The Beijing Diaries, Day 11: Farewell

December 4, 2012 in China, Travel

November 16

Can’t believe it. My 11-day visit to Beijing has come to an end.

My final day in the Chinese capital was a short one. I didn’t even bother grabbing some crap buffet breakfast in the basement of the hotel before checking out and hopping into a car headed for the airport. Out of fear of missing my flight, I gave myself an-hour-and-a-half from my hotel to the airport, but smooth traffic got me there in barely over 30 minutes.

My driver (from the same car company that took me to the Great Wall a couple of days earlier) wasn’t much of a talker, but he continually expressed shock over the fact that China allowed Japanese reporters to enter the country to cover the 18th National Congress.

“How dare they?!” he would say over and over, reminding me that every piece of land in the world claimed by China is, in fact, owned by China. “China’s just too big. We don’t have time to look after everything so people steal our land.”

Gotta love the locals.

I checked in at Terminal 3, which, I mentioned before, is supposed to be the largest airport terminal in the world. Again, I didn’t get that feeling at all, but I was impressed with the security. Not only did they get me to take out my laptop, they also asked me to take out my iPad, keys and coins from my bag and patted me down for good measure. My bag went through the machines three times and I twice. It can be annoying but at least you know you’re safe.

I started reflecting on my rare trip to China while seated at a Costa Coffee, sipping on an awesome lemonade (but passed on the exorbitantly priced Evian mineral waters which cost something ridiculous like 19 yuan (AU$2.92) – not crazy compared to the $5 mineral waters in Sydney but a lot considering local mineral water bottles cost around 1-4 yuan, as water should).

It has been a rare experience indeed the last week and a half. It’s rare to have the opportunity to see China’s leaders all together in a room and up close (once every five years, in fact) and even rarer to witness a Chinese leadership transition in person (once every 10 years).

It was challenging to work long, unusual hours and travelling on the crowded metro, and even more challenging being away from my young family, but I also got to meet a lot of interesting reporters from all over the world, sampled some delicious Peking duck, stayed in possibly the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in and visited a couple of iconic tourist sites. And not even a single bout of food poisoning.

At that moment, all I wanted to do was to go home, kiss my wife and son and rest, but I’m sure in a few weeks, months or years from now I’ll look back and realize what a once-in-a-lifetime privilege this was.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part II): Forbidden Tourist

December 1, 2012 in Best Of, China, Travel

November 15

I was very impressed with myself for killing off my final article of my Beijing assignment, and so I decided to reward myself by seeing some of the sights of Beijing that I had been dying to visit since the day I arrived.

Of course, the must visit attraction, apart from the Great Wall (which I visited yesterday), is the Forbidden City (otherwise known as the Palace Museum). I had apparently been there once during a trip with my parents when I was a kid, but I only remember the outer wall and have no recollection of actually going inside.

According to a friend I spoke to, the Forbidden City should first be enjoyed from afar, so you can truly appreciate how massive and majestic it really is. The best place to do that, apparently, is Beihai Park (translated to North Sea Park), which is situated to the northeast of the Forbidden City.

With little time to spare, I caught a cab straight there, and when I arrived and laid for my 15 yuan entry ticket, went directly for the Baita (meaning ‘White Tower’) in the middle section of the park.

The floral peacock at the entrance of Beihai Park

I must admit though that Beihai Park was surprisingly beautiful with it’s pristine lake and flowers, which made me stop more than a couple of times to take some photos.

Views from Beihai Park

The Baita is that phallic thing in the distance

The annoying thing with Baita is that you have to pay for another 10 yuan ticket to go up on the platform where the tower sits, and once you do, you need to pay again (2 yuan) for the opportunity to climb up to the lookout platform. Since I was there already, I didn’t hesitate in forking out the dough, especially as you can’t see anything without going all the way up to the highest point. Very clever, these Chinese businessmen.

From atop the viewing platform you do get a fascinating view of the Forbidden City from a distance, with it’s dozens of traditional Chinese roofs clustered together amid the misty haze of Beijing’s skyline. It’s quite a sight, although admittedly the angle was not as spectacular as I had expected because the tower wasn’t nearly tall enough, and Beijing’s pollution meant anything but a crystal clear view.

View of the Forbidden City from the highest point of Beihai Park

So in all honesty you can probably skip Beihai Park if you’re thinking of going just for the Forbidden City views, but it is a worthy place to check out if you have time because it has plenty of other quality things to see and experience.

Beihai Park looks like it’s within walking distance of the Forbidden City, and it is, but unfortunately only to the back gate (on the north side) where people can only exit and cannot enter. To go in, you must travel to the front gate (Wumen, or the Meridian Gate, facing south), which you can get to through Tiananmen Gate all the way on the other side, or through the east side which allows you to cut through by circling around the moat surrounding the Forbidden City.

