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With the closing of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the era of traditional Communism, and the legacy of Mao Ze Dong, whose portrait still overlooks Tian´Anmen Square, is surely coming to an end. Watching the endless reruns of the opening ceremony in the new Beijing subway cars, and seeing how incongruous his portrait is in the fast paced metropolis that is Beijing, today, I could come to no other conclusion.
I don't know what kind of sensation you had after watching the Olympics unfold on television, but for me, visiting Beijing, and China in general, became more urgent. I've sort of pussyfooted around it – Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Philippines, but China itself I had not plucked up the courage to visit. I kind of always need a reason to go somewhere, so it was a welcome coincidence when ex A., who I had not been in touch with since 2004, suddenly emailed me – from Beijing, where, it turned out, she had been living and working and studying Mandarin. And that is how I jumped on the plane the week after we spoke, which quite possibly has given the poor girl completely the wrong idea about my motives.
When I read some commentators' notions that China “was finding its identity” and “had long suffered from an identity crisis” I thought these writers were probably very badly informed. I never had the impression the Chinese had any kind of a lack of a national identity – isn't it amazing how Western analysts are at a complete loss to explain societies that aren't based on what we perceive to be democracy? There are Western yardsticks you just cannot apply to Asian societies (Singapore and Hong Kong are not part of my equation, they're city-states, not countries as such).
Anyway, before I digress, I am into day four of my visit, A. kindly spent the weekend showing me around, but she is back in her office now, so I get the chance to experience the place on my own, and figure out how the subway system works.
I normally don't go to countries I don't have at least a smattering of the language of, and that very much applies to China – I can't understand even one word of Chinese, nor read a syllable of it. And while I have been playing with the notion of learning Mandarin, I've not done much more than buy Chinese translation software, in Singapore, last year, and that I had not even installed, until just before I left.
I've been pretty good at languages since I was little – not anything special, it is just a talent that I had, I learned to speak fluent German as a child by just listening to it being spoken. English I taught myself from the Royal Dutch Shell documentation and books my Dad had at home (we did not get cable television, in the Bezuidenhout neighbourhood of The Hague, where I grew up, until the 1960s). But I am well aware the synapses that help language understanding sort of rust shut as you get older – when you're young, you're in a natural process of learning language, and it is not all that surprising that you pick up other languages easily.
Anyway, more of that later, suffice it to say I have, after only a few days of listening to Mandarin being spoken (like A. having conversations with cabbies, that sort of thing), begun to discern the individual sounds of this language, something I actually did not expect to be able to do. And that means, for me, that I can learn Mandarin, albeit that I would only attempt it on an immersion basis, which is how A. learned it.
I am not here to verify the veracity of the reports I've read about how “bad” the Chinese government is. For one thing, when I look at the way the Bush administration is curtailing my civil liberties – anybody in the US can now be arrested and detained indefinitely, without due process and without recourse to a court just by an official uttering the magic word “terrorism” - I don't know that we're in a place where we can criticize anybody else. As the bumper sticker says: "Be nice to America, or we will bring you democracy"....
Secondly, and I just had this conversation with A. yesterday, the Chinese government has never pretended to subscribe to democratic principles, although my personal feeling is that they use the Hong Kong SAR as a test bed for a form of democracy that will work in the rest of China. I actually got quite tired reading the pieces of the accredited Olympic journalists for major publications, spending what seemed like half their time trying to find fault with their hosts. OK, the government set aside protest areas, and then never gave anybody a permit to do that. I have much more of a problem with the morons who insisted on holding Tibet protest demonstrations at the Bird's Nest – what was their point? Did they even notice that stores display a bilingual notice from the City Consumer Protection agency? With a toll free number to call? That the heavily polluting two stroke moped you see everywhere in Asia is completely absent in Beijing? I'll grant you that civil liberties are important, but this is the People's Republic, not the Protestor's.
The Chinese authorities couldn't care less what I had brought, I made it from the airplane to the taxi line at the Beijing Capital Airport in under 20 minutes - and I remind you that I arrived here just after the main Olympics event, with the Paralympics still in progress.
I'll talk more about these issues, all I can say for now is that I've had no hassles of any kind, I am not under any kind of surveillance, and if you think my head is too big, I am not only a known blogger, but a former journalist, and I carry professional equipment, including a plethora of communications gear. I have even (listen up, gearheads!) bought and set up a wireless router in my hotel room, so that I can use my T-Mobile UMA - a.k.a. Hotspot@Home - to make free calls back to the United States, and it lets me program a firewall as well as keep a complete log of what goes into and comes out of my laptop. Cool thing – 802.11n, the latest standard, and I have not had any problems accessing information sites or online news sites, the only thing that does not work is my alternate DNS, which I assume the Chinese block, as it is an anonymizer, which is the reason I use it. They are in good company – Comcast makes it hard to use, too...
The router, a TP-LINK TL-WR841N, at a stall in one of those huge multistory electronics malls you see all over Asia, set me back all of US$28. Setting it up was a pain, as it only had menus in Chinese. With the English manual downloaded from the American TP-LINK website I was able to figure it out, though, and now I have actually managed to install the English language version of the operating system on it, after downloading that from the U.S. website. I like sitting behind a router, there are some tricks you can do to make it hard for hackers to get inside your laptop, an especially comforting thought when you are accessing the Internet on a hotel network in China...
Speaking of hotel, I likely would not have taken this trip if it hadn't been for an Expedia deal that was little short of amazing - $1,500 for two weeks hotel, as well as the flight (slightly inconveniently via Canada, where Immigration records even transit passengers). Breakfast is included, as is room Internet, while the Beijing Andingmen Zongh An Hotel (Andingmen Dajie is the avenue it is situated on) is located within the inner ring road – IOW, it is in downtown Beijing – and five minutes' walk from a subway station on the circle line. What is more, the "business rooms" feature a flat panel PC, and a small refrigerator; there is a water kettle as well, which comes with green tea, no coffee. Nearby, there are a couple of what are called “food stores” in Beijing, the local equivalent of a supermarket, a KFC, Pizza Hut, as well as a McDonald's, where you can get a free city map, and a department store, while I can have my laundry done across the avenue.
It is easy to see that the mainland Chinese are not used to Westerners. You get gawks from many, and at least once a day a group of Chinese on a sightseeing trip will come up to you, two will pose with you while a third takes a picture - out-of-towners who have never seen a whiteface before. Former New Yorker that I am, I went into a defensive stance the first time I was grabbed by the arm, but it is all in goodspirits, and the place is perfectly safe, even late at night.
I have been told the police have been randomly checking foreigner's papers - the local authorities have revoked many Westerner's visas in the runup to the Olympics, according to the usually very well informed Hong Kong daily, the South China Morning Post, and told many residents of Beijing they had to return to their home countries to get a new visa. They couldn't even renew in Hong Kong, which is what they would normally do. There are indeed not many Westerners about - according to friend A., three quarters of them have left, and are set to return round about now.
The South China Morning Post, by the way, published and edited as it is in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, is not subject to the restrictions that the mainland Chinese press has to adhere to, but is still a Chinese newspaper. It is a gold mine of information about China, and not at all expensive - a year's subscription to the online version, compatible with mobile web as well, cost me only US$50 (I subscribed on my Nokia phone last year, when visiting friend J. in Singapore, trying out their 3G network). Here is an interesting article about labour conditions in some of the factories that make mobile phone components, including those for Apple's iPhone (some SCMP articles are available to the general public, I don't know if this is).
It was noticeable yesterday in Tian'AnmenSquare - lots of Chinese visitors, Westerners probably only added up to a couple of dozen, mid-afternoon, busy it was not.
Be that as it may, I neither had a problem getting a tourist visa, nor have any special security measures been apparent to me. The Chinese Embassy in Washington issued my visa, valid for three months, the same day I applied, and immigration at the Beijing Airport rubber stamped my passport and sent me on my way, after a wait in line of only a few minutes. You want to try and do this visiting the United States from a non-aligned country... The only line of note was for airport taxis,and even there I waited less than ten minutes for a car.
Note that nobody in Beijing speaks a word of English - the order taker at MacDonalds being the exception, she knew how to ask "large?" when I ordered a Coke. The rest of the ordering, in fast food restaurants, is done using a small cardboard menu with pictures of the various dishes, you simply point to what you want to order, and you're set. The same applies to most restaurants - most have a rudimentary description of their dishes, accompanied by a colour photograph. I soon gave up on selecting dishes, asking A. to make suggestions - in one restaurant, I counted three hundred different dishes on the menu, a world record as far as I am concerned.
