The bus trip from Qinhuangdao to Beijing usually takes two Japanese Kung Fu movies with Chinese and English subtitles but at the moment the traffic restrictions mean a quicker journey and the bus arrives before the second movie finishes.

The trip includes two police checkpoints on the Expressway with searches, identity checks and machine gun toting police and army. Buses are waved through without this inconvenience because we had gone through security checks at the depot prior to departure. Well, the Chinese people had been required to show identity cards and have bags scanned, but we two Aussies and a couple of Russian tourists just walked aboard without any proof of identity or checks. Its difficult to be too security conscious if the foreigners can’t speak Chinese.

Beijing on arrival was hot, with a clear sky. The Olympics were certainly in town, we had never seen so many caucasians and, like the Chinese, found ourselves staring at the multitudinous round eyes with Olympic passes hanging around their necks.

We had never before seen a day this clear in Beijing which is usually oppressively humid with a visual range of about four sky scrapers. The roads were still crowded but without the normal gridlock, because cars are only allowed to drive on alternate days. Footpaths were not littered with cigarette butts and discarded paper and the traditional throat clearing hacking cough and spit was hardly heard. The new rubbish bins with room for butts and recyclables plus the constant media campaign to reform old ways had worked. Beggars had gone, the street vendors selling food had gone, the street sweepers with their whisk brooms had gone and even the old men playing Chess had disappeared to back streets somewhere to be replaced by Blue and White clad volunteers under blue and white tents on every street corner. This was not the China we loved, this was just another city like all the others.

We headed to Tiananmen Square where vast gardens have been built on three sides. Security checks were much more stringent here and the ever present military, uniformed police and plain clothes police were constantly visible although with the high temperatures, most sat in airconditioned vehicles possibly hoping the heat would sap the energy of would-be protestors. The cleaners and scavengers were not evident here either but one entrepreneurial older woman collecting bottles from the bins passed them to a younger woman outside the security fence who hid behind a post out of sight of the police between regular forays to collect more.

The three dimensional gardens were spectacular. Centuries of designing beautiful gardens is evident where ever you go in Beijing. As well as roadsides, median strips and any piece of unused land, nearly every city building has hundreds of flowering pots lining entrance stairs and exteriors. Thousands of gardeners are currently employed maintaining and watering these garden beds every evening. Perhaps these people are some of those who lost their jobs when the factories were compulsorily closed for three months to reduce pollution levels. Perhaps they are the farmers without irrigation water for crops this year because their water was diverted to build the olympic canoe course.

We walked from the square to our favourite Qianmen Hutong area where we usually stay. Seven weeks ago the whole area was still a building yard with scaffolding, piles of building material and disgruntled residents being forced to relocate so the area could be upgraded ready for the influx of westerners with wallets. The change is extraordinary – nothing but new traditional Chinese Shops of a high class variety and prices to match. The two-yuan streetside satay stick has been replaced with fancy restaurants selling western food. The famous 200-year-old silk merchant’s shop has been restored to former glory but we could still bargain the price of a silk dressing gown down from 580 yuan to 120. Some things cannot be changed.

Monday was hot, humid and the visual range was back to normal. This was the day to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s journey home. China may be about to send a man into space but you can only buy a bus ticket 24 hours in advance and they have not yet discovered the return ticket. It was then off to the CBD to find the art/craft shops that sell traditional Chinese products: silk, paper cuts, jade and amber jewellery, carvings, Buddhist paraphernalia, paintings, embroidery and many others.

An uncarved Elephant tusk can be bought here for $240K AUD whereas a beautifully carved one will set you back $360K. Is it any wonder that China bought more Rolls Royce cars than the rest of the world last year. This is China today. — P&M from China

Peter Fray

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