A Travellerspoint blog

China

A sight few others have seen...

Starbucks in the Forbidden City no-more

sunny 20 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

Earlier this month, the New Seven Wonders of the world were announced. They are:

  • The Great Wall, China
  • Petra, Jordan
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue, Brazil
  • Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Chechen Itza, Mexico
  • The Roman Colosseum, Italy
  • The Taj Mahal, India

I wrote about a similar list last year done by ABC and USA Today, but unlike that list, this one was voted on by the general public - at least those with mobile phones or internet connections. It's already caused quite a stir, some claiming that it's just a list of tourist sites, and not really a list of "wonders." The inclusion of places like Chechen Itza or the Colosseum ahead of places like the spectular Angkor Watt is seen as many as proof that this was no more than a popularity contest. As proof, they offer that last minute bloc voting by Brazilians to get their statue in Rio in the list.

However, I don't think we can be sure that the "original" list of the 7 wonders of the world was something that wasn't of a similar bent. The best known and oft-quoted seven wonders of the ancient world was written by Antipater of Sidon, a writer of the 2nd century bc and author of a travel book, and supposedly were called originally the seven "theamata," which means "must-sees," so I am not certain that the original list should be considered any better than a potential tour pamphlet by a Hellenic Lonely Planet writer.

Anyway, it is what it is. Of more interest to me this week was the news that the the Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China had closed. The Forbidden City (or Imperial City as they call it in China) is China's most popular tourist attraction, it originally was the palace that served as home and seat of power of the Emperors of China prior to the end of imperial rule in 1911.

The coffee shop has been a source of protest since it opened in the year 2000. The protest got louder this year when China Central Television anchorman Rui Chenggang suggested that the coffee shop was ruining Chinese culture. Soon, millions of people were supporting Chenggang's online petition.

Starbucks and the Forbidden City management are both claiming the protest wasn't related to the decision to replace the coffee shop with a unbranded cafe and shop, rather it was a "move is aimed at streamlining commercial activities and recreating the palace ambience."

All this means, of course, that I was one of the few people who actually got to see the American super-chains quick and unsuccessful time in the Forbidden City. I was there in 2005, and even wandered into the Starbucks to check it out, though I didn't buy anything. I did purchase an ice-cream bar and Coca-cola from a shop nearby, though.

2005_11_02..en_City.jpg

7 million people a year visit the Forbidden City. The Starbucks operated for a total of 7 years, which means that 49 million people passed by that Starbucks. No more people will ever do that. We 49 million, a mere 0.6% of the population of the earth, and the only ones that got that opportunity. We are a unique group. How many people can say that?

From now on, people will just have to go into one of the other stores that existed close to the Starbucks, buy a Coca-cola and an ice-cream bar, and reflect on how much less commercial and western-influenced the Imperial Palace is without the Starbucks.

Posted by GregW 17:47 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

See China It's Right There In Front of You

Beijing, China

sunny 20 °C
View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

It's amazing what a hot shower and a change of underwear can do for one's attitude.

2005 11 02..n Hotel1.JPG

The Bamboo Garden Hotel is a great deal for around $US 70 a night. It's a first rate establishment, built around a courtyard that once housed the Empress' eunuchs. There are quiet pools to sit by for reflection, a restaurant, tea room and bar, and (most importantly) hot water in the showers! The room is fantastic, including free HBO and a James Bond-like control panel to control and lights that folds up into the night stand to disguise itself as a drawer when not being used.

2005 11 02..n Hotel.JPG

The first day I went to see the Imperial Palace (otherwise known as the Forbidden City to you and me). It's an amazing place. Entry is 40 RMB (around $US 5). I spent 2 1/2 hours wandering through the grounds at a quick pace, barely glancing at any of the displays and still didn't get to see everything. A focused person with a map of the grounds and an interest in reading everything could take days to see the whole thing. And even then, there's probably stuff that you would miss.

I entered one busy courtyard and looked around. On my way out, I noticed a small, dark alley that no one was going down. I wandered down the alley and came out into an amazing courtyard with fantastic views of the nearby rooftop. Other than the Imperial Palace worker, I had the place to myself. Marvelous.

2005 11 02..en City.JPG

Leaving the Forbidden City I met two Chinese students who were studying English, Shadow and Coco. They asked if they could talk with me to practice their English. I agreed. Shadow and Coco studied just outside of Beijing, and had a day off as their teachers were having a conference. Coco had never seen the Forbidden City, so they had come into the city to see it.

We went to Tinanmen square, all the while chatting in English about my life and their lives. Shadow suggested checking out old Beijing. We walked through a pharmacy with some really expensive ginseng and checked out the really old buildings.

2005 11 02.. Square.JPG

Coco suggested going to see a tea ceremony, as the tea festival was now on. We went to a tea house that had been in operation for over 200 years. The tea ceremony was performed by a young lady. She poured us different kinds of teas, and explained where they came from and their uses. When she spoke, she almost was singing. As harsh and unwelcoming as the Chinese had sounded last night in the Jining train station, it sounded melodic coming from this cute, button nosed girl as she poured us more tea.

