A couple of weeks ago I went to China with some colleagues from work. We have some developers in our China offices joining the team and we went there to meet and train them. I’ve been to Beijing a few times over the past 20 years and it’s always interesting to me how some things change and some things stay the same. Some noticeable differences between now and the first time I visited nearly 20 years ago:
- Nearly everyone wore either the Mao suits or the padded pajama-style clothing 20 years ago. Now, nearly everyone doesn’t. I saw a few old-timers still wearing them but most people wear western clothing.
- The roads were clogged with bicycles 20 years ago. Now they’re clogged with cars.
- The sales-English of the vendors at all the tourist spots has improved significantly. 20 years ago a “look, look” and “handmade” were about all they could muster in Engligh. Now the purveyors of dong-xis and t-shirts and souvenir Mao watches and fake jade have significantly expanded their vocabulary to the point that I could have reasonably intelligible conversations with them. The annoyingness of their omnipresence hasn’t changed though
- The air quality is significantly worse now than it was 20 years ago. So significant that NASA posted satellite pictures of the pollution the week I was there.
I’ve been in the bad Beijing air before so I thought I knew what I was getting into but it was surprising how bad it was the week I was there. Shockingly bad. Chokingly, coughingly, the-whole-city-smelled-like-a-campfire bad. The first night we were there we went to the Beijing Olympic Park to check things out. It was bitterly cold and there were very few people there except for a few hardy peddlers selling kites and fake Olympic medals and the like.
I still thought the buildings looked pretty cool through the choking fog/smog. It would have been cooler if the water-cube had been changing colors but that night it was just a static blue.
We picked one of the working days to do some sightseeing at the Great Wall and Forbidden City. After hitting those tourist spots for what is probably the 3rd or 4th time I can now understand why my Mom refuses to go there anymore after living 12 years in Beijing. Although impressive, they do tend to get boring after multiple trips. But I was a good sport and enjoyed watching my colleagues prowl around the Great Wall and Forbidden City for the first time. I mean, how can you go to China for the first time and not visit the Great Wall?
We were lucky in that the night before our sightseeing trip a storm blew in and blew out all the polluted air. It made for a perfect day of blue skies and sunshine – a rare sight around Beijing in the winter time. At the Great Wall I couldn’t help but draw a parallel in my mind between the Chinese’s historic attempts to control their borders and the raging debates in the US over the same subject. I wondered if the US puts up a big huge wall on its southern border, will it turn out to be a big tourist attraction in the year 4013?
My colleagues were pretty adventurous in terms of trying new foods so before driving back to the city our hosts took us to a rural restaurant where I tried donkey meat for the first time. It was actually quite tasty.
The air was still pretty good by the time we got to the Forbidden City but it was getting worse by the minute. The Forbidden City is as impressive as usual. They still have the same “students” doing an art exhibit and selling art to tourists as they did 20 years ago, the same folks hawking souvenir books, and the same audio self-tour (which I recommend) although Roger Moore is no longer the narrator – he’s been replaced with a nondescript female voice that. Not listening to Roger Moore was kind of a bummer. I always thought it was cool to have the voice of James Bond guide you around the forbidden city.
At the end of the day we hiked the hill behind the forbidden city and looked out as the smog and pollution of the day started to get heavier and heavier. The next day it was chokingly bad again.
Overall it was a good trip. The Beijing developers are smart, the training went well, and they were excellent hosts. Of course what international trip would be complete without the obligatory catching of a cold bestowed upon me by a plane full of coughing people? The more things change, the more they stay the same.