Saturday, June 16, 2007


Beijing's Wangfujing Jie (Street) is a little of Singapore's Orchard Road and Chinatown rolled into one. It is also somewhat like Shanghai's Nanjing Jie (Street) where trams travel up and down the long long pedestrian mall. At the time of my visit though, there is still construction work going on along Wanfujing's boulevard.

Like Nanjing Jie and Orchard Road, branded shops and department stores line the Wanfujing boulevard. Like Singapore's Chinatown, there are many shops selling typically Chinese products - such as herbs and tea. Like Chinatown, there are small traditional shops dotted around Nanjing Jie.

In Wangfujing, you can enter a side street that is a bustle of activity, much like what Singapore's Chinatown used to have. Chinatown still has them now, but it is more sanitised. These series of streets sells traditional and popular Chinese food and souvenirs. It even has a Chinese Opera show that seems to run on and on. Children will be delighted to find shops selling 'Tanghulu' - or crystalline sugar-coated haws on a stick available at some of these stores. Eating them was another thing though. I found the haw pretty sour. If not for the sugar-coating, the haw would be almost inedible. I remember eating the same in Shanghai in December last year. Somehow, it tasted less sour and more pleasant.

One of the more common cuisine is the meat on a stick or barbecued meat. There are various, ranging from cuttlefish to pork to chicken to beef to lamb. True to character, there is nothing that the Chinese would not eat The sticks are really long and has more meat compared to Singapore's satay. Well worth a try. I wasn't so adventurous so I only ordered a couple of other noodles, minced beef and and 'jiaozhi' - all of which are edible but not fantastically so.

You have to soak up the atmosphere....

Friday, June 15, 2007

Happy Valley

Happy Valley Amusement Park in situated about 10-15 minutes taxi ride from Jianguomenwai Road. It is an amusement park styled after Disney and Universal Studios theme parks. It is quite sizeable, hosting themed locations such as the Lost Maya(n) Empire, Atlantis, Ant Kingdom and the obligatory features such as roller coasters (I counted three of them, each with varying degrees of challenge), Vertical Elevator, 4-D Theatre, Game Stalls, and what looked like an Indiana Jones themed location showing the adventures associated with treasure seeking. Of course souvenir shops dotted the whole park for visitors to take home a little of the memories through its merchandise.

We arrived at about 11.15am by taxi, which charged us RMB80 - not by meter although it was a taxi. But the cabbie was willing to fit 5 of us in his cab, so we wouldn't run the risk of getting separated and lost. We learnt much later from Alex Wu, the Chief Concierge at Paragon Hotel, that in Beijing, only taxis with a car plate number starting with 'B' is legally licensed. All others are illegal and if the operator/driver of these 'taxis' are caught, as was the driver that drove us back from Happy Valley to Paragon Hotel was, he faces a potential fine of thousands of dollars.

Anyway, back to the theme park. We could tell that the kids loved the place, particularly a multi-layered enclosure much like the kids' player area you'd find in Downtown East. The enclosure is wrapped round with mesh ropes to prevent the small cushion balls from getting out of the enclosure. What were the cushion balls for? To throw at each other, of course. There were several ball cannons for greater effect. Not only kids were having fun here, but young adults as well!

The park is pretty big, so we paid RMB20 for a maximum of three rides on the electric buggies. The first ride, we took through the whole park with the driver giving us an overview. Its probably what every new visitor to this park should do. We were almost drenched at Atlantis. One of the attractions here is a boat that would slide down from atop a hill and make a big splash when it reaches the bottom. But people were deliberately standing around to get drenched. Such was the huge splash it created every time the boat dived into the water.

Towards the end of the day, at about 6pm, we attended a show which is located at the entrance of the park. This show had athletic kids do slam-dunks over various obstacles, caucasians doing a Chinese dance, and acrobatic displays by on bicycles and skates. Very entertaining indeed. That was a good way to wrap up the day at this theme park.

Forbidden Transport

Today was for the children, and the child in all of the rest of us. We visited Happy Valley in Beijing. At first, I wasn't very hopeful that it would turn out to be fun. In the first place, we hopped onto a taxi that charged us the un-metered fare of RMB80 - about S$16 - way above the type of rates that I am used to when I traveled in Shanghai in December last year and March/April this. This in spite of the fact that it was clearly a taxi.