Cabbies do not speak a word of English, by the way, same as in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and so you'll be well advised to have a printout of where you're going with you, and if you can manage it a cellphone helps - you call the establishment you're going to, then hand your phone to the driver,and with luck they'll explain to him how to get you there. Several cabbies clearly showed relief when, on our entering a cab, they discovered my companion spoke Mandarin. If you do take a printout,m ake sure it is in Mandarin, they not only don't speak English, they can't read it, either. A. told me Beijing cab drivers normally try to rip you off - perhaps it is because of the Olympics, but mine have all been on their absolute best behaviour. I get a distinct impression that the Chinese resent the foreign residents - perhaps they view them as being here to take their money, while tourists clearly bring money into the country. There is the "older" factor as well - I may have graying hair, but hardly look geriatric, I was offered a seat on the subway, for no clear reason, in a full car, twice. The only explanation I can come up with is that the traditional Asian deference to the older generation still exists, even in this metropolis (although A. says I am dreaming...).
When one driver could not find the address I was looking for, he stopped the meter when he thought we had reached our destination, and did not turn it back on despite the next half hour of driving around and searching. Others are very welcoming too - at an ATM, I joined the line, but the people vehemently insisted I went first. Any shop you go into, you are instantly deluged by people trying to be helpful - this not in the way it happens in India, where they figure out ways to rip you off as they are talking to you, but simply Beijingers genuinely trying to make your visit a pleasurable one. The hospitality I experience is unusual, I've not seen this level anywhere, other than in the Philippines.
7am - time to get my (free)breakfast - Chinese, delicious, I cannot understand the Westernpredilection for eating toast with marmalade and a boiled egg, when you are visiting a country with a 4,000 year old culinary culture -it runs only until 9, and I want to visit the Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist sanctuary one subway stop from here, today.
What becomes immediately clear at the temple-cum-monastery is that Han Chinese,too, are pretty religious, Communism or no Communism, they come to worship at this temple by the thousands, from all over the land. Tibetan Buddhism is, after all, considered the ancestral religion of the region. I won't go into the controversy about the Chinese "occupation" of Tibet - even when you look at Buddhist scriptures in India it is clear that Tibet was a waystation on the path Buddhism took, from its birthplace in what is now India to the Northern regions of China, and beyond. I do believe that China is indeed "opening up", and that it will eventually realize that it cannot control the spirit of this movement, which today roots in India and Japan as well as the United States. Reincarnation is tricky - there have always been contenders to the throne, it is kind of hard to prove that the reincarnation of the Buddha is indeed that. China has reached an era where inviting the Dalai Lama and the Karma Pa back to their ancestral homelands would give it more stature, rather than less - the majority of their followers, after all, are in China itself. From what I see on television, at least, it appears the Chinese are pumping money and facilities, including that amazing railway, into Tibet, which is referred to as an autonomous region - self governing - while Tibetan monasteries are being restored. The Chinese could take a leaf out of thebook of the Catholics, whose "sovereign" seat is situated smack in the middle of Italy, and something similar in the Tibetan region would only improve China's standing.
I found several hutongs- native neighbourhoods, city villages - today, all it takes is a walk away from the subway. One had been razed, and I assume it will be rebuilt in the fashion I saw in the other hutong, near to the Llama Temple. There, things look pretty much like they have for centuries, small houses, courtyards, shops, a garlic seller on a bicycle, hawkers at the market praising their wares, but now the hutong has utilities - running water, sewer service,electricity - and CCTV. Notices on the perimeter of the hutong have an English language sentence added to them, that states that "foreigners who live, rent, or buy an apartment in the hutong must register at the local police precinct". Friend A. has to take her passport, apartment lease, and residence permit to the local police, to get a permit for her brother, visiting from Germany, to stay with her. And the CCTV cameras have been made glaringly obvious - they're big, on a concrete pole, and a large sticker on the pole says "video"- in English. Having said all that, it was forbidden to live in the hutong, as a foreigner - today, it is not.
I am not sure what to make of all this - it seems Big Brother is everywhere, but then I read the stories of the reporters, and I go walkies with my cameras - four of them - and nobody gives me a second glance, and the cops smile back when I smile at them. Clear is that Beijng doesn't have half as many CCTV cameras as London, where if they put any more in they'll be able to see you in your bathroom - the British are currently contemplating building a searchable database that will hold allvoice and computer communications. There are far fewer cops here than it appears at first glance, too - many of the smartly uniformed denizens are actually private security, and they have to call the cops in if there is a problem - I asked.
So you are forgiven for thinking martial law has been declared when you see a large green van pull up, and disgorge ten helmeted warriors in camouflage uniforms and on combat boots, carrying loaded riot guns, that disappear into the subway - but all that is is private security, on its way to collect the daily takings from the Beijing subway ticket booths, this is still a largely cash economy. Effective, that - no armoured vans with two guys with revolvers, but a heavily armed squad, nobody should even think of robbing one of these vans, and have ten private soldiers shooting back at you with their slimline pump shotguns. In Tian'AnmenSquare, too, most of what I thought were cops or PLA are actually private security, and some carry sidearms. There are, then, plenty of licensed, armed, citizens about, by comparison with India and Indonesia, where even the police aren't armed, and you only see firearms in the hands of the omnipresent soldiers.
I have noticed a couple of curious things, these past few days. First of all, in five days I have heard exactly one police siren, in this city of over seventeen million people. I've certainly encountered a few police patrol cars, with flashing lights, on their way somewhere, but no sirens. Those police cruisers, by the way, are fitted not only with the latest communications gear, but they have face recognition cameras on their roofs. And secondly, the two stroke moped, belching blue smoke, so prevalent all over Asia, is completely absent. I will have to find out if that is because of the Olympics, but I have a sneaking suspicion those engines are largely banned here - mopeds there are, but they're all electric. Many of the buses are electric too - trolley buses, although they do have a diesel engine that gets used when they need to go somewhere where there is no overhead wiring. I've hardly seen any motorized rickshaws, motoricks, either, and those that do occasionally pass by are fully enclosed, licensed, and from the sound of it run four stroke engines.
So the noise pattern of the Beijing cityscape is completely different from what I am used to, in Asia. I know mine is not the normal experience, due to the Olympics ban on cars, trucks, and manufacturing, and I guess that is why the streets are not clogged, traffic is flowing, and many Beijingers have discovered the subway, now that seven new lines have been opened for the Olympics, and the fares lowered. Two Yuan per ride, that is about 30 cents, regardless of the distance traveled, affordable even for the low income residents. My guess is that the Olympics have been a boon for the commuters, who had to come off the streets, but may now well stay off the streets. With the cost absorbed into the Olympics budget. Smart.
As I sit here writing, mid-afternoon, window open, I listen to noises that warm the cockles of my Dutch heart - school kids at soccer practice, right underneath my window, on a pristine, full size, Astroturf field. From what I can see, I'll bet the next Johan Cruiff may be Chinese, and a woman - both of the goal keepers in the co-ed teams are girls.
Random strangers come up to you to practice their English (some of those are not random, but belong to the Chinese intelligence services - the ones with relatives in Wisconsin), and one shop assistant asked me in broken English if I had a dollar for her, meaning, could I give her a dollar bill. I've had that happen in India, too, it is not an attempt at a ripoff, it is genuine interest, but India is very different, it has a long colonial history, whereas China does not.
In general, then, this is a very pleasant experience. Signs everywhere have an English translation, so it is very easy to get around (and many of those were there way before the Olympics), and the subway system was built out for the Olympics, the city is very easy to navigate, I think I may even take the high speed train to the airport, when I go home, which has a transfer station to subway line #2. You can buy a 100 yuan fare card at any station, including the one at the airport (the same as in Hong Kong and Singapore) - one subway ride is 2 yuan, flat rate - and then have 80 yuan credit, the RFID card itself costs 20 yuan, but that is a deposit, you can give it back, and get reimbursed, at the airport, when you leave, again, the same as in Hong Kong and Singapore. For reasons that are not clear to me, the Yuan is written Renminbi (abbreviated as Rmb.), but verbally referred to as Kwai. Go figure.
(Updated October 9) A. and I went out for a drink, last night, ending up eating too much in a Thai restaurant where the ubiquitous Filipino entertainers were doing a floor show on the smoking floor where we were – the non-smoking ground floor had its own group. The restaurant was enormous, and like in other restaurants here, the menus extensive, and the food was served within minutes of our ordering. Sitting out at a sidewalk bar, nursing a dry martini cocktail, and later, walking through a brightly lit restaurant row, peppered with fashion stores with all of the big brand names, factory outlets, I couldn't help but think that Chairman Mao would be turning in his mausoleum, if he could see all this. It is hard to believe this is a communist country, Chinese yuppies rolling by in their shiny new 3 Series BMW's, the burgeoning Chinese middle class living the good life.
