You couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions for a Saturday afternoon baseball game at Wukesong.
Urban Sociology and Urbanism, in China and North America
You couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions for a Saturday afternoon baseball game at Wukesong.
The Olympics are almost over, and Beijing is on the brink of resuming to normalcy. Here are some more random thoughts and observations about the Games as we count down to the end.
Thumbs up to Olympic Organizers for making sure concession prices were so cheap even migrant workers could afford them.
Thumbs down to the people who were in charge of buying all the concessions. Apparently they didn’t think anybody would actually need a meal during the games. I have been subsisting on sausages, yoghurt, and dry instant noodles for the past week and a half.
|So far the Olympic volunteers have been great, as long as you don’t ask them any non-Olympic questions such as where the nearest restaurant is.
Thumbs up to the hordes of volunteers, mostly college students and senior citizens, who have donated their time and labor to the Olympic Games.
Thumbs down to whoever was in charge of training the volunteers for not requiring them to take a quick walk around the block where they are stationed to get familiar with their surroundings.
Thumbs up to Liu Xiang for giving his all in an attempt to overcome injury…not to mention the pressure of 1.5 billion rabid fans.
Thumbs down to those who have suddenly lost interest in Track and Field because Liu Xiang is no longer competing.
Thumbs up to the foreign beach volleyball live announcer who has been calling all matches in both English and Chinese, and with excellent inflection in both languages.
(Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything negative to say about this guy)
Thumbs up to the Beijing weather for raining for 2 days straight, clearing up most of the pollution, and leading the way for pristine blue skies for another 3 days.
Thumbs down to the Beijing weather for raining 2 days straight.
Thumbs up to the Beijing 2008 web designers for putting all event and venue information on a neatly organized website.
Thumbs down to the Beijing 2008 web designers for making their e-maps (like most made-in-China websites) incompatible with Mozilla Firefox.
Thumbs up to Beijing cab drivers for making an effort to learn some English, even if it isn’t of much practical use.
Thumbs down to whoever chose those yellow uniforms that cabbies are now required to wear.
Thumbs up to CCTV for providing round the clock Olympic coverage on multiple channels.
Thumbs down to the CCTV basketball announcers for not even pretending to be unbiased. Is it really necessary to cry “aiiiii you” after every single basket scored by the team opposing China?
Thumbs up for the music director at the basketball arena for playing Kurtis Blow’s 1984 hit “basketball” as part of the halftime program.
Thumbs down to the music director at the basketball arena for playing the organ version of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” at virtually every time out.
Thumbs up to the USA basketball program for making us look like we are once again taking international basketball seriously. (I am rescinding my previous prediction they had only a 50/50 shot at the gold.)
Thumbs down to the USA cycling program for making us all look like asses.
Yesterday my friend Joe and I wanted to see some live Olympic action. Tickets have long been sold out, and the only way to acquire them is to buy them off of the second hand market. We had been told by Chinese friends that scalpers were charging outrageous sums, even for the most obscure events. Nonetheless, we headed over to the Olympic Sports Center in search of resold tickets. After about ten minutes, we were both able to find women’s handball tickets, for face value of 30 RMB (approx $4 USD). The handball matches were not scheduled to begin until 2 pm, so we decided to grab some beers, and stroll around the complex.
At a typical Beijing watering hole, a Tsingtao usually costs around 20 RMB, and we were expecting to pay at least this much to drink at the Olympic Games. You can imagine our surprise when we found that beers (Tsingtao, Yanjing, and Budweiser) were all being sold for 5 RMB (71 cents) each. You are even allowed to carry open containers around inside the park. After two rounds of beer, we entered the gymnasium to watch the match. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, so I bought a Snickers bar, also for 5 RMB. By the time handball was finished, we had each gone through three more rounds of beer.
Now for those of you who haven’t been counting, that’s a ticket to an Olympic event, a Snickers bar, and five beers…for the grand total of 60 RMB. At the current exchange rate of roughly 7 to 1, that comes to a whopping eight US dollars and fifty seven cents! It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out these Olympics are cheap, dirt cheap.
