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 Parking again and revelling in the colours of autumn on 21 October 2020 during a hike into Xiangshan Park, better known as Fragrant Hills Park. After a couple of relatively inactive days, though he had walked to Caishikau for tea on 19 October and watched the season finale episode of Lovecraft Country which, had proved to be an engrossing, crazy and emotional series, he was anxious that he did not let the days slide into a stupor and had therefore made plans to see what was certainly the last great park he hadn’t visited in Beijing. A former Imperial garden built in 1186 during the Jin Dynasty and favoured retreat for Emperors throughout the ensuing Dynasties. Despite being named Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure many of the relics in the park were damaged by foreign troops. In 1860 when British troops burnt the old Summer Palace to the ground and in 1900 by the Eight Nation Alliance. Though since 1949, the Chinese government has been engaged in restoration, creating one of the major tourist attractions in Beijing, especially in autumn arrives when the natural scenery in the park turns spectacular, with fiery red smoke tree leaves covering the mountain side. Until now he had avoided seeing the park as he hoped he would see it in all its glory. Mid- October was meant to be its zenith and he decided that he would make the trip. It was a wonder to him that he seen Winter, Spring and Summer in the city and he was now able to enjoy the metropolis in fall. All four seasons had been lived through and the sense of privilege was strongly felt as he made the hour long journey by subway and train to the foothills of the West Mountains to see the park. An old Chinese gentleman he had stood next to on part of the subway journey was also on the train and found Nicholas a seat. They struck up a conversation through translate but they were not going in the same direction and thus parted ways. Which was probably a good thing as it was still quite a walk from the station top the gate, from where he began his hike to the Incense Burner peak, the highest in the park. He passed first through the reconstructed Fragrant Temple and then found a path that was relatively deserted, with only a couple of other visitors on that hike from peak to peak. He was excited to discover a stone screen erected by Emperor Qianlong in 1745 which still had the outlines of portraits he had drawn on them. It was a long and arduous climb and walk and though the hillsides were not as red as he had imagined; autumn seemed to be dragging its heels a little in 2020, there was still enough dazzling colour against a clear blue sky to make the effort worth in. As he neared the park there was a plethora of visitors. The Cable car was inactive which meant that everyone had slogged their way via a more direct route. At the Incense Burner peak he treated himself to Glazed Hawthorn on a stick, a little like a toffee apple and which he had eaten once in Gubei Water Town. It was then the downward walk which in many ways was more painful on the calf’s, though at the bottom he was treated to a viewing of Mao’s residence which was reassuring in its simplicity. The walk had taken most of the day and by the time he reached home there was another shimmering sunset to end the day. Sleep as always was preceded by another movie and ‘The Secrets We Keep’ proved to be an excellent, thoughtful and tense thriller.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling pleased with himself on 18 October 2020. He had risen to the challenge of stepping into a classroom and had met with some success. It was an early start for him as he needed to get across the city to the school. As Peng, who was running in a marathon needed to go in the same direction they travelled together. It was a cool but sunny day and he arrived at the school with plenty of time to prepare and was feeling relaxed and confident. He was shown the room he would be teaching in and he asked for the resources but unfortunately they didn’t know where they were. He called upon his limited skills as a draughtsman to draw the food vocabulary on the board. He had four charges, Oscar, Cindy, Michael and Apple. They were lively and engaged and were involved in the tasks as they progressed through the exercises they were expected to do. The children seemed to enjoy themselves He enjoyed himself and allowed the lesson to overrun slightly as he discovered he needed to set homework. Some of the lesson was videod as the parents wanted to know how they were learning. When the lesson had finished the school head seemed very pleased with how things had worked out and asked if he would be free for the next 12 lessons and if he would be prepared to take a class for more advanced students on a Wednesday. He had to admit that he did not know if he would be available after the next 4 classes as he had to request permission to stay. His feeling was he had acquitted himself well and that it looked as if he had some employment. In high spirits he headed for the grand canal where Peng was running. It was a long way out and took him an hour and more to locate Peng. Nevertheless he had a good walk along the canal bank and enjoyed some bridge architecture and yet more waterway landscape. Peng was exhausted and suffering with cramp by the time he finished but they still managed to find the energy to go and eat. They returned to the restaurant they had gone to when first released from quarantine and though his favoured lotus root burger did not have quite the same perfect taste as when he had originally eaten there it was still a delicious satisfying meal. It was late by the time they got home and needing something mindless to occupy them they watched ‘A Babysitters