Beijing 2016 Blog – Duo Tapas – Wellington guitar and violin duo
Duo Tapas
Duo Tapas
Duo Tapas

Beijing 2016 Blog

Tuesday March 15 Auckland airport. Everything has gone smoothly so far. Said goodbye to Donald and the girls at Wellington airport earlier this evening. Bribed the girls with icecream and milkshakes. They promised to be as good for Donald as they were for me when Donald was in Malaysia and Thailand recently……I’m worried because Donald seemed so relaxed. I guess he’ll find out. Waiting to board the plane. It’s 11pm and somehow I’m going to have stay awake for a few more hours……

Wednesday March 16 6:44am. Hong Kong airport is spacious. There are dozens of food outlets and scattered small crowds queuing. It is quiet and orderly, probably the most peaceful big city airport I have been in. Maybe it gets hectic later in the day. MacDonalds is here, with a Hong Kong twist. The duty free shops are beginning to open up. I have 800 Yuan in my wallet, but I expect that won’t get me very far in the Rolex and Chanel stores.

Wednesday March 16 5:47pm.  We arrived in Beijing just after 11am. The  airport was another massive space-age building with lots of travellators and everything streamlined. There weren’t many signs written in English. The word ‘foreigners’ had never felt welcoming than when we reached immigration. After all the hassle getting visas, immigration turned out to be a quick, wordless flick through our passports. A few more escalators before we stumbled onto a train that suddenly appeared and took us to baggage claim. There was a faint smell like burning cigarettes in the air mixed with a floral air freshener. Our luggage arrived quickly except for Owen’s two guitars which were in an oversized bag. Owen went to look for it while I waited with the rest of the luggage. It was beginning to feel deserted around me. My sleep deprived brain began to wonder if Owen had done a runner, if he’d ever been there in the first place, if I would even be able to cope on my own in this strange city. An airport official walked by carrying Owen’s bag and he kindly loaded the trolley. I soon found Owen who had been led on a wild goose chase around the other end of the terminal.

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Our lovely hosts from Guitarw were waiting for us. Gail handed us a couple of face masks, smiling as she said it was their version of a garland of flowers to greet us. Today was a day of high pollution, she said. They treated us to coffee in the airport Starbucks. I thought I knew almost everything there is to know about Owen, but today I discovered that Owen drinks coffee. Yep. Cappuccino. Owen and the others talked in great detail about guitarists and guitar makers from around the world. I tuned in from time to time. The car honking started in the airport car park. It was a long slow trip into the city. We wore our masks the whole way. I had felt this strange sensation of being in a completely different country before, when I went to India as a child. It seemed odd, as we passed rows of naked branches along the side of the highway, that trees looked the same as they did in NZ. Through the smog, we saw ghostly outlines of tall buildings. Chinese lettering was everywhere. I tried to guess what the characters represented. It felt like a heavily coded language, too complex for me to ever read.

View outside my room in Yitel.

View outside my room in Yitel.

 

Honey, I shrunk the guitarist.

Honey, I shrunk the guitarist.

The hotel is wonderful. Nearby, there are several art galleries, and in the hotel foyer itself there is a sculpture. A very realistic-looking banana skin about Owen’s height. Every so often, they feature a different sculpture. Our hosts left,  saying they’d be back at 7:30 when we’d go for dinner together. I think Owen may have gone exploring this afternoon, or done something useful like playing his guitar. Overcome with tiredness and cold (I had dressed unwisely for unusually-warm-for-Wellington  rather than for end-of-winter-in-Beijing), I climbed into bed and had a nap.

March 17 9:52am. Gail and Duke took us out for dinner last night to a Korean restaurant. The talented young man who designed the posters and brochures for our concert came too.  He gets around on a motorbike, garbed in a serious black leather jacket but no helmet. The food was zingy, including seaweed soup, barbecue tendons, interesting rice cakes and Korean style pancakes. Somehow, we survived the trip home. Cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians wove their way around cars driving in all directions, sometimes diagonally.

