Monday, April 30, 2012

10 in Tianjin

Farewell single figures, Alyssa is 10 today. Turned out to be an action-packed, slightly weird day. Presents at breakfast, frantic morning at work (that's me, not Alyssa), then met up for lunch of burgers & chips with friends... and who should be sitting on the next table but Ai Weiwei. So I had a bit of a chat, and then he left with his friends. Sort of normal, but with an air of unreality about it. Anyway...

We then headed off to Tianjin for the opening of the Philharmonia's Re-rite exhibition/installation. We've been preparing this thing for six months or so and I never know what to call it; I don't think they do either. Suffice it to say, it's a sophisticated video installation of an orchestra (needless to say the Philharmonia) performing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, filmed with 29 cameras, and then re-presented in the labyrinthian back-rooms of Tianjin's new and very large Grand Theatre. The idea is to break down the gap between platform and audience so you can experience indivudual sections of the orchestra, control their respective volumes on a huge screen, have a go at conducting, have a go at some percussion... get it on, bang a gong, etc.

It was fun. Made more so by Liz and the girls being with me. I don't think A&N have ever witnessed Daddy giving a speech before. But what made it extra special was the Theatre staff bringing in a cake for Alyssa and then everyone singing Happy Birthday. One of those great moments. It didn't end there either. Off we went to see the snappily named Moscow State Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre's Ballet (hereafter called MSSNDMTB) perform Prokofiev's Midsummer Night's Dream in the new and very impressive Opera Hall upstairs - all 3 hours of it. The girls managed to stay awake, helped by the extended death scenes which they found funny, but trumped by the hilarious curtain call. For some reason, staff brought on not just bouquets but large potted plants which they placed in a neat row. Unfortunately this was precisely in line with the curtain which, opening & closing, proceeded to knock them over and they rolled around the stage, resulting in hysterics from our two... which continued all the way back to the hotel and in bed eating salami sandwiches.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Early Beijing & London on film

Back to UCCA for another dose of silent movies - this time a fascinating compilation of 'home movies' and early newsreel footage of (because we wanted an Olympic theme) mostly London and Beijing from 1896 to 1937. The Chinese content found its way into the BFI's Collection from various sources but they've sat idly in cannisters for years until we gave them a bit of money to digitise a selection. 

Watching them made me realise how political film often ends up being. Not in the obvious way - they're mostly just street scenes - but simply the fact that the 'Chinese' films were all shot by Europeans. Also, the footage shot in London showed a sophisticated (for the time) metropolis with men in top hats, omnibuses and an incredibly busy Thames, contrasting with, in Beijing, 'backward' looking cobblers and men with hair in queues (mandatory until 1910). There were even captions referring to 'natives'. I must admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable watching them. We hired a Chinese jazz pianist who improvised along. It was packed-out by the way.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Restoring Silents

Good talk & screening by the affable Robin Baker (Head of BFI's Film Archives) this evening at UCCA in 798: from the painstaking intricacies of conservation to how to make the archives accessible as possible to the public. Their big project at the moment is restoring Hitchcock's 9 surviving (one is lost) silent movies. First they have to find who owns the best extant prints, which could be anywhere in the world. Then they have to take decent bits from each to make the best composite print possible. Sometimes they're so warped it's difficult to run them through the machine. Then they have to digitally touch up all the scratches & blemishes frame by frame. Occasionally they'll have to restore the hue of a film which might originally have been shown with a blue tinge, not straight B&W. And in the case of the Hitchcocks, they're commissioning new soundtracks by different composers, young and old. Robin gave as sneak 2-minute preview of the restored version of Hitch's first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), made at the age of 26. Looks great. All nine will be screened in the UK this summer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Today I took a sickie, my first since I don't know when. Sore throat, cough, nothing serious but needed a quiet day at home to get over it. But of course ended up working, if not the usual 12 hours, then not that far short of it. Tons & tons of it. On top of that there's arranging simultaneous decoration of our flat and renovation of mum's house, girls' birthdays coming up and just the usual daily life stuff of children, homework, shopping, bills, schedules... and our computer's dying. Rant over. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fairweather Footie