Guide to Monster Hunting’. It was utterly vacuous but it suited the mood and prepared him for a deep satisfying sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was excited but nervous about the teaching opportunity that had presented itself and by 17 October 2020 he had managed to wring himself into a puddle of quiet anxiety. When he had envisioned doing some educating in China it had been at a college with adults. Now, the prospect of teaching four years olds in a foreign language was more than a little daunting. Though he prided himself on his rapport with youngsters it was going to require more thought, planning and expertise than his usual tomfoolery and gurning could achieve. The prospect of the possibility of some regular work bought with it the realisation that this now was more than just an extended visit to a foreign land, he was actually living here and that like the life he had left behind him in the UK it came with responsibility. Therefore each day, fresh, new and unusual as it felt, especially now that he was seeing the city was in full autumnal bloom, was becoming just another day. Since he had accepted the assignment his days had been spent reviewing the pages from the course book he had been sent. Though it occupied his mind he hadn’t let it overwhelm him and he had still managed to get out and roam about the city. On 15 October he and Peng took to the streets and cycled the 10 miles to Ti Koo li, once again peddling past his favourite view, to the Page One Bookstore to do some work in the cafe there. They went to a strange restaurant which seemed shut but they were ushered in and sat down. The waiters were apparently on their way. Lights did get turned on bat as the staff didn’t know which food was vegan or not they left. Next they tried an exotic looking Mexican Restaurant in a nearby Mall but was nothing on the menu for even Vegetarians. Third time lucky they went to QMex where they overate. On the 16 October, another glorious Autumn day, in addition to watching videos of Chinese English and exercise he cycled to a park and had a late afternoon tea at InWe. The adventure for the day was his walk back through the Hutong where after one wrong turn he got completely lost and had to be guided out by a social volunteer. 17 October presented him with a challenge after a trip to Livat Mall and another Ikea expedition as he discovered that his employer had misunderstood his question about the age range. He had prepared a class for 4 year olds. He was in fact to be teaching four 7 – 8 children. As his preparation had been around the course book it didn’t require too much adaptation and thankfully he had found out in time and wasn’t going to be delivering a kindergarten class to the older kids. Peng was running a Marathon the next day and Nicholas would meet him en route after his class so for both it was food, film and an early sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was not looking forward to the now monthly ritual of visiting the Exit/Entry bureau on 14 October 2020. His last request to extend his stay was greeted with a gruelling interrogation about flights which had put him into a panic. The result was that he had composed documentation and details of the situation in England and of the lack of flights on the 18th when his current permission to stay ran out. He felt confident that he was prepared and talking with his sister the night before had helped calm him but the possibility of his request being rejected was ever present. He cycled the whole nine miles, even though it was cloudy and grey and his route through the city on the bike filled him with pleasure. He doubted that he would ever tire of peddling along Chang’an Avenue past Tiananmen Square and Gate redolent with its ancient and modern history. The storm clouds that loured over the Bureau when he arrived appeared as a bad omen and although he navigated the process easily once he was in front of the official he was immediately in for a turbulent time. It had been a long wait and after being questioned he was told he needed to provide 30 days worth of evidence from airlines that he couldn’t get back to the UK. His heart sank and he argued that it was not a safe place to return to and how could he provide that proof. The official took over his phone and showed him where he could get flight details. It took a while for his anxiety to settle before he realised that the official was actually helping him. It still meant he had to get 30 pages of information of details printed but it was clear that there were barely any flights and where there were, they were expensive and it was prohibitive. After another tortuous few hours he left having been granted another month. He was relieved but exhausted by the process and needed a tea. He made his way walking and by bike to Teasure at the APM mall where, to regain his equilibrium, he had a tea. Upon checking his messages he was surprised to discover the school he had signed up with were asking him if he could teach a class on Sunday. It was as if he was getting a reward for the stressful time he had endured and he immediately agreed to take the class. His spirits were uplifted and it was in this positive mood that he began the journey back home, though not before calling in at a nearby mall and collecting another cake for Peng. As he cycled he witnessed another beautiful sunset across Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. It would be his first teaching assignment and he was going to need to prepare thoroughly for the task which it transpired was for a class of 4 year olds, though he was concerned that it was a 2 hour session. He found it difficult to settle down for the evening’s movie but had no problem in allowing himself to succumb to the pleasures of oblivion.