Breakfast at Yitel seems to cater for every taste. Western style continental and hot breakfast as well as steamed pork buns, chicken noodle soup and other Chinese options.  Owen and I decided that a healthy sampling of pretty much everything on the menu was in order; we had a big day ahead of us.

 

March 17 3:37pm image   Another adrenalin-filled jaunt through the streets of Beijing to the Tian An Men gate and The Forbidden city. Pollution levels are high today so we wore our masks. After Duke and Gail dropped us off, Owen and I walked until we reached a queue of people. Not a queue in the ordinary sense of the word, but a seething mass of people, applied to each other like sardines, occasionally moving a few steps forward, people pushing ahead without warning. Finally we reached the front, where we were checked for weapons and our bags scanned. i had thought we were queuing to buy tickets. At least we had reached the gates.

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Owen looking to ditch his mask.

Owen looking to ditch his mask.

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Yes, ok. Everyone wants their photo taken with man with red hair and pale skin. Try to stay grounded, Owen!

Yes, ok. Everyone wants their photo taken with man with red hair and pale skin. Try to stay grounded, Owen!

Buying tickets for the gate and the Forbidden city as well the automatic guide (a GPS-enabled device that talked us through the history of the different parts of the forbidden city as we walked through the palaces and halls) set us back 95 Yuan each. That’s around 22 dollars NZ, money well spent. We wandered through halls and gardens and admired palaces from the outsde, sometimes jostling with other tourists to peer inside. The palaces and gardens had lofty sounding titles including words like ‘enlightenment’, ‘supreme harmony’, ‘purity’ and ‘eternity’.

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  Mountain of accumulated elegance

Mountain of accumulated elegance

 

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That’s more like it! Mask and water bottle. Be prepared.

We didn’t quite make it through the whole museum. At some point I told Owen we needed to get back. We had a concert the next day -remember? In reality, my feet were sore and I was starving. We walked out of the gates and were mobbed by people waving colourful brochures in our faces. I’m blaming Owen with his red hair and fair complexion.  They tried to tell us that rickshaws were the best and cheapest way for us to get back to our hotel. Somehow, we managed to escape. We walked down the street towards where some taxis were waiting. As we dodged across the road, a man ran up to us saying our car was ready and waiting for us. ‘The same as a taxi.’ He had to shout to be heard over the honking. Yes, he knew where Yitel was. ‘How much?’ ‘One hundred fifty.’  I was about to say yes when Owen said, ‘one hundred.’ The man looked surprised. Meanwhile, a ‘real’ taxi was idling at the intersection. The driver caught my eye and nodded slightly, as if we had some special understanding. ‘We’re going to Yitel,’ I shouted. Owen showed him his tiny map. The driver nodded. ‘How much?’ ‘Three hundred.’ We shook our heads. The other man was still hanging around. ‘One hundred fifty,’ he said. We followed him to his car. Unmarked – one of Uber fleet of cabs.  It was going to be one of those adrenalin-filled car rides. This driver was the real deal. He sped along a non-existent fast lane on the highway, manoeuvred around traffic at the intersections, pushing his way though while narrowly missing pedestrians and people on bikes without helmets.

‘We’ve got to get something to eat,’ I said to Owen as the taxi drove away. ‘You know what that means, don’t you?’ Crossing the road. The traffic lights are about as much use as lights on a Christmas tree. We ended up tagging along behind a couple of men who had joined us at the crossing. We clung to them as we crossed against the lights. Yes, today I walked in front of a moving car and have lived to tell the tale.