But he was willing to fit the five of us in his cab in a single trip. We didn't want to kick up a fuss, so we went along with the proposition. The trip was pretty smooth and uneventful. We reach our destination in about 10-15 minutes. The return journey proved to be very different. It was late - about 7.30pm - and we had just walked out of the shopping mall just across the road from the Happy Valley Amusement Park with loads of stuff we purchased earlier at Happy Valley and Tesco Supermarket. We were again propositioned for transportation. In Singapore, this activity is called touting. It can be quite irritating, but sometimes useful. I looked out on the roads and didn't see any available taxis cruising around. So we asked for the price and he quoted RMB60. That's RMB20 less than when we came, so we agreed to take his car. It wasn't even a taxi, just a small private car. It was quite a squeeze for four people in the back seat. I sat in the front - the privilege of having the biggest frame size of the group.

For much of the journey, the driver did not switch on his air-con. I thought it was ok as the roads were relatively free of traffic and we were moving along. He only switched it on when we entered the part of the city with more traffic lights and vehicles. The strange thing was - he asked us while driving if our destination was the ??? building. My wife instantly recognised that Chinese name and we said yes. Funny that he didn't asked if our destination was the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel. I just didn't want him to drop us off at the shopping mall where we would have to lug our shopping across to the Hotel. For S$12 taxi service in Beijing, we deserved more. In the event, when we reach our destination, I unwittingly directed the driver onto the road just in front of our Hotel, albeit on the other side of the road. He would turn in to the Hotel, but I wasn't prepared to argue. I paid him with a 10 dollar and 50 dollar RMB notes, but he returned the 50 to me because it was torn at one corner. So I exchanged it with another.

At about that moment, I head commotion outside the cab. Some official had come by to check on us and the driver. They began to question my companions - where we were from, what we were doing, whether we called for the transportation, or was offered the ride, and if so, how much we paid for driver. For the un-initiated, this look pretty scary - to be stopped in the night by somebody in some official uniform and assisted by a plainclothes person. But the uniformed person assured us that if we were offered the transportation service, it wasn't allowed. He then asked for my ID, which I duly obliged. Then he ticked off a list of questions on his 'form' and recorded my answers, including my HP number, address - the Hotel just across the street, etc. Finally he asked me to sign on the completed form. Mindful of not putting my signature on any document, particularly a document which I couldn't make out in the dark of the night, I didn't an initial, but the official requested that I write my Chinese name. He did seem honest about the whole thing, so I obliged. He also asked me to write on his pad that I had received the RMB60 back from the car driver, which I did through my companions.

Throughout the whole incident, the official seemed sincere, he didn't take about money from us - in fact he 'gave' us a free ride, he wasn't threatening and explained his motives reasonably clearly to us. On my part, we cooperated with him, though I gave him the wrong HP number, not deliberately - I was just confused at that time to think clearly. But there was only one of the number number which was wrong. Somehow, I just didn't want correct my unintentional error.

That done, we crossed the road back to our Hotel. We didn't know what happened to the driver. I was told that he was questioned, but whether he was arrested, fined, or whatever, I don't know, though I would have liked to know. I am surprised by the active enforcement action regarding the illegal hiring of transportation in Beijing. I was glad that I didn't engage any transportation for our 'forays' to our destinations. So far, we have either taken the subway, metered taxis from the Airport, and the public bus. The only exception was our journey to Happy Valley.

We speculated that this enforcement action was to clean up the unlicensed transportation racket ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certainly, the Central Government does not want to hear complaints of unlicensed activities during the Olympics - that will be akin to the Government of the People's Republic of China losing face over its inability to govern and control illegal activities.

Whatever the reason, we got a free 'taxi' ride and we weren't in any trouble anyway. We probably would have incurred RMB60 in 2 'legal' taxis - one taxi could seat at most 4 passengers - so the money wasn't an issue as far as we were concerned. Call it a bonus, though it is at the expense of this illegal operator. I suppose he has earned enough from his 'premium' fares in his previous trouble-free runs that a RMB60 loss is not that big a deal. The only problem is his trouble with the law. One thing that still troubles me is that the arresting officers didn't wear uniforms that read "Gong An" - China's police. I noticed this when the officer was taking down my statement.

I only hope that my records are not abused. Somehow, I don't think it will. Much as we hear about widespread corruption in China, I must congratulate the Beijing Municipal Authorities on their active engagement in making sure that tourists do not get the short end of a deal.

Long Live the PRC!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City - the home of Ming and Qing Emperors for over 500 years, is steeped in Chinese history, culture and superstitions (referred to as Feng Shui today). It is not for me to give a full account here of these historical aspects of the Forbidden City - you would do well to pick up one of many books specifically describing this City.

