2 Beijing Beginnings

Saturday 4th August 2007, late afternoon, Beijing City Airport

Having successfully got RMBs out of a VISA machine I walked out of the airside arrivals hall to look for Jia. It was a long walk from the door, under a concrete roof, to the end of the line of waiting people; had he come to the right airport? I wondered, since I knew that international flights go to both airports.

But there was Jia, almost at the far end of the line. We had seen digital images of each other, so recognition was not hard. We shook hands and walked to one of several airport buses – I would have not found it quickly without him. It took us along the Airport Express way to the south-eastern suburb of Beijing where we were to stay. Much like what we in UK would call an urban motorway, longer slip roads when space permitted, and shorter angular ones with sharp bends when it did not. First impressions of the capital city of one of the biggest nations in the world? It’s big, more vehicles than I expected, lots of people, but no more than one would expect in a large city. We also saw where the (partly elevated) railway was being built from the airport to the Olympic village ready for the 2008 Games. And yes, it was hazy.

Dismounting at a street corner for sure in the right segment of Beijing inner suburbs, we had to ask for directions. (It was Jia’s first time in Beijing – he arrived from Tianjin that morning). He had hoped we were near enough to walk, but eventually we covered the relatively short distance in a taxi, which was a 1990s Volkswagen Jetta. So were most of the other taxis.

Map of a 'modern planned city' called Beijing

Map of a well-planned modern capital city, cough

We walked a little and found the place Jia had booked. This is where I found out that what he had asked for and booked from a distance was not what we got. It is quite common in Chinese cities to book a small apartment for a few days, cheaper than hotels, self catering, but if in an apartment block, there is usually a restaurant somewhere in the building or adjacent. We had expected a full apartment with bathroom and kitchenette. What we got was a room, with a shared bathroom and even more shared kitchen – through somebody else’s bedroom! We were supposed to spend five nights there. Thus began a polite harangue which would never be fully resolved until the day we left. We were offered an alternative from the next day, Sunday, promised to be what we asked for and at the same rate. So let’s make the best of it.

By this time it was 7 pm and dark. Time for a shower then head out for food. This was not downtown Beijing, but it was a mixed residential and shopping area. So we head out under the dim street lamps to look for a restaurant. There seem to be plenty of them I thought. Until I realized that subconsciously I was assuming that every shop with a red sign bearing Chinese characters must be a restaurant … after all they are in UK! It took me a little while to work that one out, duh! We found one quite near, without looking as carefully as we did later on in the holiday. My first Chinese meal, in China, was … only a little let-down. It was unfamiliar, I was tired from traveling and perhaps did not choose well. But no matter it was quite enjoyable once I got used to it and I managed the chopsticks quite well.

And so back to the room for chat and sleep.

Sunday 5th August 2007, Beijing

I had instant coffee in my suitcase, so was able to get my morning fix without leaving the bedroom, thanks to Jia discovering, in the corridor outside, the water machine – one of those to which is attached a huge inverted bottle of mineral water and gives out hot or cold water, depending on which lever is pressed. After much waiting and reading and chatting we were eventually led to our new “home” in a new or newly renovated apartment building half a block away, apparently run by the same lady, if from a distance. Our new apartment was a few storeys up and quite large and pleasant. After arrival, a long conversation ensued, the gist of which was, according to Jia, You can have it for the same price, but you will give me something for friendship at the end. Hmm, I’m one of those (probably annoying) Westerners who likes to know where he stands and not have to wonder for the next four days if I will be fleeced at the end of it. Shades of Uganda (I thought) where at times, on commissioning a small piece of artwork (for example), one could be told: You will pay me at the end according to how much you appreciate and, on paying what I thought was a not ungenerous figure, being verbally abused for being a mean colonialist, etc. Oh help, I suppose I will just have to put up with it and try not to think about it until it must be thought about. So, let’s enjoy it. Well-appointed, a decent kitchen, comfy chairs to sit on, a television with a Singaporean news channel as well as several Chinese channels. Xie xie. That’s Mandarin Chinese for “thank you”.

So after a lazy morning we took a walk and looked for something to eat. At a small open air restaurant away from the main road, we met some Chinese students who wanted to practise their Russian language skills with me … Spasibo (that’s “thank you” in Russian). Soon exhausted my knowledge of that, fortunately they spoke some English too.

Many people in China want to learn English, it seems to be the first choice in second language, recognising it’s significance for trade and general communication in today’s world (notwithstanding any neo-colonial connotations). Mandarin is probably the up and coming language our children in the West should be learning as Chinese influence in the world looks set to increase rapidly over the next decades.

We wanted to head for a recommended evening watering-hole which involved us in my first subway experience in Beijing. We travelled on Lines 1,2 and 13. puzzled by the fact that there seemed to be two Line 13s, I perused the map more closely. And where are Lines 3-12? Not yet built is the answer to that, the same with the middle section of the presumably U-shaped Line 13. The new one nearest to coming into service is the north-south Line 5, intersecting the east-west Line 1 and the circular Line 2. Our starting station was Yonganli on Line 1, I think we paid about 3 RMBs each, each way. We tried to walk from Line 13 to the riverside area where we wanted to be, but it proved too far, so we took a taxi. Taxis in Beijing start at 10 RMB and it may be something like 5 kms before the meter starts going up, then it is 2 RMBs per kilometre.

Unfortunately the place where we were heading was closed for renovation, but the riverside walk was pleasant and we found a bar where we could sit and have some beer and a light meal before getting a taxi back to the subway station and reversing our steps. My experience is that most people are quite pleasant and welcoming of foreigners though there is a degree of nervousness about language and communication problems.

