Sunday, May 6, 2007

Beijing: a City of Surprises

During Expo 86, Sally and I visited the China Pavilion which featured a movie about the country. As we walked out, Sally said I don’t think I ever want to go there…too much grey and not enough trees and greenery. Well last year, we did go to Shanghai for a few days and thoroughly enjoyed the city. While there was a lot of grey and pollution, it was a very cosmopolitan and exciting experience. Phil Boname had recommended the Park Hotel in the geographic centre of the city, a perfect choice, close to the pedestrian mall and Centre for Urbanism, something you must see if you are there. It was also near the Bund where we ate at M restaurant and watched the buildings in Pudong change colours as the dinner progressed.

This year, we wanted to spend a month touring various cities in China. Ray Spaxman gave me a list of his favourite places; Nellie Cheng at CMHC offered to set up some speaking engagements, and I planned to visit the work of Vancouver architects working here. However, as a result of additional time spent in New Zealand, Australia, and Laos, a month has shrunk to about 2 weeks. Our top priority, however, was a visit to Beijing as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics.

This is a very, very impressive city, with a population of 18 million. Tian’anmen Square was designed to accommodate one million people! While there are millions of upright, silent bicycles, with three gears and Dutch-style hand brakes, there are a variety of other forms of transportation, and an increasing number of people are driving cars. And they don’t pay any attention to red lights.

We are constantly amazed at the scale of things. We booked a hotel which on the map seemed within walking distance of our train station, Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. But when we arrived, there was no Tourist Information Centre and no ATM machine. I only had about 17 RMB’s in Chinese currency (about $2.50), that I had been given as change on the train. So we decided to walk to the hotel. Eventually someone saw us looking at a map, and offered to help. When I told him where we were going, he laughed and said we were 15 km away! We got into a taxi, thinking we would change money at the hotel to pay the driver. The trip lasted about 20 minutes, but we needn’t have worried about payment. The fare was 14 RMB’s.

The Mercure Hotel, part of the French ACCOR chain, turned out to be a poor choice. While it was in central Xiden, and near a subway station, you couldn’t just walk out the door and find restaurants, or pop over to the Forbidden City. It seemed miles from everywhere. So we set off in a taxi to check out another hotel, Qian Yuan International Business Hotel, an independently owned Chinese hotel located on what was described as Beijing’s famous street of restaurants. It had been my second choice. It was a much better location, and we booked on the internet for the next three nights.

We then did something we rarely do. We went into a restaurant with no English menu and instructed the waiter to just order for us. From the tanks by the door, he brought a bowl of clams, scallops on the half shell in a black bean sauce, large snail like things that the French like to eat with a vinaigrette sauce, a beautifully arrayed plate of vegetables, and seafood dumplings. I had a large beer, and the bill came to 97 RMB (about $14). After dinner, we wandered by all the restaurants adorned with red lanterns, and eventually decided to get on a bus heading in the direction of Tian’anmen Square. But it turned right when it shouldn’t have, and as we were about to leave, a young lady said in broken English that she was off to an interesting club area, so we joined her.

The restaurant/club strip around Houhai Lake was quite beautiful, with the lights reflecting on the water. But with the mix of Asians and Caucasian tourists, and the occasional Starbucks, at times it felt a bit like Robson Street, (except for the elderly ballroom dancers). We wandered into an attractive spot to have a drink and listened to some karaoke, a popular local pastime. Here two drinks cost the same as our wonderful dinner an hour earlier.

The next day, we checked into our new hotel. The room was very well designed with a large seating area. But more interestingly, the bathroom had glass walls, and on the counter was a HAPPY TRIP package ‘For People Frequently on Business Trip’. It included amongst other things a vibrating condom and other products for the traveling businessman. Normally we’re happy just to get an extra toothbrush and comb!

We then set off for our first day in Beijing. We looked for the Tourist Information Centre, but were repeatedly told there wasn’t one. Finally, I went onto the internet, and found a list of 9 places around town. Two taxis and a bus later, and a visit to the head office of China Travel, we were no further ahead. No one knew what we were talking about. Eventually we got to where the main centre was supposed to be, and met up with two young girls. They were students and offered to help. Their English was very good. They told us the Tourist Centre had been demolished to make way for a 5 star hotel. They were studying art, and their school was not far away and having an art show. Did we want to see it?

Giving up on the Information Centre, we decided to go along and see their school. One of their teachers was there, and they showed us their work, and the work of some of their colleagues and other teachers. It was all very good; considerably better than what one sees at Emily Carr. The class was planning a trip to Barcelona and selling some of their paintings and drawings to raise funds. Did we want to buy something and support them? “Of course” we thought, imagining ourselves as another Michael Audain supporting emerging young artists. We picked out a couple of drawings on silk that were very good. “What is an appropriate payment? I asked the teacher. 200 RMB each, he said (about $25). So we purchased them and gave the girls the money. At that point, he unrolled a long piece of silk with a wonderful drawing of old Beijing. It was drawn by one of the other professors, and was very good. “Were we interested in this piece?”

“Oh we can’t afford that” said Sally. “But how much is it anyway?” He wanted 1000 RMB. This seemed like a very low price for such a lovely piece. So we bought it too.

Happy with our purchases, we had photographs taken with the girls, and set off for the major pedestrian mall. The place was just packed since we were in the middle of the Golden Week holiday. Many people smiled at us since we stood out as two obvious foreigners. A couple of people stopped to ask if they could have their pictures taken with us. Sure. Finally a twenty something young man came up to us and started to chat in English. He was an art student, and wondered if….

Then it hit us! How foolish could we be? We had done everything that one is told not to do! We had gone off with strangers, bought things without much scrutiny, all in the excitement of the moment. So we sat down and took another look at our purchases. They were obviously not done by art students and their teachers. They were mass produced pieces. Very good, but still mass produced. Now we understood how some people can be taken in by Nigerian bankers.

Although we had been completely conned, it had been fun. Sally put it down to the fact that we just couldn’t ‘read’ people here in the same way as we can on our own turf. And anyway, the pieces still looked very good, even at the price we paid.

Two days later, we were walking down the street, and were approached by the same two girls. “Hey just a second” said Sally. “You’re not art students.” After a brief chat, which included reference to the fact that I had video taped much of their presentations, they offered to take back the pictures and return our money. We’ll see. I’m starting to get quite attached to them!

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