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 putting Peng first on 19 September 2020 and celebrating his significant birthday with him. Once he had shared the envelope and presents with him and they had breakfasted on noodles they got ready to go and collect the cake Nicholas had bought. This actually meant a 40 minute journey by subway where they were met at gate by the cake makers husband who handed the vegan desert across the barrier to them on a chill bag with forks and a cake slice and a crown for the birthday boy. The next stop was lunch at L Bodhi Vegetarian Restaurant, which required another equally long subway ride. It was beautifully decorated with Buddhist values and on arrival they were led by a serene waitress to their their table in a private booth. All the tables were in booths, but it seemed they were lucky with their regal space which not only had natural light, but also air conditioning, something, they learned from the complaints of the next door diners not everyone shared. Although they had made the restaurant aware that they were celebrating a birthday, they were surprised to find a huge complimentary cake waiting for Peng on arrival. The meal was delicious, 10 dishes each and served in a dazzling array of colours a means, including pots of dry ice giving a mystical feel to the fragrant, delicious, delicately seasoned food. They didn’t need to use the cake that Nicholas had bought but they would have it later. They spent over 2 hours dining and having eaten the whole of the cake as well the need for some exercise was incumbent upon them. They decided to cycle the the 4,5 miles to the Camera Stylo cafe in the Hutong where the ‘Peking to Beijing’ exhibition was taking place. The journey took them, at ground level past the China Zun tower, the city’s highest building and which dominated Beijing’s skyline. The cafe turned out to be a small cinema club and he loved its shabby vintage ambiance. He examined the photographs and appreciated the style and the subject matter of Beijing people and places, but he felt there to be a lack of material, which after 5 years of living in the city he had expected a larger and more varied catalogue. He enjoyed an iced coconut coffee and they took the opportunity to light the candles and eat the cake that Nicholas had bought. The food still weighed heavily on them and a slow walk through Hutong’s and the area Peng had been raised to East Chang’an Avenue where the setting sun gave a dazzling light to the mirrored windows of the Grand Hyatt hotel and the arts market that wa seeing held there.. They cycled back through Tiananman square in the glorious sunset and when they reached home they settled down to watch ‘The Owners’, a quirky British thriller, with a glass of Champagne and some snacks. The film was an entertaining conclusion to Peng’s birthday business and it required little encouragement for him to take to the bed and sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was expecting a lot from 18 September 2020. He.had read his astrological star chart for the day which promised to be one of the most exciting that he had experienced for a long time, and from the perspective with which he started the day, it could prove to be the case. He was due to be teaching his first class and was attending the opening of a photo exhibition, ‘Peking to Beijing’. It looked like a very formidable day. After a breakfast of MoonCake and a faux crepe caramel he waited for the elation to begin. As with many things disappointment seeped into his twenty fours from an early point, it looked like the class he was meant to take was not going to happen as not all the parents had responded to the change of teacher and he would have to wait before he was able to make a start in his new career. He had intended to spend the day preparing the class but as this was no longer required he decided to visit a nearby Temple, an ancient Mosque only a few streets away, which had been closed until recently. He set of in brilliant sunshine and spent a few minutes observing the painters at work on the outside of the block in what looked like very dangerous conditions. He had not got very far before he realised he should be in long trousers to visit the mosque and he started back. An old gentleman saw him walking and stopped cycling his cart and indicated that Nicholas should have a lift. At first he said know, but it was clear they were going in the same direction and so he hopped on and enjoyed the short ride. By the time he got to the Moaque it was actually closing so the window of opportunity had been missed. As he walked back to the apartment he decided to take a walk in Xuanwu Park which would also give him an opportunity to write the card he had bought for Peng’s Birthday. He made himself comfortable in a one of the pavilions and got out the card, only to discover he had actually bought decorated envelopes and there was no card. Still, he wrote in Chinese on the envelope and when he finished and sat upright, he discovered he was surrounded by a group of enquiring young and old eyes. He said hello and then everyone sat down and started talking in English, Chinese and he had a very enjoyable conversation with the children. It had attracted a large group and he was being asked questions in both languages by the young and old. One old lady kept saying he should be a teacher. He needed to get back as he had arranged with Peng to go and work in a tea house. They went to Lafayette Mall and discovered that they only sold tea by the cup and not with an never ending pot. He still had the exhibition opening to attend but discovered that Peng had thought they were going the next day or Sunday. They decided not to go but he was disappointed that he would not be at the opening and meet the photographer, a British Chinese man who had been living in Beijing for 5 years, recording the sights and people of the city. When he weighed the excitement of the day up with the disappointments the scales fell heavily into the negative. He was not dispirited but he reminded himself not to put too much faith in the soothsaying that had predicted ‘Excitement’. Peng tested out his new GoPro9, Nicholas was coerced into getting a bargain Apple Watch. At the apartment the day ended with another satisfying viewing of the latest episode of ‘Raised by Wolves’. He went to sleep looking forward to celebrating Peng’s birthday the next day.
