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Taxi scams. Art dealers. Fun in Tiananmen. Wandering the Forbidden City.

April 20-24, 1998
April 6-9, 2006


Beijing, I think, doesn't really need an introduction. I have visited only once, arriving on April 20, 1998 and departing for Xi'an on the afternoon of the 24th. Beijing was the first place I ever visited in the PRC and as a result this travelogue is written from the viewpoint of someone with no Chinese experience yet. Given that four years have passed since I visited Beijing and given the rapid rate of change occurring in Beijing there's not too much practical information to be offered here other than reading my own experiences as a first-time China visitor and how I handled certain situations and what worked and didn't work. So I hope then, that this section can at least give the reader the vicarious experience of what China is like from the first time one steps off the airplane.

It's not your usual booking site... have a look!

April 20-24, 1998

After a few days in Hong Kong I got my first real impression of the People's Republic in the form of the old Beijing International Airport. For the capital city of an emerging world power, of a country of 1.25 billion people, in a city of ten million people, I had never seen an airport so small, rundown, and congested. That problem, however, has since been solved. But in April 1998 it was still the cramped, dingy old terminal with more touts, mostly for outrageously priced taxis, than any other airport I would travel through in China.

As soon as I cleared customs and immigration and entered the terminal, taxi touts were all over me, quoting exorbitant prices in the 350 to 500 yuan range. That's between $44 and $63 US. The normal rate on the meter is between 80 and 120 yuan ($10 and $15 US), including expressway toll, depending on the destination. As I got closer to the door and the real taxi queue the rates had lowered to the 200 to 250 yuan range. Still outrageous.

Except for the day I left Beijing for Xi'an, giving me only a few hours in the morning, the weather I had in Beijing was horrible. The first two days the city was blanketed by a thick haze limiting visibility to less than a mile the first day and maybe two miles the second day. The second two days were cold and rainy. An expressway links Beijing and the airport, some twenty-seven kilometers from the center of Beijing. In good weather there are views of the mountains off to the north. On my arrival day I could barely see the trees on the side of the road. After checking into my hotel, some large unremarkable place to the west of Tiananmen Square, the name of which I've long since forgotten, I did what any newly arrived tourist to Beijing does, I went to Tiananmen Square. It was a straight walk of about two kilometers down Qianmen Xidajie, one of central Beijing's main roads. I immediately met China's version of the Tuk Tuk, the pedicab. The pedicab is similar to the cyclo in Phnom Penh or Saigon except the seat is behind the bicycle rider, not in front. I instantly recognized them for what they were, annoying thieves.

As I was to observe over the next few days, I could be walking down the street, the only foreigner in a crowd of several hundred Chinese, when twenty meters away a pedicab driver would spot me in the crowd, jump from his seat, wipe the seat off and start moving in my direction. Within five or ten meters, a half dozen of these clowns would start shouting at me "Ni hao!" (hello), waving at me, practically fighting each other to get me in their pedicab.

Tiananmen Square is a relaxed place, excellent for people watching. People pass the time sitting on the pavement playing cards, reading, or simply talking. Many more fly kites, or almost as entertaining, watch other people fly kites. Many vendors there sell kites should you want to take the opportunity to join in that great Chinese pastime.

Tiananmen Square is huge, the massive buildings and wide boulevards surrounding the square display an imposing sight to the visitor. Just as Washington, DC was designed to extol the power of the United States, the central area of Beijing certainly impresses in exalting the power of the People's Republic. At the southern end of the square sits Qianmen (Front Gate). At one time a wall surrounded the core city but that was demolished to make way for wide boulevards and grand Stalinist structures. Only the gates remain.

Qianmen is actually two structures, one on each side of the road. Just north of Qianmen lies Chairman Mao in his huge mausoleum. When open for viewing the line of visitors can be half a mile long. I'm not exaggerating. But I never bothered with it. Mao has little interest to me, and though the procession of viewers was kept moving, it just didn't seem worth it.

