One of the advantages to having chronic insomnia is that when you travel halfway around the world and you wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, it (in itself) is not a foreign thing. It also means you get through jet lag a lot faster, because you’re used to sporadic sleep.
I am typing this in my room at the Crowne Plaza in Beijing (the one on Zhi Chun road, if you want to be specific… there’s 3 or 4 others). I will not be able to upload it to WordPress until I get to work, though, as I am behind the Great Firewall, and one of the things you do not get to do here is engage in Western social media. Twitter, Facebook, Swarm/Foursquare, WordPress, etc. are all tabled until I can get into the office and leverage their VPN. As it is nearly 5AM and the pool I intend to swim in this morning doesn’t open for another hour, let me show you around what I’ve seen thus far.
(NB: when you travel for work, you spend a disproportionate amount of time in a hotel and in an office or conference center. A lot of this is going to essentially be skewed by that.)
First, the airport: It reminds me of a cross between Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, and Vancouver. Think great long hallways sided by glass on one side (to the outside) and art on another, multiple long stretches with those flat conveyor-belt people movers, from the gates to a large central area filled with meandering, lost people and a variety of signage in both Chinese Traditional and English. I was really surprised at the volume of English, because it was not only in the directional signage (Parking, Exit, Baggage Claim, etc.) but also in the ads. But hey, we’re in an Airport, so that’s fine.
My hotel transfer was in an SUV driven by a gruff man who said nothing (in Mandarin or otherwise). Thirty minutes got me to my hotel and I got to see the Bird’s Nest on the way in; the thing that really impressed me was the volume of high-rise apartment complexes. I am not exaggerating when I say I probably saw more than a hundred of them. The architecture of these buildings is pretty homogenous; tall, cream-colored buildings with uniform portrait rectangular windows, flat faces, only a select few apartments have balconies.
Many of the windows have what looks like an air conditioning unit but installed below the window (not in it), I found out later that those are the exhaust motors for the wall-mounted air conditioning units on the inside.
The best way I can describe Beijing is to take the relative building heights and proximities of New York City (so, very high, very close), mix it with an expanse the size of Los Angeles (so, very wide), give it infrastructure similar to what you’d see in Phoenix (wide roads, wide sidewalks), put in architecture that resembles both London (great tall glass buildings with architectural arches or curves) and the Eastern Bloc (tall grey or cream colored drab functional buildings), slather everything with Chinese Traditional characters in a variety of fonts and colors, and then add the people.
Lots and lots and lots of people.
Those nice, wide streets are crammed with a variety of vehicles (bikes, motorized and not; taxis; foreign and domestic autos) and people. Much like Manhattan, the guidance on crosswalks seems to be largely based on judgment rather than any actual signaling device (of which green man purportedly means go, red hand means stop). The brick sidewalks are crammed with a variety of people (male, female, old, young, professional, etc.). Street vendors have blankets on the ground from which you can purchase a variety of cheap knicknackery, there is also street food which we were cautioned (by local friends) not to eat. The subways are efficient and much like what you’d experience in any real city, and they are air conditioned. Personal space is not a concept people are familiar with here.
In the three days I have been here, the air has been clear and clean, thanks to a thorough rain on the morning of my flight. I’m looking outside my window though and I can’t see the sun rise, even though it’s perceptibly lighter. I can’t tell if what I’m looking at is smog or real clouds, but I’m sure I’ll find out later on my walk to work. The smells largely are defined by where you are at, so along one block you’ll smell a variety of food smells, along another you’ll smell a variety of not-food smells. Deodorant seems to be optional.
My hotel clearly caters to Western visitors: every electrical outlet in the room has converters built in, both for US and Europe (including UK). And I do mean every electrical outlet: the ones at the desk, the ones in the bathroom, the ones on either side of the bed, and even the one in the closet. If you’re staying at the Crowne Plaza here, you don’t need an adapter.
The bathroom is roughly 40% of the room size and features a separate toilet (like, it is in its own glass room), shower (own glass room), and tub large enough for 2. Toiletries include things like dental hygiene kits, shoe shine kit, etc. My room has two gas masks so if the air quality gets super bad, you’re covered.
As you go downstairs to breakfast there’s a large fish tank to view, complete with Arrowanas and koi that are larger than them. The breakfast buffet is the sort that anyone can find something they eat (e.g., vegetarians, picky Westerners, adventurous foodies, etc.). It’s my goal to try everything before I leave but I’m not sure I can.
The volumes of food here are insane.
Granted, we are doing “team lunches” and “team dinners” which means eating in a variety of really nice restaurants, at really large circular tables. I have learned that you have two sets of chopsticks – one for serving yourself (so far, they have always been brown with gold handles), and one for actually eating with (black with silver tips). Sometimes there’s a serving spoon, other times there is not. We surprised our local coworkers here by the fact that we could use chopsticks. In these cases, the food has been served ‘family style’ and has ranged from mild and sweet to “I don’t have any sinuses anymore” hot. I promised them I would try everything and I have, which sounds more adventurous than it is. No one has ordered the sea cucumber yet (it is exactly that – take a sea cucumber out of the water, cook it as-is, dump it in some soup, and serve it… just lying there. Not sure how you eat it, it’s not even sliced.) But I’ve had organ meats and the like, and everything I’ve eaten has tasted wonderful. After the first day our local friends decided they didn’t have to haze us.
Food pricing is another interesting thing. Case in point: yesterday’s lunch was 10 people in a high-end restaurant, 10 different dishes plus tea and a blueberry yogurt drink thing (tasty!), and we walked out the door for about 530 Yuan (read, about $87). The ice cream we had later on in the afternoon from the Hagen Daaz cost more than that on a per-person basis (about $10—and it was not grandiose size).
Eating is almost a sport here, although we learned you do not eat all of the food (otherwise you are indicating that you were waiting too long and got too hungry, and/or your host/ess didn’t supply enough for you). I don’t think we could have eaten all the food if we tried. I’m taking advantage of the gym here daily (nice – 3 treadmills, 2 ellipticals, 2 bikes, free weights, and 6 weight machines) and coupling that with our daily walks to/from the office should hopefully undo some of the gastronomic damage. There’s a scale in the bathroom.
I have one more workday here – barring the fact that the recycle bins have small descriptions of what constitutes as recycleable both in Chinese and in English, you couldn’t distinguish this office environment from any other that Microsoft offers in Redmond – and then tomorrow I am taking the day off to go do some sightseeing. With my stellar sense of direction (I can get lost in my hometown) I am going to rely on the hotel’s package tour that it offers, so I’ll pen a follow up on that.
In the meantime, I’m going to go swim some laps. Last night was Peking Duck.