The last minute scramble for breakfast was hectic. I always pity the poor breakfast staff in hotels when half an hour before the allotted leaving time, hordes of singers descend on the restaurant like a plague of locusts and then, as suddenly as we arrive, all disappear leaving a trail of dirty plates and discarded food. There was no chance of ‘breakfast banditry’ here. No cheeky, emergency sandwich, piece of cake or an apple for later. The Chinese staff were draconian. The day before, I had tried to take a small glass of milk to my room for a cup of tea and had it snatched by an indignant waitress.
The two buses loaded up and headed out of Shanghai. (Click here to read the Shanghai diary)
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When we drew up at the station it looked more like a huge airport.
Our plucky tour manager, Severine told us the platform number and the latest time we were to go through security and we all scattered to hunt out food for the journey. Shanghai to Beijing was 769km but this train journey would take just under five hours! We made a small camp of cases and, leaving Pete on guard, managed to find some coffee and sandwiches. Security was much like the Eurostar and with military-like precision, Severine had recruited four burly lads and changed the configuration of the seats to create a luggage area for 84 large suitcases. She’d had discovered this trick on a previous trip with a large symphony orchestra.
All aboard, we settled down to our various activities. Sudoku, crosswords, reading, watching films on iPads, chatting and for those who’d had a late night in Shanghai, catching up on sleeping. My traveling companion was quite excited about the actual train and particularly when the display above showed that we were going 300km/h.
I had hoped to see some more of rural China from the train window but to be honest, the gloomy high-rise apartments punctuated the small amount of green space that we encountered on the journey.
In Beijing we met up with the orchestra and children’s choir and all trundled our cases along the dusty streets until we reached the line of coaches. It turned out that the smog of Shanghai was nothing compared to Beijing’s murky sky. It was only a short trip to the hotel, which was also the theatre, and we got our keys and dropped off our suitcases – a rather more streamlined affair at the front desk but the usual jam at the lifts. Armed with maps and the hotels card printed with “take me to the Poly Plaza hotel” we headed down to the subway.
With a free afternoon and evening ahead of us, Tamsin, Sofi and I were joined with Polly May and Tobias Hug on our sight seeing trip. Tobias was the bass and beatboxer in The Swingle Singers but in a completely different generation from me. We had never formally met, so it was good to get to know him at last. (The Swingle Singers, past and present have a large alumni and it’s a bit like an acapella public school: we have not necessarily met each other before, but have a similar experience and education to link us. You see lots of us on the session scene in London)
Today’s outing was to be “Polly’s Perambulations” as she had actually read her guide book and was happy to lead the way to Tiananmen Square. If I lead a sightseeing trip on tour, it’s called Heather’s Hikes. Other favourites are Gerry’s Jaunts, Rachel’s Ramblings, Andy’s Ambles and Mike’s Meanders……you get the drift…..
The subway stop we had planned to alight from was closed, so we had to get out at the next one and walk back. As we reached the square we could see why. The holiday had brought many Chinese tourists and the tube stop would have been dangerously crowded.
Although the sun was out, the smog gave the sky an appearance of dusk.
Polly’s godmother, Sally had flown from Hong Kong to see her and when she heard that we were out together, she insisted that we join her for a drink at her hotel. It wasn’t just any hotel, but the Shanghai Jockey Club, a beautiful oriental style building. Downstairs in the corridor to the bar were black and white photographs of famous racehorses, their heads turned back with a wistful look in their eye – posing like some famous, thirties matinee idol.
After much laughter and chat, we left Polly and Sally to their catch-up dinner and headed off to a night food market that we had seen on the way to the hotel. It was a bustling place with lots of very strange things to eat.
The most enormous Centipedes sat next to spiders and big grubs, all threaded onto wooden skewers. Two small Chinese boys were pointing at them. fascinated and when Tamsin caught their mother’s eye, she waved her finger to tell us that no, her boys would NOT be eating these delights. If not the Chinese, then who on earth does eat them? Maybe only some foolhardy westerners!
