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
The overwhelming sense of Deja Vu I found myself experiencing on the 28th of December had less to do with traveling to the Chinese Visa Office in London, than the recognition that it was exactly the same time of year in 2019 I harried officials for my permission to travel then. A circle is about to be completed. After almost exactly three years since having embarked on an odyssey to the Orient I find myself preparing to return to China, not as an errant traveller revelling in the chaos of adventuring across the world, but with a new purpose, a love and a job. Taking all my cards and throwing them in the air to see where they landed in January 2020 had changed my life in ways that I had never anticipated. One of those being a burning desire to find a way back to a land where the rigid rules of Covid prevented any hope of return. The 18 months since leaving China had been filled with finding a way to achieve that goal. One had been presented to me in the shape of an acting job with Universal Studios Resort Park who were looking for actors to play roles in their Harry Potter world. It had been a slow process since submitting an audition tape in July to finaly handing in my passport, with work permit and additional documentation to the officials to ‘rubber stamp’ my journey back at the end of January 2023. I arrived in China in 2020 as the early throes of a pandemic was beginning its dramatic grip on the world. I received messages entreating me to come back to England and not go to China as people were ‘dying in the streets’ and as I now prepare to embark on my trip back similar warnings, echoing the cries to halt my plans, are being heard as the recent dramatic change in China’s hard line zero tolerance policy have precipitated a wave of the virus sweeping the land. As before, my eyes are firmly fixed on the goal and with unwavering confidence in my health and China I go forth. If I learned one thing from my18 month stay in the country the representation of China in the world media was negative and bore scant veracity with what I experienced. I am excited to be returning as part of the culture opposed to being an observer as well as returning to resume a relationship which had withstood the trials of a long separation. As I handed in the completed paperwork the thrill, the fresh insights of working and living in China again would bring, filled my spirit and not even the inclement, persistent rainy weather, losing my rail ticket and a row with rail guard could dampen the joy I felt.
A Wild Goose Chase.
Nicholas Quirke was comparing his current quarantine on home soil with his 2020 Beijing experience on 15 August 2021. He had been adapting to a new apartment with a relative stranger who was also required to quarantine. He was in a foreign country, in a big city with a view from the windows of the streets below and a skyline of high rises and tower blocks. For 14 days he was confined to the flat, he was contacted every day by officials for temperature readings and to check on any signs of symptoms. He was lucky enough to be in an environment where there was a gym and a very impressive home entertainment system which meant he could exercise and indulge in his favourite pastime of movie watching. He worked out, had a new diet of Chinese Food to digest. cooked, made vegan cheesecake wrote his blog and developed a close relationship with his new friend Peng. He was anxious to get out and discover the new world but even incarcerated in an apartment as he was the experience was novel, exiting and engaging. Coming back to England meant he would have to observe a 10 day quarantine in his sisters beautiful new home deep in the West Sussex country side. There was no feeling of imprisonment, but returning to the world he knew well and unable to partake in the world proved to be more frustrating than he had anticipated. There was no gym but he could take walks and explore the rural footpaths. He took lateral flow test which required him to stick swaps so down his throat and up his nose but despite having been advised after arriving back in the country that he would be contacted to to ensure his quarantine was observed and he was ok no one had contacted him at all. The lateral flow tests said he was clear of any infraction, he completed a compulsory test on day 2 of the isolation which to his annoyance took five days to get the negative results. He played cards with his sister, watched films, wrote, contacted people, faced timed with Peng and sourced English Vegan food. On the 11th his mother and Bruce paid a visit and they had a lovely reunion lunch and catch up and on the 12th he had a reunion with his sons Harvey and Cole. Unfortunately Cole had developed a bad back and was in some pain but was really good to see them again and to be making plans to see them again on his release. He explored the area on some long walks and it was good to be reminded of how beautiful the English countryside can be. He had spent so long amongst the epic and dramatic scenery of China that he had forgotten the charms of his homelands green and pleasant lands. As he had in China he needed to be thinking about how he could earn an income and he was making tentative steps to find some employment. He was also having to think about where he would live. He was renting out his flat which was bringing in some money for him and he had some PA work and even a little online teaching, but none of this would provide him with enough to live on. The realities of life in the UK were nudging at his consciousness but being restricted to the period of isolation he still felt half of him was in China and with Peng while the other half enjoyed a relaxing country living. By the time he had reached day 8 there were no signs of any symptoms but he was up early to take the test which he would then post to the laboratory through the priority postal service. He performed the test which made him gag and then walked to the priority Post box he had sourced in the village. He felt nervous about posting it as the box showed Monday as the next collection date. He checked the online Royal Mail app and learned that there was no priority collection from the familiar red pillar that day but that there was a post office a mile and a half away. He walked back to the house, collected a mask and followed the map the app provided him with and he walked there. It was a pleasant quiet morning with the peace only disturbed by passing cyclists who all greeted him. After nearly 45 minutes he found himself in a deserted farmyard where there clearly was no post office or even a post box. The app had sent him on a wild goose chase which, even though he had enjoyed the walk proved to be even more infuriating when on his way back he called into the local shop / post office who assured him the package would indeed be collected that day from the post box he had originally been at. Thus, willing the homeland quarantine to draw to a close his first week back in Blighty came to end.
