We have just spent a week in Bĕijīng. It started badly with disempowering and scamming, then improved greatly, to be pleasantly surprising and wowing.
Our first activity in Bĕijīng was to apply for our Russian visas. In my experience, applying for a visa is one of the world’s more disempowering activities, and the Russian visa process took this to a whole new level. Disempowering factor 1 – we live in Chéngdū where there is no visa office, but we have to turn up in person, so we had to arrange our travel to include a week in Bĕijīng – fortunately not too difficult because we wanted to visit anyway. Disempowering factor 2 – we have to have booked flights and accommodation to get the visa, but if they don’t give us the visa, we can’t use any of it. Disempowering factor 3 – we filled in the online form, and turned up with all our documents as outlined on the website, but felt that the rules about what was and was not okay were being made up as we sat there. Our photos were not on shiny photographic paper so we had to have them redone. New Zealanders don’t need insurance so my person wanted me to change my online form to say that I did not have any. But, I do, I said. I don’t want to lie. I do not understand why we cannot leave it there. Eventually her manager noticed the stroppy woman querying her staff member, came over, and said that while it was not mandatory, I could leave it there. The manager also said, when I insisted that my person go and ask her, that I did not have to redo my online form because the system had added a space in the middle of the six digit postcode on the printed version of my application. Disempowering factor 4 – the prices for New Zealanders are higher than for Chinese people – ‘don’t take any notice of those prices, they are defined by country, yours are higher’. Disempowering factor 5 – ‘we only take cash, and because you didn’t know the price for you is greater, you don’t have enough cash on you. So, off we went to find the nearest ATM. Disempowering factor 6 – because of disempowering factor 1, we can only find out a day before we leave whether or not we have the visas.
Fortunately, we got them yay!
After the visa office, we headed off to the Forbidden City and Tiānānmén Square. When we got there, a charming man came up to us and let us know that the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays for repairs. He invited us to go and see an art exhibition’ for free’. We followed him and saw some Chinese art – which he invited us to purchase. Raymond was tempted, but I said no, we already have to much. He showed us ones he had drawn as a ‘student of art at the university’. He then picked up a brush and drew my Chinese name on a piece of paper, suggested I could have it hung on a silk background. I declined, but paid him for my hand written name – more than it was worth, but not so much that we really minded.
We then continued walking, thinking we would get a sense of the lie of the land for our visit the next day. A friendly voice called out hello and we started talking to a couple of teachers from Xiān – one teaching English and one teaching Chines literature – who were in Bĕijīng for training. A friend who was studying Chinese medicine was also with them. They suggested we have a cup of tea together, and we walked to a tea house. They ordered a few different sorts of tea and we had a lovely time conversing about China and New Zealand. They then suggested we have a glass of wine together for Christmas so we did that – with me starting to feel a little uncomfortable. They suggested a second, but by this time, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I had mentioned to Raymond as we traveled on the subway about our friend Rachel’s Bĕijīng story that she had told us last year when we were in London. She and her friends had been scammed by a tea house thing. I started to think maybe we had fallen for it as well – but how could I think that – they were so nice and interesting, and interested, and they were teachers, and they weren’t from Beijjing, so how could they be ripping us off – or were they?
I was starting to do sums in my head of what might be reasonable, while Raymond was blissfully chatting away in we are all friends mode. We were in a separate room, just us, and we had never seen a menu. They suggested we pay half each, and asked for the bill. It was five, or maybe ten, times the going rate! I queried the amount. They brought out the menu with the exorbitant prices on. As they presented the bill , one of them, continuing the friends’ ambience that had sucked us in in the first place, even suggested we exchange emails.
