Summer Palace

This beautiful collection of buildings set around a large lake was the peaceful summer retreat of the Emperor and his family. It was a favourite haunt of Dowager Cixi, who reputedly built the folly of the marble boat with money that had been intended for the Chinese navy. The 900m Long Gallery is decorated with colourful paintings, and noisy sweet corn vendors yell their sales pitch. The lake is peppered with a variety of boating activities.


J has been working her little socks off for, well, most of the year really, towards MT4UTH’s production of Godspell. This was a bit different to the usual “Musical in a Weekend” projects that they do – firstly they had a whole 6 days to rehearse this one, and secondly, it was being staged in Belfast’s iconic Grand Opera House. J was particularly chuffed that she got her picture in some of the local papers, on the eve of her 16th birthday.

Jem leaping over cars in a single bound

Jem leaping over cars in a single bound

My sister and her family accompanied me, and we had seats in my favourite row at the front of the Upper Circle. We were in pretty good form as we’d been quaffing champagne all afternoon to celebrate her getting her PhD. <hic>

J really does shine when she dances! She was in the front row for most of the numbers, her big smile reaching right up to the Gods. Aly described her as looking as if what she was doing was just THE most wonderful thing she’d ever been asked to do.

She also made a very good plague 🙂

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, is a classic Ming-dynasty building, a picture in stone of ancient Chinese cosmogony,is a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design. Well, that’s what my guidebook says anyway. I was very taken by the huge numbers of locals out doing a variety of exercises in the grounds: retirement age is quite low in BJ, and so the residents relish the socialising aspect of these communal activities.

Back in its heyday, the temple was used once a year, to pray for the harvest at the Winter Solstice, requiring 3 days of fasting in advance by the Emperor. It’s an incredible circular building, made entirely of wood without any nails, painted in dazzling colours. We particularly loved the tale of the sacreligious caterpillar, who was struck by lightning as it reached for a golden ball in the roof of the building in 1889, when it was struck by lightning, causing a fire which destroyed the building. 32 unfortunate court officials were executed for allowing this to happen!

Forbidden City, Beijing

We’d lost a bit of time in getting here, not least due to Beijing’s notorious traffic congestion, and so our meander through the succession of colourful rooms and marvellous treasures was speedier than such riches really warranted. But my what a glorious building.

We’d started at the back entrance, and worked our way forward until we reached the vast square familiar from The Last Emperor, emerging finally under Mao’s portrait at Tian’anmen – Heavenly Peace Gate.

The Great Wall

It’s 4,000 miles long, but no, you can’t see it from space. But you can see the moon from here, if the conditions are right! Conditions were…well, rather misty on our visit. But it was the last site we visited in China, so the weather had to be endured, and actually, the mistiness probably adds to the atmosphere.

I think every one of us on the tour was visibly moved by actually being here. The wall is well over 2,000 years old, and is yet another reminder of China’s turbulent past: an astounding feat of engineering to construct this massive wall on top of a mountain, to keep out invaders.  Nowadays it is possibly the main tourist attraction – I know when we were looking at different itineraries we felt we really couldn’t go all the way to China and NOT see the wall.

The dancing bit came about cos I’d asked another tour member to video me walking on the wall, but a few of our happy band had gathered at that point, and were shouting out to me to dance down. So I never like to disappoint an audience!

It’s tough work walking on the wall – there are some very steep sections, and the steps are uneven, so you have to be very careful where you tread.

The hard sell from the gauntlet of souvenir shop owners, lined up one behind the other on a narrow path as you exited the cable car, was the most intense I’d come across in China. They waved their Tshirts and chopsticks and called out “One dolla, one dolla”. Of course nothing cost one dollar, this was just to make you stop and look, although that didn’t prevent one particularly pedantic Englishman in front of me trying to explain the intricacies of the foreign exchange market to a wizened old woman intent on making a sale…



Nursing a slight hangover today, after a visit last night to the Tastefest, in Botanic Gardens.  This event’s been going for years – when I was going through old photos and videos recently I came across one of Harry’s birthday parties that we had there.  A group of restaurants, both from NI and this year also guest restaurants from Chicago, set up stalls and serve sample dishes in exchange for tokens, while there’s live music and entertainment provided.

