Empire of the Dragon

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Monday, August 14, 2006

Second Pit Stop: BEIJING, CHINA (Country Name in Local Language:Zhonggu
Local Time: 6 PM, Mon
US Central Daylight Saving Time: 5 AM, Mon

After bidding adieu to my Japanese friends in Osaka, my ANA (All Nippon Airways)flight landed in China's capital shortly around midday on Sunday, Aug 13, 2006. On board, the young Japanese flight attendants were all fluent in Japanese, English, and Mandarin. Some were even conversant in other European and Asian-based languages like French and Korean. I was very impressed with the stellar service offered on Japan's #2 airline. A lot of details were paid to passengers' comfort.

My first glimpse of Beijing from the air was of monotonous cookie-cutter apartment buildings. The design was very typical of banausic residential buildings behind the Iron Curtain. As we touched down at Beijing's Capital City Airport, the flight attendants warned us that airport procedures had recently gotten tighter due to the recent arrest of potential terrorists in the UK. Because the ripple effect from this incident was vividly palpable in Asia, we were told that inspection was going to be laboriously meticulous in and out of Beijing. Indeed, the world was getting smaller and no country, regardless of geopolitical doctrine, was immune to the the malicious causes of Al Qaeda.

BEIJING, CHINA

Beijing was declared a capital city for the first time by King Wu in 1057 BC and had subsequently undergone many appellation changes like Ji, Zhongdu, and Dadu. However, it was not until 1421 AD that the capital city adopted the current name of Beijing under the Ming Dynasty. With a population of 12 million people and an average monthly income of US$471, compared to US$3,200/month for an average person in Osaka (ref:CIA Worldfact 2005), citizens of Beijing are rapidly experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance unforeseen in its history. The wide boulevards and tall modern skyscrapers in downtown Beijing are very reminiscent of the US. However, the differences in modernization and standard of living between the two countries are still very striking. Apart from a few major downtown streets boasting modernization, the real Beijing is plagued with dilapidated small shacks, dirt roads, and beggars. Despite its economic situation, the real people of Beijing's htong, or inner city ghettos, are very nice and simple.

As soon as I got off at the airport, my mind was still thinking in Japanese. I was pronouncing the Chinese characters with a Japanese reading, thus confusing the airport officials. I then paused, closed my eyes for a brief moment, and tried to switch my mind to shut down Japanese and think entirely in Chinese. Never had I encountered such confusion in a linguistic interchange before, except in February when I suddenly had to change my speaking pattern from Portuguese to Spanish while traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires. Whenever I spent a short time in some countries that shared a stark linguistic homology, I would need a brief period to adapt my mind to the new tongue. I was anticipating the same problem in September when I would have to travel from Italy to Spain.

At the airport shuttle line, I suddenly heard some French-speaking people struggling with buying a ticket. Their English was very bad, and the driver could not converse in English. So I jumped in and helped a young backpacking couple from Paris purchase their tickets. They were grateful to have found someone who could speak French in Beijing. It seemed rather odd that I was standing in the capital of China and communicating in French. However, this couple was clinging onto me for dear life, as they just wanted to get to their downtown hotel in one piece. We happened to go in the same destination, so I told them to follow me.

When we got off at Beijing's Railway Station, we were immediately solicited by so many taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, and street vendors. They came rushing around us like piranhas during feeding hour. The bustling cacophony in Mandarin scared the Parisian girl. Although we had said NON! or NO! many times, they still followed us with a hungry determination. One particular rickshaw driver persistently followed us and implored us to hire him for a ride to the hotel. Another vendor followed us to try to sell some sweet Chinese pastries for 0.25 Yuan (or US $0.03). We were tired, lost, and a little shocked at the assertive way business was dealt in China. The Parisian girl's pace nervously got faster. So we increased our pace to follow her. Then, the rickshaw man began to accelerate his pace, too. The next thing I realized, three of us were running away from a man hauling a rickshaw and screaming for us to slow down. We were sprinting down a street in Beijing while pulling our baggage and being chased by a man hauling a gigantic rickshaw. We looked back, and he had decided to stop far away. All three of us stopped, were quiet for a moment, and then let out a big laugh. "Merde! (SH-T!)," screamed the Parisian girl. "Ils sont tous fous, ces gens! (They're all crazy!)," she exclaimed. I then told them of my being chased by Hari Krishnas in Poland in 1994, but that would need some explanation at another time. After seeing them off, I crossed the street and was approached by an elderly woman who was trying very hard to book a hotel room for me. I told her that I already had a hotel. She then begged if she could get paid 1 Yuan ($0.12)for leading me to my hotel.