One stall had sweet dumplings all painted to resemble little animals. The girls sampled some Peking duck with vegetables in pancakes. I was still full from the delicious snacks that Sally had ordered for us at the Jockey club. We were all flagging by this point and hailed a cab to take us back to the hotel. Unfortunately the bar was right next to the lifts and we were tempted in to join some colleagues for a “quick nightcap”. Every time I stood up to leave, somebody else arrived with excited tales of their first evening in Beijing! Three hours later and I finally made it into bed. Fortunately I’d had the sense to switch to soft drinks, but I was very tired.
On the second day we didn’t have a rehearsal until the afternoon and Sally had invited us to go to the Jingshan Park to see the old people doing their daily exercises. Apparently, it was her favourite thing to do when she came to Beijing and we’d arranged to meet her at the west gate at 9am. I struggled to get out of bed in time, tempted to cancel, but in the end I was really glad that I made it.
After some bowing and the usual display of sign language, we were lucky enough to be allowed to join in with a lovely group of seniors who were working their way through their body, stretching and stimulating blood flow with a combination of very specific exercises. A man with a very commanding voice was barking his way through his instructions, certainly a good way to learn numbers.
The ladies giggled and I have to admit that we were a strange sight with both Polly and Tamsin over six feet tall, our glamorous, Scandinavian blonde Sofi and Sally who is very petite and elegant. We attracted a crowd of onlookers. Some pretended to join in for a few exercises and when they’d got close enough for a good look at these strange western ladies, they moved on.
At the end, we had to turn to the temple at the top of the hill and shout out. It felt invigorating as well as great fun and we bowed to our instructor (second in on the left) and persuaded them to have a picture taken with us.
Some other groups were gracefully performing T’ai chi and even a few people with swords doing some sort of Taekwondo.
Nobody wanted to leave the park, so we climbed to the top of the hill and visited the beautiful temples. The artificial hill was constructed during the Ming Dynasty and made from the soil excavated from the moats of the Imperial Palace. It was transported using only manual labor and animal power.
The guidebook said that the view of the Forbidden city from the top should have been stunning, but we could barely see anything as the smog shrouded the vista. (The poor air quality was becoming a problem for the singers in our group who had asthma).
As we descended we could hear Chinese music and found a group of elderly people playing and singing.
Unfortunately, the various groups sing and play at the same time, so it was a bit of a racket! As we went further down we came apon a smartly dressed man with words printed on an old book suspended on a pole. He was pointing with a stick and a small crowd were joining in. We still don’t know if they were traditional or religious songs, but we joined in singing the tune anyway. At the end of the song, the gentleman handed me the baton. I immediately passed it to Sofi, or resident conductor and much to everyone’s amusement, she led the singing.
One of the strangest things we saw in the park was a man sitting very upright in a full, wartime gas mask – well with the smog you could hardly blame him. I love the expression of the other man on the bench next to him.
As we headed out of the park, I saw an elderly lady who had very small (perhaps previously bound) feet. I’d spotted her coming into the park earlier, leaning on her shopping trolley as she had difficulty walking.
All around us, people had finished exercising and were drinking tea from their flasks and talking to their friends. I wondered if old people from the West could only get out every day to exercise, sing and socialise with their friends, they would be happier, more mobile and mostly, not live a lonely life, isolated in their homes. Perhaps a lesson we could learn from China?
There was a place to experience a Chinese tea ceremony and our instructor was a delightful young lady who spoke excellent English despite never having left China. We learnt to drink each cup with three sips – each sip for happiness, good fortune and longevity.
Opposite the gate was a small market and a street lined with old houses with only one storey. We were hungry and passed a busy soup shop. Tamsin held up four fingers to the busy waitress and we sat down on log stools around a low table. We didn’t know what we would get, but hoped the boiling temperature of the soup would keep us safe. The lady brought us hot pastries covered in sesame seeds in a piece of brown paper and then a large bowl of broth with won tons rather like stuffed tortellini. On the table were a pot of serious, home-made chilli sauce and the ubiquitous soy sauce.
