It’s the last evening of my China trip, and I’m sitting in my hotel room with a few cans of beer and a pack of boiled chicken’s feet with chili. I actually developed a taste for them in Birmingham of all places, and the only non-obscene expression that I can say in Cantonese is “fong zao yart long”—“one plate of chickens’ feet”. These ones are not bad at all for a vacuum-packed snack from the convenience store. Remember: chickens’ feet are a delicacy. Basically, that boils down to: a chicken gives you a whole body’s worth of meet, but only two small feet. Ergo, the feet are rarer and more valuable. Cynically, you might argue that, by the same token, that the chicken’s beak is even more of adelicacy. However, the feet actually are tasty, in spite of the fiddly tiny bones.
Have a look at my gallery of my third day in Beijing whilst reading this.
My final day in Beijing was really eventful. In the morning, I visited the Forbidden City. Oh, how I wish it still were forbidden. The area is packed full of tourists, most of whom I’ll uncharitably characterise as country hicks up on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Big Dust (Beijing isn’t smoky; it is, however, extremely dusty thanks to the encroaching Gobi Desert on its doorstep). They cluster in packs around all the access points, wearing identical loaned baseball caps (I think for the guides to be able to chaperone them better) and listening to their megaphone-assisted guides. Take it from me, they add nothing to the experience.
The Forbidden City is really big. It’s over three times the size of Tiananamen Square in area. Unfortunately, it’s so big that it’s permananently undergoing restoration. The entire west side is currently swathed in scaffolding and wraps whilst some work goes on beneath.
With the exception of it’s incredible size, however, I must admit that the Forbidden City was a lot less impressive than I had hoped. There’s little chance to see inside the buildings, and the crowds make even those chances impossible. The garden on the north side (Jingshan Gongyuan) is, however, a very beautiful, pleasant and impressive park. And from the top, you can see the Forbidden City far better than you can from the city itself.
In the afternoon, I stocked my stomach up on food at one of the numerous food courts; this one was in Oriental Plaza, a very slick shopping centre on Wangfujing Avenue and one of the numerous places in China that put Europe to abject shame. In spite of its hardcore chicness, you can still eat like an emperor for a few tens of yuan (a few Euros) in the basement, where dozens of squeaky-clean eateries vie for your custom.
At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, I arranged my taxi to the station at 17:30 to get there in time for my 19:00 departure. It took only half an hour, however, so I had plenty of time to kick my heels in Beijing’s dingy main station. I can understand enough of Chinese to make a reasonable guess at what’s going on (numbers are really useful, and knowing the vaguely similar Japanese vocabulary helps) and I can decipher the display boards. For someone with no knowledge at all, I don’t understand how they could even survive here.
Interestingly, not speaking Mandarin Chinese in China is like not speaking English in London. It’s not the first language of vast tracts of the population (there are numerous local dialects, many as different from Mandarin as German is from English). Mandarin, however, is the lingua franca of China, and not speaking it marks you out as an ignorant oaf. In Japan, people will look at a non-Asian face and expect the person not to speak Japanese (and how it shocks them when you can!). In China, conversely, it doesn’t matter what you look like; if you can’t speak at least basic Mandarin, then you are looked at as if you are mentally retarded. I can’t really disagree with them, to be honest.
Through a series of coincidences, I ended up making a new friend. The person who had been sitting next to me in the departure lounge turned out to be in the same compartment as me. In fact, she had made a mistake, and was supposed to be in the same position in the next carriage along. However, when the real occupier arrived later, they swapped tickets as it was more convenient for them. She was in the same situation as me: recently unemployed, and taking advantage of money and spare time to go travelling. She is Chinese but speaks very good English, and we spent a long time chatting and trading information about the differences between Japanese characters (that I can read) and Chinese characters (some of which I can’t), about English pronunciation, and about random other thngs. Later on, we went to the buffet car to get some food. we were quite late, and were the last people there as we were browsing through some photos on my laptop after dinner.
At that point, some people came into the buffet car with a whole load of interesting-looking wireless communications equipment. They were from EPIN Technologies and were testing out a future service to provide internet access to train passengers in China. They saw my laptop, and, after asking whether I had a wireless network adapter (of course!), they invited me to take part in the test. Actually, a couple of them had trained at MIT, and all spoke excellent English.
So it turns out that I was the first rail customer in China to use the forthcoming in-train internet service. A cameraman from a Chinese TV station was there, and interviewed me about the service. I might even be on TV in China in the near future, although I doubt that I’ll get a chance to see it, unfortunately.
The service was, well, still in the experimental stage. It was reliable enough—they used a combination of different GSM and CDMA networks with load-balancing to ensure a continuous connection—but the bandwidth is still low, at a maximum of about 7 kbps. They couldn’t quite get VOIP and video chat to work simultaneously. Nevertheless, I am sure that it is a big step towards the future. I am looking forward to connectivity everywhere, and I am sure that Europe will be last to reach it when compared to the situation in Asia and North America. One of the things that I’ve really noticed in China is a strong will to get things done. Beijing alone is going to have five new subway lines in four years’ time. I can’t imagine any British or European city doing the same.
It was good take make the acquaintance of some high-level Chinese engineers. More than that, they were all nice people, and I hope that we can stay in contact in the future.
I finally went to bed at 01:00 or so, and slept very badly before waking up at 06:00.
I spent the day visiting some parts of the French Concession with the assistance of my new Chinese friend. We went bargain hunting in the electronic goods area by Xujiahui subway station, where I picked up a new Compact Flash card for my camera at an unbelievably low price. Chinese-made goods (i.e. most of them!) are very cheap here. We visited some musical instrument shops in the street in front of the Shanghai Conservatory, and browsed through the East Asian Musical Instrument Museum there.
Tomorrow, I have to take a taxi at 06:00 to get to the airport for my flight to Busan. It’s a challenge to get up so early after such a tiring few days.