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 passing through Heaven’s Gate on 7 August 2020 and was finding superlaves to describe the splendour and majesty of the landscapes surrounding Zhangjiaje difficult to keep adapting. Each new walk, experience, view seemed to outshine the last. Could his jaw drop in astonishment much more? Yet it did. Limbs aching, feet sore, but spirits willing, the trip up the majestic Tianmen mountain, 4,932w feet, was an absolute must and if it meant taking a cable car, the longest in the world, over the city and into the foothills and to the summit then so be it. They went to the ticket office, which was incredibly busy and learned that they would have to wait 2 hours till 10am to go in the Cable car or they could take a bus, climb and then return via the Cable Car. They chose option B, not wanting to hang around for 2 hours. The journey took them through the foothills and partway up the mountain to a station where there was an open air theatre which looked like it had the most incredible natural backdrop. From here they got a shorter cable car which carried about 24 people across ravines and up the steep incline, depositing them at the base of the 900 steps up to Heavens gate, a huge portal in the rock, through which cloud wraithed itself in a very mystical way. From herein it was a laborious climb up the steep steps, an endeavour which everyone around was engaged in and one in which as the only Laowai on the mountain, he was encouraged in with greetings and smiles From his fellow travellers. He felt good getting to the gate which was cavernous once Inside and they still had to get onto the summit, which was achieved by travelling up countless escalators. There was plenty to do on the surface, including visiting a temple various viewing platforms from which one could see the amazing views and walk a sometimes terrifying and dizzying path along the cliff edge. The final challenge was to get down the mountain via the cable car which took an hour of patient waiting to achieve. It was early evening by the time they got back to the hotel and the will to do anything more had deserted them which meant another takeaway including more glutinous rice deserts and watch more of the touching film ‘So Long My Son’. Weariness overcame him and he allowed sleep to suffuse him.
Nicholas Quirke was wrenched from his sleep at 5.45 am on 6 August 2020 by the sounds of a military band. He leaped from his bed and rushed to the. Window to see a white uniformed ensemble leading a funeral cortège with coffin and a seemingly endless parade of cars all flashing their lights. It was an amazing sight but surreal in the early hours of the morning. It was another early start and they were heading back to NBC the Wulingyuan Scenic Area bit this time to Suoxiou Nature reserve, to see the another part of the dramatic landscapes from a different angle . The temperature had soared during the bus ride and they cooled down with a Starbucks iced tea and coffee. Having decided that taking the cable car up TIanzi Mountain and walking down was the sensible thing to do after the climb of the previous day and they made their way by bus to the terminal. The views as they rose through the pillars were almost indescribable. Passing the towering structures on the way to the summit of it seemed inconceivable that 65 million years ago the earths crust has moved in ways that created this forest of stone. Up amongst the clouds there was A somber light drizzle, giving the view an ethereal and mystical atmosphere. It passed and they began the descent through a path which oddly no else seemed to be following. The vista was continually filling them with awe and there were some truly heart stopping moments as they stood on precipices and looked down, across and along this mystic space. There was still climbing involved even though they were descending and he did feel amazed by some of the people he saw who had endeavoured to climb to the peak. A group of elderly women, families and once again the sedan chair carriers. On the way down, after pulling a muscle in his foot and taking a rest he finally parted with his beloved Moscot sunglasses on a rock. Peng returned to the spot for him, but to no avail they had parted company for good. Once they reached the bottom a 10 mile visual gallery, awaited hem, which actually turned out to be Chinese miles of approximately 5km. They made their way to another peak in the Xihai Forest Park area, which was reached by a glass elevator and was another jaw dropping visual treat. They then walked to the ‘First Bridge’, a natural bridge across the summits of 2 pillars formed millions of years previously. There was of course a temple at the top and once they had come down from it they headed back. However, the only way down, other than walking again was by the cable car they came up on. Limbs ached and rest was desperately needed and they ordered a take away rather than dine out. Sleep when it came was deep and fitful.
Nicholas Quirke was wishing the day away on 4 August 2020 and counting down the hours till their flight from Beijing to Zhangjiajie. Of course, he needed to collect his results from the hospital, and as he hadn’t been dragged away from his home in the night, he felt safe to assume all was well and indeed , all was well. To kill some time not only did he walk back feom the hospital but he stopped at a cafe for some tea then headed back to the apartment to complete the final preparations for the trip. He indulged himself in one of his now favourite treats, a red bean Ice lolly, which he not only found very tasty, but came wrapped in retro Chinese paper and appealed to sense of style. The flight from Beijing Capital International Airport was three hours and they experienced some turbulence but it didn’t bother Nicholas who finally had then opportunity to watch ‘Train from Busan’ which was an engrossing and surprisingly touching zombie film. It was night by the time they landed and he was surprised that he had to get off the plane first As laowai there was a specific channel they needed to go through. And once it was confirmed that they were ok it was straight put of the airport which was a mere 4 from the city centre and their hotel. It was a shame that he could see nothing of the landscape that had lurked in his imagination for decades but come the morning and another dream would be realised. The room on the 14th floor was comfortable and they ordered a noodle takeaway. He was looking forward to sampling the Hunan’s renowned spicy cooking and the dry noodle dish did not disappoint. They had an early start, which meant an early night.