I explained to A. how this phenomenon has been seen all over Asia, and that there truly is a trickle down effect, in the long term. When I first went to work in Indonesia, fifteen years ago, the secretaries came to work on the bus, and ate lunch from a food cart dispensing cheap meals in the office courtyard; but three years ago, my former office manager was driven to dinner by her secretary in her own brand new Toyota. She joined us for dinner, and showed me pictures of her son on her camera phone.
China exists by the grace of her cheap manufacturing – elevation of her peasantry will make Chinese products more expensive, it is visible already in the stores here in Beijing, where the rice cookers and hot plates are micro-processorized, with LED displays and “doneness” sensors. All garbage bins in the streets have a “reyclable” and a “non-recyclable” side, as well as an ashtray, and hordes of workers in bright orange jumpsuits wearing face masks do nothing but clean the streets and empty the bins, all day. An army of Olympic volunteers is on duty all over the city - you can't go anywhere or there is the blue parasol, with a stand with maps and guides, and four, five, six young volunteers available to help visitors to the Olympics and Paralympics. Other, elderly, volunteers are safety monitors, supplementing the police, sitting in groups on sidewalks and in subway stations.
Knowing what I do about the Chinese technology companies, and the nascent stock exchanges, all I can say is that the tiger roars. The shops are full of innovative products. Just before I left I read in the New York Times that HTC makes a mobile phone that has TV reception (over the air), as well – day before yesterday, I walked into a phone store to see if I could find it. As it turned out, there is not only the HTC model, but others – I ended up buying a Forby model, with not just TV reception, for some fourty countries, but able to use two SIM cards simultaneously, effectively two phones in one, each line with its own MicroSD memory slot, and FM radio reception and “3D” MP3 (audio) and MP4 (video) recording and playback, with stereo speakers and stereo Bluetooth. While it won't work in the United States, when we switch to digital broadcast next year, I had to have this toy, in butt-ugly all chrome. It says it has GPRS, although I have not gotten that to work yet, and it has a touchscreen interface, just like the iPhone. Comes with a spare battery. $620.
No recession here, then. And as I pointed out to A., there is a strong symbiosis between the East and the West – we are fully dependent on Asian production facilities to create our goods, and they are fully dependent on our $$s and Euros to eat and live. I bought an 18 kilowatt whole house generator, not too long ago – it runs on gasoline, propane and town gas, and set me back just under $2,000, including truck shipping from Maine – five years ago, a similar product would have cost me between $6,000 and $8,000, unaffordable for an average home owner. It then follows that what happened in Europe will happen here, eventually – cost will be contained by the increased adoption of automated production facilities, a capability we have, in the West, almost lost, as production was moved to cheaper facilities in the East.
(Updated October 11) It is hard to assess the Chinese economy from just visiting one city, especially if that city is the capital. There is certainly an abundance of menial workers, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of taxis, an excellent public transportation system, and wherever you go the pride of the Chinese in the hour of their crowning glory, the Olympics extravaganza, shines through. Posters, billboards, and television advertising continues unabated, even though the main events are done; and this morning I counted a staggering 32 Olympic aide volunteers at just one subway station, still in place because of the Paralympics. It is awesome – nothing is left to chance, everything has been thought of, into the minutiae. Hordes of Olympics participants and support crew are shopping all over the tourist traps, like Silk Street, accompanied by Chinese assistants whose only purpose is to make it all go smoothly. And they succeed – these aren't the security “minders” that used to follow you around in Communist countries, the emphasis today is all on openness and friendliness.
This is not, in my opinion, about national identity – when you visit the Museum of the Army, and follow the travails of the Chinese through their warring centuries, it becomes clear why Chairman Mao is revered – he managed to unify what has always been a fractious country, forever at war with itself. The humiliating treaties the Chinese were forced to accede to with the British, French, and Russians, are displayed here, the original documents, and they're labeled as such, humiliating, “we had no choice but to sign”.
Communism, then, became a tool to unify the peoples of the Chinese regions, clear is from the displays that when the Chinese were not unified – most of the time – they were at war amongst themselves. And through the centuries, there were dozens, if not more, “peasant uprisings”, times when the impoverished serfs rose up against their Imperial (Chinese imperial) owners. The museum brings it all to a logical conclusion with the creation of the Red Army, in the 1920's, which then eventually morphs into the People's Liberation Army – still Red, but not quite as Red as before. A college girl from Beijing City University made light of much of it, pointing at a 1930s vintage army radio, calling it “the first mobile phone”, which I thought was hilarious.
Giving her name as Sarah (with the h!), she came up to me after eyeing me for ten minutes or so, asking if it was OK for her to practice her English on me, and she would in return take me around the museum, and explain everything I wanted to know. Then, her first question completely stumped me, when she said “When you look at all this, how does it make you feel?”. I mumbled something about being here to learn, I visit musea to help me understand a culture, not so much for the ry facts, but she persisted, finally driving to her point, which was that war was not good, and that the people would achieve much more through peace.
Her English was halting, she lacked vocabulary, but with an admirable effort made every point she wanted to make. Two in particular stuck in my mind – when I showed her the Chinese cellphone I had bought a couple of days earlier, she opined that I should not have been so dumb, it would break soon, and it was not for nothing that the Chinese all bought Nokia phones, she said. And she was very uninterested in Chairman Mao and his exploits, although she could recite them by heart. Sarah would have not been out of place in the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam - stylish haircut, fashionable jeans and sneakers, and even the odd gang sign that is so in fashion in the Far East - kids in rural Mactan in the Philippines flash them.
She and her friend (whose English was better, but she was shy, where Sarah was anything but) took me to meet their teachers, wo were seated in a quiet corner. They were totally asleep, looked at the girls, at me, and waved Sarah and her friend, whose name I can't pronounce as I don't have an alphabetic picture of it in my mind, on. It was all very incongruous, strange – the girl talked at me for three solid hours, alternating between explanations and an incredible thirst for knowledge, mining me for words and concepts, and always coming back to that one question: “How does it make you feel?”. I am sure I missed some of the nuance in her questioning, but there was obvious pride in the material achievements of her country, a gregarious lust for life. Many of the Chinese visitors in the museum (I was the only foreigner, as far as I could see) looked at us askance, not quite knowing what to make of the two Chinese girls with the foreigner. Nobody said or did anything – but didn't smile or laugh either, they were clearly uncomfortable. Sarah completely did not care, and at the life size diorama of Chairman Mao, Premier Zhou Enlai and some other founders, insisted on helping an older man, who had been taking pictures of the diorama. She positioned him in front of it, told him how to stand, and shot a series of different poses. There were plenty of her classmates around, who all looked at her jealously when they figured out she had had the guts to corner a foreigner.
I was exhausted, after three hours of this, and the girls insisted on walking me to the subway station, which is a few hundred yards from the museum, stopped by the front desk to ask them to explain to me where her college is located, on the map, while Sarah explained she had to get back to the group, her teacher had warned her that if she made the group wait again, she'd be in trouble. She insisted on taking my cellphone number, and insisted on giving me hers, switching her (Nokia) cellphone display from Chinese to English, so I could read the display. If Sarah is a harbinger of things to come, she and her generation will take China to a different place, one in which the struggle to achieve and attain will have been replaced by erudition, an open world view, and a solid understanding of the way the markets work. Perhaps China is no longer a work in progress, it has taken off and is flying high.
Here is where Apple is making its grand mistake – everywhere in populous Asia, people have Nokia “starter phones” - both of these girls, my driver in Chennai in India, secretaries in Jakarta, everywhere the cheap-but-reliable no-frills Nokia “handphone” is ubiquitous – here in Asia, Nokia is just about a generic name for cellphone.
I returned to Andingmenwai, the street my hotel is on, to pick up my laundry, across the avenue – each item individually wrapped and accounted for, the shop assistant going through the list with me, to check nothing was missing.
You can check them out for yourself – part of a Beijing chain, they have their own website , it even has English language pages. You'll say that Chinese peasants do not have Internet access - that is certainly true, but then you have to take into account that American peasants don't either, there are just vastly more peasants in China than in the USA. I was talking about the People's Liberation Army, just now - they too have their website, with rivers of information, I cannot emphasize enough that whatever you may read, these people are not peasants any more. Remember that a good proportion of the rural population now works seasonally in the big cities, where they learn stuff. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the guys in the drab suits at the Olympics opening are the future of China - Sarah is, the suits are history. Like Chairman Mao did, they are about to hand over to a vastly different generation. Remember, when you look at the picture I took of Sarah and her friend, that change here is much more wrenching than what we have experienced - there is only one generation between Chairman Mao and Sarah, and the difference could not be greater.
