China Part 2

Published in the Trinidad Guardian on 30th September 2007


Well I have been overwhelmed by the interest readers have shown in my first article on China. It seems that I’m not the only one who has many, many questions about the world’s most populous nation and how they are doing without democracy which we treasure so much.


One big question has been the cost of the trip. The basic cost was approx TT$36,000 per person. The Ground Tour in China was about $20,000 and the return airfares from Trinidad to China were approx $16,000. The Ground Tour included all hotels, ground and air transport, cruise ship costs, meals, entrance fees, taxes etc. for two weeks. All hotels were at least 4 star.


It sounds like a lot of money and to be honest I would never save up that sort of money so I took a small loan from the bank and I’m glad I did. My advice is don’t leave it like a good friend who kept meaning to go and now his eye sight is giving trouble and he couldn’t enjoy it even if he went. Bite the bullet and go.


You have to add to the above your personal spending on gifts, extra drinks etc. And believe me there was plenty to spend your money on. You had to be prepared to haggle for almost everything, especially souvenirs. Don’t feel ashamed to offer 25% of the asking price as they will be quite happy to get half of their original figure. Even in the government shops you can ask for a discount. When we were in the Terracotta factory the guide informed us she was a “small manager” there and offered us 30% off! Their currency is the “Yuen” which is approx 7.5 to the US$ so it’s not so different to a TT$. And just because it’s China don’t expect stuff to be cheap. Prices are very similar to TT for drinks, clothing, fruit, meals etc. If it’s imported then expect to pay plenty. For example I was suffering serious RWS - Rum Withdrawal Symptoms - by the third day so I went off with our tour guide in search of some of the magic elixir. Success!! We found a bottle of Bacardi. Cost? TT$235!! (And as Sheila loves to tell everyone “And he still bought it!!”) Come on…we all need a shot of Vitamin R at least once a day.

But back to Beijing and the Forbidden City. This is the home of the Emperors of China since 1406 when it was built during the Ming Dynasty. There are over 800 rooms!! The construction is massive. If you were an invader and you managed to storm the first set of 40’ high walls you find yourself in another courtyard with another set of walls. And so on and so on. This place makes Manning’s Mansion look like a beach house!


Of course to enter the Forbidden City you have to cross the fabled Tiananmen Square where we all watched on television the student standing in front of the tank. Now interestingly our tour guides seemed genuinely puzzled about this image we all have of Tiananmen Square. We understood this to be students standing up for their rights against an oppressive regime. The tour guide’s understanding was that, yes the students were protesting for their rights, but when the students threw petrol on the soldiers and set fire to them causing several soldier to die, the Government arrested them and put them in jail. So who do you believe? We are all totally conditioned in the West to believe without question anything bad we hear about communism. But do we know the truth?


Anyway Tiananmen Square is a very large place. My guess is you could fit most of down town Port of Spain into it. And interestingly Tiananmen Square is the only place we saw any portrait of any Chinese leader and that was Chairman Mao who ruled China from 1966 to 1976. The tour guides will tell you it was a very terrible time in China’s history. A time when families were separated, many persons went missing and China went through enormous upheavals. And for those of us who are in our 60’s this was going on during a time when we were in our twenties having a lot of fun starting careers and families.

Again we have this perception that Chairman Mao was a terrible man but the older people who lived through the period of his rule said that before Mao they were starving and after Mao they all had food to eat, so in their eyes, despite his failings, he was a great man.


Let me share a few of the other notes I made. For example Chinese tour guides make a joke that they envy Americans “because they have only 500 years of history to remember and we have 5,000!” And: in Beijing a 2 bedroom apartment cost TT$1,000/month, a maid earns TT$1,000/month and a construction worker will earn TT$3,000/month so they are quite similar to our own wages.


Last week I mentioned how clean Beijing is. One of the reasons is the authorities pay approx TT$10 for every 100 plastic bottles of any type or size that are brought in. Cardboard boxes fetch over TT$1/kilo. This reduces the amount of trash the authorities have to collect as well as keeping the streets AND DRAINS nice and clean. Construction sites are everywhere in Beijing with the hoarding being covered in giant murals with mountain scenes etc. Very pretty. And Beijing is a city of no overhead cables and with millions of trees and flowers. And these are not newly planted for the Olympics. They have been there for years and are a part of the way of life here. Now tell me how many trees our Government has planted in any of our cities in T&T in the last year!!


And imagine China has made it illegal to have any member of your including wives, children, uncles, aunts, cousins etc in the cabinet. Guess which Prime Minister and his wife would end up in jail in China!

Next week…The Great Wall