I got to the hotel right in the heart of downtown, which was within walking distance from Tiananmen Square. The omnipresent Communist militia were visible on almost every street corner in their faded olive-colored uniforms. In this country, one could never know the true value or price of any merchandise. Despite the fact that certain price tags existed, foreigners were always duped to pay more. For example, I was told that a can of Coke was 5 Yuan (or $0.63)by a shop assistant. But when I went to pay for it, the manager decided it was 20 Yuan ($2.50)because it was a "cold" can. The same "cold" can would cost only 5 Yuan to a native of Beijing. This city was to host the Summer Olympics in 2 years, and if this discriminatory manner of treating foreigners continued, its reputation might be tarnished even before the games began.

MUTIANYU, CHINA - THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

On Monday morning, I took a chartered bus 90 Km northeast of Beijing to The Great Wall. The rush hour traffic at around 7:30AM was frighteningly shuddersome. Cars competed with cyclists on the streets of Beijing, trying to invade the bicycle lanes. The 90 Km ride took 3 hours since the bus broke down in the middle of Beijing's chaotic traffic in the midst of angry honking motorists. The driver, under a lot of stress, tried to fix the internal engine of the bus (see picture). The problem was temporarily fixed, but soon the engine died again. He had to get out and slide underneath the bus for an impromptu repair. Other cars had to change lanes behind us, and they slowed down to catch a glimpse, thus aggravating the congestion some more. Finally, the driver got up and his body was covered with grease and oil. He cleaned himself briefly, took off his shirt, and got into the bus to drive us the whole way half-naked.

We finally arrived to the mystical Great Wall. A living work of history, 2000 years in the making. The section we went to was located in Mutianyu, not Badaling, which was notoriously congested with tourists. The Mutianyu section was completed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). More than a million people were mobilized to work on this imposing structure. In fact, the penal code was made stricter in society in order to acquire forced labor. Even petty crimes by ordinary citizens were punishable by a lifelong sentence to work on the wall. "Persistent" sentences were invented in order to force the relatives of the "transgressor," such as his brothers, cousins, nephews, etc., to carry out his work in the event he died.

Buying tickets for the cable car and toboggan ride at The Great Wall, I experienced my first MAJOR beguilement. The young girl at the ticket window openly lied to me about the price despite the fact the it was printed on the tickets clearly. She tried to overcharge me by 35%, thinking I did not understand any Chinese. I threatened to talk to her manager, so she calmed down and charged me the correct amount.

Upon catching my first glimpse of The Great Wall, I immediately had a very humbling experience. First of all, the wall was built very high up on the mountain, so transporting the material was already a work of miracle in those days. The most moving experience was viewing the serpentine wall slithering on the fog-draped undulating mountains. The wall had an alluring imagery akin to the lordotic spine of a dormant dragon. On top of the wall, I ran into a German Ph.D. physicist, Camilla from Hamburg, who was working in a Japanese lab north of Tokyo. We were speaking in German on top of China's magnificent landmark. She was taking advantage of Japan's O-bon holiday (a Buddhist holiday paying respect to one's ancestors) to travel throughout China.

The ride back to Beijing was 2 hours without much incident. The weather here had been intermittent rain, causing heavy congestion everywhere. Tomorrow I plan to tour the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Then on Wednesday at 7:30AM, I am to board the train bound for Mongolia, where I hope to have internet access. Since leaving Japan, finding internet access has become more difficult. Wi-Fi, so prevalent in the US and Japan, is almost non-existent in Beijing. I have a feeling it will be a challenge in Mongolia.

Until next time, Zi jin (See you soon!)
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