At the Beijing airport, our guide Nina from Affordable Asia met us holding the flag of her touring company. She checked us in, putting a sticker on my passport to indicate that now and for the rest of the trip I would be #G6, and began lining up luggage carts for the 61 other people on our tour.
When the last of our group arrived, we fell in line behind our flag, crossing paths with other tour groups with their own flags on the way to the tour bus parking lot, and I can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if someone from Affordable Asia should get confused and wind up on a China Spree vacation.
A Long Drive In
The Beijing International Airport is a grand, sweeping terminal that opened, like many public buildings in Beijing, just in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics. A sleek new subway connects the airport to the heart of the city. But when you are traveling with 62 clueless Americans, two tour buses are the way to go, even if it means a two-hour trip across town to the hotel.
Traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Beijing has a population of 21 million people, but they have among them 5 million cars. Many of the owners have just gotten their driver licenses. Drawing on years of experience riding bicycles through cramped side streets, they navigate the highways according to sometimes makeshift rules of the road.
One night in Beijing I was in a taxi when the driver wanted to make a U-turn. He pulled over into the far right side of a 6-lane highway. As we waited at the light, I wondered how he was going to pull this off. Then up popped a green U-turn signal––an upside down U with an arrow––and he swung around across all six lanes while everyone else waited. In China, there’s no problem that can’t be solved with signage.
Walking The Neighborhood
We are staying in a Hilton DoubleTree, a 5-star hotel that shares its block with The Rainbow, a 24-hour grocery and department store. This is where you go for your convenience items in China. Liquor, cigarettes, wide screen TV’s, diapers, medicinal herbs. Want a late night snack? Grab a stool in the cafeteria where a 100-foot long conveyor belt brings you an endless procession of serving bowls filled with dumplings, chicken hearts, fish heads, squid, liver, tofu squares, sea cucumbers and other Chinese delicacies. But you might have to wait in line to get a seat.
When we left our doorstep in Chicago, it was 5:30 AM Friday; by the time we finished checking in, it was 8:40 PM Saturday in Beijing. The plane ride left both my wife and I wired, so we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. It looks a lot like the lower midtown regions of Manhattan, Murray Hill or Chelsea, busy but nondescript. Plain Jane apartment buildings, their shabby curtains closed, an air conditioner cranking in the windows. Storefronts serve comfort food. Street peddlers hawk stuffed animals, scarves and assorted other pieces of cheap clothing. Bicycles outnumbered cars. A good many are three-wheeled vehicles carrying boxes of produce or ferrying away garbage.
We walked past the Beijing School of Accounting and heard the amplified sounds of an American country western song. Around the corner in a parking lot, 200 people of all ages appeared to be doing some kind of Asiatic line dance. This turned out to be a fairly common practice in China––public tai chi classes with a Billy Rae Cyrus soundtrack.
Not That Kind of Club
On the next street, I noticed two young women dressed to the nines coming out a back gate tended by a doorman in uniform. Thinking it must be a pop club, I asked him where the entrance was.
He directed us around the corner to an entryway bathed in lights. Neon palm trees flanked the parking lot, which was filled with luxury automobiles. A limousine pulled up to drop off its passenger. “This looks like a nice hotel,” I told my wife. “Let’s go see if they have a restaurant.”
A young woman stepped forward to greet us in the lobby.
“Is this a hotel?” I asked.
“No, it’s a health club,” she said.
I saw on one side of the lobby a sign for the men’s spa. “So there’s the men’s spa,” I said. “Where’s the women’s spa?”
“There is no women’s spa,” she snickered. “It’s not that kind of club.”
“It’s a men’s club?” I asked.
“Doh!” she said, winking and tapping her finger to her temple. “You can call it that.”
Outside once again, I looked back to see the sign on the roof. In Mandarin and English, the sign read PAI QU HUA BUSINESS LEISURE CLUB. I guess capitalism really has arrived in China.