Monday, June 2, 2008

The Olympics in Beijing: A Travel Guide

Having traveled throughout China, including Beijing, on numerous occasions there is much a prospective foreign visitor should anticipate. Since I have navigated these areas, who better to tell you what you will see?

I should start off by confessing, up front, that Beijing is probably my least favorite city in China. It may be the capital of the PRC, but that is only because of history. The city itself is hardly an attractive sight, particularly when compared to Shanghai or even the character of cities in the industrial northeast like Changchun. Still, even in Beijing, there are nice places to visit and it is after all the host of the Olympics. From what I have heard the city looks much better this year than it has in many a generation.

Where To Go

Obviously, Tiananmen Square should be the first destination of any foreign traveler in Beijing. It is the largest open air place of any city in the world. And yes, it may be the sight of the massacre of 1989, but what most people do not realize is that there were other incidents in the exact area, including in 1976 (after the death of Zhou Enlai), and later following the death of Chairman Mao in the same year. So, the average Chinese will not understand if you begin asking about the Tiananmen Square incident. They are likely to ask, which one? For your own safety, it is probably best not to reenact the '89 incident, as the area is populated with extensive security (after all, it is the capital, located right in the area of the Forbidden City, as well as the National People's Congress building, and Chairman Mao's tomb).

The next destination should be the Great Wall. The Great Wall is not that far of a drive--approximately 90 minutes from Beijing, depending on traffic and which part of the Wall you go to. Plan your trip ahead of time, get a driver, or rent a bus (they are still not that expensive), and get there as early as possible. In the summer, it gets hot and humid early. And of course, you must trek up the Wall. It took me three hours to walk up a mile, receiving my plaque near the top pagoda, recognizing my accomplishment, but it is not easy. As wonderful of an architectural achievement as the Great Wall is, for its time, it is also inverted and the steps uneven, so be prepared for a walk--that is, unless you want to chicken out and travel the parts that have a lift. I personally do not advise the lifts. Go up the stairs. You will run into many tourists from throughout the world, get a chance to meet many different people, even some PLA soldiers, who are always a fun group to talk to.

Beijing Cab Drivers

When you are traveling Beijing, you must be aware of the pitfalls. First and foremost, look out for the cab drivers. I do not believe I have ever met a greater collection of thieves and swindlers as the cab drivers of Beijing. Seriously. The ones in Spain and the Philippines are humanitarians by comparison. I do not know why, because in most of the cities of China the cab drivers are not as terrible as the ones there. Indeed, in most all of the other cities of the PRC cab drivers tend to be honest people. From what I gather, locals in Beijing perceive themselves as the toll booth of China, especially when they see foreigners, and begin charging "special" rates that are far and above what you would see for any national. The cab drivers are the first shysters you will meet in this city. At the airport, they are waiting for you, like an animal hunting prey, and they like to advertise their "services." Do not take it. If anyone walks up to you, it is safe to assume that the person sees you as their revenue enhancement. Just say no or "Biàntài! Zõukāi!" forcefully a couple of times. It has to be curtly enunciated when you are dealing with rip off artists like this. Otherwise, they will literally pick up your luggage, put it in their trunks, and drive you off to your destination without telling you until the end of the ride that you owe them200 yuan (probably even more for the Olympics). The average cab ride should not cost that much (I almost never spent more than 50 yuan in the longer rides in Beijing, and the last time I visited Beijing was in the summer of 2006 [by the way, it is currently a 7 to 1 RMB to US dollar exchange rate]).

When you are in a Beijing cab, to keep things honest, one of the members of your party should sit up front with the driver, and make sure he (and it is almost always a he) pushes down the meter lever to begin the charge. If they wait too long, you are likely going to be stuck in one of those 200 yuan drives. Also, when you are paying, make sure to double check the meter, and that they give you back the correct change before leaving them a tip. Many cabbies in Beijing like to figure the tip in the change. Never let them round off the charge. I ran into a cabbie two summers ago in Beijing who thought it would be cute to take my 50 yuan trip to the airport and charge me 100 yuan without change (not thinking that I would double check the meter). I was so enraged that I violated face-saving protocol by using some choice words in Mandarin that I cannot repeat. It is one of the few times in my adult life I really lost my temper at another person, but it upset me to see someone so blatant in their criminality. My attitude about the cab drivers in that city was shaped by that event, and the saddest part is he was not the first cab driver I encountered in Beijing who would try this (he was just the greediest in overcharging me by 200% for my ride).

