Monday, March 17, 2008

Being in Beijing

I am going back home from my short trip to Beijing and writing this log at the new bangkok airport with few hours to board the flight to bangalore.

This was my second trip to Beijing. I stayed for about 9 days the first time and this time it was only 4 days. I had enough time to cover the main attractions to beijing in the previous visit itself, so the excitement was much much lower this time. I stayed in the same hotel, Wenjin Hotel, Wudaokou. But, The agenda of the trip was different and ofcourse the experiences were a lot different.

Apart from my work the last trip was more like a tour of beijing. I covered Great Wall of China (badaling), The Palace Museum, Summer palace, Tianmen Square, Temple of heaven, etc. so I thought It would be good to spend more time doing things that only locals do in this trip like for example, I used the subway more regularly than the last time.

One thing you cannot miss or some of you might be surprised to see the number of McDonalds and KFCs everywhere in the city. to me, it seemed like the paan shops on every nook and corner of the cities in india. More surprising is the amount of people you will find inside. They are always crowded. Even though the younger population is more to be seen there, the middle-aged crowd is not far behind. Also, you will find McDonalds and KFC very closely situated to each other. Initially, I thought this is more to do with the grudges between Coke and Pepsi than Mcdonalds Vs KFC, but I guess its both. Not-so-surprisingly, this is the safest bet for foreigners/visitors. On all 4 days, I had one meal in the day at one of the two fast-food joints. No more fast food for atleast 6 months now.

But, everytime I would set out to enter an chinese restaurent, there was a push back within me. There are certain ingredients in their food whch I dont like. One of that is some kind of sauce (soya sauce, may be), the smell of which just turns me off, really. You will smell it near many road-side food joints. The other reason is that, everything on the menu is in chinese. Many restaurents have menu cards with pictures, but then you cannot guarentee. Also you can not guess how a particular dish is going to be like, thats a major problem and above all is the communication.

I still remember the struggle while asking one the waiters to get the bill. I, initially, thought it would be easier just by doing the signing by hand gesture, But I struggled for more than 5 minutes to get that through to him. The following day, I learnt a new chinese word from my colleagues, "maitan => bill".

Having said all that, I had great meals at such chinese restaurents this time, but on all those occasions, I was with my chinese colleagues. Fish being one of my favourite, it was very easy for them to choose the restaurents. I am told that I have had 2 of the best fish dishes in chinese food. I was offered to eat frog once though, but I politely declined.

Coming back to the language, I think this is the biggest barrier in this country for visitors. The local people are nice and helpful, but you cannot interact with them due to this. What more, it is extremely difficult to pick up this language as well. Chinese language has very unique pronounciations and yet most of them are so close to each other that a slight mistake you make can mean something totally different. So, on-the-fly learn-and-use strategy would not work. Well, you can use some simple words like 'Xie Xie', 'buyao' etc. But they can only get you started.

but then, you meet with people are simply beyond this barrier and they never give up. I took an taxi from Wudaokou to Silk Market one evening. It was peak hour and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic near wudaokou itself. I was getting agitated as I wanted to get there earlier and get back to the hotel early. This man, the driver, had probably never tried english and it was impossible to communicate anything with him. But, he symphatized with me for my agitation and was telling me in chinese that seemed something like, "Traffic is bad!", "have patience", "One right turn and then left, and we are there!". I could sense what he wanted to talk, but could not even catch one word of what he was saying. The best thing happened when he was switching FM channels and at one channel, he literally jumped with excitement and gestured, "listen to this! Listen to this!". On the radio, there was a voice (only one) doing some kind of one act play or something. I was looking at him, stunned, to his gesture. He had no clue about it and totally enjoying the drama which I had no clue about.

I feel lucky to have visited China when it is getting ready for the Olympics this year. The bird's nest, the stadium that will host the olympics games is absolute world-class work. I was told that most of the work is complete but they are not letting anybody go inside to see. I had a chance to see that many times but only from the highways, pretty far. You will see many authorised shops at famous visitor spots selling Beijing Olympics souveniors, they are pretty nice.

In this trip, something that I will remember is the kind of elctronics shopping I did in the haidan district. This place has number of huge malls only selling computer hardware and other electronic items. You cannot bargain as much as what you would at other famous visitor spots, but it is possible to some extent. I would recommend everyone to visit this place.

This 5 day beijing trip was pretty refreshing for me and a good change from the busy routine. The highlights include the huge fish head I ate and the electronics shopping and ofcourse the cold that I caught which I am carrying back home with me.