Beijing Diary

Saturday

Went to the airport with Sophie, Emily, Laura and Louis. I checked in quickly as I’d used the BA online check in facility but there was a huge queue for security as the world and their kids were all off skiing. I found the security to be a bit excesssive as you now have to take your belt off which means that you end up with a bunch of people all readjusting their clothing at the same time as having to grab all your belongings off the conveyer belt.

The flight was totally without incident except that the choice of movies wasn’t very inspiring (don’t see The Island with Ewan McGregor), and I didn’t get much sleep due to limited legroom. The plane was a 777 and I think I’ll have to complain about the toilets as they are so cramped that when you are sitting down (as you do) that your legs are squeezed together.

SUNDAY

Exiting Beijing airport was a very fast process. It’s a cavernous terminal and getting through passport control was easy. My bag was waiting on the reclaim belt and my taxi driver was ready and waiting when I emerged from customs.

The Beijing driving style is to go wherever you want and just hoot your horn to let others know that your are coming through. The predominant sound on the roads is that of horns being blown.

The Guang Zhou hotel, www.bjgzds.com.cn, is very nice, with a couple of restaurants, a gym and a swimming pool. The rooms have internet access for laptops but the firewall in very intrusive making site access very labourious on top of everything being incredibly slow. I have so far failed to get on the the BBC news site, but perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be.

In order to stay awake I went for a walk around the block. The local area is a mixture of shops and offices, old and new. The streets were packed with people all frantically shopping and buying food from kerbside stalls. Crossing roads is pretty hit and miss (literally) as most people just walk out in to the road regardless of what happens to be coming. The major junctions have men waving red flags whose purpose is not very clear!

I’ve just tackled my first meal here at the hotel.

I was the only person in the restaurant so I was well looked after by the entire staff of mostly giggling girls.

I wasn’t sure what to order so ended up going for beef, rice, and mixed veg. The mixed veg was very mixed and I didn’t recognise most if it. It didn’t taste too great but I made an effort to appear grateful.

The head waiter was very nice and was keen to talk English although our conversations were a bit confusing.

Breakfast should be interesting.

Monday

Didn’t sleep to well but suddenly woke to find it was 8.45am and i was being met by Cherry at 9.30! Washed and dressed and dashed downstairs just in time to grab a quick coffee. Met Cherry in reception and walked the short distance to the office. Was introduced to Vivian and then did a quick tour to say hello to everone. Settled at my desk and got my laptop up and working. Went to lunch at 12.10 with Vivian, Cherry, Amy, Yong and Alex. Went to an Italian and had pizza. Far too much food was ordered.

Back by 2pm and straight in to big meeting where various people presented the state of their European projects to me. Went on all afternoon. Finally left the office at about 7pm. Walking back to the hotel at night was fun as all the illuminated hoardings were now flashing away. Lots of people about inc plenty of people selling flowers for Valentines Day.

At the hotel went to the gym. It was deserted. In my room I received a text message from Sophie who was at my uncle’s funeral. He had died the week before and I couldn’t really rearrange my trip in order to attend. My mother had done all the organisation and was on her way, with my dad driving, to my Uncle’s house in Cheam with all the food for the reception. Just as they got to Roehampton my dad’s car broke down! My mother and one of her granddaughters from Peterborough, managed to get a taxi to the funeral, whilst my dad and the other, twin, granddaughter waited for the AA to take them back home. They finally managed to get to the funeral, by taxi, just as it had finished. It was a burial so they managed to go and see the grave. At the end of the day Sophie took dad and both twins back to Ealing (in the Ka, which must have been a squeeze, as the twins aren’t small), which made her day very long, especially as she was supposed to be working and only had dispensation to attend the funeral for a couple of hours.

Back to room and worked on SugarCRM for a while and unlocked phone. Finally received message from Virgin saying that my number had been moved, then read til 12.30.

Tuesday.

Woke at 5ish. Got up at 7.30 washed and dressed and down for a big breakfast. Cherry said she’d take me for a chinese lunch today.

