Beijing or Bust
I arrived last night in Beijing, the farthest east I have ever been in my life. The flight was long: From San Francisco to Tokyo first, around 11.5 hours, then from Tokyo to Beijing, another four hour flight. It was 9pm when I got here according to local time. According to my body, it was bedtime. I'm not sure what screwed it up most — travelling west to go east, or trying to figure out which weekday it was after crossing the International Date Line.
Airports look much the same all around the world. In Tokyo, you could pick out the Japanese because they took things calmly and cooly, patiently sitting waiting while all others scurried around frantically, jockeying for position in disorderly embarkation queues, despite the fact that seat assignments have already been given out at check-in. Beijing airport was empty by the time we arrived, a vast, modern construction of steel and glass at odd angles with a few vagrant, lost cleaners pushing forlorn mops around spotless marble floors in an attempt to look busy. I felt sorry for them: They looked like they needed to sleep as much as I did.
After having passed through immigrations and customs, I entered the arrival hall, to be immediately assaulted from every direction by cries asking me if I wanted a taxi. I said "no" as politely as I could, given that I was only half awake from the trip, but I'd learnt from Mexico that "no" is not a word in such people's vocabulary, so my heart wasn't in the battle. First, I needed to exchange some US dollars for the local currency (Chinese yuan, which, for some odd reason, gets abbreviated "RMB" — I later learnt that this means "the people's currency"), which the taxi guy who'd attached himself to myself and my luggage was only too willing to help with. The official exchange rate of 8.21 yuan for each dollar meant that $50 bought me just over ¥400 in lively coloured notes and bright coins that felt like they were made of aluminium. I was hustled off. He grabbed my suitcase when I wasn't looking and we set off up a flight of stairs.
He hauled out a small, plastic-encased business card. It said "taxi" on there, along with a price specification of ¥380 to get to central Beijing. I told him that the cost was supposed to be ¥120, according to the information I'd received from the conference organizers.
"Heavy traffic money," he said with a smile that suggested that we both knew I was about to be taken for a ride.
"Heavy traffic money!?" I repeated increadulously.
"Yes," he smiled and with that my bag was whisked into the back of a black, unmarked car with dark toned windows. A second guy materialized, opened the back door and I tentatively sat down. He shouted three words in Chinese to the driver. The boot was slammed shut, the door locks clicked, and we accelerated at space shuttle take-off speed away from the curb.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was sitting in the back of a locked, unmarked car in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and didn't know the customs. As we merged with the other traffic leaving the airport, I saw other cars with "taxi" signs on their roof and the unmistakable taxi paint-jobs which, regardless of where in the world you find yourself, are about as colour co-ordinated as golfing attire. I leaned forward to the driver.
"Do you know where you're going?" I asked, attempting a smile.
"Aah-ha, no English," he laughed in response.
"Friendship Hotel," I tried. "I want to go to the Friendship Hotel."
The driver nodded, though I don't know if it was out of understanding, or simply to confirm that I could say whatever I wanted and it would have absolutely no impact what so ever on my destination.
The additional 260 RMB "heavy traffic money" was presumably to cover the extra costs incurred by having to share the three lane wide highway with four other cars in this 10pm "rush hour". For twenty minutes I sat in the back of the black car, with visions of being mugged in some dark, dank alley by five kung-fu specialists, and subsequently left for dead. And yet, at the same time, I was curiously impressed by the fact that they'd gone to the lengths of creating a plastic-encased business card. I couldn't help thinking that if you were going to mug and kill your victims anyway, then why go to the expense and bother?
My fear was resolved when we pulled into a parking lot and the words "Friendship Hotel" manifested themselves in bright red neon atop a five-story high, long building. The Frienship Hotel is a "garden hotel" in Beijing, consisting of about 20-odd buildings. The conference, and my room, was in Building 1, but the driver gladly ignored my attempts to communicate this in favour of driving twice around a round-about and then, more or less at random, choosing one of the buildings to drop me off. I gave the driver four bright red notes with "100" embossed on them and to my surprise got both a receipt and change. My luggage, and the promise of yet another day's life, was returned to me.
My registration had been lost. Or, it had never been created, one of the two. I was, of course, in the wrong building, to start off with, but they had no "Howard" in their computer system. After about 30 minues, I was offered a room in Building one for the conference rate of $95/night, which I gladly accepted. Once I had demonstrated my willingness to pay, I was whisked off, checked in, and escorted to my room.
