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 reviewing his options for the day on 2 June 20202, once he had posted Happy Birthdays to his erstwhile Daughter in Law, Grace and his friend Emily and he decided he would cycle, do a little parking experiment with his updated GoPro con ‘steadicam’ and sit in a tea house and catch up with his blog which had got out of synch again. This resolve was severely hampered by a complete failure of the internet. Nothing worked. Even Siri could not tell him the temperature Which felt very, very hot. After trying all the obvious checks and nothing happened he contacted Peng who called his provider who did a check and discovered there was an ‘abnormal fibreoptical’ which meant they needed to send an engineer round. As a result he had to wait in and neither could he do any work as there was no internet when the engineer arrived and solved the problem. Out of synch with the blog and now himself he decided to test his GoPro and despite the heat headed out to the Lotus Market at Shichahai and attempt for a third time to experience what had been known for its Beijing snack bars and antiques stalls. The traffic had been erratic and his journey there and back was hampered by cars parked in the bike lanes and obstructing the flow of cycles. This was good, he believed, for his experiment with the camera. He had cycled the 4.5 miles there only to discover it was still shut and all he could do was look at the Shichahai river and its banks and observe the locals, flying kites, playing music and courting. He had experienced this slice of life before and charming as it was the lure was going into the lotus market. He lingered for thirty minutes and then headed home. He was not sure, was it the heat, had the exertions of the weekend caught up with him but he was overwhelmed with fatigue again and after supper all he could do was sit and watch another movie which was an alien invasion story set in the 1950’s. It had its charm but it was all talk and very little action and it was ultimately preparing him for bed where he headed the moment it had finished.
Nicholas Quirke was informed that 1 June 2020 was international Childhood day. A day to celebrate ones own, ones family and those enjoying the privilege right now and it seemed right, if wrong, to spend some time in a pursuit only children now, without any conscience, can enjoy. He allowed himself to be talked into cycling the 5 miles to the Beijing Zoo, which, aside from the unusual and extravagant stone carved entry gates, boasted a Giant Panda enclosure. The experience of the Zoo, lovely space though it was , and the sound of the children’s glee at seeing the unusual and strange animals was a lovely sound, left him firmly of the belief that removing animals from their natural habitat, caging animals was wrong. Many of the exhibits had been born in the zoo and hadn’t known what it was to live in the wild, but ‘Oh’, he thought, ‘imagine being in a room and a yard for eternity’ The boredom, the monotony of life, enlivened only by the familiar and unfamiliar faces that watch you going about your daily unimaginably tedious routine. No building homes here for these beasts. Being stared at and talked about was something he was starting to understand as numerous families stared and observed the ‘Lao Wei’ in their midst. Nicholas felt like he was one of the animals who had gone rouge and moving amongst the humans in a harmless way. He had to admit there was an element of fun in seeing the Pandas, who like most of the animals had wilted and lay lazily in the sun and their expansive enclosure, created in honour of the 2008 Olympic Games was a beautiful home, and he particularly enjoyed seeing the messages engraved in clay tiles from children around the globe with their pleas for peace and unity; touching reads in world immobilised by a virus, in anger over the brutal and ignorant treatment of blacks in America and where Pride month is needed to bring attention to gender, a world slowly dividing in fear. The highlight of his tour, was his encounter with a randy Lion and his lioness, he was amused to see that none of the onlookers hurried their children away, though he would like to have understood the explanations parents gave to the young innocents. He hadn’t realised how tired he was as he peddled back home, mercifully, once again arriving before the storm and heavy rain began it’s tempest. Though they tried to watch a film it’s wasn’t long before the weight of his eyelids became to much to keep open and he was dragged into sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was saddened to be starting a day on 31 May 20202 that would be ushering the end of his sojourn in Nanjing to a close. .He still had some activities planned to make the most of the last few hours of his visit as it was unlikely that he would ever return though it was definitely an melancholy outlook to match his mood. After breakfast and packing bags they travelled by subway to The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders they were there for the 8.30am opening time and had to join an already long queue. From the outside the magnitude of the buildings and sculptures against the grey skies provided a suitably sombre and anguished opening to what turned out to be a lesson in the cruelty of mankind, and there was no doubt in his mind that this was going to be an emotional journey. Over 300,000 died in the invasion by Japanese forces and this figure which appeared repeatedly was burned into the memory on entering the hall with an alphabetical list of all the people who were victims of the occupation and a wall of photographs of the innocent lost in the massacre. The emotional impact of seeing these face was immeasurable and he could barely speak when he saw a wall of Illuminated photographs from 2017 of Survivors and noted that in the intervening years, where an individual had died their light had been extinguished. The vision of a wall in darkness, when all those souls had finally left and the last of the witnesses to another example of human brutality had shut their eyes for eternity to the horror, filled him with an overwhelming grief. The remainder of the memorial was given up to the story of the massacre, told in photographs and testimony off the eyewitnesses and participants. His heart jumped a beat when he read a Japanese soldier writing of his compulsion to cheer and shout with joy when a Fleet of boats occupied by fleeing Chinese was stopped in its tracks by an explosion of gunfire. Sickened, when he saw the severed head of man stuck on a post with a cigarette butt stuffed between his dead lips for a joke. He knew that he could never dehumanise a people to the extent that the Nazi’s in Europe and the Japanese in Nanjing had. Unbelievably the reign of terror of the Japanese in China came to and end for themselves in Yet another hideous and inhuman act with the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atom bomb. Cruelty begets cruelty and there are never, ever any winners. Nations living in shame for the acts of their ancestors. He sincerely hoped the lessons of these momentous events had been learned but doubted human nature would ever rise above its disgusting base instincts for self preservation. He was exhausted by their journey through the memorial hall and was relieved to be heading towards the Yuejiang Tower on the top of Shizishan (Lion Mountain). Despite being wearied by the morning Mourning, seeing the tower which marks the formation in 1360 of the reign of the Ming Dynasty and though Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the build of the 7 tiered Yuejiang Tower on top of the mountain and wrote the Note in person, it was built first time and opened to the outside world in 2001 with its distinct style of Ming Dynasty and classical royal makings. The temperature was now very high and the climb was tiring but the views from the top were worth the effort though sadly the Yangtze River was shrouded in a mist. Drained of energy they headed back to the hotel area to get some lunch but the restaurant they located was so popular they had to wait 50 minutes to eat. A takeaway at the hotel and then the train journey home. The time again passed incredibly quickly though the views on return journey were of the east and really were more impressive than he had experienced on the journey down where he was looking to the west. A poor internet connection and problems with the GoPro meant he would have to delay posting the blog but he was safely returned to Beijing and after unpacking they relaxed and watched the chilling ‘I See You’, which alerted him to the disturbing notion of Phrogging, which was not a thought he wanted in his head before retiring for the night.
Nicholas Quirke was sensing he was focussed on death a little too much on 29 May 2020, when he and Peng made a trip to to the Zhongshan Mountain National Park, a mere 5 KM from the centre of the city. The plan was to make an early start but after thier breakfast in the hotel, which included a bowl of black bean congee, which looked like dirt, they went for a coffee and time slipped way. There were 4 major areas of interest and they made a start with Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum, which was overwhelming in its size and intention. In a spot of outstanding natural beauty that an individual could be so honoured was astonishing to him. 4 gateways led a path up Zhongshan Mountain to the final resting place of the man, if not for his early death, many mourned as potentially saving China from the brand of communism that led Mao and his followers to the Cultural Revolution, The great leap forward and the isolation from the world at large. His spirit here has been given every chance to reach heaven and the Deep blue tiles of the buildings reaching into the sky echo his final destination. From this revered resting place they made their way back down and Walked through the Forrest of sycamores and conifers to the equally exotic Lingu Scenic Area, weaving through woods and paths and Ming pavilions and gardens to the beautiful pagoda, the lingu tower built in the 1930’s to commemorate and remember the thousands who had given their lives to fighting the Japanese invasions. They climbed 9 floors up a spiral staircase and were rewarded with spectacular views of the mountains, watching the tree tops sway like waves in the fierce wind, and the views of the lake and city. They made their way to the Lingu temple and to the adjacent restaurant for some noodles, but as these were made of egg and there was nothing vegan on the menu which meant they had to head to the Ming Tombs Scenic Area without any lunch and snacking on a bag of fruit and nuts Nicholas had prepared in Beijing. He was impressed by the number of visitors there were in these scenic areas, in particular the ancient tombs and the sacred path, lined with animals, soldiers and civic guards seemed thronging with the young and old. Here he was on familiar territory with the imperial colours and structures, despite their state of Decay, housing the long dead Emperors. The finals challenge was to get to the top of Purple Mountain, thus called from ancient times, as purple clouds can be found hovering overs its peaks. To his relief, although it involved a short Uphill hike, it did not mean a long arduous climb as they took the cable car to the top and back down, though not before being harangued by drivers seeking toi drive them to the top. Peng made a time lapse video of their ascent and descent and whilst at the top, they discovered a giant Gold Buddha and enjoyed the wondrous views. At the hotel he discovered a technical flaw in his GoPro added more time and effort to his film editing. The evening consisted of a trip to enjoy the buzzing nightlife of the Qinhuai scenic area. To the entertainment of locals Nicholas was given disgusting tasting Smelly tofu to eat and a glutinous rice delicacy fried in the smelly tofu oil but in its centre was a delicious sweet black sesame paste. After a walk along the river bank to the city walls, where the gaudy tawdry Lantern festival decorations were in full illumination, and the porcelain Pagoda, they had covered 13 miles and a taxi back to the hotel and sleep was heralded. ,