Nicholas Quirke was still full of cold on 10 October 2020 but he was determined to make sure that he got things done and amongst the admin tasks he needed to complete were a monthly visit to the bank, a trip to the post office to send off a birthday card and a visit to the silversmith to clean his now blackened cross and chain. Work was being done on more windows in the block and the noise was unbearable again. It was a sunny day but the temperature had dropped dramatically while they had been away and he was going to need to wear more layers. He left early to complete his missions and it was good to back on a bike and cycling round Beijing. The bank was an easy task and was completed quickly. The Post Office proved more tiresome and he was horrified to find that he spent nearly 2 hours to send 1 card. Firstly he queued to get an envelope on which he wrote the ‘to and from’ addresses. He then queued again to get it sent. The person in front of him had problems and to his relief his wait was shortened. It was stamped and ready to go but to his horror the assistant realised that he had put the addresses the wrong way round the ‘From’ address on the left and the ‘To’ address on the right. This meant he had to go through the whole process again and it was straight to the back of the queue. The effort for the one card was too much and he began to understand why Peng hated the Post Office and wouldn’t go anymore. It did feel like a major achievement and once it was sent it was back on the bike and heading to the mall where he would find a silversmith. It was less problematical but it did take him a while to locate the stall. He was able to communicate his needs using Apple Translate and although it was another 20 minute wait while they got to work on making his cross all shiny again. He had completely missed Lunch and he decided to spend the rest of the day in his favourite tea house. Home, exercise on the treadmill, a film and sleep and his Monday was complete.
Nicholas Quirke was unable to do much on the morning of 8 October 2020 as his cold had escalated and aside from enjoying a traditional Xi’an breakfast of Noodles he gave himself up to the malaise that had overcome him and he lounged listlessly on his bed. They had a 6 hour train journey ahead of them to Beijing and he needed to save his resources for what now seemed a test of endurance. They were on a direct subway line to the train station and had decided to take the subway, which by the time they left was heaving again. There was a strange system of boarding the train which was through a gate to the doors rather than just getting on. He was concerned that he might not get on but they managed it but had two stand the whole way. A seat did come free but he did not have the energy to fight for it. He had a slight concern that his temperature was higher and that he might not get on the train but although it was slightly elevated it was not enough to cause concern For once on the High Speed Train back too Beijing he did not have a window seat and as it seemed too much to film and photograph the landscape past his stranger neighbour he relaxed into a state of inertia. He slept, organised some photos, did some work on his blog and the time passed surprisingly quickly. To stop the continual blowing of his nose, he stuffed tissues up his nostrils to block the flowing mucus. When they were finally home there was unpacking and everything thrown into the laundry basket a shower take away supper and sitting down to enjoy the season finale of ‘Raised By Wolves’. He knew as his head touched the pillow that the next couple of days were going to be spent in a stupor of recovery and indeed other than an excursion to Joy City in Xidan where Peng enjoyed a cake at Lady M, 9 October 2020 was spent indoors indulging in the binge watching of TV series ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ and ‘Lovecraft County’ At Xidan he noted there was a huge floral display which had been created for National holiday and had a particularly poignant message. Over the 2 days of downing of tools he also took the opportunity to resume some exercise and on the treadmill and walked for an hour watching ‘Hamilton’. He found it extremely pleasurable to be doing nothing but realised that this was not a sustainable practice. There was work to be done. He was going to have to prepare for another visit to the exit/entry bureau and really had to give some thought about his future. He could not stay indefinitely without a plan and as there was still no word from the school about teaching he was writing that experience off. If he returned home there was the possibility of work with Phileas Fogg and some PA work but with no home in Brighton to return to and no real guaranteed income as COVID19 was escalating in the British Isles again, it didn’t seem a great option. With these thought whirring in his head he resolved that on waking from his sleep he was going to refocus.