A quick reconnoiter revealed a mini-bar (which I had pledged not to use, along with international phone calls), a well-equipped bathroom which included complementary toothbrush and toothpaste (something more hotels should do — they provide soap, shampoo, and conditioner, so why not toothpaste?) and a television with 70 channels of which BBC World was the only one I could understand. I forewent the pleasure of "Hardtalk" in favour of a hot shower and cuddled down into bed. Sleep was welcome.
Breakfast was served at 7:30–9:30. Having stayed awake for the better part of 24 hours prior to getting any real sleep, I opted for breakfast closer to 9:30 than 7:30. The buffet was large and exotic, but I finally settled on a combination of omelette, fresh fruit, and coffee.
I'd received fellow LUGGER Adrian Bradshaw's telephone number through email before my departure. I bought a telephone card for ¥50. I'd asked for something that would be good for 30 minutes of local calls, but it turned out that I could probably have talked for hours for those ¥50.
Adrian was busy entertaining these days. Deborah from New Zeeland had just spent six weeks in Tibet and was returning home via Beijing, so she dropped in on Adrian to pay a visit. All three of us, along with Adrian's son Joseph, took a drive through the heavy Beijing traffic to the Old Summer Palace.
After crawling around the ruins — OK, I realize I should probably write something about how majestical they were and what a spectacular site it was, but I can't think of anything really suitable to say — we were hungry. Seriously hungry. We hopped into the car and drove for about ten minutes before jumping into a small, street-corner restaurant. This was about to be my first encounter with Roasted Beijing Duck. It's supposed to be cut into 108 pieces, because this is a lucky number and I gather the Chinese are nothing if not amateur numerologists. Whatever number of pieces we had, it was delicious. You eat them by putting pieces of duck, a selection of both meat and roasted skin, dunked in a special sauce, into something that look like a very thin, white, flour tortilla. Some cucumber and one other vegetable — the name of which escapes me — is put in for good measure, then it's all rolled up and gulped down. Fantastic stuff.
Actually, there are a couple of lasting impressions of the Old Summer Palace. First, it probably looks a lot better in summer — the "lotus appreciation areas" consisted mostly of thick weeds sloshing around in overgrown waters. The ruins themselves appear to have been carefully positioned and arranged to give a balanced impression between former splendour and past brutality. But the best parts are probably the little models that exist in plexiglas casings in various places. The models themselves are slightly out of proportion — doors too large, roofs too small — and are made out of some white material surrounded by minature green plastic "grass" that make them look like novelty wedding cakes. minus the minature bride and groom. There are ventilation holes bored through the plexiglass sides to let some of the trapped moisture get out. Or, perhaps, it just so that people can roll up ¥1 or ¥5 notes and push through them — some of the models were littered in low denomination notes, all curled up.
Adrian dropped both Deborah and myself off outside a department store close to his home. Inside were row upon row of little shops — little more than stalls — selling clothes. Need a ¥280 Ralph Lauren down jacket? No problem. An ¥80 Tommy Hilfiger fleece jumper? Choose your colour. Silk jacket for the lady? Try the medium for fit. I got a nice ¥10 silk tie with yellow cats eating fish bones. It seemed appropriate enough for my presentation.
Right next to the department store lies a DVD and CD shop. The cheap DVDs are ¥15 each, while the expensive ones run into ¥25. I found the DVD trilogy of "Back to the Future" for ¥45 for all three discs. It's scheduled to be released in the US on December 17th, but I guess someone must have powered up the Delorean and taken a copy back to October, because it was on sale in Beijing on October 31st.
The discs are wonderful. I bought a ¥25 copy of "Heat" — the film with both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in it. The box itself is a cut-and-paste job of whatever they happened to have laying around. On the back, the pictures are from "Heat". The barcode and proof of purchase is from "The Seige". The blurb is from "Die Hard". And the credits and disc information is from "The Matrix". Popping it into the computer's DVD player I waited with baited breath to see which film was actually encoded on the disc. "Out of Africa"? "Casablanca" in Chinese? Or maybe chapters 1-4 of "Fantasia", followed by 40 minutes from "Toy Story" and the end credits of "Monsters, Inc.". It turned out to be "Heat" after all.
I discovered that legitimate taxis are not multi-coloured after all, but mostly solid red. The fare varies, depending upon how luxurious your transportation is. For ¥2.00/km, you get to ride in the back of a Volkswagen Santana — not so much a tribute to the guitarist, but a locally built car of moderate European size, with a level of fitting that, by American standards, can be described as spartan at best, including plastic "wood" trim and fake, vinyl leather. As a further sign of distinction, these taxis are usually dark in colour, a sort of micro-limosine. At ¥1.60/km you ride in a modern compact. The Citroën ZX seems to be the most popular alternative. At the bottom end of the scale are the ¥1.20/km shoe boxes held together by gaffer tape, glue, and the prayers of the occupants. Insisting on sampling the full range of experiences, I specifically chose one of the ¥1.20 rides one afternoon and spent the trip listening to the grinding noise of the clutch shake the entire car each time it was used. It sounded like we were loosing parts each time we accelerated away from a traffic light.
