China – First (or rather, early) Impressions


This year (2004) has seen me travel to China for the first time. In fact, I have now travelled twice to China (if you do not count the trips to Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and it has resulted in some impressions that I just feel compelled to share. The thing about these impressions is precisely that, they are impressions. Still, I trust that they will assist first and second time travellers to China.

Shenzhen

I have now been to China twice. I guess, therefore, it is time for me to put down some first impressions. At this stage, remember that these have been business trips and I really have not had too long to look around. At the time of writing this, I have been to Beijing and Shenzhen. Worlds apart they are. Beijing is, of course the capital of China, becoming a little cosmopolitan in some areas and a place where everyone is out to make a buck.

Shenzhen is newer (and a little smaller). The brainchild of the one of the older Premiers of China, Deng XiaoPing, 20 years ago it was a small town whose only real claim to fame was being across a creek (maybe an artificially made one) from the Hong Kong New Territories. Its importance was recognised and a new town grew there. The town tends to be based around technology and its proximity to Hong Kong. There is a ferry service from Hong Kong Airport to Shenzhen as well as several bus services running from Hong Kong Airport as well as downtown Kowloon, even though Shenzhen has its own international airport.

I must praise the Eternal East Bus Company (who have a desk at the Airport in Hong Kong) who helped me out the first time I took this route. I had been given two names for the hotel I was staying at in Shenzhen, both in English, neither correct. Remember, the hotel name was the English transliteration of the Chinese sounds for the name of the hotel, and they were written by someone whose English was not too good. No Wade-Gillies transliterations here. The girls from the bus company worked something out with my Chinese contact, Francis, and JiaZhong from the company I was visiting and they took me to probably the most exclusive hotel in Shenzhen where JiaZhong met me later. It was a plan B and it worked well.

Shenzhen itself is a long thin city with the majority of its inhabitants having come from other areas of China – requiring a special permit to settle there. There are lots of new buildings and not so many old buildings. It is a tall city with most of the high-rise buildings (apartment or office) being quite tall. It is not uncommon to see apartment buildings up around 30 floors or more here with office towers even taller.

There is also a lovely park in Shenzhen (I used to look out my hotel window in the morning and watch people doing their Tai-Chi there) that has a hill on top of it. This is significant, as most of the hills in Shenzhen have been removed so that new buildings can all be built on flat level ground. So, this park has a hill and at the top of the hill, there is a statue of Deng XiaoPing, so I have started referring to the park as Mr Deng’s Park and Mr Deng’s Hill. I think the significant thing is that the Chinese have a deep love of gardens and there are many throughout the city, tucked away on rooftops, in between buildings and then there are the parks themselves.

Shenzhen was remarkably clean for a Chinese city, certainly compared to Beijing, and please remember that I had travelled there from Seoul so had the cleanliness of Seoul as a comparison in my head at the time. Shenzhen was also lush. Being close to Hong Kong, it has the same climate that Hong Kong has, with cool (but not cold) winters, and hot, wet and humid summers.

Because people from all over China have populated Shenzhen, many different Chinese cooking styles can be found there. Eating in Shenzhen was a pleasure – except for breakfast at the Chinese Hotel I first stayed in that only served five types of Congee.

Credit Cards in Shenzhen

So there was Thomo, shacked up in a nice little Chinese Hotel in Shenzhen. Actually, I was in a quite large room, with TV that gave me some English, and some really interesting English language signs in the room (you can see some of them in the photo gallery of Thomo’s Hole). Breakfast was included in the room price and whilst only five kinds of Congee was a bit of a bummer, overall, it was not a bad deal.

The night before Thomo is due to check out and head to Beijing, however, he checks at the desk to make sure there are no problems. Well, there are no problems except for the small fact that the hotel does not take any foreign credit or charge cards, at all. “Hmm”, thinks Thomo, “I am glad I checked this out at the end of the stay rather than the start”.

Always I like to have a Plan B.

“Any ATMs nearby that take Visa then,” I asked.

“Yes. Over there near the McDonalds there is one,” says the bloke behind the counter, although with somewhat more of a Chinese accent than I can manage.

“Alright, we’ll head over to that one then,” I said to my Chinese work compatriot.

We arrived at the ATM and just as I am about to stick my card into the machine, the security guard next to the machine says in Chinese to my compatriot, “you know that only issues Hong Kong Dollars on a foreign card?”

“No,” says compatriot in Chinese. Thomo looks confused (a look that Thomo is particularly good at).

“Yes,” says the security guard.

After a discussion, I learn that the hotel does not take foreign currency either. I ended up having my compatriot pay the bill and I fixed him up with cash when I got to Beijing.

Moral of this story – even though it is in a special development zone and just across the creek from Hong Kong, don’t expect that it is as up to date as Hong Kong is … carry a chunk of cash as well. I also suspect that the machine would have issued Yuan on the foreign card (the ones at Shenzhen airport did) but that the security guard was not sure. I must withdraw from that machine next time I am in Shenzhen again just so I can see what does dispense.

Smoking

Yep. The Chinese still do. Lots of it. Everywhere. Even in no smoking areas. Light up and away you go. China is perhaps the worst part of Asia for this, certainly that I have been to. Even in the airport at Shenzhen, in the no smoking coffee shops and restaurants, people smoked. They were blithely ignorant of those around them (some passive smoking I can stand but not waves of smoke billowing at me).

Of course, with smoking there is also lots and lots of expectoration, everywhere. Worse even than Korea and it is rather widely spread and unpleasant there. Hong Kong is, of course, the exception with large fines for this and a public awareness campaign to encourage people not to spit, to help reduce the spread of disease. Advertisements to this effect run each night on Hong Kong TV which is a blessing in a Shenzhen hotel room as it is TV in English most of the time.

Shenzhen Airport was great – two terminal buildings and if you are travelling domestically, a 50:50 chance of getting the right building. The entire terminal (both buildings) are smoke free…. except for Chinese gentlemen sitting in coffee shops who seem sure that the rules apply to everywhere else in the airport and everyone else in the airport.

Beijing and Parks

I spent a few days in Beijing after being in Shenzhen for a week. If Shenzhen wasn’t bad enough with credit cards, well, the hotel in Beijing was even more fun. However, near the hotel was a pagoda (which will appear in the Gallery at some time in the not too distant future), which was part of a large park. It was great, walking to the entrance of the park, past small industries set up on the footpath. The man who repaired pushbikes was next to the barber who cut his customers hair on the footpath. This was truly a fun area.

The park was also full of fascinating and interesting people. There were people practising their Tai Chi. Others (generally older folks) were spinning tops and performing tricks with the spinning top along the string used to set them spinning. Children ran and laughed and all enjoyed the cherry blossoms that were in full bloom.

At one end of the park there is a small lake with a Gazebo next to it. This is set in some trees and is a favoured position for the taking of wedding photos. In China (as in most of the rest of Asia), it seems that most brides want the traditional western white wedding. I am not sure if this is a result of Disney movies and such or whether it is simply such a magnificent example of the best things of western culture … whatever the reason, white weddings with the full blown bridal and groom kit are de rigueur in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia that I am aware of. Probably given the Philippines Catholic background, they could be added to that list as well.

Tianamen Square

Tianamen Square is a famous tourist destination in Beijing. All tourists head there eventually, not only to look at spots where students stood in front of tanks, but also because it is an area bounded by the Forbidden Palace, a Museum, it’s near the South Gate and the Archer’s Gate as well as the old Railway Station and, of course, the old town (or as it is sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek I suppose, in Beijing …. Chinatown). I had a few hours spare on a Sunday before meetings in the evening so, I thought, Tianamen Square’ll do. There is a museum nearby, must be loads of taxis and besides, the Great Wall is just a shade too far to get to and get back from in time to make my meetings in the evening. Tianamen Square it was. I went to Tianamen Square.

What follows is pretty much a record of my five or six hours in that area.

Taxi Driver Argument

So I arrived by taxi to the museum next to Tianamen Square. There outside the museum was another taxi an old lady, a younger lady, a gentleman and small child or two, all engaged in heated argument. The security guards from nearby buildings as well as other passers-by all stopped to watch the argument develop. Now, I do not speak Chinese so I can only really guess at what the argument was over, but given that an area of the taxi kept being pointed towards and also given that the older lady was trying to wipe or clean something, either they managed to scratch the taxi when getting out or someone made a mess inside the taxi. The result was the man throwing some money at the by now yelling taxi driver and walking off.

Now normally I would not have mentioned this other than it was my first experience in this area and was, in fact, probably the least bizarre event of the day.

Thief

Recovering from the aggravation around the taxi, I walked off towards the open square – which was closed at the time due to some high ranking party meeting on the other side of the square and the Chinese desire not to have messy tourists messing the area up whilst important people were about. Having travelled about 30 metres towards the square I am bumped into by a woman running with a stack of 10 hats. She gives the stack of 10 hats to another woman as a man runs up. He sees the hats and starts railing at the second woman. She commences railing back and attempts to run off. The man grabs the hats. There is much more yelling and a couple of open-handed slaps are exchanged.

I should note again at this point that the same audience that viewed the goings on with the taxi driver were now interested spectators in this exchange.

The man then forcefully grabs to woman’s arm and with difficulty (he is holding her in one hand and the hats in another) points off towards where there are some policemen. She appears to cease railing and start pleading. He drags her off to the side. He rails, she pleads and the police start walking over. All goes quiet then as it appears as though the man and the woman have made an accommodation of some sort.

The thing that confused me the most was that the woman who first bumped into me was the one carrying the hats and had given them to this woman. The man who later came up appeared to ignore the lady that had bumped into me.

Curious, thinks Thomo, still, it will be a nice quiet Sunday from now on.

In Yer Face

Thomo travels another 30 metres. Enter the street venders. There are a lot of guys selling maps, tourist guides, souvenir books and such and they descend like a plague of locusts. Now it just so happened that one of the souvenir books was the same as one I had seen at the hotel earlier in the day. The main difference was that if I purchased it at Tianamen Square then it would cost me 20 Yuan more than at the hotel.

I managed to make my way past the map and booksellers only to be accosted by the sellers of baseball and other hats (but not, it seems, by the gentleman or either of the ladies mentioned earlier). Argh! I managed to struggle down to near where the museum was.

English Language Students and Professors Art Collections

Then a quite attractive young lady of about 22 or 23 years of age walks up to me and says, “Hi, do you speak English?”

“Yes” says Thomo.

“I am a final year English student and wondered if you would mind if we talked for a bit, so I can practice my language?”

“No problem” says Thomo

“Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing in China?” The questions flow. Conversation occurs for about 5 minutes then attractive English student says, “My professor of art is having an exhibition here in the museum, would you like to have a look at his paintings?”

“OK” says Thomo, after all, it is in the museum building so must be OK.

Attractive English student then takes Thomo into a doorway (which incidentally has a number of other attractive and presumably English language students in it) and up a staircase into a gallery full of paintings. We walk around and look at the artworks whilst she explains the meaning of some of the pieces as well as noting who painted them (“this one is by my professor, this by his friend, these are painted by me”). The professor brings tea. Then the attractive English student lets Thomo know that due to space limitations all the works are up for sale but are heavily discounted.

Thomo thanks them for the tea and notes that whilst the art is attractive and certainly cheap, he is not buying any and leaves. Well, it took a bit to leave as all sorts of reasons for buying were proffered as well as a number of discounts…. and that was before the haggling began.

I walked outside and bought and drank a bottle of water, then went into the museum and looked around. There is some nice exhibits in the museum.

I came back out of the museum and by this stage Tianamen Square was open again. Jeffro had asked for a photo so I started to move towards the crossing when an attractive young lady came up to me and said, “Hi, do you speak English?”

“Yes” says Thomo.

“I am a final year English student and wondered if you would mind if we talked for a bit, so I can practice my language?”

“No problem” says Thomo. Then Thomo asks, “the rest of this conversation will be you inviting me to examine your professors art show over there then inviting me to purchase some paintings, will it not?”

“Well, actually the exhibit is over there” she says and then notes “I am really bad at this – I haven’t sold anything for two days, what is wrong with me?”

“Nothing” says Thomo “other than you are standing too far away from the museum entrance – stand over there and you will do better.”

We did actually have a nice conversation after that when she explained to me that there were about four “exhibitions of artwork” all running at the same time and about 30 “English Students” inviting foreigners to look at the paintings and buy.