Nicholas Quirke was speechless on 5 August 2020 when he reached the summit of Huangshi Mountain and surveyed in full the landscape that had been in his imagination for decades. It had required an early start but the night had been a disturbed one with the television suddenly bursting into life at 3am and waking him. This also signalled an air con failure, which meant calls to reception caused further disruption to his slumber. Consequently his mind was not focussed and when he inserted a memory card into his GoPro it went in incorrectly and damaged the mechanism. Breakfast was cancelled in the hotel due to the power failure in the night and though they were serving takeaway food there was nothing he could eat and so was given 3 apples! It was not enough and he was feeling sulky when they left for Wulingyuan Core Scenic Area and Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. He got a congee and a Youtiao (Deep Fried Twisted Dough), which meant he did eat something before the trek ahead of them. It was an hour bus ride away on a beaten up bus, bumpy, no air con, randomly stopping to pick up locals or anyone who flagged it down. It felt authentic. Even outside the park area the colossal, towering peaks were visible and provided a breathtaking view but once they were wandering through the park, all initial expectations were surpassed. He was suprised to find a colony of monkeys in the parks patiently enjoying their habitat, picking fleas, feeding their babies and waiting for they humans to drop food or to be carrying plastic bags which must they had ascertained contain food. They were at Yellow rock Mountain and had decided to climb to the top and get the cable car down. As they started in the cool shade of the forest everything seemed easy and gentle but as the climb got steeper and the heat more intense, the sweat began to run like a river and Nicholas’s shirt was soaked making it feel very uncomfortable. They passed a few fellow travellers, but it was very few who chose the path they were on and each time they encountered people coming down the mountain they commented on how brave he was to be climbing, which as most Chinese seemed to think he was seventy; “You Westerners look so old” was a compliment. It was a massive effort, which he did feel a little shamed by when he read the ‘Sedan Termination’ sign and realised that people actually carried people part way up the mountain in sedan chairs, yet when he reached the top and the incredible vistas opened up to him he felt quite emotional and trying to record a video rendered him speechless. He found himself momentarily the centre of attention as took photos from the temple at the top of the mountain and several people asked to have their photo with him. Once rested they toured the Huangshi village and visited every viewing platform from which the incredible quartz sandstone structures, formed 300 million years ago, could be viewed, each with a unique name, ‘Star Gathering stage，‘Five Finger Peak‘， ’Golden Turtle in the Clouds’, etc and offering an alternative view of the majestic peaks. Every vantage point, every scenic stop was awe inspiring and when they finally took the cable car down the mountain past through the sandstone forest he was felling exhausted not only by the climbing and walking but also by the landscapes sheer beauty. When they reached the river, Golden whip stream, with its beautiful clear water it was a huge relief to bathe his feet in the cold crystal clear water. An old villager, scavenging for wild vegetables spoke with them and once they were refreshed, they set off on a walk along the river, encountering more monkeys, a spring named ‘Longevity’ from which they gulped plenty of the refreshing sweet liquid. They got a bus back to the city and found a restaurant to eat supper in which felt like a truly traditional eating house serving hot, spicy Hunan fare and which cost only £8.00 for both of them. Peng ordered some black sesame soup with glutinous rice balls for desert and the shattered pair finally retired for the night.
Nicholas Quirke was only just back from a sojourn in the mountains and already he was making preparations on 4 August 2020 to go away again on the 5th of August. It was a 10 day trip to one of the worlds most extraordinary landscapes. It was a desire he had nourished for some time and the reality was now upon him. With only one day between returning from Chengde and the flight to Zangjiajie he was going to have to get a lot of work done, including a new COVID19 test which was his first task. He also needed to do some banking and decided to visit his China bank on the way. Finances sorted and it was onto the Beijing Friendship Hospital for an updated Nucleic Acid Test. He was familiar with the routine now so it was swift and efficient, Back at the apartmentt it was all work. Cooking an asparagus soup, ironing, packing and some writing. That evening Peng has booked to see a chinese animation film, Mr Miao, and as he worked Nicholas watched The Guardian, a previous film by the director. They cycled to Xidan and ate at a restaurant in a mall he surprisingly had not been in before. To his disappointment there were no English subtitles. Whilst the film looked amazing,the depth of its content was lost to him as he tried to work out what was going on and which proved to be an exhausting exercise. He saw some karaoke booths, which he found fascinating. They walked home and then finished the evening with the end of the film they had been watching the night before. It somehow made the Mr Miao failure fade from his mind and allowed him to sleep fitfully.