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The neon lights across the road from the hotel had looked inviting last night, but in daylight, it is a run down part of town. Small piles of junk, broken bicycle wheels, a dolls pram lie along a strip between the footpath and the main road. There are several shops selling phones and computers and a large gaming room. There is a bakery too and a few restaurant/cafes. The most promising of these has large containers of fresh vegetables and strips of meat/chicken. Presumably you fill your bowl and the chefs cook it for you. There are places like that in Wellington too. But today it all feels too much like hard work, and the fact that I can’t identify some of the ingredients is not helping. So we try the place next door. We each get a sealed packet containing crockery – a small bowl, cup, plate and spoon. The menu is in Chinese but there are photographs. ‘I’ll have this one. It’s beef?’ The waiter smiles. He doesn’t speak English. ‘Cow? Moooo.’ My mooing sounds high pitched but he seems to understand. He takes out his phone – the latest iPhone 6- and taps away. He shows me the screen – a few lines in Chinese and the word ‘beef’ witten in English. I nod and smile. Owen points to a picture of a bowl of soup with unidentifiable ingredients. It turns out to be a strange sort of mushroom with a long black stalk and something resembling pork. Probably pork, I reassure him.

I feel bad that I didn’t get around to learning a few basic words and phrases in mandarin. I spoke in English to the waiter, expecting him to understand. When a Chinese person comes to a restaurant in Wellington, we expect them to speak in English.

We went out for dinner last night. Owen insisted we have another go at that crossing at the intersection. It must be the adrenalin buzz. The pedestrian light was green when we got there and it wasn’t too busy but Owen said ‘wait’. We waited for about ten minutes until there was a critical mass of  people waiting to cross. And then we surged forward, on a red light, and made it to the centre. I felt like I was standing in the middle of the road because I was. A few bikes with trailers and a strange vehicle that looked like a tricycle surrounded by a glass box pushed in ahead of cars. A car dinged a taxi. A cyclist looked like she was riding against the traffic but didn’t looked perturbed by the random lines of cars and a bus coming towards her. ‘Go!’ Cars and buses waited while a mass of pedestrians and bikes crossed in both directions.

March 18 10:15am

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Our first concert is tonight at Peking university.  We’ve agreed on a programme order and Owen seems to be satisfied that I won’t have a music stand malfunction tonight. Gail is picking us up at 4, so we decide to get lunch and buy some food to have before the concert. We cross the crazy road and wander into 798, the arty district across the road, just down the road from the more run down part we were in yesterday. This is a completely different world with shops exhibiting and selling art. We get distracted by a shop selling guitars, ukuleles, mouth harmonicas and ocarinas. Apparently there are some classy cafes a bit further on, but we have our minds set on braving the place that we saw yesterday with the vats of unidentified ingredients, so we turn back and head towards the broken bicycles, scrap metal and tangle of electric cable.

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She must have seen us coming, because the moment we step into the eating place, she comes over to us and gestures to the large bowls and towards the containers of ingredients.

Take special note of the red'meat' below the sweet corn.

Take special note of the red’meat’ below the sweet corn.

We grab a pair of tongs and a bowl each and get to work. I add noodles, veges and something that might be bacon, and then a few pieces of what looks like meat. I’m hoping its steak. When our number is called, we go back to the counter and pick up the soup they’ve made with our ingredients, plus a bowl of peanut sauce, fresh coriander and chilli. It tastes pretty good. I’m not sure about all of the meat though. Some of it looks familiar, like something I’ve seen on the bench before, and I’m not talking about the kitchen bench. There are large vessels. It doesn’t have the architecture of kidney……and then I notice a ring of cartilage. ‘It’s lung, Owen.’ Owen hardly reacts. He doggedly eats every last piece of lung and also another piece of ‘meat’ which I can’t quite place.

March 18 11:44pm

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Peking university has beautiful grounds and high security (they took ages checking Du’s number plate before letting us in). The theatre is moderately large with tiered seating. We sound quiet on stage and have to work hard, but it sounds fine in the auditorium.

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Warming up….

The lighting is great. We get a dressing room each and have a long time to warm up. I bolt down some pizza bread and a banana.

After the concert we go to a very cool restaurant nearby the university. Duke says it is fine to leave our instruments in the car. There are no break-ins. I believe him. Despite all the chaotic traffic and bad road etiquette, Beijing  feels very safe. I would sooner walk down the streets at night near this hotel than down Courtenay place in Wellington, that’s for sure.

