I have been really looking forward to coming back to China - I have only been here once before with the last Swan Lake tour in 2014 when we came to Shanghai only. After a couple of days in the rehearsal room, getting our brains and bodies back into the show, we left on a night flight from Heathrow to Beijing. I thought I was going to pack lightly but alas, I still ended up with one large and one small suitcase just in case we do some shopping!
The first thing that hits you in Beijing is the intense warm and wet heat. As soon as you disembark, you can feel your muscles and joints relaxing. After a 9-hour flight and an hour bus ride, we arrived at the lovely Century Lotus Hotel in Beijing.
As soon as I got to my room, I thought 'how lovely, our hotel is themed' because my particular room was nautical in design, with wonky picture frames, portholes, ropes on the walls and an old-fashioned telephone complete with hand piece! Having asked around the rest of the company, I was indeed the ONLY one with a boat room never mind a themed room, but it brought a lot of amusement and visitors!
The night we arrived, a group of us decided to eat at the hotel restaurant which is where I first experienced their translation devices. The waitresses speak into their phones and we would get a translation in English, it also works vice versa where we can talk into their phones, and it translates us into Chinese! So clever and very accurate! Mostly, we were unsure of what we ordered... however, when the food came, which was very prompt - it was incredibly delicious including garlic broccoli and pak choi, as well as sichuan pepper flavoured tofu and soft dumplings which almost looked like a Cornish pasty. Yum.
The next thing that struck me about Beijing is all the beautiful bright yellow, orange coloured bikes absolutely everywhere. Apparently you use them via an app and can ride to where you need to go and then leave them anywhere, without needing to find a dock. You get a code to unlock it, can pay by WeChat and each bike has a GPS system inside. What a great idea.
On arrival at the Temple of Heaven (after a few snacks which we got from a small window selling delicious soft and crispy rolls and steamed buns) we headed in...
You can wander through the complex but need a ticket to get into the different buildings. It was built in the 15th century and was where Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would visit for their annual ceremonies of prayers for good harvest.
The Temple of Heaven was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and was described as "a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations..." as the "symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries."
After this, we went to Tiananmen Square. Everyone has to go through security to go to the surrounding area which also includes the Forbidden City. It was lovely to watch the kids running around and having fun, it seems to be a real meeting point and somewhere families and friends, just come to sit, talk, play and relax. The vastness of it is impressive and its flagged by huge buildings around it, a busy dual carriageway, monuments and statues.
At this point, we had worked up an appetite, so looked for the nearest Peking Duck restaurant! We found a gorgeous pedestrian shopping street called Qianmen, just in front of the square which had trams and shops, cute tea and coffee houses and restaurants. Maddy bought herself a dress, we ate delicious food and even got some bargains.
This is me in China Town, London the day before we came out, versus the real China at Qianmen Street!
The promoters kindly organised our next group outing which was an absolutely wonderful early morning trip to the Summer Palace, another extremely popular thing to see for visitors from overseas and across the country.
The Summer Palace in Beijing – first built in 1750, largely destroyed in the war of 1860 and restored on its original foundations in 1886 – is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.
On arrival, we were stunned by the crowds and had to sometimes shuffle through little alleyways, like salmons swimming upstream to get to the next site. I was in a small group of six and we headed straight for the lake and pedalos so we could get a perspective from the water. It was really quite beautiful. The serenity of the water, the quiet hum of the ever distancing crowds as we passed relaxed young and old people slowly pedalling their way across the lake on cute little boats. Panoramic stunning views of small bridges, towering buildings and forestry and the most overwhelming array of huge lily pads floating in the water. A vision I will always remember!
I just want to also add that the people here are really sweet and friendly... in one cafe, my friend Frank (this being his western name) explained to me that the translation of Chinese words are often completely misconstrued because each character has a story in itself so if you were to translate sentences as per character, it would be a VERY different meaning, which Frank found VERY amusing and made us all giggle. This was really infectious and also interesting - I wish I had more time to talk to him about this!
Following our few days of exploring we got down to business and performed Cinderella at the lovely theatre that is Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre. The staff were incredibly helpful and even added some more fans onstage for us as it was very steamy in our costumes!
For our remaining international tour dates and further behind the scenes insights: