The Builders in Guangzhou The builders were constructing a flat, I could hear them from where I slept, The flat was being constructed at two in the morning, So I ended up from Yawning to Frowning, The digging was loud and nearby, All I could do is but try to sleep here and sigh, There was loud noise outside, I wished I could find some place to hide.
Xiao Wen, working in Guangzhou: Copyright Navjot Singh
I have been woken up many times in China by the loud drilling and banging of hammers, sometimes as early as 2 a.m. in the morning! The above poem is written in regards to one particular incident I fondly remember. That time the noise from the construction work continued throughout the night. Now, in all fairness, I am kind of person that prefers to sleep in absolute quietness, and even the slightest of noise can disturb my sleep (unless if I am very tired/jet-lagged!!). However in this particular incident, it got to the stage where I had to get out of my flat at something like 2 a.m., in my pajamas, and told the builders in the street to just stop doing whatever they were doing. They all seemed confused as to why I had made this (polite) request, and somewhat surprised too. This probably was because no one before me had complained. After a few surprised looks at each other, thankfully they decided to stop, however to my astonishment, only for about 10 minutes before it all started again as if nothing had happened. I guess they most probably took a cigarette break! The noise was just painfully horrible, and in the morning I had this excruciating headache which forced me not to go to work that day. This was probably the worst case scenario, and the fact that even though I spoke clear and fluent Mandarin to the builders, I failed to understand why they just carried on. In actual fact, some other foreign expats have also complained about this problem. In retrospect, I do take my hat off to these guys because they are the pillars of China's booming economy, and are driving it 24 hours a day- but for us, poor foreigners who are used to living in a lesser noisy environment, it can be somewhat of a problem.
Xiangshan Gongyuán (meaning Fragrant Hills Park) is located about 30 km to the northeast of Beijing’s centre. Less frequently visited by foreign tourists, Xiangshan is a beautiful park with at least five pathways leading to its peak (approx 550m), from where, on a clear day, you can get a breathtaking view of Beijing. It takes about two hours to walk up to the peak, and along the way are many temples, lakes and pagodas that have historical significance.
The park was built in the Jin Dynasty (1186). The park is open all year around but the best time to visit it is in autumn, when all the leaves turn red/orange colour and it will just leave you mesmerized.
Beijing Zhíwùyuán (Beijing Botanical Gardens), are located next to the foot of Xiangshan. It's a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, and would be ideal for anyone who wants to while away their time in beautiful surroundings, including the greenhouse and a special rose garden that contains at least five types of rose flower. Quite romantic too!
After spending the day at Xiangshan Gongyuán and Beijing Zhíwùyuán, it would provide a nice ending to the day if you visited the town of Wu Dao Kou - an area near the Tsinghua and Beijing Universities, popular with tourists, foreign students and expats alike. There are a myriad of restaurants of all different types of cuisines (including Indian, Italian and Mexican). There are also some nice Japanese and Korean restaurants where you can drink authentic Japanese or Korean beer over a nice meal.
I would recommend that you set aside a whole day to explore both Xiangshan Gongyuán and Beijing Zhíwùyuán (including travelling to/from the city centre, which takes about 30 minutes by taxi, costs approx 50 RMB from Beijing city centre). It takes an hour by the many buses that run between the city centre and Xiangshan, if you are adventurous, but costs only 6RMB one way. Wu Dao Kou is located within 30 minutes of the city centre, and has a metro station (on line 13 from Xizhimen) and is easy to get from the botanical gardens by taxi (about 20 minutes and costs approx 30-40RMB).
All taxi drivers will understand you when you mention the names of the places, as they are written above.
When I used to live in Beijing, without a doubt my favorite bar was "Propaganda" located just behind the WuDaoKou railway station (Next to Subway Sandwiches- you cannot miss it). There are a handful of authentic Korean and Japanese bars and restaurants in this area. Wu Dao Kou has a significant number of Korean and Japanese expats, as well as foreign students because of its proximity to Tsinghua and Beijing Universities.
