The last time I visited China which was incidentally my 1st visit to that country was a trip to Shanghai and Shanghai is what Mumbai is to India – a commercial and financial capital. This trip from the 9-12th Oct, 2012, however was to Beijing – the capital of the People’s Republic of China – again a very short business trip to the “Delhi” of China.
On top of my mind was to see how the “Olympicsization” of Beijing was holding up 4 years hence. This week was the 1st week after the “Golden Week” holidays and there was a good chance that I wouldn’t have made this trip at all. Just managed to get my visa few hours prior to my departure thanks to some intervention of my college mate.
The airport which makes the 1st impression of a city was bit of a disappointment. On alighting out of the plane after a 6 hour flight had to scramble to find a rest room!!! The Beijing airport though good, didn’t seem great. The airport wore a deserted look on my return in the night that too just at 9.00 pm! The Duty free shops had pulled their shutters and finding a food court or a restaurant in that not too late hour of the night turned out to be a nightmare. Beijing had failed my 1st test.
Beijing has all the trappings of a large global metro city – super highways, bumper to bumper traffic, big cars, ..,.. Surprisingly I could hardly sight small cars!! Unlike Shanghai, which has a lot of skyscrapers, Beijing has more of medium tall, uniform buildings constructed with aesthetics as seemingly last priority. The whole city resembles a town ship with uniform buildings. Police presence that too quite aggressively armed is omnipresent. Time and again we were alerted of the bad traffic scene in Beijing. But I must say that the traffic though very high was quite organised and was moving quite smoothly even during the morning rush hours. I was told that we were lucky on that count. Well we seemed to be lucky all the while we stayed in Beijing.
I was not so lucky on the food scene though. Being a vegetarian, my gastronomic needs have become frugal over the years while travelling abroad. I’m happy if I get something vegetarian to eat – pandering to the taste buds was really secondary. Beggars can’t be choosers you see! When I had my local colleagues around during meal times, I had no problems with the food. However couple of times when we had to fend for ourselves, putting it across to the hotel staff on the “Vegetarian” needs turned me to a “Sridevi”. In fact a short course on “Mandarin-Vandarin” before the trip would have been a great idea. I was told that for the Olympics, China really went on an “English” overdrive to take care of the visiting guests. Well, one trace of that was not visible during my short stay. Even in a 5 star hotel, the staff struggled to comprehend our “English-Vinglish”! There are hopes though. I was told that in the schools now, English is a mandatory language for the children. Maybe a trip to China after 10 years would throw up a different experience on the English front.
We were told that we would need more than half a day to cover the “Great Wall of China” which I was quite keen on. Since we didn’t have that kind of time, we had to settle with other tourist spots close by. A drive to “Tiananmen Square” was made possible. For the local Chinese Tiananmen Square is a place of great cultural connect. It houses a war memorial like monument, a mausoleum and one can see 2 gigantic visual displays today. For the ‘Golden week’ the previous week, the entire square which can house I guess thousands of people, was well decked up and could see the sense of tourist importance. However for visitors like us Tiananmen Square only brings memories of the 1989 killing of the students by the Chinese military. There is obviously not one shred of evidence of that event around. When I asked my local colleague what was the exact number of people killed in that massacre, the answer I got was “Secret”. Having read that the number could be in thousands, while spending time in that square I couldn’t help spare a thought for the young lives which were taken away by their own protectors. I also couldn’t resist thanking our stars and our founding fathers for guiding our nation in the path of democracy where we have freedom of expression as a fundamental right.
The Chinese economy is in the news these days. Well it has been in the news for more than a decade now. But just that this time the news is not good. The GDP growth rate expected at 7.5 % this year will be lowest in the decade. The transformation of China since the 90’s has been unbelievable. The government over the years has invested heavily for the growth and has helped lift people from poverty and raise income levels across the board. About 25 mn. I-Phones are expected to be sold in 2012!!! And I-phone is not a cheap product. With all this, what about the “General Happiness Index”? Are people in general happier than before with the overall growth and all that jazz? Well, surprisingly or may be not so surprisingly the answer I got was on the negative. With the growth tapering, there is a feeling that China must have gone for an overkill in terms of investment which is now not sustainable. China also is on the cusp of a leadership change sometime in November. Though it is not expected to bring any paradigm shift, uncertainties do exist I thought. All these and the raising costs have brought their own insecurities in the minds of people.
While in the taxi driving back to the Beijing Airport at the end of the short trip, comparison between India and China was obviously on my mind. And I concluded that comparisons were odious. In my formative years I was always of the opinion that in a country with very high population like India, it is almost impossible to solve its basic problems. China proved me wrong. It showed that it is possible to have world-class infrastructure, alleviate poverty in short times even in a populous country if a country shows political will to do so. Having said that, if I’ve to choose between a pot hole free express highway and freedom of expression, my choice will be for the latter.
You may like to read my earlier post on China : Chinpressions – Part 1.