China Part 3

Published in the Trinidad Guardian on 7th October 2007


Last week I wrote about Beijing and the Forbidden Palace. Let me share a few more observations of Beijing with you.


Bearing in mind that Beijing is the capital of China with over 13 million residents, we weren’t checked for weapons, had our handbags searched or had a metal detector passed over us at any time, including entering the Forbidden Palace and at other fantastically old monuments. The only place this happened was at airports where women frisk both men and women.  And we wondered why there were so few trucks in Beijing during the day and found out that all deliveries must be made between 12 midnight and 5 am. So during the day there were no diesel fumes, especially as most of the buses were electric.


One of the challenges you have to face in China is that you cannot possibly read signs. Once you read the English alphabet you can read German, French or Spanish signs but in China even if the sign said Exit, you wouldn’t be able to read it. It’s quite scary at times but luckily in each of the 5 cities we stayed in, all important signs were in both Chinese and English. Interestingly every Chinese person can read numbers written the way we write them. So when you are haggling, write down the price you want to pay and they will understand it. It seems they find it easier to deal with numbers the way we do rather than use hieroglyphics which is the basis of their written language.


And I think it only fair that I share with you a few words of advice about “toilet” matters. Your hotels will all have Western toilets which are the same as we use in T&T. However when you venture into public or restaurant toilets be prepared to use “squatting” type toilets. If you are lucky there may be one with a seat for “old people”. Also don’t be surprised if when you enter the toilets, you see several people squatting or sitting with the stall door wide open. That’s normal here. By and large the toilets are clean but you have to get used to the smell of men smoking and the sound of them hacking up loads of phlegm. And carry your own toilet paper. Or just use the toilet in your room and save the stress.


Talking of hotels, Beijing has over 100 five star hotels and nearly 400 four star ones so you are spoilt for choice. And get ready to meet over 3 million vehicles in Beijing of which more than half are private cars…and this is communism. Again my western preconceived notions were shattered when I found I really had to look hard to find any old cars on the road. They all looked every bit as new as the ones we have in T&T. Indeed some of the biggest and most brightly lit billboards are for Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi etc.

But today was our day for The Great Wall of China. Our guide took us to a section of the wall at Mutianyu which has fewer tourists. It is about an hours drive outside of Beijing, which first involved crossing no less than 6 ring roads that circle the city. (And POS doesn’t even have one!) Driving through the countryside gave us a chance to see some of the rural life and while the building style was different it could have been almost anywhere in the world.


To get to the Great Wall itself you take a cable car up a very steep hill. Interestingly our cable car was the same one John Major rode in when he came to China.


The Wall itself it truly spectacular. You can see it ascending impossible peaks and dropping into deep valleys. It is over 6,000 km. long which means it would go round T&T over 16 times!!


Of course we had to be the ones who scorned the cable car for the ride down, electing instead to walk down about ten million steps. To be honest we didn’t notice it at the time, after all it was downhill, but when our calves had seized up solid the next day we could feel every one of them. It was so embarrassing, having the driver assist me in and out of our car as I simply couldn’t bend my legs. It felt as if I had cramps all day! But let me get back to the Great Wall, or I should say the Cloisonné factory nestling in a valley below it. Now cloisonné is the incredible art of sticking tiny pieces of copper wire to plates, balls, indeed anything, and then filling in the spaces with lacquer paint, layer, after layer until the area is full and then the whole object is polished to a fine shine. Incredible watching the crafts people at work and when you go in the show room you are blown away by the selection.


Interestingly, in every shop we visited through out our trip to China, they were very willing to arrange shipping right to your door. They would calculate the price including packing, freight etc. All you had to organise was customs clearance at your end. Try going into Macy’s or Home Depot in the US and have the sales girl arrange shipping for a sofa or some power tool.


As we headed back into Beijing, I learnt that for approx TT$1,800 you can take a 36 hour train ride to Ulan Bator which is way up in the Himalayas. It is so high the Chinese call it “The Roof of The World”.


Back on the 6 lane highway, each lane has a maximum and minimum speed and big fines if you deviate. I asked the guide if you could bribe the policeman if you were caught and she thought it unlikely as they have no less than 3 radio stations here dedicated for persons to call in and report bribe taking officials. They don’t take your name but each complaint is investigated and a report given back on the same radio station. And if you are fined for a traffic offence, you can go to any bank and pay the fine. How civalised is that!


China is a truly amazing place. We saw an advert for a divorce company which will do all the paperwork and legal filings for you. Next to our hotel work went on 24x7 on another hotel. Dormitories are built on site and they earn very high wages working 12 hours a day without a day off. Indeed most significantly when I asked what were the priorities in a Chinese person’s life I was told: your first duty is to the country; your second duty is to your employer; your third duty is to your family and your forth duty is to yourself! Compare that with our value system where “I” comes first, second, third and forth!


Next week…The Terracotta Soldiers