Its just one of those amazing places- the ambiance is one that has a typical feel of ancient China to it, both with the background classical instrumental music of the stringed "Zheng", and the pre-war style decorated atmosphere- Propaganda is just one of those places where you can while away the time with a cold Chinese beer and snacks. The beauty of it is that you can sit in the relaxed atmosphere inside, and watch (if you prefer "People watching"!) life just go by across the window. This part of WuDaoKou reminded me a little bit of some areas of New Delhi. The only difference being that in WuDaoKou you had everything that you may see in New Delhi except there were no cows or donkeys crossing the railway line!
Today, the 27th of August 2009, marks the one year anniversary of the conclusion of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. In my heart and mind, it still feels like yesterday- time has just flown by. The sad thing is, and perhaps one of the regrets of my life so far, that I was not able to go to Beijing to witness the Olympics at firsthand. Fate just did not allow me to go, I was too busy with my corporate life in London. Some of you may read this description and see it as an excuse, but its not. I have a special affection with two cities in China, one is Guangzhou, and the other is Beijing.
Beijing was MY HOME for just over 2 years from 2004, and I wished I was there for more than that. I still remember the days when I used to cycle from my home in Shangdi district (Qi Er Xi) to Wu Dao Kou near the Tsinghua University campus. I miss those days soo much. If ever I had the power to turn back time, I would definitely rewind back to re-live those days! I spent the 8th of August 2008 preparing for the conference speech which I had the following day, and only got to watch the ceremony briefly later that day.
Photo copyright Navjot Singh
Earlier today in London, at a lunch meeting to mark the one year anniversary of the closing of the Beijing Olympics, I was fortunate enough to discuss about the London 2012 Olympics with the former Olympic Champion Tessa Sanderson. Tessa, who is playing a high profile role in training new talent for the London 2012 Olympics, told me that the London Olympics is going to be the best games staged ever, and everything is well on course for a superb opening in 2012. Hopefully I will be at the London 2012 Olympics...although I am not sure what I'll make of it if by chance I end up being in China during the London 2012 Olympics!!
To the rest of the world most probably it is just another ordinary day, but in China and most SE Asian countries where Chinese festivals are celebrated, today, the "26th of August 2009" is the Chinese equivalent of St Valentine’s day. More formally it is known in Mandarin as the Qi Xi Festival (translated into "The Night of Sevens"), and falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar; hence its name. Always on a different day every year.
There is no official holiday in China, but let it be known that most restaurants are fully booked well in advance, and all couples (especially the males!) have to make it a commitment for a romantic date, either at home for dinner or outside at a restaurant. State media also have special television shows dedicated with the theme of romance. CCTV1, the national television channel (as well as many local provincial channels as well), air a special Blind date show for young viewers. If you are in China for the first time and are confused at the sight of a large number of couples holding roses in the middle of August, usually red or white; and also if you are unable to get a seat at most good restaurants, then at least I hope now you know the reason why! There are many stories which explain the meaning for this day.
Fond memories of Guangzhou as well, on the banks of the Pearl River where many young (and sadly poor) children roam around with bunches of small Roses in their hands, eagerly looking for any couples to whom they can sell the Rose flowers to. Festivals such as the QiXi are the perfect occasion for these children to make as much profit as possible. As soon as they see any couple approaching, some of the children can even climb onto the people's legs, determined to hold on as tightly as possible until the person buys the flowers from them. It can be a shocking experience for anyone who would not imagine that a young child (maybe under the age of 10) would be so desperate to sell a Rose flower worth only 3RMB (Approx £0.20 pence), that they would not let go of your leg until you pay them money or purchase the flower. It's not nice to see and experience. These children must be under great pressure to make as much money as possible, and maybe they don't even get to keep that money. It's so ironic that on such a day of love and laughter, that one has to come across this scene on the banks of a romantic river. You just wish there is no poverty in this world....anyways coming back to the main subject...