The day was dull compared to yesterday as Amy was too busy to talk to me. Went to lunch with Cherry and Yong. The office block we are in has a shopping centre and food mall in the basement so we went down there and found all the food sites jam packed. Yong took this in his stride and took us in to a busy Japanese style noodle bar. I had a delicious bowl of clear soup, noodles and pork. After eating Yong suggested a walk so we set off towards Tiananmen Square. It was a gloriously sunny and warm day, and by the time we reached the square after about 15mins walking, we were both quite hot. It was approaching 2pm by now so we decided to get a bus straight back to the office. The bus was only fit for sardines and I didn’t think we’d get on but somehow we made it.

The trouble with the time difference between China and the UK is that here in China, when it gets to 5pm ish and your thoughts turn to going ‘home’, everyone in the UK wakes up and starts emailing, skyping, or MSNing you. Sophie started to tell me more about the funeral, Emily wanted a video Skye call, and another Aicent guy from Oman was asking me technical questions!

I think I finally left the office at 7pm and decided to go straight to Xiushui Silk Market. This involved taking the subway and I managed to buy 2 tickets, 3 Juan or 20p each, by simply holding up two fingers. Obviously there are no ticket machines or barriers as there are plenty of peole to do the work instead. Even so the ticket queues were quite long. Thankfully the subway is clearly signposted in English, and the stops are even announced in English on the trains themselves. I went from Xidan to Yonganli, 6 stops, and there was an exit that led straight to the ‘silk’ market. According to my guide book this was an outdoor market, but it seems to have now moved indoors. It’s hard to see how it could have been outside as it is just so big! The market covers about 5 floors and each floor is packed with rows of stalls. Each floor has a vague theme, such as luggage, children, silk, carpet, women, men, but there’s a lot of overlap. Most of the clothing is pretty ordinary, and anything with a brand name is probably fake. The shopping experience is quite draining as each stall holder jumps up as you pass, offers you goods allegedly worn by supermodels for a good price, and if you make the mistake of glancing in their direction, then they physically grab you and won’t let go. I found it all a bit self defeating as it meant you were loathe to stop, and if you did stop to look then they would try and push some crap item on you, whilst you’re trying to look at the thing you really want. As soon as you express a interest then the calculator comes out and a price is typed in. I wanted some silk slippers for Emily, and everywhere I went they were asking 450 Juan, about £45. I had been told to offer 25% of the asking price and walk off if they refused. When I finally found the shoes that I wanted I followed this advise and offered 100Juan. There were cries of disgust, and “did I only want a single shoe” etc. I walked off, as much as I could with a stall holder strapped to my leg, and they instantly relented. Hardly worth the effort on their part. I guess I could have got it for even less if I had tried. I immediately fled the joint for the sanctitude of my hotel. I’ll go back next week to get some scarves though.

Wednesday.
A good day in the office as various people gave training presentations to myself and a couple of other newbies in the office. For lunch we went to a Chinese Buffet downstairs. For 10 Juan or 80p, you got a stainless steel food tray, on to which you could choose a selection of meats, I had duck and beef, rice, veg, soup, a sweet roll, and an apple! The decor was very smart and the food was delicious, all for less that £1.

Cherry helped me to book a tour to the Great Wall at Bedaling. This is the most popular part of the wall, and it’s not a particularly cheap tour either, but I might find some other people to talk to.

I left the office at 5.30pm and went back to the hotel for a swim. At 7.30 I set off for a trip to the Donghuamen Night Market. Camilla had told me that they sold some amazing foods here so I thought it was worth a visit and I could eat something as well. The subway at Wangfujing exited straight in to an amazingly smart shopping mall and I spent a few minutes looking in some gadget shops but they weren’t cheap so I left! I came out in to the open air to find a lovely wide pedestrianised street lined with small and large tourist shops. I soon found the Night Market, it’s hard to miss actually, and wandered around. There were lots of shops selling various sorts of kebabs and assorted things on sticks, including sea horses and a number of insects. There were also lots of stalls selling ‘lovely heavy budda sir’ or assorted junk. I suddenly remembered that Sophie had asked me to find some replacement rice bowls of the sort that had grains of rice embedded in the china. I had a very complicated conversation with a seller who brought out his anglo-chinese dictionary, but all I could do was point at Rice and Bowl and then shake my head when he brought out a variety of rice bowls. Some English speaking Chinese even tried to help but it was no use, so I thanked everyone and walked on. If you want something made of Jade then this is certainly the place to go though. I got back to the shopping mall by 9pm where most of the shops were shutting. As I walked around I was approached by a variety of err…girls. I have no idea what they wanted, they may have actually just wanted to talk to a westerner, but I didn’t give any of them a chance and just walked away. I came across a food court with various different zones. I sat down in one area where you could watch the chef cook your food in front of you on a large hotplate. I had beef in black pepper sauce and egg fried rice. The chef firstly made the rice by frying an egg and then mixing it up with a ball of rice and veg. He passed that to me and then went on to cook the beef. It was absolutely delicious and I may go there again. It cost 46 Juan or £3.50ish, including a beer.