Seating at the restaurant

Seating at the restaurant

Gail and Duke say its a tradition to take the performers for a Mongolian lamb ‘hot pot’ after the Peking Uni concert. Mongolian lamb hot pot is a Beijing specialty. The ‘hot pot’ consists of a pot containing pieces of lamb on the bone cooking with herbs and spices in boiling water. The pot is placed on an element on the table. Gradually more things are added, Chinese vegetables, lotus root, tofu noodles, rice noodles.

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The waiters and patrons yell at each other but all is in good humour, I believe, despite the reluctance of the waiting staff to smile. Gail and Duke try and teach Owen how to summon a waiter and ask for more beer. They say his voice is too soft. I think Owen is planning to work on that. I’m not sure how Jane, Owen’s partner would react if Owen tried to summon her like that.

Chinese people eat late and they like to eat a lot, they explain when I tell them I’ll just be tasting things and not be eating much. I’ve already eaten and it’s getting past my bedtime. We fish things out of the soup with our chopsticks and mix them on our plates with fresh coriander, ‘preserved tofu’ (that tastes a bit like blue cheese), sesame seed oil and chives. One of the herbs in the pot is a tiny Chinese pepper which makes my tongue and mouth tingle and go numb. It’s very late and I had intended only eating a little. In the end, I ate as much as the next person and I’m very glad I had this truly unique experience. I think it has been a highlight of my trip so far (watching Owen eating pieces of lung coming in as a close second).

March 19, 2:49pm.

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Tonight we are playing in Cafe At at 7pm. This is the first time they are holding a concert there. It is in the art zone, not far from where we are staying. We decide to take a look and set off around midday. We’ve scarcely walked ten metres before we find ourselves having to negotiate our way past a car driving leisurely along the footpath. We cross the crazy road and walk towards 798, the art zone. A cat on a leash is the first sign that we’re about to enter somewhere special. We wander into maze of streets lined by art galleries, trinket shops, boutique designer clothes shops and cafes. For once, we aren’t the only foreign-looking people around. The art zone is a sort of tourist destination. It is a strange mixture of immaculately presented shop fronts and piles of scrap metal, traditional chinese art and pop western commercialism. A few streets are lined by trees, but much of 798 has a thick spaghetti junction of pipework running over head.

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We we find Cafe At (which incidentally is just around the corner from The ‘With cafe’) and the waiter standing outside hands me a brochure for our concert. He smiles and talks to me in Chinese. I nod and smile back. He probably thought I understood what he was saying. I look around for Owen. He has gone down the road and is heading towards the trinket stores.  Owen buys not one but two Beijing fridge magnets (the last of the big spenders).

So far I’ve managed to eat Asian food for every single meal including breakfast and ‘supper’ during this trip, but today I feel like a change (it might have something to do with yesterday’s fare) and fortunately there are several cafes in the art zone offering western food. I opt for seafood chowder in a bread basket and Owen goes for a ham sandwich. He says he was in no way influenced by the fact that it comes with fries. The cafe is spacious and has no qualms about charging western style prices. Our meals cost about the same as they would in Wellington. I decide not to have a coffee – that would have set me back 80 yuan (almost 20 NZ dollars) and I only have 100 yuan left in my wallet. I probably should try and find a money machine.

March 19, 11:58pm.

Rita (helping Gail), dodgy looking guitarist, Duke, Gail and owner of At Cafe.

Rita (helping Gail), dodgy looking guitarist, Duke, Gail and owner of At Cafe.

Another late one. The part owner of Cafe At, tonight’s concert venue, put a delicious dinner on for us after the concert. Pizza, salads and seafood payella. A plate of spring rolls to remind us of what we were missing. Not a chopstick in site. Cafe At is a two storeyed building containing a lot of art work including interesting brickwork. The room we played in was upstairs, an intimate venue with a more flattering acoustic than the previous night.  Our warm up consisted mainly of choosing the repertoire for this 60 minute concert. It is a cold night and my hands wouldn’t warm up. One of the waiters (over)filled up my hot water bottle with the fluffy cover. I felt like I was carrying around a fat pink poodle.

The art work on the walls is the work of a famous Chinese artist (I need to find out his name). ‘Chandeliers’ made of wine glasses hanging off metal frames provide the lighting.