A couple of doors away, I found a small supermarket, where I bought instant noodle soup, and some of the sweet cakes the Chinese are so fond of. I had to ask for a carry bag – shops are no longer allowed to give those out, they have to charge a few pennies, and only on request, this to stem the avalanche of non-digestible plastic in landfills. Beijing is very concerned with waste and pollution, to some extent due to the Olympics, but the recycle bins in the streets, every few hundred yards, are not new, and the abundance of electric propulsion is not, either. Above the city the brown pollution cupola is clearly visible, in the hazy sunny skies – not more so, by the way, than I used to see driving into New York City from my home in Westchester County, on a hot summer's day. In late afternoon, dirty water clouds pull over the city, there is some pop-up thunder, and today there was even a little rain, around 5pm. Shortly after, the temperature was back up to the mid eighties, with humidity to match. I'll “do” some more temples, tomorrow, and perhaps I will go back to the Llama Temple, where I saw a beautiful silver miniature prayer wheel I thought of buying, only to discover that the monks don't take credit cards.
Beijing is very concerned with waste and pollution, to some extent due to the Olympics, but the recycle bins in the streets, every few hundred yards, are not new, and the abundance of electric propulsion is not, either. Above the city the brown pollution cupola is clearly visible, in the hazy sunny skies - not more so, by the way, than I used to see driving into New York City from my home in Westchester County, on a hot summer's day. In late afternoon, dirty water clouds pull over the city, there is some pop-up thunder, and today there was even a little rain, around 5pm. Shortly after, the temperature was back up to the mid eighties, with humidity to match.
Walking down the riverbank, today, I came across a food market. Immediately obvious is that China has a long way to go before it will achieve a good standard of hygiene for the population. While the upper classes buy their food properly packaged and refrigerated in “proper” supermarkets, that level of care is not available to the working classes and the elderly. I should immediately add that food is prepared here the same way it is done in much of the rest of Asia – cooked, braised, stewed through-and-through, the principle being that prepared foods will keep for several days without refrigeration, since it has effectively been sterilized.
But other levels of basic care are impressive, considering the size of the country, and the low average income level. Mobile clinics are in evidence everywhere, and in a park I passed today outdoor exercise machines were available to the residents of the nearby housing estates. The level of care and welfare management of the population is clearly better than that in India, where one sees impoverished illiterate peasants everywhere, and what is a covered food market in Beijing would be an outdoor one without facilities in India. Here, there are market managers, stalls, licenses, fire extinguishers and phones. And a public toilet on every block.
From that perspective, then, the comparison between democracy and communism, between India and China, falls heavily in favour of communism. Corruption does not come into the discussion, we know well that exists on both sides of the fence. Here in Beijing, there are no hovels and huts on the riverbanks, as there are in Chennai and Bangalore. Democracy creates have-nots, we see this all too well in the United States, and other enlightened societies.
The use of electronics in everyday life, here, is impressive. Every member of staff in this hotel has a walkie-talkie, including cleaning staff and porters, and use it. All door keys are RFID – remote sensing, no swipe cards – until now, I had only seen that in one hotel in Nashville, TN. As I mentioned, the business rooms in this three star hotel all have a networked PC – CPU built into the flat panel, running Windows XP, with a legal full copy of Microsoft Office 2003 loaded. While the power outlets are switched by a master key into which you have to insert your door key once in the room, two outlets, for the PC and ancillary equipment, are UPS powered, and bypass the master switch, so are “always on” (I later, during the one single power failure I experienced, which lasted all of half a second, discovered that when the power fails, the sockets marked “UPS” lose power, too)..
The days that China manufactured for us, under our guidance, are over. China manufactures for itself now, and as a consequence, innovates, their end users are now down the block, instead of 10,000 miles away. No more need for German sounding brand names, either, like Haier, and Hanns-G. Newer manufacturers and service providers use Chinese names, those are no longer ubiquitous with “cheap crap”. The sneakers in the stores are Chinese now, no longer real or simulated Nikes. The TP-LINK WiFi router I bought has a Chinese-only interface, no more pidgin English.
They've learned, and they've learned fast. They understood that, in George Bush' immortal words, “you're either with us, or you're against us”. Except we are the ones who now need to “get with the program”, and “follow the money”. I am not here by virtue of an impromptu holiday, and neither is friend A. She now speaks Mandarin, which may soon be the second most important language in the world, after English. I myself may yet pursue a position here, though I have no clear picture yet of what I might want to do.
There is significant opportunity here, for the West. There are American and especially many German cars on the roads, a lot of the taxis are Volkswagen Passat models, diesel engined, ideal for the urban environment. Because: the mainland Chinese hate the Japanese, with a passion, still today, there are fewer Hondas, Toyotas, Infinitis, and Isuzus, which otherwise fairly litter Asia Pacific. Little did they know, when they invaded Manchuria in 1931, and caused more than 20 million Chinese deaths between 1937 and 1945, that they would be shutting themselves out of the world's largest consumer market. And we should remember this: we forgive. The Chinese do not. Even teenager Sarah (below) made a point of mentioning that she "hates the Japanese".
Having left the cityscape a few years ago, I tend to forget the young in the hustle and bustle still want to go party as the weekend starts. A., being both young and conforming, is no exception, and so I found myself, after dinner at an expatriate restaurant owned by a Finn, heading for Beijing's Salsa Club. The restaurant offered little Chinese food, but just about everything else the universe has to offer: from lasagna and fish and chips to salade niçoise. I ended up with a garlic pork chop with garlic mash, although the chef had done something French to the potatoes, something I can't remember the name of, but it involves slicing them thinly, and smothering them in a sauce. I don't have a huge issue with fusion experimentation, but some things are holy - mashed taters are mashed taters. I am Dutch, after all...
If nothing else, it set me up for the remainder of the evening, which had me sitting on the sidelines while A. danced – I attempted salsa years ago, having met an attractive Jewish tea trader from Curaçao, living in Amsterdam, on a flight to South Africa, and came away with an understanding that this was not a form of dance intended for me, with legs that would all too easily knot themselves in unexpected places. At least, unlike last time, I had the good sense to explain to A. that I would not be dancing, but admiring her from the sidelines; I know that salsa addicts, which are people that have taken the trouble to attend salsa classes and spend long hours learning the intricate moves, have their favourite partners at their favourite clubs, so there was not an issue here.
For me, much of the entertainment was watching the band, which did very well but took full hour breaks; and watching some of the very astute Chinese dancers. Nobody will ever accuse the Chinese of having rhytm – if you've watched the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, you'll have noted they do well in organized expressions, but I had not expected the wanton and expert throwing of limbs and dance partners I would witness. In particular a tall and quite large Chinese gentleman moved with the grace and expertise one does not expect from a Sumo wrestler, lifting, throwing, inverting and sliding his tall and impossibly thin female partners, that showed clearly they had enough trust in him to be thrown off the Eiffel tower, having been promised he'd be downstairs in time to catch them.
Indubitably, he was, and A. was a delight to watch too – she spent three months in Guatemala, in between Ohio and Beijing, and it showed, she moves. The Chinese guy was something else though - he'd throw a dance partner above his shoulders, that's five-plus feet, to catch her with millimetre precision, never missed a beat.
A. is no longer the very German exchange student I met sometime in 2003, although she approaches the dance the way Germans approach everything, from cars to sex – with engineered perfection and that intense look on the face, Spaß machen wir im nächsten Jahrhundert. By about midnight, though, the party crowds rolled in, and the place became just another nightspot. A row of reserved tables right in front of us, at the ege of the dance floor, had been decked with fresh fruit, bottles of Chivas and water, and sure enough, a group of gentlemen that had seen too many Jacky Chan movies eventually rolled in, were seated and spent a good hour drinking whisky and talking to each other, without any interest in the action on the floor, or the young Chinese and Western women, some of whom made it very clear they were so available. There were a good number of expats, as well, here only to dance, sweat away the rigours of a working week in a town of which many do not speak the language.
We have been talking about A's career, on and off, throughout the week. Part of the reason I am here is to give her a mental boost – as happens with talented people, she has reached a milestone in her young life, and while one thing finishes, she doesn't have her next move ready. Hearing this during a few of our Skype conversations after she had mailed me, I resolved to go over and see if I could be of any help – I pretty much understand what makes her tick, and a true face to face is always more helpful than some kind of call. Like me, she managed to leave home and embark on a path of achievement, and like me, she gets stuck along the way, here and there. Embarking on a career overseas is really hard, if you do not have a supporting infrastructure – I recall all too well how little understanding I got from my Dutch circle of friends, or my family, for that matter,whose perspective was mostly to get their careers settled in their home town, and then float along on the waves, until it was time to retire.
It had not surprised me to find A. in Beijing; she has that push to be different, I just did not know whether she'd achieve that or not, and she has. Now, she needs a new focus to aim for, and like many, she is, hopefully temporarily, looking in the wrong direction. It is curious how her experience mirrors my own – at some stages of your life, it seems like everything stops working – no prospects in your job, a relationship that ends, nothing to keep the mind occupied, and it is then really hard to see the positive opportunities through the negative developments. Eventually, I learned that all change is good change, that it is just a matter of focusing, and that whichever way you push, it always gets you to the next stop on the railroad. I suppose that isn't too different from selecting a dance partner, and then trusting him to catch you, after he has so expertly flipped you upside down. It can be scary stuff..