One thing I can say here is that the City is HUGE - Chinese emperors of yore really lived it up! But then we should be mindful that the Emperor not only had his home here, this was the place to conduct the affairs of state, administer the Imperial Examinations and worship the God(s). Before we had our SOHO, the Chinese Emperors have already invented it, only it was not small.

As you enter the City, there are small little exhibit halls, each charging a small entrance fee, that showcase various aspects of Palace life and culture. In my opinion, these are probably not worth your time, though the money is not an issue. Each of these are priced as low as RMB5 per entry.

You can also eat at one of the many 'eating places' in this City, which occupies the buildings outside the Palace proper. Be forewarned - the food tastes terrible though the portion is huge. And if you are a stickler for clean toilets, you are in trouble. There are public toilets, but they emit a strong stench, probably because the cleaners can never clean them due to the constant stream of people using them. Also there are not many toilets to start off with. If you have a weak bladder, the Forbidden City is indeed forbidding.

While most of the outer perimeter of the Forbidden City is free for your to roam free of charge, entrance to the Palace (also known today as the Palace Museum) proper will set you back RMB60. It is worth the money though. The history of this Palace goes back hundreds of years that unless you are a history expert, it will be impossible for you to know or understand what you are seeing. You can rent a talking machine, which you can sling around your neck, that gives you a running commentary of various parts of the palace. It costs RMB10 for a Chinese version, RMB50 for an English version. There are other language versions too. But you need to pay a refundable deposit of RMB100. I almost rented one, but, in retrospect, I must thank the lady in front of me in the queue. She took so long that I gave up waiting. I found out later that a 'live' commentary was much better - and cost not much more. So we entered the Palace with nothing but the guide map that came with the entrance tickets in hand.

As in most places of interest, you get accosted by people offering their services, either to take you on a 40 minute tour, or something. They can be parasitic, but you must remember that you are in a foreign land, so no matter how irritated you get, you must maintain a degree of civility and politely refuse. They will still come after you, but these people are just trying to make an honest day's living, so bear with them. They aren't that bad. They are offering a service, they are not there to rob or anything - at least that's how I see them.

When you enter the Palace, there are guides dressed in blue who will offer a one and a half hour guided tour of the Palace grounds for RMB150. They will even offer to take a video of the entire guided tour, using their video camera, or even yours, if you have one. If you use theirs, you'd have to pay RMB50 for the DV-Tape, which is quite cheap. So the video-taping is not an extra above the RMB150. If it rains on that day, you can get an umbrella rent-free! Just pay RMB20 per umbrella, which will be refunded entirely to you when you return them the umbrella at the end of the tour.

These tour guides are professionals. We learnt that they are trained and need to be certified before they can act as guides. Because they go into some historical fact during the tour, they must be accurate with their commentary and also be able to answer tourists' (your) questions. Our lady guide came across as well trained, warm, and knowledgeable. She also learnt from her past customers who had expert knowledge on some remote bits of history at certain exhibits. These she readily shared with us. Now, that's humility and an acknowledgement that no one person knows it all.

At almost the end of the tour, in the place where the Empress and concubines lived, there is a Souvenir shop. Remarkably, our guide left us to our shopping because we wanted to browse around. Normally, a guide would tie up with some retail shop. In this case, it wasn't part of her itinerary, but she gave us the space and time.

At the end of the tour, we have to sign off on her 'ticket' and give her a rating - 'Excellent', 'Satisfactory' and 'Poor'. She was a great guide, and for all her effort, we rated her 'Excellent' and on top of that, tipped her RMB100!

I don't know about the machines, but this personal guided tour was definitely worth the price! The only thing I missed was her name. But never mind, we took a photo with her.

People's Square

I had a great day at one of the most famous, and perhaps also notorius, places in Beijing - Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City - once the home of China's emperors.

The notoriety that Tian An Men Square acquired was quite recent - 1989 to be exact, when hordes of Chinese congregated onto the vast Square to agitate for democracy. China was just only recently being opened up to the world, but this demonstration was too much for the authorities. The result was that the Chinese government sent in the tanks to disperse the crowd and sent Zhao Ziyang, then-Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, political exile for sympathizing with the demonstrators. He never recovered his political position - he died in 17 January 2005 - still under virtual house arrest.

