Friday, May 02, 2008

CHINA April 2008 Day 1 – Beijing – first impressions

First impression - WOW
When we arrived a
UK minister was rushed into a black limousine from our flight, she, and her civil servants, looked downright scruffy compared to her Chinese hosts. Beijing Airport is easily the most impressive airport I’ve ever seen. Its architecture combines grand scale with the delicate features of traditional Chinese building. The whole building has a dragon shape. A curved, slatted roof is suspended high upon delicate tapered red and white traditional pillars. There are lots of restaurants, lots of helpful staff and the business lounge is probably the best I’ve ever been in, with space and full meals.

Second impression - gasp
Second impression - apart from the endless blocks of graceless, high rise housing and offices, it’s the pollution. The sun makes rare appearances here as the brown haze that smothers the city blocks it out. You can see, smell and taste the poison and after a couple of hours a tingle in the back of your throat makes its presence personal. Coal fired power stations, heavy industry and cars, millions of them, pump out fumes that are literally choking both inhabitants and roads. This may yet play out as a PR disaster. Haile Gebrselassie will not run in the marathon. There are underground coal fires that have been burning for years, coal fired power stations, massive increases of unchecked industrial air pollution and millions of new cars. There have been efforts to move factories and limit cars on the basis of odd and even numbers weeks before the Olympics, but none of this seems sustainable.

Third impression - cars
China is in love with cars and a surprise was the quality of the cars. I lost count of the high-end Audis, Volkswagens, Buiks, Lexuses, Toyotas, Nissans and Hondas. The home grow Geely ad Chery seem less popular. Black is the preferred colour, preferably with blackened widows, a carry-over from the enormous fleet of state cars that ferry officials around the city. Public transport seems to be beneath them. Blue colour licence plates are private, black - officials and white military. They undertake, overtake, often simultaneously, but the Chinese are a polite and constrained race, so there’s no road rage, gestures, shouting or swearing. Thousands sit patiently in daily traffic miles long. The subway, surprisingly, is fast and efficient, but crowded, far preferable to the car choked streets above. Unfortunately it has limited reach at the moment. The new lines, however, will make it far more useful, and at 2 Yuan (6 pence) it’s a bargain.

The whole of China is on the move with American style freeways and millions of new cars hitting those roads every year. Unfortunately, this produces lots of pollution as well as millions of first time drivers. China has now copied or bought or designed technology that now allows them to make their own cars. The quality of the driving outside of the cities is appalling and downright dangerous. Trucks sit two abreast on two lane roads, and death defying overtaking is the norm. The very literal signs advising against drink driving and tiredness show that there’s lots of problems. Even more literal are the signs for overweight and high loads – an elephant and giraffe respectively.

With well over 6 million ew cars hitting the Chinese freeways this year, the majority new cars, Chia just below the US, has become the scond largest car market in the world. An interesting driver, in addition to status, is privacy. In such overcrowded nation, a car offers a welcome private space , especially for the young.

Taxi drivers are silent and appear sullen. It’s now a low paid job so few speak any English. Pointing to a map doesn’t seem to have any effect so you need Chinese character directions from a phrasebook or your hotel reception. However, the meter system works well, and they’re cheap.

Fourth impression – architecture
Beijing has become a supposed hotspot for contemporary architecture and the Birds’ nest stadium and swimming centre for the Olympics are impressive. Other than that, the skyscrapers are often mundane or downright ugly. There’s no sense of a downtown core of quality tall buildings, only long ranks of dull design. That is not to say that they this type of building is a mistake. It is the only way to house this number of people and it has, apparently, become desirable to live high above the noise and pollution.

Many of the high-rise blocks are totally at odds with traditional Chinese architecture that demands a respect for horizontal lines and symmetry. All of this verticality and deliberate asymmetry lacks the human scale and poised beauty of the pavilion. There is no better (or worse) example of this awful rush towards supposed modernity than the new CCTV (state owned TV) monstrosity. The building is a gigantic two legged, leaning, Escher-like colossus, designed to house 10,000 employees. It’s an aesthetically offensive building with not a single redeeming feature.

First walk
Your first walk, especially if it is far from a tourist haunt, will elicit lots of looks and stares. China was closed to the outside world and has really only opened up in the last 25 years, so many older people have seen few, if any foreigners. Few people travel, as visas are expensive and difficult to obtain, so even the young are curious. We were travelling with a load of young kids, and almost everywhere we wet people wanted photographs of them standing next to a couple of foreigners. It was always done with great politeness and humour, as it is genuine curiosity. There are few places in the world where you genuinely feel this way and few friendlier places to have a stroll.

This first walk out of the hotel took us to a local supermarket where lots of artificially coloured foods in gaudy packaging assaulted the senses. One thing we did appreciate was the noodle pots. These bucket size pot noodles need only hot water and are slurped everywhere in China. There’s free hot water available even in airports.

We stayed in the Guanxi Hotel I the east of the city, close to a lively market selling huge amounts of furniture, toys, coins, stone statues and a whole floor of the central building devoted to Mao memorabilia. Everything is negotiable and the sky-high first prices need to be brought down to a third or less through the usual ritual of shocked expressions, laughs and walking away, only to be pursued by the seller. I suggested, later in our tour, that a ‘personal shopper’ service would go down well for many foreign visitors.

Exercise and sports
The Beijing Olympics and Tibetan protests were in the press and on television. Curiously, my first glimpse of sport was cricket, on the way from the airport. However, it was clear that the Chinese have a radically different tradition and approach to sport and exercise. Table tennis is everywhere but basketball is the sport they adore. Space is at a premium, so soccer fields are rare. Basketball is played in every school.

Then there are the street gyms – free equipment in little parks for citizens to exercise. But this is nothing compared to the millions of older Chinese who get up at dawn and do Tai Chi and a myriad of other activities in their local park every morning. China wakes up, exercises and gets on with the job. They are clearly conscious of personal health, and obesity is very, very rare. More on this later.

First meal
Our first meal was in a local restaurant, with no English menu, but the food was familiar. Most British people have now consumed a fair amount of Chinese food. What was odd, and at times annoying, was being shunted into a private dining room. This may be regarded as a privilege in China, but it isolates you from the real China you come to see.

Food matters a lot in China, and there is barely a street without a clutch of restaurants, however, all of this is quite recent. The cuisine is different with Beijing Duck in the north, dumplings in Xian and spicier food in the south. The Chinese eat anything with legs, apart from tables and chairs, and anything that flies, apart from aircraft. Unfortunately, the banquet meals seem to be prepared for foreigners on the basis of bulk and what they think you’d like to eat. The plates just arrive. I’d much rather have ordered a dish or two myself.

Finally, at the end of this first day, a word in praise of Chinese beer. You’ll find it everywhere, and it’s mostly palatable. Nothing great but does the job. Ganbei! (Cheers)

3 Comments:

At 7:40 AM, Blogger rokn elbeet said...

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