in Travel/Experience

Impressions from Beijing

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Beijing looked like the setting for an 80s dystopian film when I arrived one cold and foggy February night. Soviet style skyscrapers hulk indistinctly along the horizon, and the air is a bit hard to breathe, due to the combination of the shocking pollution levels and the unrestricted indoor smoking that makes everything smells like nicotine. The streets themselves remind me of Mexico, with crumbling concrete, dirtied planters, and the occasional whiff of feces. Yet there are far too many metro lines, skyscrapers, and expensive cars for this to be a Third World country. Here’s what else stuck out to me from the trip, along with my attraction recommendations:

China is Struggling With Development

That’s the general impression I got from my short time in China – that of an almost feudal country experiencing the acute growing pains of the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution, and a population boom all at once. I saw signs everywhere – the gleaming suburban skyscrapers with bare concrete floors, the freeway overpasses with poorly cut rough edges, and the fancy cars all fighting their way through intersections and pedestrians in a dance only slightly more dignified than the chaos I see in web videos of India

Take the public toilets, for example. They’re both everywhere and free (a combination that neither the United States nor any of supposedly developed Europe can figure out), but you’ll never know if you’ll encounter modern sitting toilets or the infamous old squat ones, which I still can’t manage without a hand on the wall. And there’s never toilet paper available – for a hilarious reason I only learned later on. The public toilets were all fully stocked to begin with, but the older Chinese will take any resource that isn’t nailed down as a matter of habit. To the generation who remembers the times under Mao, even toilet paper is a precious resource to be hoarded, so they stock up whenever they can. Apparently the authorities stocked the whole city with enough TP to last for weeks before the Olympics, but it was all gone within days, so they don’t bother anymore. This absurd reality just turns me into a thief as well – I took to stealing a few extra squares at nice restaurants so that I’d have enough for the rest of the day.

Here’s a another insightful gem – one month before world leaders converged in Beijing recently for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, China shut down every factory in Northern China in order to keep the city clean of pollution during the event. For an entire month! Not without reason, however – compare China’s ‘so out of touch with reality it’s funny’ air pollution meter with that of the US’s, and you’ll see why they want to clean up for Obama.

I got all these facts from an Iranian-American expat named Ali who has been living in Beijing working for Audi for four years. He says that any foreign company who wants to do business in China has to enter a partnership with a local company and split everything 50/50 or even 60/40 in favor of the locals. This worked out fine for years because the factories faithfully follow the foreigner’s design and quality specifications, but recently the balance of power has begun to shift. After Audi invested millions in a huge factory in the North, China copied the entire thing using knowledge gained from the partnership and started pumping out their own cheaper cars. That’s the gamble international brands take when they enter the country: they get access to the massive Chinese market at the price of sharing their business secretes with wily Chinese bureaucrats. They recognize that we need China more than China needs us.

Chinese People are Friendly and Lawless

That all sounds rather fatalistic, so let me contrast that with the striking friendliness of the Chinese people, especially when compared to their global image. I came here expecting rigid Communist rules, an unsmiling, hard-working populace, and a generally unpleasant place to be. And at first it was so, since Mandarin sounds angry by default and everyone is remarkably pushy in lines.  But every Chinese person I met in person was incredibly friendly and willing to help, almost to a fault. I could see why the Western expats I met had decided to stay. The cost of living is cheap, and rules are few, outside of a few non-negotiables like drugs. Just look at the rampant jaywalking, red-light running, clockwork street fireworks, and mothers helping their infants pee in shrubbery for evidence of that.

A few more mind-boggling China facts while we’re at it:

  • China poured more concrete in the past 3 years than the United States did in the entire 20th century (link).
  • Beijing International Airport has 3 terminals: 1 and 2 are mostly domestic, and 3 is international. Terminal 3 alone is bigger than all four of London Heathrow’s concourses combined.
  • During Chinese New Year, over 600 million Chinese move from the cities back to their hometowns and back again. This is the largest regular human migration in history and makes train travel impossible during such dates.