I remember being told that in some parts of Guangxi Province, young women offered fruit and cakes to pray for a alert mind. While in other provinces there are girls who would do weaving and handcrafts. Overall it’s a great day to enjoy good Chinese food!
It was just coming towards the end of September 2004 and I had been in China for just over a month. The Chinese Mid-autumn festival (Moon Cake Festival) was approaching and all of my colleagues were going on vacation during that week. I had so many choices ranging from Thailand, India, Singapore and cities within China. Nevertheless in the end I chose to visit the capital city, Beijing. This was my first trip to a Chinese city outside of Guangzhou and I couldn’t wait to get going. Booking flights and accommodation was bit of an experience for me for a number of reasons; firstly I could not speak Chinese so I could not join a tour and secondly most places were fully booked because of the peak holiday season…I also felt a bit guilty that I had always relied upon friends and colleagues to translate for me and that’s when I also started making a serious effort at learning Mandarin. In the end I decided that I was going with a tour group however I was only to stay at the same hotel as them, everything else I decided to do it myself as I am a fond tourist and quite an adventurer anyways. I remember that even though it was the first week of October, the air in Guangzhou was still quite warm and humid on the morning of my departure date. Hurrying to the airport in a rush I finally managed to find my tourist group, who, like most tour groups in China, were carrying bright saffron coloured triangular flags. After the three hour morning flight on a China Southern Airlines Boeing 757-200 aircraft, I finally arrived at Beijing Capital Airport where the temperature was almost freezing and the air was dry with little humidity, which was much fresher than the highly humid and sticky Guangzhou that I had left nearly 4 hours behind me in the south- suddenly it seemed as if I had come to a different country! However, the truth was that for the next five days every experience, every sound and every smell and every taste would echo loudly in my ear that I’ve arrived somewhere magical, somewhere special…and even the cold temperatures didn’t deter me from enjoy moment of it.
This is the beauty of being in China I suppose that because it’s such a massive country that you are bound to come across not just different cultures however different climates as well considering if you travel from east to west or from north to south; and vice versa. Of course as a first time visitor to a country or a city so far away, like most tourists, I found Beijing to be a great place to be in, and I wished I could stay there forever...rather see it with my eyes than keep it in my heart I’d say.
Whenever I’m in Beijing I feel like I am in the real ancient China because you are always surrounded by a bit of history which ever street or building you are in, and amazingly unlike the rest of China, even though Beijing is becoming more modernized, nevertheless it still treasures a rich past; one which is to be proud of. The people are nice, the food is scrumptious and the sights are truly more than just breathtaking…from my personal experience no visit to China is complete without paying a visit to this ancient seat of power and tradition!
Before arriving here my knowledge of this splendid city was quite poor, indeed I had heard and seen the Great Wall of China andTiananmenSquare on various media coverage in the UK and I suppose this made me want to discover those places of interest even more than before. I had five days and four nights to explore the place where thousands of years of history were waiting to be absorbed.
After checking into the splendid Renaissance Beijing Hotel in the Yanshan area (Chaoyang District), I headed off with the tour group to Beihai Park for a brief one hour visit before attending dinner at the world famous Quan Ju De Roast Duck (Beijing Duck) Restaurant on 32 Qianmen St (of course not only the oldest restaurant which has been visited by worldwide diplomats and dignitaries, however also very special because of the unique taste of the Beijing Duck that it has); more often than not it’s renowned to be the mother of all Duck restaurants in China! With this in mind it wasn’t at all surprising to observe that it was busy indeed; luck was on my side when the waitress, dressed in an elegant Chinese Traditional costume (Qí Páo, 旗袍), lead us to our reserved room. The chef brought the freshly roasted duck and served it in front of us…and I must say there is nothing quite like it! That crispy taste mixed with bamboo shoots and soy sauce is a sheer luxury and the art of real Chinese cuisine.