English Language Students and Tea Houses

So, I got across to the other side of the road and into Tianamen Square proper. Two attractive young ladies approach Thomo and note that they are “English language students and would I mind if they practiced English with me?”

“Are you going to sell me some artwork?” asks Thomo.

They look perplexed. “No” they respond.

“OK” says Thomo.

So, I ended up with one English language student and her friend from her hometown who was visiting (and did not speak English) walking around and chatting with me. In this case though, well, near as I can tell anyway, there was no economic motive other than perhaps to get the foreigner to buy afternoon tea (or high tea) perhaps and over order so that the extra food could be taken back in a doggie bag by the girls to their apartment.

They also enjoyed drinking tea at inflated prices in a teahouse as well as getting some tea when I bought some Oolong to take back to Australia.

OK, so they probably were paid a cut by the teahouse for ushering foreigners into the teahouse. Seems that everyone in Tianamen Square at least is on the make, trying to screw a quid from the foreigners.

Coffee In Cheap Hotels

Te hotel I stayed at in Beijing was absolutely the cheapest either Francis or I had stayed at in Beijing. Breakfast was 15 Yuan and consisted of omelette, toast, salad and coffee. Coffee by itself cost 18 Yuan.

“Hmm”, thinks Thomo, “I wonder?”

So, in the afternoon I ask the waitress for a cup of coffee and ask her what the price is. She replies “18 Yuan”.

“Can I order breakfast at any time during the day?” asks Thomo.

“Certainly,” says the waitress.

“And breakfast is 15 Yuan is it?” asks Thomo.

“15 Yuan,” confirms the waitress.

“And breakfast comes with coffee?” inquires Thomo.

“Yes it does,” confirms the waitress.

“OK,” says Thomo, “please, can I have breakfast but I am not really hungry so can you bring me breakfast please but do not bring the salad, the toast or the omelette?”

“No,” says the waitress “because that is now coffee which costs 18 Yuan and not breakfast which costs 15 Yuan!”

“Argh!” exclaims Thomo.

Driving in Beijing

The company I was visiting promised me a lift to the airport when I was leaving Beijing. We were a little late leaving though and the traffic was wicked on the ring road and the road out to the airport. No problem really though as we were in a large black car which was effectively invisible to all other road users so we were able to drive up on the stopping area beside the marked lanes on the road. This was typical of driving in Beijing. Ah well.

We did make the airport in time although in some respects it would have been better had we failed.

Flights from Beijing

Travelling back to Shenzhen from Beijing was preceded by a memorable check-in and flight period. I almost slapped an old fella who walked down to the front of the check-in queue (all 50 of the check-in queues were at least 10 deep with passengers) to check in ahead of us all as he had “no baggage, no baggage”, well near as us English speakers could make out from what he was saying. Normally I would not have let this disturb my karma but the Chinese (and certainly the older Chinese) have little or no idea about queuing. He got agitated when I kept pointing the to back of the queue and suggesting he go there. In the end, another Chinese bloke (in fact, the guy standing in front of me in the queue) leapt into the discussion and the old fella got even more agitated (as we think the Chinese bloke was telling him in no uncertain terms where to go and it related to the back of the queue again).

Now, it is not like the queue was a fast moving one either. Thomo managed to pick a queue that had a group check-in going on. This meant we had to wait for 27 people to be checked in. So the old fella, deciding that there were some unpleasant people in the queue and anyway, it was moving way too slowly for him, tries to leap to the front of the next check-in queue – the Air China girl behind that check-in position, pointing, tells the old fella to “go to the back of the queue”. The old fella comes back and hovers near us again with the Chinese guy and me glaring at him.

He waited until after I had checked in then forced himself in in front of the two Chinese ladies behind me!

We were to board at gate 40 at Beijing airport. After having gone through the security check, I got to the gate with minutes to spare (it was a chaotic afternoon, both on the road to the airport and at the airport itself). We were then all told that the gate had been changed to gate 41 (which is not actually next door to gate 40 but about 150 metres walk away, back towards the security area). A mad sprint by all the passengers there occurs and then a queue forms. Actually, this is one time that a queue has to form as gate 41 is in the same area as gates 42, 43, 44, 45 and 46 and they are all controlled through a cattle race type arrangement. Mind, this didn’t stop one gentleman trying to squeeze past everyone else in the queue to get to the front. Hey guys, it is an aeroplane and your seat is assigned (not even rush or free seating) so what is the point? Eventually we board.

