Nicholas Quirke was immersed in history on 30 May 2020 when the day started with a cycle ride to the Presidential Palace which has had a long narrative as a seat of power. A Palace in the Ming Dynasty, it was eventually, after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, where Sun Yat-sen was sworn in at as the provisional President of the Republic of China, where he kept offices, while the Qing Dynasty’s last Emperor languished in the Forbidden Cityand it was also the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek also had his office in the palace until 1947 when Mao’s Peoples Republic relocated to Beijing. The palace, its extensive gardens and strange mix of Ming and 1920 architecture focuses mostly on its incarnation as the political centre for the government of the celebrated, revered figure of Sun Yat-sen who was not only a Chinese philosopher, physician, and politician, but served as the provisional first president of the Republic of China and the first leader of the Kuomintang. It was a fascinating and beautiful walk through China’s confusing post 1911 history. A wonderful exhibition of photographs documenting all aspects of life and culture in China at this time occupied the stables and Nicholas was utterly absorbed by what they depicted, including to his horror, means of punishment and torture, with an image of a man, the skin on his chest and thighs flayed, distressingly burned forever into his memory. The mood was lifted considerably when they cycled to the uniquely located Librairie Avant-Garde bookstore, a cultural icon of the city, and hidden in a former government parking lot underneath Wutaishan Stadium, which has Also been used as a bomb shelter. It was opened in 2004 by Qian Xiaohua who hoped the bookstore could serve as a spiritual guide for the people making their way in darkness. “A good bookshop should provide space, vision and nurture the city with its humanitarian spirit,” “It’s a place for people to have dreams in the city.” And it was indeed a wonderful space to be in, though he did feel the customer service, helpful as they were, and as vast as the store was, was not particularly considerate as when he asked where he might find a copy of ‘ The Dream of The Red Chamber’ in an English translation, the assistant kindly led him to where it was at a run, trying to maintain his dignity to keep up with them was not easy for him. They then cycled to temple based Vegan restaurant whose claim (backed up by a certificate) was that their food was an ‘intangible element of Cultural heritage in Jiangsu’. Energised by the taste of a Centuries old food tradition, their next major sight seeing venture a trip around Xuanwu (Black Tortoiser) Lake, which legend claims is named for a black dragon seen in the lake which looked like a tortoise and snake. They traversed the Lake via five islands interconnected by arched bridges, with temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, teahouses, restaurants, entertainment venues, a small zoo, and other attractions. The late lunch has left them feeling stuffed so they had a small supper at the hotel before heading across the city For a walk along the Yangtze River, the third largest river in the world, to see the famed Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, a double-decked road-rail truss bridge which opened in 1968 and the first heavy bridge designed and built using Chinese expertise. Night had fallen and they tried to capture the span and the glory of the bridge at nighttime with some limited success. Their walk led them to a seemingly isolated and dockside territory with its towering metal structures and looming super high rise building, which in the darkness and cold was unsettling for Nicholas who was also concerned that searchlights were scanning the skies for an unknown purpose. He was relieved to get a taxi to the safety of their hotel and the comfort of his bed
Nicholas Quirke was looking forward to the one day that he would not be working in the coming week on 16 January 2021. It was not however a day of rest as in the Chinese New year apartment refresh Peng had his eyes set on a sofa bed, as in the shift of furniture which happened with disposing of a cupboard the freezer section of the door could not fully open. This required him to tread very familiar and old ground with a trip to Ikea which he had not expected tied to go to again for a while. Things looked different as they too were gearing up for the New year and decorations were already on sale. They tested a few sofas and a fairly swift decision was made. After the purchase they headed to another familiar haunt where there were still some new plant based meat dishes Peng had not tried. They had only visited Jing Ding Xiang the previous week and Nicholas，still on his raw food diet， was not able to eat anything but a quinoa salad. He had gone prepared and taken his own salad with him. The atmosphere was full of energy and he looked forward to returning and being able to partake of some of the dishes. Once they got home he was put to work and carried the plethora of parcels that were waiting at the gate. The chores did not stop there as in preparation for the new sofa the bed had to be dismantled and disposed of. It seemed like a lot of work and energy and he was relieved to finally rest and watch a movie. ’Proxima’ seemed a promising French sci fi film, but turned out to be a feminist study of a woman handling the pressures of motherhood in the space programme. Fascinating subject but not the escapism he had craved. Instead he escaped into the nocturnal world of dreams.
