I know, I know, I’ve been pretty bad with updates on this trip, despite being gone for a month. There were several highlights to this visit: my first trip to Beijing, two visits to the Great Wall, a side trip to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and most exciting, Meghan joining me for the last 8 days. The last point was perhaps the most exciting; I’ve deluged Meghan with stories about all the crazy and wonderful things that happen out here, from the traffic and Chinese lack of respect for lines, to the dirty air and beautiful buildings and now she finally had a chance to experience it herself.
This trip started with some “old hat:” a flight into Hong Kong and a fairly boring evening spent at the Sheraton Hong Kong. I generally don’t sleep particularly well on the flight to HK, so upon arrival the best I can do is get to the hotel, unpack my toiletries and promptly hit the sack, generally waking up at some ungodly hour due to jet lag. Luckily it was a fairly nice morning, and I walked along Victoria Harbor taking a few pictures and taking in Hong Kong’s amazing skyline before taking the ferry over to Shenzhen in mainland China.
Being a China veteran I knew to pass the “hustle taxis:” unlicensed taxi drivers that had a good enough command of English to understand China neophytes and make them comfortable, then charge them 200 Yuan for a ride that should be 12.50. I walked to the hotel, settled in and then began work the next day. The purpose of the trip was to make presentations and gather information from three different business units, and the first several days went off without a hitch. I spent Friday evening out on the town with a few colleagues near my hotel, and then spent Saturday night in Hong Kong with a coworker at the very flashy W hotel. Not one to fit in with the “beautiful people,” we found a night market and outdoor restaurant where we were able to enjoy 6 rounds of Tsing Tao beer for around $120HK (about 12 USD). My buddy was a bit more of a hipster, so we made our way to one of the HK hotspots and I was shocked by a $260HK tab for two drinks. Not having anyone to impress, I’ll stick to the street from now on!
The following day my friend and I returned to Louhu Commercial City, the 5 story market with everything from counterfeit iPods and clothing to jade jewelry and bicycles. I’ve described the utter chaos that is shopping at this type of mall in a previous email, and must confess that I’ve come to really enjoy it. Once you get past the standard marketing pitch of someone grabbing your arm and shouting “HEY MISTER! YOU LOOK NOW! GOOD QUALITY! YOU BUY NOW!” it’s actually quite fun. I developed a defense for the touts that hang out by the escalators at each floor, who follow you around endlessly asking: “Hey mister. What are you looking for? Copy watch? North Face? Camera? iPhone? Sexy massage? What are you looking for?” About the third time they ask what I am looking for I look them straight in the eye and say something ridiculous that they likely won’t understand, my favorite being “Redemption.” Stumped, they finally admit defeat and seek an easier mark.
I love the art of bargaining in China, the seller punching an insanely high amount into the calculator, and me responding with an equally insulting lowball offer, both of us feigning disgust as the counteroffers, insults, compliments, and grave mumblings fly. I’ve learned to say “pretty girl” in mandarin (it sounds like the English word “menu” with a bit of extra ewe on the “U”) so when they butter me up with “You are so handsome” I can play right along . One of my highest bargaining compliments came in Beijing when I scored two pairs of “Puma” sneakers for about $12 US, and the seller, frowning gravely said “Feel good price for you, feel BAD price for me!”
In addition to bargaining, I’ve come to enjoy the “interesting” English translations that abound in China. At the request of my client, I now have a Blackberry that has an unlimited international data plan which allows me to post frequent picture updates on Facebook and via email so I’ve captured some of the more colorful examples and I am hopeful that the Chinese get a good laugh out of whatever strange translations we’ve placed in Chinatowns across the US. Perhaps the highlight of the bad translations (no, I am not making this up) was a sign for an apartment building in HK that proudly advertised the “GOFUKU Towers.” This was even better than the “Yuppie Building” in Beijing and perhaps equal of the sign that advised that “Drunkards and insane people are prohibited” on the cable car up the Great Wall.
The next week was fairly uneventful until Friday, when the team flew up to Beijing. For a reason unbeknownst to me, our team leader decided to fly out of HK rather than the local airport in Shekou, which generally would not have been a problem save for the Swine Flu scare. HK is considered an international border, so we were prodded by officials in medical coats, subjected to a questionnaire and a thermal camera at each side of the flight. Given a clean bill of health, we arrived in the amazing Beijing airport, my first clue to the fact that every top-notch architect and civil engineer is apparently welcome to express his or her most daring and innovative ideas in Beijing. From airports, bridges, train stations and skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes, the communist style of drab concrete block structures apparently has been long dead and buried in Beijing. Structures that seem impossible or impractical abound, with modern steel and glass within eyeshot of traditional Chinese wood buildings that are hundreds of years old. I’m still not sure whether I’m more impressed by the whimsical modern structures or the ancient temples and palaces held together with elaborate wooden joints that don’t use a single nail.
Our team spent the weekend visiting all the tourist sites, from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City and the various markets around Beijing. Travelling with six adults of various levels of endurance, degrees of whininess and varying demeanor made me all the more eager for Meghan to arrive on Thursday.
Work flew by, the one highlight being a visit out to a Chinese factory my client is considering acquiring. I love manufacturing in general, and was excited to see what was behind “Made in China.” No one from the client’s local office was available to escort me to the factory, so I was left to my own devices to get to its location, in a town about 100 miles to the southeast. A train was suggested, and high-tech Beijing did not disappoint. I took a car to Beijing South Station, an incredibly modern and airy building that rivals most international airports I’ve seen. Being a high roller, I sprung for the extra 10 Yuan (around a dollar) to upgrade to a first class seat, and found myself on the ultra-modern high-speed rail connecting Beijing and the city of Tian Jin. The display in the car indicated we were cruising at 340km/hr, or just shy of 200 mph, blasting through fields and countryside at a pace that puts Amtrak to shame.