To the north of the mausoleum is the Monument to the People's Heroes. A 36 meter obelisk built in 1958 to commemorate various revolutionary events in Chinese history. The rest of the square is open space up to Dongchang'an Jie, a huge boulevard of something like ten lanes plus two bicycle lanes. Across the street is Tiananmen Gate, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace. A large portrait of Mao hangs on the south side. It replaces a portrait destroyed by paintballs during the 1989 protests.

It was at Tiananmen Gate that Mao, on October 1, 1949 proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China. I went to the top of the gate (15 yuan, special foreigner price) and was provided with a nice view of Tiananmen Square and it's surrounding buildings. Standing where Mao once stood I proudly proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of Bicycle.

To the north of Tiananmen Gate is the Forbidden City. The roads surrounding Tiananmen Square are all expansive boulevards. In most places one must use underground pedestrian tunnels to cross these streets. To the east side of the square are two museums housed in a single massive building. There is the Museum of the Revolution, which I did not visit, that traces events from 1919 to the establishment of the PRC in 1949; and the Museum of History, which I did visit.

The museum of history traces Chinese history from the first inhabitant up to 1919. The exhibits are interesting to see, and the museum is extremely well laid out in an easy to follow chronological order. However, all the exhibit cards are written in Chinese only. I did not see one description in English, but as I learned in very short order, there is very little English in China, substantially less than any other country in Asia I have visited. I could sometimes find bilingual menus (that usually carry a higher price for the privilege of having some English), and the airports and some train stations have a little written English, but otherwise forget it. I found carrying a phrase book to be essential and communicating with it provided some rather amusing experiences.

On the west side of the square is the Great Hall of the People, where the National People's Congress meets. It's open for visitors and I walked through some of the rooms, the 10,000 seat auditorium, and the huge banquet room. Upon leaving this great symbol of the Chinese government (did someone say Communist?), one is forced to exit through one of the largest most grotesque souvenir galleries on the planet. Overall, I wasn't terribly impressed by my visit to the Great Hall. I was also under constant siege by Chinese tour groups.

Though a lot of western tourists come to China, the overwhelming majority of tourists are native Chinese. There are two constants about Chinese tourists. First, they have to photograph each other in front of every attraction; every individual, in every possible combination. A scenery shot is rare, and candid photography, well, why on earth would anyone want to take a candid, unposed photograph of someone you don't know? This is very time consuming when you are waiting to look at something or want to take your own photograph without the human species in the picture. The other constant is the tour group. A lot of Chinese travel in organized tour groups. This is to the great convenience of everyone, except maybe the solo western traveler. Someone should make a horror film: "Invasion of the Chinese Tour Group." Imagine my face on the silver screen, mouth wide open in terror, as thirty Chinese tourists, wearing identical hats, come storming in my direction, shouting, spitting, pushing and shoving, lead by a young group leader wearing the same baseball cap, carrying a flag identifying the tour group and chattering away into a megaphone. I could be standing at the roped-off entrance to one of the rooms in the Great Hall, camera ready for a photo when some group of Chinese tourists would simply push themselves right in front of me waving their arms around and chattering away in Mandarin or whatever dialect they speak. It was as if I was invisible.

I spent a little bit of each day hanging out in Tiananmen Square watching people and shooting photographs. The north end of the square gets very crowded near sunset as people assemble to observe the flag lowering ceremony. The ceremony is repeated at sunrise but not so many people are awake to see it. I certainly never was.

China still has the one child policy, if you pay a fine of about 5000 yuan ($625) you can have a second child, and for 10,000 yuan you can have a third but restrictions apparently apply in respect to access to education and other social services, thus, most Chinese have only one child. Children are certainly indulged and on several instances local Chinese I spoke with criticized the policy believing their country was raising a whole generation of spoiled brats.

If you stand around Tiananmen long enough some local Chinese person is going to start a conversation with you, frequently under the guise of practicing their English. Sometimes these are pretexts to more important matters, such as selling you art or discussing other ways to separate you from your money, but sometimes these conversations are simply extensions of friendship and hospitality. I experienced both, here and in other cities.

