Tag Archives: Nairobi

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.

Public attention

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.

Forbidden City

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.

Silk Street

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.


First, that title is misleading. There is no actual moving on happening around here.

First, who is filling KBW with useless job advertisements? It is so irritating that am hit by endless vacancy announcements. Is it just me or…

So I marked another birthday yesterday. Marked is really the wrong word to use, considering that besides the midnight Harry Porter premiere, my day was craptacularly usual. I dont feel any much older, yet. It normally grows on me in the succeeding months. But its good to be officially older by a year, goes a long way in being taken as a ‘serious Kenyan.’

Oh, the movie? Dumbledore dies in the Half Blood Prince. I was shocked when I saw it. So I came back to the office the next day and at least two guys know I have read the book.

I have selective memory loss? I forget.

A prime plot suitable for commercial re-engagement has recently become available smack in the middle of the city centre.

Nakumatt Downtown; the good days

Nakumatt Downtown; the good days

This here on the right is what it looked like in the good days, when it was Nakumatt’s busiest store, open 24 hours a day and despite its challenge in space, bringing in quite a sizeable percentage of revenue mostly because of its location and therefore, convenience






And then one warm and airy afternoon, the beginning of what would be the end happened.

Downtown burns

Downtown burns

Because of a mixture of greed, avarice, poor preparedness, poor planning and even a poorer response to emergency, it went ka-BOOM and took with it almost 30 Kenyans’ lives. And even worse, the management, and some leading newspaper, had initially indicated that nobody had been trapped inside the fire. And oh how they were wrong!  

So this (above) is how it started, covered live by all the major, and minor TV stations, the first of a series of tragedies in the subsequent fortnight..

But finally, Woolworths House, whoever owned it has decided to clear the place, maybe for a parking, maybe for an office block, maybe, just maybe for a 24 hour supermarket to be built at that very place.

So did we learn anything from this tragedy? And how many people will be comfortable entering whatever will replace Downtown?

May you find serenity and tranquility in a world you may not always understand. May the pain you have known and the conflict you have experienced give you the strength to walk through life facing each new situation with courage and optimism. Always know that there are those whose love and understanding will always be there, even when you feel most alone. May you discover enough goodness in others to believe in a world of peace. May a kind word, a reassuring touch, and a warm smile be yours every day of your life, and may you give these gifts as well as receive them. Remember the sunshine when the storm seems unending.

Teach love to those who hate, and let that love embrace you as you go out into the world. May the teachings of those you admire become part of you, so that you may call upon them. Remember, those whose lives you have touched and whose have touched yours are always a part of you, even if the encounters were less than you would have wished. It is the content of the encounter that is more important than the form.

May you not become too concerned with material matters, but instead place immeasurable value on the goodness in your heart. Find time each day to see beauty and love in the world around you. Realize that each person has limitless abilities, but each of us is different in our own way. What you feel you lack in the present may become one of your strengths in the future. May you see your future as one filled with promise and possibility. Learn to view everything as a worthwhile experience. May you find enough inner strength to determine your own worth by yourself, and not be dependent on another’s judgment of your accomplishments. May you always feel loved. – ANONYMOUS
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. – ALBERT EINSTEIN

So I am a day older than I was yesterday. Little difference!

All the same, thanks for all the wishes I have gotten from everyone. I can not possibly reply to each personally so take this all of you as the appreciation. Small problem though: where is the money? I thought we agreed you would send me money so I can buy birthday presents of my own? I am still crossing my fingers for that 🙂

Muchias gracias!

By Roald Dahl

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rate and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.


My, my, this has got to be one of my best poems of all time. 😀

As as a matter of principle and practice, I do not usually republish my pieces published elsewhere in my blog. However, I will make an exception for this particular opinion from the Daily Nation of Friday 11th April 2008. So here goes:

THE 14th US CHIEF JUSTICE, Earl Warren, was quoted by Sports Illustrated in 1968 as saying: “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

Of late, with the political temperatures in the country at fever pitch, I have come to a new appreciation of both the quote, and the truth in it.

And after paying closer attention to the back pages of the papers, I was pleasantly surprised to note  that a great deal is happening in the world of sports. But, naturally, these have been eclipsed by the cat-and-mouse game played by politicians as they figure out how best to run our country down. It is as though they have not already done us the worst possible damage with their two month-long blame game.

In fact, I now hold the view that even if the Cabinet issue is finally resolved, it won’t be too long before they find something else to disagree on with equal gusto.

You will be amazed at the tomes of useful information tucked away in the last pages of newspapers.

Believe it or not, the much derided Kenya Football Federation may be making more progress than our Government has done in the last four months.

The Kenya Premier League matches are now being beamed live to a continental audience thanks to a unique partnership with continental pay-TV channel, Multichoice. This will be on for the next four years, at the end of which, the standard of Kenyan football is expected to be much higher than it is today.

CLUBS ARE EARNING MONEY OUT  of the deal, and locally, football is now going professional. Coaches, players and fans are all upbeat about this development and the only reason why it probably didn’t make headlines is because we were all transfixed on the words ‘‘stalemate’’, ‘‘collapse’’, and their respective derivatives.

Kenya’s rugby has never been better. The Bamburi Rugby Super Series just ended a very successful run last weekend with the Lions franchise taking home the crown.

Not that it wasn’t contested; it was bitterly fought over. The newly-formed Nguvu Sharks side that brought together Nairobi-based universities posted  an impressive showing to emerge third overall. Now, that is what I call achievement.

Internationally, the Kenyan seven-a-side team made great showings at both the Hong Kong and Adelaide outings. They fought gallantly, taking some deep bites and cuts and giving a few of their own in games that were certainly entertaining.

It is for all of these reasons that the whole idea that President Kibaki and Prime Minister-designate Raila Odinga are unable to agree on a Cabinet appears like pure balderdash.

After having hammered out the more contentious National Accord that ushered in peace, the small matter of who gets appointed to help in healing this country should be a walk in the park.

At times like these, calls like those appearing on Facebook to privatise government are not only plausible, they may even turn out to be desirable.