Tag Archives: China

China – Discovering Beijing

On my second day in the ‘Northern Capital’, I decided to officially turn into a tourist and take on the sights of Beijing starting with the most famous complex in town, the Royal Palace, a.k.a. the Forbidden City.

On my reconnaissance mission the night before, I had discovered a small travel agent near my hotel which advertised various day trips to sights in the Beijing area. I thought this would come in handy for longer trips where an organised tour could eliminate lengthy journeys by public transport and the possibility of not actually making it to the sight due to getting lost or being taken on a detour by an enthusiastic taxi driver with whom I can only communicate using hand signals.

Like most tourists, I had a list of essential attractions that I wanted to tick off during my short stay in the Chinese capital, at the top of which was, naturally, The Great Wall. To my relief, one of the ladies in the travel agent’s spoke perfect English and once we got talking, I knew I wouldn’t take my business anywhere else. After a brief chat, I quickly booked myself a trip to The Great Wall for the next day and asked her what route she suggested I should take to the Forbidden City. She waved her hands in the air and said ‘Oh, it’s not far. You can walk there from here.’ I was surprised to hear that as it didn’t look that close on the map, but I took her advice.

After having walked for about half an hour along one of the main thoroughfares of Beijing comprising an astonishing seven lanes on each side (yes, counting the number of lanes on each major road became my favourite pastime on this trip!), I was still nowhere near the Royal Palace. Lesson learned: ‘not far’ means ‘absolutely miles away and do not attempt to walk it unless you are a regular marathon runner’ when uttered by a resident of one of the largest cities on earth.

I didn’t mind the walk too much as it was a warm, sunny but pleasantly breezy day and being late morning, the humungous motorway by my side seemed to be almost void of traffic. The smog, however, was really getting to me. I did contemplate wearing a mask but I didn’t see many locals wearing one, so I reasoned that I would be fine, as I was only going to inhale those toxic fumes for a few days, while anyone living in this city would have to put up with it for a lifetime. It was a shame that even the strong May sunshine could not penetrate the thick layer of smoke generated by the approximately eight million private cars that use the enormous road network of this huge city on a daily basis. My throat and nose didn’t feel happy about the exposure to such a high concentration of unpleasant particles, but I carried on regardless.

About forty minutes into my walk to the ‘nearby’ tourist attraction, a very friendly middle-aged man joined me, who seemingly just happened to be walking in the same direction as me. His English was surprisingly good and he must have sensed that I had been deprived of my regular dose of daily conversation and would be more than happy to chat to him for a while. He said he was a teacher of calligraphy, which I found intriguing, and while talking about his life and asking questions about mine, he very ingeniously guided me to an art shop, where his friend was selling typical Chinese paintings depicting the four seasons, playful pandas and scenes of peaceful lakes with water lilies.

I couldn’t believe I had fallen for this again! Only the night before, while strolling along the shopping mall near my hotel, I had been approached by a ‘Professor of Art’, who also spoke surprisingly good English. I was happy to listen to him explaining the different styles of Chinese painting, the significance of certain motifs, such as plum blossom, and the four seasons representing the four stages in a person’s life. To me, it was a fascinating introduction to a culture and artistic style so different to ours and I didn’t mind spending some of my Yuan (quite a significant chunk of my cash, actually) in his lovely art gallery.

So here I was again, less than 24 hours since my last purchase, expected to buy at least two, perhaps three pieces of the amazing art hanging on the walls of this small shop. The salesman was very polite; I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by any means, but I definitely sensed his determination not to let me leave his shop with my purse full. Naturally, there was some haggling involved, where the price of a certain piece on silk miraculously dropped to half of its original tag after I’d explained that I was already the proud owner of four beautiful paintings by an unnamed Chinese artist. Eventually, I agreed to buy the silk scroll, and was persuaded to add just one other small piece with an extremely generous discount, before continuing my way to the Royal Palace.

Unsurprisingly, by the time I reached my destination, I was positively exhausted. And I hadn’t even entered the vast complex of halls and palaces that was supposed to be the highlight of my day. I sat down under a tree and had a snack and a bit of a rest before starting my tour of the finest example of Chinese imperial architecture.

Art gallery in Beijing

Art gallery in Beijing

Written by: Erika Arvai

Outside my hotel with the bell boys

China – First Impressions

I have recently had the privilege to visit a country that is most famous for its ancient history, the only man-made structure visible from outer space and its huge population, which − even after 35 years of strictly controlled one-child policy − exceeds 1.35 billion.

I was invited by Nationalities University in Dalian in the North-East of China to deliver lectures on business and leadership to its students of International Trade in May this year. On my way there, I decided to spend four days in Beijing, as it would have been a shame to pass through this ancient city without visiting some of its famous sights.

Beijing road

Beijing road

I had been warned to expect large buildings and great distances in the ‘Northern Capital’, but I could hardly believe my eyes when, having taken the ‘Sky Train’ from the airport to the city centre, I stepped out of the railway station in search of a taxi to the hotel. The road in front of me was the size of a large European motorway with five lanes on each side and a barrier in the middle acting as central reservation. I was hoping to hail a taxi from the pavement, but there was also a metal barrier separating pedestrians and cyclists from the road and I could not see an opening in it anywhere. I even ventured down into the subway hoping to be able to cross underground to the other side of the vast avenue but only ended up back at the metro station that I had come from.

Seeing my despair (and it is not easy for a European visitor with a large suitcase to blend into the local crowd), an octogenarian rickshaw driver in slippers approached me and asked if I wanted a lift. When I showed him the address of the hotel, which I had very smartly printed out in Mandarin before I left home, he shook his head and waved me to a taxi that had miraculously appeared between the pavement and the roadside barrier. I couldn’t have been more grateful! I didn’t even mind the fare he was going to charge me which, for a relatively short journey, turned out to be twice the cost of an airport transfer.

It was just as well that I hadn’t contemplated making my way to the hotel by public transport, as there was no way I could have carried my heavy suitcase up and down the numerous stairs that seem to be inherent to any underground journey in Beijing. Public transport in China seems to have been designed solely for able-bodied athletes. If you wonder why most Chinese are so slim and fit, this is one reason: in order to get from A to B without a chauffeur-driven car or a taxi you have to walk for miles and climb hundreds of stairs every time.

I was relieved to eventually arrive at my lovely hotel and to be greeted by English-speaking staff and a comfortable bed to sleep off some of my jet lag. In the evening, refreshed, I ventured out for a walk to discover my immediate surroundings. I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the hotel being near Beijing Railway Station, the area was far from dodgy or run down. In fact, it was very modern with tall office buildings and shopping malls, and also very clean and free from any rough sleepers or beggars you would normally expect in such a location in most other countries. The roads, however, were still vast.

On my first evening stroll, I decided to walk across the zebra crossing in front of the station, the memory of which still sends shivers down my spine. I obviously waited for the lights to turn green for pedestrians before starting my long walk across the ten lanes that this particular road consisted of, luckily in the company of some brave and experienced locals. However, once on the crossing, I was astonished to see cars turning from both left and right onto the zebra crossing and expecting the pedestrians to somehow vanish from their paths. I didn’t know which way to look and whether to keep walking or to start sprinting, so I simply decided to stick with the small group of determined locals and kept walking while trying to ignore the cyclists and rickshaw drivers who, at that point, also joined in the commotion. In a situation like this, having only two eyes is simply not enough! Since I’m only blessed with the usual one pair, and this was not an experience I wanted to repeat any time soon, on subsequent trips out, I insisted on using the subway nearby to get from one side of the road to the other. Where this wasn’t an option, i.e. on smaller roads only consisting of four lanes, I would check both ways, check again and then run for it, hoping no local driver would want to get involved with foreign insurance firms over injuring a European visitor.

On this first outing of mine, I decided to pop into the local supermarket. The layout of the shop was very similar to that of many supermarket chains in Europe where you can find everything from clothes and household appliances to fresh fruit, meat and fish under the same roof. It didn’t surprise me too much that approximately 70% of all the food on sale was unrecognisable to me either due to its appearance or its Mandarin labelling, or both.

I wasn’t on a mission to try some exotic Chinese delicacies on my first evening, though; I was actually hoping to find some bread. I know that in Oriental countries bread isn’t part of the essential diet like it is in Europe, but I thought a large supermarket in the centre of Beijing would surely cater for more unusual tastes. Having spent about half an hour looking at various shelves and walking up and down numerous isles, I decided to ask someone for help. I thought I was very well prepared for this adventure as I had downloaded a couple of Chinese translator apps to my phone at home and this was the time to put my new gadget to the test. I quickly discovered, however, that both my apps were completely useless without Wi-Fi and I wasn’t desperate enough to use mobile internet 5,000 miles away from home at rates of about 1 ounce of gold per megabyte, so I resorted to approaching young, professional looking women (assuming that they might speak some basic English) with my ‘Do you speak English?’ pronounced as slowly and clearly as humanly possible. The reactions to this ranged from sheer panic followed by a swift move away from the stranger to giggles or simply saying ‘no way’ in Mandarin.

Working for a translation agency and having great passion for foreign languages, I do appreciate the importance of speaking the local language when visiting other countries. I also normally try to learn a few local phrases before travelling somewhere new, but in this case I felt completely unprepared: I could not communicate with a single person in that shop. The fact that I did eventually find something that looked like sliced bread but tasted more like brioche (an added bonus?) was not thanks to my verbal abilities but rather to my determination of not leaving the supermarket empty handed.

If lessons are to be learned from our experiences in life, then my first evening in Beijing taught me to avoid road traffic in Chinese cities at all costs and it made me realise that one must not assume that English is the international language of our globalized world. China is very happy with its own language and culture and is in no hurry to give it up or adjust it to our convenience.

Written by: Erika Arvai

Hotel in Beijing

Outside my hotel with the bell boys