Even granted that the cost of living in China is considerably lower than the United States, price gouging is not uncommon in the Middle Kingdom. Wealthy Chinese will often intentionally dine at extravagant restaurants or purchase over-priced event tickets as a means to garner face with guests and invitees. Likewise, many private establishments in Beijing cater to foreign clientele who are not accustomed to China’s low cost of living, and are more than willing to pay Western prices. Last weekend I had dinner at Houhai, a glitzy outdoor entertainment district in central Beijing. At the restaurant where I dined, a bowl of rice was 5 RMB, coke and sprite were 30 per can, and even a glass of ice water was going for 10. To watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony, I attended an all you can eat buffet at a Scandinavian style restaurant. The food reminded me of my junior high cafeteria and the price tag was 188 RMB (approx $27 USD) per head.
With many event tickets as cheap as 30 RMB and concessions sold just slightly above retail value, these Olympics are surprisingly affordable, even by Chinese working class standards. Knowing in advance that hordes of foreign tourists and their favorable exchange rates, as well as masses of affluent middle-class Chinese would be flocking to the capital, Beijing could easily have charged far more than they have been for tickets and concessions. Over the past three days, I have attended judo, handball, basketball, and boxing, and loaded up on concessions at each event. My total expenditures thus far…just a hair above 50 US dollars. Welcome to the 2008 Beijing Econ-O-lympics.
With prices this low, it’s actually cheaper to eat in drink inside the Olympic grounds than it would be to patronize local restaurants and bars.
The Beijing Olympiad is almost three days old. Here are my initial thoughts.
-The “completely sold out” tickets for most events are cheap and widely available. Every day I have been picking events, showing up at the gate, and looking for second hand tickets.
Other than high demand events like basketball, most tickets can easily be bought for face value second hand if you are willing to stand around the gate for fifteen minutes. Face value for most events is under 100 RMB (approx $15 USD). I bought boxing tickets for only 30 RMB ($4 USD).
-Yesterday’s weather reminded me of typhoons in Fuzhou. After half an hour of torrential downpour, there was standing water almost a foot deep. The rowing events could have been held on the Third Ring Road.
-Maybe I am just too American, but I was completely taken back by the fact you can get a beer for 5 RMB (less than 1 US dollar) inside the venues. Snacks are cheap too! Beijing and/or the IOC easily could have price gorged Olympic guests for much more than that, but instead concessions are priced cheaply, even by Chinese standards. In another pleasant surprise, I was watching judo when the Hurricane Yao hit yesterday. The Olympic volunteers passed out free ponchos to all attendees. If this was the US, they would have been selling them for ten bucks. Gotta love the 经济奥运 (economical Olympics).
-I watched the Opening Ceremony with two American friends in a Scandinavian bar. We were all a little worried about the reaction we would receive when we cheered for the American team. When our guys came out, the entire bar cheered. When CCTV panned to a shot of W, the entire crowd booed in unison…clockwork.
-Last night, I saw the US v. China men’s basketball game in a movie theater. By my count, we out-dunked them about 35-2. The problem was if we play with as much over-confidence and as little effort on defense as we did last night, we are going to get smoked by Argentina or Spain. I’d put the US’s chances of winning the gold this year at about 50/50.
-Kudos to the city of Beijing for preparing itself of the onslaught of foreign guests. An American friend of mine who had lived in China for five years, but had never been to Beijing, spent the first two days of the Olympics here with me. On multiple occasions, he remarked, “Beijing is so clean and orderly.” There are many of us who are fans of Beijing, but how often is it for those reasons?
I’m generally pretty skeptical when it comes to Chinese propaganda banners, but occasionally comes one so poignant, even in its vagueness, that I find myself nodding in agreement.
This baner is currently on display in the center of “T” Square. Loosely translated it means, “The Reform and Opening Up will write the poems of harmony.” It directly faces the portrait of Mao Zedong.
Best of luck to Beijing tonight, and more importantly, to the Chinese people in the generations to come!
In anticipation for that particular event which will be coming upon in Beijing on 8/8/08, the new transit line connecting Beijing Capital Airport with the city subway system was opened on Saturday. On Monday I had to catch a flight to Wenzhou and decided to check it out first hand.
Please excuse the quality of the images. Thanks to a particular 坏蛋 in Dalian, I had to take them using the digital camera on my Treo.
|The new route has only 2 stops en route to the airport, Dongzhimen station along lines 2 and 13 and Sanyuanqiao along the new Line 10.|
|Back in the “Old Days,” a cab ride from the airport to the city center could cost in upwards of 100 RMB. Tickets for the shuttle are currently selling for 25 RMB, as opposed to 2 RMB for all other subway fares.|
|Like most places in Beijing these days, security is tight when boarding the shuttle, and all bags are scanned by X-Ray。|
|Similar to Beijing’s other new subway lines, the airport shuttle has a safety wall sealing off the tracks from the boarding area on the platform. I arrived on the platform, and began waiting at exactly 7:30 pm.|
|After a fifteen minute wait, the train pulled up at the station at 7:45. Originally I had been expecting carriages similar to those of the regular subway lines. But as soon as you step foot in the airport shuttle, you will see where your extra 23 RMB went. This ride is posche!|
|Wide, plush, seats, plasma TV’s, this train is everything you would expect from a city trying to make a positive first impression on out-of-town visitors. The ride is smooth; the carriages are quiet; and the journey is fast. Looking out the window, I noticed we were moving at the same speed, if not slightly faster, than most of the traffic on the highway.|
|The train runs both underground and above ground at different points, and seemed to have pretty good cell reception along the way.|
|The only negative I could draw from my experience on the shuttle was its slightly Chinglish infused name…ABC. The letters stand for “Airport Beijing City.” Get it? ABC?…I would have been content at just calling it “Airport Shuttle,” “Line 15,” or something else not nearly as overly creative.|
|The shuttle arrived at the new Terminal 3 at 8:03–just 18 minutes from departing Dongzhimen. Including my wait, that’s exactly 33 minutes from Dongzhimen to the airport. Based on my single experience, this is going to be an exceptionally efficient way to shuttle passengers between the airport and downtown. At least for me, I know I will never be taking another taxi or a bus from the airport to the city center ever again.|
Three weeks ago I wrote a post about the changes Beijing has witnessed between 2006 and 2008. Just yesterday I returned from a brief trip to Dongbei to find the Beijing of today vastly different from the one I left only one week ago. China’s capital city is currently in the home stretch of its extensive eight-year Olympic preparation plan. The goal is to transform a city, once severely lagging in public infrastructure, into a worldwide metropolis capable of being a host to the global stage. As the final pull towards preparation, a new onslaught of rules and regulations went into effect on July 20. The aim of the regulations have been to ensure a positive Olympic experience for the record numbers of visitors expected to flock to Beijing in the coming weeks. Here’s a rundown of some of the changes.
|Northern Third Ring Road, Monday evening rush hour, 6 pm|
Until the end of the Olympics, only half of Beijing’s private automobiles will be allowed on the street each day. Who is allowed and not allowed is determined by license number. Dates alternate between cars with even numbered license plates and those with odd numbered license plates being allowed on the road. Today was the first business day with the policy in place. At 9 am I had to make a trip to the Lenovo service center, located along the Eastern stretch of the Third Ring Road, to pickup my laptop which was being serviced. I had taken public transit to get there, but decided to test out the new policy by taking a cab back. My apartment is located along the Northern stretch of the Third Ring Road, and it was 9:30 am on a Monday morning. Usually at this hour, the Third Ring Road is a virtual parking lot, and those traveling in cars are lucky if they can move faster than the bicycles which pass them on either side. Under normal circumstances, the taxi from the Lenovo service center back to my apartment would have taken anywhere from half an hour to an hour and cost around 20 RMB. In fact, it would have been even more than likely the taxi driver would have just told me to take the subway. Today I made it back in under fifteen minutes, and at the cost of 11 RMB. Traffic moved fluidly the entire way.
