Saturday, December 03, 2011

Impressions of Beijing

First, for those who like random photos (I didn't take a camera - most of these were done with my Blackberry or a colleague's camera, and one or two are ripoffs (noted as such) from other sources; you can see those at the link below.

I recently spent two weeks in Beijing on business, and I must say that it's a fascinating city in many ways.  I'm not much of a diarist, so what follows is basically a random set of comments...

First impressions: I landed at midnight, Beijing time, so the airport was not crowded at all.  One thing I noticed was that I could taste the Beijing air as we approached the city from Capital International Airport.  I'd head about Beijing's air pollution, of course, but it was odd to get that metallic taste in my mouth...

Hotel: Doubletree by Hilton Beijing, on Guang'anmen Outer Street (Google Maps - note that the markers are off by one block...the Doubletree is the large green building, catercornered from the high school & football pitch one block to the west).  Decent room, but the AC was woefully inadequate; I kept the window open 24x7 during my visit, as it was cooler outside. One peculiarity - my room had an ice bucket, but there were no ice dispensers in the hotel; I had to call the front desk and ask for a bucket of ice each night...

Neighborhood: Once I walked a block or two west from the Doubletree that first Sunday morning, I found myself in a residential area.  Street cooks/vendors abounded, selling everything from roasted chestnuts to unidentifiable (but delicious) meat/pastry concoctions and fresh produce.  I also noted several people doing small repairs, a la the original meaning of "tinker", on the street; they'd repair anything from bicycles to household appliances to cutlery (sharpening) and the odd children's toy, all from the back of their bicycle-drawn cart or sidewalk table.  I stumbled upon a recreational area, tucked inside a cluster of apartment buildings, which included a fenced-in set of ping-pong tables.  As I watched folks play, one of them gestured for me to join them; when I demurred with a gesture and a smile, he and his friend came out and invited me again.  I wound up playing about 45 minutes' worth of table tennis, and the language barrier was irrelevant.  After losing three matches, each by a narrow margin, they pounded me on the back and smiled broadly as I left.  I saw my first pieces of propaganda art (there's a picture in the Flickr sets) as I walked down a street with a series of posters praising the PLA/PLAN/PLAAF.  (Later, as I explored Beijing, I noticed that many (if not most) of the nicer facilities belonged to the PLA.)  As you'll see in the Flickr set, the "Massage by Blind Masseurs" chain was a surprise.  I found a local grocery with a bulk candy section, and put together the traditional "local candies" bags for the kids.

Great Wall: One of my colleagues took me to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.  Amazing - simply amazing.  I won't even try to find superlatives for the grandeur of the Wall.  One surprise - there's a chairlift to the Wall from Mutianyu, but there's a toboggan ride back down the mountain if one is feeling adventurous.  I did not feel adventurous in the least, but did snap a few shots of the toboggan run.  This was also my first experience with Chinese wanting to take my picture...when I posed at the entrance to a guardhouse, several Chinese rushed to snap a picture as my colleague took the shot.  Of course, there's a horde of merchants as one gets off the chairlift; I purchased a Little Red Book, a souvenir book, snowglobes for my daughters, and a few other odds and ends.

Hong Qiao Pearl Market: Unbelievable.  Mutliple floors of what can best be described as stalls, with aggressive merchants in every single one.  There was no such thing as browsing; as soon as one approached, it was "I have your size", "You want hat?", "Look at my pearls, your wife will love them"...a constant cacophony of come-ons.  Picked up two 3-foot strands of pearls for my wife and 8-inch bracelets for my daughters, for which I paid approximately US$75 after ensuring their authenticity.  For Jonathan, who doesn't like jewelry of any sort, I found a Mongolian hat (the kind with the tassels on the sides)...

