On Day One we set off for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – a deeply moving experience. It was brass monkeys out there (-10) but on the plus side, a perfect opportunity to buy a hat. It was so cold I thought my head was going to explode.
Day Two: The Great Wall of China. What can I say? It was totes amaze-balls. It reminded me of The Wall on Game of Thrones; just imagine having to patrol it in these arctic conditions. It would have been unthinkable, even 20 years ago, but now you can toboggan down to a Burger King at the bottom. Yes, I was awestruck but I couldn’t resist a fridge magnet and a Whopper. So far, a hat and a magnet – I needed to up my souvenir-hunting game.
Mick had some work to do the next day so he stayed at the hotel. Meanwhile Julia and Paul had a nice, romantic day by themselves while I went out shopping. Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of culture but I also like to explore a place and its people through its shops. I like to think I’m more eclectic than materialistic; I’d rather bring something home from my travels than shop in Ikea. Anyway, I found myself in a sort of art gallery admiring some Chinese calligraphy paintings. Although I didn’t understand what they meant, I kind of got lost in the beauty of the brush strokes. They were obviously painted by well-known artists, as some of them were priceless. I went back to the hotel empty-handed but with the seed of an idea. I wanted to find a beautiful calligraphy painting by an up-and-coming artist; for up- and-coming, read affordable.
That evening we met as usual in the business lounge (free booze) to compare our days. Julia had been to the Silk Market AND the Pearl Market and had come back laden with gorgeous purchases which she exhorted me to look at and ‘feel the quality.’ She was like Aladdin with her pile of swag and I still only had a hat (which we don’t count) and a one-dollar magnet.
The next morning we caught the train to Shanghai and I was more determined than ever to find the perfect calligraphy painting as a souvenir of the trip. It was my mission now.
We had one night in Shanghai and ended up going clubbing – by mistake. We thought we were going to a bar in the city’s tallest tower but it happened to be Ladies’ Night and the booze was free so we ended up staying ‘til all hours. I think what happened the next day, happened because I was not firing on all cylinders.
It was pouring with rain on the last day of our hols. Julia and Paul suggested a walking tour of Shanghai and - threw me a bone - we would be passing through popular tourist shopping area Yu Yuan Gardens. Yippee!
When we arrived, dripping wet, we stopped for refreshments at the delightful Huxinting floating teahouse. After a hot cup of god-knows-what with a flower in it, and a couple of ancient pickled quails eggs, Julia and I left the boys to dry out and natter about the Qings and the Mings or whatever, while we had a quick dash around the shops.
There was a crap department store selling tat and I was beginning to give up hope when an old tout sidled up to us with the ubiquitous ‘copy handbags, copy watches’ laminated card. Despite Julia’s protestations, the tout steered us towards a lift and, because we had almost given up the will to live by this stage, we followed her…into a labyrinthine shopping paradise.
The lady in the shop pounced on us, shoving pearls and silk under our noses but I only had eyes for a framed calligraphy painting on the wall. With a practiced nonchalance, I asked it’s meaning (something about hearts and mountains?) and enquired about the artist and finally, did the deal. Within seconds, she was taking it out of its frame and rolling it up to pop it in a cardboard tube. I watched her carefully because it occurred to me that I would be gutted if I got it home to find the tube was empty. At that moment her assistant pointed to another painting on the wall to ask if I liked it. My head was turned for no more than a second. No, I was happy with this painting, thanks very much. With that, she wrapped the tube in a plastic bag and ostentatiously tied a double knot in it before presenting it to me. I gave her the cash and did not ask for a receipt because I am a stupid tourist and she saw me coming a mile off. So long, sucker! (She must have thought).
Out in the street, I carried my prize as the old tout followed us. I laughed and joked with her and said I did not want a copy watch or handbag because I had no money left. As she spoke no English, she looked at me exasperated, and pointed to my plastic bag but I made no effort to understand her. After half a mile or so, she gave up, but reached into her pocket and gave me a card. I thought it was her card and popped it in my bag.
I carried my prize all the way back to Hong Kong, careful not to crush it. When I got home I opened the tube and…you guessed it… EMPTY! The air, as you can imagine, turned blue. I suddenly remembered the card. The old tout must have seen ‘the tube switch’ and was trying to tell me I’d been stung. I don’t know why, perhaps she’d seen it once too often and was having an epiphany. When I didn’t listen, she gave me the shop’s card, knowing that when I eventually found out, I would have some recourse.
So I made the phone call to Lisa’s Art Gallery, Yu Yuan Gardens, 25 Jiuxiao Chang Road, Shanghai. Lisa was very surprised to hear from me and wondered how I’d got her details. She didn’t recall who I was at first until I threatened her with ‘Trip Advisor’ and suddenly it all came flooding back. She said she had ‘accidentally forgotten’ to put the painting in the tube and of course, she would courier it to me ASAP.
Reader, here is my happy ending; My beautiful calligraphy painting arrived this morning. I’m going to frame it and hang it on the wall. I’m still not exactly sure what it says – something about hearts and mountains or whatever - but every time I look at it, it will make me smile.... because I know (in my heart) that I can move mountains.
(Picture to follow when back from the framers. In the mean time, enjoy Julia's photo of the pickled eggs)