We touched down in Beijing from Berlin with another case of significant jet-lag on day 47. After about 15 circles around the transport area looking for our shuttle, we took a cab. This was our first taste of Beijing traffic. Wow. I wish I had kept my eyes closed! Evidently, if your bumper is ahead of your neighbor’s bumper then you have right-of-way. So go ahead and change lanes, turn, whatever. Don’t bother signaling, just honk if they are in your way. That car will move. That bicyclist will get out of your way – or they’ll die. Period.
I had lined up an English-speaking guide for our first full day (after we slept off the jet-lag from noon to 5pm on arrival day). Candi from Catherine Lu Tours was a great find, and the more we saw, the better we felt about spending the money. She helped us navigate through the throngs of people at Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden Palace, led us to a great (and way too plentiful) lunch at a dumpling house, and shared the history of the sights with us, including the Summer Palace after lunch. We experienced first-hand the chaos of how the Chinese people line up to see something: they don’t, they just bum-rush it and push until they see the sight, then get shoved out of the way by the next few hundred people. We saw toilets of all types – squat toilets with and without paper, squat toilets with and without hand rails, squat toilets with and without doors, star-rated squat toilets, etc. We learned that 80% of the residents of the old part of town still have no toilet at all, so public toilets were mandatory every 50 meters. Candi explained that everyone has chamber pots for use at night, then you line up at the toilet in the morning to relieve yourself and empty your pot – a great way to get to know your neighbors, she said. Yeah, I am sure there will be more toilet posts later. We also breathed air that was so thick with pollution, we soon joined the thousands who were loudly, violently hocking up loogies and spitting them out just to clear their throats.
All of that being said, when we weren’t using the bathroom or in traffic or considering a tracking device for each of the kids, it was pretty amazing. Everything seems to be in a state of repair or improvement. There are construction sites everywhere and huge forests of apartment buildings, each one probably 20 stories high. The history goes back thousands of years, and it is colliding with plans for tomorrow. Oh yeah, and everyone wants to sell you something. It must be the most capitalist Communist country on the planet. From street vendors (whose prices change based on your interest), to emcees with speakers at each storefront, to random normal people pulling over in their car offering you a lift (for a price) – commerce is everywhere. Don’t ask me how they calculate their GDP with everything being negotiable, but I am sure I increased it a bit. I get the feeling that I overpaid for everything. – ALaff