The past week has seen a major increase in security in and around Beijing. Yesterday, while taking the bus from Dalian back to Beijing, the driver collected each passenger’s ID card. At three different checkpoints, police stopped the bus, and asked to see all of the ID cards. At one of the checkpoints, I was asked to get off the bus, and taken into a police questioning room, where several officers looked through my passport scribbling down information in a log. They asked me how long I had been in China, what I was doing there, and how long I planned to stay. After a brief questioning session, I was led back to the bus. The officers were all friendly, and told me that the check was in order to “ensure the safety of the Olympics.” Upon arrival in Beijing, every passenger’s luggage was run through an X-Ray scanner before we could leave the station.
|A troop of student volunteers eagerly awaits duty at Beijing Capital Airport.|
Army of Volunteers
With a population of over 1.3 billion, China is rarely shorthanded when it comes to manual labor. With this in mind, they have enlisted the help of tens of thousands of volunteers all across Beijing, many of them students and senior citizens. On the streets, in subway stations, at the airport, and virtually any other place where people congregate can be found uniformed volunteers, wearing red arm bands and Olympic volunteer credentials. From pedestrian traffic, to queuing control, to simply answering questions, the army is in force, in preparation for the mass influx of visitors to Beijing. The quantity of citizens eager to help appears to be so great that there almost seems to be a surplus of helping hands. I saw one senior citizen volunteer today sitting in the shade under a sky bridge reading the newspaper. I asked what his responsibility was, and all he could produce was “ensuring safety.”
As of yesterday, many local factories were shut down and ordered not to resume until after the Olympics. This, along with the traffic restrictions, is expected to seriously improve Beijing’s air quality. In addition to the reduction in the number of cars on the road itself, the lack of traffic jams is expected to curb the amount of pollutants released per vehicle per trip. Today the air is fresher than normal, and the skies are showing a hint of blue. This would be considered a good day, compared with Beijing’s usual grey summer skies. However it is probably still too early if this is attributed to a cut back of pollution, or just the natural effect of the change in weather. I’ll have to check back up on this in a couple weeks.
Now that pollution controls are in effect, Beijing has been gung ho on the beautification and Olympification of the city. Ornamental Olympic displays have been appearing in traffic medians, and the streets are now draped in “Beijing 2008” flags and banners. Along with the backdrop of all the volunteers, it is finally starting to look and feel like the Olympics are coming to town.
Since I live relatively close to the Olympic grounds, many of the nearby local businesses have had their hours staggered in order to help control traffic. The idea is that staggering employees working hours, will space out the rush hour strain on transportation. When I went to use the ATM in the shopping mall near my apartment at 9:45 this morning, the entire mall save for the grocery store in the basement had been roped off by security. “In order to comply with regulations, everything except for the basic necessities, has to stay closed until 10 am,” I was told by a security guard. This included my ATM. “The only place you can go now is the grocery store, to buy basic provisions like food. For everything else, you have to wait until 10.”
July 20th also saw the opening of Beijing’s newest subway lines. Line 10, which runs a route roughly under the north and east sections of the Third Ring road, Line 8, the spur route to the Olympic grounds, and the Airport Express line connecting Beijing Capital Airport to the rest of the subway system. Beijing’s subway system has long been inadequate for a city of its size, and the new subway lines will no doubt ease the strain on the gridlocked road system. The one potential bottleneck however is that the Olympic spur line only connects to line 10. Therefore subway riders coming from line 2 (Beijing’s central loop line), will have to transfer 3 times (first to either Line 13 or Line 5 and then to Line 10 before transferring to Line 8 ) in order to take the subway to the games. The 2012 subway plan calls for Line 8 to be extended to meet up with Lines 1 and 2, but this will be long after the Olympics have left town.
With the excessive subway transfers required, Olympic visitors might be better advised to take advantage of the Olympic buses which are now running test routes around the city. To alleviate the threat of traffic jams on main traffic arteries, special lanes have been marked off and reserved solely for Olympic traffic. This will include transporting the athletes and officials to and from the games, as well as special free buses for spectators. With the Olympic subway spur only connected to Line 10, the buses will likely be the most convenient ride to the Olympics for most visitors not staying near the North or East Third Ring Road.
