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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Arrival in Beijing

It was dark by the time I pulled in at Beijing Station. What a madhouse that place is! Image a tin of sardines, then take away the oil, turn the sardines into people, multiply them by 4,785 and add a string of fairy lights - then you've got Beijing Station.

station 14-Beijing104

I'd been given the address of a very kind friend of John John and the Nakamuras', Ku-san, who's working in Beijing for Sony's gaming arm. Selling computer games in China isn't all that easy - something to do with the fact that gaming is illegal here.

That's one thing I wanted to find out during my time here - does the communist government control really impact upon one's daily life? It seems the answer is yes and no, although more the latter. Ok, so one is not allowed to have prostitutes in one's hotel room (darn!) or carry guns, explosives or knives onto the subway (I'm afraid I broke that law due to the presence of a swiss army knife in my rucksack), but other than that, it seems pretty free. The main restrictions appear to be on entertainment, although this too is gradually being relaxed with more and more late night bars opening and so forth.

To be honest, I'd say that China is a lot freer than the country I have just come from. This struck me pretty forcefully on the train today - it was a 6 hour trip on a local service to Datong from where I now type. There were 12 of us in this little section of the carriage. We were made up of 5 completely separate groups, that is we'd never met before, yet within 15 mins following our departure, we were all getting along as if we were going on a big family outing together. I'll leave that tale here for now; I just want to compare that to a trip on a train in Japan, or even to a certain extent the UK, where people would never usually end up swapping seats around all the time to ensure that everyone had a chance to talk to everyone else, peeling fruit for each other and taking the piss out of each other's unwillingness to talk. Whilst living in a (Japanese) society where everyone keeps themselves to themselves can make for an easy life, it also makes it a lot more dull!

Japan is great at cultural borrowing - let's hope it considers borrowing a looser straight jacket in the years to come.

Anyhow, so there I am standing outside Beijing station on Saturday night, surrounded by revelers young and old who look like they're camping out for a live gig in front of the ticket office (never figured that one out), wondering where to get a taxi from. Yes, there is a taxi rank, but have you seen the length of the queue? There's also the hawkers - "Hello taxi?" - charging at least double the meter rate. I consider taking one of them, as double the meter rate is not exactly a lot of money. The minimum fare is 10 yuen - that's about 70p / US$1.40, and that will get you a long way. Mind you, if you have a destination reachable by subway that'll cost you even less - 3 yuen / 21p / 42 cents, choose the bus and you'll have to fork out all of 1 yuen / 7p / 14 cents / 15 JPY. This kind of pricing extends to other stuff too. Half a litre of mineral water? 2 yuen / 14p / 28 cents. When I bought an ice lolly the other day I was determined to not pay foreigner rates (some naughty shops do secretly have them) and thus only handed over two 1 yuen notes (I guessed that was the standard price) - 1 yuen notes being the smallest notes in circulation, or so I thought until I was handed a 50 cents note (that's 3.5p / 7 US cents) as change! 10p for an ice lolly! Felt just like the good old days!

Mind you, that gulf between rich and poor of which I spoke the other day is only too visible in shop prices too. Go to a Western coffee shop here and a latte will cost you the same as 8 litres of water on the street. In order to be able to give the illegal taxi driver in exact change what I intended to pay to get home on Sunday (25yuen / £3.50) I thought I'd go and change my 100yuen note, and so bought a cold drink in some chain cafe. Walking out, I realised that I had just paid 30 yuen to break the note - that is, I'd paid more for the drink than the journey itself was going to cost! It was my subconscious association between 'taxi' and 'costs-a-lot-of-money' that led me to make that mistake. The differing areas of Beijing cater for very different tastes; the tiny alleyways to the north of the Forbidden City are something straight out of a film set in the 1940s - they don't even have toilets - but take a cab 10 minutes South East and you'll find yourself in a department store that looks no different from Mitsukoshi (a high class chain in Japan). Naturally, almost all cities have these kinds of contrasts, but until now I've not seen them taken to such an extreme.

