Beijing, China: San Francisco’s Chinatown doesn’t hold a candle to it.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought its Chinatown was impressive. But after spending a week in Beijing, I have to admit, it looks a lot less impressive. Frankly, I had no idea how many Chinese you could fit in one location. (Hint: a lot.)
Recognized as the political, cultural, and social center in the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is currently the second largest city in China. Four hundred years ago, it was known incorrectly as Peking, thanks to stupid French missionaries who couldn’t spell worth a damn.
Beijing is full of local color. And that color is red. Everything that isn’t already its own color is painted red (or at least, reddish). Still, that’s the only indication of Red China’s past visible to tourists (we didn’t see any protests, but China has tens of thousands each year). Karl Marx’s “each according to his need” naivete has been usurped by the harsh reality of Capitalism’s “each according to his credit limit.” In many parts, the People’s Republic positively exudes elitist opulence and grandeur of which the masses can certainly be proud, if not afford.
A thoroughly modern city, Beijing consists of enormous, sprawling buildings running the length of its broad, impressive avenues. However, much like Los Angeles, Beijing lacks a recognizable skyline. Most likely, because you couldn’t see it through all the smog anyway.
Emissions control is not a hot topic in China. Cars here spew more toxins than a Giant Panda after finishing off a bean burrito. Not surprisingly, a yellow haze hung over the entire city as testament to the People’s whole-hearted embracing of Western ideologies (You’re welcome!). It’s predicted that by 2020, the Chinese be giving the U.S. a run for the Number One Polluter spot. So this is no time to start slacking, America! Buy a new Hummer and always use the drive-thru! For America!
Why don’t you people speak English?
Even among the 1.3 billion Chinese, it was easy to feel alone as almost no one on Beijing streets spoke English. Fortunately, the staff at our hotel — and at many of the tourist areas we visited — did a good job of communicating through hand-gestures and interpretive dance. Outside those areas, the language wasn’t a problem as long as you weren’t too insistent on actually getting what you asked for.
Yet, in a nod towards encouraging tourism, English was subtitled on most of the signs and buildings. Just not on any buildings you’d want to visit. (Who wants to go to the Bureau of Plumbing Ordinances and Collectible Stamps?) Even still, English signage was no guarantee that anyone inside the building understood it — one sign we saw said, “Welcome to the foreign friends with honesty and courtesy.” We didn’t stop to ask directions there.
Hey, where’s OUR personal butler?
Conveniently located atop the Oriental Mall, a square city block of high-end shoppes, sat the prestigious Grand Hyatt Beijing. Arguably the finest hotel we’d ever stayed in, the US$110 a night charge wasn’t nearly as blinding as the glare off the floor, the walls and the pillars.
Now, there are hotels with marble lobbies, and then there are hotels with marble lobbies that get hand-washed and polished every 15 minutes by an army of hyperactive and bored staffers — the GHB was the latter. The management seemed to have at least three people performing every conceivable hotel function, from taking your bags to wiping your ass. They even had people out mopping the sidewalk. Yes, you read that correctly: mopping the sidewalk.
We checked in and were given a room on the dreaded 13th floor. The number 13, however, isn’t unlucky in China (converted to English, it’s the number 3 or something). And, while our floor wasn’t unlucky, it wasn’t particularly lucky, either. That distinction went to denizens of the 17th floor who checked in on their own private floor while sitting down (a perk I believe should be mandatory at any hotel claiming more than 3-stars). They also got better rooms, their own personal butler (!) and, presumably, a harem of female concubines.
Our room, conversely, was merely a very nice and very modern suite with exquisite linens, and a bed which was surprisingly firm (for one not made of nails). Though, in no way, did it impair our ability to fall dead asleep almost immediately.
20 minutes later, we were hungry again.
