Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beijing Blog 1

Fly in on the red-eye Air China flight from Bangkok to Beijing. As the plane hovers over Beijing capital airport at 6:00 am, things look murky, misty and rainy – I might as well be in the UK. We seem to have caught Beijing at the threshold between sleepy weekend lethargy and manic monday-morning explosion of activity. Terminal 3 is massive and gleaming. We are required to fill out a swine flu card requiring self-reporting of symptoms. I wonder which fool would confess to racking coughs and high fever and risk immediate quarantine and a battery of tests.

The taxi driver does not speak a word of English –none of the ones I have encountered so far do. Which is a darned inconvenience when trying to explain where you want to want to go. Without written details in Chinese or a map, you have no chance of getting anywhere in a hurry. But the lack of English can also be a blessing. I am no fan of chatty taxi-drivers. The way I see it, once the journey has started, the taxi driver and passenger should pretend the other does not exist. After negotiating a series of highways and ring-roads, we are finally at the hotel. I pay the exact metre fare and get a printed receipt – perfect.

Afternoon – decide to try out the metro system and get to Tiannanmen square. I tell the hotel receptionist I want to walk to the metro station, and she looks at me pityingly as she would a rank fool. Despite her exhortations, I decide to walk to the metro station. This is a European trait I seem to have picked up, choosing to walk whenever possible. Mental note – quickly discard this trait whilst outside Europe. Beijing is a bit like LA, it does not look kindly upon pedestrians. Nothing is within walking distance, and pedestrians are considered target-practice. You are the lowest being in the traffic food chain, and they are lining up to mow you down. The pedestrian green light is not a signal for YOU to cross safely, but rather a signal for THEM to prepare to squash you. After an eternity on foot, get to the metro station. The ticketing is easy to follow. One of the great advantages of being an Olympic city is that the infrastructure is designed to be visitor-friendly. I still manage to make a mess of the simple act of buying a ticket from the touch screen system, until a kindly local helps me out. Beijingers are curious about foreigners, but they just don’t like to acknowledge it. So you will get the briefest of flickers from curious eyes before they return to looking past you.

The metro train is packed to the gills. I try to hold my breath everytime someone coughs, and find out this is a cheap ticket to asphyxiation. There it is, Tiannanmen square, just like in the pictures. Except heaving with people exiting the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao keeps a stern eye from the gate of F City, no doubt marking me out as a trouble-making capitalist pig. The square is an impressive sight, flanked as it is by the Great Hall of the People where the legislature meets, the National Museum and the Forbidden City. I try to imagine 1989 and one man holding his arms out to a rolling tank, but find that it is difficult to think in a thick crowd. A couple of art students engage me in conversation. Their English is quite good, and they persuade me to take a look at their exhibition in a little annex to the museum. Quite good stuff – typical Chinese nature paintings along the lines of Qi Baishi’s, which I am quite fond of. They gently coax me into buying some of their stuff, and I eventually give in, buying a set of four season paintings in watercolour on scrolls. Exiting, I wonder if I have been scammed. If so, they are terrific actors. But I think not.

No comments: