Beijing

I spent 5 days in Beijing, at the start of November. Most of this was for business purposes; but I did have evenings plus a full day of paid time off. What follows is a brief trip report. No pictures, just Wikipedia or Flickr links - most of my pictures didn’t really turn out so well, and most of my time was spent gawking and walking.

Getting there: In this case, I opted to use the hotel’s car service. They met me at the gate, and escorted me through the quarantine check. At this point they take a survey card that says what flight I was on, where I was sitting, and what symptoms I may have recently been exposed to. They check your temperature via thermal camera, and make a decision whether to quarantine you or not. After passing this, was the immigration and passport stamp; and customs. The hotel rep helped me with my packages as well as currency exchange; then took me downstairs where a private car was waiting. Total cost for the service, including the ride to the hotel: 580元, or about \$90 American.

Staying there: I stayed at the Shangi-La, Kerry Centre. This hotel is in the Central Business District of Beijing, near the CCTV studio building. On arrival, I was met as I walked through the front door by name, and escorted directly to my room to sign the paperwork. Classy. They also came to freshen the room several times a day (including replacing the fresh fruit that was kept stocked, and the bottled water). If you’re going to nap, it is well advised to find the button next to the light switch that indicates “do not disturb” (lights red when pushed).

Places I saw:

Tiananmen Square; at least, the north end of it. I did not explore the square so much; but instead viewed it from the Tiananmen gate area. The square is absolutely huge. In front of the gate, being a whitey tourist, I was a magnet for quite a few pairs of Chinese girls who would approach asking if I spoke English. The word “yes”, to the Chinese, means “Sucker”, at least in this area. The standard MO is to have a small conversation with you, then encourage you to have dinner or tea with them in some overpriced place. They’ll expect you to then pay for it. The worst part is, that they all follow the same script.. it gets old. To the point where you may have someone legitimately just want a chance to converse, but you’re rude and just say “no”.

To the north, is the Forbidden City. I did take up the services of one of the people offering tour services. (100元, or about \$15, to be paid if I was happy with her services, at the end). After the Forbidden City, we also visited (again, north) Jingshan Park. This is an artificial hill made from the dirt that was excavated from the moat around the Forbidden City. This was turned into a park, with a temple at the top that gives quite a great view of the surrounding areas.

At the end of this day, I ended taking a motorized rickshaw back to the hotel. A few things that I’ll caution you about here. One, they don’t use meters. Two, the price the driver and I agreed on, was effectively null once they changed drivers. And, you can’t argue with taxies or drivers in Beijing - they effectively always win against tourists. So, I got taken for 300元 (\$46) instead of 30元. (Compare this with a *metered* taxi, that runs about 20元, or about \$3.50). Three, these bastards have strange ideas when it comes to traffic rules and simple laws of physics. (see “getting around”, further down). In hindsight, I’d rather have the protection of a real car than the rickshaw should anything happen.

On a different day, on the prowl for food after the conference I was at, I found.. an Outback steakhouse. Walking distance from the Forbidden City, located inside the Beijing Hotel(main entrance: go up a flight of stairs, then veer right). The menu was a subset of a full Outback but was quite suitable; the decor, standard Outback. So were the prices, no Beijing discount for eating here. But was it worth it? Hell yes.

Wangfujing is the Times Square of Beijing. Not much traditional here. You’ll see lots of name brands that you’ll recognize here. Very much a Western outdoor shopping mall. About the only thing really to notice here is that at 10p at night, the place was packed. One of the stores had what looked like a pickup by armored vehicle service (and it took *two* of them to pick up everything). The folks guarding wore fatigues (similar in square patterning to our American modern ones, but in jungle colors instead of city colors). Lots of shotguns and automatic rifles (as compared to the American services that just carry pistols).

Through the large paifang in the Wangfujing, you’ll find what looks like an alley leading into the Donghuamen Night Market. This place looks like it is out of Hollywood. Packed with people, both buying and selling. For 3元 you can get most any critter on stick, freshly deep-fried if you wish. Critters range from lamb meat or beaf meat, to crickets and scorpions, to sheep penis. I even found starfish on sticks. Other touristy crap was for sale here as well, not just food. Here, I will note, that culturally it seems “ok” for vendors and other types of solicitors to tug/hold your sleeve or arm to get/keep your attention. If you’re claustrophobic and/or don’t like people grabbing you, stay away from here. If you can stomach the conditions, however, it is worth a trip through this area; quite a sight to see. While my pictures didn’t really turn out, you might instead browse what people have boosted to flickr - skimming through these, they really are fairly indicative of the wares sold.