Not doing a very good job of staying on top of football scores, but I do know that it's tight at the top of the Premier League and Bayern beat Real on penalties in the Euro-semis this evening so will meet Chelsea in the final. I used to be an avid footie fan: supported Revie-era Leeds (a 'fairweather' fan then), would never miss an FA Cup Final on the telly (for a time, an almost religious experience, now almost irrelevant?), swapped World Cup coins in the playground (I still have them) and loved actually playing (my career took me to four illustrious clubs: St Richard's Colts, Chichester High School, Sounds and BCFC). Haven't played properly for ages, but enjoyed an impromptu 15 minute kickaround in Chaoyang Park the other day with a bunch of kids and their dads, and it got the old adrenalin going as I swept down the wing, past one 6-year-old, past another (a girl), before cutting inside and firing an acutely angled shot the wrong side of the post (3 jumpers). Brought it all back...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Google Zipper

Great gimmicky zipper on Google's homepage today. Drag the mouse down and it reveals search results for its inventor, Gideon Sundback, who was born on this day 132 years ago. Many people over many years had worked on the idea of a 'separable fastener with interlocking teeth' but it was Sundback who had it all zipped up in 1917 with Patent # 1,219,881. What an invention! They still get stuck though. 

Monday, April 23, 2012


One of the stranger things I've done in my job is to launch a new car. It was at the massive Beijing Motor Show and the car in question was an MG Icon, a concept car. Well, I helped launch it, stood on stage, gave a speech. MG have sponsored our Rockarchive exhibition and in return have borrowed a few photographs and used the UK Now brand. In other words: Brit car + Brit rock = Cool. Or something.
I remember going to a couple of Motor Shows at London's Earls Court in the 70s. My little brother and I would head straight for the Lambourghinis, Maseratis and Ferraris and implore the salesmen to give us all the glossy brochures they had, on the premise that we would buy one when we had a job. They were glamorous affairs. They still are I suppose. Thousands of gleaming cars at alarming angles, flashy videos of saloons with darkened windows driving through deserts, and lots of rock music. I didn't see any decorous models draped over bonnets, but one guided me up the two steps to the stage, for which I was very grateful.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Piccadilly Revisited

Started the day on an Egg - a speech at an awards ceremony at the National Centre for Performing Arts - then off to school to help Liz out with the annual jumble sale. Clothes, books, toys, the usual interesting ephemera. I teamed up with Jon Baines (though I insisted on calling him Tony, possibly because he had a name-badge that said Ben Banise) and together we manned the book & DVD stall. We spent much of the time leafing through a mighty encyclopedia, but sold a lot of stuff. In all, we raised just shy of 10,000RMB (about £1,000) for charity.
In the evening we headed to Broadway MOMA for yet another UK Now event: Piccadilly Revisited, an interpretation of the 1929 British silent movie, Piccadilly, starring Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first Chinese film star. It's very different from the usual silent-movies-with-live-music, of which I've seen plenty. The original film is only the starting point. Sometimes it gives way to newly commissioned short videos depicting Wong in weird contemporary settings), there are split screen elements, a modern narration etc. And then there's the live music by Ruth Chan (British of Hong Kong descent) and Suki Mok (Taiwanese, currently based in London) plus three other musicians. What confused things even more was the fact that Ruth Chan is the spitting image of Wong (or at least the character she plays in the film) and also I assumed she was the actress playing her in the short videos, but she wasn't. So, a complex, interesting event. I'm not sure the contemporary videos were entirely successful, or even necessary, but the concept was good.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


The Entente Cordiale is alive and well in Beijing... Photospring, the Sino-French photography festival, opened in Caochangdi today, and one of its three main exhibitions is a Brian Griffin retrospective. We chipped in with some money to bring him over. Nice guy, lots in common. His work is fantastic, very diverse and with layers & layers of meaning & background, particularly the more personal portraits. Many of these refer to his childhood and the working-class life of the Black Country in the Midlands where he grew up. They're meticulously staged with actors standing in for his parents or re-staging Old Masters paintings but with local characters 'presenting'  alternative histories.
He also did - and this is how I first came across his work - loads of album sleeves in the 80s: Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, Iggy Pop... He's also a big Krautrock fan and regaled me with stories about his times with Conny Plank and Can. 
There was also the usual interesting display of the Three Shadows annual photography competition. And a beautiful if somewhat disturbing exhibition by the Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara which took the French artist Balthus's Lolita-esque paintings and turned them into incredibly atmospheric, painstakingly posed photographs with a mid-20th Century Japanese vibe.    

