24 Jan A Sweet and Sour Taste of Beijing.
Posted at 06:27h in Blog
“Two hundred”. Now in very unfamiliar surroundings, the only non-Chinese looking person in sight and with no clear register of how safe I should be feeling, I was relatively confident that this official looking underground taxi rank in the station – complete with security guard directing me to the person confirming the cost – was probably the most convenient and reliable option to take.
I found myself at this rank at Beijing West Station after completing the 23 hour 58 minute (completed to the exact minute) sleeper train journey that was a mix of good and not-so-good. The good; successful visa collection and departure, 4-berth cabin all to myself, cheap beer and water and plenty of reading time. The not-so-good; all announcements being in Chinese only, slept through breakfast and lunch, blank TV channels, no sign of the advertised WiFi, and most disappointingly, the mainly industrial views hardly being apparent through the continuous smog that seemed to be covering the whole eastern side of China between Hong Kong and Beijing.
As I was being escorted over to the taxi, my mental calculations and advice from my brief Korean encounter in Hong Kong the day before were ringing out in my head, telling me that this was paying way above the odds. The XE.com app indeed confirmed the £20 conversion and without hesitation I declined, with a smile, and begun to turn around and head the other way. I refused the revised quote of “one fifty”, kept walking and ignoring the other hagglers’ shouting at what no doubt they saw as a white-skinned golden opportunity. As it was, the subway alternative was cheap – around 30p – clean, easy and efficient with staff on hand to eagerly help me through the process. And thereby hangs a tale of a city and its people that I have gained a sweet and sour taste of over six days.
German Efficiency Gets the Trip Going
Closing in on my hostel having exited the subway at Nanluogaxiang station at dusk (or just during heavy smog, who knows…), I saw a Westerner looking equally confused with directions. Almost the only ones staying at the excellent ‘Sitting on the City Walls’, we finally found the hostel together, checked-in, discovered that not only were we sharing the same dorm for the same dates, but also that we have lived in the same city – Monchengladbach, Germany. After settling in we agreed to take to the nearby Shishahai Bar Street area for a tasty roast duck dinner complimented by impressive live performances.
Thomas was super organised and also spoke Madarin quite well having been on a study exchange in Shanghai for the past 5 months. As planned we got up at 6am the next morning, with me being late at 6.20am as Thomas hinted at. We walked through the wintery Beihai Park as dawn broke, pensioners practiced their dance routines and strange men shouted at each other across the frozen lake. The imposing guarded Tian’anmen Square was next (though the airport-style security checks don’t seem to be so applicable for non-Chinese). This is one of the three ‘T’s discussion points, along with Taiwan and Tibet, that is as welcome in Chinese as Facebook, Gmail or any other website that makes up a Westerner’s everyday fabric.
It is basically just a public square, though a very big one flanked by the government and national history museum communist buildings, the entrance to Forbidden City and Chairman Moa’s Mausoleum which houses his embalmed body. Like the Square, Forbidden City is large and has lots of visitors. After the Chairman’s public addressing point at the entrance, this ‘City’ houses a series of buildings which each contain mainly just a chair, or throne, that the emperor sat on in between being moved by a transportable chair, or throne, to the next building. Our precisely organised morning tour continued to follow the south to north axis that has physically shaped Beijing over the century (and is now completed by the Olympic Park), to reach the attractive and hilly Jinghshan Park. The view over Forbidden City must have been impressive, behind the heavy smog.
Beijing’s charm and my impressions grew however as we started to walk through the Hutongs; Beijing’s interwoven network of human-scale streets containing historic grey-brick housing at the heart of the city. I enjoyed how many of these buildings, once homes to the rich and royalty, are being retained but renovated with modern fittings as much as the fact that they still exist at all in the heart of this rapidly developing city. Indeed our hostel was also a Hutong, and a very tranquil one at that.
After lunch we climbed the steep staircases of the opposing Bell and Drum towers located further north on the axis. The scheduled drum performance gave a little life to the experience where the view over the city was continuing to fail miserably. The smoggy skies starkly contrasted with the multi-sensual impact of our next experience, the Lama temple. These Buddhist grounds were beautiful, peaceful and included a Guiness Book of Records record for the largest statue made out of a single tree – very impressive at that. Much quieter than the Forbidden City, visitors mainly consisted of devout young people praying and showing their incense-filled and respect to their religion. The translated text in the exhibition buildings spoke of the religion’s shared pride in the new hopeful era in their motherland. There is something refreshing about this optimistic, shared national pride, hope and obligation on show.
