Saturday, August 24, 2013

Travel touts in Beijing City

I stayed at the Novotel Beijing Hotel, which is supposedly a stone’s throw from TianAnMen Square and the Forbidden City (both are side by side) so I thought I would brave the busy streets to get there on foot. But after walking for more than half an hour, my destination seemed to be still out of sight. A man on a scooter pulling a tiny one-seat wagon (resembling a tut tut in Bangkok) beckoned to me to ask me where I was

going. As soon as I told him, he offered me 30 Yuan to take me there. It seemed like a reasonable price so I agreed and hopped onto the vehicle although not without some apprehension as I wondered how this flimsy contraption would manoevre itself through the heavy traffic of cars, trucks and other vehicles which crowded the streets. Then I realized he was taking us through a bunch of back alleys and smaller streets and I heaved a sigh of (unsuspecting) relief. All roads lead to Rome and as long as he gets me there in one piece ……..

Finally he stopped in the middle of a back street and indicated to me I was to get out here while he waved with his hand in the not too far distance as to how I would arrive at the Square the rest of the way. I got off and proceeded to pay him the 30 Yuan. With a look of utter disbelief, he gave me to understand that the fare was 300 Yuan. I was aghast and started to argue in Mandarin, hoping to impress upon him that I was part local. Unperturbed he held out a card on which was printed prices for various destinations and he pointed to the fare of 300 Yuan listed for the Forbidden City. Now I started getting angry and insisted that he had offered me 30 Yuan earlier. He remained adamant and I could see that he was getting angry with me too and he threw out some broken English expressions to indicate that I had misheard him. Not to be outdone, I reminded him that perhaps he should have shown me the fare card earlier to avoid any serious misunderstanding.

I considered paying him the 30 Yuan and walking away but worried that he might chase after me and that he might get violent. Then I looked down the backstreet and noticed a couple walking towards us. I ran up to them to beg them for help after explaining what had happened. By now, the driver had miraculously dropped his price to 100 Yuan and insisted that was what he was wanting me to pay. The man and woman who were trying to intercede on my behalf, suggested to me that it was not an unreasonable price to pay after all. Tired of all the squabbling, I finally gave in and paid the driver 100 Yuan. A lesson learnt indeed, next time, I would best take a cab (20-30 Yuan) or jump on a bus (1 Yuan) instead. Through the internet, I understood later that an American male tourist had suffered the same fate and gotten roughed up a bit by the driver before he finally parted with 300 Y.

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Forbidden City, Beijing

My summer holidays

This summer on my way back to Malaysia where my family lives, I decided to first spend 2 weeks visiting my sister in Shanghai and take the opportunity to do some further sightseeing in Beijing and Xian.

It’s also partly about reconnecting with the language and my Chinese heritage and perhaps getting to see how the Chinese live their daily lives. Are the jokes and stories they tell, the values and wisdoms they cherish or the customs and traditions they practise, in tune with that of generations of Chinese who emigrated and now live in southeast Asia?

It has always been a big surprise to me to discover that China celebrates all the same major festivals as we, Malaysian Chinese do, such as the Spring Festival or Chinese Lunar Year, QingMing to honour our dead ancestors, Dumpling festival or Dragon Boat festival and the Mid Autumn festival, all of which are occasions surrounded by rich legends, folkloric tales and accompanied by unique features and celebration forms.


I had previously visited Guangdong and Shanghai many years ago. This time around, I can see that the skyline of Shanghai has changed dramatically. The days of opium dens and trading houses on the Bund have been replaced with a modern, supersized metropolis whose skyline reaches higher every day. 

There are hundreds of new skyscrapers everywhere with 25+ story apartments or office blocks containing new malls, clubs, boutiques, offices and new ones are sprouting up all the time. It feels like Hong Kong all over, (at least three times more), what with a population of 23 million people, of whom 90 percent live in officially defined urban areas. The rising population density makes Shanghai now one of the most crowded megacities in the world.

Shanghai is China’s financial and cultural powerhouse, and being located where the Yangtze Kiang flows into the sea, has made it an important trading and commercial port for Great Britain, France, US and Germany since the 19th century. This frontier and commercial spirit is still alive and attracts people to live and work in this vibrant, ever-expanding megalopolis.
The picturesques Bund, Shanghai

Efforts have been made to protect ancient historical parts of Shanghai such as Zhujiajiao, Xintiandi and Tianzifang so as to preserve the charm of the old city. However the city is generally vast and dense and open, green space is becoming a premium.

The historic city of Hangzhou, a popular summer residence for emperors,  is a popular weekend getaway only 45 minutes from Shanghai on the high-speed train. The area near the city’s famous West Lake was made a Unesco World Heritage site in June.

Escaping the smog and urban stress of Shanghai, we spent a nice and relaxing afternoon there, against the backdrop of a gorgeous lake ringed by lazy willows and bamboos, surrounded by gardens laid out in imperial grandeur interrupted by shady pavilions and pagodas.
Imperial Gardens, Hangzhou

Shanghai didn’t make it into the Top 50 cities in the Mercer Quality of Living Study 2012. The city is struggling with problems typical of life in other Chinese megacities such as that of Beijing (popn: 18 mil.) and Xian (popn: 8.5 mil.): smog & haze (40 times the limit deemed safe by WHO), acid rain, water pollution, noise, housing shortage, exploding real estate prices and gridlocked traffic most times of the day in spite of an extensive public transport network.

Additionally, there is much public anxiety over food safety and environmental pollution which are chronic problems in China. In March, 20,000 dead pigs were found floating in the Huangpu river, a source of drinking water for Shanghai. Days later, thousands of dead ducks were washed up on the Nanhe riverbank in Sichuan. Then in May, authorities arrested 900 people on suspicion of spicing up and selling rat, fox and mink meat as fake lamb rolls at markets in Shanghai that are frequented by tourists.