After the scrumptious meal we gently strolled across to the fascinating TiananmenSquare, to witness the largest square in the world. For me it was like a dream come true, I had seen it on television many times but I never imagined it would be as big as it is. The famous portrait of the great Chairman Mao still looks on from the front gate of the Forbidden City. It was an amazing moment; just standing in the middle of the square makes you feel and think that this is something really special. Be it day or night, it’s probably not only the largest but also one of the most beautiful and romantic squares in the world.
From day two onwards I was going to travel on my own without the tour party. I had an early breakfast, naturally Chinese, with fresh warm Soybean milk (Dòu jiāng, 豆浆), a white bun made with Cow’s milk along with a sweet egg yolk mixture inside it (奶黄包, Nǎi Huáng Bāo) and a long bread stick with butter (Yóu tiáo,油条). I had pre-arranged to meet one of my Chinese friends who had been kind enough to accompany me to the Forbidden City where 24 Chinese emperors ruled China for over 600 years.
Being in the forbidden city makes you feel as you have step back in time, the remarkable feeling is that I was walking on the same piece of ground that those emperors had been walking on…of course some parts are still the same and some have been renovated. We strolled through the main gates and into TiananmenSquare itself. During the day time it is quite beautiful. I felt lucky to have met Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum; however, we did not talk much (!). I also got the chance to observe the stunning Arts Museum in the square.
The afternoon was spent shopping at the long Wangfujing Dajie for souvenirs before departing to a Beijing bazaar to do window shopping as well have dinner in one of the many local eateries!
Day three: I was going to spend time at the Great Wall (Badaling) in the morning and then the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. The cost of the transportation and tour guide (Chinese Speaking) for the whole day was only 50RMB, this included traveling from Qianmen Gate in the centre of Beijing to Badaling Great Wall, about 2 hours drive in the north of the capital; then to the Ming Tombs, visiting a Beijing Duck factory and a handicraft factory on the way from Great wall to the Ming Tombs and finally visiting a traditional Chinese herbal medicine clinic/museum on the way back to the city centre in the evening.
After weeks of planning I finally arrived at the Great Wall of China. Snaking its way through the lush green mountain tops, it was just like a dream come true for me to even step foot on this speculate of the humankind. Just looking at it makes you wonder how much hard work must have gone into constructing such a marvel. No matter how differently I want to describe the Great Wall before the millions who have before me, I cannot think of any other words except that it simply is a “Magical place”.
Two hours was not enough to absorb the exquisiteness of the place. We made our way to one of the 13 grand Ming Tombs and on the way paid a visit to a Duck factory, where on one side of the factory you see the alive ducks, while on the other side of the factory you see the roasted ones…quite attention-grabbing indeed…each prepared to sheer perfection. Here you can get your hands on all things to do with a Beijing Duck; everything ranging from duck meat sweets (!) to preserved duck food and soups…ironically the only thing you cannot purchase is an alive duck itself!
Then we arrived at the Ming Tombs themselves. Situated here are the tombs of 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors. Dragon Hill lies to the east and Crouching Tiger Hill to the west. The first emperor to be buried here was Yongle who died in 1424. His tomb, Chang Ling, and that of Emperor Zhu Yijun, Ding Ling, who died in 1620, are the only two opened to visitors today. One of the more impressive sights at the Ming Tombs is the Sacred Way. The Sacred Way runs for about a kilometre and is flanked on both sides by carvings of human and animal figures. There are 12 large stone human figures and 24 of animals, all carved from single blocks of granite in 1435 during the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Xuan De. I spent the evening enjoying the renowned Peking Hot Pot dinner in the city centre.