Beijing does have an underground train system, but I never got to sample it. A great pity, as I have a twisted love of subways, without being a trainspotter. In any case, getting around Beijing is most easily done by taxi. Over breakfast, I'd bumped into Tessy, whom I knew from the Royal Technical College in Stockholm. It turned out she was at the same conference, along with a colleague of hers who'd travelled here with her entire family. After registering for the conference, we loaded up on film, flagged down a taxi, and pointed to our tourist map's icon of The Forbidden City.
Tian'anmen Square is big. Bloody enormous, in fact. Apparently, Beijing had a north-south layout, but Tian'anmen Square was deliberately built to destroy this in the progression from feudal society to communist. Luckily, for both us and the tourist industry in China, they let the Forbidden City remain. At ¥40 a head to enter — and several thousand digital camera wielding tourists per day, even during off-season — it probably adds up to a nice little sum of money on an annual basis. In fact, most of Beijing's architecture is verging on enormous. Streets are wide and buildings tall, prompoting the image of a well-organized, prosperous state. Someone once described it as "Greco-Stalinesque", a rather apt label.
It is essentially impossible to get a sense of what life here was like during the dynasties from around 1400 until the revolution in 1911, other than that the distance in hierarchy between the emperor and the common people must have been unfathomably large. As you enter the Forbidden City through the south gate and walk along its axis, you start off in the enormous squares, ornate gates, and official buildings. Slowly, walking through this majestic landscape painstakingly carved from white marble, houses gradually get smaller and eventually you reach the areas to the north which were the living quarters of staff, servants, and officials. It's almost a relief as things are reduced to a manageable scale again.
China is all about Confucianism, and Confucianism is all about finding balance in your existence. Cultural events, therefore, need to be balanced by capitalist excesses and what better place to exercise these than the Silk Market. Another taxi ride later we found ourselves at the intersection of two streets and a narrow alley filled to bursting point with yuan-rich tourists and Chinese merchants only too willing to sell you a "genuine" Claiborne silk pajamas for "special price for you". The key word is "bargaining". I found a wonderful fake Franck Müller watch with an automatic movement. My special price was ¥650 at which I balked. The bargaining began and I eventually came away ¥300 poorer and one watch richer. I love the idea of fake Swiss watches with incorrect markings on the face and chromed brass casings. It says "100 meters (330 ft)" indicated that the original was waterproof, but I doubt mine would survive 80% relative humidity, let alone actual water. I discovered later that I could probably have bought the same thing for ¥80, but given what $36.50 in America buys you (which is the dollar equivalent of what I paid) I'm still pretty happy.
Having exhausted our purses, we found eventually found a reluctant taxi driver willing to take us back to the hotel (a few passed on the offer) and we got our first taste of Beijing rush-hour traffic. It took us over an hour to drive 11.3 km (that's 7 miles for the metrically challenged reader). Back at the hotel, I called Adrian, got instructions to go to the north gate of the Workers' Stadium, and the find a restaurant called the Red Rose.
The Red Rose turned out to be a middle Eastern restaurant, Beijing style. The music was blasted out of the speakers at jet take-off levels and the shockwave was almost enough to push you back out into the street again. Inside, people sat by long tables, eating skewered meat with chopsticks and watching the belly dancers perform on stage, while hunkering down as they stepped in among the audience and selected a few too inebriated men to join them back up on the stage.
The following morning I had breakfast with Tessy again. She asked me what I'd done last evening and I told her I had Chinese-Arabian food while watching belly dancers. "You lead an interesting life," she said. I do at times.
Saturday was spent at the conference which, after all, was the reason I was in Beijing at all. It was also the day of all the keynote speeches. There were six keynote speakers which, for a conference of this size, is quite remarkable. On my return trip to San Francisco, United Airlines had fortuitously placed one of the keynote speakers in the seat next to me and I learnt that the reason the conference could afford six keynote speakers was because the United Nations — not the conference itself — paid for them.
