The Last Fairyland

Memories of Old Beijing: the swirling, stone fairytale bridges of Beihai, crossing over crystal clear lagoons of budding flowers and jeweled rocks. People pace on the hillside, reading from the classics, while children run and hide in the caves beneath, playing hide and seek from their shadows. A long corridor of brightly painted wood shadows them as the readers descend from the hill, where they sit and watch the small waves curling in the vast lake beyond, little boats dotting the water like intrepid explorers. This is Beihai, the treasure land of Beijing.

I am walking up the hill, toward the towering and bulbous White Dagoba, the crown of a four hundred year old temple that was built from the lakeside to the top of the hill. There is a slight moment of vertigo, as the zigzagging stairs sway a bit, but I regain myself and continue the hike. Green, foudroyant sabina trees, strong and tall, shadow the staircase as I ascend, and fleeting birds dart from the tops of the trees. I am a little tired, after spending all morning wandering the halls of the Forbidden City, but being here in the middle of wildlife and quietude refreshes me.

I have spent the greater part of two weeks trying to find a picnic spot in Beijing. While it is not uncommon to see people eating happily away on the sidewalk of a busy street with a kebob of charred lamb between their teeth, I would hardly call that a picnic. A picnic is a time of joy and serenity, sitting on a mat while surrounded by beauty, letting the feelings of the day wash away while eating with family and friends. It seems I found the perfect place. As I walk up the hill, everyone is eating: there are five people sitting next to the temple wall with a bucket of fried chicken; further up there is a couple with a child eating some sausages and oranges. While there are no tables, people have turned the hillside into a dining room, leaning on trees, unwrapping sandwiches and perching themselves on smooth rocks, while sitting red tea and sending their gaze across the city. The whole island seems to be a giant picnic table, in the kindest and most beautiful sense of the word.

The view is incredible from the top. I recall the vistas of Anacortes, of northern Washington, with flourishing green islands amid ships and boats dotting the sea, tiny stars in a vast sky. This hillside used to be covered in a giant palace, once upon a time. Kublai Khan, during his reign as Emperor, built a wonderland called the Palace of the Moon (Guanghaidian), where he entertained visitors, and even entertained Marco Polo when the Italian came to visit China. Today the palace is gone, having been destroyed in an earthquake, and during the Ming dynasty the Yong’an Buddhist temple was built in its place, meant to honor a visiting Tibetan lama. During that same time, the Emperor Qianlong had a Rosetta-like stele erected on the hillside, which included Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, and Tibetan languages.

Descending the hill puts me in a kind of euphoria. I don’t realize until I have paid the small three yuan fee for a system of caves that labyrinths the entire northern part of the island, and find myself face-to-face with grim-faced bodhisattvas and craggy walls, little slits of light filtering in to light up the wry grins of these venerable holy men. They frighten me a little, but only a little. There is only so much a little clay man can do. I imagine myself as a little child racing through the caves, while my parents sit together on the crest of the hill sipping tea. It is all too reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s Island.

At the bottom of the hill, pink, budding bunge flowers poke out from the ground, and the smell of mint-like sorboria fills the area. There are couples sitting by the lakeside on benches, hand in hand, watching the boats drift by. The Fangshan restaurant, famous for their Qing dynasty dishes, stands awkwardly out of time, and an imperial painted boat floats by, filled with Sunday families.

I make my way back to the entrance of the park, walking past the boating docks of floating paddle-boats and old rowboats. I would like to come back here someday and try them out. It looks fun.

The Circular City (Tuancheng), the ancient capital of the Yuan dynasty, confronts me as I exit the park. Once an island of pine trees, it later became an Imperial Palace, and then was destroyed when the Eight-Power Allied Forces entered Beijing. This surprises me: not even the might of the rest of the world was able to shake it, and while it was destroyed, it was again rebuilt and stands once more at the exit of this fairyland, once upon a time a model of where the gods were supposed to have lived.

Beihai, for thousands of years, has been a place of relaxation, thinking, and joy for the people of Beijing. Throughout the dynasties it was used as a pleasure palace for the rich and noble; then in the 20th century it became a place for revolutionary thinkers and reactionaries; finally in the 21st century, it has become a family paradise. No matter where you go, it is that small part of Beijing that has always spoken in a small voice to the heart of people, and been a place of meditation and contemplation. Even as a foreigner, it appeals to me a place of bursting creativity and reformed passions. This continues to mull through my head as I head into a taxi, and see the last mists of the lake disappear as the busyness of the streets rise into life.