Back to the Wangfujing, I approached the taxis that were idle. They wanted to pre-negotiate a price for the ride back to hotel; and wanted 70元 (whereas by meter it would have been 20元). I declined. They asked what I would pay; however, since it wasn’t metered, and I’m at this point pretty wary of anything negotiated, I decided to walk up to the metro.

Getting around..

Taxis: insist on using a meter. Dirt cheap, and if you carry a GPS, you won’t get scammed (much). If they start trying to rack up the distance, just remind them where you’re going, in case they didn’t “understand”, and they’ll correct. Negotiating a price beforehand is bad; any argument at the end of the ride you have with them, they will win when it comes to the local constabulary.

Subway: Cheap - 2元 (or \$0.30). However, don’t expect any helpful maps inside the station. Get a map before hand that shows station names, so that you know which direction you want to go. Also, even at 10p, the subway was packed - this is not an option for the claustrophobic. However, if you’re able to deal, the price is right. Just count the number of stops. Also, the names of stations (in roman characters) is quite easy to see from inside the train.

Walking: Doable. Not quite as walkable as other cities I’ve been to. Additionally, street crossings are very dangerous. In Beijing, these are the things I personally have had to deal with. Cars will drive down the left side of the road if it suits them. They don’t fully pay attention to red lights or green lights. Bike lanes are great for cars, as it turns out, since bike lanes are so big… Laws of physics, not man, apply here: Pedestrians get the hell out of the way of any vehicle that’s running a red, or making a turn through a pedestrian crossing. Ever play “Frogger”? Good, that will help you get prepared. Also, watch out for cars traveling on sidewalks - parking is done on the sidewalks.

Additional problems with walking: Being targeted for various scams (“see our art show”, “lets practice english; lets have tea/dinner to warm up”) in the more touristy areas. Remember, when asked “Do you speak english?” the proper answer is “Parlez vous francais?” or “Habla espanol?”. And if saying “No” a few times doesn’t work, “boo shuh” (“no”) should work. Lastly, while walking in the Central Business District 10 minutes to dinner, I had 5 different people stop me to either solicit “girly bars” or gals directly. This was only a problem on Friday night; not the other weeknights I was there.

Food: Suprisingly, lots of Chinese food around! Alas, I’m a terribly picky eater. (Most green vegetables to me are extremely bitter, like the taste of bleach). And I’m not an adventurous eater. And, I don’t speak a lick of Chinese. So, I avoided the local cuisine entirely here (I’ll eat Chinese back in America, where I can clearly read a menu and special order dishes in a way I can eat them). Within 10 minutes of the hotel (in the CBD), I found several Western style places to eat. I found a BBQ place (the meat was texas BBQ; the accompanying stuff was local). I found a Mexican place (could not do that in Paris!). I found a french bakery. McDonalds and Subway were easy to find (and they had picture menus to order from - can’t special order that way, but.. it is good enough to be useful). KFC’s are highly revered here; they have some of the normal KFC stuff plus plenty of local dishes as well. Lastly, I found a Pizza Hut, which is apparently catering to the upper middle class here. Fine dining. One thing to note here: You order, you pay, you get serviced. Tips are discouraged in China; so there’s no reason for them to wait on giving you the bill till the end.

Getting back to the airport was uneventful. The hotel staff warned me that traffic is worse on weekends (since the driving restrictions are not in effect; anyone with any license plate can drive if they have a car). Therefore they warned that the 20 minute trip to the airport might be 2 hours. In my case, it was 20 minutes.. so I got to the airport nearly 5 hours before my flight was due out. Checkin opened 3 hours before boarding time; that’s when I (again) found the hassle that having a code-share eticket can be. They could not find me in the system; and had me go to the ticket counter. They eventually found it, and sent me back to checkin (where they *again*, despite a printout fro the ticket counter, could not find me). Eventually with enough people they figure it out, and I’m on my way.

Next stop: San Francisco, and drive back home. Yay!

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