Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Reflections on China

Chang’An Avenue Then (1980).

Chang’An Avenue Then (1980).

Beijing            2010

We just said farewell to our comfortable cruise ship and are beginning the long bus trip from the port of Xingang to Beijing. I haven’t been here in thirty years and I’m very curious about what’s changed.

Uh-oh…I just reviewed our brochure and am horrified to read that we’re booked at the same Beijing Hotel (complete with roaches, non-potable water, spittoons, 40-watt bulbs, and ironing boards on each floor) where our U.S delegation stayed in 1980 and ’81. I warned Sandi and, as usual, she said: “It’ll be fine, stop worrying.” There’s nothing like having a Rock of Gibraltar in the family.

Our guide has an unpronounceable Chinese name. It translates to “Prince” in English, and he turns out to be just that. His English is almost perfect, and he points out that in the Chinese educational system today the three vital subjects are Math, Science, and English. In the final exams if a student is sterling in Math and Science, but flunks English he or she must start everything all over again! Mr. Prince obviously aced it.

The first signs of difference are on the road. Are we on a Los Angeles Freeway? It’s paved and multi-laned. There’s grass and trees!  There are cars everywhere as well as the ubiquitous bicycles. As we get closer to Beijing the road gets wider and wider, and the traffic gets heavier and heavier. On the outskirts is the first of five, count ‘em, ring roads. Chang’an Avenue, leading to the hotel and the Forbidden City, is now about eight lanes wide and crammed with Mercedes, BMW’s, all kinds of Japanese cars, Audis and, for some unfathomable reason, BUICKS!

The Chinese are infatuated with cars, but they are unbelievably bad drivers. Mr. Prince tells us that you need three things to drive in China:

Chang’An Avenue now (2010). Photo by Monte Lazarus

Chang’An Avenue now (2010). Photo by Monte Lazarus

“Good horn; good brakes; and good luck.” Drivers do not yield to anyone under any circumstances. Traffic lights?  Don’t mean a thing. The loudest horn wins. Each intersection is like the old amusement park Dodge ‘Em ride. It’s one continual traffic jam in which the winner is the guy who just keeps mowing down the others. Our mixed bag of tourists agreed that the only one crazier than a Chinese driver is a New York cabbie.

Wow! Beijing has turned green. Instead of bare-naked earth there are trees and grass everywhere.  And, instead of miserable looking one-story hovels there are glass and steel skyscrapers all along the avenue. The architecture is amazing. No massive Soviet-style blocks of bricks here: the buildings are ultra modern, imaginative and (mostly) attractive. It goes on and on for miles.

The old gray, brown, and blue Mao suits are gone. So are the shapeless military uniforms that were not supposed to distinguish between officers and enlisted men. They are pretty spiffy.

Up ahead I recognize the outline of the three parts of the Beijing Hotel, and I’m not looking forward to this part of our adventure. But, something’s different. There’s a fairly large parking lot in the front and right side of the hotel, and there are parked luxury cars as well as taxis. Hope looms. Maybe the hotel’s changed.

We enter. Everything’s different.  The old lobby is gone, including the funny money-changing room and its binder-clip system. There are lounge chairs, a long check-in desk, friendly clerks and even bellhops. The old signs seem to be long gone, and there is a coffee shop, a Japanese restaurant and lots of upscale shops. It’s all very modern and spic-and-span.  Apparently they gutted the old building and began over. We check-in, and go to the ninth floor. What? No spittoons, no ironing boards

Modern buildings of China.

Modern buildings of China.

in the hallway, no visible roaches, no smells, or peeling paint, and no 40-watt bulbs? Toto, we’re in the 21st Century!

The room is fantastic. It has everything advertised by five star hotels, including a very expensive mini-bar. The mattress is great, and there’s a nice stall shower. Aha, one thing is the same after thirty years: No potable water. However, instead of the omnipresent thermos of 1980, there are bottles of drinking water hither and yon, together with injunctions not to drink the tap water.

The view is different. We see not only the Forbidden City, but also the hallmarks of modernity – lots of glass and steel. We can’t wait to see the famous sites tomorrow.

In the morning, Mr. Prince guides us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Unlike 1980, we are not allowed into the Great Hall of the People, or to Mao’s tomb (perhaps they’re giving the old boy a fresh wax job). So, into the Forbidden City we go. Another disappointment. All the temples are roped off so we can look in, but not enter. The major artifacts (such as the jade funeral suit, and the earthquake sensor) are gone.

The incredibly beautiful Temple of Heaven, built entirely of wood and using tongue-and-groove, and wooden peg construction, has stood for many hundreds of years. Unfortunately, it too is roped off.

We enjoy a pleasant boat ride at the Summer Palace, and head to the Hutong area. Here we run into “old China”. We are two to a rickshaw and are pedaled through narrow twisting streets and past very small low houses with tiny courtyards. Each one accommodates as many as 14 people. We’re treated to a group conversation with a gracious woman whose family is permitted to “own” the property for a number of years. However, the government requires that she



meet with tourists, and show her very modest home to visitors.

Tomorrow, the Great Wall.

We board our bus early for the long drive to Badaling and the most well known access to the Great Wall. Years ago the drive was through a flat plain on a narrow road to Badaling. At the entry there was a tourist trap and not much else. Workers were building a road by hand. There were very few buses or cars. Today is a completely different experience. We’re on a super highway in a mass of traffic.  When we reach Badaling our poor driver drives around and around searching for a place to park.  He finally succeeds. We’re off in a mass of humanity. Here, as elsewhere, Sandi is a great curiosity. The Chinese have become used to the long noses and funny smells of westerners, but not to very tall, blonde women. She gets a lot of stares.

Badaling is almost a full city now. There’s a main street lined with shops and eateries. Our group ascends the Wall to enjoy one of the truly wonderful experiences of all. Although it is not true that the Great Wall is visible from the Moon, it is nonetheless spectacular. It’s one of those rare things that cannot be accurately described in words.

After that overwhelming experience what’s left? Shopping, of course. Mr. Prince suggests where we should look for bargains and decent quality (the Silk Market) and how to negotiate (knock a full 70% off the asking price). The Silk Market turns out to be huge and full of whatever the tourist really covets, regardless of worth. As usual, Mr. Prince is right. His tactics work.

Before we fly off to Xian and the terra cotta warriors we embark on a Beijing shopping foray. Too bad. Everything we buy is just like back home: It all says: “Made in China.”

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