Beijing has come a long way since it was awarded the Olympics in 2001. The Chinese capital was badly in need of a face lift, and the Olympics could not have come at a more convenient juncture in time. While the city still has a long way to go, it is certainly in better shape to handle the influx of tourists now than it was when preliminary planning first began eight years ago. With only 17 days 16 hours and 48 minutes to go, only one can only wait to see how it all unfolds.
I distinctly remember the first time I ever went shopping China. It was my second day in the country, and my students took me to the “Not Second Market” grocery store located near the university where I was teaching. I had only bought around 7 or 8 items, basic provisions such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, and junk food to snack on in my dorm.
|Across China shoppers are looking for reusable, non-plastic alternatives to carry their groceries.|
As I paid for my groceries, somehow the clerk managed to use four plastic bags to wrap all eight of my items. The toothbrush and toothpaste were in their own bag. The snacks were separated into two bags. The 24-pack of toilet paper, which was already in plastic, was wrapped in another plastic bag. I began to notice a pattern. The plastic bag did not serve any necessary purpose. Groceries were to be wrapped in plastic, and that was the way things were done. I even recall several instances where I had bought individual items such as a can of soda or a pack of AA batteries, and they had been wrapped as well.
It isn’t hard to see how in a country with a population in excess 1.3 billion that this situation could easily create a global environmental hazard. And it did. Just across from my dormitory was a large dumpster where residents would dispose of their garbage. Every evening at 10 o’clock, the maintenance men would set the contents of the dumpster ablaze, invariably including hundreds of bags from the Not Second Market. Around 10:10 every night, the warm aroma of burning plastic would creep its way up to my fourth floor apartment en route to the stratosphere. This practice was common across China, especially in rural areas.
With China preparing for a “Green Olympics” clearly something needed to be done to curb the massive waste of plastic making its way into the atmosphere. Fortunately, action has been taken. Below is a sign posted in front of the shopping center near my Beijing apartment. Notices like these have been popping up all around China over the past month.
Protecting the Environment Begins with Me
According to the country’s regulations, from June 1, 2008 onward, Beijing Hualian Market will no longer be able to provide free plastic bags. The (new) fee structure is shown below:
|small bags||0.10 RMB||4 kg|
|medium bags||0.15 RMB||6 kg|
|large bags||.20 RMB||8 kg|
|extra large bags||.30 RMB||10 kg|
|environmentally safe bags||4.9 RMB||15 kg|
|100% cotton bags||9 RMB||15 kg|
Thanks to our customers for your support and cooperation. Please use the environmentally safe bags. Thanks for your support.
Contrary to several reports, China has not banned plastic bags. Rather, they have banned the practice of giving them away free of charge. And from my observations around Beijing (and from reports across China) the new regulation is being strictly enforced. The beauty of the new regulation is that it is not an actual moratorium on plastic wrapping, which would be too radical for just about any society, let alone China. Instead, it shifts the decision of whether or not to use plastic on to the shopper. Along with carefully worded slogans (i.e. Protecting the Environment Begins with Me) the subtle message is that individuals have a responsibility to protect the environment. In reality, the fees for plastic bags are not expensive, even by Chinese standards. But with the decision to bag or not to bag now resting on the consumer, along with pro-environmental propaqanda, more and more Chinese are forgoing on the plastic, opting instead to either use reusable bags or carry their items by hand. The real question however, will be whether or not the policy will continue to be strictly enforced after the Olympics have passed.
Outside of Fujian, there is no place in China where I have spent as much time as Beijing. The last time I was here for an extended period of time was back in fall ’06 when I was working on another ethnographic project. I spent six weeks here in the capital city on fieldwork, which also gave me enough time to begin to adjust to the daily rhythms of the city. Since that time, Beijing has undergone rapid change associated both with the preparation for the Summer Olympics, as well the typical pressures associated with being a rapidly expanding Chinese metropolis. After some consideration, I decided that the best way to illustrate all of the changes I have observed was to split them into two categories—“There is more ________in Beijing than there was two years ago” and “There is less ________in Beijing than there was two years ago.” Here goes.
There is more___________in Beijing than there was two years ago.
Before I left China last August, I could count on one hand the number of iPods and Apple computers I had seen in China. However, nowadays Apple gear’s popularity has exploded exponentially, and a trip through Zhong Guan Cun (Beijing’s largest electronics mall) will now reveal even more vendors selling Apples than there are selling Lenovos.
|Beijing skies, on a “clear” day|
I have been in Beijing two weeks now and so far on only one day was I able to decipher a slight hint of blue in the sky. People say that the air quality has improved over the years, but I don’t recall ever finding it this hard to see, not to mention keep the dust off my hangers.
Mass Transit (barely)
Beijing plans to have four new subway lines open in time for the Olympics. Even if the Olympics weren’t coming to town, these additions are long overdue as Beijing’s subway is hardly adequate in dealing with such a large and spread-out population. So far only the new north-south line has opened, with another line tracing half of the third ring road, as well as ones to the airport and Olympic Center scheduled to open before 8/8. It remains to be determined whether that will all happen in time. At least you don’t have to wait in line for a person to tear your ticket anymore though.
You know there’s a traffic problem when you haven’t even been gone from a place two years, and you can already tell that getting anywhere requires significantly more time than it did before. Between the construction, an outdated highway design, and the sheer number of new vehicles hitting the streets every day, Beijing’s traffic is worse than ever. Hopefully the new subway lines will take some of the stress off of Beijing’s severely inadequate road system.
With the Olympics coming to town, politically sensitive issues abroad, and the outpouring of compassion over the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese nationalism is at a peak. One need not walk far in Beijing to see locals sporting the now omnipresent “I Love China” T-shirts.
There is less ___________in Beijing than there was two years ago.
In the past, I have frequently maintained that the Chinese waste far too many plastic bags. Apparently the Beijing authorities agree, as on June 1 vendors were banned from giving away plastic bags for free. From what I’ve observed, the rule appears to be being followed rather strictly here in Beijing. What I’d be interested to find out though, is to what extent it is being enforced in other parts of the country. If properly enforced, this new regulation would stand to make an enormous positive ecological impact on both China and the whole planet.
Nigerian Drug Dealers
Back in the day, a walk through Sanlitun (Beijing’s main bar street), or basically anywhere in Chaoyang (Beijing’s embassy district) would yield several conversations like this: I’d be walking casually down the street and approached by an unfamiliar African man.
African guy: Hey man, where you from?
me: The US, how about you?
African guy: New York City, wanna buy some hash?
You could easily swap “New York City” for “Los Angeles” and “hash” for either “weed,” “ex, ”“pills,” or “K,” but the basic gist was the same. During this trip, I haven’t been offered drugs once.
|Hutong rickshaw drivers like this one in Qianmen are now a thing of the past…as well as all the African drug dealers in Sanlitun.|
Hutong Rickshaw Drivers
One of my all-time favorite areas of Beijing is the patch of hutongs south of Qianmen (which was also the de facto red light district during the Qing Dynasty period). One of the pleasures of the area were the rickshaw drivers who would take you through the hutongs on their man-powered rickshaws. Most of them had signs on their bikes advertising their services. Whenever the police would come by, they would all flip their signs behind their handlebars, even though it was still blatantly obvious they were soliciting their services. Once the police left, it was back to business as usual. I took a long walk through the area a few days ago, and didn’t see a single rickshaw.
This would be seem quite odd for Beijing, Fuzhou, Chicago, or really almost anywhere, but in the two weeks I have been here, I have not been accosted by a single beggar…not one!
Because of the recent changes to visa regulations, many foreigners who have been living in Beijing for years are now finding themselves being forced to leave the country and wait until after the Olympics to reapply for visas. As a new wave of foreign visitors flocks to the capital city for the Olympics, another wave of longtime residents will be flocking out.
For anybody having issues getting back into China, check out the post I wrote last month on obtaining a 90 day Chinese tourist visa.
