cooking dumplings.  Very nice and very tasty but not the most obvious things to do to usher in the New Year of the Monkey!
Yesterday saw a brave trip to the supermarket - oh dear!  The nice looking eggs turned out to be special salty duck eggs and the nice looking meat was boney rabbit.  The fresh pineapple was lovely but incongruous with the weather.
One thing here that is clearly worldwide - Starbucks.  And when everything else here is literally one-tenth the price in the west, Fastbucks manage to 'buck' to trend.  An astonishing 49 Quai for two coffees - that is the equivalent of about four or five united kingdom pounds - and like England it isnít that special.  The other great amusement is the battle between MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Whilst MacDonalds have the more stores in Beijing Russell tells me that the Chinese love of chicken means that KFC are winning!
The only other observation which I find fascinating is the growing obsession with western culture is actually an interest in British culture - there is certainly no great pro-American culture amongst the young.  In the bars the music is English - everyone seems to play the Brit Awards 2003 CD/DVD - which is great as it includes prob the best Blue track (!) - everyone is desperate to speak English to you and the sports brands are all English - everyone here likes and knows of David Beckham - massive posters of him on loads of street corners.
Today we went to some temples - loads everywhere but this Taoist one is still 'operational'.  Curiously, very similar to the Forbidden City with a sense of emptiness to the whole thing, but packed with people praying and laying incense sticks in the massive burners.  Today was not the day to do your washing and hang it out to dry if you lived next door.
We have decided to try and get in some skiing so are heading North to Harbin, and are definitely going to go back to the Great Wall and see another bit - possibly the section President Nixon went to.  Of course what he saw is largely reconstructed but it is still illustrative and a little flatter than the mountainous range we saw at Simatai the other day.
My favourite activity of postcard writing is well underway but only in China could we go to a main post office and find that they didn't have enough stamps to sell us so have only managed to send the first twenty postcards - the rest will have to wait until I find another post office!
I think that is it for Beijing - of the top 25 top sites to see in the guide my Mum bought Russell for Christmas there is just the Summer Palace and the 'old' summer Palace to see and we intend to tick those off the list tomorrow morning.  It is worth noting that with the next Olympics at Athens dogged by the controversy of the Elgin Marbles being returned to Greece, the old summer palace was blown up and pillaged by none other than Lord Elgin and with the Olympics coming here in 2008 there is the basis for a good old international squabble with the British Museum where the carvings now lie!
That's it for now

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