The busy, fulfilling first full day was largely thanks to Thomas’ good planning, our early start and lack of getting lost. All before 6pm, and with my bad sleeping patterns that started on Day 2 of Lesotho continuing, by seven I was dead to the world on my dorm bed.
Selfie-Satisfaction at a Wintery Summer Palace
A ‘lie in’ prepared us for a more leisurely paced second day. The smog had finally lifted on Day 3 to reveal scenery that I didn’t expect to find in Beijing. We took the subway to ‘Summer Palace’ which included a little Venice in the form of ‘Suzhou Street’. This place must provide a great atmosphere in the summer and another ice rink in the mean time! More beautifully coloured, grand and symmetrical Buddhist architecture lined up a great view over the large lake/ice rink. The winds added to the freezing cold temperature that gave Thomas and I a challenge when walking around the lake. We stopped half way round to test the ice strength for ourselves and allowing Thomas more time with his Selfie Stick, while the speedo-clad Chinese pensioner swimmers put our shivering to shame a bit.
Taking the ever-convenient subway towards the Olympic Park, we dropped by McDonalds as Thomas was desperate for some American food. This frustrated me a bit and I was reluctant, but in the end I gave in to the convenient McChicken meal and inevitably felt rubbish afterwards. But traveling is about compromise. We moved on towards the Bird Nest and Aquatic Centre structures that make up the Beijing 2008 Olympic Village, stopping for more selfies in the crisp wintery weather.
Having secured selfie-satisfaction, I left Thomas to do some more exploring as I made my way back to the hostel to prepare for my complimentary Peking Opera experience. The evening’s entertainment in a hotel theatre to an audience of about 15 was indeed an experience. The quite waily singing has an acquired taste but the costumes intricate, story lines quite humorous if a bit random, and fighting scenes well executed and athletic.
Left without my German sidekick to return back to the hostel via Beijing’s bus network, a touch of the old clumsy Mohau crept in once again. Having boarded the wrong No.5 bus which ended up with just me at the depot with lights switched off, my initiative performed well to find me in the station with access to the subway again. However, distracted by a sweet shop in the station and the friendly female shop assistants practising their English on me, I spent too much (2.8 Yaun, about 28p) of my remaining cash (5 Yaun, about 50p) to fall 2 Yaun (bout 20p) short of the subway fare (4 Yaun, about 40p). The ATMs on the right side of the gate didn’t accept my cards and the Bank of China ATM that I knew would, was unhelpfully behind the security gate which you needed a ticket to get through.
With subway closing time nearing, thankfully, after some panicking, communication with the station staff and failed Plan As, Bs, and Cs, one of the security guards gave me 1 Yaun, allowing the minimum 3 Yaun to get through the gates. Finally back at the hostel, I tried to sneak into the room without stirring Thomas and risking curiosity on why I was back so late. It wouldn’t impress his German discipline and organisation.
Walking the Walk; Mohauing the Markets
Ready at 6.20am, we left the next day’s organising to a tour company to visit the Great Wall. The tour location, 3 hours bus journey from Beijing centre was my preference, having read up about the low number of tourists, longer hikes and more peaceful scenery. Earlier in the week Thomas had preferred a closer but more tourist-packed tour location alternative, but over the days he came round to my idea. Travel is about compromise. I realise now I should have possibly not abandoned Alfonso the Argentine in Hong Kong. Perhaps I should have stayed open to creating shared experiences through suggestion, compromise and patience. Maybe because of the more negative experiences, and my general shyness, the part of traveling that is supposed to make you a more open-minded person hasn’t always come to me easily on this journey so far.
The tour was very good, shared with a mum and her ‘Intercultural Communications’ Shanghai Masters studying son ‘London’ from New Hampshire US, Jon and Joy; a retired couple from Devon, a German girl from Koln on business in Beijing, and our sweet young Chinese female guide.
Returning to our Hutong hostel by 4pm, Thomas planned an evening of markets for us! We found our first stop the ‘Silk Market’ – a world of quality goods of questionable authenticity ready to be haggled with multi-lingual Chinese shop assistants ready to do business. Walking through this mall felt a little like wandering Amsterdam’s Red Light District, with passageways flanked by numerous workers vying for your attention. I was cynical of this self-interested materialistic, consumerist, capitalist conflict zone where the United Nations of bargain hunters took aim at the ridiculous “I make special offer just for you” original asking price by threatening to walk out of each store. “To be fair, I do need a pair of sunglasses”, I reasoned with Thomas. And a new coat. And then a Ralph Lauren jumper. Opening myself up to the experience I soon found the addictive side of haggling, starting with my accurate prescription “Ray-Bans” for £15.
