Friday, August 26, 2011

My impressions of China

Jaya and I visited China for 4 days during August 2011. We flew into Tianjin from Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia) and then took the Bullet Train from Tianjin to Beijing (took just 30 minutes; max speed was 334 kmph!).

Speed is displayed in every coach of Bullet Train

We stayed in a Hutong in the middle of the city which cost us USD 52 per night (including basic breakfast). The Hutong (Beijing Fish Inn, near XiSi subway station) was reasonably comfortable, with good air-conditioning, comfortable beds, en suite toilets, free wi-fi in room and other basic facilities. Room was small, though. The biggest advantage in the Hutong was that the Chinese girls managing the Hutong were quite fluent in English and were always ready to help with directions and other hints and tips about getting around in Beijing.

I booked our room in a Hutong because someone familiar with Beijing had specifically advised us to experience a Hutong there. Unlike the impersonal atmosphere in a hotel, in a Hutong there are greater opportunities to interact with other tourists in the central courtyard. Furthermore, the people running the Hutong are always accessible and they are conversant in English since the Hutongs are targeted towards foreign tourists.

We did most of the sightseeing inside Beijing on our own, using the subway and public buses. We took a conducted 1-day tour of the Ming Tombs and Great Wall (Badaling section) for USD 17 per head (booked online in advance). The tour cost included all entry fees and a sumptuous buffet lunch. Cable car tickets (USD 13 per head) for going up the Great Wall were extra, however. The tour also included visits to jade and silk emporiums.

Four days is a very short time to know a place, we could barely scratch the surface. Some impressions I gathered about China (Beijing) during this short stay were :

1) Beijing and nearby areas are quite warm and humid in August. Cotton half-sleeve shirts are ideal.

2) Security is very high everywhere. We have flown to numerous destinations from KL, but the way we were patted down before boarding our flight to Tianjin was unprecedented. While purchasing tickets for the bullet train at Tianjin, we were required to show our passports. Our passport details were also entered into the computer system while checking into our Hutong and whenever I changed money at a bank.

3) Infrastructure is excellent. Public transport in Beijing is world-class.

4) One can see poor people and destitutes in Beijing, but much less than in any Indian metro city. Beijing has many old, less affluent neighbourhoods right in the heart of the city.

5) People are disciplined, polite and helpful. Though Beijing streets have many bicycles, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and the occasional handcart in addition to a huge number of cars and buses, I did not come across any chaotic situations, indisciplined driving or honking which are the norm in India.

6) The residents of Beijing love group activities like dancing, singing, martial arts, playing various games, etc., in public parks, squares or any big open place outdoors. The most popular place in Beijing for such group activities is the Temple of Heaven Park. I found many elderly / retired people passing time in interesting ways by engaging in such group activities free of cost.

Group dancing in Temple Of Heaven park

7) Almost all 2-wheelers in Beijing run on batteries. Some are like electric bicycles and others are electric scooters / bikes. They move noiselessly without any emission and use lead acid batteries.

All 2-wheelers are battery operated

8) Most of the tourists we saw in Beijing and nearby places like Great Wall were Chinese, in very large numbers. Many probably come from different parts of China to see their capital which has many beautiful tourist spots. Most of the Chinese tourists appeared reasonably well-to-do and they were enjoying themselves thoroughly.

9) The compulsory one child per couple norm is visibly skewing the sex ratio in China. Most of the children I saw were boys.

Too many boys in China

10) Since children are ‘rationed’, they are greatly pampered by their parents and grandparents.

11) Chinese seem to be very fond of pet dogs.

12) Chinese men smoke a lot.

13) Most banks (including at the airports) offer similar exchange rates and don’t charge any commission. This is quite different from places like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok where the bank counters at the airports offer the worst exchange rates (10-15% lower) and it is best to change money downtown.

14) Language is a big problem. Very few people understand English. However, apparently thanks to the recent Olympics, many signages are in English now. We had little or no difficulty in using public transport like subway and public buses because all subway and bus stations are marked in English too.

15) Taxis are good, not too costly, and run on meter. We used a taxi to travel from our Hutong (in downtown Beijing) to the international airport. It was booked by our Hutong staff and arrived 10 minutes before the designated time (5 AM). The taxi driver helped with our luggage. The meter was started only when we actually boarded the taxi. Upon reaching our destination, a printout of the tariff was provided. Additionally, toll (not much) was payable by me.

16) I was informed by an Indian friend working in a shipyard in China that the pace of development of the rural interiors of China was something to be seen to be believed. Almost every village is being transformed into a small town with concrete roads and other facilities. After good roads connect to a village, quick development of the village follows. The quality of life of the common people is rapidly improving.

17) The same Indian friend informed me that he saw some massive new shipyards coming up in China during the last couple of years and the pace of project execution there is mind-boggling, quite inconceivable in India.

Some more pictures I took in China may be seen at

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At 4:38 PM, Blogger RG said...

Excellent blogpost, DM. I've loved your observations on the countries you've visited - right from your exhaustive US bullet list.


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