Friday, April 20, 2012


This evening, Liz and I dragged the children to see some contemporary dance. They like dance, but what would they make of Candoco , who comprise disabled and able-bodied dancers?

The last time I saw them was in Tokyo in 2000 when Celeste Dandeker, their founder, was still with them. She retired in 2007, handing over the baton to Pedro Machado. Mention of 'baton' is apt, as they performed at Beijing 2008 Olympic's handover ceremony and are also taking part in the Cultural Olympiad this summer. The latter has commissioned two new pieces, and we got a sneak preview of them both: a re-working of Set and Rest / Reset (originally choreographed by Trisha Brown in 1983) and a brand new piece, Parallel Lines (by Marc Brew). The thing about dance for me is that I have to like the music. And you couldn't go far wrong with Laurie Anderson for the first piece and Michael Galasso and Max Richter for the second. 

So, what did the girls make of it. "I quite liked it". "It was a bit short". "It was interesting to see who was disabled". Actually, I'd agree with all three. We arrived late thanks to appalling traffic so I was grumpy from the start, and the theatre was only about half-full. Not sure why. Of all the dance companies we've got lined up for the Festival, we thought Candoco - with their Beijing Olympic connection - would do OK box-office wise. We'd even arranged for a large group of disabled Beijingers to come. Anyway, there was a lack of energy from the audience which probably affected the dancers. 

They did a talk afterwards which was good, though Pedro was a bit touchy/defensive on the inevitable questions like, how many of the dancers on stage were disabled? I'm sure they get asked that all the time and they want to emphasize that they are a professional dance company first and foremost, do not want the sympathy vote and certainly don't want to be seen as a gimmick. But on the other hand, it's reasonable for audiences to ask such questions, especially in China where arts & disability issues are new and attracting interest.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Foreign Correspondents

FCC Phnom Penh
This evening, in the convivial surroundings of a bar, Leigh and I gave a UK Now presentation to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Beijing. There are FCCs in several East Asian countries (I'm not sure if they exist elsewhere). It's fun to imagine fine, if slightly crumbling, colonial buildings, big leather armchairs, ceiling fans rotating slowly in the fetid air, and hard-bitten, war-weary hacks propping up the bar with whisky-on-the-rocks in one hand and cigarette in the other... but the reality is somewhat different. It's true, there are bars where you can bump into Alastair Leithead or Jonathan Head (I did in Bangkok), and the one in Phnom Penh does look colonial, with a fine view of the river (it's open to the public and even has a branch in Angkor Wat). I remember going to the Tokyo one a couple of times, once to hear Maradona give a press conference. Sadly, the Beijing FCC doesn't have a building - it's simply an association of journalists. So the bar in which we were gathered wasn't their's, it was our's - The Bell in the British Embassy. British Embassy bars: that's a whole other story...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Umbrellas & Ponchos

Shock horror probe, after five months of virtually no rain, we had a downpour this evening. And of course I was unprepared. No matter, our office block provides a very helpful service: in exchange for your office pass, the nice people at the front desk will lend you a big umbrella; and the guy at the bike shed will give you a disposable poncho.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sending People Like Me to UK

Spent much of the day interviewing candidates for an Arts Managers Placements programme. It's been set up to place bright, ambitious Chinese arts managers (fine art curators, festival programmers, theatre managers, cultural bureacrats like me etc) in UK arts instititions for a period of six weeks this autumn - from museums & cultural agencies to theatres & festivals, ad from London to Liverpool. The idea is that they will become our key arts contacts of the future.  From over 100 applications, we're interviewing 42 in a week-long rota of six per day, and in the end, 20 will go. Exhausting. More here:

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Rubbish Job

On my cycle to work every morning I pass a small rubbish depot. The bins in the neighbourhood are collected by little electric vans and brought back to a sub-station where the rubbish is compacted and then a bigger lorry comes to take that away. All very efficient.