The funny thing is, the Silk Market provided the most direct interaction I’d had to date with local people. I started to enjoy my interactions with the sales assistants, whether negotiating the asking price, enjoying a bit of light banter, or more meaningful conversations about relationships while waiting for a hard-line Thomas – described as ‘tough’ by more than one haggling assistant – as his increasingly heated, prolonged bargaining finally achieved his target drop from 6 Yaun (60p) to 5 Yaun (50p) for his 5 pairs of socks. 10p per pair as opposed to 12p.
The contrast in haggling approaches between Thomas and I was interesting – my new coat was a successful result of a combined effort between the tough German and Mohau, labelled ‘kind’ by every haggler and ‘too nice’ by Thomas, while at the same time we achieved the same reduction for our respective Ralph Lauren jumpers despite taking opposite approaches. While my cynicism for human nature may be on the up a little compared with the start of this journey, and the rose on my tinted glasses has faded a little, the experience proved that there remains some mileage in being Mohau, even in the tougher dog-eat-dog worlds, and it is this nature I hope I can continue to prescribe to. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time…
Clearly a good side to this massively consumerist culture is the platform it opens up for interaction through the shared language of price negotiation. And the Chinese know how to create supply and find the demand for it. But however buzzy I was feeling as we left the multi-storey lit up Mall, there is something very sad about this whole environment. At whose expense are these games?
Our market exploration moved on to the ‘Night Market’, where a row of identical stores provided my tofu, squid, lamb and the wonderful sugar coated fruit, but failed to tempt me into trying the spider, snake or scorpion also on offer. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this Sugar-coated fruit in Britain. Like many things, perhaps this will be one more future export to be made in the UK; invented in China?
A Fatal Friendly “Hello”
Thomas moved on early the next morning to X’ian. Was my little clumsy Mohau-ness reintroduction on the way home from the Peking Opera a few nights before enough to warn me to be on guard? Nope.
I started the day by moving from the dorm to my special treat final night double bedroom booking before making my way for my eagerly awaited trip to the captivatingly-titled ‘Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall’… After viewing the genuinely captivating 2020 Shanghai 3D Masterplan scale model, I took my place as the only audience member in the venue’s movie theatre for a film on Beijing’s masterplanning through the times to the present vision. The film was well made, informative and seemingly open about the challenges that lay ahead – whether overpopulation, transport, waste management or natural disaster – and Beijing’s plans in place to more than overcome them to become a world leading ecological, green, accessible, human-centred capital city. A city for some reason, the film would suggest, will be full of Westerners. And a city where traffic would be ‘fully alleviated’ and Hutongs cleaned up rather than demolished to make way for skyscrapers.
Just how much of a ‘return to nature’ Beijing will achieve, how ‘alleviated’ this hugely congested status-symbol orientated capital could become, or to what extent the Hutong clean-up will benefit existing resident communities as much as it will us tourists and Beijing’s future Yuppies – a cynic may doubt. But it’s clear to see that the ambition and plans seem real and committed. My next stop, the new National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), was at least one embodiment of this ambition and commitment of Beijing’s new era.
I was becoming more and more impressed with Beijing. And then I got to the top of the subway steps to reach Tian’neman Square.
“Hello”. The voice of a passing young girl stopped me on my tracks towards the planned spot for my next in the series of PBA Bear and Moosootoo the Sacred Basotho Cow world travels photographs.
She asked where I was from and introduced herself – as Chueng Yen, an English language student from Shanghai visiting Beijing on vacation for a few days – with the best grasp of English I had heard so far here. Now, I’d certainly become accustomed to locals’ efforts to stop you to perform one money-generating practice or another. But as I let her continue, her politeness, manner and smart appearance put my concerns to ease a little. Within an hour of my first proper Chinese acquaintance asking me if she could walk around with me to practise her English speaking skills, I found myself in a small drinking establishment.
While I can genuinely plead innocence in my own intentions – this was the kind of local conversational encounter I had hoped for before I left – for my own pride and sanity I won’t give a full account of our conversation. Her rich jeweller father who bribes the government in Shanghai, the photos of her trips to Venice and Paris, Ben her light haired English teacher, the detailed modern history of China, how much an English teacher can earn in China, there was very little reason to doubt that Chueng, our encounter and detailed conversation was genuine. And while my eagerness to help with English words and phrases and general friendliness probably aided things, I would bet my passport that you don’t have to be Mohau to fall for it.