It wasn't until after I arrived in Beijing that I realized the Olympic thing wasn't over, the 2008 Paralympics were about to begin. Over the past couple of days, that became more than apparent, as more Chinese volunteers manned the information stands all over town, and when I visited a couple of tourist traps, participants, easily recognizable by their Olympic outfits and large ID tags around their necks, were all over.
Not having planned this trip, hordes of tourists in wheelchairs took me a little by surprise, though. Not only that, the athletes are in performance wheelchairs, you know, the leightweight ones with the wheels at angle, and they think nothing of getting on an escalator in that wheelchair, pulling themselves up until the wheels are wedged on two steps, then hanging on by the siderails. I stood and gawked, mall security got totally confused. But the rest of the staff on Silk Street couldn't care less, whether you were in a wheelchair, blind, or amputee, they're going to sell you stuff. Now you may have had the derogatory comments from correspondents about the wheelchair lifts the Beijing subway has recently installed, but look at the accompanying pictures - they didn't just install them, they're using them. And the person being elevated wasn't a tourist or Paralympian, he was an ordinary Chinese disabled man. They may have to work a bit on letting people use these lifts without seven people assisting (five of whom the ever present volunteers you see everywhere, recognizable by the red armbands), but it's a start.
Sitting here in my hotel room watching the Paralympics opening ceremony, I can't help but think that this must be even more of a dream come true for the disabled than for the able bodied. For me, it is a sudden and unexpected realization I am only a few miles from the Bird's Nest, where all this happens as I watch it, on Chinese television, smack in the middle of downtown Beijing. We (A. and I) were supposed to join an expat Mahjong game tonight, but she got stuck Skyping with her folks in Germany, while I spent time commiserating with a suddenly divorcing friend in Australia.
As I said, it caught me a bit by surprise – there were dozens of cops at each roadway intersection, some helmeted and with Kevlar overcoats, I guess they ensure that the members of the Politbureau and the many foreign dignitaries could get through easily. I was accosted by multiple “welcome to Beijing” folks, as I walked through a couple of neighbourhoods, but as they all said they had friends or relatives in Chicago, I expect they were Chinese security agents in plain clothes - they suddenly materialized today, in all the tourist spots. They could have at least mentioned different towns.. Next time, give 'em clipboards, Beijing Tourist Administration nametags, and have 'em say they're doing a visitor survey - we're used to those.
All in all, I must say I am very impressed with the effort the Chinese government has made – even more so now that I am here and am getting a feel for what the place is all about - and it is very different from what I read from most reporters. English language CCTV Channel 9 – American commentators have stated this channel is not broadcast within China, guess what, idiots, I am watching it in Beijing, it is available in all of China – has provided extensive programming about the Chinese athletes taking part in the Paralympics, while Olympic subway advertising has partly been replaced by Paralympic advertising, featuring disabled Chinese athletes. And as I am watching this, I am wondering why I didn't buy tickets to attend this opening – I guess that is what happens when you make an unplanned trip. When I mentioned to A. that this is where we could have been, she had the same "am I stoopid" response.
Throughout Beijing, a different type of urban planning than I am used to is clearly visible. A planning that, as much as possible, works to keep a city of seventeen million people on the move and working. Eight and ten lane avenues cannot be crossed except at intersections and via abundant pedestrian overpasses – above one intersection, I even found a four way overhead crossing. They're uniform, have slip roads on either side, and the use of trolley- and regular buses, rather than trams, allow for optimal flexibility in public transport. Subway trains run every two or three minutes, throughout the day. To enable communication, all cellular carriers (not just one or two) have repeaters throughout the subway system, and especially the younger people spend most of their time texting. The picture to the left shows how this works - the blue structure to the left is the 2nd floor entrance to a department store, which can be entered directly from the pedestrian overpass (there is one every few hundred yards) - the white fence you see to the right in the street is the central divider; except for some major crossroads, there is no cross traffic to impede the traffic flow. The electric trolley buses are able to change lanes to passenger stops, and to avoid other traffic. They are fitted with diesel engines for use where there is no overhead wiring.
I've never had to wait more than four or five minutes for a cab, just hailing one in the street – considering half the cars are off the streets, that is quite a feat. And most taxi rides cost less than four dollars. Just like in Singapore, the hutongs are being razed, and replaced by modern accomodation. Life, considering Beijing is a metropolis, is surprisingly affordable, although I must plead guilty to not knowing anything about wages here.
All in all, this country is fascinating, and I have the same feeling I had when looking at it from afar – China may be what America was in the 1980s. Everybody is here, wanting a piece of the cake, and the Chinese reap significant benefits from the influx of capital and expertise. At the same time, high schoolers in the United States have begun learning Mandarin, and the three French teenagers sitting at the table next to us at lunch in the Pacific Department Store frequented by Western expats were completely fluent, and comfortable. Many ads from Chinese companies I see have bilingual slogans, and to give you an example of Chinese innovation, the Chinese cellphone I bought earlier in the week has a backup battery that lets you swap its main battery without losing service – or even a connection, if you're on a call and on the speaker or Bluetooth. I have a lot of cellphones, but not one that does this. And I watched somebody on the subway text in Chinese – that really requires a complete interface redesign from what we're used to, with our simple alphabet. So there are different solutions here, for different problems, problems that we in the West are often not cognizant of.
Needing a larger suitcase, due to some incessant shopping, I found a below ground urban Wal-Mart, not far from a subway station. On my way there, I noticed that one subway line has a long video screen mounted on the tunnel wall, that synchronizes its image with the speed of the train, making it possible to view the image as the train rides along. By my calculation – the image is visible for over 23 seconds – that screen would be some 1,000 feet (300 metres) long. And there is a plethora of other technologies, at competitive prices, certainly available cheaply enough for the Chinese middle classes.
Standalone induction cookers have replaced the hotplate or electric rings. I tested one – at a 1,000 watt (this is at 220 V, that would be 2,000 watt for us in America) setting (the midrange setting) the thing boils a litre of water in three minutes. A 1,000 watt electric kettle takes five minutes. The induction cooker then is able to keep the water against the boil, only intermittently using 300 watts of power, it can sense the amount of energy dissipated in the cooking vessel. That'll be wonderful for cooking pasta. As it does not get hot or radiate heat out, an ideal and very safe appliance for small apartments, and most importantly, like the electric moped and the trolley bus, more efficient, better for the environment and cheaper to run. The cost?: 299 Yuan, US$ 40. Probably still a luxury item here, but getting there. Apple's iPhones are both widely available – every electronics stall on Silk Street has them, unlocked, to work with any GSM carrier (AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile in the US), in amongst hundreds of other phones. The 3G costs around $450, this before haggling, which I didn't do, as I own 3G and 3.5G phones.
Water heaters for the home, electrical, cost around $100. A split unit airconditioner, without installation, $200 to $400. And all of these appliances are now electronically controlled, so are far more efficient to use than their older counterparts. The water heaters, for instance, have multiple temperature settings, so you can leave them running on low when you are out to work, or asleep, and don't imminently need piping hot water. You flip the thing to “hot” just before you shower, or do the laundry. The "roof" below is actually an 800 yard long television screen, sheltering a shopping plaza, at night it mostly shows underwater displays.
I keep being told the city is much more livable due to the Olympics, traffic better, subways run at a higher frequency, although I think I see more traffic coming into town, and for the first time I noticed a five minute wait for my subway train. It rained over the weekend, and while the sun briefly burned through the haze this morning, much of the day has been overcast. What I don't know is if this is pollution, or simply cloudy weather – I expect the former, although I still see very few trucks in the streets. I do think that some of the comments I get from A. may have to do with Beijing being the very first metropolis she has ever lived in. I myself don't really see huge differences between Beijing on the one hand, and London and New York City on the other, both places I lived in for many years, with a similar economy and population. I find that some of the traffic solutions here are worthy of studying, cities around the world might benefit from abolishing pedestrian crossings on major thoroughfares, and replacing gasoline fueled mopeds and scooters, and diesel fueled buses, with electrical equivalents, as has been done here. It is kind of curious that the entire Olympic world press hasn't noticed, either...