Nicholas Quirke was spending the day working on 15 January 2020. He only had two classes but the work day was dragged out as there would be a long interruption due to an unfortunate lack of organisation from the school. It was pointless for him to go back home and he promised himself he would find somewhere to eat his lunch and work. If he had been feeling complacent about his skills as a teacher they were sorely tested that day when one of the children started mimicking what he was saying and refused to apologise resulting in a stand off which, he lost. The lesson got even more out of hand when the twins started fighting and throwing things around. It was this behaviour that he had no talent for handling other than attempting to be commanding which, was not very effective in the circumstances he found himself in. He finally managed to regain some control without resorting to help from the other teachers and actually elicited an apology from Yuda and got Alex and Anthony to apologise to each other. It was a relief when the lesson ended and he made his way to Utown Mall and Teasure. To his delight he managed to secure one of the private booths and he happily entrenched himself in it with a cup of tea and his lunch, not to emerge till 2.5 hours later. Back at the school his lesson with Sissi and another pair for twins was an easier matter and when Tim went rogue and sat under the table he found a simple way of managing the situation by filming him and threatening to send it to his parents. It felt like he had done very little, but by the time he was on the subway he felt tired from managing the pesky students and looked forward to an evening of nothing but watching a movie. They watched an intense Taiwanese drama ‘A Sun’ which was compelling but at nearly 3 hours too long and he lost the the ability to keep his eyes open and took himself to bed with the promise of finishing it the following night.
Nicholas Quirke was being low key on 14 January 2021 with his only expectation being a journey to the school to teach but it seemed more eventful than he had expected. His morning drifted past with a shopping trip to Riri Market, collecting parcels and preparing lunch though he was given food for thought as the new scales that had been purchased gave some microscopic detail to his body’s weight composition and he was dangerously dehydrated. This meant he was going to have to review his liquid intake and he made a plan to ensure he was getting a suitable amount of water inside him. To give some interest to his day he had decided to go yet again to a familiar tearooms near the school in the Galaxy Mall. His tea was uneventful and other than teaching the delightful Jean his lesson, without Lucia, passed without incident. He was annoyed by the inefficiency of the school leader, who had arranged for him to teach his two Friday lessons during the day at 10.30 and 1.30. To his dismay she had not informed the second class that there was a change and they were not free to attend during the day. Fortunately she managed to reschedule at 4pm rather than 6 so it was only 3.5 hours he needed to kill rather than 5.5. It still rankled that it was ill organised. Travelling home he envisioned a lazy night ahead in front of the television, however Peng had alternative plans as he wanted to dismantle another cupboard and Nicholas found himself again, sidekick and handyman to an endlessly restless home improver. The new year clear out was a serious business and there were still more changes and expenses to come. The clear out meant that there was no movie that night which, made a change and he spent some time reading before the final surprise of the evening which was the apartment losing all its water supply. This seemed to be a typically calculated action of the universe when his focus had only turned that day to his consumption of H20. No Proper shower, no proper toilet to end the day. He soothed away any irritations with a session in the massage chair and went to sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was used to his plans going awry and on 13 January 2020 when the majority of his day fizzled into an admin challenge he allowed himself to go with the flow rather than fight against the tide. It did not help that Peng had an attack of a recurrent back problem and that he found himself tending to the wounded. The prospects had looked good, and indeed his early morning chat with son Cole had given added impetus to his day, but once the weekly domestic chores had been completed and lunch was out of the way, completing his tax return turned into a mathematical conundrum and led to the discovery of a fraud charge on his account. He had thought completing the tax return for 2019 -2020 would be straightforward, but the logistics of calculating expenses and gathering data was time consuming. When he found that there was a charge from Amazon on a card he had not used for a couple of years and didn’t even know where it was, he was drawn into the rabbit hole of dealing with fraud and his bank. It was going to require a telephone call to multiple call centres as Before he could report the fraud to his bank he had to check with Amazon that it wasn’t legitimate. Making calls from China was not cheap and would probably end up costing the amount of the fraud. He was able to resolve the issue but at the cost of a completely uneventful day. His evening however proved to be less taxing and his spirits were buoyed by a trip to the local theatre. Peng had been reluctant to get seats for the ‘Fringe’ theatre at Xuanwumen and questioned the quality of low budget theatre, but as only someone with a China ID card could obtain tickets he agreed to accompany Nicholas. The show at the Star Theatre called ‘A Desperate Love’ had been in repertoire at the venue since its premiere in 2013 and for a performance to run, even only once a week for that number of years, its had to be pretty good. The studio space was really nice, but the seats were uncomfortable and for a performance that lasted over 2 hours with no interval it was difficult for him never mind Peng with his bad back. To his relief, the play was entrancing and in particular for his friend who had carped and complained about attending. Visually he could follow the plot but once again the subtleties of the language defeated him though with Peng at his side he was given occasional commentary on what was being said and he could follow the story of a young cynical man who found himself in his grandpa’s body during the Sino-Japanese war which aside from the humour that was to be gained from courting his own grandmother allowed the story to explore the roots of modern China and the coming of age of youth and China itself. It had many magical, imaginative elements and he was pleased to be leaving the theatre with a happy companion busy recommending the play to his family. The temperature had increased and at only minus 2 degrees it felt quite warm on the walk home compared to the conditions he had been getting used to to. It was late when they got home and that meant the usual end of day routine and sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was rarely given to feeling smug but on 12 January 2020 he had every reason to allow the warm sensation of satisfaction course through his bloodstream as the date marked exactly one year since he had set of on an adventure to the opposite side of the globe. When he had departed from St Pancras Station, seen off by his sister, sons and Grace, there was fear and excitement in his soul. Other than a train ride across Europe, Russia and Mongolia he had no fixed plan and absolutely no idea what the future held when he arrived in Beijing. But what an unexpected 365 days it had been. A Global disaster which everyone thought should, would curtail the journey and have him scurrying home had ended up keeping him from Englands shores and with the aid of the wonderful Guo Peng, whom he had the unbelievable fortune to meet, he had a home, had seen many of China’s cities, including some he shouldn’t have, had found himself in Korea and Japan , and had work that ensured he had money while he was here. It felt like success and he wanted to mark the occasion with something special. He had hoped to travel somewhere but with his new commitments he couldn’t fit in and instead chose to revisit the vast National Museum of China and soak up some the history and culture of this ancient, unpredictable civilisation. Firstly though he had a mission to get a new coffee blend from Nespresso in Tai Koo Li for Peng and journeyed across the city to the mall and to spend lunch in the Page One bookstore. For the first time in a long while he experienced problems getting into the museum. Firstly he pointlessly went through the security to get into Tiananmen Square as it appeared they had removed the ticket office. He then underwent rigorous questioning at the external box office and it also seemed they were surprised he wanted to visit. He didn’t have the QR code even though he had pre booked and he had to contact Peng to get that sent and then once inside he underwent a full body search and an inspection of the contents of his his bag. Though he had been before the hall was so vast he had only seen a fraction of its treasures and once he had been through the immense hall he went climbed the huge staircase and found some more galleries with some beautiful art work. He saw an exhibition of paintings of the Ming and Qing emperors, on the work Zhang Shulv whose combination of western and Chinese techniques and using chalks to create the paint revolutionised the traditional bird and flower paintings and a comprehensive exhibition of Chinese Drawing where 100 indigenous artists were invited to submit work. The range of style and content was amazing. He was satisfied that he had marked the anniversary in a suitable way and though he had hoped to see a Chinese film to end the day but instead they watched ‘Promising Young Woman’ which was as far away from a study of the Orient that you get and left him feeling very uneasy and a little bit queasy. It did not however stop him from sleeping
Nicholas Quirke was excited on 11 January 2021 that he was going to be celebrating Chinese New Year which, was exactly a month away in the heart of Beijing amongst a traditional family celebration. The precepts guiding the eventual celebration were already beginning and little like advent there was a countdown accompanied by a variety of tasks, which he had already agreed that he would adhere to as best as he could. He was looking forward to honouring the God of ovens though the cutting of meat would be need a more creative work around. Importantly, starting the New year with a winter clean was imperative and on the agenda for the day was getting rid of one of the wardrobes. This was more physical labour but dismantling the cabinet proved to be less onerous than laying the floor in the gym and completing it, although it was heavy was swift and fun and fun. The remains were put in the hallway with a note for