I was a rubbish collector (or dustman as we quaintly call them in Britain) for a few months while looking for a 'proper job' after graduating. I was the guy who filled in for the regulars who were otherwise on holiday, sick or skiving. Combined with an earlier series of paper-rounds and holiday jobs filling up cigarette vending machines, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I have visited every house, office, pub, restaurant & factory within a 10 mile radius of Chichester. In those days it was big, heavy, metal bins. In the countryside there'd be the occasional rat, but worse were the dogs who'd come to 'greet' you as you walked up the garden path. I was once told to get out of the cab and pick up a pheasant we'd just hit - the driver had it for dinner on Sunday. At the end of the day we'd disgorge the truck's contents onto the city's dump, while being careful where you trod, holding your nose and dodging seagulls. Happy days. Chinese rubbish dumps must be interesting...  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Thankful for a day of rest. But pity my colleagues Meijing and Li Ning in London, wrestling with the Chinese Writers programme of the London Book Fair. There's been the inevitable flurry of articles in the British media about 'cosying up the authorities' but in all honesty the 21 writers we've helped bring over and are introducing to literature lovers in London and beyond is a decent list.

Included are Mo Yan (multi-award-winning master of contemporary Chinese literature), Annie Baobei (internet sensation), Xi Chuan (one of the most influential poets in China), Ah Lai (Tibetan writer), Liu Cixin (China's most popular domestic science fiction writer), Sheng Keyi (whose writing reflects on the lives of Chinese women today), Zheng Yuanjie (multi-award-winning Children's author) etc. Some are controversial, some are populist, all are popular. Some already have international publishing deals and are translated but many are not. The purpose of the programme is to engage the UK (and international) literature community more deeply in contemporary Chinese Literature and to promote dialogue between authors in our two countries. In the end, it's far better to foster engagement than isolation.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Snakes and Ladders

Our friends' last day in Beijing so we decided to take them to a park in the hills to the west of Beijing called Badachu (Eight Great Sites) - the sites in question being eight temples dating from the Sui and Tang Dynasties, scattered around the arid slopes. Spring seems to have quickly moved on to summer - 29C, blue skies, gorgeous day.

It seems that you can't have a hill in China without a cable-car up and a slide down. The slide at Great Wall Mutianyu is good, but this one is even better, snaking about 3km from top of the hill to the park entrance. You can pick up quite a speed if you want, but there's always some slowcoach in front to spoil the fun.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Elliotts with Children Took to the Streets

More UK Now stuff at NCPA, but time for some theatre. 1927's The Animals and Children Took to the Streets was for me, and promoter Cui Yang, one of the highlights of last year's Edinburgh Fringe Fest... so we've brought them to China. They've been here a week already, opening in Guangzhou and then Changsha, before coming to Beijing for a 5-night run. 

It's a tale set in a seedy inner-city tenement block full of criminal children, perverts, peeping toms and curtain twitchers  - the perfect play for our two young daughters then. But what makes it both brilliant & accessible is the incredibly inventive synchronization of real-time acting & music with stunning films & animation. Sort of Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam directing a children's story by Nick Cave in Russian constructivist style. Brilliant. And a full-house.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dining DPRK style

At the end of a long day, I went to a North Korean restaurant called Okryugwan. I took a visiting art dealer whose first question was "Do they have food in North Korea?" The Pyongyang original, apparently one of its top two restaurants, has spawned a lucrative chain of overseas branches in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Russia, even South Korea (!), each required to send much-needed foreign cash back to the DPRK government. All the waitresses are North Koreans from, I'm told, elite families.

