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Mao

Saturday, July 27th 2002

Today I tried to go to Shidu, a scenic area about 100km from Beijing, but when I went to Lianhuachi, where the long distance bus station was supposed to be, I couldn't find it. This was an unexpected obstacle, and it seemed ridiculous, but I wandered the area for a while and there didn't seem to be a bus station here. Bemused, I rethought my plans, and headed back to Tiananmen to finally make my acquaintance with Mao.

The skies were heavy and as I found my way to the back of the queue for the mausoleum, it began to rain. I queued for about half an hour, getting wetter and wetter, and so it was quite a disappointment to finally reach to mausoleum only to be rushed through with barely a couple of seconds allowed to glance at the orangey features of China's ambiguous hero. There were people by the glass case whose job it was to rush us through, and before I knew it I was out the other side, in a tacky souvenir shop. I passed up the opportunity to buy Mao cards, Mao lighters, or a copy of the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

After Mao, I got the metro to Jianguomen, and visited Beijing's Ancient Observatory. It sits on top of a watchtower which used to be part of the city walls, and although the surrounding buildings are much taller, the views are pretty impressive. Not exactly aesthetic, but good for getting an impression of the kind of pace Beijing works at, with traffic pouring by and skyscrapers all around.

The Friendship Store was nearby. For years, entry to the store was restricted to foreigners only, excepting maybe a few elite Party members. The opening of China had long since made the concept of a foreigners-only shop redundant, but the Friendship Store still survives. It's a very easy place to buy souvenirs - more expensive than any market, but plenty of people are willing to pay that premium for a less frenetic shopping experience. I just bought postcards, before heading down to the supermarket in the basement. For me, this was a fantastic place. As well as typical Chinese food - including an entire shark's fin that could have been mine for just a couple of thousand pounds - it also had things that foreigners like. Cheese is not a big part of Chinese cookery and they certainly didn't have any in the shop on the university campus, but here they had a huge selection. I suddenly realised how much I'd been missing cheese, and bought a block of edam.

I left the Friendship Store and got the metro to Junshibowuguan station. There was a bus from there to the University and I was determined to work out how to get it. It was actually more straightforward than I'd expected - the information in my guide book was for once not out of date, and it was the number 6 bus I wanted. I knew the characters for 'Beijing Daxue', so it was easy to check that it did indeed go to the university. I paid my 2Y fare and vowed not to get a taxi in Beijing again if I could possibly help it.

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