Day four: I went to the Temple of Heaven in the morning, while the rest of the day was spent looking at the Summer Palace (and you need more than half a day for this!). Words are not enough to describe the exquisiteness and peaceful ambiance of this nature’s gift. Vogue Greece happened to be carrying out a photo shoot in front of the main Lake, much to the unwanted attention from the large crowd which had gathered as the word quickly spread around.
As the evening drew closer I made my way towards a park in the middle of the city centre where there was to be a spectacular fireworks display along with a musical Peking Opera show in the middle of the lake in celebration of the Mid Autumn Festival. This park also accommodates a small zoo at the park with a small number of monkeys and Peacocks as well as other smaller animals, all of whom you can touch without worrying. The opera show was nice with the brightly lit and colourful boat making its way slowly around the lake while the people dressed in traditional costumes told folk Chinese stories through Peking opera. A pleasant ending to a long day.
Day 5: The concluding day of my short trip had arrived quicker than I could say “TiananmenSquare”. I had a late evening flight back to Guangzhou; so subsequently I spent the morning going to Beihai Park again, this time to enjoy a peaceful walk and taking a few last photos. The afternoon was spent walking around the Hutongs that are within the main area around Wangfujing Dajie.
In these walled hutongs you'll find individual residences and courtyards where thousands of Beijingers still live, many astonishingly without modern conveniences of which we take granted for in our lives, such as a fridge, television, an electric cooker or even hot water. Many have opted to move into the more modern apartment buildings, but many still prefer the community style living of the hutong. Like many other Asian countries (India, Thailand etc) there are quite a lot of Rickshaws (3 wheeled cycles powered by a human) and I could not resist but taking a small ride around town.
I took the last flight of the day with China Southern Airlines, this time with a smaller Airbus A318 aircraft which gently flared its way towards a warm and humid Guangzhou at midnight. On the taxi back to my home from the airport, my mind was still fresh with the sights and smells of the past five days and again I had the feeling that I just experienced a long dream, where I ventured in another country and then the reality hit that maybe I may never get the chance to go back again.
However to my delight I surprised myself, after this trip I have had the chance to go to Beijing many more times.
On business trip, I have been lucky to go to Beijing more than five times, and after that I have also had the chance to live in the city for over a year (in the “Shangdi” and “Qi Er Xi” area). It’s a city which does not bore me at all. Every time I go to Beijing, it seems to get more attractive!
On the afternoon of Friday the 23rd of February 2002 (it was also my sisters birthday), I left Loughborough for Heathrow giving myself of what I thought would be ample time, in the hope that I would be able to join my parents and sister for a short dinner at the airport terminal before leaving on the 13 hour evening flight with British Airways to Hong Kong. It just so happened that I arrived late (as always I do for my flights!), had no time to think about any long good-byes let alone a dinner; and ended up running for the departure gate (as always). Its a bad habit of mine, running at airports to catch my flight at the last minute, irrespective if I am on a business or pleasure trip...however, remarkably I have never missed a flight (YET).
Perhaps the greatest trip of my life so far because I had done so much preparation to understand the culture, the language (although I could not even say "Hello" in Chinese) and the food...but I am not exaggerating. In actual fact the whole week seemed like a long dream because everything happened so quickly. I completed my final exam in the morning in the (annoyingly) wet and windy Loughborough; and 24 hours later I was on a night cruise on the Pearl River in the middle of Guangzhou, and it was like, I have to make the most of this trip because I am only here for seven days. When you are so far away for such a short time, not knowing if you will ever go back to the place again in the future, then there should be a second wasted. So effectively everyday seemed like a great dream because I saw so many things in such a small amount of time. It was amazing.
First impressions of China?
China is a very beautiful country, one which has so much to offer but does not normally get the chance to show off its true inner self to the outside world- what do I mean by this? Well, there are those who question if it is still a friend or foe, there are also lots of biased points against (and some, of course, for) China’s policies. Media can be a wrong source for digesting a destination’s good and bad points because not all media is full of positive points. For example, the coverage of the Beijing Olympics (as an example), I believe was not covered in a well balanced way. I use factual data to take wherever I go (like for example from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Website). Of course, one does not expect a simple and smooth approach to life from a country which is still considered by some hard-line economists as a sleeping dragon that is too ambitious...the obvious answer to this statement would be that even Rome was not built in one day.
