After nearly getting deported at the airport, getting lost at midnight in Beijing and finding himself with loads of fake currencies, Larry Madowo offers an insight into Beijing.
Everything you’ve heard about China is completely true. And everything you’ve heard about China is completely false," a friend told me on my second day in Beijing.
After ten hours to Bangkok, three hours to Guangzhou in southern China and another three-hour connecting flight on China Southern Airlines into Beijing, I was yet to recover from the gruelling journey and my stock of experiences in this metropolis was already full.
My adventures started at the immigration desk at the airport. A beautiful immigration woman got hold of my passport and scrutinised it. She looked at the Egyptian visa (I was there recently), scratched it repeatedly, looked through my other visas and even took a magnifying glass.
In between, she demanded to know the nature of my visit to China and how much money I had on me. For a moment, I thought she would ask for a DNA sample, since my answers were not convincing her any bit.
She called a man whom I assumed was her boss who went through the passport again with a toothcomb. He went into another room, reappeared shortly afterwards and handed back my passport with one last disapproving glance.
All the while I was holding up the queue of people who seemed even more convinced that I must be an international criminal if not worse.
It was with relief that I took my baggage and headed for the exit expecting to find my shuttle to the hotel. Turns out my travel agency had given them the wrong flight number and the shuttle driver was unable to find us so he went back.
Realising we were stranded, I exchanged some of my dollars into Chinese Yuan (written as RMB for RenMinBi) and went ahead to find a bus to the city centre. We paid 16 Yuan for the ride into the city and stressed to the driver that we did not know where we were going and just knew the name of the general location.
The writer poses with his new friends.
After nodding that he understood, we set off. After about half an hour and smack in the middle of some poorly lit deserted street, the driver signalled to our trio that we were there. So we got our bags off the bus and watched it drive along.
The writer poses with his new friends.
The place was deserted; there were no visible hotels, shop windows, clubs or any other sign of late nightlife. Here we were, lost in a foreign city, at midnight with no help in sight.
We found some security guards at a nearby corner but they didn’t help much. Meanwhile I had hailed countless taxis whose drivers all didn’t speak English and had never heard of our hotel.
After some time, we saw this fellow who looked like an English man in shorts and earphones. To our relief, he spoke both Chinese and English and he used his phone to call the hotel. Within a few minutes, the hotel sent us a taxi, to our utmost relief.
The next day we paid a visit to Bird’s Nest, the venue of the 2008 Olympics. Outside the landmark stadium, we suddenly realised we were the centre of attention with many staring openly. Those who were bold enough asked to take pictures with me. Given the language barrier I didn’t get to ask why but I presumed it was because I was a foreigner. Soon, everyone wanted to take pictures with me.
"You’re so handsome," a woman called out shyly.
If you’re in Beijing, you must visit the Forbidden City. It is one of the last standing monuments to the ancient Chinese feudal society and was the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty. Most history lovers are aware of this.
It is said to be the world’s largest surviving palace complex over 72 hectares and is still largely preserved. Cars or any other form of motorised transport are not allowed inside.
However, one should be aware of hawkers selling all sorts of artefacts and souvenirs. Like Kenyan hawkers, they will harass you. This time round, even old folks wanted to take pictures with me, and I wanted to believe it had everything to still do with my good looks.
Next stop was the iconic Great Wall of China. It is said it took almost 2,000 years for the wall to be put up. Popular culture says it can be viewed from the moon, a fact scientists have refuted.
The wall stretches for an amazing 8,851.8 km according to latest archaeological surveys. From the point where you will shrug off the guide, you will probably walk a few hundred metres, maybe a kilometre or two before turning back. It is just one endless stretch of brick wall and once you’ve seen one part, you’ve seen it all.
For some reason, every Kenyan who hears one is going to China wants something from there. The assumption is that things there are extremely cheap. For this reason, we took a walk to Xiu Shui Market, or simply Silk Street.
"Be sure to bargain very vigorously or you will get ripped off," our guide Christina warned as we disappear into the five-storey building. Arranged in stalls similar to those in Nairobi’s downtown malls, Silk Street is the shopper’s budget best friend. Almost everything is a brand knock-off from jeans, shirts, watches, jackets, souvenirs, paintings, belts to ‘designer’ briefs and jewellery.
Though it is touted as the counterfeit capital of Beijing, a digital display outside proudly proclaims: ‘Top Quality and Best Value.’ You can walk into any of the 1,700 stalls, pick out something and get ready for a bargaining marathon that will leave your mouth sore.
Most of the 3,000 salesmen and women speak basic English but they all still have a calculator to quote the prices. An item that you will buy for about 35 RMB may begin at about 800 RMB. I bought a pair of shoes for 90 RMB and a friend bought a similar pair for half the amount.
The mall is always teeming with tourists and official numbers say 20,000 visitors pass by on weekdays and as much as 60,000 on weekends. In all, Beijing is great for a tourist. There are lots of places to visit as long as you have a Chinese phrasebook, though the intonation is all off so a guide will be better.
Chinese food might not be appealing for someone used to African and conventional Western food as it is slimy, spicy and fatty not the kind that would leave one salivating.
"If I never have to eat Chinese food again in my whole life, it will be too soon," a member of our entourage lamented.
The taxis are metered and the driver’s full names and supervisor’s numbers are prominently displayed. But that doesn’t stop them from acting just like Kenyan matatu drivers by turning off the metres and charging exorbitantly at rush hour or when it rains.
I exchanged my dollars into Yuan at the airport and the hotel but I still ended up with two fake 100 RMB notes. That’s about Sh2,400. I later learnt it is not strange to be issued with fake currencies even at banks and other official-looking places.
The techno-savy, might want to update their status before getting into mainland China as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (and sometimes Google) are all either blocked or censored in China.