Food: Oh. My. Gosh.  Even the Beijing version of fast food (e.g. Yonghe Dawang, aka Yonghe King) was better than I've eaten at many "Chinese restaurants" in the US.  (For that matter, the stuff from the street cooks was better, too!)  We didn't make it a point to go to any highbrow restaurants--in fact, I never saw another Western face at any of the restaurants I patronized--but I ate at many different local restaurants and noodle houses.  The two highlights would have to be a "neighborhood Hunanese" restaurant near the Olympic Stadium and the "hotpot" restaurant in the Yousi Shopping Mall.  The Hunanese place was just plain awsome, even if my mouth was still a little warm the next morning; I liked "hotpot" style for the way it stimulates conversation over dinner as one waits for the food to cook.  (Pictures of both, and Yonghe King as well, in the Flickr sets.)  I also ate at one slightly upscale "traditional Beijing style" restaurant; the duck was fantastic.  Despite the cheap prices and massive portions, I actually lost weight while in Beijing, thanks to the heavy emphasis on meat and vegetables over complex carbohydrates.

Mass Transit: After the first 2-3 days, for which I used a driver, I realized that Beijing traffic is insane.  The lane markings on the streets are only suggestions, and any taxi ride was an exercise in aggressive driving.  It is, by far, the worst traffic I've expeirenced; NYC, LA, and DC can't hold a candle to Beijing at rush hour, and not even Seoul is quite as bad.  To the amazement of my Chinese colleagues, I rode the bus/subway for the remainder of my stay.  Both systems are amazingly efficient--I don't think I ever waited more than 5 minutes for a bus or train--and unbelievably crowded.  The Beijing subway system has its own counterparts to the Tokyo subway's oshiya; those yellow-jacketed 'transit guides' would simply push and shove as many people onto the train as humanly possible.  The buses were standing-room-only as well, even into the late hours of the evening.  I never got a seat on a bus, and only landed a seat on the subway a few times.  For those who have visited Beijing, my daily route was the 477 bus from Daguanying (across the street from the Doubletree) to the Changchunjie subway station, from which I took Line #2 to Xizhimen; from there, I changed to Line #13 for the ride to the Xi'erqi station, from which I could catch a shuttle bus to the Zhongguancun Software Park.  I traveled most of the subway lines in Beijing during my stay; the most crowded, by far, was Line #1, which cuts across the center of Beijing.  That line provided a sardine-can moment each time I used it, but at 2 yuan subway fare and 1 yuan bus fare, you can't beat mass transit.

Tian'anmen/Forbidden City: This was an unusual day for me.  After coming up out of the subway (Changchunjie->Fuxingmen->change to Line #1->Tian'anmen East), I browsed a gift shop ("Come and get your Mao!  We got your big Mao, your little Mao, your Mao pins, your Mao busts...") and then simply stood outside while waiting for my colleague/guide to arrive.  Someone stopped and, via pantomime, indicated that they'd like to take my picture.  I smiled and nodded, and the man's wife posed with me.  After that, another group wanted a picture...and they just kept coming.   One woman handed me her infant son in order to take his picture with me.  By this time, I was a little unnerved, but Ping (my colleague) explained when he arrived.  Beijingers are used to seeing Westerners, but Tian'anmen draws tour groups from all parts of China; many of them may have never seen a Westerner.  He also explained about the baby picture; there's a Chinese tradition of taking pictures of one's son with the biggest, strongest man in one's village, in the hopes that your son will grow to that size and strength.  By the time we finished our visit to the Forbidden City, the "picture with the big foreigner" count had reached 29; I was giving serious consideration to charging a fee.  Anyway...the gates at the Forbidden City are beautiful, and the treasures in the museums are fascinating; my colleagues told me of being required to memorize several of the poems on display in the Calligraphy Museum, and the gold eating utensils of the Qing emporers were gorgeous, if somewhat ostentatious.  Even the Hall of Clocks was interesting...one interesting thing about Tian'anmen Gate is that, while one can stand where the Politburo stands for National Day each year, the spot where the Chairman stands (i.e. where Mao stood) is fenced off and unavailable.  Of course, that center spot is also where the emporers stood to begin their reigns; it isn't surprising that Mao would usurp that symbolism in 1949, and it's equally unsurprising that random tourists aren't allowed to stand in that particular location.  Picked up a classic-style Mao pin, a souvenir book (of course), and a souvenir sheet of stamps celebrating one of Tian'anmen's anniversaries.

Final Comments:  I loved it - loved every bit of it, even with the language barrier.  As I told my management team, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

wesmorgan3's photosets on Flickr

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