By Chris Peterson
Lots of shiny cars and a free lunch – not bad for my first days in the Chinese capital
Well, here I am. You can read all the books, newspaper articles or travel advice in the world, but nothing really prepares you for the sheer size of Beijing.
I’ve wanted to visit the Chinese capital ever since I lived in Hong Kong back in the late 1980s, but somehow it eluded me.
After living in Hong Kong and having experienced the vast mass of people trying to get into Shenzhen at the weekend, I thought I knew a thing or two about China on the move.
It starts at the airport – the arrivals area is like a vast, towering cavern that stretches for miles. Want to claim your baggage? Take a shuttle train.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve endured the anarchistic rugby scrum that is Leopold Senghor International Airport in Dakar, Senegal, and the massive surge of humanity at Dubai International Airport as everyone rushes for one – yes, one – security gate before reaching the departure lounge. The word bottleneck springs to mind.
And this after enduring the interminable queues for security checks in Paris, London and all points east.
Arriving in China these days is a taste of the 21st century. After you clear immigration a polite notice in two languages tells you you’ve just had your temperature checked. Huh? And I didn’t feel a thing.
Honestly, I don’t think I have ever arrived at the baggage carousel at the same time as my bag.
In Dakar, it took a hot, humid and anxious hour before I was able to grab my bag from a conveyor belt that seemed to work intermittently, at best. My anxiety was not helped by a notice that traveled round the carousel advising a handful of passengers to contact airport information because their bags had been damaged or rerouted. But that was Dakar.
Fast-forward to Beijing, to be met by a China Daily colleague and her helpful husband, deputed to be the driver. None of the seething masses fighting for a taxi you may find elsewhere.
First impressions, admittedly at night, are of shiny cars – lots of them – and four-lane highways. China only really came to full private car ownership in the past couple of decades, and I had been warned that driving habits and courtesy hadn’t quite taken hold, even now.
Well, at the risk of making myself a hostage to fortune, so far everyone seems polite and restrained, although with space at a premium, parking can get a little, shall we say, inventive.
Did someone mention lunch?
This being China it wasn’t long before the L word came up.
Over the years, I have tried to do my best to avoid office canteens. You had to be seriously broke to suffer the Reuters/PA staff canteen in Fleet Street back in the ’70s – motto: if it’s green, boil it – and the fabled Bloomberg kitchen was really just a dozen different varieties of potato chips and cookies, none of it appealing to those of us with, um, generous waistlines.
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, at China Daily in Beijing there is. My former London colleagues couldn’t wait to usher me into the staff canteen.
Here, “let’s keep it simple” seems to be the motto. Spicy on the right, nonspicy on the left.
Also, I was able, happily, to stick to my golden rule when eating Chinese food – anything as long as it still doesn’t have head, feet or hands attached. Please don’t ask me what I ate, but it was excellent.
And I have just been greeted by an old China Daily friend, Peng Yining, who gave me a hug and a welcome present – a cellophane wrapped face mask “to wear on Wednesday, when the pollution will be bad”.
Naively, I asked how she knew. “Well, there’s an app for that,” she explained. I should have known. This is 21st century China, after all.
Next up? A hotpot restaurant, with ample opportunity to disgrace myself. Watch this space.