By far, the weak link of China as a tourist mecca is its food. With the exception of T.G.I.Fridays, Outback, KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, there is little that appeals to the traditional American palate (if you can call it that). Not that there isn’t good food in China. There is. It’s just not easy to find, or even identify. Most of what passes for restaurants are hole-in-the-wall family-run joints and kiosks with food ranging from suspect to scary. To Westerners like me, Chinese restaurants all kinda, sorta look the same. So determining the good from the bad is tough unless you’re willing to risk spending the night throwing up squid.
Plus, there aren’t very many other types of restaurants as far as we could see. We never found any Italian, Indian, Mexican or Pub-grub the whole time we were there. Now, I like Chinese food as much as the next guy (provided the next guy isn’t Chinese), but I prefer not to eat any one food for every meal.
Outside of Beijing, there are seafood restaurants where you choose the fish you want to eat from a fish pond alongside the restaurant. Then they hand you a fishing pole and let you hook your own meal. While I certainly appreciate their effort to assure patrons the fish is fresh, frankly, I’d just as soon take their word for it.
This freshness issue isn’t uncommon in China. When Amy ordered in a restaurant called South Beauty, they brought out the fish in a bucket still flopping around. “14 ounces!” they happily assured her as I stifled a sudden upsurge of bile. The fish, once cooked, was excellent, as was the rest of the meal. Our waitress (No. 19 according to her “name” badge) couldn’t have been more adorable. Or omnipresent. After preparing a delicious, table-side Beef Sichuan dish, she proceeded to serve a small portion onto my plate. Once I had finished those bites, I went for more only to be intercepted. Apparently, cutting was her job. The moment we ate or drank anything, she immediately replenished it. While we appreciated the thought, it was awkward having someone do something for you that you’re used to doing yourself. Afterward, I was just glad that she didn’t follow me into the restroom.
Our Dining Adventure:
Like I said, Beijing is big. Vegas big. So when we considered walking to The Courtyard restaurant — one of the few Western-style restaurants with a view — we thought better of it and hailed a pedicab (a bicycle/rickshaw thing) to take us. During the ensuing conversation explaining where we wanted to go, the driver produced a laminated flyer with pictures of local sites and attractions, one of which looked like the Forbidden City which the restaurant was near. Unfortunately, as we later found, most buildings in China look like the Forbidden City.
Fifteen minutes later and nowhere near the restaurant, a very nice pedestrian overheard our “conversation” with the driver and translated the problem. The driver’s response, however, didn’t need any translating. Frustrated, but still cool about it, the driver turned the bike around. He then spent the next fifteen minutes peddling us through Beijing’s narrow back-streets, essentially taking us on one of the tours we’d passed on earlier, the Hutong Tour.
In old China, there was a clear definition for a street or a lane — its width. Hutongs were often no wider than 9 meters. To this day, many hutongs remain narrow through-ways in Beijing. Sometimes, an alley will be no wider than 3 or 4 meters, and some are so narrow that even a compact motorized vehicle cannot pass through them!
What we expected to be a tour of slums, turned out to be an interesting lesson in compact habitation. The small homes, occupied by well-dressed professionals with nice cars, were attached to each other on two sides, strung along to form the tight twisting streets.
Thirty minutes later, we got dropped off in front of the wrong restaurant, paid him 50 more Yuans for the trouble and walked the rest of the way (what we’d originally hoped to avoid). The Courtyard’s food was competent by SF standards, but we kind of expected more. Of course, maybe we just weren’t in a generous mood.
We hadn’t spent 12 hours on a plane just to watch Nicolas Cage suck in National Treasure. We came to see some ancient Chinese stuff.
Outside our hotel, down three flights of cascading 100’ wide concrete stairs, about six city blocks along the parking lot that was Chang ‘An Avenue, lay the Gate of Heavenly Peace, ironically adorned with a huge, well-painted portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, the man credited with China’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in which many died and millions more were imprisoned. (To be fair, totalitarian government is certainly one way to ensure peace.)