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I have more information about 798 now. The whole area used to be occupied by a military factory, which might explain all the pipes. The art-loving owners of 798 are gradually turning it into a centre of art, converting old buildings into galleries and putting up new, originally designed spaces. Painters, fabric workers and potters are given a home their work, a chance to exhibit and cell. It explains the juxtaposition of thr old and the new, the derelict and the chic modern, the East and the west. Cafe At has unique architecture but it has a distinctly western feel. Metres away, a woman sells vegetables from her cart.

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March 20, 10:19am.

Steamed pork bun and cabbage with noodles for breakfast this morning. That’s more like it. Owen was not feeling so adventurous – cereal for breakfast today – although he did try some orange jam (‘not a bit like marmalade’) on his toast. I think he must be saving himself for lunch, probably wants a bit more of that lung.

I asked Gail yesterday about how our names are written in Chinese in the posters and programmes. She said it’s a purely phonetic conversion. She asked me what my name meant and came up with a different way of writing ‘Rupa Maitra’ in Chinese, based on the meaning of ‘Rupa’. My new Chinese name is Mai Mei-yin. When we fly back to NZ tomorrow, I will carry with me my Chinese name.

March 20, 1:18pm

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We we can see the sky today. The pollution levels must be coming down. We’re on our way to the art zone for the last time. The first thing we want to do is find that bull statue that we thought we saw last night on our way back from the concert.

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Hmmmmmmm……..

We wander through 798. Western pop music blares through the speakers, at odds with some of the more traditional Chinese elements.

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A chain of tomatoes and strawberries on sticks covered with a glaze, like toffee apples?

I’m getting quite used to walking in the middle of the road. It’s much more liberating than walking on the footpath.  I’m also starting to understand that honking doesn’t always mean ‘you’re a lousy driver, man. You shouldn’t be allowed on the roads’. Sometimes it is kindly meant and translates as ‘move over, you dozy mare’.

We get lured in by the shops selling trinkets, stopping occasionally to take snaps.

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It means 'dried vegetables' (of course). But what has it got to do with a panda?

It means ‘dried vegetables’ (of course). But what has it got to do with a panda?

Lunch was at one of the cafes catering for Western tastes. Owen’s choice (do you think he was scared off by that lung?). This particular cafe had a strong NZ connection – a picture of a kea on the front plus NZ beef and lamb on the menu as well as NZ spring water. I went for the only Asian item on the menu. Again, no sign of any chopsticks. Owen ordered burger and fries. A bit of a cop out, mate.

March 21, 1am. Another very late one. Dinner after the concert at a Chinese barbecue restaurant.

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Got there around 10:30pm and stuffed myself with scallops, oysters and clams with copious amounts of garlic. Five bottles of beer were drunk by our table. But this was Chinese beer with 2.5% alcohol. Even 2.5% was enough to bolster Owen’s efforts to shout for the waiter in Chinese to bring more wine. We all needed to let off steam after our last concert and our last meal with the Guitarw String-139 team: Gail, Duke and Rita.

We had two concerts today. The 4pm one was in a gallery in a far off suburb inhabited by many foreigners. There were the usual hi-jinx at the intersections, cars behaving badly, the talking buses and bikes riding against the traffic flow, children riding on bikes behind parents and not a helmet in sight. As we approached the venue, there seemed to be a greater number of those strange vehicles that look like motorised tricycles with a box around them, ‘taxi-bongs’  apparently they are not allowed on the highway. No kidding. The venue is a small auditorium in La Plantation, an art gallery in a swanky part of the city.

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There was a mixture of Chinese and non-Chinese people in the audience including children. It was a lovely space to play in. At the end of the concert, they showered us with flower petals.

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imageBeautiful flowers arranged by Penny!