Nicholas Quirke was excited but full of doubt on 17 September 2020 when he began the day preparing for an interview, that had come ’out of the blue’, for a part time teaching role with a school in Beijing. Other than being in the city at this time, being a native English speaker and being prepared to try absolutely anything that would keep him steadfastly on the course he was currently living, he felt that the odds of getting the post, his age, his qualifications, his visa status, weighed heavily against him. After a smoothie breakfast, he was starting another 24 hour fast as an added extreme measure to reach his goal weight, he cleaned the flat and did some ironing. These activities took him to his departure time, though before going he did have to disconsolately watch Peng eat his tasty looking salad lunch. The trip to the school was via bike and subway. It was another spectacular day, warm with brilliant blue skies which, aided him as he progressed along his journey, to feel confident. The building was easy to find, but when he entered the reception hall the doorman wouldn’t let him through as there was no school there. Eventually he got someone to come and lead him to the school which occupied a space on the third floor. His meeting with Jenny was very positive and by they end of an hour, after discussing flexibility, what lessons he could teach, he had made an introductory video for the parents and was offered the possibility of actually teaching the next day. Fortune favours the brave, he thought as he made his way to Teasure at the U Town Mall. He was in shock that having bemoaned his future within two days he had gone through an interview and was now looking at the ‘ prospect of work. As he drank his never ending pot of Jasmine tea he finally got to grips with the tatty sheet of ID’s that travelled with him and transferred everything to his IPad. It was a laborious task bet it felt good to have finally done it and to dispose of the confused tatty paper. It was getting dark by the time he left the mall and he decided to cycle the 9Km back to the apartment. He enjoyed the cycle in the cooler temperature and was glad to occupy the time when he should have been eating with exercise. At he apartment they watched the latest episode of ‘Raised by Wolves’ and then stated to watch ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. He became absolutely infuriated by an incorrect detail in the production and they turned it off and he fired off several social networks messages on the topic. Expending his energy. In anger which had been depleted due to his fasting, prepared him for his bed and sleep quickly drew him into its arms.
Nicholas Quirke was surprised by the swiftness with which the wind of change began to blow on the morning of 16 September 2020. He had spent 15 September in a state of suspended animation, when the uncertainty of the previous day led to feelings of inertia, and only food preparation, finalising the tenancy agreement with his new tenants, completing a work assignment and watching two more episodes of ‘Raised by Wolves’, which he was becoming obsessed by, was what remained of the day once he had cancelled all plans. It had been an opportunity for him to reflect on his situation further and when he espied, amongst 154 messages, a call out on his ExPat WeChat group for native English Speakers, he immediately investigated further. A school was looking for a part/time English teacher for 6 – 12 year olds and despite his lack of formal teaching qualifications there was interest and within an hour he had an interview booked for the next day. He believed the logistics of him getting employed were actually too complex for him to get the role as it would mean a change to his existing Visa, he was already too old to be able to teach in China and overcoming these drawbacks for the school might well prove too overwhelming. But as ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ rang in his ears he felt it behoven on him to try and as he set forth on his mission for the day, there was definitely a spring in his step, a glide in his cycling and a tune in his head. That could, of course, be due to the blueness of the sky which actually looked unreal, so cloudless was its vista and deep its hue. He cycled to a tea shop where he did some work, enjoyed a Longjin green tea and had to sadly turn down the free delicious looking Macha cake that came with the serving. He then set off for a nearby Jing-tian-hong, fried cake, shop, where armed with pictures of the cakes he confidently addressed the proprietor with a “Ni Hau” and pointed at the cake and said “Are” as he required 2 of each product. They seemed bewildered and he turned to his translator. The owner kept speaking and asking if he wanted one. He was so confused he had to call his help who after a conversation discovered that they didn’t understand his accent. It also, later transpired that actually although he was using the correct counting word for 2 apparently when ordering, one had to use ‘Ling Gu’ for two. There still seemed to be some confusion and two nurses buying a treat for themselves helped out and the order was made. He would have to wait 10 minutes. The shop owner kindly gave him an extra bun, presumably for the amusement he had provided. Once he was back at the apartment they enjoyed the fried glutinous rice cakes, one with a rose petal and pine nuts filling and the other with rose petal and mung bean. He had a catch up meeting with his sister who had been helping him resolve the home emergency issues that had raised their head over the past week and as soon as they had finished their conversation it was out again and on the road to the barbers. He asked for an undercut, though both hairdresser and Peng said it would look horrible. He was quite happy with outcome and pleased that it was not the horror story they predicted. He was aware that as he generally always wore a hat, any misfortune in the hair department would be hidden from view. Another festival was approaching on the 1st of October and was celebrated with Moon Cake they passed by a store selling vegan cakes and they bought a couple for Nicholas to taste as he had never eaten one before. It was a southern style moon cake with pastry and another rose filling. His verdict was very tasty. The film for the evening was ‘Z’ a disturbing Canadian horror. Feeling positive about the future he was able to relax and sleep well.