Incidentally, prices are on the rise in Beijing due to the Olympics. Hotel rates will rise to 3 or 4 times the norm. Landlords are only offering the locals short-term renewal contracts, as they intend to rent their apartments out at astronomical prices next summer to loaded foreigners. The Beijing of the Olympics will be a pretty different place from the beijing of today.

One of the many hundreds of 'Hutong' - little alleyways, home to a quarter of Beijing's residents
beijing hutong 50

Anyhow, back at the station I eventually managed to locate a second taxi rank a little further down the road, and after a few failed attempts at being accepted as a fare (they said they didn't know the place I wanted to go to, even though I'd written it in Chinese), settled into the front seat of a cab, and off we went.

Crikey oh riley, what a journey! You know those computer racing games that are set on busy roads? Well, this was one of them, only real. The driver was a complete maniac (although as I was to find out, you have to be a maniac rally to survive on the road in Beijing). There seems to be no set system for the use of lanes; the fast lane is the slow lane and the slow lane the fast lane, all depending on the mood of the driver. This results in the most crazy weaving in and out of traffic at high speed you've ever seen! Amber traffic lights are the sign to speed up, and the horn is only to be not used when there's no-one around to hear it, which in Beijing equates to never. The number of cyclists and pedicabs (converted motorbikes like the one shown below) is pretty impressive too - as is the relative lack of accidents at night considering the complete lack of bicycle lights in the city.

Mum, don't ever hire a car in Beijing. If Hereford traffic stresses you out, well, just best not to come here. Or of you do, ask to be blindfolded before stepping into a vehicle.

3 wheeler 03

In a bid to stave off the heart attack, I decided to admire the scenery, like the huge great 1980s neon rainbow that loops over one of the cities main thoroughfares. Beijing, like the rest of the China that I've seen so far, is under construction. Everywhere you look a skyscraper is rising. The architecture is often spectacular, with some buildings (such as the State-run China TV building, known as the 'trouser legs' as it will look like a pair of trousers when completed) defying gravity with crazy angles and illusive supports. Then there's the Olympic venues. I've not been to the main site, but I have seen several sub-sites. Will they get it all done in time? Probably. The thing that I'm more intrigued by is how they are going to enable Olympic visitors to communicate with the taxi drivers - not one of the many I've met over the past few days has spoken a word of English. Then there's public manners: the not waiting for people to get off the subway before forcing ones way on, the spitting, the refusing to walk on an escalator even if in a hurry (preventing others from walking), the not-quite-getting the queue thing. They do queue, but when the bus turns up or the shop opens, it becomes one big mosh pit.

The thing is though, I'm actually quite liking this. It makes such a change from hum-drum conformity. Here people are pouring their energy into doing their thing, and not caring what other people think (or which lane they're in!). I'm actually finding the staring and random shouts of 'Harro!' from across the street quite amusing now, and always shout back or wave wildly. I'd be interested to talk to my fellow School of East Asian Studies students on their return from China - what did they make of this treatment, and how do they feel after a year of it (somewhat neglected once back in the north of England I should think!).

After 20 minutes or so we arrive at Ku san's apartment - a fairly new development of 30-storey skyscrapers encircling a big lawn on which dog owners tie their poodles to trees and command them to poo. The place is immaculately clean, and the black-capped staff, both at the outer gate and inner the reception are very friendly. I present Ku san's address, and one of the boys dials him up on the intercom. I'm told to come on up, and led through a security door to the elevator, both of which require an IC card to operate.

Ku san and his family greet me - I recognise his face from John John's photos - and warmly welcome me into their 19th floor apartment. Talk about Wow! This place was lovely, beating any high-class hotel any day. I was given the futon in the guest room; boy was it good to be back on the floor! After bringing one another up to speed on how we'd met JJ etc, it was bedtime. It had been a mightily long day, and I was well and truly knacked!

The children were not convinced by mum and dad's 'fun' idea to get dressed up in national costume...
traditional chinese costume 06

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