Street Merchants and Local Beijing Stores

I would like to tell you that this will be your only encounter with bandits in Beijing, but unfortunately it will not. If you are walking the city, and you should (driving in Chinese cities is never advisable, unless someone else is doing the driving and are the ones responsible for parking the vehicle), you will run into numerous street merchants. Not all of these people are as bad as you may think. Most of them are just working people, trying to get by, and they sometimes have useful things to sell (I bought an original English translation 1966 edition of Mao's Little Red Book [a find you are not likely to see in any US bookstore], as well as a 1950s era Stalin liquor flask [which after some polishing makes for a nice office conversation piece, scaring the living hell out of my neo-liberal Russian colleagues who think Vladimir Putin is the next Uncle Joe]).

However, some rules remain the same with the Beijing street merchants. Only deal with one seller at a time. If you see several of these people approaching you, walk on by. Do not pay them any attention, as the slightest recognition will in their minds trigger a reason to give you a greater sales pitch in broken English. If you run into one of these people, whatever else you do, do not buy anything electronic, alcoholic, tobacco products, or anything that requires assembly. Most of the electronic trinkets they sell are remakes and the booze and tobacco is, for the most part, fake. You will be most disappointed to discover after lighting up what you think is a Gitanes, but turns out to be a bad-tasting herbal supplement.

In addition, when you are buying from locals in China, particularly the street merchants (who are not licensed and only tolerated by the government), they usually expect you to haggle. This is not a common practice in the US, unless you are buying a house or car, but in most Third World cultures it is the norm. When haggling, start off with about half the offered price and negotiate yourself upwards. It is a long held custom for many in this part of the world, and some of them actually enjoy the interplay with Westerners, in which you are reduced to communicating by punching numbers on a calculator, but it gets old really quick. It is no fun haggling for every single piece of fake clothing article that you shop for, but sometimes these are the sacrifices you have to make. You must always understand that you are dealing with them on their terms, not your own.

If you are in need of anything electronic, like special camera batteries, memory cards, etc., do not go to any of the local stores. Even the licensed ones will periodically cheat you by selling fake batteries and memory cards (I have seen this twice in Beijing and was almost a victim of this once myself). In fact, if you want to be completely safe, go into a mall or a Western store to purchase your electronic or digital equipment. Yes, it will cost you a lot more, but it will be legitimate and not die on you after taking a few pictures. And good luck on the return policies of those local stores that cheat their customers. Once you buy it, it is yours. A friend of mine was almost ripped off a couple of years ago (the local store attempted to sell him junk memory cards for his camera), and tried to force him to buy it after he found out it was fake (he had picked up the memory card and tested it in his camera, to see if it was real, without buying it). I kid you not--the store owner started yelling at my friend for not buying it, even though the store owner knew that my friend knew, by that point, that the memory was fake. I have never seen anything like it, and it ranks as one of my least friendly encounters in Beijing (next to the cab drivers and the local bars trying to overcharge me for my drinks).

Also, at night, look out for the children. They are a greater menace than their adult comrades who put them up to their nefarious acts. I cannot count the number of times I ran into this, for some adults, desperate for money, to put their children, particularly if they are female, in impoverished-looking outfits, replete with flowers, which they try to pass out to you. Do not go near these kids. They are trained, and I have seen this on numerous occasions in several different cities throughout China, including Beijing, to use the one hand to give you the flower, while taking their other hand to sneak it into your pocket while you are distracted by the flower they are apparently giving to you (thereby using your pockets as their withdrawal). Some of them have even been trained to start crying if you refuse the flower or catch them in the act of trying to steal, which for me is the saddest and most upsetting aspect in this charade. If there is a hell, there is a special place for parents who do something like this to their children.

