Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beijing. Show all posts

April 06, 2010

ARNABanged: Hitting the Road

They say that Chinese people do not know how to drive. It's not true. At least one does. He drove right into me.

I was standing in the middle of a crosswalk in front of Beijing's Workers Stadium, waiting for oncoming traffic in one direction to stop flowing so I could get to the other side. The locals have as much respect for pedestrian crossings as they do for intellectual property rights, so the crosswalk marking on the road does not mean anything. I looked back to see a red car coming directly at me from behind. A split second later I was in flight, my body performing a grotesque pirouette before making contact with the pavement.

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I scraped myself off the surface of the road, glaring at my attacker as I got up. He had gotten out of his car and was sheepishly looking at me. His mother popped out of the passenger side holding a fluffy pet dog. Suddenly, the driver ran past me into the middle of the street. My phone had taken a slightly different trajectory than I, and was moments away from being crushed. He grabbed my cellphone, narrowly escaping another violent collision with an oncoming vehicle himself. He handed me my phone and I got in his car and drove off, dialing my friends for assistance.


“If you wish to avoid foreign collision, you had better abandon the ocean.”
~ Henry Clay ~

March 15, 2010

On Thin Ice

Unlike most of the major cities on Earth, Beijing is not located near any large body of water. Numerous lakes and streams are sprinkled throughout Beijing's districts to compensate. During the long winter months these waterways are frozen solid. Recreational fishermen dig holes in the ice and wait patiently for the fish to bite. Near the banks, old men strip to their undergarments, stretch, and then take a plunge in the frozen water. Less adventurous types simply skate on the icy surface.

I walked a 2 kilometer stretch of the Liangma river, occasionally having to duck under bridges. Several boats had been ensconced on the riverside. I spotted a man urinating in the middle of the river. He was cool as a cucumber as vapor rose from the area around his feet. To safeguard the public, I also contributed some liquid sealant to mend a few cracks in the ice that I came across.


Beauty, like ice, our footing does betray
Who can tread sure on the smooth, slippery way
Pleased with the surface, we glide swiftly on
And see the dangers that we cannot shun.

- John Dryden -

February 08, 2010

Modern Marvels

I am not the only impressive addition to urban Beijing in recent times, as the city strives to reinvent itself by blending its ancient charm with modern marvels. My office building is located in the heart of the central business district. Right beside it is the third phase of the China World Trade Center. Still under construction, it is the tallest building in Beijing. The monolith stands out awkwardly in a cityscape where skyscrapers are a relatively new addition.

Along with the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, the National Center for the Performing Arts, and the WTC, the CCTV headquarters completes a quintet of present day architectural triumphs. Nicknamed 'big underpants' by the locals, the oddly shaped building is comprised of two structures which were constructed separately from the ground up and then connected at the top to form a unified structure. The building is an eyesore to some and a breath of fresh air to others. Still unoccupied by office workers, the hulking edifice is boarded up while questions about its future remain unanswered.


“The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.” - Thomas Kempis

January 14, 2010

ARNABeard: Pogonophobia

What is the scientific term for the fear of beards?

The quizmaster paused after asking the question, confident that no one in the room would know the answer. I was attending my first ever pub quiz. In a popular Beijing watering hole packed full of expats, participants had gelled into groups of 4-10 people. I had teamed with a Malaysian, a Mauritanian, and a couple of ABC's (American Born Chinese), but we were not faring particularly well. The quiz had had a strong European flavour, and our combined ineptitude had won us a pitcher of beer.

The tides were about to turn though, as the topic had changed to beards. In a land where facial hair is rarer than diamonds, the bearer of the ARNABeard is often the center of attention. I remembered that the art of cultivating it was known as pogonotrophy. Taking the root and combining it with the word for fear, I came up with pogonophobia. After the quizmaster disclosed the answer, it was revealed that we were the only ones to guess correctly out of the dozen or so groups participating.