Nicholas Quirke was going back to Beijing on 2 August 2020 but not before capturing a few more hours worth of Chengde’s natural beauty. By 9am, they had packed, checked out (where he had to sign a declaration that he had left the hotel with a red fingerprint!) and were on their way to experience the geological novelty of Sledge Hammer Peak National Forest Park. The peak, famed as the ‘the Thumb of God’ did bear a striking resemblance to opposable digits that separate humankind from the majority of the animal kingdom and led to the evolution of man. It would require a ninety minute hike through the mountains in blazing sunshine or a 10 minute cable car ride to reach the summit. Nicholas was adamant that he would prefer the shorter option and they would walk down and enjoy the other sights in the park which included, Baoshan Temple, Frog Creek, Toad stone, and the Pule Temple. The views from the cable car were stunning and it was a dramatic moment when Qingchuifeng came into view. It was a short climb to the rock and its views of the city and surrounding mountains were spectacular whilst the protruding rock a geological wonder, wider at the top than the bottom, was certainly a miracle that it survived. The rock certainly lived up to its name, but a school boy spirit took over them and a series of photos from a variety of angles kept them childishly amused. From here they started the descent which was, despite his fears of travelling through the undulating valleys and peaks surprisingly easy and led them directly to the beautiful Pule temple. With its design based on the Temple of Heaven and predominant Tibetan influences its golds and reds were vibrant and luminous in the mountain scenery. This visit marked the end of their stay in Chengde, which certainly received a ‘thumbs up’ from them both. They started back to the capital on a journey that proved to be slow due to more car accidents and two police checks within kilometres of each other at the Jingling Great Wall pass.
Nicholas Quirke was finding Chengde very much to his liking on 1 August 2020. The threatened rain had not materialised, though torrential rain caused floods and wreaked havoc in the Beijing they had left behind, which he thought was a sign that the gods were on his side. The Mountain Resort had been the summer retreat for the Qing dynasty emperors from the start of the 18th century and a particular favourite of Emperor Quinlong and the villainous Dowager Empress Cixi, who from the age of 27, following the death of Emperor Xianfeng, organised a palace coup and ruled China from behind the scenes. Their tour of the immense mountainous resort was one of surprising freedom and was packed with incident, danger and fun. They had chosen to walk round the park to see the various relics and not take a tour buss which seemed to run every two minutes and repeatedly forced them off the path, to the point when, after Peng had an aggressive exchange with one of the drivers, they went off the road and took their own path through the forest. This led to them following a map through a deserted over grown and died out river bed, which he became convinced hid poisonous snakes and saw them clambering through dense woodland up a steep mountainside to a Pavilion in the Clouds. The adventure spurred them further afield and when they came across the the mini great wall which ran through the mountains they clambered onto It and began their isolated walk. It was a exhausting but thrilling walk and the views of the Little Potala Palace and the mountains was Spectacular.They had walked for four hours rarely a break other than to drink tea and have a couple of garlic pea snacks and when they reached a point where they could sit down and eat, disappointment at the bag of water chestnuts Peng provided caused a moment of hysteria. Once they left the vast park they found electric scooters and made their way to the Puning Temple, another beautiful and unexpected treasure, which was still functioning as a place of worship. By now the sun was blazing, and the colours of the temple buildings, the flags and the shrines literally shimmered and burnished in the light. Built in 1755 the Mahayana hall housed a Gilded wooden statue of Thousand Hand and and Thousand-Eye Kwan-yin, which at 23.511m is the largest in the world and was a truly wondrous sight to behold. Nicholas was quite overwhelmed and even more surprised that they were allowed to take photos. Amongst the many flags and dedications he was intrigued to see thousands of padlocks decorating one of the outlying shrines. Finally, tired and hungry, they rode back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner which was in a traditional style restaurant with separate dining rooms full of noisy customers. The appearance of a Laowai in the local eatery caused a lot of interest and he was again the subject of many stares. He had been the focus of much attention in Chengde and he was often greeted and spoken to and gazed at which was unlike his experience in Beijing. They finished the day with a walk through the streets where they momentarily enjoyed a popular band performing in the square. There was more mountains the next day and it was wisdom not fatigue that sent them to their beds. Unfortunately the Air Con broke and they enjoyed the presence of a technician and a receptionist in the room trying to resolve the problem with another technician on the phone giving instructions. Once they left it was time for some shut eye.
