the Great Wall

an early rise to get to the Great Wall for 8am opening time;  as it was national holiday week bus tours of Chinese tourists flood the main sights as the local Beijing middle class go away.  there are several points that you can go and visit the wall, we chose the second closest point to Beijing, Mutianyu – as we had heard the main nearer site is always crowded.  you take a cable car up, which took me by surprise as you just jumped on as it was moving – as you can tell I have never been ski -ing – and then you can choose to take a toboggan ride down, which is both fun and scary;  Chinese health and safety is pretty similar to spain – so take caution,  if you have young children or old grandparents, there is a safer enclosed cable car up and down, plus you can always hike your way up and save the cable car fees, which I believe takes another half hour, but bear in mind that you will be doing lots of climbing and walking along the wall.    we were lucky enough to see the wall with just a handful of people on it, but within 2 hours it was getting very busy and very hot and this was October, so bear this in mind if you go in the heat of the summer, and especially with the steep steps to climb up and down.  it really is an incredible feat, and to think that this was built over 4000 years ago.  apparently parts of the wall were started in 7BC, fortifications to protect the towns from raids and invasions from the nomadic groups, which eventually were all joined together to create one Great Wall.  of course its been rebuilt at times,  no wonder its one of the seven wonders of the world, its definitely worth the trip.   we took about 7 hours in all, including the travelling to and from Beijing;  we booked a driver there and back, which is a bit more pricey, but saves you time as they wait for you, otherwise, you can easily pick up coaches to and from the site, it just so happened that it was easier to take the car from where Alice was staying.  its very nice to take a picnic and sit on one of the steps or on top of one of the fortress buildings roof and enjoy the breathtaking and wondrous view.   another tip, is to make sure that you don’t go on a rainy day, probably not good and slippery;  apparently autumn and winter are absolutely stunning with the colours and snow!  you don’t need to plan too much in advance, as we did it the day before, but look at the weather forecasts before choosing your day.  my biggest disappointment was arriving at the start of the cable car and finding a subway sandwich  cafe – I guess we cannot choose or criticise what other countries find as progression.

books and art

so how refreshing to hear that there is a demise in the purchase of kindles and a rise in the sales of books – the young are posting Instagram posts with rows of bookshelves behind them – hooray!  I have not come round to the idea of reading a book on a screen – it makes sense if you want to declutter, but books somehow don’t add up to clutter, they are beautiful stripes that enhance an interior , they make a space lived in – our house is filled with books…..  we also have filled spain and Suffolk with books – and the feedback from clients is that they love browsing our collection – books are for sharing, for stimulating the brain, for escaping, for aspiring, for understanding, books are as much a part of my life as my family. at present I am reading ‘the Paris Wife’ – a book given to me by my Cornish friend, it tells the story of the rise of Ernest Hemingway in the 1920’s in paris through the words of his first wife Hadley Richardson – its not groundbreaking, but its interesting and paints a vivid story of the time and the trials of wanting to be a successful writer.   I went to Foyles cafe on the top floor of the recently refurbished shop on charring cross road – it was quite a surprise to see such a big bookshop with floors of books (and music) with a good cafe not run by a chain.   my friend Lyn alerted it to me and it really is a good sanctuary, pick up any book from the shop, take it to the cafe, get a drink and enjoy the book, then put it back on a trolley to be put back in the shop – its harking back to being in a library.  I remember my youth living in libraries, borrowing the maximum 4 books that you were allowed, trying to read the books before the date of return, or else you would get a fine.  I never bought books as a child, we were encouraged to go the library – the only books I bought were textbooks for my exams.  how different life is for my children now.  by the way, I am still pleasantly surprised that my book ‘stolen glimpses’ has been shortlisted for best book design and production in the photographic monograph category this year – winners to be announced in November – it means that somebody in the industry has recognised the hard work and thought that we put in to create the book.

this leads me back to my recent trip to Beijing – my favourite shops were the bookshops and art shops – which were usually combined – books about calligraphy, graphic art, painting, classic reads – they were far more interesting than the abundance of souvenir shops that are everywhere.  however, one fun area to spend a day is the art area 798.  based in the east, its an area that is full of industrial buildings built by the germans in the 1950’s and which have gradually turned into art galleries,  bookshops and cafes.  so much so that there must have been a few hundred galleries to visit, some are the renowned names, some are just local artists, some are fake art masquerading as art, which somehow makes the whole thing a bit gimmicky.  but in all honesty, its a big family day out for local Chinese, especially those who are craving a bit of culture or simply to get a great Instagram with one of the many novelty sculptures dotted around the district.  again, its a big area, and you can roam around for hours, so make a list of what you really would like to see;  a lot of the serious art galleries charge about £6, which is expensive, but its to deter the masses, most of the others are free.   the street food is great, but be cautious about food that has not been heated to a high temperature or uses the local water – I will be coming to food shortly, which is another reason to go to Beijing.


