A Week in Beijing

July 1998

You really know you’re a foreigner when you’re in Beijing. The people, the food, the traffic, the buildings, and the other surroundings make it so very different from most other places I’ve visited. The experience was a positive one, thanks, in part, to our kind and helpful Chinese hosts. Without them, the week might have been trying at times. Would I go back? In a heartbeat, assuming that I had a good reason and local Chinese friends were available to help out.

The People. The Chinese people were friendly and they tried to help if they could. But no people on the street could speak English. Without a translator, you’re pretty much on your own.

Foreigners from Western nations get lots of stares from the Chinese people. We did too. They don’t see them much, so they are curious. I was later told that blue eyes particularly attract attention.

It’s relatively safe in China, even on the streets after midnight. Guns are illegal in the country.

In the evenings, older ladies on the street walk in circles to the rhythm of a drum and tambourine, as they wave large colorful fans. They do this mainly for exercise and to entertain themselves. I was told that they have little else to do.

Prices. Most products and services in China are inexpensive. You can get a haircut for $1, even at the hotel I stayed in. A full shampoo and style is under $2. A can of beer at the hotel was $.40 each. Breakfast at the hotel was $1.20.  A fine glass dragon I bought, about 10-inches long, was only $7. A colorful butterfly kite made from a special fabric that I bought at the airport was $7. An original hand painting on rice paper of the Great Wall of China was $7.  T-shirts were $2.40 each.

Taxi cabs were also inexpensive. A 45-minute ride to the airport was only about $11. In the US, a 45-minute ride would cost in the $40 to $50 range. On the day that we visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, we hired two taxi cab drivers. They picked us up early in the morning, took us wherever we wanted to go, and waited for us as we saw the attractions. The total cost for each cab was $50. There were four of us, so it only cost $25 each for the day. In the US, the cost would have run into the hundreds.

When we were at the Forbidden City, we were running short of time, so we hired two three-wheel peddle-powered carriages that took us to our cabs. The cost for the two-mile journey was $2.40 for each carriage ($1.20/person). The young guys peddling got a work out. The guy peddling ours probably weighed 130 pounds. Meanwhile, the combined weight of the two of us and the carriage was probably 500 pounds.

Automobiles and Traffic. Most cars in China are small. Volkswagen is the most popular brand. Rarely did I see American cars and even more rarely did I see large American or European cars.

I have never seen so many bicycles, three-wheelers, people, and cars mixed together on the same streets. It’s a mess; yet somehow, they co-exist. The night I arrived, I was shocked to see hundreds of bicycles on busy streets without lights or reflectors and it was dark. They were riding in and around cars like it was no big deal. Many times, our cab driver came close to hitting one of them. I have no idea how many get injured or killed each day, but the number must be high.

Jobs and Pay. Most Chinese people make very little money. Usually, a job comes with a home. A full professor at a university makes about $2,500 per year.

Food. The food was okay, but often you had no clue what the meat was, not to mention some of the slimy dishes. We had the famous Peking Duck, which is over rated. The second most traditional dish in Beijing is sweet and sour crayfish, which was much better.

Except for McDonalds, few restaurant chains exist in China. Most are very small family owned businesses in small shacks.

Economy. It was 20 years ago when the Chinese government began to privatize and transition to a market economy. Today, certain businesses, such as banks and Chinese drug stores, are still owned and operated by the government. There’s not much of a middle class in China. Either you’re very rich or very poor, but the ratio of rich to poor must be one in several thousand, with a population of 1.2 billion people.

Chinese Medicine. Chinese medicine is all natural, consisting of leaves, flowers, roots, herbs, etc., with no side effects, according to a Chinese friend, Jack, who now lives in the US. We visited a Chinese drug store where he bought more than $100 worth of medicine. He said that it would cost him more than $300 in the US and much of it he could not get. He believes strongly in the use of Chinese medicine, as do most Chinese people. Jack’s wife was a pediatrician in China.

A supply of 60 pills for hay fever was $.80, so I bought some for Diane, but she has not taken it. Jack said repeatedly that its all very natural with absolutely no harmful side effects. The drug store also sold penicillin, as well as a small handful of Western medicines, such as Tylenol and Bufferin.  This surprised Jack.

Hosts and Conference. My Chinese hosts were extraordinarily kind and helpful. They went out of their way time and again to look after my needs.

The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall of China is a *great* wall. I was told that it is one of two man-made structures that can be seen from outer space. The second is Las Vegas. The wall winds some 6,350 kilometers (almost 4,000 miles). The width, height, and length of it, coupled with the steep and rugged mountainous terrain, makes it one of the Seven Wonders of the world. What’s even more remarkable is that it was started in 212BC. If you ever visit Beijing, you must visit the Great Wall of China.

Ming Tombs. Interesting, but I wish we would have skipped it in favor of more time in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Built between 1409 and 1644, only three of the tombs are open to the public and only one has been fully excavated. I was expecting to see more than a bunch of large painted boxes deep in the ground.

Forbidden City. This is worth seeing, particularly because you can combine it with a visit to Tiananmen Square. They are adjacent to one another. From the square, you can see the main entrance to the Forbidden City, with a large portrait of Mao Zedong hanging above it, along with the words Long Live the People of China, written in Chinese Mandarin, of course. Mao led the Great Cultural Revolution in 1967, which launched a wave of terror in which opponents were banished to the countryside, tortured, or killed. For 500 years, the Forbidden City served as the source of all power in China. Consisting of 800 highly decorated buildings, the scale of the complex is hard to grasp.

Summer Palace. The Forbidden City was interesting, but if I had to choose between it and the Summer Palace, I would opt for the latter. The Forbidden City had many impressive buildings, but little else, with few trees, shrubs, and grass. The Summer Palace had the best of both: large, highly decorated buildings with beautiful royal gardens, ponds, and a large lake with Chinese boats. Also, it was developed on a hill, so you could see for miles on a clear day. It was misty and a little rainy the day we visited, so we couldn’t see very far. Built in 1888, the palace actually consists of many temples, pavilions, and other buildings and monuments.

Tiananmen Square. This was the location of the pro-democracy demonstration. Prior to moving to the US seven years ago, my friend, Jack, was a professor at a university near Beijing. About one-third of the students from his university were involved in the demonstration. One of his students was the treasurer of the organized demonstration, who was subsequently imprisoned for a lengthy period of time.  The event took place in 1989 when thousands of college students in China were in disagreement with many of the policies of the Communist Party. For example, they wanted the relatives of the government officials to not be allowed to go into private business because they used their influence for their personal gain. Mostly, they wanted government officials to come out and talk with them, but they would not and this made them very angry. The demonstration lasted more than a week and an estimated 200 students were killed.

Summary. China is one of the two most interesting places that I’ve visited. The other is Israel. The Chinese people have a steep hill to climb over the next several decades as they transition to a modern society. They have access to technology and a massive work force, but their poor infrastructure, poverty, and communist government are obstacles that they must overcome.

— Terry Wohlers

Copyright 1998 by Terry T. Wohlers