24 August, 2005

This was a really big deal as it was on the television for about four hours this morning. Even translated, it was pretty unintelligible.

The Fuxingmen district. That's what it's called, don't blame me.


Wide boulevards and huge office buildings abound in this area.

This is fairly light traffic. Note the huge bicycle lane.

Grandiose structures and tons of construction can be found in this district.

Mailboxes are also easy to find.

Throughout Beijing, the pages of State newspapers are posted on streets. And quite a lot of people spend time reading them.

They really do draw a crowd sometimes.

One thing I've noticed here is the way weeping willow trees are neatly cut so they don't smack you in the face when you walk down a street. One of the many little things.

This is the inadequate marking for a subway entrance in an otherwise well-labeled system.

The Beijing subway, reliable but small.

And this is what the subway looks like from the inside. Note the straphangers with additional advertising.

How many can you identify?

This is a place where you can go to make phone calls. Calls to the States would cost around 30 cents a minute.

I wonder if there is ever an occasion where one kind of bicycle is allowed but not the other.

How often do you see MP3s on a store sign? Here, all the time.

I'm still not entirely sure what this means.

Many stores have megaphones with a repeating message. I can't imagine how something so annoying can actually bring people in. But it does.

Yes, I actually found one of these. And how often do you see it spelled out?

24 August, 2005

Day 39. I must say I like this hotel. Check out what it says in the hotel guide: "No clamouring, quarreling, fisticuffing or indulging in excessive drinking and creating disturbances in the room, the corridor and the lobby." Any excuse to use the word fisticuffing is a positive thing in my view.

Got a fairly late start today since I think I'll be staying up for "Off The Hook" at 7 in the morning tomorrow. Now I know why we don't have very many live listeners in China. What a pain.

There are a couple of malls across the street so I figured I'd go check them out. Actually, the way malls work over here is a little different. Each one seems to all be one big store with a huge variety of things to buy and a whole lot of floors. There are plenty of fast food places as well on the street level: McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks. But I sure as hell didn't want to go to those. I admit going to McDonald's when I first got here just to get some fries and a drink with ice. But I'm over that.

The mall was a scene of frenzy as I expected. Every aisle you walked down, some salesperson would call out to you. I guess it's normal here but I found it particularly annoying, especially when they did it in English. There doesn't seem to be much patience towards casual browsers. I wanted to look at the cell phones they had on display but I just couldn't do it with the salesman breathing down my neck, practically panting with enthusiasm at possibly making a sale. No matter what you do, you can't seem to get them out of this mode. The same holds true at restaurants. You walk in, sit down, and they stand by your table waiting for you to order. This also happens when the bill comes. No time to yourself.

Anyway, I wandered through the mall a bit avoiding the hounding. I noticed the fifth floor was a food court and medical clinic. How convenient. I decided to give the first a try and make a note as to where the second was.

This was not your standard American-looking food court. There weren't any clearly established themes and certainly no fast food that I recognized. In one section customers were sitting at counters with all kinds of steamed stuff cooking around them. Another was more of an open seating area where people brought stuff they got at the surrounding vendors. I did a little walking and picked a place that had a bunch of pictures on the counter. I pointed to one and the woman behind the counter sprang into activity. She said a bunch of things to me and handed me two pieces of paper and pointed to another counter on the other side of the room. The cashier. OK, I get it. Pay the cashier and bring the piece of paper back. There's a kosher deli by me on Long Island that has the same bizarre system but the square footage here was much bigger. So I walked over, gave the guy the papers, he rang up the total, I gave him the money, he gave me my change, and handed back one of the papers. I figured at this point the thing to do would be to go back to the woman behind the counter and give her that piece of paper. As it turned out, that was exactly the right thing to do. And, unlike Russia, she had actually started making the food before I gave it to her. There was a place on the other side of the room (which was a pretty big room considering it took up nearly the entire floor) that had stuff to drink so I had to repeat the entire procedure to pull off that feat.

This whole system is apparently a relic of communism. I can't imagine what they were thinking when they devised this. But it sure is annoying having to ping pong your way all over the damn food court just to get a couple of items. I imagine you get pretty used to it over time. Nobody here seemed to think there was anything at all unusual about it. But the Western style fast food places downstairs were using the more modern system of "buy and pay" and I got the sense that it was only a matter of time before that system (if not those actual places) made it upstairs.

My food was ready and I was really taken aback at how much there was. Plus it came on real plates. There were all kinds of dunking and spreading routines that I was expected to know so I just watched what other people were doing and tried my best to play along. That's actually half the fun. The entire amount I spent, drink included, was less than three U.S. dollars. And it was really decent stuff too.

I went back across the street, opting to go over rather than under. Let me explain. There are numerous undergound crossings which will get you to the other side of the street without incident. But the real fun comes in trying to cross the street on the surface. I don't know how I managed to avoid seeing anyone get killed attempting this. But New York streets are minor league compared to this.