On the way from Beihai Park to the Forbidden City

The signs there advise visitors to catch a local bus from the back gate to the front gate, but one look at the lines and the crowded buses made me realise that I would die if I tried that route. But catching one of the dozen or so cabs camped right outside was not so easy either, as most of them are sneaky locals trying to make a quick buck out of tourists by charging double or triple the price rather than going by their meters. One driver I spoke to wanted to charge 20 yuan but was only willing to take me about halfway.

The back gate of the Forbidden City — you can’t go in from here

So I said stuff this and walked instead, which in hindsight proved to be a critical mistake because it took a lot longer than I presumed. I eventually made it to the east entrance but had to then make my way to the Meridian Gate, which was another lengthy walk. Not wanting to waste any more time I caught one of the regular tourist buses from there which cost 1 yuan, and got me there in 2 minutes as opposed to 20.

After buying a 40-yuan ticket I finally made my way through the security check ahead of a bunch of very eager Chinese women who kept pushing me as though it would somehow make X-ray machine’s conveyor belt move faster.

But in the end, any hassle I encountered was worth it, because the Forbidden City is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I don’t need to explain it. See below, and remember it’s 10 times more amazing in person.

I wish I had more time there but I ended up going pretty much in a straight line through the various rooms and chambers (there are plenty more on either side). I also didn’t get much time to read the explanations of the buildings — apparently if you have a three or more hours to spare you should absolutely hire one of the professional tour guides (for about a couple of hundred yen) who will enhance the experience significantly by giving context to what you’re seeing. Maybe next time.

I rushed out of the Forbidden City with every intention of checking out another supposed must-see, the Temple of Heaven, situated southeast of the center of Beijing. Unfortunately, it was around 3:30 by then and the taxi drivers I spoke to told me that they stopped selling entry tickets at that time. Maybe next time…again.

The remainder of my final full day in Beijing was spending buying local produce and snacks at a department store on Wangfujing street. I was tempted to try the cheap food shops that were selling three big bags for 10 yuan, but it looked too good to be true. The department stores were selling each bag for around 30 yuan, but if the truth must be told, I’m not sure if they were any different. I’d try to explain what I bought if I knew what they were, but all I can say is that some of the stuff was nutty and a lot of it was chewy and sweet, and nearly all of it was totally gross and essentially inedible.

Just some of the crap that never got eaten

The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part I): Say Hi to China’s New Leaders

November 28, 2012 in China, Travel

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and a bunch of other old guys

November 15

My Beijing trip is finally drawing to a close, and even though I as on a work assignment I intended for my last full day in the Chinese capital to be one of enjoyment and sightseeing.

But first, there was one thing left to write about: China’s new leadership lineup. Yesterday’s closing ceremony at the 18th National Congress saw the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee. Today, the committee was going to conduct it’s first plenary session and “elect” the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, effectively China’s highest ruling body. The new lineup would then be introduced to the media at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People.

The previous standing committee had 9 members, and this time there had been swirling rumours that it would be reduced to 7. Many papers had already “leaked” the names of the 7 members, of which five would be new members (only new party leader Xi Jinping and future premier Li Keqiang were returning as the others were all forced to retire due to age).

As I mentioned before, I was not invited to this event, so I had to watch it from the comfort of my hotel room. Like yesterday, the press conference began about an hour later than scheduled, but also like yesterday, there were no other surprises.

No one knows how the Communist Party really operates behind closed doors, but they did emphasize over and over that the members of the standing committee were going to be “elected” by the central committee that morning. And yet, the seven men who walked onto the stage in identical black suits and red ties shortly before noon were exactly the seven that had been supposedly “decided” by the party last month as reported by foreign media, including our own paper. Coincidence?

Nevertheless, I have to say I was very impressed with the speech given by new party general secretary Xi Jinping. Even with the eyes of the world all over him, Xi was cool and calm, and delivered a well rounded speech that sounded genuine and nothing like his predecessor, the monotonous cyborg known as Hu Jintao. Maybe China does have a bright future after all.

The great thing about the predictability of Chinese politics is that I had basically written 85% of my article before the press conference even began. And so within 15 minutes of the press conference finishing I had already sent out my 600 word article, meaning the remainder of the afternoon was going to be absolutely free. At last.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 9 (Part I): Closing the 18th National Congress

November 23, 2012 in China, Travel

Outside the Great Hall of the People on the final day of the 18th National Congress in Beijing

November 14

Closing Ceremony

The 18th National Congress finally came to an end today, which was a welcome relief considering how exhausting it has been. It also marked the last time I would head over to the Great Hall of the People, where I first attended the glittering opening ceremony a week ago.