a multitude of parks

I have to admit, I was expecting far more pollution in Beijing than I experienced – and what I really noticed was how many beautiful parks there were.  there were a couple of days when the sky was grey and a mist clouded over the tall buildings,  but maybe I was lucky. I think living in london has made me resilient to noise and pollution.

on my first morning some friends took us to west mountain, about half an hour further on than the summer palace and where you can climb gently to the top to get great views of the city;;  it seems lots of people like to do this and take in the fresh air amongst the pine trees.   young and old living and sharing the green spaces,  exercising, dancing, singing, tai chi, playing cards, reading – if its not raining, they are all there.   parks were a priority on alice’s list of what to do and it certainly made my stay in the city a relaxing and pleasing one;  Ritan Park, is a small local park which has a sacrificial amphitheatre, known as the temple of the sun it was a spot for holy offerings, there’s a beautiful lake with teahouse, lots of floral displays and landscaped areas.   this particular park offered ping pong tables,  exercise parks, climbing walls, so it was full of families – its still a culture where families take care of their old and include them, lots of grandparents with their children – I wished my mother was here – strange as she left this society for a better life.

Beihai Park is a beautiful sanctuary a short walk from Houhai lakes, so quite central to lots of the sites;  it costs about £1 to enter, but its a park with lots of ancient buildings to visit, tea houses, summer palaces, all free once you are in the park.  go around 3pm, visit the outhouses before they close, take a boat across the lake and watch the sunset to reveal the dramatic skyline of old and new over the water.   I guess you can compare this with Regents Park, except you do have access to all the lovely traditional houses to see.

Summer palace is a definite must – its big, so 5 hours is a minimum to enjoy it;  its just on the outskirts, but the metro is so efficient, you will be there in 40 mins from the centre.   its like Kew Gardens, but with plentiful of royal buildings to visit all set around an enormous lake;  there are temples, palaces, bridges, tea houses – too much to see in one day, so you will have to make a list of what you really want to see.  naturally the main temples near the main entrance are very busy, and quite a climb to the top, but definitely worth seeing.  try and see them on a weekday, rather than a weekend – lots of Chinese tourists flock from around the country to visit summer palace.   once you climb to the top of the first temple you will get breathtaking views of the lake and the Beijing skyline.  take a picnic or tea in the floating boat restaurant.   you can find quieter spots all over the park, we loved the water lily pond and sat watching the old couples rowing their boats, renewing their romance;  stranger were the Chinese family who set up a game of cards on their lunch table in the courtyard of the temple – its great for people watching.  you can take boats across the lake, which saves walking time.   I am amazed at the elderly Chinese who were not at all put off by the steep stairs climbing to the top of the temple.  entry into summer palace is about £6 and is definitely top of the list.  apparently in winter, all the lakes are frozen and you can skate – so I imagine that the parks are  just as beautiful in winter.  if you want a bit of luxury, head for the Anam hotel, which is on the grounds of summer palace and housed in the buildings that were acclamation for the royal guests and take afternoon tea there, but this is quite pricey, although beautiful.

of course we are blessed to have so many parks here in london, you just kind of take them for granted – but these parks are more like going into Kew Gardens, or Hampton Court Palace, which are considerably more pricey for getting in.  I hope I have shown you that Beijing is just not pollution, traffic and tall buildings…..

jazz and peking opera

i am lucky that my husband’s job involves listening to music cos it means that we get to see so many fantastic musicians! last night we saw the amazing Cecile McLorin Salvant at ronnie scotts; i was never a big jazz fan, but slowly i am being won over – all my husband’s jazz muso friends are now so busy or away that i have become his new jazz partner.  Cecile’s choice of songs were beautiful and strong ballads, harking back to early black songs reminiscent of Harlem or of times of slavery – her gentle but powerful voice expressed perfectly the words, the irony….   there is a humorous tongue in cheek aspect with some of the songs, in particular ‘wives and lovers’

Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up
Soon he will open the door
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger
You needn’t try any more
For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I’m warning you
Day after day, there are girls at the office
And the men will always be men
Don’t stand him up with your hair still in curlers
You may not see him again
Wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
He’s almost here
Burt Bacharach and Hal David
its strange to compare jazz and the blues to Chinese opera, but I have just experienced both in the space of a few days – very very different but in some ways so similar.  the discordant notes,  the tinkle and clash of music, the highs and lows, the emphatic expression, the drama, the gentleness, the sweetness……  we went to the Temple theatre , one of the oldest Hutong theatres to see a version of Farewell my Concubine – an experience worth visiting.  the theatre was very small, but beautifully formed with only about 12 rows – there was a long thin platform that the actors strolled down, interacting with the audience even more – you could see every detail on their elaborate costumes and make up – its an animated performance with dancelike movements, singing, live musicians and just in case you don’t understand, there are English subtitles on a screen discreetly at the side of the stage.  so like jazz, its an intimate engagement with the audience – such a different experience to the grand old opera houses that you are used to seeing.
my favourite track of the night was ‘wild women don’t have the blues’ – if you get a chance to see Cecile perform then do book  – its an unforgettable night. 
I hear these women raving ’bout their monkey men
About their trifling1 husbands and their no good friends
These poor women sit around all day and moan
Wondering why their wandering papa’s don’t come home
But wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have no bluesNow when you’ve got a man, don’t never be on the square
‘Cause if you do he’ll have a woman everywhere
I never was known to treat no one man right
I keep ’em working hard both day and night
‘Cause wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have their bluesI’ve got a disposition and a way of my own
When my man starts kicking I let him find another home
I get full of good liquor, walk the streets all night
Go home and put my man out if he don’t act right
Wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have their bluesYou never get nothing by being an angel child
You better change your ways and get real wild
I wanna tell you something, I wouldn’t tell you a lie
Wild women are the only kind that really get by
‘Cause wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have their blues
Ida Cox. 1924


life in the Hutong alleyways….


I have just come back from a week in Beijing – my daughter is there learning mandarin and doing voluntary work.  i didn’t plan on visiting but due to last week being a national holiday – golden week – moon festival, she had a week free, so off I went to visit her.  I had only been to southern china once before, back to visit  my grandmother, so it was all new and exciting.  fortunately alice has been there for 2 months already and so planned the whole week ahead – and when I say plan, I mean day by day, hour by hour…… so I am going to be posting about all the eventful days that we spent discovering the city, its beautiful parks, historical sites and the best restaurants and food that we shared;  normally I do this as I am experiencing it, but it was quite difficult in china to get access to websites, blogs, Instagram – I had to install express vpn which basically hides where you are based, so that you can access your Instagram accounts or even google things in English –  all these things are barred in china, as they have strict laws, but this app seems to help.

considering that my mother is Chinese, I realised how westernised I have been brought up and so being in china definitely opened up an intrigue into the culture and traditions of china.   early autumn is a perfect time to visit, as the climate is very changeable, hot in the summer, freezing in the winter – apparently all the lakes freeze over so that you can skate.   my first day was spent in Jinghan Park – a park close to the famous forbidden city (palace) which apparently in Feng shui  protected the palace from evil spirits.   it was a lovely start to my trip, a gentle walk in a park on a Sunday, with its temples climbing up to the peak with a view over Beijing – the top temple housing a giant gold buddha.   I love that young and old congregate in the parks – partaking in tai chi, or a traditional dance and a song,  playing cards, or exercising – there were definitely more old than young….   a short walk away is Houhai lakes – a bit more touristy, its a series of lakes with boats that you can hire surrounded by restaurants and bars and shops.  a few of the shops were worth visiting, a lovely kite shop, a museum shop selling beautiful ceramics…  its a pleasant evening place to visit where you can get a bite to eat.  the downside for me going at this time, is that it seemed most of china was in Beijing enjoying the national holiday, so ideally this is a time to avoid, but we took this in our stride as it was our only time together.




have come to spain to tidy up after the summer and prepare for the winter months;  the harsh differences of extreme heat and then damp winter is not great for these old houses.  september is such a lovely time to visit – there is still the warmth of a late summer, the fresh air in the early evening, the town has just the right amount of people to make it feel alive, and the beaches are near empty – the sea is warm from the long summer….  what more can you ask for?

tuna is the big produce of the area and now sashimi of tuna seems to be on the menu everywhere – the mercado, which is the original fish market still sells fruit and produce in the day, but is now home to a sushi and ham eatery – its become the stopping place for the locals to have a drink after work and a tapas at lunch – the sushi is actually pretty good.  its sad to see some businesses gone and to see everything modernised – i guess its progression and just because i love old fashioned classic, its selfish to want everyone to stay the same.  i disliked what designers did to the mercado, but at least its busier and thriving and the locals seem to appreciate it.

we visited 2 of our favourite restaurants  el campero  – in barbate and the restaurant in hotel antonio in Zahara de los attunes – both are high quality and more pricey, but if you pick carefully, not more expensive than london;  in season Zahara is a hippy young town by the sea, about half an hours drive from Vejer – its not old architecture, but was originally a fishing town, but now is a holiday venue extending out towards Atlanterra.  Atlanterra has dream houses built into the side of a hill overlooking the sea, some with access to their own private beach – there are modernist houses too – quite James Bond style – go and oggle the marvellous designs.  zahara does have a wonderful beach and it stretches a couple of miles – its especially lovely at sunset. surfing the net for dream houses seems to be a hobby — the modern house is perfect for that.


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