Empire of the Dragon
Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
36Trip End Oct 11, 2006
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Local Time: 6 PM, Mon
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 5 AM, Mon
After bidding adieu to my Japanese friends in Osaka, my ANA (All Nippon Airways)flight landed in China's capital shortly around midday on Sunday, Aug 13, 2006. On board, the young Japanese flight attendants were all fluent in Japanese, English, and Mandarin. Some were even conversant in other European and Asian-based languages like French and Korean. I was very impressed with the stellar service offered on Japan's #2 airline. A lot of details were paid to passengers' comfort.
My first glimpse of Beijing from the air was of monotonous cookie-cutter apartment buildings
Beijing was declared a capital city for the first time by King Wu in 1057 BC and had subsequently undergone many appellation changes like Ji, Zhongdu, and Dadu. However, it was not until 1421 AD that the capital city adopted the current name of Beijing under the Ming Dynasty. With a population of 12 million people and an average monthly income of US$471, compared to US$3,200/month for an average person in Osaka (ref:CIA Worldfact 2005), citizens of Beijing are rapidly experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance unforeseen in its history. The wide boulevards and tall modern skyscrapers in downtown Beijing are very reminiscent of the US. However, the differences in modernization and standard of living between the two countries are still very striking
As soon as I got off at the airport, my mind was still thinking in Japanese. I was pronouncing the Chinese characters with a Japanese reading, thus confusing the airport officials. I then paused, closed my eyes for a brief moment, and tried to switch my mind to shut down Japanese and think entirely in Chinese. Never had I encountered such confusion in a linguistic interchange before, except in February when I suddenly had to change my speaking pattern from Portuguese to Spanish while traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires. Whenever I spent a short time in some countries that shared a stark linguistic homology, I would need a brief period to adapt my mind to the new tongue. I was anticipating the same problem in September when I would have to travel from Italy to Spain.
At the airport shuttle line, I suddenly heard some French-speaking people struggling with buying a ticket. Their English was very bad, and the driver could not converse in English. So I jumped in and helped a young backpacking couple from Paris purchase their tickets
When we got off at Beijing's Railway Station, we were immediately solicited by so many taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, and street vendors. They came rushing around us like piranhas during feeding hour. The bustling cacophony in Mandarin scared the Parisian girl. Although we had said NON! or NO! many times, they still followed us with a hungry determination. One particular rickshaw driver persistently followed us and implored us to hire him for a ride to the hotel. Another vendor followed us to try to sell some sweet Chinese pastries for 0.25 Yuan (or US $0.03). We were tired, lost, and a little shocked at the assertive way business was dealt in China. The Parisian girl's pace nervously got faster. So we increased our pace to follow her. Then, the rickshaw man began to accelerate his pace, too. The next thing I realized, three of us were running away from a man hauling a rickshaw and screaming for us to slow down. We were sprinting down a street in Beijing while pulling our baggage and being chased by a man hauling a gigantic rickshaw
I got to the hotel right in the heart of downtown, which was within walking distance from Tiananmen Square. The omnipresent Communist militia were visible on almost every street corner in their faded olive-colored uniforms. In this country, one could never know the true value or price of any merchandise. Despite the fact that certain price tags existed, foreigners were always duped to pay more. For example, I was told that a can of Coke was 5 Yuan (or $0.63)by a shop assistant. But when I went to pay for it, the manager decided it was 20 Yuan ($2.50)because it was a "cold" can. The same "cold" can would cost only 5 Yuan to a native of Beijing. This city was to host the Summer Olympics in 2 years, and if this discriminatory manner of treating foreigners continued, its reputation might be tarnished even before the games began
MUTIANYU, CHINA - THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
On Monday morning, I took a chartered bus 90 Km northeast of Beijing to The Great Wall. The rush hour traffic at around 7:30AM was frighteningly shuddersome. Cars competed with cyclists on the streets of Beijing, trying to invade the bicycle lanes. The 90 Km ride took 3 hours since the bus broke down in the middle of Beijing's chaotic traffic in the midst of angry honking motorists. The driver, under a lot of stress, tried to fix the internal engine of the bus (see picture). The problem was temporarily fixed, but soon the engine died again. He had to get out and slide underneath the bus for an impromptu repair. Other cars had to change lanes behind us, and they slowed down to catch a glimpse, thus aggravating the congestion some more. Finally, the driver got up and his body was covered with grease and oil. He cleaned himself briefly, took off his shirt, and got into the bus to drive us the whole way half-naked.
We finally arrived to the mystical Great Wall. A living work of history, 2000 years in the making. The section we went to was located in Mutianyu, not Badaling, which was notoriously congested with tourists
Buying tickets for the cable car and toboggan ride at The Great Wall, I experienced my first MAJOR beguilement. The young girl at the ticket window openly lied to me about the price despite the fact the it was printed on the tickets clearly. She tried to overcharge me by 35%, thinking I did not understand any Chinese. I threatened to talk to her manager, so she calmed down and charged me the correct amount.
Upon catching my first glimpse of The Great Wall, I immediately had a very humbling experience. First of all, the wall was built very high up on the mountain, so transporting the material was already a work of miracle in those days. The most moving experience was viewing the serpentine wall slithering on the fog-draped undulating mountains
The ride back to Beijing was 2 hours without much incident. The weather here had been intermittent rain, causing heavy congestion everywhere. Tomorrow I plan to tour the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Then on Wednesday at 7:30AM, I am to board the train bound for Mongolia, where I hope to have internet access. Since leaving Japan, finding internet access has become more difficult. Wi-Fi, so prevalent in the US and Japan, is almost non-existent in Beijing. I have a feeling it will be a challenge in Mongolia.
Until next time, Zài jiàn (See you soon!)