Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beijing: It’s at the 中of Everything

Beijing is more colorful, more organized and less Chinglish riddled than I remember. The glow of the lavish Beijing Olympics doesn't stop there, there's much less lusty throat clearing and public sidewalk spit splashing too. For that alone the $50 billion or whatever fortune they spent on the 2008 Olympic games was worth it.
Beijing driving is a bit less aggressive too, it's still dangerous to cross the street but the drivers are a little more Miss Manners and little less Stevie Wonder.  As everywhere in China Beijingers still bellow into their cell phones in public places, on the subway, in parks and restaurants; oblivious of those around them.  The saving grace for me is that I have no idea what they're yelling about.

We experienced no gruesome amputees sprawled across our path on the sidewalk, people with burned off faces and ears and just one dirty Mom begging with a little screaming infant that might or might not be hers and just a few blind grannies working the always crowded subway cars.

In the run up to the Olympics the government tried to infuse the locals with some manners and in some regards such as spitting they've been moderately successful. The subway now has people standing in front of the doors of subway trains telling the waiting masses to queue up on the sides of the opening doors and to leave the center for people leaving the subway car. This works beautifully and unmonitored on the orderly Taipei Metro but so far there are mixed results in Beijing. Some people queue up on the side but to enter or leave a subway car it's still best to put your head down and pretend that you're an NFL linebacker.

In the past I remember sidewalk vendors and storefronts chock full of pirated DVD's, this time I saw just one lone street DVD vendor. Plastic bags? They're not blowing in Beijing's stiff Gobi desert breeze anymore, the government decreed that stores charge .20Y (around a penny and 1/3 US) if you don't bring your own plastic bag with you to the store.

The central government dictates other behavior as well. What else am I too think when the local police look the other way at jaywalkers, suicidal driving and driving on the sidewalk but bans the use of air conditioners by calendar date and not by temperature?

The Chinese government also decides what people can and can't see on the Internet. This has been a minor pain in the ass for me as some of the pictures I upload to Flickr appear to me to be empty blue boxes. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the logic of the Great Firewall, if I upload 3 pictures of the Beijing subway 2 might be scrubbed while the third comes through unmolested. I can read the NY Times and the Seattle Times but not Even though Google left China it functions fairly normally in English but without Blogger or YouTube. There will be no blogging as the Golden Shield Project or Great Firewall has Blogger and YouTube hermetically sealed off from the 1.3 billion people within China's borders. I overcame this on previous trips to China but they seem to have plugged all of the leaks, this Blogger entry had to be uploaded later in the trip on a stopover in Hong Kong.

One positive aspect of a powerful central government is that large building projects get done in a timely fashion, the government simply decides what's best and organizes it unencumbered by lawsuits or the cries of the uprooted people in the way, they suffer for the perceived greater good. People living in the path of an office building, shopping mall or train line are sometimes given a token payment and told to be gone in 30 days. China is currently engaged in a crash program of building high speed train lines connecting its cities.

One of the first to enter service was the Beijing/Tianjin line which covers the 75 miles between the two cities in around 30 minutes at a top speed of 338 kph (observed). That's around 210 miles per hour for us non metric North American types and fast for anyone not used to measuring speed in light years. At first glance this would be wonderful for us in the US but even after having ridden China's high speed rails I'd be against duplicating this in the US. Projects like this would be tied up with lawyers feasting on them in the courts for a generation. China has more than four times the population of the US and they're concentrated predominantly in the eastern half of the country. Imagine a US with more than 4 times the people all stuffed east of the Mississippi river and you'll have an idea of what kind of density is conducive to high speed rail.

Back in Beijing we tried to see Chairman Mao in his glass casket in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Sq. He's open between 8 am and noon Tuesday through Sunday so we joined a seemingly endless line of peasants in cotton shoes and worker cadres with brown and furry teeth but halfway through the fast moving line to the old dictator a Chinese man with white gloves and a megaphone told us in Mandarin and broken English that we could bring nothing in with us. Nothing; no camera, no belt bag with wallet and passport; nothing. Of course they had a budding business of babysitting these things for a fee but I'm not leaving my consumer goodies or passport & wallet with any strangers ever.

So we wandered off to a tourist area just off of Tiananmen Sq selling Chinese tourist tchotchkes. T-shirts, caps, Chinese style blouses, panda refrigerator magnets. Eleanor likes this stuff and she indulged me two tries at seeing Mao without even a whimper of protest so I held my usual disdain for organized tourist activities and shops and did it.  This section of Beijing reminded me of any Chinatown in any city I've ever visited except this one was less than a mile from the Forbidden City, even closer to Mao's glass casket and the Vatican of the Chinese People's revolution. It's a strange world indeed.

Pictures of Beijing are here.

Next stop: Chengdu, home office of the Giant Panda.

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