Shadows of the Queen

“How much farther?” she asks me, her breath already starting to sound heavy. The air is thinner up here, and the cars less. A few pedestrians pace on the sidewalk, while a gentle evening breeze comes on, racing through the shadows of skyscrapers.

“I can see it, up there,” or at least I think I see the building. In truth, there are so many trees and buildings blocking the view, it’s hard to tell if the building up ahead is actually the tram center for Victoria Peak. We decided to take the Mid-Levels tour, a staggering 800 meter-long escalator that runs up the belly of Victoria Peak from the sea. It was mostly because last time we were in Hong Kong we wanted to go on the legendary stairway, but we failed to find the entrance.

However, this trip didn’t turn out much better. I look up to the mountain and see the giant square building that looks out on the horizon from the summit, and wonder if we will ever get there before the sun sets. We are wandering in the upper levels of the city, a dizzying blur of restaurants, rising streets, and apartment buildings that rise like dirks into the murky sky.

At least we managed to find the entrance. Located squarely at Central Station, one need only follow the elevated platform towards the mountain and then… walk up.

 

The island of Cheung Chau is a dream. We sit at a seaside restaurant, listening to the sounds of the waves lap against the anchored boats. The ferry that goes from Central Station to the island is setting out, leaving a wide wake that causes several of the neighboring boats to dangerous teeter to one side. It was an inexpensive and relaxing ride, taking about a half-hour. I spent a long time just sitting quietly and listening to the sound of the waves.

Cheung Chau is an island steeped in mystery and intrigue. Home to the famous Cheung Po Tsai pirate cave, it once was the Tortuga of Asia, being a safe bastion for hundreds of ships, and about 20,000 pirates. They were under the command of a warlord named “The Kid,” who harassed Qing dynasty officials for years until he was offered a position in the government, when he relented of his ways and became an enforcer against piracy. The unique shape of the island provided that the pirates could anchor their boats on the opposite side, and the heavy mist that often cloaks the area provided for an almost unstoppable army.

The island is also famous to having an enormous number of dogs, many of them wild. When we took our walk to the Cheung Po Tsai cave later that afternoon, we passed by a group of dogs that were hiding out in a local cemetery. They approached us, and we froze, feeling like wolf meat. However, they merely crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle, and we continued on our way.

 

The sun has nearly set; we are now climbing. Somewhere down the road we missed the tram, and every now and then we can see it climbing the green hills toward the Peak. The road has risen to about a thirty degree angle, and we are putting everything into just staying balanced. The roads in Cheung Chau were much nicer; as we scaled the hills of the island, we were walking through a fairyland of luxurious abodes, a literal amalgamation of British architectural styles reminiscent of Tianjin. Here, finally on the Mid-Levels, the multi-million dollar apartments rise high above our heads and disappear into the mist, the tops covered by gray fog and burning electric lights.

“There!” I proclaim, and then with a sinking feeling realize what is ahead.

She looks at me, sweet as anything. I’m not sure she knows what I’m putting her through. This was supposed to be a romantic outing, but it’s turning out to be worse than a high school P.E. Class.

As the road ends, a trail begins. We step over the chain and find ourselves looking at an even steeper incline.

“Is this ok?” I am exasperated. Such an ordeal, but what seems like just a simple request: see the top of Victoria Peak, but rather than going on the usual tourist buses, find our own way there. Such idealism seems to have gotten us into a bit of trouble.

She smiles. “Let’s go!” I admire her optimism.

As we scale the mountain, the barking of dogs echo across the hills. The Mid-Levels are home to some of the most expensive homes in the world, at least for their miniature size. Millionaires are lucky to own a single flat. Much of the upper-class Hong Kong citizens employ workers from the Philippines as maids, and own a dog or two. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered later that this was a secret trail known to the owners of those dogs and their dog-walkers, as they were the only hikers we met on the trail. That, and the sound of our feet.

 

Two days before we were scaling a different kind of mountain. Located in the furthest south you can go in Hong Kong near the city of Aberdeen, Ocean Park is an amusement park known for two things: an endangered species zoo/aquarium, as well as roller coasters that not only have awesome speeds and hills, but are built in Hong Kong-style: into the hills.

Riding on a 1.5 kilometer gondola cable-car system takes fun-goers from one end of the park to the other, scaling a high mountain with an unprecedented view, and letting people off near the summit, where they must climb down to either the rides portion of the park (which also houses a number of aquariums) or make their way through a series of labyrinthine escalators to the lower parking lot.

The top of the park gives a great view of Aberdeen, as well as the vast sea that spreads out to the south. At the low price of about 240 Hong Kong dollars (that’s about 31 US dollars) the trip was one of our most memorable, viewing giant pandas, riding roller coasters, and taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful panoramas on the island.