The Banquet is Over
Nicholas Quirke was walking on home soil for the first time in 18 months on 7 August 2021 and the Chinese platitude ‘there is no banquet without a finish’ played through his mind. He had been at a feast that had lasted 572 day and he had gorged himself on the orient and he was in fact stuffed. He would be digesting the repast he had been on for quite some time. The plane had landed nearly an hour early 4.45 am and as he made his way effortlessly through security and baggage collection he realised that there would be no one to greet him as he passed through into the arrivals lounge. He managed to contact his sister who was collecting him and he waited in a Cafe Nero for her. He was excited to be able to order in plain English and felt a moments irritation, similar to the Chinese failure to understand his request for ‘Green Tea’ in Mandarin when they looked at him in incomprehension when he asked if any of the cakes were Vegan. It was finally established what he was asking for and they weren’t. He contacted Peng to announce his safe arrival and didn’t have long to wait before his first reunion with a family member. He had to quarantine for 10 days and his sister had kindly offered to house him. The weather was appalling, the rain was a torrential and not un-similar to what he had been experiencing in Beijing. During his time overseas she had moved to a new home in the country and it was an added excitement to see the new country house emerge out of the rain. Health and safety first and he showered, changed and took a Lateral flow test which, though it made him gag he was pleased to see was negative. He was shown around the property and contacted played cards, ate lunch remembered just how silly he could be and began the process of adapting to being back in the UK and the end of the odyssey. Though he would see many people after his imposed isolation was ended it was going to be a while before he could thank, individually everyone who followed his exploits through his blog an social media. The contact from home, knowing friends and family were with him on the journey had helped to make him feel safe in what he sometimes felt was a wild and confusing place. Every message gave him a sense of his roots and there were many people he wanted to see and thank personally for their support. He would have to wait for those, but he hoped they would know how grateful he was for their interest and contact. Unable to break with tradition and trying to manage his jet lag he stayed awake as long as possible and watched a film, ‘Georgetown’ with Kate and Peter but despite the compelling story line he couldn’t keep his eyes open and had to go to bed and sleep though once he was between the sheets the drowsy numbness failed to take him over and he endured a disrupted night.
Nicholas Quirke was coming home on 6 August 2021. The moment that had seemed far into future time had eroded and was here. He felt calmer than he had anticipated and the anxiety about leaving was being replaced with feeling of excitement. Farewell breakfast was Jian Bing with a black sesame soy milk, glutinous rice balls and a moon cake, followed by a session making the lego roses the time went quickly and it wasn’t long before the full to bursting cases were ready to be loaded into the car and they were off to the airport. He was checked in quickly as Peng was a Cathay Pacific silver member and used his privilege to get Nicholas through。. There seemed to be big queues for Hong Kong, `Macau and Taiwan and he was relieved not to have to wait. Departures seemed more complex than normal as he had to show his passenger form and test and take numerous temperature checks. He said his said farewells to Peng who got told off for filming him entering the security check. A final farewell wave and he was on his own emptying his case as the officers searched thoroughly for anything suspicious. He had to take a train to the gate where he had to do more tests, complete a departure form and then a wait for his flight. It was a smooth journey of nearly 4 hours where he was served a vegan meal and watched a rather uninspiring film ‘A Leg’ that had looked like fun but turned out to be pedestrian and he was excited to see and fly over Hong Kong where he had intended originally to visit, but due to Covid had never had the opportunity. The closest he had got was to look across the bay from Shenzhen. He had finally made it but only at the Airport though when he tried to buy something to eat and they did not accept yuan, he knew he was in a different country. Once he had gone through security again he did not have long to wait for his eleven hour transfer flight to the UK. Shortly after take off they were served supper and then it was lights out and after watching a Korean sci fi film Seobok he had a short sleep in preparation for his arrival at Heathrow at 5.40 on the morning of the seventh.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling the date of departure advance at an alarming pace on 4 August 2021 and his day was one of final administrative acts. He was having to travel across the purlieus of Beijing and his first destination to get a UK approved COVID-19 test was at the UFH hospital in the Chaoyang district. This was a 50 minute subway ride which gave him plenty of time to ruminate on the sense of loss he was experiencing. It was fortunately a sunny though uncomfortably hot day. He found the hospital easily and did not have long to wait before, for the second time that week a swab was stuck down his throat. To enter the UK he needed to have a test that was in English and taken within 3 days of travelling which, made his previous test void. He was near the 798 art Park and thought about a visit, but as he had to pickup his health passport from the other side of the city he felt his time would be better spent cycling the 9km across the city and absorbing a final view from the bike of his erstwhile home. He enjoyed the ride immensely and he felt the air cooler as he peddled through the highways and byways recognising place he had visited. Unfortunately as he approached his destination he failed to notice that his fat fingers had somehow disturbed the map and he ended up on a 4 km detour and one that as he was really starting to feel tired from the cycling he could have done without. It was too early to get the passport