Nicholas Quirke was sensing his trip to the west of China was coming to an end on 7 October 2020. Xining was the penultimate stop before they headed back to Beijing and he had to begin preparing for the next phase of his stay. He was feeling a little down and this was not helped by the fact that he had the symptoms of a full blown cold coursing through him. Sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, low energy levels and travelling in this condition was not a pleasant experience. It was another day when they had a flight in the late afternoon which, meant there was time to explore the city. They planned to see the Beichan Toulou Temple, a Taoist site at the foot of a barren hill where there were more cave temples and shrines of 1700 years old as well as a pagoda and amazing views of the city. After returning the car which was really dirty they returned to the hotel where bags were packed and they checked out. Before the temple they went to the restaurant Peng had wanted to try to get a booking, but once again it’s was full and meant waiting. Instead they bought Barley cakes to take away which, were delicious. The temple was free and it soon became apparent why. The caves and the Hanging Temple were closed as much of the site seemed to be under reconstruction. Nicholas was slightly relieved as he was not looking forward to the steep climb in his ailing condition. What they did see was colourful and touching. He also was able to photograph and record some of the interiors for Jess who had been asking what they were like inside. He felt inspired to follow some of the rituals that he witnessed being practiced, encountered a litter of pups running round the Ming Dynasty Linguan Hall, and endured an awkward moment when a groundsman told Peng to wear his face mask but as no other visitors were asked he made a fuss and started telling them to put on masks before advising the culprit that he had helped him let the other visitors know. He particularly liked the reason for the existence of the Lingguan Hall which, was dedicated to a Song Dynasty personage who ‘hated injustice like poison, praised virtue and punished vice, removing evil and magic’. They took a walk along the Huangshui river which they had seen flowing fiercely further upstream but here there had been a variety of creative landscaping solutions to slow the water’s rush into the Yellow River. The temperature was cold, and he had started to feel really down with the cold and though he had been taking some medication it was not helping him recover. After collecting their bags from the hotel and saying goodbye to the doorman who had taken a shine to him, they headed to the airport to get a flight to Xi’an. He was a little disappointed as he had thought he would have more time in Xi’an and was hoping to visit the Opera House and meet some of the people he had met in Suzhou but the time was limited and he was feeling really sick, though he allowed himself once they had arrived to go and see the Tang Pagoda and eat out. As they didn’t arrive till after 8 pm it was a rush and once they were out it was extremely crowded, the worst he had seen it. His memories of Xi’an from 2018 were of packed subways, worse than London at rush hour, and queues to get onto the trains and it felt like nothing had changed. The night sights were good, but Peng realised the mistake in going out as there had been some immense concert in the area they were in. They managed to find cycles and get back to the hotel. Medication had been ordered and he took it as soon as it arrived. His breath was short, his nose stuffed, his coughing and sneezing worse but he still managed to fall asleep.
Nicholas Quirke was expecting to be in a state of awe on his trip on 6 October 2020 as the scenery of Zhangye Geo Park promised some of the most unusual and astonishing that the extraordinary earth had over billions of years produced. He was definitely not disappointed even though clouds had gathered to give a gloomy pallor to the day . He was however, feeling mildly irritated again by the thousands of people that despite the early hour had already turned up to view the parks treasures. It was still the week long national holiday and after the ravages on time and money and freedom following lockdown China’s travel industry was seeing the movement on its mainland of 637 million people. Spending during the holiday of 1.6trillion Yuan the equivalent of 183 Billion with the movie box office alone generating 3.7 billion, 424 million pounds, Evan Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, was now a popular destination for Chinese tourists with The Yellow Crane Tower topping the list of the most sought-after attractions for this Golden Week. Naturally there were going to be a lot of people around given these figures and he was going to have to suck it up and deal with the crowds. The site was extremely organised and once again they had to take a bus to the various viewing platforms. There were 4 viewing sites with a bus laid on to take visitors to the next location with multiple areas and walkways to enable views from different angles. Helicopter and camel rides to give the Silk Road experience, came at a premium but whatever you could afford, however long it took to get around there was no denying the vista of coloured hills and shapes the earth had wrought the landscape into was staggering. Shades of green, of reds, yellows, browns and whites, creating an immense surreal painting. It was another outing where he was photographed and starred and pointed at. He had a surprise too on the return journey to Xining through a mountain pass they had travelled the day before. The sun drenched autumnal landscape of rock and pasture had overnight transformed into an austere winter scene and it was difficult to reconcile the two. Even the temple in the rock they had explored looked forbidding compared to the colourful inviting space he had experienced. It seemed winter had come which did not bode well for their trip to Gangshiqia peak in the eastern Qilian mountain range. At 5,254 it was one of the highest peaks in China. It was not going to be possible to reach the summit but they got as far as they could via road and reached the base of the climbing route. It was very cold and the altitude caused them shortness of breath. It was an amazing sight though once again it transpired that the county of Menyuan Hui was also closed to foreigners without a permit and once again he was tasting a forbidden laowai fruit. It was still a long drive back to Xining and dusk was upon them as they drove through the mountain peaks giving spectacular views of the valleys and the mountain tops. They were revisiting the hotel they had stayed at and were given an upgrade to a suite. Nicholas felt the onset of cold symptoms as he prepared for sleep.