 

The sun has set. As we climbed through verdant woods, the sun set into the horizon and fell below the sea. We climbed high enough to across the tops of the Mid-Level apartments, witnessing light fall on their side and turn into a kaleidoscope of steel and glass.

It’s windy on the peak, but we’ve found shelter at the top of the mall, where the only sound is the air whistling through our jackets. It’s beautiful here; the night sky has made it clear it will not be held back by modern technologies, with stars glimmering above our heads, shining through sparse clouds.

The horizon of Hong Kong is glorious, and it’s no wonder why it is memorable. We hold hands and look out across a sea of lights, until they are swallowed up in darkness.

Orcs in the CBD

I stepped through the portal and felt an ethereal sense wash over me, as if I had donned a new skin and personality. There were dragons playing among waterfalls and sharp crags before me, and I could hear the sound of battle-axes and war cries from the distance. A faint green hue flooded the room, giving the walls an ancient, decrepit look. Painted onto the walls was an elaborate mural showcasing a great war between men, beasts, and even fouler things, with magical energies swirling about their strange horned mounts and a sky torn open by a rift. Before I could take another step into the maelstrom, however, a waitress cheerfully greeted me and asked me how many to seat.

Welcome to Azeroth. Or Beijing. Anyways, what’s the difference?

I suppose China is famous for their themed restaurants. There is that one restaurant near my house that is Mao-flavored, with a giant portrait of the great leader looming over every table, and little red flags draped across the railings like a parade. Then there is the Mexican cantina, complete with Gaudi lanterns and long, pitted wooden tables full of beer and popping fajitas. Near the Yonghe Gong Temple, there is a small dive called The Rive (clever, being that it overlooks a canal) with long couches, fruity icees, and art books and magazines shelved into deep-brown shelves, just like an old college locale. I think, though, that this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a World of Warcraft restaurant, inspired by the famous online computer game. It was an experience, no doubt, that I will want to try again, just for the sheer audacity of it.

The menu was a colorful selection of dishes from the game. Just to prove their point that these were really Azeroth dishes (Azeroth is the game world), below each featured dish is a picture of a character actually hunting down the particular foul magical beastie, and then a beautiful photo of the cooked creature, with salivating spices and colors to match. The price for the food was also very decent, being that the dishes that are prepared are so unique. I believe my favorite dish was the plate of lamb-something-or-other, that was basically a plate piled high with lamb tenderly cooked still on the bone.

The owner was kind enough to sit down and have a chat with me. Yuan Yuan and his partner, Tao, started the restaurant a mere two months ago, after they had been burned out selling Olympic souvenirs and made enough money to actually, “do what they wanted to do, and just have fun.” They wanted a place to make their dreams of playing the game a reality, and also give other players a chance to not only immerse themselves in the culture of the game, but connect with each other on a real level, meet each other, get together for special gatherings, and even find love. Once a month, the World of Warcraft restaurant has a Cosplay gathering, when players can come to eat and party with their friends dressed up as their heroes from the game. Already there have been several romances that have gone that extra mile, thanks to Yuan Yuan and Tao’s efforts to host these special gatherings.

After our conversation, Yuan Yuan took me around the restaurant and allowed me to take some pictures, showing me the mural his friend painted, that even showcased his cousin and his cousin’s wife on the wall (as their characters, of course, in heroic repose), as well as the many friends who have come and given their pictures to the walls of the restaurant. The restaurant also features computers with World of Warcraft loaded on them that customers are free to play on (as long as they have an account for the game). Finally, he took me to a special part of the wall where players post messages to each other, a community board of hellos and requests to meet up in the game sometime.

As a night out, it truly was a unique one, “Blizzard Restaurant” will be hard to forget. You can find the World of Warcraft restaurant by taking the Line 2 subway to Chaoyang Men, and then taking bus 846 to the Gaojing Baiyun Shichang (高井白云市场), or taking the Line 1 subway to Sihui Dong and then taking bus 648 or 488 to the same stop (or alternatively, taking a cab to the address). My suggestion, if you’d like to save about 50-90 kuai. Once you find the Baiyun Shichang, the restaurant is located through the front gate, at the back. It is visible from the street, with a very long sign and a number of orcs looking very happy with some very sharp weapons.

Address: 暴雪餐厅:朝阳路高井白云市场内 Tel: 8576-8949 (local Beijing number)

Price range: Dishes cost anywhere from 10 kuai to 50 kuai, on your fancy. Some are more.