After some trouble finding the factory, and my taxi driver and I delighting in the stoic silence induced by mutually incomprehensible languages, I finally arrived. The factory was about what I expected, and would likely cause minor heart palpitations in an OHSHA inspector. No safety goggles or eye wash stations were to be found, and three dogs lounged next to the CNC machines. The reception hall was given over to an impressive looking ping pong table, and I was later informed that after 5PM there were “table tennis” sessions between all employees.
The owner took me to an amazing place for lunch. It was essentially a giant greenhouse, completely made of glass and filled with all manner of tropical plants inside, including a faux “river” running through the jungle that was inhabited by two seals. A menu would be far too gauche for such a place, and to select your food you entered a room with about 60 fish tanks where you could select your fish, crab or lobster, and a wall with pictures of the approximately 100 meal choices, each plated and displayed on a counter below the picture. I deferred to my hosts, and we were escorted to our table, which was surrounded by a thicket of live bamboo, making it seem like you were the only person eating in a strange and intimate jungle. Living up to Chinese standards of efficiency, the food was delivered by waiters on roller skates, who tore through the jungle at high speeds with overloaded trays. Despite the intimacy, my host told me that the restaurant could seat approximately 6000 people on two floors.
I made the mistake of informing my host that I enjoyed Chinese beer, and he ordered me a large pitcher of the house brew (apparently there was a micro-brewery somewhere in the jungle) and proudly announced “We will drink the delicious beer!” It was extremely tasty, having a smoky finish that I’ve never experienced in a beer and giving me pause to consider that I was in an unfamiliar city in a strange country, having one of the tastiest beers I’ve ever drank in an indoor jungle, next to a live seal during business hours AND getting paid for it!
On Thursday evening I met Meghan at the airport. Apparently she was given the 5th degree in terms of medical screening, with people in biohazard suits boarding the plane and looking for anyone making oinking noises or smelling like bacon, both clear indicators of the swine flu, at least as I understand it. Meghan and I spent the next day doing some easy touring around Beijing, and visiting the Forbidden City. We also visited the Great Wall, neither of which I can describe with any justice, save to say that both were structures I remember staring at in grade school social studies books, daydreaming about who could ever build such marvels and trying to repress the tiny glimmer of hope that I would one day see them with my own eyes, a possibility that seemed so remote as to not even be worth considering.
On Sunday we headed to the airport for the flight to Xi’an, a city in the northwest of China and home to the Terra Cotta Warriors. It was hear I solidified my “theory of third place,” which states that every city in China is the third <something> after Beijing and Shanghai. Shenzhen was the third richest. Tian Jin was the third largest, and Xi’an had the third highest number of universities. I would imagine that even the most remote farming village has the third highest number of Maoist cattle or some other third place claim to fame.
The city itself was fairly standard for China: overcrowded, polluted and filled with drivers, bikers and walkers careful balanced on a fine line between life and death. Xi’an does have one of the only intact city walls in China, and Meghan and I spent our first full day walking around the city, and walking a portion of the wall. Nearly as thick and high as the Great Wall it had a similar purpose of keeping unsavory characters at bay, and provided a great view of the city. The next day we signed on for a tour that made several stops, saving the warriors for last.
The emperor who built the warriors was the first emperor of the Quing (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty that conquered and unified several disparate states to create a country that largely resembles modern China. Constantly worried about subterfuge from the people’s he conquered, he decided to build an elaborate tomb complex to maintain his reign in the afterlife. Needing protection, he commissioned an army of clay warriors, estimated to number around 8,000, each life size and with a unique face, weapon, rank and function. Each warrior apparently took around 10 years to complete, and an army of slaves was commissioned to make the warriors and build the tomb. In the 1970′s, a farmer digging a well found pieces of the warriors, and today around 3,000 of them have been unearthed. Most of them were smashed during an uprising shortly after the emperor’s death, and they have been painstakingly reconstructed and replaced in their original positions. Each was equipped with a weapon, most of which were stolen by the revolutionaries and used in combat, since they were life-size, combat ready weapons.
It is an amazing sight to walk into the hangar-like structure covering the warriors, as you start down upon row after row of warriors, horses, archers and generals, all precisely lined up and awaiting battle. The warriors are finely painted, but the paint disappears a few weeks after they are unearthed, so excavation has largely halted until some way of maintaining the paint can be found. Each is marvelously detailed, from fine hair to treads on an archer’s shoe.
The emperor’s tomb is a few miles away, and it remains sealed since legend has it that it is surrounded by rivers of mercury, and enough mercury vapor to kill anyone who breaks its seal. This type of extravagance is so mind boggling it makes Michael Jackson look like a stamp collector.
The next day brought an early flight back to Beijing, and Meghan and I explored various temples and a Chinese mosque through the intermittent rain. The rain had the great benefit of clearing up the air, and we spent a heartrendingly gorgeous day at the Summer Palace yesterday. Needing somewhere to relax from the stressful duties of “managing” 81 concubines, the Ming emperors built a summer retreat about 30 minutes outside Beijing on 70sq km of hilly land, complete with several lakes and ponds, pagodas and temples. It was like a giant park filled with what you would imagine traditional Chinese architecture to be, and it was a perfect day to explore it. While the entrance gate was mobbed, the park was so large and filled with so many meandering paths, we had much of the day to ourselves, delighting in wandering with no particular direction in mind. We ended the day with a fancy dinner, and Meghan made her way to the airport for her 9AM flight this morning. I fly out at 6PM, and after a morning run am wrapping up some work and then saying goodbye to China until my next trip. Until then…