The flight crew closes the door and the sky bridge is disengaged. The ‘plane starts to be pushed back. The ‘plane loses ALL power (even the auxiliary engine at the back of the aircraft that provides the power when the main engines are off shuts down). The emergency lighting comes on (I have now managed finally to see the much spoken about floor lighting guiding me to an exit but I can’t see how it guides, it was just a line of blue lights, no direction indication at all). It is at this point that Thomo sighs and thinks “how long is the train trip – 2 days – it maybe worth it”.

They continue to back the plane up and out to the taxiway. After about 5 minutes, they get the auxiliary engine restarted. We have power again. The quiet in the cabin is replaced by the hum we all know and detest. The air starts blowing again, cooling the cabin. One of the other passengers sneezes vigorously – not the sound you want to hear a country that has had SARS and Avian Flu. Other Chinese passengers look at the sneezer with a look that reflects the way I am feeling. However, I digress. We have been backed out to the taxiway and we have managed to get power restored again. The usual procedure in this case is to sit and run part of the pre-flight check again. Not our intrepid Captain Chan. He did the rest of the pre-flight AFTER he had started all the engines and was taxiing to the runway.

Yep, you can work this next bit out I reckon. We got to the runway. We rolled along the runway for about 50 metres with nothing much happening. We stopped. We started rolling again and then managed enough power to taxi off the runway. The flight crew announced that we had “developed a fault in the indicators that an engineer needed to look at”. Yeah, right! It was the same bloody fault that they had back at the terminal but were hoping it went away (thank you Mr Airbus for designing aircraft to stop jockeys just taking off). I wondered, was the fault that the indicator was malfunctioning or was the indicator indicating a problem.

We parked. The stewardesses (all have university degrees in China, similar to the other airlines of Asia) served water. Some passengers got agitated. Then annoyed. Then there was some yelling and carrying on (like a stewardess can do anything to fix an aeroplane?. Some passengers demanded to be let off the ‘plane and picked up their carry on baggage heading to the front of the aircraft. The passengers around me rearranged their seating.

Eventually (two hours later and minutes short of the first murder on board) we started the engines again and started taxiing out. Those passengers who had demanded to be let off returned to their seats, causing another shuffling of passengers. We took off. We took to the air and flew south west for about 200 kilometres. Shenzhen is almost due south of Beijing so I do wonder what the flight plan was that was filed. Mind you, we kept altering our altitude in the flight, between 30,000 feet and 39,000 feet, perhaps to avoid some of the turbulence we hit later in the flight. Yep. It was a bumpy flight to boot.

To help relax the passengers, an in-flight movie was shown. It is a 3-hour flight, Beijing to Shenzhen, but the movie was started late enough into the flight to ensure we missed the last 20 minutes of it (another movie to hire from Video Ezy coming up I expect).

We arrived in Shenzhen about 2 hours late (Captain Chan had made up some time on the flight). I had very complete written in Chinese instructions on getting to my hotel in Shenzhen (around the corner from the last one I stayed at there). The taxi driver could not find the hotel. We drove around with the taxi driver getting more and more embarrassed and frustrated. Eventually he saw someone from the same taxi company and took instructions from him then followed him to the hotel. Where I should have checked in about 9 o’clock, it was 10 to midnight. Still, at least we can receive Hong Kong TV here in Shenzhen so I had the option of some English language TV again.

Shenzhen Airport and Taxi Rides (haggling)

When you arrive at the airport and head into town, there is little choice but to accept the metered fare from the taxi. Still, at least it is metered. Note, however, that when you are in town and heading out to the airport, it is possible if you have a Chinese speaking acquaintance handy, to haggle the cost of the taxi ride ahead of time and settle for a fixed price.


OK, there you are – first impressions of China. It is a country well worth visiting but remember to be a little more watchful for touts and such around areas like Tianamen Square. Given also that the Chinese tend to be a little business-like when dealing with foreigners. When things do not work right let them know (and certainly when old buggers try to jump the queue at the airport). It is a fascinating country though and it is well worth a look at.

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