Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An Evening in Beijing

In the morning, before the sessions, I had taken a short walk outside of the hotel and had found a large shopping centre. Bought a few bottles of water and tea. Unfortunately I did not find any sparkling water - only the plain type. So I decided to get tea instead - is very refreshing, with lemon inside, and tastes good. On the way I notice many people in uniform. Parking attendents, but also police. They stand at every corner, patrol the traffic, and probably make sure that nobody gets the idea to start a demonstration. They look suspiciously at me, as I walk with my camera and GPS around...

In the evening, after the first day of conference presentations, I was not quite sure what to do: I could prepare for my second presentation which was to be held the next day (Thursday morning), or I could take it easy and do a bit of sight-seeing. I noticed that many groups met in the hotel lobby, planningto go out - so I decided to do that too. I could have joined one of them, but I wanted to be back early, and so I was going to rush a little - others would just have slowed me down, and so I decided to go on my own.

As I walked out of the hotel, I realised that I forgot my GPS in the room. Should I go back and loose another 10 minutes? The sun was already setting. Well, without the GPS I would feel lost - also I wanted to geo-tag the pictures I was going to take, so back to the room, take the GPS, then down again.

At the taxi stop there were no taxis anymore, but a long line of people waiting for one. Well, I did not want to wait, so I proceeded further north up the road, where I had been in the morning - I would just stop any empty taxi that drove by. And there was already one! I waved, the taxi stopped, I entered. I was not quite sure where I wanted to go - my mind was set on the city centre. My former classmate from high school whom I had just met at the reunion a few days ago, Roman Scholl, had told me that there would be a great view from the Grand Hotel near the Forbidden City. So I would just go there. But I did not want to repeat the problem on the way from the airport re. the hotel name, so I would just go to a place nearby. When I mentioned "Forbidden City", the driver did not understand. So I looked at the map to find something near-by. Ho about the Tian an Men square? He should know that one. But when I said that I wanted to go there, he got serious and said "no". Then waved me out of the taxi. Ok, so much for that. Obviously it is not accepted when a foreigner wants to go to the place of the 1989 massacre...

Again I am on the hot street, the sun already almost at the horizon. Another try for a taxi. One stops. I say that I want to the Jing Shan Park, which is just north of the Forbidden City. Must be close to walk from there. He understands, but says "traffic jam", and indicates that the park is closed ("park off"). Ok, maybe somewhere else? In principle, it does not matter to me where I go, I just want to be out and see something interesting. But how to convey this intent to someone who does not understand English? I thought I just show him my map of Beijing, from thatr nice eyewitnes travel book that I bought in the morning when I left Leeds-Bradford Airport. But he looked very confused when he saw the map - it was only inb English, and he did not seem to recognise anything on it. He suggest to go to the "Summer Palace". Well, ok, he must know. Drives along the motorway, with its 4 lanes in both directions. But this seems to lead out of the town, towards West. Where is this summer palace anyway? He shows me a book, with a schematic map, and the Summer Palace was way out at the Western end of the city. That is not where I wanted to be at night. I ask him to return to go to the Jing Shan Park. He could not understand, why I wanted that, and I was not able to tell him. After a few arguments back and forth, he made a U-turn, but kept saying that the park is closed. I made hand gestures that I would walk - by walking with my fingers over the dashboard - and he seemed to understand it now. He was wondering about my GPS which I had placed on the dashboard to capture the route - I explained him the functions, and he was delighted! He noticed the speed on it, the time, and I told him about the altitude. He laughed fascinated as he saw the little track of the route we just had driven. Unfortunately I did not have a map of Beijing as background, so my tracks are the only thing shown on the display. At least I had marked the hotel, so I knew where to go back to.

He asked me where I was from - US? No, I said "Germany". He did not understand, gave me the book with a list of embassies. I found the one from the "Federal Republic of Germany" and pointed to it. "Ah", he understood and said the name of Germany in a way that I have never had it been said before, and that I also do not remember now anymore. He then mentioned "BMW". Then we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of various German car brands. Well, I mentioned the brand, and he drew the symbol of it with his finger on his steering wheel. "Audi", and he drew 4 rings. "Mercedes", and he drew a star. Ok, we could communicate!

All this interaction happened while he drove through the busy city streets, across intersections, turning left, then right, changing lanes, following bicycle rikschas fully loaded with furniture, ... Somehow I was not sure if he would drive me to the Park where I wanted to go... we went way too much Eastward. He had turned from the major 4-lane road into a smaller 3-lane road, and suddenly we went away from the 90 degree grid on a diagonal road, wiht only one lane in each direction. Very shady, trees overgrew the street, people walking busy on the sidewalk or in the street. Small buildings, 1 or 2 story high. Little shops, a lot of renovation, building. Less cars now on the road. Where would he drive me? Well, I would have the log of it on the GPS... But I was wrong: as we approached a very imposing looking Chinese building, he mentioned something, and I could actually identify it on my map: the Drum Tower. From here it would only be 2 km straight south to the centre. I asked him to let me out, I would walk from here. He drove into a side street. The whole trip cost about 4 Euro.

Finally I could do a bit of walking. Very imposing looking tower. From there I went the nest street south - it would lead straight to the (closed) park. But as I was walking, I noticed a very interesting little side street, under a gated entry. I hesitated a little - the street was narrow, with old small buildings at the sides. Wouldn't it be dangerous? Well, there were so many people walking, and they actually looked like they were just enjoying the walk. So I decided to go into this street and see where it would lead.

Small old buildings, Chinese pagoda-style roofs, some facades painted colorful. Many little stores. Some central-European-looking tourists, they looked familiar, maybe from the HCI conference? As I walk deeper and deeper into the quarter, the street becomes narrower. A very strange stench at one of the intersections. Then crossing a bridge over a canal - and there is a whole lake! This is the Quian Hai. Many restaurants are along its bank, and people walk back and forth, looking for a good deal on food. Looks quite delicious! But I am not hungry, and I would prefer to eat in a company with others. So I walk on, until the south end of the lake, at the road Di'An Men Xi Dajie. Then I return on the other bank of the lake, completely going around it.

Meanwhile it has gotten dark, and I just took the pictures with the last daylight. Now I would just go back with a taxi. Should be easier this time, as I have taken a sheet from the notes paper in the hotel - with its name and address on it, in Chinese letters. And it worked - I waved the first free taxi (recognisable at a little red LED display that hangs on the rear-view mirror), got in, and was back at the hotel in 15 minutes.

A nice evening excursion!

(more pictures are on Flickr (geo-tagged).

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