Forbiden City Beijing

Temple of Heaven Beijing

A few thoughts thirty-five years after my first visit to Beijing when Mao blue or grey one-piece suits were the norm, women wore no lipstick, and cycles were the dominant means of transport for all except cadre members.

The food was then generally unappealing to the Western palate, foreigners had to use special currency notes and pay higher airfares than locals, and many city-dwellers lived in hutongs, traditional courtyard residencies in narrow street alleys. Of course there was no Google then but there's no Google now either as it is banned like Facebook and BBC sometimes.

As a 31 year old woman told us in Panjiayuan market, Confucian principles were strong, but today are much weaker overtaken by the thrust for material gain. The signs of growing wealth and confidence are everywhere: impressive uniquely Chinese modern architecture, international stores and hotels, young well-dressed young people in malls, markets and parks with trendy modern haircuts with just a few down-and-outs and beggars near major tourist sites or lounging on benches despite ever-present policemen and parked backup police vans. Employment levels must be high as it is said that one in twenty five people is employed keeping an eye on everyone else.

Restaurants are surprisingly difficult to track down in downtown areas except for KFC or Starbucks, often located on the second floor with tucked-away entrances at ground level. And want to buy a packet of tea in the country that invented it? No way. It can be expensive in cafes and hotels, especially for premium teas. However the quality and range of Chinese and other foods is much improved and I have not to my knowledge been offered bear's paw since the 1970s and at least they don't mangle Peking duck like Chinese restaurants in England.

The service in the modern-looking hotels, however, still has some way to go. Staff in the breakfast rooms look pretty but do not do much clearing away of dirty plates nor helping guests to track down cutlery or plates tucked away out of sight for some reason. And every staff member spends the majority of his/her time scrutinising the mobile phone, even to doorman when asked to track down a taxi which never seems to appear despite his best efforts. Uber was bought-out apparently. Just imagine if they had Google too, no more need for spoken Mandarin.

Many of the secondary roads are fortunately tree-lined, a boon when for example this year city temperatures in Xi'an and Beijing have been in the low to medium 40s centigrade for a month, exceptionally high.

Lane-changing is a national sport for every driver but seems to keep traffic moving quite well by international standards. In fact the infrastructure over all, airports, stations, roads, signage are all excellent though security checking of bags is ubiquitous, tiresome and cursory so probably useless other than to provide a threatening number of officious whippersnappers in uniforms too big for them like six-year-olds on their first day at school.

It has come as a bit of a shock to see quite significant numbers of foreigners after the rest of the tour where numbers were rarely more than a handful a day. English is not widely spoken and no-one in the capital wants to take our picture anymore. Too blasé. Some young bus and underground passengers do still apply Confucian principles by offering up theirs seats to their elders but generally just go about their business as if we were not there. At our now regular neighbourhood backstreet restaurant, the group of locals in grubby off-white shorts and vests sitting gambling on the pavement treat us like long lost friends.

Is it all this massive investment in property and infrastructure self-sustaining, along with their international investments in Africa, South America and elsewhere in Asia?

That's to 64,000 yuan question.

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