Sunday, September 12, 2004

China in your Hand

Last night, some time around 10:00p.m. my plane trundled into Beijing International Airport, and roughly an hour later I wandered into Zhaolang International Youth Hostel, a place ravingly recommended by both China-travelled friends and guidebooks. Being effectively the guest house to one of Beijing's most elegant hotels, the place is clean and cheap, which is really more than I've been able to ask previously (... the Tokyo accomodations did expand my vocabulary, though, so it's not all bad: gokiburi means cockroach -- a vital, vital word to know (and scream!) when living in the Chiba slums ;)

I hate to admit this, but I suppose it was unavoidable at some point during my trip -- I got royally fleezed at the airport: The shuttle to the hostel cost almost as much as an entire week's stay here. Given that the prices are cheap, that's not as bad as it sounds, but it did set me grumbling -- more from embarrassement (... I had been priding myself on being a frugal, savvy traveller!) than from economic hardship. As my mother used to say -- pride comes before a fall.

Beijing, what little I've seen of the city, has a peculiar feel to it: Upon leaving the landing platform, the visitor is greeted by a Hong Kong-style hypermodern airport -- billboards where ethnically ambiguous beauties advertise international products, ads for camera phones and housing developments (... the latest being called "The Yosemite" ;), as well as a large mural depicting China's greatest cultural triumphs ... and pain-stakingly omitting any reference to communism. Once one peeks even a smidgen behind the scenes, though, things begin to look different -- cigarette butts cover the floor, despite a conspicuously placed "no smoking" sign; plasterboard and formica is ripped off the furniture, the floor terminally stained; and that's just the airport main!

Riding in the back of a van through the dark city reminded me of nothing so much as a certain (brilliant) British TV show from the 1970s called "The Prisoner." The protagonist and title character is a British secret service agent who in the first episode of the show quits his job -- and finds himself being forcibly transferred to "the village," a place inhabited by cheery people who identify themselves by number and rank rather than name. He is provided with all of the necessities of a frivolous life -- but he can't leave (.. the show's plot focuses largely on his flight attempts ...) and no one will tell him what the village really is about. The comparison to Beijing is of course stilted and largely superficial. Yet the impression I was left with during those first couple of hours was one of a self-consciously constructed replica of Hong Kong -- a place where large, English billboards advertising everything from Michellin to Nestle flourish for no other reason than that someone on a city planning committee remembered that a real city ought to have billboards ... and, of course, that international corporations were willing to pay for them.

This much (or perhaps: this little) for the first night's impressions. Just how much the corrective influences of the morning sunlight, a hot shower, and a solid 6 hours of sleep will go a long way's towards altering and modifying that perspective remains to be seen.


At September 12, 2004 at 7:05 PM, Blogger Ella Quint said...

YAY! You're finally somewhere I've been! Beijing was 5 years ago a city of contrast. With the Olympics, the contrasts will either be masked or emphasized. You are in for quite an adventure! Go to Tian an'men Square for me, k? That, I think left the biggest impression on me of the places I went. Course, the Great Wall is a must-see. "He who does not climb the Great Wall is not a real man," after all. I'll stop giving you directions now. I'm just excited to hear your impressions of a city I actually am somewhat familiar with. :)

At September 12, 2004 at 10:59 PM, Blogger Expat Birds said...

And to think I've always wanted to be a real man! ;) I will be climbing (and hiking) the wall, though, and I just returned from peering at Mao's mausoleum. There is that vague sense of awe at standing on historical ground -- and then one realizes that there are six people hanging off one, trying to sell postcards, artwork, a guided tour, or sexual favors. Well, more later, in a real post ;)

At September 12, 2004 at 11:21 PM, Blogger Ella Quint said...

A NewSong funny from Kairos. Brandon put together a melodrama and cast it entirely with staff. Den, Geo, Jim & Sarah, Connie, Chris, T, Erin, Wade, Becky & Deric. Ok, the thing was out of control hilarious! Unfortunately I cannot possibly describe Den's presentation of the hero, which of course was his role. He did look like a Monty Python knight, though. Jim was the princess, so just imagine him in a long shimmery purplish-pinkish dress and blonde wig, and you'll just about have it. Geo was the villain, so put a black hamburglar mask over his eyes and a black hooded cape, and you've got it. He didn't say much. The purpose of posting this, though, is Wade. I was compelled to tease him a bit in your absence. I know you would have been dying to do so, had you been here. Remember the turkey getup Jim donned to advertise the Turkey Bowl? Well, that was Wade. He claims he was not consulted before this decision was made. He was simply handed the job of the turkey. It was pretty funny. Poor Wade. :)

At September 13, 2004 at 4:43 AM, Blogger Expat Birds said...


I think it is worth noting that when Brandon asked for associations with the concepts of "knights" and "King Arthur," Wade and I were the only ones who immediately jumped to "Monty Python." Thanks for the update! I was curious how that went over :D

At September 13, 2004 at 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh so happy to be a Turkey, many said that the costume was unnecesary!

Beijing - so many contrasts. I was suprised by them when Erica and were there in 97. I was expecting a more modern city, which it is, but like you said, just under the surface or behind the corner is a completely different world.

If you have the chance - I believe you can see Mao's tomb/body at a museum. Not sure if they still have this on display or not, but worth a peek if the macabre is of interest to you.

Enjoy the food, should be much cheaper now, and a good rule of thumb, drink the beer instead of the water. We purchased several bottles of "frozen" water from people selling it on the street, only to find several floaties at the bottom once the water thawed.

At September 13, 2004 at 6:13 PM, Blogger Expat Birds said...

Hey, if the Monty Python theme had caught on, you could have been a bunny! Just think about the potential -- pink fluffy ears, the works.

Beijing is in a state of de- and re-construction -- to say that it's getting a facelift for the Olympics is misleading ... it's more like a full-body, nip/tuck-style makeover. Anything that can be salvaged is being salvaged and touches of that new, modern city are being added by force -- you can now see things like half a mall that suddenly, precariously breaks off in the middle and turns into construction rubble.

I've already learned my first helpful phrase of Mandarin -- "boo-yow." (Not interested.) It works wonders with the hawkers as well as with the guys.

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