My plane touched down in Beijing at about 11.30pm and after passing through Immigration and customs with ease, my bags and I were standing in a queue for a cab. Well, it was supposed to be a queue but it was more like a mob of people surging towards the road where taxis were pulling up five deep. I resisted the urge to join the locals who skipped the pack and were cutting people’s lunches, and I’ve since learned not to let queue jumpers boil my blood – it’s just how the Chinese roll.
After twenty minutes I was finally in a taxi and I asked the cab driver in my best pidgin Chinese “Qing wen, ni shuo yingyu ma?” I didn’t understand his response, but I gathered that my question of did he speak English was answered with a “no”. I showed him the address of my hotel and off we went. The journey was interesting. The highway changed between three and four lanes and my driver made good use of all lanes, often sitting in the middle of two, or moving from the inside to outside lanes in one swift motion. He didn’t use his indicator once but he made up for that by flashing his high beams and honking his horn like a bandit. No seat belts either, or at least there was a strap but there was no buckle to fasten it to. Who needs seatbelts when your driver is a pro like mine was. Twenty-five minutes and 75 kuai later I was at my hotel. Checked in, had a shower and fell asleep pretty quickly.
I woke early the following morning, showered again (no water restrictions in China) and took to the streets. I got my bearings and set out southbound having seen a few parks on my map. I passed a few street stalls and was intrigued by this awesome pancake-like thing people were ordering. I asked how much it was: 3 kuai (about 30cents). Fuck yeah, gimme one of those. It was basically a pancake with some sort of fried batter inside it, spring onions, a sauce and spicy sambal, with the edges folded inwards to make a square, then twice more into a smaller square, stuffed in a plastic bag (to make it sweaty and soggy. It was so fucking tasty.
I walked down to the arse end of the Forbidden City and took some photos from the outside, and of its surrounding moat. It was breathtaking. I also walked past a few of the parks. There was an entrance fee to go in and since I was short on time as I had arranged to meet our tour promoter Tom from This Town Touring for lunch, I opted not to go in, but once again I got some great photos from the outside. I jumped in a cab and returned to the hotel, grabbed a midday beer and waited for Tom. We went and ate lunch at a local restaurant closeby the venue. The food as pretty good, but not amazing but we had some beer and a good chat.
We then met his assistant Yu Yang who took me to Tiananmen Square, which was mindbogglingly busy and huge. My god, it was like being at the MCG on Grand Final day and they were doing a fire drill and evacuated everyone to a safe meeting place. I swear there must have been 50,000 people there at once. It was crazy. We then entered the Forbidden City. It is amazingly huge and incredible, a must see. After that we took a bus to a shopping district on Wang Fu Jing Street, a huge mall that had a great market laneway with “street snacks” as Yu Yang called them. We ate some great food, skewers, dumplings, strawberries, coconut milk. I passed on the BBQ scorpions, they were squirming away on skewers, waiting to be cooked and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it but I did get myself a Chairman Mao watch where the minute hand is also his hand and waves at you. Tacky but awesome.
That night, Yu Yang and I caught up with Tom and his girlfriend Tara for dinner. We went to a small neighbourhood restaurant across the street from his apartment. The food was amazing, some of the best I have eaten. We downed our beers and hit up a few more small bars and then I retired back to the hotel to wait for Sam to arrive from the airport. We were both pretty rooted, so after a quick catch up, we nodded off to sleep.
We rose at 6.30am and made our way to the hotel lobby, ready to take a trip to The Great Wall. We joined a tour group of about 15 people and took a mini-bus to MuTianYu. The bus trip was pretty similar to my taxi trip from the airport. Drivers are completely crazy by Australian standards, but the system of chaotic driving seems to work fine. No pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes or cars were hit and we even managed to avoid the chap who was sitting on a chair in the outside lane of a road in the middle of nowhere. I guess he was waiting for someone?
Once at our destination, we took a chair lift up the mountain and began walking. The wall is amazing. Our tour guide had told us when we arrived that it took 1/5 of the population at the time 10 years to build it. It truly is a manmade wonder of the world. It was pretty physically demanding, especially since I was pretty shagged from having spent the previous day walking the city, but my tired legs trudged on from tower to tower. We stopped for a drink at one point and soaked in the view. Breathtaking. I don’t know how invading forces could have possibly penetrated the wall. I’m glad I can now say I have walked it. We took another chairlift back down the mountain and found ourselves walking through a tourist market with aggressive old ladies trying to peddle their cheap wares and clothes on us. They were pretty forceful, grabbing our arms, blocking our path. I bartered a few presents for my nephews down from 285 kuai to 20. Pretty hilarious. We then had lunch with our tour group, boarded the bus and took the 2hr minibus ride back to Beijing.
We jumped off the bus at the first stop, hopped a cab back to the hotel and grabbed our equipment for soundcheck at Mao Live House, our first time inside a Chinese venue. The setup at this place was awesome. They had really good backline equipment, a great P.A. and a pretty serious sort of lighting rig. The sound engineer was awesome, pulling a good onstage sound for us pretty much straight away. We bashed out a few songs just to get rid of the cobwebs and after about 30 minutes, we were done. Yu Yang came down to meet us and took us for a walk while we waited for Tom to knock off work. We walked down to the Drum Tower, then on to a lake, through a few HuTongs (alleyways with bars and clothing stores) and back to a Szechuan restaurant where we met Tom and Tara for dinner. The food once again was really good. As usual Sam and I probably ate too much before a show, but we’re pretty used to it these days.
We then went down to the venue and caught the first band Mr Graceless. They were very young and really good. Stylistically different to us, they were more of a indie guitar band in the early 90’s tradition and they had some really good songs. They were followed by Birdstriking, another killer indie guitar band with some great guitar sounds, interesting effect pedals and some great songs too. These guys have set the standard pretty high for the other bands we’re gonna play with on the tour. I wasn’t expecting the bands to be so good, probably because my perception was that “Western music” is still fairly new to China, but these bands both played really sound, interesting music. I wasn’t surprised to hear that they are both signed to the Chinese label Maybe Mars and were on the lineups for some summer festivals.
We were up next and by the time we were setting up the stage there were close to 100 people in the room…not bad for a Wednesday night. The crowd were probably 50/50 between locals and ex-pats. Everyone was pretty friendly and keen to say hello and wish us well. We played pretty good considering how exhausted we were from our little sleep and walking the Great Wall and the crowd were very receptive, having a laugh with us (or maybe that was at us) and giving us good applause. They even crept forward the longer the show went on. Afterwards, we spoke with quite a few people from the audience who asked us to come back soon and told us they enjoyed it. The other bands were keen to talk too and we traded email addresses and told them all they MUST try and come out to Australia to play some shows. Hopefully they do someday; it’d be great to see them play again, especially at somewhere iconic like Pony or the Tote or Old Bar.
People cleared out of the venue pretty quickly, and we followed suit, heading across the street to a small place with beer and food. We dragged across a mate Nevin who we’d been emailing with for the past 4 years and finally met at the show. After a few beers, some BBQ skewers and some sort of a Tofu and Bread dish, we called it a night and hit the sack for our allocated 5hours sleep before rising to take the train the following day.