According to a notice posted on the media center website, the closing ceremony would take place at around 10:30am, and it advised reporters to get there a little earlier to go through the security check. Unlike some eager beavers who apparently got there at around 3am (I have no idea why), I took a leisurely stroll there from the hotel and arrived shortly before 10am and met with some other journalists in the waiting area (but not before I caught a glimpse of hometown legend Stan Grant, who currently works for CNN, walking up and down the Great Hall stairs doing his best Stan Grant impersonation!).

I’m Stan Grant, formerly from Channel 7’s ‘Real Life’

At precisely 10:30am we began to move in a massive group from the waiting room towards the main hall. For some reason, the crowded journey was very stop-start (mostly stop), and soon we found ourselves stuck in a long corridor with no movement whatsoever. And we remained like that for a good 30 minutes.

I took a photo of this inner quadrangle in the Great Hall of the People. I counted one Volkswagen, one Lexus, and about 50 Audis. Communism at work.

Eventually we moved again into the area outside the main hall, where we waited again for another 20 minutes. No explanations, just waiting. Naturally, we started getting restless and wondered what the hell was going on. It wasn’t like the Communist Party to be so disorganised, having been spot on with the timing of every press conference up to that point. We started speculating — perhaps the mummified former leader Jiang Zemin had a stroke (I personally suspected it might have been a Weekend at Bernie’s situation all along), or maybe future leader Xi Jinping wasn’t “voted” into the Central Committee, sending his comrades into a tailspin.

Anxious reporters wondering how much longer they’d have to wait

Anyway, it wasn’t long before they crushed the rumors by starting to let us in, and soon we were treated to a typical Communist Party charade where the new 205-member Central Committee unanimously passed resolutions to approve reports as well as amendments to the party constitution. It was hilarious watching them all raise their hands to vote in favour of the resolutions, and then watching them pretend to wait to see if there were any dissenting or forfeited votes.

In the end, following a hearty rendition of Internationale (the party’s de facto anthem), outgoing party leader Hu Jintao (“exiting” is probably a better description considering Hu’s personality is anything but “outgoing”) officially declared the “successful” closing of the 18th National Congress. See you again in another five years.

The Communist Party’s new Central Committee

For me, that was also the official end of my “live” reporter duties. There’s the first plenum of the new Central Committee tomorrow where they will “vote” on the new Politburo Standing Committee (the highest and most powerful political body in the land) and introduce China’s new generation of party leaders — but I can’t attend that in person and must watch it from my hotel room on TV (as only one reporter from each news organization gets an invite and I of course wasn’t that person), not that I am complaining because I’ve had enough of all the subway rides and long waits.

Coming up, my afternoon trip to the Great Wall of China!

The Beijing Diaries, Day 8: In Awe of the Translators

November 17, 2012 in China, Travel

The young lady on the right

November 13

I’ve pretty much settled into a daily routine in Beijing, though it hasn’t been particularly fun with all the shrinkage and itchy skin caused the freezing weather (though locals tell me this is nothing compared to the ‘real winter’). There hasn’t been much except a lot of writing, a lot of researching and a lot of conferences and travelling. I’ve also attended a function or two for journalists, but it’s not exactly my idea of a good night out. I prefer to spend my free time resting or on Skype with my family.

My post today is about the translators at the 18th National Congress, who have continued to blow my mind every day thus far. All the sessions open to the press are of course in Chinese, but most of them have an English translator who does immediate translations all the way through without missing half a step.

I’ve done a little translation work myself so I know how hard it is, but these Chinese-English translators are like machines. Actually, I doubt there are machines that can do what they do. Even if I had the script and a dictionary in front of me with all the time in the world I doubt I could translate it as well as they do, and they do it on the spot and under pressure!

What is even more impressive is that most of these people look really young, but they are all so poised. The party official can ramble on for a couple of minutes before they get a chance to translate, and yet they don’t even break a sweat. They just listen intently, jot down a few notes (I assume in shorthand), and provide seamless translations whenever they need to.

I know what you’re thinking — perhaps they had the official’s script in advance and had already translated it. Yes, I have no doubt that is the case with the opening speeches, but that’s not possible during question time, when reporters ask multi-part questions and the officials give long, winding answers that can sometimes go for 10 minutes or more (all up). Yet, there are no long pauses, no stutters, no “ums” and no mistakes. None. Not a single word out of place.

How is it possible that so many of these young people can get so good at both languages? What is amazing to me is that most of them don’t sound very fluent in English because of their pronunciation and accents, and yet their vocabulary, comprehension and ability to articulate sentences are better than most native speakers. Are they, like those Chinese gymnasts, forced into training from infancy? Have they been told that their entire family will “disappear” if they make a mistake? Are they secret Chinese government experiments?

I don’t know how they do it, but I am in awe.

PS: Also kudos to all the foreign journalists who ask questions in Chinese. Takes a lot of skill and guts.

 
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