However, no amount of melody could hide the disharmony of getting the 2461 RMB bill (around $330). Coco, Shadow and I were all shocked at the price. I ended up picking up the tab, as I remember what $110 a person would have done to my budget when I was student, and that was back in North America. Imagine the dent in a Chinese student's budget.

Shadow and Coco, by way of thanks, took me out to a restaurant for Beijing duck (also known in North America as Peking Duck), and then we walked more around old Beijing and the Hutong.

The Hutong is what all the narrow and alleys that criss-cross Beijing are called. The streets are narrow, the houses so small that people share washrooms. No cars give the place a peaceful quiet in the otherwise busy Beijing, though. Coco said that the Hutong was disappearing, though. In the two years she had been in Beijing, much of it had been bulldozed and replaced with wide streets and high rises in preparation for the Olympics. I asked her what she thought of the new Beijing that was developing, and she said she didn't like it. It was too noisy.

After spending the whole afternoon together, I parted ways with Coco and Shadow and headed back to my hotel.

2005 11 02..nd Coco.JPG

  • * *

Now, here's the thing about that whole story. I wrote it as I was feeling it at the time. What I didn't know, and learnt later, is that it's all a scam. "English students" ask to practice their English, and end up taking you to tea ceremonies or high priced restaurants. It's quite common in Beijing, actually. I had a few doubts when the bill originally came, but after spending another 2 hours with Coco and Shadow, I figured they were on the level. After all, would con-men take their mark out for dinner? The answer, apparently, is yes, they would.

The amazing things about it, though, is that I am not at all mad about it. It was such a pleasant afternoon and it was nice to have some local guides to the city. The scam was so expertly run that I didn't know it was even happening. Really, I was pretty stupid for not asking about the price of the tea ceremony before taking part. And what's $300 to me? Prior to that day in Beijing, I had spent less than $200 in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaan Baator. It was a cheap trip up to that point.

So, I am warned for the future, beware of English students and tea ceremonies. Life lesson, I suppose. But no point in getting upset about what is the past.

  • * *

The next day I had planned to go to the Great Wall. But I didn't want to go on one of the tour buses to the wall. Instead, I wanted to go to an untouristed part of the wall and do some hiking. My guidebook recommended a place, and it was easy to get to, just a couple of local buses and I would be there.

The problem was, once I arrived at the bus station, I couldn't figure out what bus to take. The station was chaos and there were no signs in English. I wander around for about 30 minutes, but can't make heads nor tails of the situation. Finally, I give up.

Now, at this point I could have taken a tour bus to the wall, or even hired a minitaxi to take me. But I didn't. I was so disgusted at myself for not being able to take the local buses that I lost all interest in going to the wall at all. And so, I ended up missing my opportunity to see the Great Wall.

I don't know why I act this way. I am on vacation, and yet I end up pushing myself to be less "touristy" and get off the beaten track. And because of that, I miss out on a fantastic experience like the Great Wall. Why do I feel the need to make every vacation more and more of an endeavor?

  • * *

After getting out of my funk, I had a good day in Beijing. I wandered around the town, and noted for sure what Coco had meant the day before when she said that they were tearing down the Hutong. High rises were going up everywhere. I saw lots of large lots surrounded by boards announcing new luxury condos and office tours. In one, I could still see people living in the Hutong alleys that were slated for a quick destruction.

2005 11 03.. Growth.JPG

The Hutong is basically slums, so I can't complain about them being torn down. People deserve nicer places to live. But I do have to wonder about where the Hutong residences are being displaced to. In place of the Hutong it all seemed to be luxury condo buildings. I doubted they could afford to move from the Hutong into those buildings.

2005 11 03 C Hutong.JPG

Anyway, I am glad I got the opportunity to see it all before it disappears.

  • * *

That night, I was wandering back to my hotel after dinner, and came across a large square in the Hutong by my hotel. In the darkened square, women were line dancing to Chinese pop music.

That's the amazing thing about the Chinese. They are completely open. They wander around singing in public and line dance or do tai chi in the park. The spit in public and pick their noses. They use open public toilets without embarrassment. And they stare at what they are interested in. It's not rude, it's just open.

2005 11 04..ng West.JPG

All the staring at me in Jining wasn't malicious in any way, it's just that they were interested in what a white dude was doing sitting in a train station in rural China. I noticed that the Chinese stare at all sorts of stuff - people getting tickets, couples arguing, people haggling over goods. In Canada, were interested in all these things, but we hide our interest and instead take furtive glances and strain to overhear. In China, they just walk up and see what is going on.

Any discomfort with this is my problem, not theirs. I am, after all, the foreigner in Beijing. I'm the stranger, but the land is only strange to me. To the Chinese, it's life.

Posted by GregW 17:03 Archived in China Tagged travel_dangers Comments (0)

Destroying the myth of the romance of train travel

From Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia to Jining, China and onto Beijing, China


View Train from Paris to Hong Kong on GregW's travel map.

