Logging in from China – Part IV

I’ll soon be on NW 08 back home (well, technically, Seattle, but close enough). Beijing proved to be less frantic that I expected. It was certainly intense by North American standards, but it almost peaceful compared to the chaos of Xiamen.

This is definitely a city that’s preparing to welcome the world. That becomes apparent even upon landing. Two huge new terminals are being built at the airport. These are massive buildings that run forever along the existing runway.

My visit to Beijing was limited to what could be seen in one day. Chris (Sherman) and I had planned to spend a rather full day seeing as much as we could. We got to the hotel in the evening and both agreed that we weren’t prepared to hit the town quite yet. We opted instead for the hotel’s own uninspiring but adequate buffet. The consolation was that included unlimited, serve yourself draught beer. Now, this is an idea that should be adopted by the west!

Our hotel was the Prime, about a 20 minute walk from Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. The western chain hotels in the area were more than twice the price and the Prime was rated fairly well in TripAdvisor, so I thought it should be adequate for a couple of nights. It was no Sheraton. Even when I cranked the air conditioning to full, the barest whisper of air could be felt coming out of the crate. The air in the room was about a dead as the Ming dynasty. The place was inundated with German tourists and the service was decidedly indifferent, after the almost fawning approach I found at the Sheraton in Xiamen. It wasn’t a disaster, but this is probably the first time that I found a TripAdvisor rating perhaps a little too high. I’ll try to remember to post a comment to this effect.

Early the next morning, after a picturesque sunrise that unfortunately was made more colorful due to the thick layer of smog perpetually hanging over Beijing, we negotiated with a taxi to take us to the Great Wall at Badaling and then back into the city to drop us off at the Forbidden city. We got to the Great Wall in good time and missed the worst of the crowds. Word of advice. Don’t go to this location of the Great Wall in the middle of the day. You’ll be fighting crowds the whole way.

From the parking lot, we had two choices. We could go explore the Wall to the east or west. On the west side, the Wall climbed at a near vertical angle up the Jungdo pass high to the mountain above. On the other side, the Wall climbed at a much more leisurely angle up the other side of the pass. Chris and I are two middle aged guys that are letting youth go reluctantly, so of course we chose the more vertical of the two options. Beside, we reasoned, the view at the top will be better.

First, let me say the Wall was amazing. As we climbed, the views were spectacular in every direction, with terraced mountain sides towering over the river and temples below, with small lookout towers and temples dotting the mountain side above us. But this is no westernized tourist experience. This is slogging up uneven stone steps, some a few inches in height, some over a foot, sometimes with no handrails, squeezing past picture takers and those that just need to catch their breath. In each watchtower, there were treacherously narrow steps leading to the top lookout. In some cases, the steps were so warn you had to precariously try to find a foothold on either side. This would never be open to the public in the west, the liability exposure would just be too great.

We made it to the top, after climbing up well over a 1000 feet, step by step, and were rewarded with a spectacular view. Another group reached the top at about the same time and we asked one of the group if they could take a picture of Chris and I. They in turn asked us to take a picture of them. They asked where we were from and what we did. Every time I’m asked what I do, I never know exactly what to answer. Search engine marketer is too obscure for most people’s frame of reference. So when Chris mentioned he was a search marketing consultant, I expected the typical glazed over response and polite nod, indicating the person was thinking, “I don’t know what the hell that is and I really don’t want to know.” Therefore, I was surprised when the group grinned and one of them said, “Do you know who this group is?” We had climbed up the wall with a group of Google engineers from Mountain View, who were in China for a joint workshop with a bunch of their Chinese counterparts. What the hell are the chances?

After the Great Wall and a quick visit to the temples at the foot of the pass, we met up again with our taxi driver and headed back into Beijing to the Forbidden City. The immense scale of the place defies imagination. The palace is in full restoration mode for the Olympics, and the difference between the weathered and grime encrusted non restored buildings and the freshly restored ones were amazing. Two of the bigger palaces were completely shrouded in scaffolding, so we couldn’t see them. Just as well, because the day and the previous climb was starting to catch up with both of us by this point anyway. We exited into Tiananmen square, were suitably impressed by the vast expanse of the space and the monolithic architecture of the surrounding public buildings(why is it that the more repressive the regime, the less imaginative their architecture?) and then decided to try to find our way back to the hotel.

Our hotel was on Wangfujing Road, which Chris assured me just one year ago was a major thoroughfare. Today, it’s being transformed into a pedestrian mall. This served as an example of how Beijing, and China at large, is being transformed for 2008. There was an army of workers, basically ripping up the old road top and replacing it with tiles. There was almost no equipment in sight, other than the odd ancient air compressor and portable generator wheezing away. The work had been done by pick axe, shovel and sweat. You throw enough people at a project and it’s amazing what can get done. The coincidence of the historic tie to the Great Wall and the amazing work that went into it two thousand years ago was not lost on us.

After our own “long march” we made it back to the hotel and both collapsed for a couple of hours. Then, we rendezvoused and headed to out to dinner at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, the home of the original Peking Duck. This restaurant is famous in Beijing and is on the “must stop” list of many visiting celebrities and dignitaries. We fit into neither of these categories and so were ushered to the fourth floor, which I suspect was reserved for all the westerners who don’t know what they’re doing. We ordered the Masterwork, a full duck, along with some accompanying soup, rice and greens.

The duck emerged on a cart and was brought to our table, accompanied by a skilled carver who soon masterfully sliced off every scrap of meat, leaving nothing but a picked clean carcass. The thinly sliced duck was given to us, accompanied by thin pancakes (almost resembling a tortilla) and condiments. We were given a quick lesson on how to wrap the duck into small little bundles. Our instructor used chopsticks and made it look much too easy. After the first attempt we both gave up and used our hands. This is probably why we were sent to the fourth floor, reserved for the “Peking Duck” challenged. Saves embarrassing yourself in front of the locals. Despite the awkward preparation, the food was amazing, washed down with the ubiquitous and very cheap Chinese beer. A cultural experience and a great dinner, for less than $50 US for the two of us. A bargain!

After dinner, we hit Wangfujing Road again for the walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away. Our construction crew was still hard at it, at 11 at night. In fact, the pace in the street was more frenetic that it had been that afternoon when we were there.

The visit to Beijing was a perfect end cap to an unforgettable trip. I won’t bore you anymore with how amazed/dumbfounded/assaulted I was with China. It was important to be here. It’s important for anyone from the West to make their way here. It’s the emerging Yin to the western Yang and will form a very powerful counterpart to the historic western world dominance. I will never understand the market, the people or the culture, nor should I. It’s not really for me to understand. I was glad to experience it, even just for a week. In chatting with Chris over our decimated duck, as little as I know, I’m probably still ahead of 99% of other westerners. You can’t get a sense of China unless you’re here. There’s no way you can do this at arm’s length. It’s an immersive experience.

I know I’ll be back. And it’s not the romantic return I envision to Europe, where the culture beckons on a very emotional level. It’s an inevitability. The market is too important, the tide is irresistible. No matter what you choose to do or where you choose to do it, to be successful, your path and China must inevitability cross. And on my return, I’ll have all the mixed feelings I currently do about the country and its people.

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