It goes without saying that the cultural differences do not hit you when you land in Hong Kong (as most of its’ colonial British feel is somewhat fading away at a slow pace- for many it’s still a home away from home). There used to be a saying among the English, “If you cannot make it in London, then go to Hong Kong”, however, even though Hong Kong has a “International” feel to it, that statement would no longer stand as the former colony is now, of course, part of China. Nevertheless, the real culture shock would hit anyone once they cross the border into the mainland. Shenzhen is the city that borders Hong Kong and at that time had only 2 border crossing, one at Huanggang and the other at LoWu.
From Hong Kong, once I crossed the border I took the Guang-Shen train straight to the capital of Guangdong Province, Guangzhou. If I just say that “China is amazing and full of so many surprises that one cannot just sum up the whole picture in one go”, that would be a common statement these days because so many people have experienced the country, but then in 2002, for me, those were the first words that came out of my mouth. China has of course a lot of similarities with its neighbours (namely Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, India etc), and like any Asian country which is moving from the developing stage into a newly industrialised stage, it has the good points, the bad points and the unmentionable ones- and that’s not too difficult to observe.
A short ride on one of the many local buses will open your eyes immediately; you may be travelling in a very affluent area at one point, and then suddenly you may come across a highly deprived neighbourhood. An extreme example as it may seem, but just imagine you are driving through the suburbs of a busy western city like London one minute and then suddenly you are travelling through the shanty towns of, say an economically deprived rural village, and a minute later you are suddenly back into the affluent area (vice-versa). There may be many places in the world where such contrasts exist, but to see it in the flash and blood is a unique experience. Watching something on the television or reading about it on the internet is not quite the same as experiencing it in real life.
Then there are also the minor but important downsides from living in the world’s fastest growing economy: China is also a VERY noisy country, especially in the big cities (Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai), for example it is considered normal to use the drill or do heavy construction at 2am in the morning or even all night! If you are in London and you have noisy neighbours, I bet nothing is more annoying than having a drill go off almost all night long.
China is also the world's largest consumer of alcohol so it is no surprise that if your neighbours (irrespective if it is a hotel or home) are heavy drinkers, then they will sure keep you awake all night with loud shouting and arguing over Mah-jong or any card games which they be playing. It may be quite and then suddenly you hear a loud “Arrrgggg” (of course, indicating that someone has won the Mah-Jong equivalent of the national lottery!).
China is also the worlds largest market for tobacco, therefore it is no surprise that you will be exposed to smoke everywhere because people smoke in Internet cafes, restaurants, cafes, buses...and if you don't smoke (like myself) then you are going to find it just that little bit challenging!
If you are in the workplace (corporate culture defines a very different meaning in China as compared to say a more "International" environment such as London, Hong Kong), then you will be exposed to things such as the "normality" of answering you mobile phone in the middle of a corporate meeting/presentation and even a formal Interview!
What about the culture, the people and those Famous Chinese Restaurants?
While it is quite difficult for a lone western tourist to get around and speak English with the locals, the people are very friendly and assisting. Over in the border in Hong Kong it is more of a relaxed approach towards foreigners because of the reason that Hong Kong is multicultural (and maybe because there are too many people), however that is not the case in the mainland. You do get a lot of respect and VIP treatment as a foreigner in China.
To some extent it's an advantage to be a foreigner in the mainland because you get treated in a much better way. I mean as an example I remember popping into a local sweet shop (nothing more different then a newsagent in the UK), and as soon as they saw me entering the shop, they were so eager (not pushy or anything) to lend a hand or get me to buy anything. Now I can imagine that kind of hospitality would seldom be seen towards a tourist in the UK- of course there are good places and bad places everywhere. That’s just one simple example, and also another one is that people are most willing to learn English.
