Larry Madowo nearly gets deported at the airport, then gets lost at midnight in Beijing and wraps up the trip with fake currency. Here’s his guide for surviving Beijing.
‘Everything you’ve heard about China is completely true. And everything you’ve heard about China is completely false,’ I was told on my second day in Beijing.
You can get a flight into Beijing from Dubai from most airlines including and Emirates, Qatar Airlines. But if you want to fly national carrier Kenya Airways, you have to endure a stopover in Bangkok after a 10-hour flight and then 3 more hours to Guangzhou in southern China. You then get onto a 3-hour connecting flight on China Southern Airlines into Beijing.
You will go through Chinese immigration officials much easier if you are not black and have never been in an Arab country. Sadly for me, I do not qualify on both accounts. The immigration lady looked through my Egyptian visa with growing concern, scratched it repeatedly, looked through my other visas and took to a magnifying glass. In between, she demanded to know the nature of my visit in China and how much money I had on me and only stopped short of asking for a DNA sample. When that didn’t convince her, she called a man I assumed to be her boss who went through the process again, asked her to stamp my passport but disappeared with it into a room for a few minutes. He reappeared and handed back to me my passport with one last disapproving glance. The whole time, I was holding up the queue of largely Africans who seemed even more convinced that I had something fishy about me.
If you get through Immigration and into the actual airport, you will need a pair of strong soles. There are large screens that display flight details to all over. In Chinese! But if you walk around long enough, you will bump on some with English equivalents.
Sheep in the big city
So getting into Beijing, I took my baggage and headed for the exit, expecting to find my shuttle to the hotel. Turns out, my travel agency had given them the wrong flight number and the shuttle driver was unable to find us and went back. Realizing we were stranded, I exchanged some of my dollars into Chinese yuan (written as RMB for RenMinBi) and went ahead to find a bus to the city centre. Every Chinese yuan is equivalent to about 12 Kenya shillings.
We paid 16 yuan for the ride into the city and stressed to the driver that we did not know where we were going and just knew the name of the general area. After all, we reasoned, how hard can it be to find a 5-star hotel in Beijing? After nodding that he understood, we set off. After about half an hour and smack in the middle of some poorly lit deserted street, the driver signaled to our trio that we were there. So we got our bags off the bus and watched it drive along.
We looked around and there seemed to be very little activity. No hotels nearby, shop windows, clubs or any other signs of late night life. In fact, apart from the street lights on the highway, it was very dark. Then it hit us; we were lost in a foreign city, at midnight with no help at hand. We eventually found some young security guards at a corner nearby but they didn’t help much though one of them did a search on Baidu that found the hotel. I had meanwhile hailed countless taxis, whose drivers all didn’t speak English and had never heard of our hotel. After a few minutes of silent comprehension of our predicament, a European-looking man ambled along in shorts and earphones. To our relief, he spoke both Chinese and English and had a phone which he used to call the hotel. The front desk spoke to my latest taxi guy and we were off. The meter on the taxi read 23RMB but that didn’t stop him from charging us 50RMB. By this time, we were beyond caring, just happy to have finally arrived.
The next day I was at the Bird’s Nest, the venue of the 2008 Olympics. In July, the sun is out and its humid and visibility is severely reduced in Beijing because its smack in the middle of summer. Light clothes are good, as are sunglasses and those fancy fans you will see everywhere.
So we alight outside the landmark stadium and I notice we are getting some stares. Shortly, people are asking to take pictures with me! Because of the language barrier, I didn’t get to ask why but I presumed it is because I’m black. That was supported when more and more people asked to take pictures with the three black faces in the entire group. At some point, I was mobbed that I had to extricate myself to join our party. ‘You’re so handsome,’ one called out as if to convince me.
The Bird’s Nest is actually the colloquial name for the Beijing National Stadium which cost $423m to build for the games. It’s called that because it ‘implemented steel beams in order to hide supports for the retractable roof; giving the stadium the appearance of a “Bird’s nest”’ according to Wikipedia. It is not used much these days but is still a major tourist attraction and even has an entry fee to see the inside. Most people are just fine with walking on the outside, taking a few pictures with it, and if you’re black, having a few taken of you as well.
If you’re in Beijing, you must drop by the Forbidden City. It is one of the last standing monuments to the ancient Chinese feudal society and was the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty. Basically, emperors and their households lived there for about 500 years and was the political nerve center of Chinese government.
