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# Monday, June 26, 2006

Image source
I'll pick up where I left off: Beijing International Airport. I'm getting the feeling that all airports are alike, psuedo-European and industrial; on the inside, Beijing International Airport is exactly the same as Ben-Gurion or Atatürk, the only difference being the faces that scrutinize you over the counter. I must admit that given China's image in western journalism I've felt somewhat apprehensive at this point, but the officials there are as efficient and courteous (if not more so) than any other government agency I've ever dealt with. Oddly enough I was required to fill in customs and health statements before I was allowed in the country. I never could figure it out: why would anyone bother asking you a question such as "do you carry a horrific, easily contractible disease?" - presumably if I were I wouldn't be travelling in the first place, and if I were travelling with a contagion for some clandestine reason I certainly wouldn't tell anyone about it. I had a vague and apparently misplaced belief that a non-democratic government would be less prone to pointless bureaucracy. Ever the optimist.
The difference between China and, well, everywhere else I've been to up until that point, became pronounced the minute I stepped out of the airport gate. There are a lot of people in China. As obvious as that may be when looking at the numbers (approximately 1.3 billion according to the CIA factbook), it only really becomes evident when you actually walk the streets of Beijing. Israel is a very small country, both in size and in population (6.2 million, same source) and the difference is staggering. I was so overwhelmed at the sheer volume of people moving about that, after getting out of their way, I had to simply sit down and shake it off. The previous picture hardly does it justice.

I then took a shuttle to Jianguomen, which I was told was near the hotel I was to stay in. This proved to be both a fascinating experience and a really bad idea: fascinating because I got to experience a little slice of Beijing immediately after landing, and because it forced me to learn new ways to communicate. The average resident of Beijing (including bus and taxi drivers) does not speak a word of English. This is also why taking a shuttle bus was a very bad idea. Aside from it being very small (unlike myself and my luggage) and without any air conditioning (it was 35°C outside!), it also dropped me in what I then thought was the middle of nowhere, with no map and hardly any way of asking for directions. I walked around a bit but was soon exhausted, what with the heat, the lingering tiredness from the flight and the bloody luggage; I eventually stopped a taxi and had it drop me off at the hotel, which turned out to be about 10 minutes' walk away from where the shuttle dropped me off. This would be a good time to mention that taxis in Beijing are quite cheap; a short ride costs 10 RMB (about $1.25 US), and even an hour-long trip to the airport cost 100 RMB including toll. That is amazingly cheap compared to Israel -- I'm wondering if this has anything to do with the Chinese government subsidizing the prices in preperation for the 2008 olympics.

Speaking of the olympics, I'm still awed by the sheer scale of the modifications, reconstruction and improvement efforts in Beijing. The Chinese government evidently takes the olympic games very seriously from a public relations standpoint, and is sparing no expense in preparation. I imagine that if the 2008 olympics were to take place in Israel, the same efforts on a much smaller scale would probably begin a few months before the games.

Jianguo Hotel lobby

My next stop was the Jianguo Hotel Beijing. Located two seconds from the Yonganli subway station and ten minutes (by subway) from Tiananmen Square, the hotel is pretty much a standard 5-star European hotel, with the exception of a magnificent artificial river-garden running smack in the middle of it. Although not bad by any means, I was somewhat disappointed at how artificially European the hotel is; everything from the large, golden lobby, the wooden architecture in the guest rooms, the oversized dining room with its inevitably ridiculous decor ("old masters"-inspired paintings and even a full-size harp in the corner!) and finally the diner which serves American-style food (to which I'm not partial even at the best of times). I mean, this is China! Where is the Chinese decor?

Jianguo Hotel guest room

Anyway, having found myself fully checked into the hotel and post-shower by 16:00 (local time) I had several hours to burn until the business associates I was to rendezvous with were slated to arrive. I spent a couple of hours doing some work and also finishing up the first post on the trip; this still left me with about three hours before said associates arrive. I sent the suit to be professionally ironed (I can certainly use an iron, but not nearly as well as a professional) and then elected to happily spend the next two hours getting an oil massage. Having read some books that discuss Chinese culture - albeit from a fiction standpoint - I should've realized Chinese pragmatism extends to sex just as it does to business, but I was ill-prepared for the barrage of overt questions and propositions. It appears that the Chinese business culture comprises chiefly of two principles: you'd better haggle and everything is for sale. European puritanism aside, I wasn't interested and settled for a simple massage with no added value; suffice to say that it was the best massage I've ever had, so evidently there were no hard feelings on the hostess' part (Chinese pragmatism in action?).

I spent the rest of the evening and the next morning's breakfast in pleasant conversation with our business associates. The next morning we went to the business meeting which was the original purpose of this trip; for obvious reasons I won't go into details. We then proceeded to a restaurant situated very close to where the meeting took place; I'd offer a name or address, except that I can't read Chinese and absolutely none of the restaurant's staff could speak English. Ironically this was never a hindrance - we made do with a combination of sign language and the pictures in the menu. We were served several dishes (pictured on the right); the dish nearest the rice bowl was quite possibly the best dish I've ever had. It was a mixture of hot green and red peppers with bacon (I think it was bacon. I couldn't really ask and would rather not know) stir-fried in some sort of soy-based sauce; the combination was utterly staggering, and I sincerely hope to find a dish worthy of this one at some point in my life. The other dishes were also terrific: chicken in some sort of sweet thick sauce, and a mix of vegetables with goose and bacon (the dish nearest the camera). All of this along with rice and lots of juice meant that I was soon completely satisfied, and then came the really pleasant surprise: although all three of us were unable to tackle even half the food, the total cost of the meal was less than 200 RMB (about $25). I've had meals that cost as much for just myself in Israel, and were certainly not up to this quality!

It was time to bid farewell to my pleasant companions who had to catch an early flight, and also about time to get out of the damned business suit (it was stifling hot!) and find something to do for the next few hours (it was about 13:00 at this point, and I only had to be at the airport around 22:00...). I'll blog about what I did during that time in the next (and final) post.

Monday, June 26, 2006 10:58:43 PM (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
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