During my first evening while standing around watching the crowd waiting for the flag lowering ceremony, various people approached me and made innocent conversation. After the flag ceremony I went in search of dinner. Obtaining food in Beijing was not difficult despite the language barrier. I had been warned to be very careful about rip-offs at restaurants, whether it be inflating the menu price, adding on extra charges, or not printing prices on the menu and bringing a surprise bill. Not once in China did any of these scams happen to me (that I know of). I did however make a point of verifying prices before ordering and getting prices in writing if there was no price printed on the menu. While China travel presents a lot of difficulties, eating, for the most part, proved not to be one. The several times I was in a restaurant that did not have an English menu the staff was surprisingly helpful and patient as I labored through my phrasebook searching for items and phrases that would eventually lead to mutual satisfaction of both parties: me by eating food and they by selling food. At one restaurant, after ordering my food, they borrowed my Mandarin phrasebook and began translating sections of their menu!

I walked down Qianmen Dajie, a main street that runs south below Tiananmen Square in search of a suitable eating establishment. I passed a few places with food on display facilitating the 'point and eat' style of food ordering; cafeterias are really good for this and China has a lot of them. Soon a man of maybe forty-five catches up to me and starts a conversation. He was extraordinarily polite and spoke very good English asking all the usual questions, where I was from, how long had I been here, etc. He introduced himself as an art professor from a university in Xi'an and would I like to come visit the gallery nearby which was displaying (and selling) his and his students work? I replied I was more interested in dinner than art to which he informed me that around the corner from the gallery was a market and a string of cheap restaurants, maybe even one with an English menu. So why not have some dinner and when I'm through I can come look at the artwork? Whatever. I figured so long as he didn't lead me anywhere funny I'll at least see where this all leads.

No problem, we turned off the main road to a side street. "There's my gallery," as he points to a building with some blue doors, "and around this corner, many restaurants, very good and very cheap." He spoke the truth. On another side street was a flourishing and crowded street market with several small restaurants, each with someone standing out front beckoning to passers-by to enter. Though only a few blocks from Tiananmen there was not another foreigner in sight. He suggested one of the small restaurants whereupon a young man happily pointed me to a table and shouted something in Chinese to another young man. "They're finding an English menu for you," the art professor (dealer) said before departing, reminding me again to visit the gallery when I was finished.

When I entered the restaurant every eye in the room fell upon me. A few blocks from Tiananmen and these people acted like no foreigner had ever set foot in the place. Maybe that's true. Some looked at me funny, some smiled, some raised a glass, "ni hao!" (hello). Meanwhile a flurry of activity came from the staff, one hurriedly wiped the table, another brought me tea, and finally great excitement when they found their English menu. It was dusted off and proudly delivered to me. Every entree was between six and sixteen yuan (75 cents and two dollars US).

I ordered some pork dish that brought shouts of praise from the staff. It was priced at eleven yuan, they charged me ten. some special I guess. All during the course of my meal the people eating in the restaurant continued to look over at me, but most were very friendly. As I was finishing my meal two young men, early twenties, insisted I join them for dinner. One wanted to practice his English. I figured I already had one potential art seller in limbo, what's another. But alas, this young man and his friend had no other intentions but to show me hospitality and talk with a foreigner, though one of the two did about 98% of the talking.

They insisted I join them with their meal refusing to let me pay anything. I had now been in here for about ninety minutes. I left with my two new friends to return to Tiananmen, wondering what became of my art dealer friend. Sure enough, he was waiting outside the restaurant for me. I was now very glad to be in the company of two locals, figuring if this guy waited this long for me some kind of hard sell awaited. My two new friends seemed under the impression that this was some prearranged meeting and were ready to take leave of me but I protested, "No no no, he just wants me to look at some art, it will only take a minute. I will go with you to Tiananmen." I think that my indifference to the art, I wasn't buying anything under these circumstances, and being accompanied by two local Chinese made it very easy to get out of the gallery. Had I been alone I'm sure I would have been subjected to a much harder sell. We walked back to Tiananmen Square, it was about 9:30 at night. People were lounging about, playing cards, reading under the streetlights, or just relaxing.