A murmur of approval spread through the room like stubble across my face as I explained how I came to my conclusion. I quipped that I knew 600 million people afflicted with the condition, referring to the large female Chinese demographic that feared my manly growth. Symptoms of pogonophobia include breathlessness, excessive sweating, dread, heart palpitations, panic attacks, and the inability to speak or think clearly.


Comments from assorted Chinese girls suffering from the disease:

"You so hairy."

"You looks like gorilla."

"You would look even more handsome without your beard."

"Why you not shave?"

December 20, 2009

The Fragrant Hills

Xiangshan or "Fragrant Hills" is a mountainside park located in the northern fringes of city of Beijing. The most popular time to visit is during autumn, when the hills are ablaze with the red and orange leaves that have gently fallen from the trees. I went in winter. Although there is a cable car that can be taken to the peak of the highest hill, I chose to take the more scenic route. The strenuous hike to the top was completed by both young and old. I passed musicians, singers, temples, and villas along the way.

As the only visible non-native that day making the 600 meter climb, the Chinese eagerly pointed at me and said "foreigner" in their local tongue. I was accompanied by a Chinese girl who had previously worked in the same company as I in India, so she could translate the remarks of the fellow hikers. To keep me energized, the girl continuously plied me with chocolate, biscuits, and duck tongues. I was nonetheless famished once we reached the top, so I purchased some preserved dog meat and chowed it down. Revitalized, the way back down was swift and painless.


"If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome."
- Anne Dudley Bradstreet

December 14, 2009

Condom Conundrum

A long time family friend was visiting Beijing with her elderly brother-in-law. She asked me to come over and stay the night at their hotel near the airport. I stayed in a room with the gentleman, while she slept in a separate room. Early next morning, it was time for them to catch their flight out of the city, so we checked out. As we patiently waited for the airport shuttle bus to arrive, a concierge approached us. He pantomimed that we had used an item in our room and not paid for it. As this was an international hotel, his English vocabulary was non existent.

Upon closer examination it was determined that he was holding a condom. The family friend expressed her complete shock and surprise at the peculiar turn of events. "They are uncle and nephew. No need for a condom!" she exclaimed. One of the desk girls snidely retorted "It not free, you know.". The argument reached a deadlock, so a visual inspection of our room was suggested. This confirmed our innocence and all involved breathed a sigh of relief.


“Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing one and got hit by a bus.” - Bob Rubin

December 05, 2009

ARNABeauty Contest

On a quiet Sunday evening in Beijing, I received an urgent call from a coworker. A client of my company had given us tickets to go to a beauty contest, but the client manager could not make it. Could I go instead? Not wanting any of my other colleagues to be disturbed on their day off, I made an exception to my "no working on weekends" rule and accepted the offer. I had only an hour before the show was scheduled to start, so I rushed out of my apartment.

I rendezvoused with another colleague directly on the subway, notifying him when I was nearing the stop he was at so that he could hop aboard. Unfortunately, we were in different compartments at opposite ends of the train. At each successive stop we jumped out and walked towards each other, before getting back on the train just before the doors slammed shut. A couple of stops later we converged, and he gave me my ticket. The event was called the Kanebo 7 Beauty Pageant. We got off at the appropriate subway station, and jumped into an auto rickshaw-like vehicle that dropped us of at the entrance to the Olympic Sports Centre. The show was starting in minutes. We frantically sprinted through the parking lot before entering the stadium where the event was being held.

The performance was action packed. A bevy of Chinese beauties smiled, danced, and posed for the audience. There were about forty of them. An hour and a half into the program, one of them actually spoke. The crowd grew restless. The focus quickly shifted back to their stronger attributes, as they started dancing and smiling again. After a winner was crowned and confetti poured down from above, I made my way to the floor. Some of the finalists were still milling about while workers were disassembling the stage around them. Squeals of delight were heard, as the ARNABabes posed with the Indo-Canadian Temptation for a photograph.