Internet is Restricted, But Not Really

China has heavily restricted Internet, which means any sites outside of some invisible arbitrary list of the governments’ show up as server errors – if you didn’t know what was going on you might be forgiven for thinking that your connection is just really bad. Most American services are blocked and replaced with Chinese equivalents – from social media like Facebook to nigh-utilities like Google, which makes things tough for us foreigners. Since my default browser is Chrome, I couldn’t even search using the network bar, and had to navigate to the Chinese Google Baidu, and then puzzle out which hieroglyphic meant ‘Maps’ or ‘Images’. Luckily I had a ready supply of Chinese Couchhosts and friends to help translate. They don’t care since everyone uses VPNs to get around the ‘Great Firewall’ – even the big companies have their own private VPNs in order to access important services like Gmail, so I don’t see what the government is achieving beyond annoyance.

Attractions

Attractions wise, the Forbidden City at the center of Beijing is one of the must-dos, but it’s only interesting when you first enter underneath a giant poster of Mao flanked by stone lions and view the ornate roofs. After that it’s a stream of the same empty medieval rooms over and over. Adjacent Tiananmen Square has more to look at: amidst the smartly uniformed security guards goose stepping in rank throughout the place, the surrounding gargantuan Soviet style buildings, and the little trash scooters that zip around picking up waste, there’s plenty to look at.

Other famous sights offer a similarly pedestrian experience: from the austere leftovers of the Olympic Stadium to the narrow hutong streets, and even the Great Wall itself (I recommend Mutianyu section over Badaling) – they’re things you look at, take a few pictures, and that’s that. Although my Couchhost said there’s unrestored sections of the Great Wall where you can hike for days on top of remnants, clambering over the ruined parts and sleeping in the abandoned watchtowers. That sounds way more interesting than the Instagram shoot my Great Wall experience was – the length is what’s impressive, not the height or width, and you can’t see that in a few hours.

I had more fun doing less obvious things, like walking around the Chinese Silicon Valley at Zhongguancun (a ten by ten block of modest skyscrapers filled with a mix of incubators and big companies), the narrow alley market near Wangfujian (filled with still-wriggling scorpions on sticks, knockoff goods, and all manner of exotic smells), sampling Shanghai dumplings at Din Tai Feng, cooking meat strips at the table at a hot pot restaurant, and wandering the 798 Gallery (a collection of art galleries in a reclaimed industrial area, possibly the highlight of the trip).

If you’re looking for a private chauffeur to get you around the city, I jumped onto HereIsBeijing’s car on the way back from Mutianyu, where he had just dropped off some people for the Jiankou Section (which is wild and unrestored). He’s a professional guy who speaks good English and knows what to see, so if you need to get around outside the subway, I’d recommend him wholeheartedly.

People

My couch host this time around was Yiwei, an easygoing guy who lived with his girlfriend Circle (I know, she even said her last name translated to Square) along with two mangy, hissy cats and one big friendly dog. Circle ran an ecommerce cosmetics business through TaoBao (a division of Alibaba), although it sounded like she just acted as the middleman between suppliers and distributors. They were incredibly friendly, helpful, and generous with their time, even lending me winter coats when I discovered my scant two layers wasn’t going to cut it in the North China winter. Thanks guys!

I also met up with Joanne, a friend of my coworkers’ who runs a local hardware incubator and treated me to a long and fruitful conversation about Sino-American tech. She notes that Americans are good at going from 0 to 1, while Chinese are good at going from 1 to infinity, which makes for good business partnerships. Apparently there are dozens of other Chinese startups like my own Mailtime who move to San Francisco flush with Chinese VC cash and have trouble finding Americans to work for them.

The experienced tech workers would rather take risks on American startups than foreign ones, the entrepreneurs are already set on their own businesses, and nobody wants to hire somebody inexperienced. (Good thing I moonlit at several startups in college or I’d still be squarely in that camp). She told me of several Americans who have carved out comfortable niches for themselves acting as the middleman between such Chinese startups and the Silicon Valley labor market. Could be a good career move for me, haha.

Overall Beijing is a worthy stop on any Oriental trip, even if Shanghai or Hong Kong are more modern cities, and certainly a lot cleaner. Maybe avoid it in the winter, though.