Sunday, however, I escaped. We were experiencing a rare and fortunate spell of excellent sunshine pouring down from blue skies during this trip and I was determined to make the most of it. Beijing is otherwise known for overcast skies and smog during much of the year. The summers are excruciatingly hot and the winters bitterly cold. Mornings were indeed chilly, but survivable, even when used to Californian weather, provided you stayed out of the icy northerly wind. Spring and autumn are the best seasons, according to those in the know, with autumn being preferable to spring. And we had a particularly nice autumn week during the conference. I always make a point of bringing good weather with me when I visit somewhere new.
I phoned Adrian for suggestions and he recommended The Temple of Heaven. It's from the same era as the Forbidden City and is the place where the emperors used to go to pray for bountiful crops, rain, or to appease the gods with sacrificial rites. The layout is strictly north–south, with the entrance at the south end. The central road with its gates are almost all divided up into three parallel sections. Diplomats and officials walked on the west side. The emperor walked on the east. And the middle portion was reserved for the Guardian of the Heavens — deities, in other words. One of the main gates had the west and the east doors open, but the largest, middle door was closed. I loved the idea that, even today in post-revolutionary China, no-one quite has the audacity to open the door reserved for the heavenly spirits to allow hoards of camera-clad tourists — to whose masses I definitely count myself as I trudged eagerly along with two Leicas hanging from my shoulders and a third camera in a pocket — to walk where once the emperor himself was forbidden to tread.
The walk is quite a long one if you're doing all the various temples and taking in all the sites — even without venturing into the extensive gardens which surround the central procession way. Enjoying the morning sunshine and looking to find refuge from the cold, harsh wind that was beating us around the head as we proceeded along the elevated road, I gladly did spend some time walking around those peaceful gardens, looking at people engaged in the slow motion, fluid qi-gong movements and listening to a choir practicing. At least one of the emperors thought it was a bit too much and so had, at an advanced age, a small door knocked into the wall surrounding the furthest temple — a sort of quick-exit route so that he wouldn't have to hike back the whole ceremonial road, but could nip back to his portered carriage in an instant.
However, he was concerned that others may take advantage of this rare luxury. Not that any mere mortals would ever be allowed to pass through it, his concern was that other emperors might follow suit. So, he declared that only those who had reached his age would be allowed to ever use the door. He was seventy at the time, an age which no other emperor ever reached. As a result, he is the only person to have passed through what has become known as "The Seventy Year Door".
Relatively close to the east gate — at least by Beijing standards — lies the Hongqiao Market. This is a three-story department store, much like the clothes store I'd visited earlier, but this one also offers electronics, fake watches (fancy a ¥80 Patek Philippe? Hongqiao's your place), jewelry (pearls in particular) and "antiques" (probably made to order). I found a pretty well-made Rolex GMT Master II copy with steel casing, sapphire glass and independently settable time zones for ¥500 but — as they merchant said — "too much for you". Not that you'd find any automatic watch in the US for $60, but I simply wasn't carrying that much money at the time. He offered me a cheaper version at ¥80, but I declined when even he announced "this one, baaaad quality".
That evening, I'd been invited to Adrian's home for Schezuan food, which happens to be my favorite Chinese cuisine. Sumptuous doesn't even come close. A fantastic meal later, we found ourselves sitting in his office, pulling out cameras, lenses, and other bits and pieces. We were joined after a while by Joseph, Adrian's son, who wanted to demonstrate his construction crane. As they say: the only thing that separates men from boys is the price of their toys.
I hate giving presentations. I get a terrible case of the butterflies during the minutes before which requires me to do the relaxation and breathing exercises I learnt taking jiu-jitsu classes to return to any semblance of normality. Once it gets going, I'm usually OK — it's the anticipation which is the killer.
To make matters worse, not only was this session was full, but at least three of keynote speakers were present. As it happened, once I got going, things went well, I avoided tripping over my own words (or feet), and the computer resisted the temptation to crash during the presentation.
The main event of the evening was the conference banquet. One of the enduring memories from this trip will be the food that I had. Without exception, everything was delicious. Real Chinese food is nothing like the Westernized version you get in most European or American restaurants. Our banquet dinner consisted of dish after dish of mouthwatering delicacy being placed before us. Marinaded beef, roast pork, roast Beijing duck, steamed fish, lotus root, and fresh fruit were just some of the dishes we sampled.
The rest of the evening was spent in the hotel bar. I had an early morning flight to catch the following day back to San Francisco. Holding a glass of Scotch and fervently discussing with friends our impressions of Beijing, I already started longen for the day when I'd be able to come back to China. Perhaps not to Beijing itself — it's a little too ordered, a little too much of a show of power — but I'd love to visit her less well-behaved sister Shanghai in the south. And, of course, one of these days, I just have to get to Hong Kong!