Beyond the gate was the imposing Forbidden City. And nothing says “Forbidden” like a six-meter deep moat and a twelve-meter high brick wall around the entire place. Yet despite the name, it was anything but. Shockingly, they let us right in (along with a throng of other Asians visiting the historic site). The City resides at the “exact center of the ancient City of Beijing, was the imperial palace during the mid-Ming and the Qing dynasties…its extensive grounds cover 720,000 square meters, 800 buildings and 9,999 rooms. After being the home of 24 emperors — fourteen of the Ming dynasty and ten of the Qing — the Forbidden City ceased being the political center of China in 1912 with the abdication of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China.” (Gotta love the Wikipedia, huh?)
The City covers some 7200 acres, containing 9,999.5 rooms (Why not 10,000? Because only Heaven has 10,000 rooms, duh). And it’s divided into two parts. The Outer Court, which consists of five halls used for ceremonial purposes — these include the magnificent Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Gate of Supreme Harmony and the oft-overlooked, Door Frame of Supreme Harmony. And the Inner Court, where the Emperor worked and lived with his family, eunuchs and maid servants. (Yes, eunuchs. The City wasn’t the only thing that was forbidden — touching the concubines was a no-no, too. And Emperor’s weren’t the trusting type.)
The audio tour (recommended) was narrated by that bastion of all things Chinese. That’s right, Roger Moore. He did a fine job, certainly, but one has to wonder why they chose a man who, if anything, personifies Colonial Imperialism better than any celebrity short of Yul Brenner. The audio tour did note many points of interest, but it excluded some remarkable structures inside the City, such as the Forbidden Basketball Courts and the Forbidden Starbucks. (I had no idea there were overpriced coffee shops as far back as the Ming Dynasty. Well, that’s why we travel.)
In China, size is everything. China makes Texas look restrained and big on conservation. Then again, with 1.4 billion bodies wandering around, China has more reason to super-size everything they do.
Case in point: The Temple Of Heaven. Covering 2,700,000 square meters, it’s even larger than the Forbidden City. (As emperors called themselves “The Sons of Heaven,” they couldn’t build their own dwelling bigger than Heaven’s.) The Temple was built in 1420 A.D. to offer sacrifices in hopes of “bumper crops.” It seems that once a year, the Emperor would get off his lazy, coddled ass, leave the Forbidden City and traipse South across Chang ‘An Avenue to the Temple, kill a few livestock, say a few chants and, Huzzah, crops grew like weeds. (Thanks, Son of Heaven! Now how about solving our oppressive regime problem?)
At the entrance, we neglected to pay the entrance fee figuring that, like the Forbidden City, there’d be nothing to see inside the actual buildings themselves. We were wrong. Each time we got to an interesting building, it required a ticket (shocker). The differential between the entrance fee and the all-access pass was only US$3 bucks, but by then, it was the principle of the thing. We had decided we didn’t want to go inside the buildings and there was nothing Mao or The People’s Republic could do to make us! In hindsight, perhaps that was a bit rash and short-sighted.
Another major sight is the Beihai Park, an imperial garden initially built in the 10th century. Its main attraction is a lake that covers more than half of the park’s 700,000 square meters.
We spent a nice afternoon walking the lake’s circumference, admiring the natural beauty of this lush green park. We saw women dancing Tai Chi to a boom-box playing Chinese music. Old men singing Chinese opera. And a woman kneeling next to her infant child as he popped a squat on the sidewalk like a dog. (And the Chinese consider spitting is a major hygiene problem…)
As we walked further, it started snowing. In 80-degree heat. Inexplicably, the park was suddenly covered in a light dusting of snow. “Snow” that stuck in your hair, flew up your nose and generally made breathing impossible. Some of the park’s natural beauty had spawned a literal blizzard of white, pollen-filled fluff into the air. While I vastly prefer it to the real stuff, it still kinda sucked.
At the center of the lake is an island called Qionghua where you can rent paddle boats. The island also is home to the Bai Ta, or White Pagoda, the highest structure in the park. Against my wishes, we climbed 120 feet (!) up a crumbling old, stone path to the Pagoda. Then we walked back down.
