Travel with Friends: Evading Spies in Beijing

Beijing, China — The Chinese are strange people. I have made this observation before, but somehow, every time I come back to China, I find them even more baffling. And so, you will notice that each of my posts on China, reaches that same conclusion.  Sometimes I just chuckle, other times I am deeply perplexed that as someone who has traveled the entire globe several times over, I still don’t understand their culture. And so, rather than explain, I’ll just say it like I see it.

The first amusement came upon landing into Beijing Capital International Airport. Prior to reaching the luggage carousel,we were met by an official looking representative of the Peninsula Hotel who was to help us zip through customs, and transport us to our room without the hassle of dealing with passports, luggage inspections or hotel check-in. He greeted us warmly having collected our luggage, and escorted us to the arrivals where our driver was waiting. Those of you who have been fortunate guests of the legendary Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong,  know that the green Rolls Royce is the hotel’s signature car, and guests are welcomed to the country by their own private driver. And thus, when you see a green Rolls Royce zipping through the streets of Hong-Kong, you know there’s a happy Peninsula guest inside. Imagine my surprise when I laid eyes on my car, for it wasn’t a stately green luxury sedan, but a sparkly bronze colored Rolls that just screamed BLING! To my embarrassment, the car was surrounded by velvet rope to keep the great unwashed from decorating it with their greasy fingerprints.

Peninsula Hotel Rolls Royce

You can’t see in the photo above, but the paint of the car sparkled like Dorothy’s shoe.  As I sat there, hungry, jet lagged and eager to get to my room, I wondered what would possess the hotel to give this otherwise stately car, a makeover into a pimped out ride. In the last decade, the Chinese have benefited greatly from an explosion of tourism, and the locals are eager to impress. Though they are very welcoming, they are not entirely sure how to do that. As so, as I toured the country, I came across many examples of strange ways to make a big impression.

The next day, walking around the various neighborhoods, in search of the best Peking Duck, I stopped to look at the menus of several restaurants. As soon as the owners saw me, they ran outside to greet me, and not speaking a word of English, would show me a binder full of American celebrities who have dined there.  Each would produce an official looking certificate as the “Number 1 Tourist Approved Dining Facility”, as well as a full color brochure of The Clintons, Hollywood stars and of course Michael Jordan, enjoying their fine dining experience.  So I came to wonder, did the Clintons really enjoy their Peking Duck at every single spot I visited?  Hmmm…


And then there are the diaperless babies wearing open crotch pants. No, I am not making this up, the Chinese love innovation and they thought of this one all by themselves. To save time and money, and put their taxpayer yuan to work, they have come up with an ingenious way to keep diapers out of landfills, and put the city’s trash collectors to work.


So, as you walk down the sprawling boulevards of Beijing and approach the magnificent plaza of Tiannamen Square, you’ll notice proud parents walking their toddlers on a leash. Now and then, they stop in front of a tree and pause, as the baby squats by a tree and does its business without the annoying need to unbutton its pants and take off a diaper. Unlike Philadelphia, Beijing does not require its residents to pick up after their pets, so no pooper-scooping required.

Tiannamen Square

And then, as you walk along, you might encounter a friendly student, eager to introduce himself and ask you what you like best about his country. Not being one to immerse myself in local life so eagerly, I tried to keep walking, but the happy scholar is super friendly, and wants to learn all about you. My American companion was eager to make a new friend, but I, having grown up in eastern Europe knew to keep walking.  Something about this scene looked all too familiar to me, and raised a red flag, as soon as I saw him walking towards us. You see, this is no student, and even though he was eager to invite us to a student art exhibit nearby, he clearly had no interest in art. Instead, he had dozens of questions for us, from the neighborhoods we live in, to our professions, places of birth and countries we visited prior to arriving in Beijing. Do you see where I’m going with this? My unsuspecting friend followed him through an alley and into a tiny workshop operated by so-called artists dressed in traditional proletarian blue worker uniforms, and since we were in such tight quarters, I couldn’t whisper him that this was no art school. While there, we were ambushed into buying some traditional calligraphy scrolls, and though I tried to pay and dash out, the personal questions kept on coming. You see,what he was really after was information (your name, rank and serial number). Most of my eastern European friends who had visited China were all too familiar with this scene, and knew to evade the questioning, but my American friend was very eager to share.

Tiananmen Square

Nevertheless, we found a way out, and continued our stroll. Next came a visit into a fashionable Prada boutique. A foreigner will notice that there are more Prada and Gucci stores on one square block of any major Chinese city, than there are in all of Manhattan. Yet still, the locals are not quite adjusted to them. As I stood by the cashier waiting to pay for a trinket, an old laborer walked into the boutique and started to look around. The sales ladies were concerned and tried to guide him out of the store, but he insisted on touching everything. He stopped next to me,  started fondling the silk scarf I was holding then proceeded to snort, cough and coughed up a green slimy mess onto the carpet next to my foot. Imagine, a pretty sparkly boutique, and a wet wad of something green on its plush carpet. Yes, that’s China!

Forbidden City, Starbucks

Another strange thing I noticed is that the Chinese place no value on history nor architecture. My visit was just prior to the Olympics in Beijing, and construction crews were busy bulldozing vast Chinese Hutong neighborhoods, demolishing the beautiful traditional architecture to make way for the new and the modern.  Intricately carved doors and shutters lay crushed on the city sidewalks, while the inhabitants walked out of the neighborhoods with little more than the clothes on their backs for the planned relocation. It was a strange scene to watch. I know that the cultural revolution wiped out all remnants of Chinese art, architecture and music to make way for Communism. But today’s citizens place no value in such things, and in Beijing especially, there is very little in the way of culture, other than what has been preserved for the tourists. The only think resembling China here is the Forbidden City, which was opened to tourists a decade ago, but that is all.

Forbidden City

And so, while I enjoyed China for the fifth time, I have to say that every time I am here I have this eerie feeling that everything here is a facade. Everything feels artificial, as if it is a bad simulation of what China is supposed to be, rather than what it actually is. Just my two cents.


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