China’s food-safety problems highlight both the collapse of the country’s business ethics and the failure of government regulators to keep pace with the expanding market economy. Yet an excessive focus on poor government oversight often means that the much graver problem of disintegrating civic morality is neglected.

Confucianism and Communism acted as restraints on commercial dealings in the past and served as a moral check on people’s behavior. Researchers suggest this has now been replaced by materialism, a consequence of the Cultural Revolution on the former and the effects of the Reform Era on the latter. The revival of capitalism ushered in by Deng Xiao Ping has been driven entirely by the unrelenting pursuit of wealth and even led to short-term interest in profiteering at the expense of community welfare. (Never mind, what Geert Hofstede says about China being top of the list for longterm orientation) This single-minded pursuit of material interests in the absence of a well-developed regulatory framework and the rule of law, is now threatening China’s moral baseline. In a recent online survey, more than half the respondents said that they did not think that complying with ethical standards was a necessary condition for success. 

Icons of Chinese civilization, Beijing

Great Wall Pagodas and courtyard
Climbing the Great Wall of China was an extraordinary experience when you consider that this bastion of defense has stayed intact in many places since it was built around 250 BC and stretches over 5,600 km. However it did not succeed in keeping out the Mongols and the Manchus from the north in the 13th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately it was a foggy morning and the wall quickly disappeared in a shroud of thick mist by mid-day, denying us the much vaunted panoramic view for miles around.
A misty morning at the Great Wall, JuYongGuan Pass
The Forbidden City with its cluster of ancient buildings and 10,000 rooms containing priceless furniture and works of art is another sight to behold, representing the largest and best-preserved imperial residences of the Ming and Qing dynasties between 1368 – 1911.

Across from the Forbidden City, we walked over to TianAnMen Square,
a vast desert of paving stones at the heart of Beijing and a poignant epitaph to China’s hapless democracy movement of 1989.
MaoZeDong Mausoleum at TianAnMen Square

Terracotta army, Xian

Known as the eighth wonder of the world, this Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum is located at Mount Li, Lintong District, Xian. The emperor having united China for the first time wanted to distinguish himself from his ancestors and so singled out his tomb and ordered all of his belongings to be buried with him.
Stepping 2300 years back in time
The relics in the mausoleum, with over 7000 warriors, horses and 90 bronze chariots, are estimated to be 78 times the size of the Forbidden City and represent the finest aspects of the Qin civilization as well as the largest collection of its kind in the world.
Sights & Sounds of Tang Dynasty
Given the chance to grab a snapshot amongst these soldiers dating from the late 3rd Century BC, I could not resist. The momentary feeling of walking back several centuries in time and imagining various epic battle scenes, is as overwhelming as viewing the Pyramids of Egypt or the Valley of the Kings and Queens. 

Challenges of urbanization
From Shanghai to Beijing to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, our cities are becoming increasingly urbanized and being transformed to concrete jungles, compared to 20 or 30 years ago.

The rapid process of urbanization brings with it different ecological, economical and social problems and risks. These impacts cause challenges for urban policies and urban planning strategies to manage the development in a sustainable way, when populations double every 10 to 15 years as in many Asian cities.

Studies predict that by 2025, our Asian cities which presently house a quarter of the world’s population and around half its urban population, would contain around a third of the world’s total population. The increase in the number of automobiles has made the simplest and shortest of trips by car, a stressful and time-consuming journey wherever we go, it seems.

Like a lot of people, I wonder if the mad race to catch up with the rest of the developed world in terms of economic prosperity and modern lifestyle isn’t exacting a huge price on our resources, quality of life and our ability to achieve sustainable growth. Will it be possible to reverse course and favor a saner approach to planning and growing before it’s too late?

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Taxi Mafia in Xian

Taxi Mafia in Xian 

After spending 2 days in Xian, on my way back to the airport, I had figured out that I could take the airport shuttle bus which stopped outside the Melody Hotel downtown, opposite the stunning Drum Tower for 27 Yuan. With a flight at 11:30 AM, I had allowed myself plenty of time to get to the airport, only an hour’s ride from town centre. So arriving at the bus stand at 07:30 that morning, I was about to get in line in the queue of passengers waiting to board the next bus leaving for the airport.
I was stopped by a woman and a man who asked me what time my plane was. I told them and the woman wrung her hands in desperation as she informed me that the shuttle bus would never get me there on time, that it took the better of 2 hours at the very least to arrive at the airport and that traffic was very bad THAT morning. I was stunned as I was sure I had allowed plenty of time, from having talked to the staff at my hotel earlier.
The woman then signaled to a plain vehicle standing nearby, suggesting that I HAD better take a cab instead for 50 Yuan, sharing with 3 others. Thoroughly confused and bewildered at this turn of events, I didn’t think to walk back up to the people handling the shuttlebus passengers to get their version of things. I just stood by the roadside, forlorn and dismayed, at the thought of having to take a cab which was not only more expensive but less interesting for me than to be with a bunch of passengers in a big bus.
After much hesitation and reflection, I decided it was best to take the woman’s advice and headed over to the unlicensed cab which was waiting with 2 other Chinese passengers who had also been fed the same story as me, that they wouldn’t arrive at the airport in time for their flights. I found it quite difficult to believe that the 2 chinese locals were not more discriminating or skeptical about the story we had been fed. We were being scammed, I was sure of it but what could I reasonably do about it?

As it finally turned out, we got to the airport in just under an hour, which meant I had a 2-hour wait before my domestic flight back to Shanghai. I have posted my experience on the internet to warn unsuspecting travellers for the future.