Journey to the center of the earth: Beijing

Back in Beijing, I had to wait almost a week to get the Uzbek visa processed. This gave me ample time to explore all the sights that are mentioned in the backpackers bible – the Lonely Planet guidebook. After trying in vain to find more sights in the French and Japanese guidebooks, I gave up. It seems that I have seen it all here. So I went exploring the city for some of the non-touristic sights, which means – for example – wandering around the Beijing Central Business District. Being off the tourist maps, it features some of wackiest modern buildings I have seen so far in Asia.

CCTV Headquarters, Beijing

Most notably, the new CCTV Headquarters and the Soho Shang Du buildings were most a most unusual sight. Throughout the city of Beijing, there are other new and – to my taste – beautiful buildings, such as the Beijing National Stadium and the China National Grand Theatre. Contrary to the “temple overload” (which kicks in after having visited the n-th temple in a day), I did not experience any “skyscraper overload”. Maybe the guidebooks should start to cater for tourists who are finding some beauty in new and modern buildings.

However, Beijing still surprises the naive traveller with some peculiar difficulties. During my last stay, the three subway stations near Tienanmen square were shut down in late afternoons for several hours. Many tourists got “stranded” a couple of blocks away from their destination and had either to walk or take a cab. This time, these stations were served throughout my stay, but upon arrival the Beijing Railway subway station was closed for several days. It is absolutely stunning that Chinese people seem not to care about major subway stations being closed for such long periods.

Mao mausoleum in Beijing

Obviously, the cab drivers outside the railway station had a feast during that time and they were unwilling to switch on their meters. A trip to my hostel (two subway stations) was quoted 100 Yuan (15 US$) with a clear unwillingness to bargain. So I walked for about one hour to the hostel with my backpack and temperatures of over 35 degrees Centigrade.

Beijing has changed the ticket system for its subways since my last stay. Back then, it was a paper ticket which was handed out by a cashier and then checked by a platform attendant. Nowadays, the tickets can be bought at vending machines (bilingual Chinese / English). The ticket check is being done through electronic gates – much as you’d expect it from a rapid transit system in any other major city around the world.

View from outside the forbidden city in Beijing

However, the Chinese seem to have their problems with this new infrastructure. They have difficulties understanding the vending machines and it takes them a lot of time to go through the buying process. Also, most of the locals seem to be completely lost once they finally have succeeded in obtaining their ticket. They do not know how to pass the gates and are constantly debating with the platform attendants to whom they want to show their electronic ticket instead. The gates would be very easy to pass, since they open upon contact of the ticket on a clearly marked touch pad. But the locals either do not put the ticket close enough on that pad or they rub it with all their force over that surface.

It is wonderful to be for once “in the know” here in China: All the tourists I’ve met so far do not have the slightest problem with this system. In fact, many Westerners are clearly annoyed and are moaning impatiently while waiting in the queue when locals clog up the ticket distribution points or the electronic gates. On the other hand, it is fun when I have to explain to a Chinese, how to buy the ticket and how to pass the gate. Which happened twice this week.

Beijing seriously gets ready for the 2008 Olympics when it will be the center of attention for a few weeks. The new subway ticket system is only a precursor of the changes in the next few weeks. Most of the construction sites that were still busy back in May are now gradually finishing. This is not only of interest for tourists who discover literally every day some new building or a reopening, renovated Hutong. Also, the locals seem to be excited about all the changes that are going on. At less than 30 days away from this sports event, the whole city seems to be covered in posters featuring the official mascots or the Olympic rings. It is actually very difficult to buy any souvenir without the “Beijing 2008” label and even many locals wear these shirts and caps. It would be easy to succumb to this air of enthusiasm, but I still try hard to resist.

Although there have been a lot of negative reports (including from me) about how the Chinese government deals with the Olympics, I have been reconciled during this stay in Beijing. Looking at the bigger picture, this event clearly is a boost for the economy and the nation’s identity as a whole. The Chinese want to be recognized as a nation that has its place in today’s global economy. Yes, there are paranoid gestures and a control-freakish bureaucracy by the Chinese officials. But then again – things are bound to change for the better: One example is the support of the government by encouraging people in the service business to learn at least a basic set of English – due to the Olympics. Before that, English was mostly spoken by some young students and the average Chinese had little interest in dealing with foreigners. The government encouraging its population to be open to foreigners may be the first step towards a truly open minded society (and consequently: government).

Therefore, I will be leaving China with a mixed bag of feelings since I haven’t been able to understand the country and culture to its full extent. One day I’ll be back learning the next lesson about this truly great culture.