My intention is not to sound overly negative about Beijing in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. However I do think there is still room for improvement, if Beijing is to achieve all it had planned to when it originally was awarded the games back in 2000. Regardless of what happens over the next two months, I am quite confident Beijing will be a much better city after hosting the games than it would have been without them. The improvements to infrastructure, transit, and the environment should have a positive effect on Beijingers, China, and the world as a whole. It’s just going to be interesting to see how it all plays out…And this is precisely why I am here in China at this vital junction in Chinese history.
The clock on my computer says 1:22 AM, but at this point I’m not even sure if that’s accurate or not, nor do I care. All I know is that I am in Beijing, with a boatload of traveling behind me and a ton of sleep in ahead.
My first impression of China on this trip was that of something which will be many peoples’ first impression of China in the years to come—the new international terminal at Beijing Capital Airport, which opened in March in anticipation of the Summer Olympic travel rush.
My very first ever impression of China also was at Beijing Capital Airport back in March of 2004. This, of course, was before the new glitzy terminal had been built. I remember exiting the 747 directly onto the tarmac and being picked up by a multi-segmented truck which looked like it had been left over from the Cultural Revolution days. During the bumpy ride to the terminal my mind couldn’t help but wonder where I came up with this crazy idea to move to China.
As I alluded to above, the new international is glitzy. I can’t think of any better term to describe it. It’s modern, clean, and well-lit, yet still has that same neutral, grey, Chinese-airport ambiance to it. Passengers exit directly onto terminal gates, and then are shuttled to the baggage claim via a modern-style tram, similar to those in international airports around the world. It’s a major improvement over the previous setup, and although it may seem superficial, this new terminal will certainly give foreign visitors a more comforting first impression on the Middle Kingdom.
My only qualm with the new terminal may be the issue of money. (longtime readers of this blog know that I already have a history of skirmishes with the Chinese banking system). I still hold an Industrial and Commercial Bank of China account, and had planned on withdrawing money as soon as I arrived in Beijing. The new airport terminal has ATMs from the big 4 Chinese banks, and in accordance to custom, half of them were either out of service or out of money. This was the case for the ICBC ATM. It was brand spanking new, with a premium, flashy, bright color screen, and was enclosed by a glass door to give privacy to the user. I’m sure it would have been a pleasure to use…if it had been working properly. To make matters even more frustrating, I had to insert my card, type my passcode, navigate through several menus, and then wait 2 full minutes for the machine to “process my request.” It was only after doing all of this, that the screen politely informed me that it was out of service.
I walked across the hall to the Agricultural Bank of China ATM, inserted my card, entered my password, and requested 300 RMB. (For a small fee, card holders from one Chinese bank may withdraw funds from another). The ATM replied that my password was incorrect and I would need to try again. I hadn’t used my card since I was last in China in October of ‘07, and while I wasn’t 100% sure of my password, I knew it could only be one of two different combinations. I inserted my card again, ready to try the second password. I was told I had exceeded my incorrect logins and could not proceed.
Seeing where I had made an error, I went up to the fourth floor to the Bank of China ATM to try the alternate password which I knew by process of elimination, had to be correct. As soon as I inserted my card, I received the same memo I had gotten from the Agricultural Bank—“incorrect logins exceeded.” Apparently, the different banks are linked in their quest to stop the problem of ATM card thieves from correctly guessing passwords…on their second try!
Near the Bank of China ATM was a currency exchange booth. As a general rule, it is never a good idea to exchange currency in an airport because of the ridiculously low rates, but I was going to need to pay for a cab. I had no other choice. The current exchange rate between RMB and USD is just under 7 to 1. I handed the woman behind at the currency exchange a 20 dollar bill. She gave me 86 RMB. This would barely even be enough to pay for the cab to my apartment. I returned the RMB, and taking back my 20, headed back to the Bank of China ATM. Finally, I settled on drawing money directly out of my US account, international transfer fees and all—something I try to avoid doing, especially when I have RMB already sitting in a Chinese account.
The scary part of this is that a) I speak Chinese b) I have lived in China for almost 4 years and c) I have a Chinese bank account. If it was this much trouble for me to get money, I can only imagine how difficult it would have been had it been my first time in the country. Well, at least the new terminal looks great! By the way, here are some pics. And also, the banking saga is continued here.