All in all, then, China is much further along on the path to civilization (if I may abuse the word) than for instance Indonesia or India. Where in the latter two countries technologies are being introduced, but the living environment isn't able to keep pace or be controlled effectively, here, the government has looked at the common urbanization problems, and has put into place and is enforcing a number of simple measures intended to “make things better”. I think many of the reporters that write about Beijing are failing to deduct the circumstance: this is a metropolis with seventeen million inhabitants, and that simply is too big a city, it has gone way past the point where a concentrated population makes life easier and more efficient. I wonder where the cutoff point is, at what size a city becomes an overconsumer of facilities, simply to maintain its size, without a net return. It will be interesting to see, a year from now, what net benefits the increase in infrastructure and services, put into place for the Olympics, has provided. Putting seven new subway lines into the cityscape, and reducing the price of public transport, isn't nothing.
I have little doubt the fare reduction, and the simplification of the flat fare system, were put into place to get the commuters off the streets, before the partial vehicle ban was enacted. For now, that's worked, I see hordes of commuters on the new subway lines. Will that continue?
A. had suggested she take me to her doctor in Beijing, a traditional Chinese physician, at the outpatient department in the hospital at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. Apart from what one reads about and hears about the seeming magic of the pulse reading doctors, the Chinese have universities for both Western (or “modern”) and Chinese (or “traditional”) medicine. My instinctive response was that I really didn't want to go and do quackery, but then I thought about it and realized that when you are in the capital of China, where tens of thousands of Chinese are treated in this way, you'd be really daft if you didn't try it, so I rapidly changed my mind.
I'll spare you the usual “it is thousands of years old, so there has to be something to it” - the first thing that struck me was that this is an extremely efficient way of doing medicine. It took the physician all of four minutes to “read” both my left and right pulse, without knowing anything about it other than that I was A's friend, not Chinese, and anything else he could see. The diagnosis was immediate – did I have back pain? And indeed, I have two conditions that affect my back – one is an immune condition that affected my spine, many many years ago, but the second is a misaligned vertebra in the lumbar region, something that has been giving me problems (as in, physical therapy, X-rays, multiple specialists, MRI, etc.) since the beginning of the year.
So that was impressive, as there is nothing outwardly visible, to the best of my knowledge, and he was looking at and listening to A. while I sat down, so any clues due to my movement would have escaped him. Long story short, he wrote a prescription, we handed that in at the pharmacy at the front of the clinic, and I have been taking the herbal remedy (which is prepared in-house and given to you in single dose liquid packages) since today. Will keep you posted – the only stipulations were that I had to stop my Western medication for the duration – he gave me a six day course, until I get on the plane again – and that I can't eat or drink anything cold. Try and have a lukewarm Coke, and you'll understand the hardship.... First time ever I have picked up a prescription that was still warm when I got it...
Of course, checking in for my flight back to the U.S., I completely forgot about the two pouches of medication in my backpack, to take during travel. You know the limits on taking liquids on board an aircraft - I never carry any, except small capsules of contact lens fluid, so I never even realized what was wrong until the security officer went spare - taking my backpack through the scanner three times they could see there was something there, but couldn't find it, backpack was kinda stuffed. She eventually managed to remember the word "liquid", at which point I realized what had happened, dug out the pouches, the security officer took 'em to her supervisor, supervisor said medication was OK, and I boarded with herbal tea. The officer wasn't too happy, especially when it turned out to be OK. Duh.
Over the past decade or so, China has become our major supplier, but all we've done is share our inventiveness and designs from West to East. What has not consistently beeen done, is finding Chinese concepts, and finding ways to apply them to our hemisphere. Yet there are many “Chinese ways” I see that are very different, and very effective.
They range far and wide. If we assume a Chinese physician is indeed able to find organic information in the pulse, and I see no reason to doubt it, then the way in which a patient's condition is diagnosed in a few minutes, at no charge, could be employed to turn our primary care completely upside down. Think about it – no doctor with a battery of tests and half an hour of expensive time, five minutes of diagnosis, treat the primary condition, then the patient comes back for a further, similar, assessment. The doctor is paid out of an academic budget, no bills, no uninsured sick people, and the herbal remedy is cheap – 180 Yuan, $26, in my case, and A. opined this was a relatively expensive mix of herbs. I wonder, seriously, what percentage of sick patients are fully cured this way, and don't have to be processed deeper into the system. I am sure the Chinese can tell us this.
Interesting too is that the diagnosis doesn't depend on the patient's complaint, of the patient's view of what is wrong with them. The diagnosis is based on biological signs – no possibility of bias or discrimination, a pulse is a pulse, whether black, white, or purple. The price is the same for all – no charge (there is a 10 Yuan administration charge - a buck fifty. No doctor preference on the part of the patient, either – no bedside manner, etc., I am sure you get my drift. Maybe this isn't a way to diagnose complicated ailments, but that isn't how a doctor starts with a patient. Think about it.
A.'s brother, H., arrived last night from Singapore, where he had participated in a triathlon meet. I had promised I'd treat them to a Peking duck dinner, tonight, and so we found ourselves at A.'s favourite restaurant in the downtown shopping district. The food was out of this world. I had never tasted Peking duck like this, and even the green tea I drank with dinner was astonishing in taste and smoothness. Service was superb too, and we even received a certificate with the number of our particular duck, the restaurant, in business since 1846, has served more than 1.15 million ducks since then...
Comment of the day: H. gets a call from Germany on his cellphone, from somebody who has no idea he is abroad, and tells the man: “No, I am not in the country, I am in Peking, eating Peking duck”. - the caller wasn't sure whether H. was joking or not...
The only discord in my visit is the laundry, or rather, the absence of it. I went and had my washing done at the laundry across the road, last week, but when I went there again yesterday it was closed, and workmen were ripping out the shop front, and replacing it. As I didn't know of other laundries close (although I am sure there are some) I simply went to Wal-Mart today, and bought some more underwear and socks, still had enough clean shirts and Ts to get home. Wal-Mart, as it turns out, has some 180 stores in China already – differently from what I am used to, this particular one is close to downtown Beijing, a couple of blocks from a subway station. It is large, situated in two adjoining basements of office buildings, and its location in a shopping plaza means shoppers can get there by car, bus, or subway. I guess the U.S. concept wouldn't work here, as most Chinese don't own a car. I noticed a similarly large hypermarket owned by French supermarket giant Carrefour just down the block.
I've been taking my morning cappucino at “The Coffee Club”, a small restaurant and coffee shop about ten minutes' walk from my hotel. I found it accidentally, the other day, when looking around the neighourhood. It turns out the owner, though ethnic Chinese and born in Vietnam, comes from Germany, and so we speak German, unless one of his locals, a Dutch software developer whose office and home are both close, saunters in for his morning coffee, and we switch to English. I can recommend the bacon-and-egg sandwich, it is out of this world, and like everything in Beijing, cheap. There is a full menu, anything from breakfast to a delicious chicken curry, with a stiff drink or a German pilsener if you feel like it. And free WiFi - ask the waitress for the WEP code. Take the loop line to Andingmen, come out through the West side exit (which, for reasons I don't understand, is on the East side), walk down Andingmenway one block (i.e., not towards the roundabout), turn left (you'll see a small bus station on the right hand side), go about half a mile, The Coffee Club is on the left side, on a far corner – next to a few restaurants and a cosmetic surgeon.
Just one more day, and then a horrid run home, they stuck me with a 12 hour layover in Toronto. Ridiculous. I didn't check and so didn't notice until earlier in the week. I tried to get Expedia to find me a better flight, but no luck – the rep never came back on the phone after speaking to the airline, and the airline said there was no earlier flight – which is a lie, they show a flight leaving Toronto 40 minutes after I arrive. I appreciate that that is likely cutting it too close, but telling me there is no such thing..
T-Mobile USA still offer something called Hotspot@Home, and I think they have a couple of other names for it – it is a wireless technology called UMA, which lets phones equipped with the technology connect to the T-Mobile cellular network using broadband Internet and WiFi – it works at Starbucks, Borders – but it also works on any “open” WiFi connection that does not require a browser login, the type you often find at hotels and airports. It is a bit like VOIP, the type of phone service that Vonage and others sell, but here you don't need carrier equipment other than the phone, it is a cordless phone, cellphone, and landline, all rolled into one. They sell a preprogrammed wireless router for it, but if you are able to program a router you can use it with any wireless router – 802.11a/b, 802.11g or 802.11n. There are neither minutes used charges nor domestic call charges, all you pay is (I think) $9.99 a month. There are four phones that are compatible with the service – one from Nokia, one from Samsung, and a couple of Blackberries. No surprises here, either, the Nokia and the Samsung cost $50, if I recall.