From Ulaan Baator, my train journey took me to Jining, China, where I transfer to a train to Beijing, China.

The train ride from Ulaan Baator was okay. After calming myself after the event with the police in Ulaan Baator, I meet my new cabin mates. There is an elderly couple and their adult daughter. The daughter speaks French and Italian, so we can communicate to each other in French.

I learn that they are travelling to Hohhot in China to go to a hospital. I looked at her elderly parents, and decided not to enquire any more. Frankly, the train journeys were starting to wear on my emotional state, and I didn't think I could confront the concept of sick parents and mortality without breaking down.

The ride is nice enough. The Mongolians have brought a movable feast with them of bread, mutton, dumplings and berry preserve, which they share with me. It saves me from having to eat another bowl of reconstituted noodles.

We pass through the Gobi desert mostly. The desert is more rocky than sandy, I see a lot of gravel covered dirt with small tufts of dry looking grass. More wild horses are seen, as well as lots of cows and sheep. There are even a few camels. But it all passes by so quickly, and there is no chance to really examine the landscape.

2005 11 01.. Desert.JPG

We arrive in Jining, where I leave the train. Instead of the agent waiting for me with my ticket as I step off the train (as has usually happened), I have to wander the station to try and find the "Inter Tours" operator. I have a card with the name of the tour company written in Chinese, but no one seems to be able to assist me. Finally, a Chinese man approaches me (the only white face in the station) and hands me my ticket. Instead of the 8pm train I was expecting to receive, the ticket is for a 1:30 am train. I try and explain that I wanted the 8pm train, but the Inter Tours agent speaks no English, and I can't communicate my desires to him with mime.

Instead, I try and change the ticket at the various ticket offices around the station. I am told repeatedly I can't change the ticket, though why I am not sure. One lady seemed to indicate that I would have to buy a whole new ticket, another said it was because it was for a different day (the 8pm train was Nov 1, 1:30 in the morning would be Nov 2). Another lady said it was because I had a sleeper car, and the 8pm train didn't have sleeping cars. At least, that was my understanding of the sign language they indicated to me. No one spoke English.

I sat down in the station on the hard plastic orange chair, and got out my itinerary. At that moment, I noticed that my hotel in Beijing was booked for the 1st of November. But I wouldn't be arriving until the 2nd. I found a phone, and called the hotel. Luckily they spoke English, but said that there was nothing they could do. If I wanted to cancel a day on the reservation, I should have called 48 hours in advance. So I would have to pay for 3 days of hotel, even though I was only staying for 2 days. "Fantastic," I said to myself, sarcastically, and wandered out of the train station and onto the square in Jining.

I examined the scene in front of me. Lots of Chinese people hurried back and forth from building to building. A million watts of neon signs glowed in front of me, none of them with an English letter on them. I had 6 hours in Jining, but no Chinese money, no map and I couldn't find a left luggage office or lockers for my bags. The thought of trying to find a money exchange or ATM in Jinjing and not getting lost while dragging around my bag didn't feel that appealing, so I wandered back into the station and sat back down on the hard plastic chairs.

Everyone stared at me. I was the only white person in the station, and the Chinese didn't hide their fascination. I could feel all the eyes on me, and I hadn't showered or shaved in 8 days. I was alone in a strange place with no money. I tried to shrink in my chair, to hide from my situation. But there was no hiding from it.

A woman sat down across from me, eyes glassy from drugs or drink. She started to sing a mournful song. Soon the station attendants were surrounding her, telling her to keep quiet. Their voices echoed around the big, empty hall, harsh and unfriendly. Everyone stared at the confrontation. The woman continued her sad song, and started to cry. On the other side of the hall, a couple started arguing. The station floor was sticky and dirty. I wanted to be out of there. I wanted to be home.

  • * *

If 8 days of train travel without showers had left any impression on me that there was any romance in train travel, the train from Jining to Beijing drained it from me.

Instead of the sleeper compartments I had on the rest of the journey, I was in an open dorm sleeper car, sharing space with 66 other people, stacked in beds three high. I was near the end of the car and the bathroom. All night people wander past me on their way to the squat toilet. The car started to smell like burning coal from the water heater, and the air became thick. The train creaked and shuttered all night, the door to the bathroom squeaked loudly. People shuffled and tossed in their beds. I hardly slept at all.

2005 11 01..uarters.JPG

The train moved very slowly, covering a distance of 498 km in 9 hours. A plane would knock that out in an hour, a car in 5 or 6 hours. For a train with such utilitarian sleeping conditions, it didn't offer much in the way of utility as a method of travel.

The sun rose, and I stared out the window. Some amazing scenery was passing me by as we went in and out of long tunnels and mountain passes. I watched the great wall and temples flow by, but I couldn't care less. I just wanted to get to Beijing and be done with the train. This was no longer any fun, it was an incredible hassle, and I just wanted it to be over.

Posted by GregW 16:50 Archived in China Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

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