any neighbour to make use of and it surprised how quickly the offer was taken up. He was teaching again and a trip to Chaoyangmen, tea in Taetea at Galaxy Mall was his treat before the rigours of dealing with excitable young children. Yuda had bought in a interesting model which demonstrated the points of acupuncture and the journey the therapy made around the body. But other than another outbreak of anarchy at the end of the 2 hour lesson it was a largely uneventful evening. The trip home included stopping off at a supermarket to get some ginger and he was once again amazed at how cheap these types of comestibles were compared to the UK. There was some debate about what to watch that evening as it was proving difficult to get subtitles for some of the movies on the list and in the end they decided to watch another light and frothy offering though it stars Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman belied the trivial nature of the story. But It was once again easy fare to digest before going to sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was pleased to see that yet another traditional Chinese restaurant Jing Ding Xiang in Ditan was embracing the vegan culture and serving meals which were using meat substitute options on 10 January 2021. It seemed that new establishments prompting healthy vegetarian, vegan eating were appearing everywhere and Peng was excited by the prospect of being able to eat a once favoured restaurant and it was planned that they would lunch there after Nicholas had finished work. As he was still on his raw food diet it would prove to be another occasion of mournfully watching Peng eat while he made do with something less savoury and enticing. Firstly he had to get through his Sunday morning lesson which after the bracing minus four degree ride to the station and school was lovely and entertaining. It seemed to him though that asking 8 year olds to focus for 2 hours was actually a pretty tall order and therefore, the five minutes when the class seemed to descend into chaos seemed that morning to be a completely ok event. Feeling positive he decided that he would ride the 3 and half Km to the restaurant but he had not been on three bike 5 minutes before he regretted the choice he had made. The temperature had dropped a little and once again he felt his hands freezing to the handle bars. He disembarked at the canal and despite the icy conditions, he managed to take some photos of the frozen water and the skaters. The restaurant was exotic, on 4 levels and oozing with oriental character and atmosphere in the Cantonese style. The vegan dishes looked very appetising, but he had to make do with a mushroom soup and a plate of Choy Sum. The rest of the day followed a relatively uneventful course, though he did find himself repeatedly leaving the warmth of the apartment to pick up parcels from the gate. He was relieved once the toing and froing was over to relax in front of the ridiculous but charming Disney offering ‘God Mothered’. Sleep couldn’t come quickly enough.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling very lucky on 9 January 2021 when he breezed through another meeting with the Exit /Entry visa office to extend his permission to stay. He had taken Peng with him as he had learned that if he revoked his visa he could potentially get 2 months permission and as this took him to March he thought it could be worth attempting. After some discussion with the representative he decided to stick to a one month request as there was no guarantee he would get 60 days and he would have no visa. It had been worth clarifying and he appreciated the honesty of the officer. He had been granted another month and would be in China for the foreseeable future. They were going to an exhibition ‘For The Future’ in Dongsi at the privately owned and impressive Guardian Gallery. It featured the twelve highlights from work of a Chinese graphic artist and designer Zhang Guangyu who had many accomplishments from designing covers for Shanghai Cartoons from 1928, producing the famous anti-Guomindang cartoon series Journey to the West to chief among his achievements the creation of the animated ‘Monkey King’. The exhibition was interactive and not only did he get to have 48 poses himself but held an animated figure and on a lucky streak won 2nd prize on a spin of the wheel of fortune. Typically he had to spend 500 yuan to claim his reward! A brand new Vegan restaurant had opened nearby and though Nicholas was only eating raw food they went along to see what was on offer. It was a new style burger bar where everything was plant based. They were made to feel very welcome and while Peng got to sample the menu Nicholas made do with his own salad. He was compensated though as after a long chat with the proprietor and her beagle ‘Peanut’ he was given a complimentary raw vegan desert. The restaurant was very close to the bookstore and tea rooms they had discovered on Christmas Day and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing in there. There was a very pleasant surprise waiting for him at home with the arrival of a Christmas card from his brother and Birthday card and Christmas card, signed by the whole of his cousin Steve’s family in Chinese. They watched the brilliant, bleak and heartbreaking ‘Pieces of a Woman’ in which the luminous Ellen Burstyn proved she could still steal the limelight. Savouring the accomplishments of the days he retired early to bed and a good nights sleep in preparation for his teaching in the morning.