Anyway, arriving at my hotel, I found it provided an open WiFi connection, free of charge with a “business room”, so I went out and bought an 802.11n (the latest 2.0 draft standard) router at an electronics market – after some haggling, I got one, made by TP-Link, for $28 (plus a $2.50 credit card processing fee). Once programmed, I can run both the phone and my laptop over it, and I am able to make and receive calls to and from the United States for free. In fact, since I subscribe to the Skype Unlimited World deal that gives me unlimited calling to some 40 countries ($9.95 per month, but $75 if you pay a year ahead of time, which is superb value) both from the Skype software and from my cell- and home phones, I can even dial into the U.S. number Skype gave me for this service, and connect out from there. Calling American tollfree numbers, not normally possible from overseas, can be done too – your phone behaves entirely as if it is in the United States, no prefixes, operators, or anything else.
I am not suggesting you do this if you don't have the skillset; but if you travel a lot, are able to program a router and can use or open a T-Mobile cellular account, it is a great way of curbing the cost of overseas calls and roaming. The call quality is excellent; but as I said, that really requires you to play around with the router settings a bit. It is not bad for the kids, too – from home, or from their dorm room, they can spend hours on the phone with their friends without incurring any charges, and always using the same number. In the case of Beijing, China, if you aren't willing to spend some time figuring out a router whose customer interface is presented entirely in Chinese, don't go there. I guess (interestingly) that the manufacturers use this as a way to ensure cheaper parallel exports don't make it into other markets, where their products are generally more expensive – this router, the TP-LINK WR841N, typically retails for around $70 overseas. Do make sure you know how to enable good security on the router – hotels are hacker country, many traveling business types and IT people sit in their rooms, late at night, playing around on the Internet, and once you connect your laptop via Wifi, the hackers have several ways to get into your system – enabling Windows' firewall isn't going to protect you, you have to be able to do better than that. On the flipside, if you know how to program a router, and set it up restrictive, you have much better hacker protection than if you put your laptop directly on the hotel network. I am not kidding - I have carried a small router to hotels for years, and as you can get it to log network interaction, I can tell you I have sat in hotel rooms where there were dozens of hack attempts per hour. If the hackers run into a router (they're expecting a PC) they'll move on to the next sucker; most hotel guests do nothing to secure their network connection.
The UMA technology isn't widely used, it does require some doing on the user's part, but I noticed that Sony Ericsson is about to introduce a high end smartphone with all the bells and whistles, that supports UMA too. The Coffee Club restaurant I mentioned earlier provides free WiFi, and once the owner gave me his WEP key I had the phone working on his network in three seconds. If you do travel, and you like to avoid roaming charges, it is a very nice thing to have, especially since the phones aren't expensive – the network cares not where in the world you are, it just knows you are on the Internet, and that's all it takes. In my case, the new router was a good buy, as my routers at home are all still 802.11g, and the 802.11n router can run up to six times faster than the old standard allows.
I belatedly realize that one reason I am beginning to feel at home in Beijing is that I am a city kid, and this is a Real City. I've spent most of my life living and working in urban areas, from large to huge, like London and New York. Beijing is, to all intents and purposes, a modern, large, metropolis, and I recognize the cityscape as much as the urban population, which pretty much dresses the same, and behaves the same, as commuters, subway riders and city dwellers in London and NYC. The only thing that is different is that people keep offering me seats, on crowded trains – coming back from the hospital, the other day, a young woman saw I was carrying medication and a clinic appointment book, and got up to offer me her seat! And last night, two elderly ladies stopped a commuter from sitting down in a vacant seat next to them, and pulled me by my camera bag, motioning for me to sit down. As they got up at their destination, one of them turned around, and with a big smile, said “bye bye!” clearly all of the English she had.
Heartwarming stuff, that, and it follows very much that China is opening up. Opening up, because it wants to, and is ready. For younger people to respond to you is one thing, but the older, communist, generation... It is surprising and has made this place very welcoming, and very nice.
I did go overboard shopping – the little roll-on suitcase I brought from the States is now inside a huge suitcase I bought at Wal-Mart, earlier in the week, together with the things I bought, mostly gifts, always love doing that, bringing back gifts from far away for people who don't have the chance to go see for themselves. Prices are reasonable, but not as low as you'd expect, you're better off shopping in Chennai, Jakarta or the Philippines, this despite the U.S. Dollar going up, in recent weeks.
Last night, I said goodbye to friend A., and her visiting brother H., and as they are German we found a German restaurant and ate good solid German food. We are none of us used to these large amounts, though, and neither A. nor I were able to finish our meal. H. had no such problem, but then he is a triathlete, so needs his fuel. A. was the reason I was here, she was a bit in the doldrums, so I decided to come over and cheer her up a bit, and I think that worked, especially as I arrived just in time for her birthday. Then her brother's visit, he had never visited her abroad before, and she's been abroad in the US for much of the past decade, so that was truly a treat for her. Life consists of single mercies, and I can well imagine that being so far from home will occasionally get to you, even though she has learned to speak Mandarin. One thing, I think, one cannot become, is Chinese....
Yesterday was a brilliant, sundrenched, day – H. commented, when he saw me last night, that my tan had deepened even in the past couple of days, and it is true I've spent a lot of time walking, looking around this wonderful city, with so much to be seen. I expect I was especially lucky to be here just as the smog restrictions for the Olympics were in force, with some 35% of traffic banned, and the factories closed, some even relocated. It was easy to get around, and pollution wasn't really much worse than it is in Londen or New York, and much better than Chennai or Jakarta (though I understand that it is a lot worse without the restrictions.
Back at the airpoirt, I hadn't paid too much attention to the security when I arrived, but this day it was little short of massive, and the bag checks were thorough. Without thinking about it I had put two pouches of Chinese herbal medication in my backpack – security went spare. Then, of course, it was medication, so it was OK (that's why I never twigged - I am so used to carrying enough medication for a week in my carry-on, lest my checked luggage goes astray). My lighter was confiscated, though, I somehow hadn't thought anybody had emulated TSA, which has in the meantime abandoned its “no lighter” rule, and I don't recall security in Hong Kong had a problem with it.
Bejing Airport can only be described as cavernous, and it is well stocked with shops, restaurants, and all the other facilities a modern airpoirt needs to have. Medical emergency posts are liberally dotted around the airport, fully stocked with whatever a sick person might need – I snuck in one and can tell you it looked like a pharmacy. The duty free shops stock everything, from Davidoff cigars precious metals and jewellery, today there were dozens of returning Paralympians shopping as if there was no tomorrow. I had ended up with a $98 charge for overweight baggage, from the shopping I had already done in Beijing, so left it at that. A carton of Chinese cigarettes set me back 90 Yuan- a steal, you'll say, but the same carton, down the block from my hotel, cost only 45 Yuan.. $8.
As was the case on the way out, the movie system in my Air Canada Boeing 777 was malfunctioning – even after rebooting it, which takes some 40 minutes, entire rows of screens were not working, overhead lights were controlled by armrest buttons in other rows, so I can neither read nor watch a movie. But I have the entire row to myself, so maybe I'll catch some Z's, on this 12 hour flight. I made myself a reading light by sticking my Philips stalk webcam, which has an LED light built in, in the USB port in the seatback in front of me, so at least I can read. Yoho.
Phew. The 12 hour flight was followed by a 12 hour layover in Toronto. Not fancying a night in the Pearson International airport, I checked into the airport Sheraton, which would have been reasonable, at $159 per night, but the Canadian dollar is worth US$1.14 these days, so it wasn't. As my morning flight was due to take off at 6:12am, I really didn't get a lot of sleep, but then I'd had oodles of that on the plane from Beijing. And it was nice to be somewhere everybody spoke English, and banter with the barman. If one thing overrides, in Beijing, it is that nobody speaks English, and that includes all those who think they do – excepting coffee shop owner John, an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, who speaks fluent German as well, as he lived there much of his life. He'd actually had to learn to speak Mandarin, when he decided to move to Beijing, two years ago.
So, a day or two later, I am sitting here in the wee hours, the jet lag is ferocious. I've not been able to stay up a full day, taking naps late afternoon, when my body thinks it is 4am, and my brain stops functioning. The house is in fine fettle, although the lawn badly needs a trim, and my pre-holiday treatment of the pool worked, it is sparkly clean, all I need to do is vacuum, there have been some high winds, while I was in China, there are plenty of branches in my driveway, and lots of leaf in the pool. I had given the house a full clean, before I left, but of course, with half emptied suitcases all over the place, it is now a mess. No matter though – I've gone and got my mail, food and beverages, cranked up the A/C, turned the water pump and the hot water back on, and stored away my guns.
Car, keys and guns I leave at a friend's house, when I am traveling, he lives 15 minutes from Washington Dulles International airport, that way, should anything happen to me, somebody can get into the house. His number is on my MedicAlert. The guns? If there is one nightmare you do not want to have, it is that your guns get stolen in a burglary, and used in the commission of a crime. Try and prove it wasn't you... Arriving back on a Sunday morning, it took only a little over an hour to get home from there, as going from Dulles to Spotsylvania you basically avoid all the main Washington, D.C., peripheral highways.
