CSMT Day 0, Arrival In Beijing

Arrival in Beijing, China – March 9, 2006

It’s 3AM Beijing time as I write this, but my body, convinced it’s noon, has decided that I am being lazy and that I should be awake now. Note that since this blog is hosted by Blogger, it will not be available to people in China – which is a real shame, and one of the first, most obvious internet related issues I’ve run into here. I haven't been banned personally, it's the entire IP range for most major blog systems.

While brewing some tea to (hopefully) lull me to sleep, I picked up the local Yellow Pages (http://www.bjall.com/) and leafed through it.

It’s common for me to do this in a new territory – the two things (aside from just talking to people) that can help you get a current feel for a city the fastest from a travelers perspective are the local newspaper, (especially the letters to the editor section) and the yellow pages (the business listings phonebook). Try it sometime.

You can get a real feel for a cities culture by looking at what businesses are doing, and a phonebook can be a very nice bellwether for the local business environment. Not only do they usually have lots of helpful tips, maps and information at the front, but a savvy traveler can infer a lot from the numbers and specialties of lawyers, manufacturers, entertainment, restaurants and associations.

Some interesting tidbits include a page intended for new drivers and new car owners (Beijing has a very rapidly increasing population of new drivers). Apparently, local cars are sold with a speed limiter attached to them (can’t exceed 100km/hr (60mph)) and owners of foreign cars are warned that these usually don’t have this. There is no mention of seatbelts, but the manual felt a need to warn the drivers:

6. Change gears when necessary. If your car has a manual transmission, don’t remain in one gear for all speeds.

Sage advice, but surprising that it needed to be spelled out!

Speaking of cars, the last time I was in Beijing was 1997, and there have been several major changes since then. The most shocking was the car horns, or lack thereof. In my last trip, the car horns were used almost constantly by everyone on the road all the time, but not in the aggressive “screw you!” manner westerners tend to use, but rather in a “I’m here, look out” manner, which at the time, I found very comforting and refreshing, since I was usually in the back of a little red cab, exhaust from the engine spewing directly into the cab, careening along crowded streets with a blithe disregard to human life and limb. I remember thinking that letting people know that “you are here” was a good thing. I would have hyperventilated at the driving antics of the cabbies, except then the exhaust and carbon monoxide poisoning probably would have killed me.

This time, although horns are used, it almost seems sparing. I was almost comforted by the fact that not one knew where our hotel or the Beijing Hard Rock Café was – I was starting to get a little worried I was in the wrong country…

Aside from the familiar, carbon-monoxide spewing red cabs I was familiar with, there was a large change on the roads from before. New green and beige cabs (sans carbon monoxide poisoning) abound, and the vehicles on the road appear much newer and in better shape.

But almost no horns – what the heck is up with that? It must be a law or something. If Beijing has decided to take aim against noise pollution, they have certainly achieved that goal. I don’t even hear police sirens – they just drive by with lights flashing. This is now the quietest major city at night I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot. It will be interesting to see if Shanghai is the same way.

Looking around the city, I also noticed that the skyline full of cranes (the construction crane is pretty much the national “bird” of China) was gone. Oh, there were a lot of cranes, but nowhere near 1997 levels.
The Tour

I then had to deal with some currency issues for a few of the members (note: NEVER go to China without notifying your credit card company first. Their fraud detection systems will often put a stop on your card as soon as you attempt to use it, under the impression that it’s been stolen).

I flew in on Air Canada (but had a nice flight in spite of that – the flight crew was actually helpful and courteous) and had spent the flight sitting beside a nice lady named Lily, whom I discovered was doing work for a fellow she called “The Professor”, who is apparently a well connected businessman and academic whom is trying to secure patents and know-how from the west to manufacture in China. After I got off at the airport, she introduced me (he was waiting for her at the airport) and we agreed to attempt to meet in Shanghai.

I met with David and we had a quick beer each and some nuts (161 RMB = about $20) in the lounge while waiting for Brooke to arrive, then decided to go out. David’s facility with Chinese is excellent, and he’s very engaging – the people at the hotel that talked to him were surprised and very open talking to him once they found out that the foreigner spoke Mandarin. We finally decided to go to the Hard Rock Café (HRC), since pretty much everything else we thought of was closed. They make you buy a beer as admission at the door (100RMB = $12.50). The drive to and from the Hard Rock was in cabs (red one going there, and a green and yellow one on the way back), and prompted the comments above.

As soon as the cab stopped at the HRC, we were assaulted by a beggar child of about 6. I use “assaulted” because he was extremely aggressive for a beggar, much less a 6 year old. David gave him some money so he would go away. It’s a difficult issue because the kids are wearing ragged clothing and of course anyone with a heart wants to help them, but I also knew that he was most likely working for a begging gang, and would never see any of the money he was given, which goes instead to the people exploiting them. On the other hand, maybe he was just really poor. Tough call – are you helping them, or contributing to their exploitation?

After we spent some time in the HRC, we all got tired and decided to go back to the hotel, with involved another encounter with the kid (no parents or anyone else apparently in the area) and yet another interesting cab ride.

That reminds me – we stayed at the Days Inn Hotel and Suites Beijing – owned by the folks that bring you the Days Inn hotels/motels in the US and Canada. When I originally found that out, I thought I’d been ripped off (I think of the Days Inn line as inexpensive travelers motels, mostly), since I was told it was a 5 star hotel we were staying at. Turns out, it is!

This hotel was built only 3 years ago, and is very nice. I recommend staying here for future trips. The staff is helpful, the rooms clean, and the facilities complete. It has a few “Chinese characteristics” that remind you that you are “not in Kansas” anymore – the beds are very low, and the mattresses, though quite comfortable, are also fairly hard. The bathrooms have a separate tap for drinking water (I boiled it anyway, out of habit – I’m not THAT adventurous!) and the rooms have all the usual amenities, plus some nice touches. It’s very nice, and the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at in Beijing.


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