Trying to hail a cab back to the hotel proved trickier as it was very busy and we had to take the second one, as he was willing to put the meter on. We were near the tourist spots and the first driver wanted an inflated fixed price.
After a half an hour in the room it was time for a short rehearsal for the second performance of the Britten War Requiem.
Unfortunately the platform that the hall had built for the choir to stand on was only three tiers high and couldn’t hold us all. Most of the Altos had to stand on the side of the stage while Maestro Charles Dutoit checked the balance of the children’s choir. They were to sing from offstage for this performance. Severine assured us things would be sorted out by the evening’s performance and I fully intended to go back to the hotel for a nap. However, I was easily persuaded to make an expedition to a nearby shopping centre which some of our serious shoppers had found. You had to bargain very hard, something I’m not very good at. I tried some shoes and needed a larger size. When they arrived they had a broken buckle and the lady ran off to get me another pair which turned out to be a slightly different style. Mid-bargaining, I genuinely decided I didn’t like them and walked away. My stallholder shouted out half the price that we had agreed. Aha…..THAT’S the way to bargain successfully. I decided that I’d return when I wasn’t in a rush and headed back for a bath and cup of tea before the concert.
When we walked on stage we discovered that it was still a squash. They’d moved the orchestra forward and put a row of chairs on the back of the main stage. This left the second row, comprising of the taller singers, almost sitting on the floor. They then had to clamber up onto the lower step of the original staging when we all stood up to sing. They didn’t have a very good view of the conductor but we soon realised that we had another problem. When the percussionist stood up to play the Tam Tam, he completely blocked the entire Alto section’s view of the conductor.
We only discovered this as the concert progressed, so once again, we just had to do the best job we could. This was quite frustrating, as we’d literally traveled half way across the world to sing this concert.
The War Requiem hadn’t pulled a big crowd in Shanghai. The house in Beijing was fuller although we did lose a few of the audience during the concert. As is tradition, we had an internatonal mix of soloists: the English tenor, John Mark Ainsley, the German Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and the tiny Russian Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya – who made an enormous sound. She was a proper Diva of the first order, turning up at the concert with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, incredibly high shoes and a skintight orange red gown with a floor length train. She seemed to have been transported there from the eighties and swept on stage like one of Charlie’s Angels. Here she is posing in David Morris Jewels for Russian Tatler Magazine.
The lovely Sally came to the concert and afterwards she took us out to a splendid Japanese restaurant. The food and company were excellent.
The following afternoon, we had our first orchestral rehearsal for Peter Grimes with conductor Duncan Ward and the full cast of soloists. Fortunately we didn’t have to move about too much for this concert performance, although we did have to be in character for the times when we would have been onstage. This meant we could enjoy listening to the powerful music without having to worry about entrances and exits.
After the rehearsal, we decided to eat locally and Tamsin had the brilliant idea to book us in for a foot massage after our meal at ten o’clock. When we arrived, we discovered that they had misunderstood when she had booked for two people and we were led together into a room with two chairs side by side – a couple’s massage! The receptionist also apologised that there were no men that evening(!) The lights were dimmed and Jasmine tea arrived with two extremely strong-fingered ladies who set to work. We had to sit on the footstool with our feet in a fragrant bucket of hot bubbly water while they gently worked on our neck, shoulders and spine. Then we were turned around to sit in the comfortable, reclining chair and the real business began. Some parts of the foot massage were very painful but by the end I was drifting off to sleep. I was glad the men hadn’t been available. The lady masseuse was strong enough for me. It was the perfect end to another enjoyable day.
The last two days were filled with the dress rehearsal and performance of Peter Grimes, interspersed with the inevitable shopping. On the last day as I walked back from the shops, I took this picture of the Happy Beer House where the choir had spent quite a bit of time. I noticed a man with his head in his hands who didn’t seem to be so happy about being there.
All too soon our short trip to China was over.
I had been strangely apprehensive about the tour but China had won me over. I found the people to be friendly and the food delicious. The smog was bad and the smells were often overpowering, but I had been charmed by the country’s vibrancy and history.
To view a fuller selection of my pictures click here to visit my Chinese Gallery.
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