But, the biggest reason to visit China isn’t just to laugh at the way they say the letter R. No, because an hour or so outside of Beijing, you run smack into one of the Seven Wonders of The World. (Or so I thought. Turns out the Wall didn’t make the list. Go figure.) Still, the Great Wall of China was nothing to sneeze at.
Designed as a defense against nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes, the Wall was erected by Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti during the 15th and 16th centuries. In China, it is known as “The Great Wall of 10,000 Li” (10,000 li = 3,580 miles) which figuratively means “infinitely long wall” in Chinese. The result of connecting numerous shorter walls together, the Wall is, in actuality, 4,200 miles long. We can’t prove that as we walked only about a half-mile of it, but it did look as though it went on much longer than we would have cared to build. Its height varies between 18 and 30 feet depending, I’m guessing, on whether the Overlord was checking up on the workers that day or not. (In some parts, it’s getting even shorter as the locals are pillaging it for rocks to rebuild their own homes and repair roads.)
One outstanding feature that hardly gets written about is the cable-car Tram that rises from the base of the mountain all the way up to the Wall itself. Technologically, the Wall itself is nothing more than piled up rocks, but the motorized Tram is amazing. I’m sure the last thing those ancient guards needed after a day spent watching for Huns was a long hike back down.
Due to the freakish heat the day we went, we took that selfsame Tram up to the Wall and posed for many self-gratifying pictures to prove it. I must say I was in awe to be there. You don’t often find examples of excess this flagrant too often, and it was impressive. Imagine trying to get the building permits and zoning clearances to build a wall 1400 miles long in the US. Without our bureaucratic corruption, it’d be almost impossible.
Exploiting the workers. A lot.
As one of the last few countries whose currency is worth less than ours (Thanks, George!), China provided a good opportunity for us to do what Americans do best. Shop.
When you’re in a country that “makes” pearls, and has a 9:1 exchange rate with the US, you don’t waste time with a souvenir Buddha or hand-carved chopsticks. And Amy didn’t. Like a pig at a trough, she gorged herself on pearls. It took two trips to the Pearl Market, but she finally purchased all the pearls we could without being considered an importer.
My search for watches was less successful. Apparently, the Chinese Government is cracking down on the sale of imitation watches because of pressure from our government. Evidently, manufacturers of the really expensive Swiss watches feel that US$50 rip-offs in some way diminish the reputation of their brand. Though, personally, I don’t know many people who are fooled by a homeless guy wearing a Rolex.
The Silk Alley Market, or Silk Market, is another place you can go in Beijing to make people think you’re richer than you are. Inside, knock-offs of many prestigious brands abound on four floors of haggling hell. I visited row after row of basically the exact same merchandise. The success or failure of each booth was dependent on timing, location and foot traffic. Sort of the Starbucks theory — the store that gets your business is the one nearest to you the moment you want coffee. At any given moment, the vendors hoped you’d want to suddenly buy “North Face” outerwear, “Polo” shirts, “Gucci” bags, “Rolex” watches and/or “Levi” jeans to name a few. (One Chinese woman didn’t want to leave it to chance and actually grabbed my arm repeatedly and loudly demanding, “HOW MUCH YOU WANT TO PAY FOR POLO SHIRTS?!” I have never yelled at an old woman before, but it felt really good. I may take it up as a hobby.)
Compared to the mind-numbing noise and chaos of the Silk Market the Friendship Store was a model of restraint. Intended to appeal to Westerners who didn’t feel like bargaining for every damn thing, the Friendship Store had set prices and didn’t haggle. Housed in an enormous building (does China have anything else?), it offered a larger variety of merchandise than the Silk Market, but without the massive duplication, giving the place the sparse feel of a department store. On the verge of going out of business.
Traffic in Beijing sucks (shocker).
Driving in foreign countries is always a treat. And countries don’t get more foreign than China.