I will just say that I left this tea-room with little choice but to cover two-thirds of a heavily priced bill for a private room, green tea, four glasses of red wine – albeit French – and light snacks. Chueng Yen’s act continued all the way back to the subway where we parted, and it wasn’t until that night in my hostel that the penny properly dropped. A hugely elaborate scam; caught hook, line and sinker. I cancelled my credit card though the charge had already gone through.
The first problem is that this is not even technically fraudulent. Without knowing it you’ve taken a girl for a drink and ended up agreeing to temporarily foot the legitimate bill. OK, another costly mistake and my one night of relative luxury was dented as I decided to stay in alone with a beer, packet of cucumber flavour crisps, banana and phone calls to Lloyds Bank.
But the bigger, more depressing concern, I think, is how someone so bright, seemingly friendly, believable and clearly employable is caught up with this. Is she happy? Does she sleep well? And even more concerning, how can this what turns out to be well documented ‘scam’, happen in such an apparently secure major tourist attraction? Could it be suggested that China in fact turns a blind eye to such initiatives, using a strong work ethic, significant talent in the name of financial and national progress at all costs to everyone else?
Is China’s hand-in-hand ‘Win-Win’ and ‘Prosperous’ words that cover Beijing’s numerous billboards which hang over the heavily congested roads just a clever elaborate marketing strategy, like the planning movie’s promises of a return to nature and traffic alleviation?
“He had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.”
With the following – my final – day in the capital tainted by this experience, I was ready to move my journey on again. However, after some reflection and remembering those words from The Alchemist, I had to keep the adventure going. I had a look at Couch Surfing to see if savings on my final legs could help recover the money lost in the tea-room, then went for a run around Beihei Park. I then returned to Tian’namen Square to finally take the PBA and Moosootoo the Sacred Basotho Cow photograph, visit Moa’s embalmed body and a subtle scammer search at the subway entrance.
“Hello”. As I waited at the Zebra crossing to reach the square for the photo opportunity, a friendly chap introduced himself, asking where I was from and explaining that he was ‘on business’ for a few days from Shanghai, working for the Agricultural Bank of China, and planned to sample Beijing’s world famous tea. This time I kept my “Ray-Bans” on, kept reasonably motionless (kept Mohau at bay) and subtly hinted about my awareness of scams on foreigners before shaking his hand and making my exit.
Beautiful scenery, colourful intricate architecture, charming Hutongs, huge construction programmes, spiritual grounds filled with respectful young people, dancing pensioners, religious harmony, exceptional hostel, ecological human-centred ambitions; is China sweet on the outside and full of goodness on the inside like that treat I sampled at our fun evening at the markets treat that may hopefully be available around the world in future?
Or, heavy smog, empty promises, bribery and corruption, pushing and spitting, intense materialism, exploitation; is this place and its people really a sugar coated rotten apple like the disappointing poor cousin follow-up of a version of the fruity sweet I bought on my last slightly bitter day in the China capital?
Perhaps, as London the American Intercultural Communications student put it on the way to our Great Wall tour, it is not possible to judge or stereotype individual identities or suggest a single national identity to which they belong in today’s complex interconnected world, and especially in a few days based on one person’s particular set of experiences. I watched a documentary on China on 4OD over Christmas that was asking the same questions of China’s character and future. It interviewed a Chinese construction manager who suggested that his Tanzanian workers just didn’t share China’s work ethic. I would suggest perhaps it’s more to do with the menial type of work provided and who enjoys the incentive and benefits, as demonstrated by the sleeping Chinese subway security guard and the McDonald’s slouching delivery drivers glued to their smartphones. This one example alone is proof to me that the world is not black and white.
And thereby hangs a tale of a city and its people that I have gained a sweet and sour taste of over six days.
I’m finishing this post as we fly over Scandinavia on this 14 hour leg of my flight from Beijing to Washington via Abu Dhabi. The first leg included the film ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ which, much like The Alchemist, involved a lone figure (played by Simon Pegg) on a journey around the world – China, Africa, USA, coincidentally – to find his happiness was at home all along. He had to make the journey to see things in different ways. To find his treasure. Just like The Alchemist. USA certainly has its own stereotypes that I’ve grown up with that are ready to be challenged with real experience. I wonder what experiences, impressions and impact will result from this next part of the adventure?