During the course of our meal and the walk back to Tiananmen I asked my new friend his opinion on various political topics. His answers were consistent with many of the answers people gave me over the next three weeks: the Tiananmen massacre, though a tragic part of their history, is just that, history; Mao was a great man, 70% right, 30% wrong, but still a great man; China will continue to open up and more freedoms will come, "No problem, old leaders die." While Mao founded the People's Republic, Deng Xiaoping is praised for his economic reforms, "Make us money", while the old hard-liner Li Peng received considerably less praise. And finally, there was more optimism surrounding Jiang Zemin. Talking about democracy was another matter as I think it's safe to say that your average Chinese doesn't really know what democracy is.

We reached the north end of the square just as the police were closing it down for the night. This is done with a lot of yelling, waving, and pointing. Everyone complies as the police move in a wave pushing people south to the underground walkways or to the two above ground crosswalks. I thought it curious that such a huge public square, entirely open on all sides, could be closed down every evening. Maybe it's to keep the vagrants from camping out and turning the place into a toilet or maybe it's to prevent a large-scale long-term gathering as occurred in the spring of 1989. I don't know. My two friends walked me back to Qianmen Xidajie and made sure I found transport back to my hotel.

Though a popular pastime, wandering about Tiananmen Square searching for tank tracks is not the only thing to do in Beijing. The next morning I started the day with a visit to the Forbidden City. Located just north of Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, or "Palace Museum", is a huge 183-acre complex of buildings, courtyards, and gates. It was the Imperial Palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, built between 1406 and 1420. It bears the name Forbidden City, as, during its five hundred years of use it was off-limits to the general population; violators punished by penalty of death. It was last used as a residence in 1924. The buildings have all been rebuilt and restored many times as they had a tendency to burn down a lot. The complex also houses the imperial collection of clocks, costumes, and other forms of art. However, much of the imperial collection was absconded by the Guomindang who escaped to Taiwan when the Communists took over. You can see that collection at Taipei's National Palace Museum. 

When I arrived at the Forbidden City I saw a huge swarming mass of people, Chinese people. Somewhere to the side of this mob was a ticket booth. This sight was possibly more frightening than being cornered by a large Chinese tour group. It was chaos. This mass of people pushed, they shoved, they spit, they waved their hands. There had to be a better way. Then, across the courtyard I spied the sign. It was the sign that under any other circumstance would make my skin crawl. It was the sign that read: "Foreigner Ticket Booth." And there was not a human being around. I smiled. I didn't care if I had to pay ten times the Chinese price. No mob, no pushing, no spitting, no yelling, no waving hands. For the only time during my entire stay in China, I *happily* paid the foreign devil price and even threw in an extra five yuan for the pocket guide book. Elapsed time: about forty seconds. I looked back at my worst nightmare: a throbbing mass of pushing, spitting, yelling, arm waving Chinese. "Jeezuz Kah-rist" I mumbled as I walked away. 

If not prepared, the Forbidden City can quickly become a confusing jumble of gates, buildings, and courtyards. You can rent a recorded tour or simply rent the cassette and play it in your own walkman if you so choose. I opted not to do this, and have since learned that it might have been a bad decision as the recorded tour is apparently very informative. I still had my pocket guide book which did give me some information as to what I was seeing, but whether it's a guidebook, a tape, or a human guide, this is one sight you absolutely must have some kind of background for, or all you will see is an endless maze of gates, buildings, and courtyards until finally stumbling into the Imperial Garden and probably wondering how you got there.

When you exit the complex on the north side you will be instantly greeted by a plethora of taxis and souvenir and soft drink sellers. Here I discovered a new aspect about China travel, one that gave me some solace. There is no discrimination when exiting the Forbidden City as everyone leaving is a tourist regardless of ethnicity or country of origin. The vendors pick no favorites. As a matter of fact, their aggressiveness was oftentimes greater when directed at other Chinese then to foreigners!