We arrived during the set of The Illegals, with Eurovision’s Niamh Kavanagh on vocals, and they did a pretty good job.  The sun shone, and we tried some salt chili squid from Uluru, and a ribeye in a bun from No 27 Talbot St.  The band finished at about 7, and then there was not a lot happening on stage for over an hour 😦   The DJ had a sort of dancing contest for the littl’uns, but it really was far too tame for what surely was the primetime Friday evening slot.  Never mind, I tried a piece of salmon in an Irish whisky glaze (too mustardy) and then got chatting to Jimmy Bannos, from Heaven on Seven, Chicago, who has the most drop dead sexy accent, and who sold us his Muffalletta sandwich, containing provolone cheese and mortadello, with an olive salsa.  God that was tasty!

The next band was Rumours of Fleetwood Mac, but they seemed to concentrate on lesser known songs, in some cases not even by the Mac!  Oh and Albatross, which fair enough is a Mac song, but hardly one to get the crowd going.  I found one of the delicatessens that was selling off its prosecco, and then I had a little shot glass of banoffee pannacotta with a gingerbread crunch topping from Restaurant 23 in Warrenpoint.

All in all, a fun Friday night.  Top marks to the food, but a “could do better” on the music front.

Terracotta Warriors

This has got to be the world’s most impressive archaeology project!  Situated just outside the city of Xi’an (home to a mere 5 m people), this huge tomb was only discovered in the mid 1970s.  The sheer volume of work that was involved in cataloguing and recording all the pieces, and then putting them back together again and putting on display, is staggering, and what is even more amazing is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Each figure is individually carved, so they each have unique features.  The soldiers have their hair in a bun on the right, whilst the kneeling archers have their hair to the left, to make it easier to extract arrows.

My video starts in the factory where they make souvenir copy figures.

Sadly, both Roger and I were feeling a bit under the weather for this visit, and spent a lot of time sheltering from the harshly bright sunshine and elbowing crowds in the delightfully cool tea house, where some ginseng oolong eased my upset tum.

Making silk

Little silk cocoons are either small (one worm) or large (2 or more). In the one-worm cocoons, the single strand of silk can be obtained and spun onto spools. For the cocoons made of more than one thread, they use a different method of stretching and layering to make a bed sized comforter.

We visited this silk place in Shanghai, only a few days into our trip. But I was delighted, as another friend of mine who’s spent a lot of time in Beijing recently had been telling me about these silk comforters or quilts, and it was at the top of my shopping list! And despite it adding a precious 2kg to my luggage for the rest of the trip, it was quite unobtrusive tucked away at the bottom of my case. And it’s now on our bed, and very comfortable it is too.

The hard sell from the staff at the rest of the visit was a bit intense, but I’m quite happy with my green silk jacket, as I have number of theatre evenings and family do’s coming up where I’ll be able to show it off.

Oh, and I have to watch my language now that my Mum’s reading this. Hi mum!

Shanghai: Bright Lights, Big City

We started our trip to China in Shanghai, a bright-lights, big-city metropolis of 25m people. (And that’s still not the biggest city in the country.) It’s long been a trading centre and bustling port, but was infamous as the base of European imperialism in the country a century or more back. When China started opening its doors to the West about 20 years ago, Shanghai rapidly cemented its role as a commercial hub, and today almost 25% of China’s GDP passes through its portals. Like many ports, it has a brash and hedonistic outlook on life, with a vibrant nightlife scene and an abundance of shopping, from designer to tacky.

We visited the beautiful and tranquil Yu Yuan garden, where the cicadas were drowning out the traffic, even early in the morning. My rookie attempt at haggling – for a fan, the essential first purchase – was laughable. I thought I’d done well to get the vendor down from 180 for 1, to 140 for 2. Until I worked out that that was about £7 per fan…

We took a lovely trip on the Huangpu river to admire the burgeouning forest of skyscrapers, including the 101 storey Shanghai World Financial Centre, which at 492 metres high dwarfs its more elaborate neighbour, the Jinmao Tower, and is currently the second highest building in the world. We viewed the city from the Oriental Pearl TV tower, including walking on a glass floor way up in the sky. Now I’m as brave as a lion – you’ll find me at the head of the queue for the white-knuckliest of rides at a theme park – but even I found walking on the platform very daunting.

I enjoyed the museum’s extensive collections of bronzes and jades, and the visit to a silk emporium (I’ll put that on a separate video as it wasn’t uniquely Shanghai). We just about made it through the congested traffic to an acrobatics show, where we gasped and were amazed at the seemly impossible feats the various contortionists were performing. And we ended our visit by taking the Maglev train out to the new Pudong international airport, just as the sun was turning the sky an impressive red.