The Chinese food you get in your local takeaways’ in the UK is nothing compared to what you get over there in China, of course that’s the same with all other foreign foods I hear you say, but the experience is totally different. You simply have to taste it to believe it. The most wonderful thing about seafood in Chinese restaurants is that it’s FRESH and you can choose what to eat straight from the fish tanks!
Food, especially when it comes to eating out at Dinner time, is a very important part of the Chinese lifestyle- and even more "fashionable" in Guangzhou because of the variety of seafood available here.
Restaurants in general within the UK are nothing compared to what you will see in Guangzhou or for that matter the whole of China, it brings out a whole new meaning to eating out. The competition can be so fierce in some cases that some of the best seafood restaurants in Guangzhou are similar in size to four story buildings, which usually tend to have their own Karaoke Bars (a must to try even if you do not speak the language and a popular pastime of the locals).
Chinese tea...and did I hear someone say night zoo?
One of the highlights of my trip was going to see a zoo at night (yes.. a night zoo). A unique experience which is seldom seen in the west..with all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. Not only a zoo but mix that with a night circus, a laser disco show, and a whole load of water acrobats show which consisted of the Chinese water sports Olympic team...so it was more like a huge funfair but at nighttime..quite impressive actually. Sounds too good to believe.
Moving on from night zoos...lets talk about something which is a bit more of a common thing in China...Tea! Apart from India and Sri Lanka, China is the world largest exporter of the stuff...and its pretty much quite hard to avoid...leaving China without trying at least 4 or 5 different types of tea would be a comparable to leaving Scotland without trying whiskey. If its your first time drinking Chinese tea, you would be immensely surprised to know that it has no taste just sweet smell, nevertheless after a week of trying the stuff- day in day out, it felt soo good that I got put off drinking English tea altogether!
This one week’s trip was my first trip to China and just about when I thought that maybe this would be also my last time to go there, I was fortunate enough to have been offered a contract position as a Graduate Sales Engineer with Philips Semiconductors in Shenzhen, China. This was indeed an exciting opportunity, so much for my fate that I have been in China ever since and never looked back.
Now it seems that either I got it horribly wrong or I have indeed happened to notice a serious security lapse- two days ago at Gatwick Airport- the UK's 2nd biggest and busiest International airport. Having arrived back to the UK from Madeira (I was part of a Press Trip to Madeira with other travel writers)- as I made my way towards the Passport control area at Gatwick Airport's South Terminal, I was astonished to see that there was no one present to check passports' of passengers who would be passing through the "Channel Islands'" route. This means that if someone is coming from outside of the UK, they can easily sneak themselves through the "Channel Islands'" route because all they need to do is to show their boarding pass or ticket and not their Passport. Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the area. I did however confront a security personal about the situation, and he admitted (sorry did not catch his name), that there is a security problem, but they (Gatwick Customs) would stop anyone illegally entering the country if they are caught. But how will they catch someone if there is no means to check Passports or any form of ID except a Boarding Pass?Has anyone else noticed such irregularities at any airport in the world (not just the UK)? Interesting to know, as I was surprised to see this at first hand.