Across the street from the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park (Coal Hill). It is in this park where the last Ming emperor committed suicide in the wake of the Manchu victory. Panoramic views of Beijing can be seen from the center pavilion (Pavilion of Perpetual Spring) atop the man made hill. To each side of this pavilion are two more pavilions at lower elevations. But whatever great views of Beijing there were weren't going to be seen the day I was there. Like the previous day a thick haze blanketed the city. I could easily see the roofs of the Forbidden City, an impressive sight in its own right, but that's about it. Overall, visibility was at best a mile or two in any direction.

From Jingshan I walked over to Beihai Park, a large park directly to the west. Like almost all parks in Beijing there is an entrance fee. Sometimes these fees are the same for Chinese and foreigners, sometimes they are not. In the park is a large lake and at the center of the lake is Jade Island. At the top of the island is the White Dagoba, a 36-meter Tibetan style structure built in 1651 for the visiting Dalai Lama. There are other attractions in the park which I did not visit, it would have necessitated a lot more walking and I wanted to head to the suburbs to see the Summer Palace.

I attempted to take a cab to the Summer Palace. The first cab I flagged down understood "Summer Palace" when I showed it to him written in Chinese characters but he didn't know how to get there, I think. He drove me to another cab, free of charge, and passed me off. I thought it was strange but the same thing happened again in Shanghai just trying to get to the train station. I really have no idea what transpired in either instance but neither time did it cost me any money so it wasn't worth thinking too much about.

The Summer Palace is a sprawling 700-acre complex of parkland, lakes, and buildings located about twelve kilometers northwest of Beijing. Kunming Lake comprises the bulk of the Palace grounds. The Palace was originally constructed in 1750 and burned down in 1860. In 1886 Empress Dowager Cixi decided a personal retreat was more important than a good navy so she helped herself to the money and rebuilt the place, renaming it from the Garden of Clear Ripples to the Summer Palace. It was burned and rebuilt again at the turn of the century. Like the Forbidden City it is best seen with some kind of accompanying description. For a few yuan, old ladies sell maps of the site, which include useful details on some of the pavilions, halls, and gardens. It's a worthwhile purchase. But before I could even reach the front gate I had to pass through a gauntlet of pedicabs. You have to either admire their persistence or laugh at their stupidity. It's one or the other. Here, someone (me) has just *arrived* in a taxi cab and is walking *to* the Summer Palace. Does that stop them from trying to block my way and take me somewhere? No. But I got a good laugh from one. One pedicab driver, far more relaxed than his compatriots, catches my eye, raises a finger, smiles and says "Tiananmen?" Tiananmen Square was twelve kilometers away. I laughed at what I hoped was a joke for my benefit but then again he probably would have cycled me all the way back to Tiananmen for who knows how many yuan.

Safely inside the grounds it was decision time. The Summer Palace is huge. I couldn't see everything at once. Most of the structures are either upon Longevity Hill, which is on the north end of the lake, or on the northeast corner at water level. Entering through the North Palace Gate the first site is called Suzhou Street. Built upon the narrow Back Lake is a series of buildings modeled upon Suzhou, a city of canals near Shanghai. From here it's an uphill walk through various temples that would, on a clear day, provide outstanding views of the countryside and mountains to the northwest. Then footpaths branch off in any number of directions

To the west are numerous halls and pavilions, and sitting in the lake, the huge marble boat the Empress Cixi constructed, probably to rationalize her looting of the navy's funds. The boat can't go anywhere but apparently she enjoyed sitting in it. To the south is another complex of halls, gates, and pavilions. Running along the lake is the Long Corridor, a 700-meter long walkway decorated with hundreds of paintings. They're in excellent condition as much of the paintings have been redone. Many were whitewashed during the Cultural Revolution. To the east is the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures, and to the south, near the East Palace Gate is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, where the Empress and Emperor held court. Around the lake are various pavilions, small islands, and bridges. Paddleboats can be rented for wandering about the lake.

I returned to Tiananmen Square to observe the evening kite flying session. Again, while standing around the square I was approached by a kind young female student. Surprise! She was an art student from Xi'an and asked if I'd like to come see her school's gallery.
"The one with the blue doors just south of here?" I ask.
"Oh, uhh, uhh, you know it?"
"Yeahhhhh." I reply with a sly grin.