The name is derived from the Chinese name Zijin Cheng and is called so because at the time, nobody could enter or leave without the express permission of the emperor. It is said to be the world’s largest surviving palace complex over 72 hectares and is still largely preserved and cars or any other form of motorized transport are not allowed inside.
Beware of hawkers selling all sorts of original and knock-off artifacts and souvenirs and who will harass you to buy their wares. It still makes for great pictures and will be nice to preview when you get back home especially with a particularly strong pair of lenses. Again, there were numerous requests to take pictures with for the same unexplained reasons. Even some older Chinese who do not request for photo ops size you up and take a real good look at you.
The Great Wall
That said, you have not been into Beijing until you visit the iconic Great Wall of China. Take care not to fall into Mongolia. The original wall was built of stone, grass, wood and rammed earth though it became pointless with the advent and universal adoption of gunpowder. And to think it took almost 2,000 years to build, with the last work being done in the 10th century BC!
It gets even more interesting. Popular culture says it can be viewed from the moon. It has been claimed that the Great Wall is “the mightiest work of man, the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the moon,” though scientists dispute that. Apparently, your vision will have to be 17,000 times better than average to do see it from the moon.
It stretches for an amazing 8,851.8 km according to the latest archaeological surveys. Because man has an insatiable need to document and understand anything, they went and did that. From the point where you will get off the tour boss, you will probably walk a few hundred meters, maybe a kilometer or two before turning back. Its largely brick wall now with surrounding forest, a huge memento from the 2008 Olympics with the logo and inscription ‘One World One Dream’ and some souvenir and groceries shops here and there. In short, once you’ve seen one part, you’ve seen it all. Unless you go to the moon.
‘You’re not a man until you’ve been to this tip,’ read back to us a young Chinese man after we peered ignorantly at some Chinese characters. We promptly make our way to that tip and take the customary picture. The problem is that there is no definitive way of measuring how much climbing you did because after a while, it all starts to look the same.
For some reason, every Kenyan who hears you are going to China wants something cheap from there. OK, every Kenyan who hears you are going out of the country wants a gift. You can always use airline baggage limits as an excuse. But if that fails, you need to visit Xiu Shui Market, or simply Silk Street.
‘Be sure to bargain very vigorously or you will get ripped off,’ our guide Christina warns as we disappear into the 5-storey building. Arranged in the very popular stalls around Nairobi’s downtown malls, Silk Street is the shopper on a budget’s best friend. Almost everything is a brand knock-off from jeans, shirts, watches, jackets, souvenirs, paintings, belts to ‘designer’ briefs and jewellery.
Though it is arguably the counterfeit capital of Beijing, a digital display outside proudly proclaims ‘Top Quality and Best Value.’ Irony defined.
You walk into one of the 1,700 stalls, pick out something you like and the bargaining begins. Most of the 3,000 salespeople speak basic English but they all still have a calculate to quote the prices. An item that you will buy for about 35 RMB may begin at about 800 RMB or even more outrageous depending on how moneyed or clueless you look. I bought a pair of shoes for 90RMB and a friend bought the exact same for half the amount.
The place is teeming with tourists and some official numbers say 20,000 visitors pass by on weekdays and as much as 60,000 on weekends. Because it is not just Kenyans who have a deep love affair with knock-off brands and full-blown counterfeits. News reports say there are ongoing intellectual property disputes and discussions between the government, the affected brands and traders. So much for top quality and best value.
In all, Beijing is great for a tourist. There are lots of places to visit as long as you have a Chinese phrasebook though the intonation is all off so a guide will be better. Chinese food is terrible for someone used to African and conventional Western food. In China, the food is slimy and spicy and fatty and just terrible. ‘If I never have to eat Chinese food again in my whole life, it will be too soon,’ one member of our entourage laments.
The taxis are metered and the driver’s full names and supervisor’s number are prominently displayed. But that doesn’t stop them from acting just like Kenyan matatu drivers and blocking those details, turning off the meters and charging exorbitantly at rush hour or when it rains. God bless capitalism again.
The only other place apart from the airport where I exchanged my dollars into yuan was at my hotel. I still ended up with 2 fake 100RMB notes. That’s about Sh2,400 if you’re doing the math. I later learnt you can get fake currency even at banks and other official-looking places.
If you’re a social media kind of person, you might want to update your status before you get into mainland China. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (and sometimes Google) are all either blocked or censored in China. I got a loophole through a phone application called Snaptu but that is because my login credentials were already pre-approved and saved before entering China.
A stripped down & sanitized version of this account appeared in the Home & Away pull-out of the Standard on 19th August.