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Travel

A Week in Beijing

JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 

Along with 14 friends from an association in Lausanne, Switzerland, I was in Beijing (China) for seven days.

We were lodged at the hostel of the China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), known as the “Institut de Diplomatie” in French. This is where students are trained in foreign languages like French and English for appearing for selection in the Chinese Foreign Service for those who go on to be career diplomats.

The hostel room was spartan but had all essential facilities.

Our exchanges with the Chinese students were quite interesting. We stayed on our best behaviour by not mentioning any politically delicate issues like Tibet or human rights in China. Most of us also avoided too much personal contact with our Chinese student companions (mostly girls; there were 3 boys and 15 girls in the group), with two notable exceptions.

This did lead to some talk but nothing dramatic happened.

What struck me was how focussed these young Chinese students seemed with respect to their future compared to what I hear from young people in Switzerland where they keep saying “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know) when asked about their
future.

Three girls did not want to join the diplomatic service because initial postings there are always in African countries. They were categorical about not having anything to do with Africa. This was stated without the least detour.

One of them told me that if she were to have an African friend, her family would disown her. This was not even considered racism by her. For her, this was quite normal. This attitude is in direct contrast to Chinese official policy of being a great friend of Africa.

We did see many African residents at the CFAU hostel but hardly any mixed groups of Africans and Chinese boys/girls.

Having grown up in India, and travelling frequently to Japan, I could not avoid comparing what I saw in China with what I see in India and Japan.

We did not go to too many chic areas but we hardly ever saw really elegantly dressed Chinese. Most people were dressed in jeans and T shirts, whether at the Great Wall or in the Forbidden City or elsewhere. I see many more elegantly dressed people, especially women, in India and Japan. Maybe the widespread destruction of the intellectual middle classes during the Cultural Revolution by Mao has something to do with this.

Chinese masses did not appear to be too sophisticated. They chatted loudly, pushed and shoved without any embarrassment whatsoever. A total contrast with Japan where people are so polite and courteous.

For example, Chinese people kept taking my pictures without mostly asking me whether they could do so. This never happens in Japan. They gaped at me without reserve, something the Japanese do not do.

People talked in loud, cackling voices. Maybe it had to do with their language in which the meaning changes depending upon how a word is pronounced.

However, the infrastructure in Beijing was state of the art. The Olympic stadium known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’ remains one of the architectural wonders of the modern world for me. Its architects are Swiss (Herzog and De Mauron). I have seldom seen such a beautiful modern building.

Standing inside in an empty stadium, listening to the roar of the crowd on a giant TV screen, was quite an experience. The stadium and the adjoining swimming pool, known as the Cube, were even more striking at night with the effect of illumination.

Truly magical. No modern building in India or Japan or elsewhere has had a similar effect on me. The Olympic plaza is a gigantic pedestrian zone, having a dragon head building with a big IBM logo at one end.

The roads in Beijing were better than those in Europe. The Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs were a disappointment, especially compared to the palaces in India. The Forbidden City cannot hold a candle to the majesty of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, in my opinion.

I was told that most of it had been reconstructed, having been destroyed during the cultural revolution when they desecrated the remains of the Ming royalty from their tombs and threw them away. The massive coffins in the Ming tombs are now empty after this act of vandalism.

But we did see the prettiest Chinese women during our entire visit. It was a group of female soldiers, wearing camouflage uniforms. A lot of them were holding hands in public and holding each other around the waist. Nowhere else did we see such pretty young women, so the army recruiter is obviously doing a fine job!

The greatest contrast for me vis à vis India was the cleanliness I saw in Beijing … everywhere. Did not see a single graffiti on any wall. Did not see any garbage lying around or people urinating or defecating in public. No bits of paper or fruit peels lying around anywhere.

Chinese people are traditionally known to spit all over the place. Did not see a single person spitting in public during our stay. No flies or mosquitoes.

Truly amazing, compared to the dirt so prevalent in Indian cities. This is where China is 40-50 years ahead of India in terms of the quality of its infrastructure and cleanliness.

Striking contrast, indeed. Concrete proof that it is possible to keep cities clean even in cultures not traditionally known for it.

Did not suffer any power cuts or rolling blackouts or electricity breakdowns during our stay. Hardly any bicycles to be seen anywhere. Did not see anybody wearing a Mao jacket, except an old PET bottle collector who was soliciting used PET bottles from us at the bus stand of the Ming tombs. He was the only really poor person seen during our entire trip.

Saw literally one beggar at one of the exits from Tienanmen Square. Was quite astonished that police had not removed him from such a central place. With this exception, did not see a single beggar anywhere else, unlike India where visitors are harassed by an army of beggars in all major cities.

Roads were full of cars, mostly in good shape. Saw car brand names like Lacrosse which are Chinese made. Designs mostly copied from European cars.

Crossing the road is quite a feat in Beijing since Chinese drivers seem to be colour blind! At a major road intersection, I saw the light turn green for pedestrians so I started crossing the road, as in Europe. My companions began shouting at me to be careful since cars were hurtling forward at full speed, despite the traffic signal being red for them. I had to run forward at full speed to avoid getting hit by one of the oncoming cars.

