Censored in 北京

I would have posted something last weekend, but the Great Firewall of China blocks access to this seditious WordPress website as well as to other counter-revolutionary sites such as Facebook and YouTube. My guess is that the typical Chinese internet denizen has found ways, e.g., VPN access or something, around these blocks, but it made no sense for me to waste my time looking since I knew that I my time in China was limited.

A week ago Friday at 7:25 a.m., Sri Lankan flight 888 lifted off from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (point A on map), and I was comfortably ensconced in seat 2C for the next five hours as the Airbus A340 flew in a north-northeasterly direction to Beijing (point B). After a hectic week getting my visa, I was finally on my way to the People’s Republic of China for a five-day holiday, four of which I spent in Beijing followed by one day in Xi’an (point C).

BKK to PEK

Breakfast, first course

Breakfast, second course

Beijing’s City Wall

Getting a visa to visit China was brutal. I spent over 5 hours earlier in the week at the PRC embassy in Bangkok waiting first to submit my paperwork to a surly clerk and then, on my return visit, waiting again to pick up my visa. The visit made me fondly yearn for the comfort, charm, grace, and efficiency of the local DMV. Honestly, other countries that require visas, like Vietnam and Cambodia, allow you to apply and pay via the internet and simply pick up the document when you arrive at the airport. I guess China still feels a need to generate employment for as many people as possible.

As a foreigner in Thailand, I have become used to paying more than Thai citizens for entry into many places. The Chinese, however, take it to an extreme. For American citizens, the fee to get a single-entry visa to China is $152 vs. $33 for Thais and $36 for all other nationalities. Not only is the fee substantially higher, but the Chinese require two completed applications and two passport photos from U.S. nationals but only one from all others. They also require copies of all travel documents — airline flights and hotels — as well as a copy of my bank statement. Missing from their website is a further requirement of a letter from my employer since apparently my work permit and multiple entry visa were not sufficient proof that I would actually return to, and be allowed back into, Thailand. I guess I can be thankful that the embassy did not ask for a copy of my most recent colonoscopy (although it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the next scan — or is it scam? — put forth as security by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.)

As bad as the visa process was, I was absolutely delighted with Kayak. For those of you who do not know kayak.com, it is a travel website that searches hundreds of websites to find the best deals. Through Kayak, I found a business class ticket from Bangkok to Beijing on a non-stop Sri Lankan Airlines flight for $300 less than a coach ticket on Thai Airways and just $40 more than the cheapest non-stop economy ticket!

Prior to my visit, the thought of China evoked several images.

  1. The Great Wall.
  2. The brave, lone protester who stood in front of the column of four tanks in Tian’anmen Square during the 1989 uprising against the government; I expect that he was probably killed within days or weeks of his quixotic protest.
  3. The giant pandas that are found only here.
  4. The 2008 Summer Olympics, the fabulous venues that were built for them, and the remarkable performance of Michael Phelps.
  5. Peking duck!

Passage Way in the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Mao’s Mausoleum in Tian’anmen Square

Giant Panda at the Beijing Zoo

Water Cube and Bird’s Nest Stadium

My first impression of China as a visitor can be summed up in one word: BIG. Everything is massive — the roadways and traffic jams, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tian’anmen Square, the ubiquitous gates, the airports, the Beijing subway system, the apartments and office buildings, etc. Beijing itself is deceptively huge — on a map it simply does not seem to be as large as it is. In reality, this capital city is about twice the size of Bangkok with a population of 20 million residents (vs. about 10 million in Bangkok) and it covers 6,500 square miles vs. 3,000 for Bangkok. For a closer-to-home comparison, the Chicago MSA has just under 10 million people but spans 11,000 square miles. Over 2 million people live in Beijing’s old city — the Dongcheng and Xicheng districts, one-half million fewer than in Chicago proper; however, there are only 33 square miles in these two districts vs. 234 square miles in the Windy City.

When I was in Xi’an, my guide referred to it as a Second Tier City and what she meant was that it was a large, prosperous city but not well-known outside of China. The Chinese refer to Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou as First Tier Cities because of their size, wealth, and world-wide reputations. Xi’an has a population of 8.5 million people in its administrative area, and this would make it the fourth largest MSA in the U.S. (behind NY, LA, and Chicago and ahead of DFW) but only the 24th largest in China. The U.S. has 51 MSAs with 1 million or more inhabitants; China has 149 cities of this size including 13 with over 10 million people.

The second impression that I have is “Old, yet New”. There are so many things that date back not just centuries but millennia. For example, Beijing was the capital of the State of Ji over 3,000 years ago. The Chinese were building defensive walls as early as the 8th century BCE and the Terra Cotta Warriors that I saw in Xi’an date back to 220 BCE. New buildings, however, are being erected everywhere, and the construction crane is literally the new national bird.

While the imperial Chinese dynasties date from 221 BCE (the Qin Dynasty) through 1911 AD (when Pǔyí, the last Qing emperor, was overthrown by Sun Yat-sen who formed the Republic of China), ancient dynasties can be traced back to 2852 BCE. The two most recent dynasties were the Ming (who ruled for 276 years from 1368 to 1644) and the Qing (who ruled for 268 years from 1644 to 1911). During my visit, I saw sites and treasures from the Qin, Ming, and Qing Dynasties.

The third impression is “Bargain and Bargain Hard”. Prices tags are simply a starting point for negotiation. When shopping, I always said no to the initial the price, and most vendors immediately cut the price substantially, usually by about half. I would then counter with 10% of the original price and I typically was able to get what I wanted for no more than 20% of the initial price (and I probably still overpaid!) If I attempted to leave the negotiation, the vendor would usually grab my shirt sleeve and offer a lower price. I quickly learned never to take anything into my hands because the vendor would virtually refuse to take it back.

It was also very clear that counterfeit goods are abundant and readily available. Frankly, anything with a brand name that I saw in a market I expect was a fake, no matter how authentic the packaging looked. Clerks at luggage counters would produce catalogs of Louis Vuitton bags that customers could peruse and then they would fetch the ones that you wanted from their inventory. Electronics retailer were also selling new iPads and iPhone 5s for a fraction of the price that Apple charges.

Bags and bags of pearls

Pearl Market

On Saturday night, I indulged in the local delicacy, Peking Duck, for dinner. Upon a recommendation from my guide, I went to King Roast Duck Restaurant, a short 10 minute walk from my hotel. According to her, the place where I had originally planned to go, Da Dong, was good but overpriced and more suitable for someone on an expense account. At King Roast Duck, I was able to order half a duck (this was more than enough) that was served with the traditional thin pancakes and assorted condiments including mashed garlic, sugar, cucumber, green onions, and sweet tianmianjiang sauce. The quality was indeed commensurate with the price, and I left content after my first full day in the PRC.

King Roast Duck Restaurant

Carving the duck

I will share more pictures and adventures from my China excursion over the next few weeks.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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