Sunday, May 13, 2007

Beijing: 15 Observations

Before telling you about Beijing, I want to send a special message to my Uncle Ted, who just got out of the hospital in Toronto, and will hopefully be reading this with a glass of Kosher Wine in hand, and my Auntie Alma by his side!

While we enjoyed our time in Beijing, and would like to return one day, it was not a 10. It is just too big, too busy, and it is challenging when you don’t know the language. While there are some similarities between Beijing and major Canadian cities, there are a lot more differences. In no particular order, here are 15 observations about the city:

Taxis are very plentiful. There are more than 60,000 cabs for a population of about 18 million people. If one applied that ratio to Vancouver, there would be 6,000 cabs in our region. I believe there are less than 1,000. But the drivers don’t always take you to where you want to go, since they don’t speak English, many can’t read, and most have trouble with maps. But they are cheap; the drop charge is 10 RMB (about $1.50) and the fare increases slowly. (The drivers are usually incredibly calm and patient, despite the challenges of driving more than 12 hours a day in a very congested city. I just wish they didn’t have to sit in metal cages.

There are a lot of cars. Beijing has a very impressive road system, with a number of ‘ring roads’ around the central core. But when they were constructed, no one could have contemplated the number of cars in the city. There are now over 3 million cars in the city, and dthe number is increasing about 1,000 new cars and 500 used cars every day. That’s an 500,000 additional cars a year, assuming a few are taken off the road!

Not many people speak English. While there is an effort to encourage people to speak some English by the Olympics, a surprisingly small number of people can actually speak ANY English today. Even the staff in the ‘Foreign Language’ Bookstore couldn’t speak English. And the people who write the English signs, can’t speak English.

The people dress quite smartly. I was particularly impressed by the number of people who wear uniforms; school children, shop attendants, restaurant staff, railway attendants, and of course the many soldiers and security guards around town.

Some things are very cheap. We were particularly taken with the cost of eyeglasses. Our guidebook noted they can be purchased for a fraction of the cost in America. We purchased some very nice frames with progressive lenses for less than $150 a pair. So why are they so expensive in Vancouver?

Beer always comes in large bottles. 500 or 600 ml bottles. And one rarely pays more than $1.75 a bottle, except in the American Hotels and Tourist Areas.

Some people are polite. Others are not. The younger people on a bus or subway will always give up their seat to an older Caucasian woman. And if they don’t voluntarily, the attendant will instruct them to do so! But as for the men who are always spitting…

The rickshaw drivers will try and cheat you. They always quote a price, which, if you are smart, you will clarify at the beginning of the trip. But after 20 or 30 minutes of enjoyable time together, they will pretend that the price is ‘per person’! This happened to us every time, and made us feel awful if we didn’t give them the extra 20 or 30 RMB.

The tourist infrastructure is lousy. While there is very good tourist information on the web, just try and find a tourist centre or a map in the city! Few of the hotels can help you either. It’s even worse than Malacca!

The bus system works. While locals claim there is a need for more buses, they seemed very plentiful to us. We were also pleased to see an attendant on board, who collects the fares, calls out the stops, and helps people figure out when they need to get off. Both the bus and subway are very reasonable (between 1 and 3 RMB a trip) and the government is proposing to reduce the cost to get cars off the road during the Olympics.

Many roads are quite impressive. There is often extensive and attractive street planting along the roads and highways. It includes roses, irises, and other colourful plants, that are often watered by hand!

A few centuries are missing. There are few 18th or 19th century buildings around town. There are some very old buildings that have been beautifully restored, e.g. the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace, but one doesn’t find streets lined with great old buildings. Few buildings seem more than 20 years old, other than the dreadful slums that are slowly being replaced by new high-rises.

Food is cheap. Chinese food is particularly cheap, but then it is also inexpensive in America. On the other hand, American food, when you can find it, is quite expensive. A Starbucks coffee is about the same price here as it is in Vancouver. For the same money, you can get a wonderful dish in a Chinese restaurant that will serve 4 people.

Many people don’t wear watches. Sally noticed this, and it’s true. But then they can always tell the time on their cell phone. And everyone has a cell phone.

People often smile at you, just because you are Caucasian. It’s not uncommon to be asked to have your photo taken with them, especially when they think you are Steven Spielberg!

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