Thursday
More training in the office. A fantastic dumpling meal with Vivian, Yong and Alan at lunch time. Far too much food, beef, Tofu, and at least 5 types of dumpling.

In the evening I set off for the Qianhai Lake area in Dongcheng as there are supposed to be nice bars by the lake. Got the subway to Gulou which involved changing on to the loop line. The walk from Gulou to the lake wasn’t very nice, the lake was dry and it all looked a bit seedy. It probably would have been totally different in the day light. I was aware that the subway stopped by 11pm so I made my way back to the hotel.

Friday.

A good days training but the realisation that I had a lot of practical work to do next week. I stayed in the office until 8pm working on the project management software that Adil wanted me to present to the people here. The VP of Aicent is coming to Beijing and Adil has asked him to find me and for me to present it to him.

Yong had written down the name of a restaurant in Chinese for me to show to to a taxi driver so I jumped in a cab and off we went. The restaurant was huge and looked good, but unfortunately I got there at 8.40pm and it shut at 8.30pm. What a ridiculous time of day! I walked back to the hotel via Tiananmen Square and was surprised to find the restaurant still open at 9.30pm. The hotel has a large restaurant that shuts at 9pm and a smaller restaurant that stays open slightly later. The menu was purely chinese so I ordered what I thought was pork and beef but when it arrived I found it totally inedible! One dish looked like uncooked skin, and the other was bone wrapped in gristle. I had a beer and left.

Saturday.
Off to the great wall today! The mini-van picked me up at 8am and we went on to pick up an Irish couple and four Americans from various hotels, all of which looked much nicer than mine! They were all an incredibly nice bunch of people and we got on very well. The Chinese guide spoke excellent English and I naively thought that we might escape the tourist traps.

The tour started by visiting one of the Ming Tombs. I think that we were lucky to be doing this tour in the Winter months as there weren’t many other people around. The great hall of the Ming Tomb was pretty empty, but in peak season you can’t move for people, and it’s incredibly noisy. I would recommend going in the winter months, but you have to be lucky with the weather, as we were. To be honest, the tomb isn’t that interesting, as the actual tomb is just a huge mound of earth, so I wouldn’t put it high on my list if I came here again.

After this we were subjected to the tourist traps and we had to put up with a trip to a Jade factory and showroom, and lunch at another shopping establishment. This did reveal to us that two of the American women were born shoppers as they were always late back to the bus. None of us bought anything so they didn’t make any money from us.

Finally we got to the wall at Badaling. Once again we were lucky that we were out of season as it was very quiet. When you start the walk you have the option of going left or right along the wall. Right is easier and busier and left is tougher. We had a good view to the right and could see that there were a lot of people on this route, so we chose left. I think this was a good choice as we were practically on our own for the whole walk. There were some very steep sections and I wouldn’t want to do the walk if it was wet. This part of the wall has been heavily restored and there are handrails on the steeper parts. The wall is an incredible feat of engineering as the route the wall takes through the mountains slopes up and down at very steep and ever changing angles. Once on the wall the views are stunning and lived up to all my expectations. One of the downsides of taking the left path is that there are people trying to sell you things along the route. They weren’t too much trouble though. About half way along the path the two American girls turned back as one of them had a dodgy knee. I could relate to this but there was no way I was going to turn back now. We had frequent stops to catch our breath as parts were very steep, and to take photos of each other. The end of the wall is very sudden as the path is blocked and you can see that the wall in front is just rubble. As were were taking photos here I suddenly realised that I had left my rucksack at a previous photo stop! The Irish couple, Sheila and James also realised that they had left their bag at the same spot. James ran back, not easy on the wall, and amazingly, found both bags safely.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather and the fact that we were out of season so the whole experience was a great pleasure, especially as I was with such a nice group of people. If I were to go again i think I’d be tempted to go the the wall by ordinary bus, which is a) a lot cheaper, and b) would give you more time at the wall.