It was my first trip to Beijing way back during the Mid-Autumn festival (widely known as the "Moon Cake Festival") in the first week of October 2002; and I was extremely excited at the prospects of actually going to experience the sights and smells of the city at first hand. I had long awaited for this moment and finally that thought was to become reality. Prior to this trip, I had two solid images of Beijing in my mind, the first one was of the Great Wall of China- the image which I suppose most foreigners would have when China is mentioned to them; and the second one was of Tiananmen Square. However that image of Tiananmen Square was the same image that, sadly, showed tanks and student protesters during the 4th June 1989. I was a 9 years old youngster living in London at that time and, obviously, I hardly remember anything at that time. However as the years have passed since that atrocious day in Chinese history, the images we in the UK (and outside of China) have been accustomed to watching are of a young man waving something (a white flag or shirt) and standing in front of a tank in the middle of the square. So on this trip; I was curious to see that square and to stand on that piece of historical land. By all means, it was not the purpose of my trip, however I wanted to see that exact place, and just compare the sight of what life is like in 21st Century Beijing, compared to what I had seen through western Media. On this trip I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by one of my good friend’s who was kind enough to take a couple of days off her work to show me around. Born and raised in Beijing, educated at the famous Tsinghua University and an aspiring Chinese model/actress, I could not have been in any better company in this splendid city. Arriving on a hot and dry afternoon at my hotel, I spent the final hours of that day sightseeing in central Beijing, having been to look at Beihai Park, the Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) and eating a scrumptious meal at the acclaimed Duck restaurant on 32 Qianmen Street, I eventually made my way through to Tiananmen Square. Standing at the largest square in the in the world for the first time was just such a wonderful feeling. I immediately felt as if I was part of China’s history and not just Beijing’s history. It was a quite atmosphere to absorb. The weather was still fairly hot and there was a slight breeze coming in from the south. There were many families, tourists and residents’ alike taking an evening stroll, some taking photos, while others were just whiling away the time chatting amongst themselves. There were also quite a lot of children flying kites, taking advantage of that slight breeze I suppose. However one thing I did notice which was somewhat difficult to avoid. As a rough estimate, there must have been about two hundred uniformed army and police personnel in the square (possibly more if one includes the non-uniformed ones). Some were marching in line, while others were just standing and watching the crowds. Were they anticipating for something to happen? Was this a routine procedure (or should I say a daily one?)? I did not know the answer to these questions. Nevertheless their presence was all the all a bizarre occurrence to me, as the only time I have seen such high number of police presence is at, say marches or public events (musical concerts and so on)- and here I was standing in Beijing on a perfectly normal and quiet summer’s evening. Every time I got my camera out to take a photo, it had always occurred at the back of my mind, “Is it safe?”, “Will they stop me from taking a photo?” It seems bad that I had these thoughts, but for some reason (I still cannot explain as to why), I always felt a bit fearful of seeing Chinese police. If I, as a foreigner felt this way, I can only imagine what a native Chinese person may feel like. Just then a group of about 10 soldiers where marching towards us. I took a chance and asked my friend to take a photo of me with the soldiers marching as a backdrop. She asked me to stand in front of a tree, and carefully placed the camera at an angle so that no one could tell that she was talking the photos of the soldiers as well. My friend and I strolled our way to the south side of the square, and she was happily explaining to me the daily ceremony of raising (at sunrise) and lowering (at sunset) of the national flag by the guards, when I asked her a few questions; and I could not resist the opportunity. “Is this is way the tanks came in from on the 4th of June?”, “Do you remember what you were doing on that day?” Immediately I realized that I made a mistake of even asking her up front. Suddenly her smile disappeared, and she completely ignored my questions. “Is everything alright?” I asked, to which she replied with a simple nod with a straight facial expression before we changed the subject and carried on talking about other things. To this day, I do not understand what was going through her mind, and will probably never know why she ignored my questions. Interestingly, during my many years in China, I had come to realize that this was not just an isolated case, it was quite common for anyone to just suddenly go quiet and change the subject...would be interesting to know if anyone else (Chinese or non-Chinese) has had a similar experience.
Here I share my thoughts and experiences during my travels, and how some things have affected my life as an expat and world traveller. This weblog runs in conjunction with my Official blog, which may not be visible in some countries due to local firewall restrictions, so in those cases this weblog may be read. The weblog also includes some of my press trip reports- most of which are not published on the official blog because of copyright issues. The weblog also contains articles that may be associated directly with a PR trip for a country, airline or a hotel. These are PR reviews done in relations with various companies.