Today, the Tian An Men Square incident, dubbed 6-4 (because it fell on June 4) - when the crackdown by the Chinese Authorities broke up the demonstration and arrested key student leaders - is still being remember by thousands of pro-democracy people, particularly in Hong Kong SAR. Today, this Square is peaceful which belie that June 4 day. A Mao Tse-Tung (or Mao Zedong) Memorial - formally named the "Chairman Mao Memorial" - is being renovated to honour the founding father of Communist China, and no doubt in preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the world will descend on Beijing.

The square is patrolled by the Police (Gong-An), but there is nothing sinister in this. The Gong An do not look intimidating at all - they are there to preserve order, which is well and good. The Square is huge and surrounded on all sides by Roman-columned Buildings - the National Museum, Chairman Mao Memorial, the People's Parliament Building, and not least of all, the Forbidden City (Gugong), which was the home of Chinese emperors for over 500 years. The last emperor - Pu Yi, was only 3 when he ascended the throne and was kicked out at 5 when the Han Chinese overthrew the Qing dynasty, first in Wuchang (in Wuhan) in 1911 and subseqently gathered speed in other parts of China.

Although the nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) took over where the Qing Empire left off, it didn't quite consolidate China until the Communist Party of Chairman Mao Zedong came along. In 1948, the Communist Party of China constituted a united China. The KMT had to settle for the island of Taiwan. These and similar twists and turns in the history of China demonstrate the truth of the saying:

"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide" - (Luo Guanzhong, circa 1600 during the Ming Dynasty, writing in Three Kingdoms)

Picture: Monument to the Heroes. Situtated in the middle of the Square.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

First into Beijing

Finally, after a journey that began this morning at 8am at Changi Airport, I arrived at Beijing Capital Airport. Beijing is a busy city. It is also, unfortunately, a hazy city. The air quality leaves much to be desired. The number of people from foreign lands must have increased an order of magnitude since Beijing and China in general, opened up to the world.

Even so, going through customs at Beijing was a breeze. There was a whole row of customs booths available - maybe 50 or so of them - all manned - to get the hordes of travelers through. One interesting feature at every booth is a voting panel. Commuters can express their rating of the customs officer serving them as they wait to have their documents checked and verified. And the customs officers are very efficient and fast. I didn't have enough time to figure out what the panel was about before I was cleared - it was that efficient and fast.

In some other airports, for example, those in Malaysia, the customs officers seem to take pleasure in making commuters wait in line and wait in front of them as they check the travel documents - at least that has always been my impression for one or two times I have used KL International Airport (KLIA). And even when multiple booths are available, not all of them are manned even when the crowds come in.

But back to Beijing. I didn't lose a single luggage and was well out of the airport in a jiffy. Taking a taxi is very much like that in Changi Airport. You line up for the constant stream of taxis coming into the pickup/waiting area. In some airports, you have to fight for one. I had no problem communicating my destination and was off and out of the airport in double quick time - just like in Changi.

The journey was also quite smooth and fast. We only encountered heavy traffic as we moved into the city proper. The one thing of concern in Beijing is the air quality. It is bad, really bad. That's when you start to make comparisons with Singapore. Whenever travelers remarked that Singapore is sooo... clean, we take it for granted. But these visitors are not being patronising - just being honest. Compared to Singapore, Beijing has this pall of dust all over the city, starting even from the airport. I was getting worried for the two kids who are traveling with me. Both of them have a history of asthma.

We arrived at our hotel - the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel, just across from the Beijing Railway station - in slightly under an hour.

Onward Beijing

I am traveling again, this time to Beijing, China.

I left Singapore yesterday by Thai Airways on the morning flight, stopped over at Thailand's newest (and much maligned) Suvar-nabhumi Airport before taking the connecting Thai Airways flight. I didn't spend much time in Suvar-nabhumi Airport as I rushed for then connecting flight. I had to rush because Suvar-nabhumi Airport is very big and my connecting flight was located at the other end from the arrival hall. As this was my first time at this airport, I took some time to figure out how to get there. The directional signs were good, but could have been better. I was lost at one point and had to ask for more detailed directions. This though the signs were in English.

Initial impression is that shopping looks good. My companion said that she would spend more time here on the way back as our stopover then would be no less than 3-hours! Normally, this is a drag but travelers can eat up a whole 3-hours if the shopping is interesting enough. I only pity myself and my son, who would have to endure the wait as my wallet gets lighter and lighter. But that's next Monday, so I shall not think about it until then.

But the customs inspection was terrible. At least for some travelers. Some Thai customs officers went through the luggage with a fine tooth comb, and that took up a lot of our time. But they were not intimidating. You just have to factor a bit more time when you want to get through Suvar-nabhumi Airport.