The bus dropped us all back at our hotels and I’ve arranged to meet Mike, one of the Americans, at Tiananmen Square tomorrow to see some more sights. I was lucky to have been on the trip with such a nice bunch, Sheila and James, an Irish couple who had been in China for several weeks as James works for a company that makes pregnancy testers, amongst other things, Mike, an American working for Ingersoll Rand, and three America women whose names I forget, but one worked for Remmington and had spent time in Staines! As you might expect, the Irish couple were a great laugh, especially Sheila who didn’t stop talking. We all got on very well and it would have been nice to have met up again but most of them were off to other locations the next day.

Sunday.
I had arranged to meet Mike at 10am underneath Chairman Mao but didn’t wake up until 9.15am. I quickly showered, dressed, and ran out of the hotel munching a banana. The weather was fantastic and by the time I got to Mao at about 10.10 I was sweating. There was no sign of Mike so I rang his mobile number but just got the answer phone. I set off in to the Forbidden City. It is a huge site made up of a vast surrounding wall with a number of palaces running up the North-South axis. It’s a long walk before you even reach the ticket office, and along with the ticket I hired an audio tour given by that famous Chinese person, Roger Moore, or 007 as the sign helpfully reminded everyone. The ‘city’ is magnificent, various size palaces each set in a huge courtyard. This being winter some of it was covered in scaffolding but the rest was fantastic. The stories Mr Moore told were out of this world. Generations of people were born, lived, worked, and died without ever leaving the walls of the palace.

Just after I’d had a coffee at the Starbucks in the city, I was strolling along when I heard my name being called (of course hearing the name Lee being called in China is not that unusual), I turned around and there was Mike the American guy! I was really pleased to see him as I hated the fact that I’d left him thinking that I was an unreliable Englishman. Anyway, it turned out that he had been late as well and couldn’t pick up his voicemail in China, so he hadn’t received my message. Unfortunately he had finished the tour of the city whilst I was still only half way through, so we went our separate ways, but I was glad that I’d bumped in to him.

I left the city by the North gate and crossed the road, avoiding the rickshaw drivers, and went in to Jingshan Park. You have to pay to enter most parks in Beijing but they all cost less than 5RNB. This park’s claim to fame was a hill in the centre that was the highest point in Bejing. There is a small palace at the top but this was covered in scaffolding as well. From the top I could hear lots of singing going on in the North East corner of the park so I descended and made my way in that direction. I found a large area full of small groups of people all singing and/or dancing. All the people involved were relatively old and, in fact, there were no young people in sight. It was a lovely site, everyone was singing or dancing with all their heart and with no sign of embarassment.

From here I walked West to another park at Zonghai Lake, where once again I was beset by rickshaw drivers. These bloody people never leave you alone, chasing after you as you try to avoid them. After a brief walk around the lake I set off for the long walk back East towards the Wangfujing area to do some shopping. Sadly I couldn’t find the particular rice bowls that Sophie wanted but was amazed by the Chinese passion for shopping. They have huge American style malls full of nothing but clothes shops.

At 4.30pm the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant in Wangfujing opened and in I marched. This is a huge place, on several floors, and when I asked for a table for one I was directed to he fourth floor. I don’t know if there was any significance to this as the floor soon filled up with other, larger, parties. I had half a duck, and could even watch the ducks being cooked in the ovens in front of me. My duck was wheeled out in front of me and I was given three choices as to how I wanted it cut, slices, strips, or skin separated from the meat. I opted for strips, but it didn’t seem to matter which option you went for, the duck was still sliced with great neatness and respect, quite unlike an English Chinese restaurant. The waitress kindly instructed me on how to eat duck and also gave me a short history of the restaurant. Needless to say, the duck was delicious and was followed by duck soup which I couldn’t manage.

I walked back to Tiananmen Square to see it at night and arrived just as the police and army were closing it for the night and turfing everyone off. They really are paranoid about the place.

