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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 06:48 GMT 07:48 UK
China diary: Donkey hotpot
Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard is back in China, 25 years after his first visit, to write a series of articles for BBC News Online on how much the country has changed. He is also writing a diary during his trip, and this is his sixth instalment:

Sundays are traditionally days for going for a picnic at the Ming tombs or a walk on the Wall.

When I was here as correspondent, I looked forward like everyone else to a day out of Beijing, but half of me had a nagging suspicion I might be missing a major news story and would come back in the evening to find a pile of telexes telling me the country's top leader had resigned and why the hell hadn't I filed anything.

I'm not sure if the coming of the mobile phone makes it better or worse for today's correspondents. But happily I'm not here this time to report the news.

So despite rumours of Jiang Zemin's impending retirement I set out this morning with a light heart to revisit the Great Wall.

Restoration work on Great Wall
The Wall (like the dragon) is seen as a symbol of China's greatness

An old friend and colleague, James Miles, had invited me to join him and his family on an outing to a section of the Wall he assured me was still untouched both by the ever-growing army of tourists and by the restoration work that's been robbing other sections of much of their appeal.

I soon discovered that just as Chinese love walls (see earlier entry about compounds), so they love ring roads.

When James and I worked here together in the 1980s Beijing had just added a third Ring Road. Now there are no less than six.

In view of the virtual emptiness of the outer ones, one might pretentiously conclude that their main purpose is to give further prestige to the capital of a nation driving relentlessly forward to regain the power, wealth and self-respect for which it was once renowned.

But China's political centre isn't as keen on having roads leading into it and out of it as going round it.

The result was that we got hopelessly lost in a maze of suburban villas somewhere between the fifth and sixth Ring Roads.

Former glory

But we finally burst out into green foothills, where golf courses, ski resorts and pick-your-own apple orchards provide a playground for the new middle classes.

We stopped for lunch at one of dozens of small farms and peasants' houses that have been hung with red lanterns and turned into restaurants and hotels.

Our place boasted a pond where you could catch your fish before it was barbecued.

Donkey hotpot and carp
Sweet revenge: donkey hotpot and barbecued carp

Its other speciality was donkey meat.

Since I'm still nursing some fractured vertebrae and a badly bruised ego after being kicked by a mule in Greece last month, James insisted we had a donkey hotpot to help me "achieve closure".

When we finally reached the Wall we found not just enterprising peasants at work there too - brandishing axes and demanding "tolls" to climb up to it - but also a large restoration team busily shoring up the ancient stone with bricks and cement.

But it's still, as they say, a great wall.

I groaned from the effects of mule, donkey and cigarettes as it curled up towards another crest, but was as thrilled as when I first climbed it in 1979.

Children whooped with delight as they skipped along it.

And restoring it, after all, is perhaps just another natural part of China's efforts to restore its own place in the world order.

Back in Beijing tonight, a local journalist told me she was surprised people weren't celebrating the news of Jiang's retirement with firecrackers.

But frankly, most people don't seem to know or care about leadership struggles, as long as they know someone up there's in charge.

Are you in China or have you visited recently? What do you think about all the changes China has gone through in the last 25 years? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below:

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