Strange cavernous atmosphere, and even stranger food. Most of the menu comprised of such delicacies as jellied sheep's heart or cattle's intestines or small birds, but finally we plumbed for the seemingly safe potato dumplings and hotpot. The former were black and the latter had intestines floating around in it but too small to have once belonged to cattle. Perhaps dog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another festival

Time to check out the opposition. The annual French arts festival, called Croisements has kicked off. It's a 2-month (as opposed to our 8-month) thing, and this is their 7th year so they have a lot of experience. Packed opening party in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel. All the food was on sticks, including lollipops which seems to be the festival's theme this year (as in tasty?) and there was plenty of good wine of course. But it just seemed to be a lot of milling around.

The festival line-up looks pretty interesting. There's a good cross-section of exhibitions, film, dance, theatre, classical & popular music, literature and débat d'idées, although I'm not familiar with many of the names. And of course there's nouveau cirque. What is it about the French & circus? Anyway, bonne chance! God knows if I'll get to see any of it...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Failing or Falling

I know which I prefer.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Likely Story

Terry & Bob 1964-66
For the last two or three months I've been slowly making my way through a box set of the Likely Lads sitcoms. I was too young for the first series which ran from 1964-66 but it was great to watch them in retrospect... well, 8 of them, 12 are 'lost'. The follow-up series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, ran from 1973-74. There was a feature film too, in 1976.

So anyway, it's as funny/sad as I remembered it, in the best tradition of Brit sitcoms. Two northern twentysomething lads: Bob, aspiring to 'get on in life'; Terry: working-class, lazy and proud of it; but both hanging on to their friendship and their love of booze, football and 'chasing skirt'. In the first series they are footloose and fancy-free, while in the follow-up Bob becomes married, mortgaged and middle-class while Terry remains on the dole, without responsibilities and bitter (like his choice of drink).

Bob & Terry 1973-74
The Whatever Happened to series is particularly poignant. It captures a Britain (Tyneside actually) blighted by economic crises, decaying landscapes and terrible clothes. And the interiors. Unbelievable interiors. But it is the ever-present harking back to innocent childhoods that dominates, captured perfectly in the theme song (which made the lower reaches of the Top 40 in 1973). Altogether now: Ooh what happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be? Tomorrow’s almost over, today went by so fast. Is the only thing to look forward to, the past?

Do they make them like this any more?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Kung Fu Karate

Renzo & I watched a very silly Jackie Chan movie - Karate Kid. It's a remake of a 1984 film that was set in Okinawa (where karate comes from) but in this one the action switches to Beijing and the kid learns Chinese kung fu, so you'd think it would be called Kung Fu Kid, but anyway... The whole film is unbelievable from start to finish. We learn in the first 30 seconds that the boy's father just died which for some reason prompts mum & son to move from New York to China. There is a silly love sub-plot (between 12 year olds!); kung fu lessons take place in a succession of super-exotic 'Come to China' places as we see the dynamic duo take a day-trip to the mountains of Guilin (1,000 miles away) to visit a mountain-top monastery (actually Datong, 300 miles west of Beijing) and then practise on the Great Wall (with not a soul around); and finally, our little hero wins the big competition by 'doing the cobra thing' - a technique which takes decades of practise - on the school bully. Hooray!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Peking Duck & Opera

A tale of two dining-rooms: 11 of us round a table eating Peking Duck followed by our first real experience of Peking Opera, in the refectory-like atmosphere of Liyuan Theatre.

Peking Opera has been an artform only since around 1790. It's an acquired taste (as is, frankly, western opera, noh and kabuki) and the show we saw was very much a Greatest Hits package of four heavily abridged favourites. So we had a 20-minute version of The Death of Yu Ji, made famous by its inclusion in the film, Farewell My Concubine. The two lead male & female characters are played by men - one very male (a big, macho, long-bearded warrior), one very female (a dainty, high-pitched concubine). It's all hyper-stylised and I wonder, honestly, whether I could last the full version.
Best of the four was The Crossroads, a confrontation between two men in the pitch-black darkness of an inn, with no spoken word and only minimal music. Classic mime in fact: funny, inventive & beautifully balletic. The children loved it.

bit touristy perhaps (the audience was completely Western) but it was as good an introduction as you could get without watching a DVD - which they had in the souvenir shop on the way out.

Friday, April 6, 2012

More Classical Music

Back to The Egg (a Wings album I believe) for more classical music. We showed a film about Clive 'See Yesterday' Barda followed by Q&A. Attending was an elderly Chinese photographer by the name of Yang Shaoming who'd apparently been Deng Xiaoping's personal photographer for 12 years. Extraordinary chap: towards the end he got up on stage and started talking about composition and Henri Cartier Bresson. Clive can talk, but he'd met his match here.

Yehudi Menuhin is of course featured in the exhibition (the only one that was posed), but he also presided-in-spirit over the opening night of the Menuhin Competition. This takes place every two years, held in a different city each time, this year with 42 international competitors in two categories - Under 16s and 16-21. Tellingly there are lots of Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and just a sprinkling of Europeans. Tonight's concert featured past winners - including Tasmin Little from the very first competition in 1983, who also compered the evening in unfeasibly high heels. Tomorrow the real stuff begins.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Double-whammy of events at The Egg: Clive Barda's photography exhibition of performing arts celebrities followed by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

I worked with Clive on an exhibition called Making Space for Theatre back in 1995, so nice to reconnect with this: 100 photographs of classical music, opera and a few dance greats, from Messiaen & Menuhin to Bernstein & Barenboim, captured over a career of some 40 years. Interesting concept: he's donated identical sets to The Egg, Guangzhou Opera House and Hangzhou Grand Theatre and they're all showing simultaneously, witrh him popping up at receptions on alternate days.

Afterwards we relaxed to the Philharmonia playing Haydn's Cello Concerto No.1 (with amazing soloist, Zhao Jing) and Mahler's 5th (the Death in Venice one). Lorin Maazel is pretty amazing: he's 82 and stood, wielding his baton for over two hours. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Temples

It's Tomb Sweeping Day today, so a day off work. We spent much of it with our friends in Tian Tan Park which is where the Temple of Heaven is. It's actually a hall not a temple, and there's not one hall but several, built in the early 1400s under Emperor Yongle who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City. He used to make the short journey to Tian Tan to perform various ceremonies, especially praying for good harvests. Gorgeous day, beautiful architecture, colours & symmetry.

In the evening Renzo and I experienced another kind of temple - the Workers Stadium - for my first Chinese football match. It was quite a big one actually: an Asian Champions League tie between Guoan FC v Tokyo AFC - the equivalent of say Man Utd v AC Milan. Interesting cultural experience. We were a multinational bunch, including three Americans whose grasp of the finer points of soccer left something to be desired but whose fluency in Chinese enabled us to fully understand what was being chanted throughout. To say the crowd was partisan would be putting it mildly. The only adversary more loathed (by die-hard Chinese fans anyway) would be Shanghai Shenhua. Anyway, it ended 1:1 leaving Tokyo at the top of the table and Guoan with an uphill struggle to qualify for the next round.  

Monday, April 2, 2012

We're off!

The usual rushing around in the office today was marked by the fact that, somewhat to our surprise, the UK Now festival has started. With over a year of planning behind us, it has sneaked up and we are now live, on air and (to use corporate-speak) 'delivering' it. So the team celebrated with a couple of bottles of bubbly & biscuits... and with a real live artist - photographer Clive Barda who dropped by the office for a meeting. So an 'up' day... but also tinged with sadness. Today is mum's birthday; she would have been 85. Miss her and missed not calling her...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Park Life

An afternoon in the hutongs with our London friends: the Bell Tower with tea ceremony, Drum Tower with drum ceremony, lunch in the bizarrely named Sculpting In Time cafe (with no ceremony) and a walk down Nanlougou which is Beijing's answer to Camden Market. We ended up in Jingshan Park which, on Sunday afternoon, is filled with singing oldies. I won't repeat a couple of other posts about this, but it never fails to rouse the spirits. As we climbed the fake hill at its southern end, we turned round and it was if the whole park was alive with sound. And on reaching the top one is faced with the Forbidden City stretching southwards for a mile or so, imposing and, well, forbidding.