There’s nothing like watching one of your colleagues eating fried scorpions from a stick in a market to underline the fact that you are a very long way from home. Lorenzo is always the first in line to try something new, and as he crunches his way through the savoury snack, my stomach lurches in contrary motion to my jet-lagged head – I feel like I need to sit down.
“Ah it’s ok. Tastes like prawn I think,’ he says as a tiny scorpion leg rests on his lower lip.
“You want to try?”
Different as Beijing may be, it is extraordinary how much has changed since our first visit here in 2003. I can remember back then people lamenting the drop in number of cyclists. Once upon a time, it was one of the most famous images of a city that was entirely leg powered. 11 years ago, there were still a lot of bicycles around but the increase in car ownership was becoming evident in the number of vehicles on the road and also the increase in pollution. In 2014 as I sit in my hotel room and look out at the road below, there are six lanes of traffic and almost no bicycles at all. With the appalling air quality, I’m not sure I would want to cycle in it either and so the vicious circle continues. Up here on the sixth floor, I am in the toxic cloud which blankets the city and makes it difficult to see and breathe. Having said that, after being given dire warnings to wear face masks when we arrived because of the danger to public health, we brought the west wind with us and have been lucky enough to have two beautifully sunny days in Beijing.
The efficient and clean underground system is the best way to cover the vast distances involved in seeing the sites in this enormous metropolis. We arrived rather tired at around lunchtime having flown overnight and immediately set out of for dim sum near the Lama Temple. Chi, a good friend anywhere, speaks Mandarin with a hint of Moss Side and is better than any travel guide as he orders some of the best food I have tasted. As my stomach stretches to fit in one more pork bun, the sudden influx of food and lack of sleep make the world feel like it is moving around me. As we walk down the stairs enthusing over the quality and cheapness of the food, the restaurants place high up the lonely planet guides recommendations is confirmed by a familiar face in the rogues gallery of famous customers…
The first concert is always strange in the Far East. As we storm through Petroushka, I sense my fingers moving and my lungs enjoying expelling some of the particles from the smog, but there is a strange sensation of not really being there. I almost feel like it’s someone else playing. Very strange, and that night, I am very happy to phone home and finally sleep.
Yesterday I went off on my own and stood in the huge space of Tian’anmen Square. There are almost as many soldiers, security guards and policemen as there are civilians and with blonde hair, I feel like I stick out somewhat. I am approached by two young ladies who are very friendly and even tell me that I look like a film star, they couldn’t remember which one though…after quite a long chat they finally reached the point in the conversation which was that they wanted to sell me some paintings. I politely declined which didn’t work, so I eventually walked off in another direction. To get into the square itself, I counted four checkpoints. Two of these were airport style security complete with x-ray machines and the other were manned checkpoints with soldiers randomly searching people. It was interesting to note that in London, looking different is what often gets you stopped and searched. Here in Beijing, western tourists were being waved through without much of a glance, it was all the locals who were being stopped on their way in to one of the countries most famous open spaces. Make of that what you will.
I resisted the urge for seahorses on a stick for lunch and grabbed a small bowl of noodles for less than £1 and then made my way back to the hotel to prepare for the concert. In the second half we played Mahler 1. I was slightly worried about it as I am only in the last two movements, and without something to occupy me in the first two, I was worried I might drift off to sleep only to be woken by the clattering sound of flute meeting stage. I needn’t have worried as my colleagues, led by Daniel Harding created such excitement I was on the edge of my seat. I never know how the music that is so familiar to us will be received in far flung places. The culture of China and the UK is so different it seems unlikely that it could have the same reaction. However, the audience sat attentively, nobody coughed or talked and during one of my many bars rests a small boy up in the balcony to my left caught my eye. He couldn’t sit still, but not through boredom, through excitement. At every climax he bounced up and down on his seat grinning from ear to ear and turning to his father who was also grinning, although he didn’t bounce up and down. It was during the finale however, that he could no longer contain his excitement. Quite often at children’s concerts you can spot many kids doing their best conductor impressions but this lad, who must have been about 8 years old, couldn’t keep his eyes of the percussion section. As the last movement sped to the finish he stood up, still smiling and staring to the back of the stage raised his arms and clashed his imaginary cymbals with all his might. As the horns stood for the final section, he jumped up and down on the spot smashing his cymbals and the symphony finished to a roar from the audience and the little boy standing, his arms held aloft allowing his instruments to vibrate a little longer. Throughout all of this, nobody around him made him sit down or told him to behave himself, he was just allowed to enjoy the music in his own way. It was marvelous to watch. London is another world from Beijing, we even have more bicycles now, but the language of music can speak to everyone.