Wednesday, January 28, 2009

After a long time of wanting to go, I finally made it to the People's Republic of China this weekend, and it was really a glorious three days and change of witnessing the workers' revolutionary spirit or something like that. It was certainly a very instructive few days. When I managed to stay at a five-star hotel for $100 a night, I figured that Beijing would be a very cheap city, cheaper than Seoul, where you can have lunch for $2, ride the subway for $1 and buy a T-shirt for $7.

Right from the start, however, I was trapped in the massive tourist trap that is central Beijing. I was told not to catch a cab at the Beijing Railway Station, since the drivers there are scam artists, but I couldn't figure out where else to catch one. A sign on the cab plainly says that the first 2 km costs about $2, but they demanded $10 (the numbers are more significant in Chinese yuan).

At 11 pm, nestled close to Tiananmen Square without any restaurants in sight, we decided to eat at one of several restaurants in the hotel. This was the first of two nights that I ate dinner in a completely empty restaurant, thanks to Lunar New Year, which left the city deserted, or as deserted as a city of 15 million can be. A worker in rural China earns less than $60 a month, and our dinner came out to be just under $60. And so it went on: $80 at a famous roast duck restaurant, $40 at a North Korean restaurant, and $8 for a coffee in the hotel lobby when we were killing time before our flight.

Note: this doesn't even count prices at relatively high-end stores like Nike. Even though Nike shoes are made in China, they come back to China costing anywhere from $150-200. I saw Levi's jeans selling for $600 and a Columbia jacket for $1000.

In Beijing, I learned that just about everything can be faked. I saw more people wearing fake Nike goods than real ones. I saw fake watches (I paid $3 for a Fauxlex), fake clothes, fake shoes, fake electronics, fake handbags, fake jewelery, and the list goes on. My friend even claims his Corona was fake, and I saw a fake brand that inverted Nike's swoosh and Adidas' "impossible is nothing" into "anything is possible".

I learned the power of space. Tiananmen Square, which can hold about 1 million people, is at its most powerful at night, when the soldiers close it off and the empty space is lit up with an eerie glow. Changan Avenue, where a man with a shopping bag halted a procession of tanks 20 years ago (today you need to go through a metal detector to enter Tiananmen Square and all subway stations), is about 10 lanes wide and brutally intimidating when empty. The stretch of Changan Avenue near Tiananmen and the famous picture of Mao is as immaculate and well-developed a space as any in the world. Similarly, at the Beijing airport, I went from the bus to the gate in 12 minutes (including customs, checking-in, security check, immigration) in an inexplicably deserted airport. Owing to Beijing's status as a regional hub for all sorts of strange places, the only flight after mine was a midnight flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

If you include the guy who offered us a ride on his ramshackle pedicab to the Forbidden City for 60 cents and parlayed it into a tour of Beijing's many alleyways and a $60 charge (I gave him $10 because he was so funny), and the fact that Lunar New Year sounds like a never-ending gun battle with the occasional artillery shell being lobbed, Beijing is probably one of the two or three most interesting places in the world.

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