Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting fed up with food (in a good way), security theatre and particulates in Beijing

I just got back from Beijing from the fourth time, though two of those trips have been 24-hour layovers. I don't claim to know much about China, but having spent a little bit of time there in 2009, 2011, 2013 and now 2014 allows me to see superficial changes in the city over my time in Asia. Visiting Beijing for the first time after 2008 is a bit like starting to watch baseball in the mid-90s, you get to assume that a 70-home-run season is normal and that someone leading the league with 47 home runs implies that everyone collectively sucked.

The food is great, though I presume that it was great before as well. Beijing is one of the two cities (the other is Paris) in the world I've been where I became conscious of the fact that I could only eat three, maybe four meals a day. There are many terrible restaurants in Beijing, the sort that are $100 per person and are featured prominently in tourist maps, a lot of which presume that every person who finds themselves in Beijing is a Western executive looking for the most obnoxious and pretentious meal possible. There is no shortage of such places in Seoul as well, places that take Korean dishes, triple the price and make the decor and atmosphere as uncomfortable and uninviting as possible.

I had dinner and lunch in Beijing at great restaurants, but having run and showered by 6:20 in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, I gave up and went to my hotel's buffet for breakfast, reasoning that part of experiencing China and Beijing was to eat at a hotel buffet. You don't want to come to China and eat only at McDonald's, but you also don't want to go out of your way to do things that no one else would do, such as going to the Chinese opera, which I presume is more popular with tourists than with Chinese people (if I'm wrong, replace 'Chinese' and 'opera' with 'Korean' and 'pansori'). 

The food at the buffet was decent, and my model of over-authentic overcompensation was vindicated by Chinese people who went for toast, bacon and sausages while I went for cabbage and porridge. The food was good, but some of the vegetables and one of the drinks almost caused me to vomit. There's no shortage of bad food either in China, but I ate very well, even at a tourist trap such as Wangfujing.

Beijing installed metal detectors at subway stations prior to the 2008 Olympics to scan bags for explosives and weapons and I don't remember there being metal detectors for me to walk through, supplemented by disinterested guards with handheld metal detectors, and this article agrees with me. I've also seen the progression of security at Tiananmen Square, where I ran 800 metres to see the flag-raising ceremony at dawn. There was a big crowd of several thousand people there, but it seemed to be in the tens of thousands by the way we all came to a stop hundreds of metres from the square.

The crowd was already slowed by the barricades that divide the sidewalks, bike lanes and streets in this area in complex ways, and then funneled by one of the barricades into three metal detectors. If you can imagine the door of an elevator jammed with people functioning as a metal detector, you'll understand what this metal detector was like. This was required to be in the vicinity of Tiananmen, the gate with the famous picture of Mao Zedong. To enter the square itself required another, similarly crowded metal detector. The crowding is worst for people with bags, as 99% of the people in this area are Chinese tourists who all carry some sort of bag with them and have to take it off, put it on a belt and then retrieve it.

Like restrictions on liquids being carried onto planes, the trouble with security theatre, things done for show to make people feel safe, is that it's never undone. Metal detectors in the Beijing subway were expanded, not removed. The police presence has increased. I was once surprised enough by a group of soldiers marching down the street to take a picture of it, but yesterday I saw a jeep of soldiers with machine guns. The barricades in the area have increased. My impression yesterday, because I didn't spend time walking in Tiananmen Square, is that visitors are now restricted more to the sides of the square with much of its heart restricted, though I might well be wrong on this, and I hope I am.

I used to say that air quality wasn't really that bad in Beijing, but I haven't seen something resembling the sky in my last three trips to China, with PM 2.5 air quality readings ranging from 200-800 (anything over 100 is unhealthy, Toronto is usually around 30). I run and have no trouble breathing walking around, but I feel filthy and don't like touching anything. I can't see anything more than a kilometre away. I don't blame China for this in particular, no more than I blame myself or anyone else who owns Chinese-made products, drives a car or uses electricity, but China has this problem, and it's a fact. It adds a disgusting, depressing backdrop to any visit, and I would debate going back again.

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