The thing that amazed me about the rip off artists in Beijing, whether it be the crooked merchants, the cab drivers, or the little children being put up to steal from people by their wretched parents, they are universally incredulous about their criminal activity. Because they primarily behave this way with foreigners, and not locals, the police and local government tolerates their behavior. It is unspoken for the most part in public (since it is the capital city and criticizing locals is not deemed polite), but in private conversations with other foreigners you will hear some awful stories of mistreatment at certain establishments and places of business in Beijing.

Eating and Drinking in Beijing

If you try to experience the restaurants and many places in Beijing to eat, and eateries hold a special place in Asian culture (they are like sanctuaries), you are advised to travel with a local who knows the language. If you walk into one of these places in Beijing, you will immediately experience the "special" rates people in this city are known for charging foreigners. What this means is that you will pay approximately 50-100% more for drinks and food, compared to locals. If you are with a local, they will make sure that you do not get ripped off.

And when eating in Beijing, for that matter anywhere in China or Asia, use chopsticks. They will provide Western utensils, if you so desire, but you will gain the likeness of locals by eating their food with their utensils. It shows respect, and that goes for the little phrases, like thank you ('xiexie' [which literally sounds like 'zhe zhe']), hello ('ninhao'), and basic introductions like hi, my name is Anthony ('Ninhao. Wo jiao Anton'). It shows to them that you are trying to deal with them and their society on their terms, and Asia is a face-saving culture predicated on hospitality. When you show them that respect, it is greatly appreciated and returned in kind.

Drinking is also something that is highly valued in China. The one thing I do love about Beijing, and the only reason I would ever go back, is the local brew. It is called Yanjing beer. If you are in Beijing, make sure to ask for it. Most local bars will have it, and it is to me some of the best-tasting beer I have ever consumed, and I have consumed a lot of beer in my lifetime. The PRC does have a national brew, known as Tsingtao beer, but it is like the Old Milwaukee’s Best of the PRC. Cheap and awful. If you get the chance, you need to drink Yanjing. Yes, it is a little sweet, which is off putting to some, but you will thoroughly enjoy the taste after drinking three or four or five of them in one sitting.

You will be happy to learn, if you love alcohol, that there is a lot of booze in China, and like Germany the locals have their own brew for each city (not surprisingly, many of these brewery companies, mostly state-owned, were started up by the Germans or with German assistance). Yanjing beer to me is the best in the PRC, but Harbin beer, if you ever travel north, is also a good brew. Many of these beers, from what I have read, contain rice and rye, and until recently formaldehyde. Well, that brings back the memories, back to the good ole days when my K-12 schools were loaded with asbestos. I suppose now is as good of a time as any to pass along the caveat that if you are looking for safety, China is probably not your country of choice.

Prostitution

What can be said about Chinese prostitutes? I am not a fan of prostitution, as a Westerner reared in the feminist tradition, but China is not the West. In the East, there is a history of tolerance of prostitution. Moreover, prostitutes in China, from observing the ones who harassed me, are usually young adult females looking for extra money to get them through school. Very few are drug addicts and runaways, as they are in the US. And it is tolerated by the government, even though it is supposed to be illegal. In fact, throughout the coastal cities you will see barber shop signs advertising hair care and 'massages.' When you see 19 year old, half naked females as the barbers, the shops open until 2 am, and the twin barber poles in front of the establishment, well, let us say, that is a barber shop you want to stay away from.

The street prostitutes can be a nuisance. Again, the local police allow their existence because they typically target Western tourists, who are seen as fair game by the hookers and cops. Remember, if you are a Westerner, when in China, you must understand that many people look at you as a money-making opportunity. Westerners tend to have more money than locals. They know this and want your business. The ladies of the night can be aggressive. Sometimes, they hang out by restaurants, clubs, and bars. They have interesting propositions, such as, "Hey, do you like to party?" "Hi, I am a young student and I need your help." "Would you like to help a Chinese student?" "Hey, do you like me?" Their English is actually not that bad. I assume the practice has come from past interaction with Western businessmen who are their primary clients.

