Thursday, March 16, 2006

Time Travel in the Big City...

(image: Yao Ming schooling what can only be described as someone who looks like he should be playing in the Sunday rec league. This was an ad for Rec Specs. Couldn't they find a old pic of James Worthy and photoshop him in there or something? I digress; on to the column.)

Beijing has been an very interesting entry into China. I was looking forward for a chance to see the city in it's run up for the 2008 Olympics. It's certainly been a memorable experience.

In some ways, it's a return to the West (McD's, KFC, Nike, etc). In other ways, it a wake up call to an entirely different world. Gone are the crowded alleyways and constant drone of motos of SE Asia. Instead there are non-stop cars and the feel of a major metropolis (though surprisingly only 13th; the winner? Seoul). The difference being that knowing English actually gets you someplace in most other major metropolises.

We're doing our best learning Mandarin; however we've had countless times now where we say something and get a blank look. We then show the person the word/phrase we're trying to say and they say it back to us with the slightest of differences. I'm not talking major differences here; just the slightest tonal change. And Beijing is easily the most western of the places we are visiting. Should be a very interesting next five weeks.

We discussed this point at dinner tonight; we realized that by the time we leave China we will have spent over nine months on the road and all but 12 days of it in non-English speaking countries. 22 countries and just as many languages (not counting various dialects). In short we're tired. (my apologies if this carries over into my writing...) We're just hoping that we have a little better luck picking up Mandarin/Tibetan/Cantonese during the rest of our time in China. If we can get through that, the hardest part of the rest of the trip will be trying to convince Becca that cricket really is interesting.

Putting that random weary rant aside, a few not-so-brief thoughts on Beijing:

- Time seems to fly here. We've literally had 3-4 days where time just seems to move at a much faster pace. You think 15 minutes have passed and 45 have. Just a bizarre feeling. We think a large part of it has to do with everything being so far apart but it still doesn't completely explain it.

- The work being done for the Olympics is impressive. All the major tourist attractions (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, etc.) are all undergoing major overhauls. I'm sure everything will be nice and proper come 2008. It will be very interesting to see two things: how the rest of the country is adjusting to the great economic surge of the country (my guess is not nearly as well as the big cities) and where China goes after the Olympics.

- A side note to the overhauls is how Beijing is trying their best to make the city all shiny and new. Unfortunately that means taking down older buildings and throwing up glassy skyscrapers (both for business and housing). You'd think there would be some middle ground between keeping some of the city's charm and making things more modern but it seems to be full steam ahead for the modern lifestyle.

- We've gotten a bit gun shy around the folks speaking English in the major tourist areas. It seems that China's grand plan for taking over the world seems to be in the area of Ancient Chinese Calligraphy and art. We've been invited to more showings/exhibitions/buy our stuff than we know what to do with. As a result, we've gotten very good at running a confusing routine involving Becca's fluent French and me using a scattering of Danish words. Good times.

- On the flip side of that, we have had a number of very friendly people strike up conversations with us and help us out in our hour of need. Everything from a kind older gentlemen with a strikingly good command of English helping us find the Peking Duck restaurant in a warren of Hutong alleys to two girls just striking up a conversation to practice their English to random people just saying "Hello. Welcome to Beijing". Well, the last one might have been straight from the government handbook but the friendly folks have somewhat balanced out the scammers.

- The major sites are all worth the visit. The Great Wall was worth the trip to China alone in my opinion. We visited the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum and the Temple of Heaven park and all four were worth it. Seeing Mao's body though leaves us one short of the trifecta (Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh) though I have to admit I was a bit disappointed to be rushed through directly into the "Mao chotzke store" in the actual mausoleum. Even Vietnam had the good taste to keep the money making activities outside...

- If you ever want a true cultural experience, go grocery shopping. Our visit in Beijing included the following: Pick up toiletry related item. Have one of the hundred helpers in the store take it away from you, give you a ticket and beckon you to pay. Upon payment you take the ticket back to the same helper and they give you said item. Not exactly cutting edge efficiency...

- Many, many thanks again to the Dolans. Sean & Linda, Alexandra, Nicole and Sarah were true saints to put up a few weary travelers badly in need of some western R&R. Between visiting The Wall, having a couch to recoup on and learning all we ever needed to know about negotiating from Linda it was a great introduction to the massiveness that is China.

More from somewhere down the road.


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