Nicholas Quirke was almost comatose by the end of the day on 28 May 2020 having travelled by bullet train from Beijing to one of Chinas 4 major capital cities, Nanjing. After a breakfast of rice wrapped in bamboo, it took them 3 hours 20 minutes to travel over 640 miles, the top speed reaching 340 km per hour. The scenery wasn’t as spectacular as he expected, mostly agriculture, industry and tower blocks with mountains visible on the horizon. The skies were clear and the time passed swiftly as he was helping a friend with a piece of creative writing. They took the subway to their hotel which was located in the Fuzmiao area and very close to The Confucious temple they planned to visit that day. On handing over his passport to the receptionist he could see there was some consternation caused by his foreigness and they discovered that Lao Wei’s were not welcome in the establishment. They had to swiftly reorganise plans and Peng got them booked into a sister hotel, which turned out to be opposite the Nanjing Theatre which Nicholas felt was somehow apt. After checking in, they set off to explore the city. The streets were lined with beautiful pale, sturdy sycamores. The confucious Temple and Acadamy was beautiful with some really stunning art but with The annual Lantern festival starting on the the 29th of May the decor that had been set up was gaudy and looked hideously cheap and tawdry in the elegant beautiful; setting. He noticed immediately how different the ancient architechture was outside of the Imperial setting of Beijing’s Ming and Qing Dynasties. Gone are the reds a golds and replaced by a more austere and plain colour scheme yet as equally entrancing with the eaves curving flamboyantly it to the air. The highlight of the day was visiting the west Zhong hoom Gate which afternoon exploring the soldiers keep they were able to climb and walk the city walls. These were empty and as they travelled along passed by the river Qinhuai, the roofs of slum dwellings, at times staring straight into apartments of passing buildings. It felt like their own playground from which they surveyed the city and they made the most of the walk. They were eating at a smart Vegan restaurant in one of the upmarket Malls and as they waited for a Didi to collect them Nicholas watched a lady dance extravagantly with a stereo. At first he thought she was a teenager and then when he got closer saw that she was well into her middle age. The supper was delicious and as they hadn’t eaten lunch much needed. After supper they headed back on bikes to The Fuzmiao area and enjoyed watching the night life and saw that the hideous decorations for the lantern festival actually looked quite nice in the night lights. He drank plum juice and ate a rice lolly before calling it a night and seeking bed in the hotel.
Nicholas Quirke was trying to take it easy before embarking on a 4 day trip to Nanjing on 27 May 2020. It was all about preparation and he packed his case, cleaned the apartment, ironed shirts, wrote, worked on his video, which was taking a long time as the videos had to download from I cloud and was slow and taking a very long time. Just to add to the sense of calm he was trying to achieve he went on another parking mission to the Purple Bamboo Gardens. It was in the west and was quite a cycle ride, 9km, along sun streaked leafy streets and it certainly gave him a feeling calm and joy. Like all Beijing Parks it was exquisitely laid out with all the features he had come to expect. Including 3 lakes, ancient pavilions and Temple Buildings, Though it was formalised as a public park in 1953 it had been a destination spot for the Yuan Emperors and some of the buildings were ancient. Though the park attracted a lot of people of mixed gender, the park was notorious for being a hot lesbian pick up spot and he did notice that there were lot of single women of all ages lingering in the shady park corridors, and Lounging in the pavilions. It also amused him to note that the Beijing park where men searched for same sex opportunities was a very central location, this park, the women’s space was really not a convenient spot. It was a long way out of the central zone. Was this discretion on women’s part, or was this sexism at play? He was delighted to see for once a young man in costume and to his amusement, although he tried to follow him to get a better photograph he lost him in the crowd. When he then encountered a calligrapher and asked to take his photo, who should appear but the young man in oriental dress who offered to pose. Nicholas took his time wandering around before leaving to find a new Tea house, TaMindSpace. He was pleased with himself for following the map Peng had provided and finding the cafe, which for once was not in a mall but at street level. The tea was particularly nice, a spiral leaf tea called Bilochun. top up after top came as well as a beautiful looking glutinous rice cake with a Matcha mousse filling which he had to turn down as it contained dairy. Peng’s new car had arrived and collected by his parents and he was home later than usual as he had to go and pick up his ID card. The packing and preparations were completed and it was an excited Nicholas who went to bed that night.