Finding a taxi can be quite a harrowing experience in Beijing. Hardly any drivers spoke English or any other foreign language. It was necessary to have the destination address written by some local person in Chinese characters so that the taxi driver could understand where to go.

Taxi drivers at the Summer Palace demanded 200 yuan as fare for driving us back to the CFAU, against a normal fare of 25 yuan or so. When I said we should complain to the police, I was told that the cops were hand in glove with the cabbies. Felt totally at home like in India where this kind of extortion is quite common.

We waited a while, could not find any taxi and took the metro for 3 yuan. Metro was quite crowded but very clean. Got stared at quite blatantly by most passengers but no hostility anywhere. I mischievously demanded 20 dollars as fees, each time I saw somebody photographing me surreptitiously.

The Great Wall was a true wonder. It snakes endlessly along the crests of the mountain ranges. The part of it we visited is about 90 minutes’ drive from Beijing.

It was the Badaling sector, probably the most visited one in its entire stretch which spans across much of China. It was a holiday and the Great Wall was full of visitors. We had to leave our bus at an outer parking and take a shuttle bus to where the cable car goes up to the Wall.

Hardly any foreigners to be seen. Crowds of mostly Chinese people, mostly ill dressed and, quite plainly, not very sophisticated. Jampacked with Chinese visitors who kept jostling us around without any hesitation.

A young women wanted to be photographed with me. Her husband/boyfriend asked me to stand with her. I stood at some distance. So he asked me to get ever closer to her. Then he asked me to put my hand around her shoulder. Then he asked me to hold her closer. This went on till I held her really tight against my side when he took the picture.

This happened three more times at other places. Most people just kept taking my pictures on the sly.

A friend strongly recommended a Kung Fu show that he had seen. I recommended it to our group and we went to see the evening show. It was absolutely magical. The story was about an old master who anoints a young apprentice who then ultimately goes on to become the new master when the old master who had initiated him immolates himself on a pyre.

The Shaolin monks who performed the show were brilliant. The show touched a chord with all from our group, especially the aspect of initiation followed by various philosophical aspects. Everybody enjoyed it. At the end of the show, I paid 20 yuan to climb on to the stage and get myself photographed with the cast.

Also saw the Beijing Opera along with our group. Totally different from operas in Europe. Lot of young actors doing gymnastics. People in the audience dressed up quite casually.

Snacks regularly served during the show. The Kung Fu show was much more mpressive than the Beijing Opera.

Had a very amusing experience at the Pearl Market. We were warned not to purchase anything without the intervention of our Chinese student guides. It seemed that the higher the floor in the market, the better the quality of goods and the higher the prices.

On the top (sixth) floor I liked a pearl necklace. I was accompanied by our two Chinese student guides. I liked a rather expensive pearl necklace and let our girl guides handle the transaction. After hectic bargaining with numbers being typed and shown on an electronic calculator, a much lower price was adjudged by them to be the right price.

The manager of the shop asked me through our Chinese student whether the pearl necklace was for my girl friend. I said it was for my wife.

The lady manager would not believe this. She asked again if it was for my mistress.

I repeated that it was for my wife. Disbelieving at first, once she realised that I was really buying it for my wife, she told me to tell my wife that she was very fortunate to have such a good husband. She repeated it twice. Her surprise at my buying a costly necklace for my wife was not feigned but quite real and obvious. She told me Chinese men purchase gifts for their girl friends or mistresses but not for their wives.

The Summer Palace was very crowded. It had long and nice walks through trees. There was an old Buddhist temple too. Found a stone Mississippi steamboat to be very interesting. It was made entirely of stone for the Emperor’s amusement. He used to throw parties on it. An artificial market was also created around a body of water to show the Emperor what a market might look like.

The week had passed quickly. The China visit was over.

I hope to see Shanghai next time since everybody tells me it is better in most ways than Beijing.

 

July 24, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), July 24, 2013, 6:22 AM.

Jogishwar ji: What a delightful travelogue. You are forgiven for your previous innocuous visit to the hairdresser. Years ago, I too have visited Beijing twice when a considerable time was spent in spotting the nearest toilet due to a somewhat malfunctioning prostrate. When it came to the Great Wall, I walked away and sat on the wall and did it while appearing to admire its ambit. If you ever write a book, please put me down for a copy.

2: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 24, 2013, 5:30 PM.

I had the same experiences with Chinese culture, and I was only in Shanghai for a few hours! I found it funny that after being hassled by Chinese 'paparazzi' you would pay to have your own taken with the monks!

3: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), July 24, 2013, 7:43 PM.

There is so much Sikh history in China. There was once a vibrant Sikh community, mostly military men and police officers. They were both feared and respected due to their reputation for courage and chivalry, appearance and demeanour. Sadly the last Sikh settlers were driven out of their Chinese homeland by the rabid hordes of Mao Zedong during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's.

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