China. A land of mystery, misinformation, and people who love the West. Never let a government mislead you about the people they represent.
It’s a 12 hour flight. I’m not going to lie, it’s brutal. I can’t sleep sitting up, so unless the row is empty and I can stretch out, it’s meditate, a light sleep that doesn’t count, or whatever is entertaining on board. Fortunately the flight had decent on-board entertainment and the movies were current. So between conversations with seat mates, movies, reading and occasional walks around the cabin…it felt like a 12 hour flight.
We arrived in Beijing, made it through customs in a gorgeous, brand new terminal and, after gathering together, took a short train ride to get our luggage. For a country with 1.33 billion people, there was hardly anyone either with us or in the buildings we passed as we traveled. The overall appearance was very deserted looking, almost post-apocalyptic, but super clean. Like the zombies were all equipped with mops.
The advertisements and signs posted in the train and on the walls are all in English/Chinese and feature white western looking models. It was striking since there is only a little of the Chinese culture and language in evidence as we traveled through the airport. The terminal was rebuilt for the Olympics and the International language chosen was English. The models in the advertisements are actually preferred by the Chinese and was not a result of successful marketing by western culture. We were not infecting them, they were requesting us.
We got luggage, met Frank our national guide and headed out to our bus. On the way from the luggage carousel to the front of the terminal there are long lines of people behind rails waving and holding signs. Whole families seemed to have turned up to meet individuals getting off our flight. This is in some contrast to American airports where people deplane to no one or a driver or single family member.
We drove into downtown Beijing through heavily congested traffic consisting mainly of Hyundai cars. The highway signs, road signs and even signs on buildings are all in two languages, Chinese and English. The first impression on entering Beijing was really like heading into the 51st state and not another country. The traffic congestion is intense. Our guide Frank explained that originally there was an explosion in car buying so they had to limit what days of the week you could drive on. So people started buying more than one car with a different license plate number so the government had to limit WHO could buy cars and how many they were allowed. Now you need to put your name in a lottery and they only choose so many people a year and allow them to buy a car.
On the way to our hotel travelling through Beijing was pretty much like Washington, D.C. There were attractive couples walking down sidewalks past brightly lit storefronts in current fashions sipping from cups of Starbucks coffee. Sleek sport cars and expensive luxury sedans line the streets in front of fashionable shops. Even the newsstands with stock from floor to ceiling that dotted every block demonstrated the cultures embrace of capitalism.
We toured the Olympic area, took some group photos and then headed to our hotel. As we arrived Frank explained that China believed in the “Cat Theory” of government. They did not label anything “Democratic” or “Communist,” “Socialist” or “Capitalist” but “Cat Theory.” They believed in doing “whatever caught the most birds” whatever is most efficient and did the most for the people.
The hotel stood at the intersection made famous by the Chinese student who faced down the line of tanks. From the window of the restaurant you can see the exact spot he stood. Unlike the United States, where a marker or monument might stand to commemorate the event we are only aware because it was pointed out to us. And then we were asked to not mention it. We were respectfully asked to not discuss the Three ‘T’s in public. Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen square. We respectfully complied with this request for the length of our trip.
Settled in, exhausted from the flight, but awake from the excitement, we headed over to a local market just behind the hotel.
We were warned on the flight in that in the north they eat everything. Live scorpions, sea horse, cockroaches and other creepy crawly were all for sale deep fried and, while we were warned against trying “street meat” how do you not try fried scorpion amid the taunts of the vendors? It’s like unshelled shrimp, if you are curious.