and he had located a nearby tea house in an underground mall. It was a deliciously cool atmosphere to sit and work in and though he has planned to get to the Travel Centre for two it was three pm before he left. Due to having been in Shanghai 12 days previously there was a commotion at the entrance as they were not going to let him in. Fortunately he had bought his test certificate with him and he was finally passed through . He didn’t know if it would be useful but it was better to have a formal record beyond the certificate he had as proof of his test. He still had an errand to run in Wangfujing street and though it was a further 12 km cycle to the restaurant where he was meeting Peng for supper he would need to make another detour as his journey took him past Wudaoying Hutong and he could not resist stopping for a vegan ice cream. He made a second stop at the Lego shop where he had intended to buy a farewell present for Peng of Lego roses but unfortunately they had sold out. He was a little early when he got to the restaurant and it was shut and he sat on the steps to wait for Peng and the staff to arrive. He loved the Sheng goa that they made and he loved the sharing of a dish in this way, it was definitely something he would miss on his return. The film they watched was a deeply felt film that highlights how the pressures of society in China have forced generations of LGBTQ to hide behind the norm of family. The film is as oblique as the lives lived in secret and in the shadows . Echoes of his own experience gave the film added resonance but for anyone the quiet yet oddly theatrical film touches a sense of humanity on a deep level. His penultimate day had passed successfully and a good sleep was needed to take him into his final busy day.
Beijing’s Museum of the Chinese Communist Party.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling privileged on 3 August 2021 to be a visitor at the new museum in honour of the CCP. It had been an administrative exercise that had involved a visit by Peng to the hospital to get a certificate as again his Nucleic Acid test was not reflected in his health kit, to ensure he could enter the vast impressive building though he had not been aware of just how unorthodox his visit to the Atheneum was. Though it was only 8.45am when they arrived there was already a crowd waiting for admittance. The customer service staff were on hand to help him get in as he could not go through the usual entry gate which, accepted only Chinese nationals with an ID card and manually overriding it for him would look like special treatment for foreigners and as the museum was built to recognise the struggle of the Chinese people would not be a positive sign. He was therefore led through the back Gate and what was the VIP entrance. This meant that other than dignitaries attending the opening in July he was the first foreign visitor to step through what really did feel like hallowed doors. The outside of the museum was on an epic scale, echoing the battle to found a new China that the collection inside demonstrated. Once he was safely through the doors he was immediately awed by the magnificence of the marbled hall where he was joined by Ms. Cao who kindly, and with extreme patience considering the three hours he spent there, guided him through the displays which were over 3 floors. He was familiar with the story of the founding of the CPC now that the 100 year anniversary had now been celebrated and the skilful combination of artefacts, the displays the art and scenes came to life in a more meaningful way for him. Each section was headed with a translation in English but the individual items we’re labelled in Chinese and he either needed to use wechat translate to get a better understanding or call upon the knowledge of Ms Cao. The Exhibition followed a logical path from the introduction of Marxism into China, to the birth of the CCP, the momentum of the movement the battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people The Long March and the battles with the KMT and subsequently the Japanese. In one of the museum highlights the horrors or the civil war was illustrated through a virtual reality film which really made him feel like was there. The progress of China was recorded and he was pleased to see that they had acknowledged the damage and the set backs of the 10 year Cultural Revolution though the Gang of Four were resolutely vilified as the perpetrators of this disastrous period. Though from bad comes good and the intervening years from Deng Xiaoping’s leadership to Xi Jinping’s command are documented through a colourful cavalcade of limousines and video recording celebrations and achievements. The Museum celebrates the CCP and therefore it naturally glorifies its communism with Chinese characteristics which are undoubtably bringing China firmly into the 21st century. The main exhibit halls had been busy and full of visitors but the final floor of 170 paintings and sculptures was disappointingly empty. Some glorious paintings that spanned the lifetime of the CCP were largely ignored but he found himself mesmerised by some of the powerful images that were on offer. There were some real Jewell’s in the gallery some of which had been specifically commissioned for the museum. By the time he left he was drained by the weight of the information and sights he had absorbed but in its scope and ambition, like the 50 CCP members in 1921 that grew to the millions strong membership of today, it was a compelling and magnificent space that he was excited to have been able to see and he was ultimately edified and awed by the experience. He had planned with Peng to enjoy a few of his favourite meals over the next few days and the first choice was the cold dry noodles he loved at a restaurant on the corner of Fengtai Road. So he headed to Xisi station, had an afternoon tea and did some work before walking to the Beijing equivalent of a greasy spoon where a the meal for 2 cost the equivalent of £6.00. The supper was delicious and as they were close to Xidan and a branch of Mi Fresh they stopped off to have an Ice desert. The day had been another long one. He had learned a lot and eaten to his hearts content and though they started watching a film after he had showered and enjoyed his massage tiredness overwhelmed him and he called it night and went to sleep..