They have traffic lights and they have crossing guards. (You're really crazy if you attempt crossing where these don't exist.) Somehow those aren't nearly enough, at least not for the wide streets as this one was. First you have to watch out for the bicycles which are about as dangerous as the cars. Not to mention that there are some cars (as well as motorized bicycles and bicycle taxis) that also come down the bicycle lanes. Oh yeah, another important part to all of this: there isn't anywhere near enough time to actually cross the street unless you start in the middle when you get the green signal. And there are no little traffic islands to stand on if you get trapped. But having the green signal doesn't really guarantee you anything. You see, cars are allowed to turn right on a red light. And they don't have to stop or even be in the right lane when they do this! So you may be crossing the street with the light when you see a car, taxi, or bus coming towards you in the middle of the road full speed like it's not going to stop. Guess what? It's not going to. And people seem to know and respect this. I witnessed maybe one or two instances where a pedestrian stood up to a motorist or bicyclist and forced them to yield. But I suspect there isn't always a happy ending to such a challenge.

It's not Ulaan Baatar but it sure as hell isn't New York. You had better be alert if you attempt to cross the streets on the surface here. I'm sure there's some kind of symbolic reinforcement of some value system at play here - perhaps the futility of man versus machine or death to those who fight the status quo - but I didn't care and you won't either if you just make it to the other side.

Throughout all of this and just about everything else I've done here, I've been hounded and chased by various merchants, always starting their harangue with that infernal "Hello!" I think I've purged that word from my brain and if I ever hear it in the future I'm simply going to put on a blank stare and keep moving. I hope people don't take offense.

I had plans to later meet up with Hanneke and Sasja to get some Beijing duck, us being in Beijing and all. But food was the last thing on my mind at the moment and I had quite a few hours to explore. The first thing I needed to do was change money.

The money system here is a bit weird. I'll try to explain. The currency is known as Renminbi and is represented as RMB. That actually means "people's money." The yuan is the basic unit of the currency and we found that dividing by ten pretty much gets you a euro. So if you spend 20 yuan on something, you basically are paying about two euros. A ride on the subway costs three yuan or 30 euro cents. You get the picture. But wait. There's more.

The yuan itself is divided into ten kuai (also known as jiao). And *that* gets divided even further into ten mao (also known as fen). The latter is of so little value that people won't even pick it up off the street if they see it there. I'm sure I could make some kind of crack about how the currency with the least amount of value shares a common spelling with their most revered leader but I wouldn't dare.

What's funny is you probably think that's the end of it. Think again. There are all different kinds of yuan bills. The biggest is 100, the smallest is one. And then there are old and new bills, the newer ones tend to have pictures of Mao on them (yuan, not mao or kuai). It's rumored that there used to be (or maybe still is) currency just for tourists. There are one yuan coins, at least three different kinds and sizes. There are plastic coins for even lower denominations.

I'll end it here even though I could mention the fact that different currencies are used in Hong Kong and Macau. Not to mention Taiwan which China still considers to be a "renegade province."

I decided to take the subway to a couple of random stops to just have a look at some other parts of the city. Again, the simplicity of the system and its well marked stations and maps was really reassuring. If only it weren't so damn small.

I visited the "Fuxingmen" district (sorry, couldn't resist) and saw a part of town with immense office buildings on a huge boulevard. It was a bit like Park Avenue only the buildings had huge lawns. Damn, this place was big and apparently getting bigger by the minute. My only regret coming here was not having come here five years ago, ten years ago, and more so I could see just how much things had changed. I was half expecting something grim and gray like the East Berlin I had once visited. This kind of prosperity and opulence was beyond anything I ever expected.

Time goes rather quickly when you're awestruck so before I knew it it was duck time. I met Hanneke and Sasja at the hotel and we set out for a place near Qianmen (next to Tiananmen but different) that was supposedly the best in town. We hadn't been to this part of the city at night yet. It was lit up in a very spectacular and celebratory way which made it look completely different than it had earlier. We stood around taking it in, snapping pictures, and getting our bearings. We finally figured out what street to go down and managed to track down the place. It was one of Beijing's oldest restaurants, built in 1862. It had also just closed at 9 pm. Fuck. However, in that helpful manner I've noticed so often around here, the guy in charge told us of another branch they had only a few blocks away. So we set out in search of this place and within a few minutes that same guy had caught up to us and actually offered to lead us there. The place turned out to be absolutely awesome and the amount of food they brought us was insane. For example, I thought it would be nice to order some dumplings to go with the duck and figured I'd get around four. They brought 20. And after you're all done they bring you duck soup with the bones of the duck you've just consumed. Pretty damn cool but way too much food. I don't know how these people aren't as big as houses. Probably those exercise playgrounds.

After we finished eating and as the place was closing down, one of the owner's kids decided to go tearing around the restaurant full speed on his roller blades. I have to say he was pretty damn good considering he was probably around eight. But the relaxed atmosphere of the place, and of most of the others we'd seen so far, was impressive and inspiring.

Obviously, not everyone here is happy. There are far more homeless people and beggars than I thought I'd see in this place. But the majority seem to have a definite purpose and an overall upbeat and somewhat feisty attitude. I haven't been able to determine if they're too busy to speak freely and openly about the things around them or if it even means that much to them. But from what everyone has told me, things change so fast around here that this will be a completely different place in just a few short years.