Nicholas Quirke was made aware of how precarious his position is on 14 September 2020. He was living on borrowed time in China and the government were not going to be allowing a traveller to stay indefinitely no matter how desperate the figures were looking in the UK. and it was going to require more than just a visit and a smile to extend his stay further. He had to visit the Exit/Entry office to extend his permission to stay and it seemed the process was much more rigorous than he had previously experienced. The officers wanted documentation that he had not previously had to provide and what he thought would be a short 20 minute exercise turned into a 2 hour marathon and he needed enlist Peng’s assistance to get some information from the internet on flight availabilities and costs. This situation also alerted him to the matter of money. Without regular income he could not continue indiscriminately to live in China and travel and if it meant going home how was he going survive. With his flat rented out he would have no where to live and probably nowhere to work. He had felt sublimely fortunate to be on the journey he was on but he sensed the tide of fortune shifting and he was going to really need some focused thought to keep the train rolling. He felt very unsettled by the experience in the office, even though they had granted him another month in the country, and he needed to relax. He found a vegan restaurant in the Hutong near the Lama Temple and he ordered a tea and treated himself to a carrot cake. He enjoyed the surroundings and allowed himself to recover from what had seemed like an ordeal. He took the opportunity to wander the Hutong and enjoy more of the sights in a less crowded setting than he had experienced the day before. He was, perhaps wrongly, fascinated by an open window with a cage of guinea pigs and a dwarf reclining voluptuously on cushions drinking tea. He took a photograph and filmed the sight though he felt a little uneasy doing both as it seemed unhealthily voyeuristic . The photo was from a distance and not actually vey good and oddly the video was completely blank so he was right too have reservations and the universe had rewarded his prurience appropriately. He visited a few more shops in search of a small token for Peng who was to be celebrating a significant birthday on the 19th before following the exact same route they had taken the night before. When he got in his mind was focussed on preparing their supper, which after the lunch of his homemade asparagus soup with fresh flat noodles was a light green smoothie. He only needed to lose 1 more kilo before he would win the next weight loss competition and keeping the dishes fat free was paramount to him. Finalising the letting of his flat, dealing with the pipe leak, insurance and paperwork for his friend took his mind off his immediate future in China and by the time they sat down to watch the supremely ridiculous ’Babysitter 2’, he felt relaxed and accepting that what will be will be. Be prepared, be more careful and find alternatives were the ‘wake up’ thoughts he as he drifted into a sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was finally wandering down the alleys of the Hutong where he had sojourned in 2018 July only to find that the hotel was closed They had agreed to return to a vegan restaurant they had once been to for Zhi Ma Tang Bing, a delicious pancake style desert filled with sesame paste and burnt sugar, and they were looking forward to eating the main dishes. After a lazy morning where he had started to watch the amazing TV series by Ridley Scott, ‘Raised by Wolves’, they set off for the restaurant. It was quite a long trek and their expectations were high. Experience of course should have told him not to expect too much and true to form, disappointment was writ large and across the limited dishes they tried more than 2 dishes in the order were tasteless and not even the order of Zhi Ma Tang Bing could lure them back. They were close to the area where Nicholas had stayed in 2018 and he was keen, now the Hutongs had reopened, to revisit the streets and cafe’s he had been familiar with. He could not recall the name of the actual street and this meant some aimless wandering as he tried to get his bearings. But when it transpired that he had meant Nanluoguxiang (South Gong and drum alley) progress was swift. It was a shame to see true hotel he had been in derelict but it was fun to see again the nearby theatre school, enjoy a delicious ‘Chatang’ desert and iced almond tea, drink tea in a cafe he had frequented, and look for the Empress Wanwrong’s, first wife of Puyi, the Last Emperor, birth place. This led them neatly to Shichahai and the Lotus Market where they encountered some early evening swimmers. It’s seemed a very long way from the empty and closed up streets he had seen when he first arrived and it was a positive sight to see such scenes of normality. They cycled to Ping’Anli to get a subway to the National Theatre of China where he would have the pleasure of seeing 3 of China’s top award winning actors, Ye Li, Yu He, and Qing Yang perform Michael Frayan’s ‘Copenhagen’. In Chinese. He had some reservations about enduring over 90 minutes of Chinese with no translation, but as he was very familiar with the themes, the plot and the construction, he felt he could handle seeing this very wordy and intense play and enjoy watching China’s best at work. He really enjoyed the production and watching the actors work he detected a more histrionic level of performance than he might expect in a western performance with the current trend for pauses and understatement, but he loved the fluidity of movement and the passion with which the work was attacked. Copenhagen had been part of the National Theatre of China’s repertoire since 2003 and apparently, COVID 19 excepted, played 3 times a week. It was fascinating to see that like The Moscow Arts Theatre, productions were kept running in repertoire for decades. The director, Xiaoying Wang, bookended the performance with a talk which again is a usual practice. Since he had attended the Museum of the People’s Theatre of Beijing he had wanted to see a performance there and he was determined that as soon as it was possible he would get a ticket. Seeing theatre always excited him and he could not stop talking as they cycled home. It was late by the time they got in and therefore no film, he was drowsy and despite the sore knee he slept fitfully.