This when I discovered the meaning of “firm” in respect of mattresses. The mattresses were quite new, and sprung. And HARD. Now I have back problems and I am used to having problems in Uganda with mattresses that are too soft. I have slept on a brittle cowskin once in Uganda, and that had only slightly less give in it than this mattress in the apartment. One night of that was going to be enough or something bad was going to happen to my back. (Actually I lie, I discarded the cowskin in preference for the dirt floor of the hut that time in Uganda). Not a good night.

Monday 6th August 2007, Beijing

Somehow all that travelling must have tired me as I eventually slept till 11 am. After some breakfast (we bought bread and a few other items the night before), we headed off on Line 1 to the Forbidden City (Emperor’s Palace) at the north end of the well-known Tiananmen Square. My photos of this can be found at:http://s242.photobucket.com/albums/ff197/nickjewitt/China/ There are several folders, the one entitled Beijing, subfolder Forbidden City Palacebeing pertinent here. We managed to see about half of it before it closed at 5pm, and had lunch at a restaurant inside the Palace. The 20 photos in this section hardly do justice to the architecture, furniture, artifacts and sculpture that we saw.

So, an early evening stroll in Tiananmen Square. I had read on the Internet of Chinese people being arrested for talking to foreigners in the Square, such was the sensitivity still surrounding the killings of 1989, but we did not experience that. At first I was reluctant to speak to Jia while there, but there were not many police people, and they did not seem bothered. Part of the Square, which is several times bigger than Trafalgar Square in London, was cordoned off in preparation for the event to mark the beginning of the one year count down to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It is surrounded by main roads on all four sides, with museums and other buildings within and adjacent to it, and a line of shops and restaurant on the eastern side. Near the south-east corner are some buildings of Portuguese origin, seen in the distance in the first picture in the sub-folder Tiananmen Square.

Adjacent to the subway station on the way home is a shopping centre, quite large, much of it underground in former air-raid shelters, and with a number of restaurants. Well, I much prefer eating where the ordinary people eat, but now and then, it’s nice to go a little up-market. This was one such time so up we went several floors and were ushered in to a posh place that we were hardly dressed for. Fortunately there were a number of other Europeans there casually dressed, so it was not too bad. It seems the more upmarket we go the less likely I am to be familiar with the food. I had to look quite hard on the menu for something I fancied eating in order to avoid such delicacies as Sperm container of bull, Ovary of sheep, Penis of Bull, Penis of Sheep and the like. I ate duck just to make sure, and very nice it was. And so home after a long day.

And the bed. Fortunately the cushions on the settee were soft enough and on a firm base, and the settee itself was on a generous length, so sheets and duvet transferred and a reasonable night was had. In the morning I put everything back to rights so as not to offend the owner lady. And that was how it was each night.

Tuesday 7th August 2007, Beijing

It being a tropical summer, I had forgotten to buy and bring any sunscreen lotion, I realised, but then we still had not seen the sun. Yes, still hazy. Problem with modern well-planned city growth is all these ring roads and radial roads all more or less to European urban motorway standard. More roads mean … more traffic, and more pollution. This is the main cause of the Beijing smog as I came to realise. Not as bad as the London pea-soupers when I was a lad (I was born with asthma and according to family reports the combination nearly did for me). But from Saturday to Wednesday, pleasantly warm temperature with no sun. Normally, in order to protect my neck, I am not able to wear a shirt with no collar in the summer, certainly not in the tropics, but Beijing? – no problem, I could give my tee shirts some wear at last. My red tee shirt fitted well into the scenery, even if it was advertising a Kenyan beer.

The plan of these particular men or mice was to visit the Great Wall today. Yesterday we found we could get a bus from the tourist office in the south-west of T’men Square. But we omitted to notice that the last bus left at 11 o’clock and we had not hurried with our breakfast, thinking we were on holiday. So we missed it. So we had another chance to look at T’men square, had a look at the Numismatical Museum and had lunch at an instant noodle joint among the shops on the east side – try anything once.

After lunch we took a walk to the nearby Wang Fu-jing “Small Streets”. This is an older area, not far from the Imperial Palace, presumably having accommodated the palace servants in past times. It is a bit run down, but more intimate than the newer streets around. See photographs at the address above in the appropriate sub-folder.

That was the day we had a nice perambulation around Beijing, getting lost. Leaving the above, we went round in circles, then went into a shopping centre and found a shop devoted almost entirely to chopsticks. Plastic, wood, enamelled, polished, varnished, you name it (but decorated they were), all colours of the rainbow and a range of prices from 50 to 300 RNB for a set of 5 or 6 pairs, with or without stands to rest them on when you want to put them down. Well I did want to buy some so it was a hard choice. I eventually settled for a set of 5, painted different colours with flowery decorations, and separate white ceramic stands, also decorated with flowers. I also bought some small wooden soup spoons in different shapes. We took a bus back to the apartment.

In the evening we ate at another nearby restaurant in a style which initially confused me and caused some misunderstanding between myself and Jia. The basic idea is that the food is brought to the table ready to cook – meats, vegetables or various kinds, noodles, flavouring. Also they bring table-top fires (a bit like those they bring in some oriental restaurants here in UK to keep the food warm – but a bit bigger) with dishes of water on top and you add whatever you want as and when you want it then dollop on your plate and add some more in the pan (more water also available as necessary). Interesting! And quite nice too. Last night in Beijing for now!

Next: Tiny Trip to Tianjin

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and nickjewitt.wordpress.com, 2007-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and nickjewitt.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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