Thursday, July 23, 2009

Diary Beijing

The New Indian Express, 24 July 2009

Moody machines at airport
It is often impossible to figure out what can ‘pass’ at the security checks. Obviously different countries have different standards. I confronted another problem and the same equipment had its preferences. For my Chinese friends who are fond of Indian food, I carried some species in the carryon baggage, our only luggage during the trip. While packing I did not think carefully and spread them in both bags. One bag with all spices went off smoothly and the other one did not. The machine discovered some ‘banned’ substance and we had to empty it. The security person wont allow us carry the species that had chillies and a larger bottle of cream. We quietly dropped them at the dustbin. Although disappointed, I could not ignore the irony. What happened to the same ‘banned items’ in my other carryon bag that went undetected? Not just the personnel, even the equipment is getting moody?

Airport barometer
The flow of passengers at the airport is an interesting indicator for measuring the economy of the country. While hotel occupancy might tell a different story, the size of the passenger flow shows the trend. This is more valid in countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which relies heavily upon the tourists for economy. Recent political tension over the Gaza war, for example, has adversely affected the flow of Israeli tourists to both these countries. The economic crisis is manifests in many European airports. A few years ago, SARS played havoc when international tourism to China dropped dramatically. The initial impression of the Beijing airport is interesting. Not only were there planeloads of people, there were more foreigners than Chinese. Of course, there were a number of Chinese speakers; the family behind me was Canadian whose kids were trying to read the signs in Chinese. There were far more counters for foreigners but still the non-Chinese queues were longer than the native ones. Perhaps it is a sign that weakening of the dollar has not dampened tourism to China.

Emulate China?
One of the first things one reads in the Chinese media was the report that the government officials in the southern province of Guangdong, often described as an ‘economic powerhouse’ of South China, should disclose all their personal belongings to the public. Through this measure the provincial government hopes to increase transparency among the public, which have become sceptical and disgusted over corruption in high places. Can’t help wonder if those aspiring to emulate China, both on the Left and on the Right in India, would demand our bureaucrats to disclose their personal as well as family belongings?

Ticketless travel
When you board a bus in Beijing a few things are striking. Most public buses are air-conditioned; senior citizens travel free while most young people have monthly tickets. The occasional travellers and tourists are the only ones who need a ticket. Like the West, the buses only have drivers who also double as conductors. But there is a big difference. You drop the money in a box next to the driver and move towards the back. Neither he nor the machine dispenses any ticket. The reason? Passengers discard small tickets in the streets and add to garbage and dirt in the streets. Hence the bus system has dispensed with tickets. So, literally you travel ticketless in Beijing. At the same time, the city is yet to find a way-out for the challenge posed by its smoking population. It is not uncommon to find burned out cigarette buds not just in street corners but also along the major roads.

Crossing chaos
For a country that prides itself on order and discipline, crossing the roads is a nightmare in Beijing. The traffic lights are heavily loaded against the pedestrian who get only a few seconds to cross the broad, normally six lanes, roads. Both young and old could not make it to the other side without being harassed by the vehicles that use the free right option. Special lanes for bicycles only make matters worse.

Lonely at the Wall
The Great Wall literally caters to different tastes. First time visitors prefer the popular tourist site at Badaling which is also the most developed and easily accessible. Naturalists prefer Mutianyu section with its lush green surrounding. This time around we opted for the undeveloped Ba Dao Kou section that demands trekking along the woods. Most sections of the Wall are dilapidated, could not find a single complete step and at times the Wall was literally unstable. It is impossible to pass beyond a few hundred metres that too with great difficulty. But once on top, the whole surrounding area is breathtaking. What more, we four were the only ones on the Wall as much as our eyes could see.

Astronauts on ground
That was how they looked. With only their eyes visible, that too behind goggles, they were completely covered in white protective clothing. Why did our plane skip the aerobridge in the new Beijing Capital International Airport? The Chinese officials are not satisfied with the passengers’ declaration that they have no signs of Swine Flu. A medical team boarded the plane and focusing their hand-held pistol-like equipment towards the forehead, they measured the body temperature of about 300 passengers. It took less than 15 minutes. Their efforts were not futile as a Chinese passenger had some symptoms and was quickly taken away in the waiting ambulance.

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