Nicholas Quirke was the centre of attention on the subway carriage on 12 September 2020 when an old gentleman, with his wife and son, sitting opposite was surprised by the presence of a laowai and pointed directly at him and started speaking. Nicholas guessed that he must be asking where he is from, and told them “Wo Shul Ying Guo”, (I am English) more questions were asked to which he answered “Wo bu mingbai”, a useful phrase meaning “I don’t understand.” They managed to communicate a little through using google translate and the limited English of a couple sitting next to him. The conversation became something of a community event before a hearty an happy goodbye. He was actually travelling with Peng who found the attentions of the Chinese to the his presence a little annoying and Nicholas made sure that he did involve him in the exchange. But it did make him feel frustrated that despite spending six months in the country ha was not more familiar with conversing in mandarin. This compelled him to start trying to learn more Mandarin from Peng and having already mastered some basic phrases and counting he decided that knowing facts such as, dates, days of the week, the months, being able to give his birthdate would provide another useful piece of vocabulary. His major problem was trying to understand the questions people would ask him and learning to identify the sounds of the common enquiries would also really help. Peng tested him throughout their outing to Tai Koo Li, thier tea at Page One bookstore and their late lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant where he enjoyed vegan Pho and on the journey home. By the end of the day he was proficient in giving dates and was able to put together a quite complex sentence regarding his friends birthday. It had not been a very active day and his morning in particular had been very lazy, as he expected to be suffering more from his accident. Binge watching ‘Ted Lasso’; and ‘For All Mankind’ was just the relaxation he needed and even though his day was interrupted with a trip to the mall, once they were home it was straight back in front of the television to watch a very silly and funny horror ‘The Babysitter. With a promise to himself to really try and learn some mandarin and some serious nursing of his injuries he took to bed and invited they sandman in.
Nicholas Quirke was venturing forth in Beijing again on 11 September 2020 once he had finalised the admin that had been occupying his time. It felt good to have a purpose beyond escaping the din that the builders continued to make and felt liberated as accompanied Peng on a cycle ride to the dental hospital before parting company to explore the Museum of Ancient Architecture, housed in the Temple of Agriculture. It was a surprising space comprising temples of Heaven and Earth and where, once a ceremony had been completed, the Ming and Qing Emperors would actually don ordinary attire and work the farmland. Aside from enjoying the temple atmosphere and once again feeling the tide of History with every step and glance he made, the exhibition halls were a truly fascinating dive into the the history of Chinese Architecture, many of which examples he had actually seen during his visits to the cities around China and in particular he was delighted that only the day before he had seen the unique Tianjing Temple Pagoda which featured in the exhibits. There were many wonderful models of pagodas, and examples of the construction techniques used throughout the long history of building and design in China and Beijing. He was surprised that it was 3pm by the time Peng’s long ordeal at the dentist was over and he had exhausted the exhibits to be examined. They met up and cycled to the famed Metal Hands coffee house, though as only a tea drinker there was absolutely nothing for him to drink and he had to endure watching his friend enjoy a coffee and an OTT cream desert. He took the opportunity to do some work, before the left the Hutong and headed to Beijing Fun and the Muji hotel where he enjoyed a tea and some sweet potato fries. He had intended to make some more soup for supper but as it was late they decided to eat, cheaply and simply and Peng suggested a meal of Xiang Guo, another dish where, like hot pot, you chose the ingredients and it came in a great big bowl which was shared. He was happy to set of for a third venue and was happy to be reunited with his GoPro and as he wielded the camera and kept an eye on the couple on a scooter who kept coming dangerously close to him he almost collided with vehicle and once again came a cropper, crashing down to gravel on his bike on which the brake failed to work. The gasps from the many witnesses seemed more humiliating than the the pain from his grazed and seriously bloodied knee. After cleaning the wounds with an alcohol wipe, he bravely got back on and they made their way to the restaurant. The food was delicious and for a while he forgot the pain he was in. They walked back 3 km to the apartment and started to watch Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which seemed to be a meditation on relationships and death and as he wanted something light and silly this was not fare he was in the mood for. Instead he treated his wounds with iodine wrapped his knee up in a bandage and went to sleep.