China is one of those countries I always vaguely thought I’d get round to visiting one day, but I’m not sure when I would have done. Anyway, here I am in Beijing thanks to ‘All Over The Place’.
My first impressions are that it’s BIG. Even the airport was on a scale I’ve never seen before, with huge glass hangars that seemed to stretch on forever. By the time we’d checked into our hotel in the centre of the city it was lunchtime, so we rushed out to get something to eat in a glistening shopping centre and then headed to the Forbidden City, as it was our only chance to see it before our hectic work schedule kicked in. It was pretty forbidden as far as we were concerned, because by the time we got there it was closed. Still very imposing from the outside though, with it’s towering red walls and turrets. We took a walk through a very ornate park and then ended up on the edge of Tiananmen Square, where we all took pictures of each other standing in front of a giant portrait of Chairman Mao and marvelled at the 12 lane road spewing noxious fumes into our lungs.
When we woke up this morning it turned out we’d really lucked out with yesterday’s clear blue skies, as the apparently more usual blanket of smog had descended. We got onto our bus and headed out along the roads flanked by ridiculously blocky and imposing buildings to the Yoyo Museum.
It actually celebrates the diabolo, a Chinese cousin of the yoyo – a large top which you spin with a length of string tied to two sticks (you’ll have seen hippy types messing about with them on the beach and stuff). Housed in a small courtyard they have a few small displays – including an emperor’s diabolo – but it’s mostly a place for families to visit where the curator Mr Li can help spread the yoyo love with some tuition of this ancient toy.
He was very accommodating all morning and performed endless impressive tricks for us, until around midday he politely asked our Chinese fixer to tell us that he is 70 years old and felt like his body couldn’t take it much more. Fair enough!
After scoffing down some dumplings in a nearby cafe we drove an hour out into what they call the suburbs, but it felt more like the countryside with its drainage ditches, half built roads, fields and townships. Taking a sharp turn in what felt like the middle of nowhere we found ourselves in a ramshackle village of grey brick dwellings and parked up beside our next location – the house of Robot Man.
Mr Wu is what a passing pedestrian described to us in broken English as, “the most famous robot scientist in all of China”. Having spent the afternoon with him I think that’s probably going a bit far, but his two workshops are stuffed full of various autonoma that are certainly imaginative, from machines that play draughts to robot rickshaws and massage machines. Everything is battery powered and, although crudely constructed from sheets of iron and steel, the machines are powerful enough to pull human beings about the place. Mr Wu came to meet us sitting in a rickshaw pulled by a two legged robot, and then later rode about sitting on a four legged dinosaur. I have no idea why he makes these things or where he finds the money. As in Japan the language barrier is quite an obstacle out here, so you don’t tend to chat to the contributors quite so much. I like to think he’s secretly building an army to take over the world.
Heading back into Beijing I was doing a bit of reading on my iPhone about the city (on one of the few major Western websites that aren’t banned out here) and was staggered to see that it has a population of over 21 million people! And it’s not even the biggest city in China – Shanghai has a population of 25 MILLION! See, I told you everything was big out here…