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# Thursday, July 6, 2006

Seeing as I had quite a few hours to spend in Beijing and no agenda what-so-ever, I figured I'd just go with a guided tour. While a good idea in concept this proved to be impractical because the guided tours provided by the hotel require a reservation at least one day in advance. I suppose I could try and look up a different guided tour, but as hardly anyone speaks English in Beijing it didn't seem worth the time.

I took my luggage on me and started walking around Jianguomen district; although the area directly near the hotel is strictly geared to tourists it was still a fascinating walk. For starters, DVD shops are rampant (I saw at least 7 different stores in a two-street block) - I wouldn't be half-surprised to find out that these were mostly pirated/fake DVDs, particularly considering the kind of people who were attempting to lure me inside. In fact, just about everywhere salespeople were practically dragging me inside their stores to look at their merchandise; I suppose it's a good thing that I'm about 10cm taller than the average Chinese, and an annoyed look was usually enough to make them back off. It wasn't nearly as easy with the beggars and street urchins though, firstly because they're much more persistent and second because it's a lot harder to ignore a child and/or give him/her an angry look. The day before one of my Japanese associates made the mistake of giving a kid some change, and we were busy fending off other kids for the rest of the way.

Tiananmen East Station (source)

Just walking about Jianguomen got old after a couple of hours, and I was looking for something more intelligent to do, at which point I decided to do some sightseeing. Tiananmen Square seemed like the right place to visit, and since I was already in tourist mode I figured I'd take the subway instead of a taxi. This turned out to have been a very good idea for two reasons: first, the Beijing subway is quite efficient, with two stations directly on either side of Tiananmen Square (not to mention saving quite a bit of time and money on the cab ride); second, it provided a fantastic opportunity to witness Chinese culture firsthand. I was the only European anywhere in sight on the subway both on the way there and the way back and the train was packed. At one point I was standing near one of the doors and a women came in - the Chinese are an amazingly small people, this particular woman was probably around 1.45m tall - and almost ran into me. She looked up and, to my utter amusement, gave an incredibly fearful look and practically ran away to the other side of the subway car.

This would be a good opportunity to mention that the Chinese women are absolutely beautiful. Besides the fact that they are an apparently slim people (I saw ridiculously few obese, or even mildly fat, people during my time there), the percentage of good looking women in China is amazingly high, as is just how beautiful they are. Going back to Israel was something of a downer in this respect...

Beautiful drawing on rice paper

Anyway, 3 Yuen and about 10 minutes later I was standing at the outskirts of Tiananmen Square. I walked the perimeter to get a good look around (and was surprised at how serious the looks on the honour guard's faces were). The National Museum of China is located directly in front of the square; I realized this when a woman (who spoke very good English) addressed me and tried to get me to go to an art exhibition just above the museum entrance where "some of her work is shown." Regardless of my artistic inclinations - or, more to the point, lack thereof - I was completely put off by her tendency to shower me with ridiculous compliments to get my attention. I do not appreciate a compliment from someone who doesn't know me at all and has an agenda. I did, however, consider going into the museum when a young art student who also spoke very good English approached me. Where the previous woman failed due to dishonest praise, this kid won my attention with sheer enthusiasm and happy disposition. I followed him to the art gallery (which, as he promised, was air conditioned - a very good thing when you're walking around with 15kg of luggage and it's 35 degrees centigrade!) and spent the next hour looking at various drawings while the art student explained the various techniques. His own work was (to my untrained eye) techincally impressive but didn't really inspire me; a series of four drawings on rice paper depicting the four seasons really impressed me, though. The drawings had several details in common (house, boat and birds) but were completely different in spirit. For a short while there I actually considered buying all four, as they were so engaging, but the cost was prohibitive (starting price of 400 Yuen - over $50 - per painting). I eventually bought the drawing for autumn (picture on the left) for my mom and after a bit of haggling got the price down to 250 Yuen. I was probably ripped off, but my negotiation skills are still rather lacking and, frankly, the kid was really doing his best and deserved his commission.