Gail and Duke were trying to hurry us up; the next concert was at 7:30pm and it was in another part of town. It could take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours depending on traffic. It was already past 5:30. On the main motorway, the cars were at a standstill. Duke’s mind was ticking over. There wasn’t even space to create one of those non existent fast lanes on the right. He tried to do a u turn (apparently you can sometimes get away with it on a one directional motorway) but there was too much traffic. Suddenly he turned towards the footpath looking to cross over it onto the taxi rank running alongside. “I think you need a 4 wheel drive to do that kind of thing,’ said Owen unhelpfully. But then Duke isn’t called ‘the grand duke’ by musicians for nothing. The car mounted the footpath and then bumped down into the taxi rank, whereupon Duke cruised along past the stagnant traffic and managed to squeeze between two posts at the end where we rejoined motorway. We arrived at ‘OWSPACE’ with plenty of time to set up.

No trumpets allowed?

No trumpets allowed?

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Too sleepy to write any more. Should find some time tomorrow when we have hours waiting at airports.

March 21, 12:21pm

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So we are stuck in Beijing international airport for the next 11 hours. Our flight to Hong Kong has been cancelled due to bad weather (I faintly recall Gail’s voice on the first day, ‘they are always cancelling domestic flights’) and they have put us on a direct flight to Auckland that leaves here at midnight. The ‘free airport wifi’ doesn’t seem to work and neither does data roaming. We can’t check in until 9pm so we are stranded outside the airport Burger King outlet with all our luggage. The smell of the fastfood is overpowering. I’ll end up ordering fries unless we move somewhere else.

I’m determined not to let this spoil my memories of our trip to Beijing. The work that Gail and Duke do is amazing and hugely important. Their goal is to get more and more young people to classical music concerts. It struck me at each concert that, unlike in our NZ concerts, the audience members in Beijing were mostly younger than me and that’s not just because I’m getting older.
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Some were young Chinese women who perhaps were only there to get photographed with Owen, but others seemed genuinely interested in the music. The name of the concert series, ‘string-139′ derives from the Bach cantatas. The text of Cantata number 139 is of special significance to Gail. I’ll have to look that up when I have Internet access again.
We’re still outside Burger King and Owen is queueing to get me some fries. The good news is that Gail and Duke are coming to pick us up in half an hour and will drop us back at 9.
March 23, 11:25am Wellington, NZ
Time to wrap this up. Owen and I finally made it home last night, having survived a Monday that seemed never- ending and a Tuesday that all but disappeared.
Gail and Duke picked us up from the airport at around 1pm on Monday. ‘Welcome to Beijing,’ said Duke, loading our luggage into the car. He was still smiling even though his day must have been disrupted when Gail rang him to say that we were still here…..
While Gail ran some errands, Duke took us to a coffee house specialising in waffles in a wealthy suburb near the airport. At the counter, there were very realistic painted plastic models of everything on the menu. This was a western style cafe, the sort you might see on the east coast of the US, with a high ceiling, a staircase in the centre of the room, sofas and tall bookshelves. The main difference was the all the highly ornamental light fittings. We ordered and sat down at a long oak table. Instead of a number for our order, they gave us a blue teddy bear.
'Quit staring! Have you never seen red hair before?'

‘Quit staring! Have you never seen red hair before?’

We spent the next few hours driving to and from the airport (after a brief false alarm about the validity of our paper ticket) before ending up at a restaurant for dinner after Duke finished teaching. They thought we should have one last hotpot before we left the country. Owen more than compensated for his burger binges over the last few days by eating duck blood and oesophagus. I began to wonder if it was time I became a vegetarian.

The last supper

The last supper

As Gail pointed out, luck really wasn’t on our side as we drove around and around the airport carpark. Half the parking area had been blocked off. We finally made it inside the airport to find that the uphill travellator had broken down. We let do Gail do all the talking at the check in counter and said our final goodbyes.

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We were only away a week, but it was the most action packed week I have ever experienced. Thank you to the lovely audiences who were so welcoming and appreciative. Thanks to Gail and Duke and the team for inviting us to be part of your wonderful project, for all your work in organising the concerts and for looking after us so well. Gail and Duke, special thanks for my Chinese name, for introducing us to hotpot and for all the joyrides through the city.

Goodbye Beijing, for now.