I never expected to find a four-star hotel in China, but the Zhaolong Hotel is exactly that, a high rise temple of western-style decadence, complete with Internet access in every room… That only works with PCs. I can say this with some authority, as I had the manager of the place in my room trying to get on the network for about twenty minutes. His English wasn’t the greatest, but was way better than my Mandarin. Two words that we both understood were “Windows” and “only”.
There was little time to enjoy the amenities, even if they didn’t work. Richard Liu, our producer’s business partner in Beijing, had planned a complete two-day siteseeing itinerary for us. We were a little bummed that he was over an hour late meeting us, but quickly grew to appreciate why: Beijing is a city that’s literally bursting at the seams!
In keeping with our van experience of the day before, our cab driver lurched into traffic with nary a warning to those already there. But today we were in downtown Beijing at the height of morning rush hour, sharing a scant few lanes with every form of transportation imaginable, from bicycles to construction vehicles, all fighting for every available inch of pavement. There are two subway lines in Beijing, but clearly they ain’t enough; it took us a half-hour to get from our hotel to the closest station.
Our first stop was Tiananman Square. We expected to be somewhat of an anomaly — the Mandarin have an equivalent expression for gweilo, laowai (“lah-oh-why“) — but we didn’t expect to have strangers request photos with us. I was also taken aback by the unsolicited displays of friendliness; several times I was greeted by smiling Beijingers saying “hello” or welcoming me to their city, in English.
And the city is huge, taking a cue, I suppose, from its centrepiece, The Forbidden City. If mass calisthenics were ever led by Chairman Mao — I’m sure I saw that in a propaganda film once — it would have been a good warmup for a hike through this place. Chinese Emperors were carried from building to building across the expansive courtyards in between, but I had to fend for myself in my $40 show shoes from the Aldo Shoe Outlet. As my feet became more and more swollen, those shoes became less and less of a bargain…
Our morning of hiking was rewarded with an awesome Chinese meal and some local culture; part of the restaurant was being used as a set for a Kung-Fu film. After lunch I got a bad taste in my mouth from the open-air market known as silk alley. If Chinese sweat shops are responsible for Nikes and Tommy Hilfinger, god only knows what kind of conditions produce the imitation Prada bags found here. I have no problem with label piracy, but I did find the cutthroat haggling of obnoxious tourists from America and Europe rather unpleasant.
Likewise, the venue for the next two nights was a bit of a downer, a somewhat tawdry German-owned dance club called “The Loft”. As I suspected, the audience responded to their surroundings in kind, requesting more than the usual helping of jokes about bums and even bin Ladens, typical for a bar crowd…