Amazingly, only 3% of Chinese own cars (all of whom live and work in Beijing from the looks of it). But judging from the traffic, only one US automaker has made any serious inroads into the Chinese market. And that marque is — who else? — um, Buick. Yes, Buick is the most popular US auto brand we saw. Frankly, I can’t explain why anyone would buy an overpriced Buick when they could have any number of less-expensive or better brands (like Korean, Japanese, French and German, all of which we saw in great numbers)? The only conclusion that made sense was that Buick-owners were employees of Shanghai GM, the division that builds them over there. Either that, or it’s a form of punishment imposed on dissidents by the government.
Beijing is a major transportation hub in China, with dozens of railways, roads and expressways connecting the capital city in all directions. And the roads in Beijing are first-rate for the most part. But that doesn’t mean you can get anywhere on them. Traffic on Chang ‘An Avenue was a muther. Even by LA standards. This main East/West drag through Beijing, for instance, is entirely smooth pavement riddled with traffic lights and signs all of which are uniformly disregarded and ignored.
Despite markings clearly indicating 3 or 4 lanes, Chinese drivers act as if there’s only one. In the same way blood cells flow through your arteries, traffic in Beijing flows not based on any government law but on one physical law — “no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time” (though, not for a lack of trying). We were in cabs that passed cars on the shoulder and, more frighteningly, the oncoming lane.
When compared with taking a cab ride in Beijing, standing down an Army tank in Tian’anmen Square was probably a lot safer.
The lack of lane discipline wasn’t just out of convenience; it seemed like outright defiance. It was as if staying in your lane was an act of contrition to the State. That by swerving across all the lanes, cutting off other cars or just driving between lanes, drivers were declaring their right to personal freedom and independence. When compared with taking a cab ride in Beijing, standing down an Army tank in Tian’anmen Square was probably a lot safer.
The differences, in terms of traffic between the US and other emerging industrial nations, boil down to just two. First, there’s how they use their car horns. Like most US cities, Beijing is horn-happy. But horns aren’t used in anger here. They’re friendly “toots,” used solely to announce that you’re behind someone and about to do something incredibly dangerous or ill-advised.
The second difference is who gets the right-of-way. In our self-entitled world of lawyers and personal injury suits, the pedestrian has the right-of-way under any circumstances. The Chinese way is more Darwinian — the right-of-way goes to the fittest (read, biggest) vehicle. For example, if you’re a pedestrian crossing at a light and a car turns into the crosswalk, you have to stop. Why? Because the car, being bigger and more metallic, will likely kill you. It’s traffic based on self-preservation. And that takes a lot of the ego out of it. You go when you can, not when some arbitrary law says you can go (laws don’t send you a Get Well card when you wake up at the hospital).
Still, the Chinese do take into account the needs of non-car owners. Outside the three car lanes on major dajies, or streets, was a fourth “alt-vehicle” lane for the mishmash of assorted “vehicles” the Chinese can actually afford. And I don’t just mean bikes, I’m talking rickshaws, mopeds, electric bikes, three-wheeled bikes and three-wheeled covered motorcycles — all manner of wheeled conveyance. Most of the bikes looked crappy; the kind you don’t mind leaving outside a building because no one will steal it. And that’s exactly what people do. Most buildings have parking lots out front, or underneath, to house the hundreds of bikes workers take to work. I’ve never seen more bicycles in one place before. If Critical Mass (the bicycle traffic disturbance folks) showed up here, no one would notice. Or stop for them, either.
Blah, blah, blah…in conclusion.
Probably the most remarkable thing about Beijing was how unremarkable the place was. All things considered, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between Beijing and other US city that size. The Chinese get up every morning and put their pants on just like anyone else. It’s just that for breakfast, they eat beef noodles instead of cereal. And they use chopsticks instead of a spoon. And they work for peanuts instead of a fair wage. And their government flagrantly abuses civil rights, instead of covertly. But otherwise, you know, it’s the same.