Nicholas Quirke was discovering another city, another part of China’s history on 31 July 2020. Peng had arranged for them to to the mountains to Chengde and the mountain resort which had been the summer retreat for the Qing Dynasty Emperors. An area laden with history and he was excited to be on the journey through more spectacular mountain scenery. It was however a trip fraught with delays and incident. Stoping for petrol at a service station where there was none, a police car blocking their progress along the road. Re-routed with no directions due to a road accident. Stuck in a village where the car got scratched, twice. Following a road that led to an eventual dead end till finally after 4 hours they reached Chengde and the Hotel. After registering at the Hotel, where the room was upgraded to one with a fantastic view on the 16th floor. They were to early to check in, they had a tea in Starbucks and proceeded to work. Nicholas had a surprise 20 minute examination with the Online English school he was now doing some work for. They lunched on noodles where he got lots of stares and then checked in before they went to purchase a block ticket for 4 venues, the first of which they took a Didi to visit that day ‘The Putuo Zoncheng temple built by Emperor Qinlong, in an extravagant feast urge, as an 80th birthday present for his mother and to celebrate his 60th, is modelled on The Putala Palace in Lhasa. It was an exotic, expansive and beautiful space and full of surprises. It looked very different to any of the temples he had previously seen. He was again a figure of interest and received more than usual stares and greetings including a couple of children, one aged 9 who wanted to practice their very proficient English. The interior of the huge red palace was an astonishing labyrinth of buildings within buildings. And from the top, the final reward was a pagoda with a gold roof and a view of the wall built to surround the mountain summer palace of the Emperor. The city did no operate a national bike scheme but the did provide electronic bikes and Nicholas had his first ever ride on one back back to the city. They did some sight seeing along the way and looked for somewhere to eat. He was accosted by another child who wanted to speak in English with and show him the fish he had caught. ‘Those are too small” Nicholas said, “You will have to throw them back”. To his surprise the child understood. The restaurant was very smart and they were served one of the most exotic dishes he had seen swirling with dry ice. It had been a very long day and when they finally got back to the hotel he was ready to collapse into bed and sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was more than happy with a day that revolved around film on 30 July 2020. The message from Harvey that he had been accepted at Goldsmiths for a Masters in film making started his day off well as did his exchange with Kim on the banning of Gone With the Wind as a racist film. He was meeting a young graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, which was not only one of the worlds most respected film schools but it was also where his beloved 5th generation directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige trained. He took the subway and then cycled 5km to the cafe which had been specially selected as it was near the Academy and in the district Lun lived in. Despite Lun’s basic English skills and Nicholas’s virtually non existent Mandarin they managed, using translator to have quite an in depth conversation about the industry, which Nicholas found illuminating. Lun had graduated that year but because of the virus he still had not completed his final piece and there would be no ceremony for his group till 2021. He also talked about the. Generations of film makers and the struggles to make a film In China that was an independent voice. Though there was no financial help from the government Films could not be released if they did not conform to the standards expected from the CCP. There were many of the country’s most respected film makers who had previously challenged the constraints, Zheng Yimou, Chen Kaige and Lou Ye, and had been banned from making films for a period of years, who now complied to the structures in place in order to keep working. He was fascinated too to learn about the ‘Generations’ tiering and how a reputation was earned. Lun shared the story and theme of the feature film he was planning and they talked extensively about Chinese films. Though they were not able to go into the Academy, which was celebrating its 70th year, due to its closure because of Covid 19, But Lun offered to walk him to the buildings and they could have a look. It was directly opposite the Yuan Relic wall which he had been to with Peng, and after he had been shown the campus, which he felt was like visiting hallowed ground, and he had posed next to the sign, they went for a walk to continue their talk. It was 2pm by the time they parted with promises to meet again and talk more about film. He felt quite pleased when Lun asked if he could call him teacher. In a day that had dwelt on movie matters it was appropriate that he should end the day with a visit to the cinema again. This time he went on his own to an old picture house close to Caishikou to see ‘The Message’ a story of espionage during the Japanese invasion. It was a gruesome and engrossing tale which he was completely involved in till a fight broke out between a couple and a young man in the same row. He had no idea what it was about but nothing would stoop them from arguing, screaming at each other and when it started to get violent, Nicholas had to go and get the cinema management to come and intervene. It was quite a drama In itself, the young, aggressive and apparently pregnant woman screaming at the other guy who to Nicholas’s horror punched her. After about 30 minutes everything finally quietened down and the film was restarted with some frustrating errors at the point it had been disturbed. Unbelievably the protagonists were allowed to return to their seats but the tensions were still present and eventually the couple left only to be followed by the young man and they rowed again in the corridor. The young man came back and continued to watch the film till after 15 minutes the lights went on again and the police came in and took him away. Finally Nicholas and the other customers were able to watch the film in peace. He cycled home and finished packing for the early start the next morning for the weekend away in Chengde. He got to speak with Harvey and congratulate him on his success and naturally their talk turned to film and it felt like a circle closing on a day dominated by movie matters.