I've taken the TP-LINK WiFi 802.11n router I bought in Beijing, and installed it in place of the U.S. Robotics 802.11g router I had in my home network, and it works a treat. It is clearly faster than the U.S. Robotics, even on 802.11g links, and it has (due to its MIMO antenna arrangement) more reach and a stronger signal, that'll be part of why it is faster. The induction cooker I bought at Wal-Mart in Beijing refuses to work, which I guess may be due to it not liking the 240 volt 60 cycle power supply I feed it on – it is designed for 220 volt 50 cycle AC, I guess it needs the frequency reference for the D.C. power it generates to drive the inductor.
The little Everex laptop I travel with is completely backed up to my server, and I brought up the desktop I use for stock trading in time to see the Dow drop a depressing 500 points. I am considering getting out of the market altogether, something I did during the last major financial meltdown, when I went into real estate. Let's wait out the week and see... But it is good to be home. What's next? Would you believe, laundry?
Doing that backup is really important – all the pictures I took during my stay in Beijing, my finances, this writing, are on the hard disk of my Everex laptop. Hard disks, I have found over the years, can fail without any form of warning. Granted, it does not happen very often – I think I have lost three hard disks altogether, in 25 years, and two of those were server disks, and perhaps three laptops due to total failure, but if it happens, it happens. Thanks to DL (double layer) DVDs I can now back up all my files while I travel – this trip. I went through one complete DL-DVD (8 gigabytes) and had started on a second. Don't use DL-DVDs if you don't have at least one other computer that supports those (most new laptops now come with the DL burner), or you won't be able to restore if your primary laptop goes South. Use a format that is supported by both your travel machine, and by its backup. Then, when I come home, I do my normal backup routine, I have a server with 1.5 terabytes of RAID disk space that I use for that purpose, and that server then backs itself up automatically, using compression, to another RAID device, with 0.5 terabytes of storage. Overkill? You don't want to be there when the storage medium on which you store all of your data fails, trust me.. During my last trip to London I blew up my entire laptop, sheer stupidity on my part, reversed the polarity on my power supply, but I was able to recover the data from its hard disk, using that backup setup. QED....
In Toronto, Canada, I encountered a situation that was new to me: United States Immigration and Customs officers are based there, so when you fly from Toronto to the U.S. you are cleared before you leave, and the flight is considered an internal one, you get to Dulles (or wherever) without having to clear as an international passenger. For Toronto, this has the advantage that flights to U.S. destinations that have no customs and immigration (airports that do not have “international” in their name) are possible. For passengers, it has the advantage that they don't have to go through another line at their destination.
I experienced this personally – friend D., whose house I had left my SUV at, arrived to pick me up at Dulles airports after I had already gotten a cab, and was halfway to his home (I had no idea he'd planned to come get me, if you're wondering why I left) Only a month or so ago, this wouldn't have happened, but with oil back down to $100 or so per barrel, burning a bit of extra fuel to get to Dulles half an hour early, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning with some Texas airports at lowered capacity does not now bother the airline, United Express, in this case. The small Embraer jet I was on doesn't use that much gas anyway.
So when I joined the line for customs and immigration, in Toronto, at 4am (my flight was due to leave at 6:12am) I expected the same kind of treatment I am used to getting at Dulles, these past two years – rude and obnoxious immigration officers, disinterested, overworked customs folks.
The customs officer outdid his colleagues at Dulles – he neither looked at me, nor at my customs form, accepted it hunched over his desk, slapped it on the stack of forms already there, mostly from Canadians with party hats, orange wigs and celebration balloons heading for Vegas on a special charter, and grunted while waving his hand in the general direction of the United States. I'd been “cleared”. I was sorry, at that point, that I had not brought a few of the Beijing 2008 Olympics special issue gold plaques. I had been sorely tempted, they were, at $3,800, about $400 above their gold value in weight (50 grams), but special issue, and available in China only. The idea of being stopped at customs with $10,000 worth of gold over and above one's importation limit did not appeal to me, so I had not bought them.
But the immigration guy, Officer Cortez, was a breath of fresh air. He was courteous, friendly, asked me if I had spent the night at the airport, commiserating with the hardship of a 12 hour layover, and after stamping my boarding pass wished me a pleasant day, even offered a “Welcome back!”. This is how I used to be treated, during most of my 23 years in the United States, both at JFK and Dulles, but it changed in early 2006, when the officers started being rude and unpleasant. The idea of paying these people's wages is really beginning to bother me, and as I have the option of returning my green card paying their wages is not something I necessarily need to do.
After this experience, I think I will write Secretary Chertoff. One thing that his department not now seems to understand is that a bit of friendly idle banter between the traveler and the immigration officer can be very significant in terms of identifying possible terrorists and criminals – people under stress, who are lying about their entry, commonly have a hard time with small talk. If the officer is rude to that person, they'll clam up – but so will everybody else, whether they have something to hide or not.
So, I had a really pleasant day, it is amazing how such a small encounter can positively change your mood, especially because I am so used to being treated rudely, that I had completely come to expect that. Thank you, officer Cortez! I don't know if it was because you were manning the aircrew desk, or for another reason, but you “have the right stuff”, as far as I am concerned. Our security stands and falls with the intelligence we gather, and through being rude and unpleasant, the only intelligence you can possibly receive is that the subject of your behaviour doesn't like you.
Pretty much back to the grindstone, I have a doctor's appointment, one I completely forgot about last week, I guess due to jet lag in China – I noticed a note in Outlook, but thought it was a reminder, not an appointment, and then when I called I was just outside doctor call time.
Day four since my return, I managed yesterday not to fall asleep at 4pm, but go to bed at a reasonably normal time, 11pm, though that is a lot earlier than I normally turn in – and I am writing this at 5am, wide awake. I've sorted out the shopping I brought back – curiously, apart from a new suitcase, I bought some of the nicest memorabilia, $4.95 Chinese lidded earthenware tea mugs, at... the Wal-Mart Supercenter Beijing Jianguo Road Branch, a block or two from the Dawanglu Line 1 subway station, in the basement of Wanda Plaza, 93 Jianguo Road, in Chaoyang - I planned these as gifts, but they're so pretty I've put them on a cabinet as decoration..). Some nice rearview mirror pendants with a see-through picture of Chairman Mao I found there, as well. If you do visit China, and you're looking for things you need, Wal-Mart labels at least its aisles in both Chinese and English, and the supervisors go out of their way to help you in English – don't expect any other staff in Wal-Mart, or indeed most anybody in Beijing, to speak understandable English. The nicest gift of all is the tea I found at the Beijing Wuyutai tea shop, packaged in a special gift box, containing a porcelain jar with the most expensive tea I have ever bought, at $110 for probably 30 grams of tea.
The Chinese have been drinking tea for a lot longer than anybody else, including the Indians and British, and there is a definite tea culture – there were teas in that shop that cost a staggering $3,000 per gram. I have been drinking green tea with Japanese and Chinese food for many years, but the absolute best I had with the Peking duck at the Beijing restaurant A. took us to. It is infused at the table, very light in colour, and it improves in taste as it is re-infused as it is consumed.
I had been asking myself for a while why I am so completely besotted with South East Asia, why I am vacillating between looking for a teaching position in Hong Kong, a job in Beijing, or simply staying here in Virginia, and perhaps teaching at a local community college. Then, yesterday, I turned on Showtime, which is running a “free preview” channel on DirecTV. They're broadcasting a series made for the channel, with X-files' David Duchovny in the lead, named “Californication” it revolves around an out-of-sorts writer on The Other Coast. It is very well written and acted, as it turns out, and the various scenarios, the up-and-down relationship with the ex-wife, the girlfriends and passing sex adventures, the agent (read: boss) with good ideas, the have-to-attend events, all ring bells with me. Duchovny is very believable, much more so than ever in the X-files, I think, it isn't a series I ever watched. But this, I am glued to the box. Not enough to take a subscription, I don't watch a lot of movies, except on airplanes, but if it makes it to another cable channel I'll probably tape it.
As I am on the phone with another pop-up girlfriend – must be the season, girls I haven't heard from in ages seem to be remembering my existence – it suddenly comes to me. All this jobs/teaching/travel stuff is simply my yearning to get back in the rat race! I miss it!
The mind boggles – yes, this rat race where you are forever worrying about whether you'll still have a job next week, whether your current project is still going to be funded next quarter, whether this colleague is finally going to manage to take over the work you've been doing, something she has been trying for a year, this rat race in which the only peace you ever have is in the back of a limousine, the soon-to-be ex wife trying to blackmail you into staying, knowing full well that she is not having your kids, ever, why bother – that rat race, the one that lets you sleep like a baby, but only four hours a night, and keeps you in luxury clothing you never wear, because in the lab it's always dress down day.