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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beijing - Make sure you chew the air well before inhaling

March 18, 2017 - Day one  - Beijing - China

My trip to China gets off on the wrong foot – literally when I run over a cop’s foot with my luggage as I enter the airport.

“Hey! You!”
I look around to see who’s yelling.
“You, the asshole with the suitcase.  Watch where you're walking!”
He looks at his partner who glares at me and shakes his head.  I can read his thoughts:  He misses the good old days when he could Taser me into oblivion for such a miniscule offence and get away with it.
“He had a concealed stapler on him, your honor...   a Bosch 2210 with a full magazine - I had no choice.”

I apologize profusely and moon walk into a Chinese couple with a cart piled high with luggage nearly overturning it over then scuttle off to find the Air Canada check-in.  Fortunately I’m four hours early due to a last minute delay of my Air Canada flight to China. 

I arrive to find the Chinese couple I backed into in front of me in the check-in line.  They eye me warily keeping their distance from me.  I’m wondering how two people can have so much luggage.  It’s then that something occurs me:  I’m the only non-Asian in the line-up.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
The rest of my check in goes smoothly and I proceed to my gate to wait for my flight to be called.  I’m flying a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner direct to Beijing.  The flight is packed, but I luck into a row that only has one other person in it. 

I usually give Air Canada a deserved hard time (“We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”) But I have to admit the service on this flight is pretty good, with meals carefully timed to arrive just as you finally nod off for a few minutes sleep.

Even though I’m a seasoned traveler I still approach every new adventure as if it’s a walk through a minefield – carefully playing over the hundreds of potential disasters that could befall me.  I find the best way to deal with this –besides copious amounts of drugs and alcohol - Is to break the trip down into “baby steps” and worry only about the immediate “step.”  

Hence:
  1. Get to Beijing without crashing, being hijacked or at the mercy of an insane or drunk pilot
  2. Manage to pass through immigration without being accused of being a spy or somehow messing up the information on my visa – or worse losing it.
  3. Finding my luggage (after finding the correct luggage carrousel).
  4. Find the person who is supposed to meet me and drive me to my hotel. 
  5.  Find an ATM machine –and hope my card works. 
  6. And most importantly – buy beer to reward myself for surviving steps 1 through 5.


Feng
Steps 1 through 3 play out fine, and as I step out of the luggage area, I’m greeted by an ocean of people holding up signs.  After a moment or two I spot my name on a sign.  I’m greeted by my On-the-Go guide, a short cheerful Chinese woman, named Feng – who informs me she is my tour guide.  We exit the airport where our driver is waiting and head off towards Beijing.

Land of the Dental Hygienists
The first thing that hits me is the smog:  a grey pink haze hangs over the sky - like Toronto on a bad summer smog day - but worse!  Feng informs me that the “smog isn’t bad today.”  I notice that a fair amount of people are wearing masks.  It looks like a convention of dental hygienists.  “I’m told that breathing is easier if you chew before you inhale. 

As we drive into Beijing I have to admit I’m blown away by the city.  Beijing is definitely the first mega-city of the twenty-first century.  Usually when you drive into a major city you travel through squalid slums, decaying buildings, and trash and garbage everywhere before you get to the modern part of the city.  Not here - everything is clean and new -the buildings, the roads the cars.  Beijing was cleaned up for the Olympics and the trend continues.  The other thing that catches my eye is the hundreds of building cranes – they’re building everywhere.  They don’t build one apartment tower – they build twenty of them (no exaggeration) in one site.  

Olympic "Birds Nest" Stadium
Another thing that impresses me is the architecture of their buildings - not typical glass towers – unique diverse and different shapes and sizes – all pleasing to the eye.  If the Chinese ever get the smog thing under control it will truly be an amazing city.  Feng tells me they have 36 nuclear reactors presently operating and another 20 under construction.  Also there’s a real push for electric vehicles – I notice the majority of motor scooters and motorcycles are electric.  So there’s a fog light at the end of the tunnel.

Yong An Hotel
It’s about a 45 minute ride to  the  Yong An Hotel.  I’m not sure what to expect.  You can’t trust on what you see on the internet.  They never show pictures showing a hovel.  The hotel in question always looks big bright and clean – until you arrive and find a roach hotel in the middle of a slum.   But in this case the pictures do the place justice – it’s a fairly new four building complex. 

Feng checks me in and escorts me to the room to make sure I’m happy.  The only problem I encounter is the closet safe.  The instructions are in Chinese and I accidently lock my passport in it without resetting the code.  Feng calls housekeeping and explains the problem (nobody speaks English).  The housekeeper, who must have been a safe-cracker in a previous life, or is an undercover spy, attempts to open it.  No luck.  There’s much conversation between Feng and then housekeeper and a call is made for a maintenance man.  He promptly arrives and tries his hand at safe cracking.  No luck.  He calls another guy.  By now they’ve tried so many times to open the safe the batteries have died.  A call is made for someone to bring batteries.  Now there are so many people in my room shouting at each other, that two security guards alerted by concerned guests in adjoining rooms arrive. 
A view of my room after all the hotel staff arrives

 My room begins to look like the cruise cabin in the Marx Brother’s “A Night at the Opera.”  

Eventually a “key” arrives and the safe is opened and my passport rescued.  

This only leaves one major item on my “baby steps” list - get money out of the ATM.  This is always a stress inducing exercise.  Will the card work?  Will I be able to read the instructions?  How much money will it give me?   Will it give me my card back at the end?

As soon as the crowd exits my room Feng walks me to the bank around the corner to help me deal with the ATM machine.  I’m glad because it’s now dark, and despite being assured it’s safe to walk the streets at night I’m worried – not about being mugged – but getting lost five seconds after  I walk out of the hotel. 

We walk to the closest bank and I plug my Scotia card into the machine and it’s immediately rejected.   Feng says not to worry we’ll walk a few blocks to bigger bank – interestingly called ICBC – it’s the second biggest bank in China.  I figure since we have ICBC in Canada (it’s a government car insurance company) – where you get to put money in and get money out when you crash your car I have a chance at getting some cash.

I try the Scotia card - it’s rejected again.  I begin to panic.  I have one other shot at getting cash if the Scotia card continues to not work –my backup card – a TD ATM card.  I plug that card in - it works.  Important lesson:  ALWAYS take TWO cash cards (from different banks) and make sure you call them in advance.  

With cash in hand we walk back to the hotel and stop on the way at the 7-11 for beer and water.

Back at the hotel Feng leave me, suggesting if I’m hungry there’s a lot of restaurants nearby.  I decide I’ve pressed my luck enough for one day and retreat to my room to watch Chinese curling on TV and drink tsingtao beer.
  

I’ve survived Day One.  Let the fun begin! Tomorrow morning I meet the rest of my group and head off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

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