Sunday, March 17, 2013

China- where there is no Facebook, and you can see the air.

I got back late last night from a trip to Beijing.  The second time this year that I've left Irish to take care of all our needy children while I chaperone a model UN trip.  This time at least August did not have a hernia, so that was good.  And my leg is on the way to healing. I left the crutches behind and just wore the leg brace on the flight there.  It's been 11 days since I hurt it, and there is a huge bruise on one side of my thigh, and a second bruise by my knee, but as long as I am careful when I stand up or walk stairs it seems ok.

Korea has spoiled me when it comes to internet connections. Arriving in China I bought a sim card for my phone so there would be a number students could call.  When I got an internet plan I thought the clerk at China Mobile said it was 4G, which surprised me.  She corrected me saying "no no not 4G"  I said that was fine 3G was great.  She looked a little embarrassed  and said no not 3G either.  2G?  She shrugged.  Turns out it was very very slow mobile internet, with no Facebook, and essentially no Google.  It surprised me how much this started to bug me, how much I've become used to always having fast internet connections.

When we got to Tiananmen Square I managed to send Irish one picture which she posted on Facebook, and described accurately as pictures of me, taken by me.  I'm very proficient at arm length self photos, so below there are several such pictures.

It has been 19 years since the last time I was in Beijing when I was in college. (I kept telling people it was 20 years ago, but upon reflection it was 1994, so 19)  The city has grown bigger, there are far more tall buildings, far fewer bicycles, and way way more cars.  I had heard a lot about Beijing's air pollution problem.  When we arrived on Wednesday there was clear blue sky and I thought maybe the problem had been exaggerated.   The first two pictures below were taken on Wednesday at Tiananmen Square and inside the Forbidden City, you can see the sky.  Checking into the hotel everyone was commenting on how nice it was.   The bottom two pictures were taken on Friday at the Temple of Heaven (and they are basically the same picture taken from opposite sides of the temple) I could literally taste the air pollution, the sky was turning a yellowish color.  Apparently the pollution is  measured on a scale that goes up to 500 and on Friday it was at 322, which is bad (I think if it ever got to 500 there would be chunks of coal falling from the sky)

While we walked through Tiananmen Square it felt very locked down.  Part of that was because the Politburo was in session, the new leadership was formally announced Thursday.  There were guards patting down everyone entering the square, although we got to cut that line.  There were cameras everywhere, and a huge wall dividing the square.  Particularly strange was when the tour guide told us that there were more police than normal to make sure no one was able to self immolate.  I've been reading about the Tibetan protestors setting themselves on fire, but had not been thinking about it and even the possibility of that happening was distressing.  After Tiananmen Square and our tour of the Forbidden City we all got on the bus and headed for the hotel. 

We were staying at the Crowne Plaza, which is where the conference was taking place.  It was a nice hotel, and I spent a lot of time in the lobby over the next few days keeping track of students, checking in on how they were doing as they debated resolutions on how to save the world. 

lobby of the hotel
one more arm length self photo from inside the lobby.

Below is the view from the hotel.  The tall buildings are residential, built in 2010 according to the sign outside the gate, closer is rougher housing.  And the smoke in the middle is a power plant, which helps explain the sky. 

Aside from the pollution and slow internet I had a great trip.  On Thursday night we took the students out for a huge Chinese dinner with Peking duck.  They were all a little freaked out when a fish with it's head still on it came out (this surprised me coming from Korean students.)  And they were a lot freaked out when the duck's head came out next to the good parts of the duck.  I'm not sure what we were supposed to do with the duck head, but the rest of the dinner was fantastic. After that we saw an acrobat show.  The acrobats were amazing.  And no one fell and died so that was good.

Beijing is a remarkable city, the sense of history, ancient and recent, is palpable.  Walking through the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven there were groups of elderly people singing, groups dancing, groups playing instruments, each doing it very well.  I found myself marveling at everything these people in their 70s and 80s had seen in their lifetimes.

Back at the hotel there was an obscenely expensive mall next door, and there was a grocery in the mall's basement.  I bought myself some ice cream flavored oreos- which taste about the same as regular oreas, and Pepsi Max, which looks a lot cooler written in Chinese characters.

Finally we flew back Saturday evening.  We got everyone checked in, through immigration and security with no real issues.  My pat down was a little more intense than I might have liked, but otherwise no problems.  After flying very close to North Korean airspace we landed safely and by midnight I was in my bed, pushing August over to make some room.

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