China 2012 – First Impressions

Our flights to China were remarkably uneventful, which is usually a good thing where flights are concerned. There were no screaming babies to keep us awake, no annoying passengers near us. Even so, neither of us got much sleep, as we were flying throughout the middle of the day, literally. We took off from Vancouver at mid-day and flew with the sun following high noon across the International Dateline and well into Asia.

The flight path was an interesting one. As it rose towards the Arctic (as most northern hemisphere flights do) it skirted the shoreline for much of the journey. If you look at a map and follow the rising arch of the North American shore and then the falling arch of northeast Asia, you’ll get the idea.  Anyway, that flight path, together with some very clear weather, meant that we had some great views of the landscape beneath, including the Alaskan mountains and glaciers. As we flew over Anchorage, where we could see the sun glinting off of car windows, I really wanted to shout out to Sarah Palin, “Sarah, I can see your house from here!” but I resisted. (Wasilla is just north of Anchorage, for those who might think that I don’t know my geography.) The weather was clear again as we flew over Siberia. So vast. What a planet!

Apart from some amazing scenery, the flight was the usual twelve hours plus of abject tedium. I managed to get a high score in Bejewelled. Other than that, let’s just say that no large group of people who aren’t in prison should be subjected to that length of time in a confined space, and leave it at that.

We landed in Beijing just after three in the afternoon, and immediately met our guide and driver, who drove us to the hotel. Beijing Airport is on the northeast corner of the city, and our hotel is south of city centre, so the drive gave us some time to absorb some of the character of the city.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t consider myself a seasoned traveller and don’t want to try to come off as one. The only experience I have in Asia is a trip to India, so I may use that as a reference point. We understand most things through comparisons, and that is what I have to work with.

Having said that, Beijing was not exactly as we expected, certainly not at first.  Apart from seeing Chinese characters on buildings and vehicles, the expressway from the airport might have been any North American or European thoroughfare. The road was dominated by mid-size sedans, primarily VW Passats and Hyundai Elantras (the standard among taxis, it seems) with a surprising number of Audis and Mercedes. Round that out with many large buses, a few Hondas and Toyotas, and a smattering of Citroens and Peugots, and you have the picture. And, not surprising considering the youth of the economy, I suppose, most vehicles are quite new. (North American vehicles, if you’re wondering are limited to the occasional Buick and the odd Chevy Cruze.)

Also to our surprise, traffic patterns were very … well … Western. Cars drove in lanes. Drivers signaled their lane changes. Horns were used in a more North American fashion, that is to say, in anger or frustration. In India, traffic might best be described as some sort of organic, functioning, Mandelbrotian chaos, and horns were used as communication devices much in the way geese in flight might honk back and forth. And from what I’ve heard from other travelers, most Asian traffic is somewhat the same.

That changed once we got into the centre of the city and onto smaller streets. Bicycles began to appear, as did electric mopeds.  I thought the latter was perhaps the most sensible form of transportation ever – easy, reliable, relatively quick, and smoke-free. If the battery runs dead, just peddle. Of course, they lose some of their charm if you stop to think that they are probably being charged with coal-fired electricity, but, hey, I’m from Saskatchewan, so I can’t be too judgmental about that.

Still, even within the heart of the city there were very few compact cars, few motorcycles, and no motorized rickshaws (other than the odd “freight” rickshaw). Pedal rickshaws are fairly common, although most of these perform other functions than hauling people: delivering goods and collecting garbage. In the heart of the city, in the tourist district, pedal rickshaws are very common, as are the annoying drivers who constantly pester you to take a tour of the hutongs (old narrow streets) with them.

The tenor of the traffic also changed within the city, morphing into something more aggressive. Lane changes became a sport, just shy of full contact. We were accustomed, from our time in India, to the practice of squeezing between other vehicles, but here the goal is much more to squeeze out other vehicles in a continual game of lane-change chicken. It occurred to me that the difference might be this: in India no one perceives lanes, so no one can “own” one; there is just this road that we all occupy, all share. Once we acknowledge that lanes exist, then, when I occupy a lane, it’s mine. I own it. We no longer share the space, once it is no longer a communal place. Just a theory.

The attitude toward pedestrians also differs immensely, not that being a pedestrian in India is a cakewalk. But in India, no driver will drive over you so long as you don’t step in front of him. Stand still, and he will drive around you. He won’t stop for you, but he won’t hit you. Indian traffic flows around a still pedestrian like water flows around a rock. Not so in China. Pedestrians here are nuisances at best, targets at worst. In one example, we watched the driver of a Chevy Cruze lay on his horn a full block before a crowded crosswalk as he barreled towards it, slowing only slightly as pedestrians scrambled to create an opening for him.

But enough about traffic. We arrived at our hotel safe and sound. We decided we’d just be lazy and have supper at the hotel restaurant even though the prices weren’t very cheap (about $20 each).  On the upside, it was a very large buffet, so we were able to sample lots of different things.  It was all quite good, although we were surprised by one dish that look deceptively like ginger beef.  Turns out it was – by our best guess –  some form of cartilage. Very chewy.

By that time it was past 7 p.m., and we had been awake for some 23 hours or so, so we packed it in and called an end to Day 1.

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