Tiananmen Square (source)

After leaving the art gallery I strolled around Tiananmen Square for almost an hour. It is huge, packed with tourists and duly impressive irrespective of its history. I didn't have the time to go the Forbidden City (according to people I spoke with, this alone can take an entire day) and didn't have any other reasonable plans, so I eventually took the subway back to Yonganli station (near the hotel) and headed to a local massage parlor for another hour of rest and relaxation. Although not nearly up to the standards of the hotel masseur (and significantly cheaper at that) it was still very pleasant. After a shower and a rest I still had almost five hours before I was to leave for the airport. Deciding to avoid exerting myself again - spending 10 hours on a plane in a drenched shirt is not my idea of fun - I searched for a local internet café. A local Starbucks was supposed to have wireless internet access, but apparently didn't - no-one could tell me why; I settled on a small ice-cream parlor which had wired access and spent almost an hour there.

I was trying to decide what to do next when my brother reminded me he's looking for a new pair of headphones. I googled a bit and three minutes later had a couple of speciality shops to visit. The sites were completely in Chinese, so I asked the owner of the establishment I was sitting in to copy down the address of one of the stores (whose name I can't even pronounce) onto a note. Not only was he willing to do this, but he called the store directly to make sure that they'll still be open by the time I got there; I've come to the conclusion that the Chinese people are amazingly curteous and helpful if you can get over the language barrier. The shopowner explained that the shop is located about 20km away so I decided to take a cab; it was a smart move in that I would have gotten completely lost had it not been for the taxi, and a less-than-smart move in that it turned out to be a fairly expensive (in Chinese terms) 45 minute ride. I had no idea what to expect when I got there, and was completely dumbfounded to find that I've just entered a huge mall (almost as large as the biggest general-purpose mall in Israel) completely dedicated to electronics! It would've been heaven had it not been for the fact that I arrived just minutes before closing time. The shop numbering scheme didn't make a whole lot of sense and I was getting extremely anxious, thinking that when I find the shop it'll be past closing time. I also got a lot of curious stares from the completely Chinese shopkeepers and customers, apparently not used to having a European guy moving purposefully about their mall with a large bag...

New hi-end toys

When I finally found the shop, its owners were apparently just preparing to close down. After all the effort it took to get there I wasn't about to let them close down before I've had my fill; I asked (using mostly sign language, as the shopowner didn't know a word of English, nor did any member of her family - which were all present by the way) to hear the Beyerdynamic DT880 headphones. I've been reading about these cans for a while and they've been said to compare favorably to my aging Sennheiser HD600; it seemed to be a good time to replace the latter, and I was interested in what Beyerdynamic had to offer. I'll leave the detailed review for a later post, but suffice to say I was extremely impressed with these cans. I then requested to listen to headphone amplifiers; I spent about five minutes each with amps from G&W Tsinghua University (a Chinese manufacturer of hi-end audio equipment which was previously unknown to me), including AT-F100 and the (apparently very popular) TW-J1. Neither one really struck a chord with me, so I gestured to the shopowner that I'm interested in other equipment; she then pulled a brand new box from a storage cabinet and took out a T-2.6F headphone amplifier from the same manufacturer. I was so utterly blown away that I took out my credit card on the spot and bought two pairs of DT880 and the T-2.6F: about $260 for each can - not cheap compared to the US, but about 30% lower than the price in Israel - and an additional $350 or so for the amp.

When I was done with the shop I took a cab back to the airport, which took over an hour but still cost only 100 Yuen ($14 or so) including the 10 Yuen for the expressway toll. The cabby apparently didn't know precisely where to go because although he did get me to the airport, he dropped me off quite far away from the terminal entrance; this was especially annoying with all the luggage I was carrying (a couple of plastic bags, my laptop, the large side bag and now also the relatively heavy headphone amp in a cardboard box). I made it through customs and check-in to find one of the smallest but best-kept lounges I've yet been to; it was very clean, very quiet and very comfortable. I spent a couple of hours there before the flight back and had a very pleasant time (despite a spotty wireless internet connection) before it was time to get on the flight to Istanbul. The flight back was almost exactly the same as the flight to Beijing, so if you're interested in the details you can check out the previous post.

Thursday, July 6, 2006 2:23:34 PM (Jerusalem Standard Time, UTC+02:00)  #    -
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