That long line in the air? It's one big kite. Tiananmen Square

She didn't stick around much longer. I had dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night getting the same response from the clientele. Though no one invited me to dinner this time they all seemed to enjoy the presence of the foreigner. But still, some blankly stared, totally unconcerned whether I knew they were staring at me or not.

You get stared at a lot in China. Actually, you get stared at all over Asia. The stares you get aren't hostile, but they're not exactly friendly either. I called the people behind these stares "Village Idiots", like the village idiot that sits like a zombie on the street corner staring blankly at the people who walk by. But you have to get used to it. Traveling in a group helps, and later in Xi'an we had quite a bit of fun at the expense of some local Village Idiots.

One other sight in Beijing that qualifies as a must-see is Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) Park. This is a park of nearly 700 acres in the southern part of Beijing. The park is very pretty. The Temple of Heaven buildings are from the Ming Dynasty. They are heavy in symbolism in respect to geometric shapes and numerology. At the northern end of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The building you see is not the original one. The original building was constructed in 1420 but reduced to ashes in 1889. It was here the emperor came every spring to pray for a good harvest in the upcoming year. The Imperial Vault of Heaven sits directly to the south, and from here, one walks down a long causeway to Echo Wall and the Round Altar. Echo Wall is a circular structure where you stand facing the wall, shout something, and hear your voice return to you. But what you will really hear is the voices of five hundred other tourists also shouting at the wall. The Round Altar is a three-tiered pavilion dating from 1530. The structure is based upon the number nine. The top tier has nine rings of stones with each ring containing an increasing number of stones in multiples of nine (9, 18, 27, etc. up to 81). The second tier continues the series from ten to eighteen, and the bottom tier finishes it off from nineteen to twenty-seven. At the top of the center tier sits a single stone. This is another place you're supposed to be able to stand and yell something and have it echo back to you. It's a very comical sight when a tour group arrives and thirty people vie for the center and one by one take turns standing and yelling and posing for photographs.

Late one afternoon outside my hotel I encountered another common Beijing street scene. A horrific accident had recently occurred. Surrounded by a large crowd, sprawled out on the street was a thoroughly mangled bicycle in front of a microbus with a big dent and a smashed windshield. It did not look good. There was no sign of victims, either there were no injuries and the people were standing around somewhere, or more likely they were expediently removed as this intersection had a full time police presence. I couldn't possibly imagine the bike rider walking away from this. Conveniently in possession of my camera I walked up and photographed the gory mess.

In 1998, I did most of my internal traveling by airplane. Flying in China was quite a surprise. The CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) and its affiliate airlines works pretty darn good. Once a centralized airline, the CAAC, in the spirit of the new China is in fact simply an umbrella over a slew of regional independent carriers. Most were comfortable, well staffed, seemingly safe, and on-time. Flying domestic in China was in many respects a better experience then flying domestic in America. 

CAAC had been for years creating legendary travel stories, but only my Xi'an to Shanghai flight provided any travel fodder. When the flight was called we walked through the doorway and down the tunnel only to then be led down a stairway onto the tarmac. This would be okay except the airplane parked there was not our plane, though several people almost boarded it anyway. The next plane down wasn't ours either. But several gates down sat another plane, our plane, though I was never quite sure of this until we landed and I could confirm visually that we were in fact, in Shanghai. Curiously the airplane was only one-third full. This was either because some poor hapless passengers never found the proper aircraft or because there were three flights from Xi'an to Shanghai within a space of an hour.

The morning of my departure from Beijing necessitated a search for money. In very few places in China could I walk up to an ATM with a visa or debit card and get money. Only in Shanghai did I find such a convenience. Everywhere else I had to find a bank and get money from a human being. And there weren't a lot of options. Even in Beijing I had to go halfway across the city to find the one branch of the Bank of China that could give me money off a debit Visa.

In locating this branch I encountered another taxi scam that had a humorous outcome. In Beijing, there's a flag fall of between ten and fifteen yuan depending in the vehicle, and then a kilometer rate of between one and two yuan, also dependent on the kind of vehicle. The first three kilometers are free.