I do not advocate trash talking hookers, as I actually feel sorry for many of these young ladies, and one of the most poignant and miserable scenes I have ever witnessed in China was at a Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing a few years ago. I made the mistake of going into this pit (as I avoid these places back in the US), and I watched teenage prostitute after teenage prostitute dancing on the floor with middle-aged white men from the US (obviously, foreign workers taking advantage of their off hours and time away from the misses back in America by renting the services of these 18-19 year old youngsters for their sexual pleasure). The sight of these men (truly the definition of ugly Americans) made me wish the Boxers back to life to throw these devils into the sea.

Still, for the morally less encroached men, I should forewarn, HIV and STDs are on the rise in China, almost an epidemic in some coastal cities, because of prostitution and a general lack of sexual education. I have read quite a few stories of Western businessmen bringing these little gifts that keep on giving back home to their wives, ending in nasty divorce cases, so this is not a venture I would advise one to partake in. If you just walk by and ignore them, after awhile they will leave you alone.

And please, do not take out your Mandarin translation book and try tricking these ladies by telling them that you are hitting for the other team. A male colleague of mine tried this once on a lady of the night a few years ago in Shanghai, informing her that he had no need for her services because of his predilection for members of the male persuasion (a lie he attempted to use to get the ladies to leave him alone), to which the proposing lady responded, “Oh, that is no problem. We have someone for you.” I swear, at that moment, a young male materialized out of the middle of nowhere, seemingly a corner, a crack in the wall, who knows, but he was obviously hitting for my colleague’s team (or make pretend team), informing him of his attraction, and naturally his need for funds. My poor colleague, immediately realizing the gravity of the situation, turned and ran from the scene, leaving members of the remaining party (that is, those of us not already rolling on the ground in laughter) to explain to the confused local that he was too shy and already in a relationship with someone back at home.

The moral of the story is that the prostitutes are probably the most innovative-minded people you will ever run into in China. Stay away from them, avoid smart talk (which almost ended in disaster for my colleague), and your time in this country will go well. Otherwise, well, they call them clinics and divorce courts for the reason.

Smokers and Pollution

China is moving towards outlawing smoking in all public places. They have already implemented this in Hong Kong last year, much to the chagrin of local bars, who are taking a financial hit, but in the rest of the PRC it is a little different. Local ordinances and laws have been passed banning it, but it is not strictly enforced. It sometimes shocks Americans to still see people smoking in public places, but get over it. Only a couple of decades ago, people in the US were still smoking on planes, and my mother smoked in her hospital bed after giving birth. The biggest smoke problem is not from cigarettes anyway. It is from the pollution in Beijing, and it is demonstrably bad.

In my experience, the pollution is worse in China than in any country I have ever traveled, and it is much, much worse than Los Angeles. How bad? Well, I now have chronic bronchitis because of the pollution in China, which started from my last trip, turning into walking pneumonia (there is nothing like teaching a full course load with walking pneumonia for over eight weeks), and ultimately forced me to give up smoking cigars. I do not blame anyone. Such is the randomness of life. As aforementioned, if you are looking for safety, China is not the country for you. Personally, I am waiting for the first Olympic runner to keel over from the pollution.

And speaking of cigars, yes, they have Cuban cigars in China, all throughout the country, actually, and they do not taste any better than the American cigars, so with apologies to the Cuban government its popularity to some Americans is based on it being a forbidden fruit because some relics of the Cold War in south Florida continue to support the maintenance of an outdated embargo on Cuba, while trading with countries like the PRC. Also, it is a violation of federal law to sneak Cubans back into the US (leading to a hefty fine, if I recall). However, if you put the wrapper bands of other cigar brands on them there is not a customs agent in the world who will know any better (certainly not the TSA dolts who ‘work’ the airports in the US).

Well, I could go on further, and I may do so at a later date, but I work for a living, so I have to go. I will have a second part to this travel guide, going over travel in other cities and places in China, which to me are much more interesting and make the country the fascinating place that it is.

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