I was gearing up to resist, but Raymond’s ‘we pay bills’ and ‘they are so friendly’ attitudes were in full swing, so he had paid by the time I decided it was exactly the scam Rachel had warned us of. They then had the gall to suggest we go to the Square together, I told them they had ripped us off and stomped off down the road – more annoyed at myself for being so gullible and slow thinking. It is hard to describe how we were so slow to react because of the clever way they treated us like friends, throwing in a bit of flattery. I also think we foreigners (well Raymond and me anyway) can be a little arrogant and assume people want to talk to us, especially because we have English. So, they played on that too.
By the time we were half way down the road, we had worked out what we should have done – but it was too late. It took all my self-control not to go over and over it in my mind for the rest of that day, and some of the next. Two things helped me – ‘it is only money’, and ‘between the four of them they were not making that much money each’. I moved to feeling compassion for how hard up they must be to have to earn their money that way. But, it hurt for a while – how could we fall for it when I had been warning Raymond as we traveled in on the subway, and feeling betrayed by ‘friends’.
It was so different to our experience with the art guy. He clearly wanted to take our money, but in exchange for something, and it was clear what was going on the whole time. He was charming, but not pretending to want to be our friend.
As soon as we got back to our hotel, Raymond checked with his Chinese colleague and friend from school whether or not we could cancel the payment. We couldn’t. But Damon made us laugh when he said ‘I have told you to be careful., and not trust any Chinese, not even me’. Actually, we are grateful for the many positive experiences we have had in Chéngdū, and our friends like Damon.
Here is Raymond still innocent, walking across the bridge, through the archway onto the walkway where we met our ‘friends’, and, the next day, outside the fateful tea house.
We were pleasantly surprised by Bĕijīng’s air quality. The government, in its new five year plan, is determined to deal with the pollution in Chinese cities, starting with the capital. An example of how quickly things can happen once a decision is made to change things, they recently turned off the coal fires warming Bĕijīng, and switched to natural gas. It certainly worked. Every day was beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies. Although, we heard that the natural gas supply did not quite meet the heating needs of the wider population, so some rural people in this region suffered in cold houses to achieve the environmental targets. Another interesting example of socialism, north of a certain latitude (Chéngdū is south of this, Bĕijīng is north of this), the Chinese government provides heating free of charge for everybody during the winter months.
We also found the city very easy to get around on the subway. And, like Chéngdū, it has many interesting places and buildings. I think we are turning into big city folk – we like crowds who you can follow to tourist spots, and the convenience of restaurants, shops and transport being close to everywhere you go.
Finally, we were wowed by experiencing more of China’s amazing history.
The terrain where the Great Wall stands today was first used about 500BC, and further developed a few hundred years later . Its present form was developed about 700 years ago. Iis so impressive seeing it wind up and down over the hills, and to walk on it thinking how long it has been used to defend this empire. And what an engineering feat it was when it was built. Like other great structures from earlier times, I would not want to have been the manual labour, but it is still mind blowing in its achievement.
Then, the history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace fascinated us – especially because we both recently read of the Empress Dowager Cixi who influenced China in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. She and her sons lived in these two palaces so we walked around the Summer Palace lake picturing her having walked the same path. It was sad to read of how the Europeans destroyed some of the grandeur of both of these buildings in the mid 1800s. Empress Cixi really wanted to restore the grandeur of the Summer Palace – allegedly stealing money from the Chinese navy to do it.
It was moving to stand in Tiānānmén Square. It was quite empty and cold, but we reflected on that moment in history that we westerners remember. The National Museum on the edge of the Square was not so impressive. The building is amazing, but the building’s design seemed to make it hard to find exhibits, and those we did find were not as informative, or national, as others we have seen elsewhere.
We also went to an acrobatic show. It was traditional Chinese acrobatics, such as I remember from circuses coming to Auckland in the early 70s. But, it is always great to see what people can do with their bodies, the total trust these teams have to have of their fellow acrobats – such as when they had seven motorbikes riding around in a relatively small metal sphere, or nine women riding on one bicycle. I was reminded that China is where many of those traditional forms of entertainment began.
So, a mixed experience – a day of humility followed by three days of wonder.