When I walked out of my hotel there were, as there always were, a few taxis lined up. I normally ignored them, knowing it's always safer to flag a moving cab down rather than take one sitting in front of a hotel. They were all the two yuan per kilometer variety but I didn't think I was going far and the one in the front spoke English. I got in and saw the meter at the proper flag fall rate (14.4 yuan), but I also noticed the odometer read 2.8 kilometers. As the driver spoke English, I decided to keep quiet about this small point just to see where this would lead.

As expected, no sooner do we pull into the road that the meter clicks two yuan. Very interesting, I wonder how many times this works and he gets the extra six yuan (75 cents). After a few minutes of talking Chinese politics and economics, his sentiments almost mirroring exactly the same sentiments everyone else in China expressed, I changed the conversation to one of scams and other acts of dishonesty the poor foreign traveler encounters in China. We laughed and joked and he said I was a very clever person as I seemed very good about spotting them. We arrived at the bank and he agreed to wait while I made sure I could get money at this branch. He seemed to think I couldn't, but the guidebook said I could. He was right. He then took me to the proper branch and it was time to pay the bill. I handed him the metered fare minus the six yuan for the three 'extra' kilometers that were on the meter when I got in.
"Not enough, you pay me 34 yuan. This only 28."
"Yes, but you had 2.8 kilometers on the meter when I got in."
"I don't know about that. Maybe I make mistake, maybe you make mistake. But meter say 34."
"Yes, but remember." I paused to let out a small laugh, "you said I was very clever about scams."
He laughed and I got out, said "Thank you, goodbye", and walked away. He didn't pursue his six yuan.

I considered making a quick stop at Tiananmen to see if I couldn't get a look at Mao after all. No luck, the line was a half-mile long. I went across the street to eat some food, then returned to my hotel to get my things and fly off to Xi'an.

I came away with mixed feeling about Beijing. I met some extremely nice people, saw some fantastic sights, and had some very fun moments, yet my impression of the city was most people were rather cold, certainly unlike Southeast Asia, or as I learned later, even Shanghai. But in China people say the Yangtze River is the divider, above it people are cold, below it they are warm. That Shanghai is practically on the river is irrelevant, it's still below it so it's okay. This north-south difference seemed more or less true to me, the country did get friendlier and more relaxed as I moved south, but there are notable exceptions on both sides.

Visually, Beijing hosts some beautiful parks and gardens, and all the splendor of imperial China and its related architecture is everywhere. The architecture of Beijing is in many respects very 'China' most unlike the more modern southern cities. But Beijing is massive. Massive boulevards, massive government buildings, ugly fifteen and twenty story apartment blocks built in the fifties and sixties that are twice as wide as they are tall all detracted from the more attractive aspects of Beijing. Beijing supposedly has good nightlife. I never really looked for it. Apparently there is a healthy concentration of clubs in the northeast section of the city having some pretty good local bands, but such claims are always highly subjective. But the mere fact is, nightlife does exist in Beijing.

I think what disappointed me about Beijing was I couldn't detect much by way of soul. As I discovered, despite having almost nothing by way of tourist attractions or old history, Shanghai is bursting with heart and soul in comparison to the capital city, definitely a New York gonna-be in a couple of generations, but Beijing, I couldn't find it. It felt like a pacemaker aided the city's heartbeat regulated by some massive governing body. What soul Beijing has is historic. It's the soul of the old imperial empire, of the dynasties, not the soul of a city storming into the 21st century. There is change in Beijing, there is modernization, shopping malls, nightclubs, trendy restaurants, bustling markets, new office high-rises, the works. Beijing has all the trappings of a modern city. But there was something lacking in the energy department which is the number one reason why I wasn't impressed with Beijing despite what was clearly a positive four days. I'm glad I visited Beijing and I enjoyed myself very much, I would never tell anyone to skip it, I can't imagine any trip to China not including a visit to Beijing. But I also know I could return another time and have an entirely different impression - China is like that.


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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.