Monday.
Worked all day today. Went for lunch with Yong down in the basement of the building. I asked Yong about the single child policy and how strictly it was enforced. Basically if you’re rich you can buy more children, and it is common for couples to go and work abroad for a year or two and come back with a few more, non-chinese, children.

I stayed late to do some work for Adil and at 8pm Cherry came up to ask if I wanted to go to eat something. Cherry’s main job is to sort out the invoices, and from the 20th of each month she is busy checking invoices for at least a week before they go out to customers, as today was the 20th she was working late. We had a delicious Korean meal. I had a huge bowl of mixed meat, veg, rice and soup. I asked her how Chinese people choose the English name that they like to be known by, and even refer to each other by. It’s fairly arbitrary and Cherry’s ‘real’ name starts with a ‘ch’ so she chose Cherry, after a brief flirtation with Cheryl. In fact her real name is perfectly pronouncable by a westerner.

Back to the hotel to watch Chariot’s of Fire.

Tuesday.
Had an interesting lunch today, Chinese Pizza. It’s a thin piece of mince meat rolled out the size and shape of a side plate that is then put inside a round envelope of err..not sure what, so that it vaguely resembles a pizza shape. For 13RNB you get 4 of these on a plate plus a Pepsi. You are expected to eat them with chopsticks, which is a challenge, but you basically fold them up in to a small packet and eat them as best you can. Yung then helped me to buy some tea to take home. As you can probably imagine, there was a huge choice of tea and a huge choice of ways of buying it, loose, packet, box, bag, gift case, etc. I bought some gift boxes (will they fit in the suit case!) and a couple of packets.

This evening I went back to the silk market and bought some scarves and dressing gowns for Sophie and Emily. I’m sure that no matter what you pay here you are still being ripped of, so it’s just a matter of what you are happy with. eg I got the price of a dressing gown down from 720RNB to 100, at which point they offered me two for the same price!

I was browsing the fake watch section when I saw the watch of my dreams, the Moonwatch, or Omega Speedmaster, as worn by Apollo astronauts on the Moon. On closer inspection it wasn’t quite what I wanted so one of the minions scurried off and came back with another model which still wasn’t right. The head honcho then pulled out his official Omega book and I found what I wanted, he then pulled out a suitcase buried deep under all the other crap and revealed a Special Edition Moonwatch with a unique inscription on the back and a rear glass inspection panel. It looked pretty good to me. I asked how much and he sucked air in through his teeth. “This is really genuine” he said (oh yeah), the other watches I’d seen could have been mine for 320RNB, but this special one was 2700RNM or nearly £300 so it obviously was real as the original costs close to that at about £1600. I offered him 300RNB and walked away hoping he’d give in, but he didn’t. I’m in a real dilemma as to whether to go back and try again. I love that watch so much, but can I face paying say 500RNB, or £40, for a worthless fake. On one hand (no pun intended) it would be great to have one but on the other hand I would always know it was a fake and it could well be just crap. I think I’ll save up for the real thing, perhaps for my 50th birthday, not far away now. In a similar vein I bought 3 dodgy DVDs, as Yung said they were good quality, but they weren’t. Two of them were filmed from the back of the cinema, and one of those was in Chinese, but the third was a decent copy of an original. Still, they were cheap.

Wednesday.
Had to give an English test to 4 new recruits to the Help Desk. Currently the help desk is outsourced to someone else but they want to get rid of that and have calls routed directly here, so they need people with good English skills. I didn’t have long to talk to each of them but I thought that their English was pretty good in all cases, at least when talking to me face to face, how they’d cope when talking to someone else who wasn’t a native English speaker I’m not so sure. I also had to present a Project Management System that I’d been working on for Adil…….

We went back to the Dumpling restaurant for lunch and had another huge meal. We had sweet dumplings filled with jam, mixed in with the savoury ones. I think they are they only sweet thing I’ve eaten all the time I’ve been here.

In the afternoon I managed to do some mobile messaging testing. You send an MMS fom one operator to another and then check the logs of all the intervening servers to make sure the message flow is correct. It’s very time consuming and I’m sure it can be automated with some effort.

On the way back to the hotel I discovered another huge shopping mall right next to the hotel. I wandered around here for a while, buying a few bits.

Thursday
Last day! Lots to do. I’ve got to present the Project system to both the CFO and CTO this afternoon. Vivien kindly brought me some Tea to take home.

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