“It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.” - Oscar Wilde

October 26, 2009

The Mausoleum of Mao

Mao Zedong was the first leader of the People's Republic of China and one of the most influential figures of modern times. He died in 1976 and construction of his mausoleum began soon after. I visited the final resting place of the Great Helmsman alongside thousands of Chinese peasants on a cold Beijing morning. The masses lined up outside his mausoleum, eager to pay respect to his waxlike remains. Visitors are asked to produce identification proof before they are allowed in to the viewing area. Many stopped to buy flowers before entering the tomb.

The queue moved surprisingly quickly and I did not have to wait long before coming face to face with the Chairman. Security guards ushered everyone through, allowing for only several seconds of Mao viewing time per comrade. No photographs are allowed inside the complex, so everyone bobbed from side to side trying to get as good a view as possible of the man who helped China become a major world power. As they exited, they had a chance to buy some Mao-morabilia before heading back to their homes across the nation.


"If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience."
- Mao Zedong -

October 21, 2009

Beijing Blazing

My first Monday in Beijing I came home from work. My landlord was there. I told him I had nothing to do for the rest of the day. He told me that it was the last day of the Lantern Festival, so I should visit a park to see what it was all about. I ventured outside, took several buses, and got thoroughly lost. Fireworks were exploding left, right, and centre throughout the city. It was the last day of the Spring Festival, so everyone had to use up their fireworks before the citywide ban was back in place. After watching the light show for a while, I looked around and saw what appeared to be a gigantic chimney with smoke coming out from the top. I had heard rumours of giant smokestacks that provided heating to all the homes in Beijing so I walked toward it.

Source: Gizmodo

When I got near, I realized that it was a skyscraper on fire. There were sparks at the top, and the flames were slowly making their way down the floors. I watched in awe as the fire slowly spread, before suddenly erupting into a massive inferno. As the flames engulfed the building, ash and small pieces of debris began to rain down. The sky turned black, the smoke blocking out the stars and the moon.

Source: BD Online

I backed away with the rest of the crowd that had gathered to gawk at the fiery sight. The fire reflected of the glossy exteriors of the surrounding office towers, giving the illusion that the whole area was ablaze. The eerie spectacle drew a crowd of thousands. The onlookers were intent on breaking the Guinness World Record for most camera phones used simultaneously in one place. Even passengers on buses driving by quickly flipped open their handsets to snap a few pictures of the destruction. My camera had ran out of batteries, so I remained an eyewitness before returning to the safety of my apartment. The inside of my ears were filled with soot and my forehead had turned black.


"Fire and people do in this agree, they both good servants,
both ill masters be."
- Fulke Greville

September 09, 2009

Jin Gang Guoji

The Prince of Peking needs a suitable residence. My Beijing pad is called Jin Gang Guoji (or Golden Harbour International in English). Located on the outer edges of the central business district (CBD), it is an abode of peace in a city of smog. The massive complex takes up a full city block, with its domed towers lit up majestically at night.

Security guards man the entrances, but the real work is done by the locked gates. The gates open with an electronic swipe card and are quite heavy. Petite Chinese ladies struggle mightily to open them as the guards watch nonchalantly. I wait patiently for several minutes while they use all their strength to push open the door. If I approach them from behind to lend a hand they are startled by my appearance. They go into a state of shock and start hyperventilating, so I have stopped providing this service.

The ARNABode of Beijing follows the traditional Chinese architectural pattern of having a central courtyard with rooms enclosing it from all sides, but on a much larger scale. Manicured gardens, an artificial lake that is occasionally filled with water, and a circular platform where old folks practice tai chi in the morning and children play in the evening are the main features of this inner sanctum. I estimate there are 5-10 thousand inhabitants living here. It is a five minute walk from my apartment to the street if I exit through the official gateway to the outside world. There are a string of convenience stores located on the bottom floor of the buildings that make up Jin Gang Guoji, and sometimes I use them as shortcuts for entry and exit. I often buy fruit, chewing gum, and phone cards to show my gratitude.

“When you're safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”
- Thornton Wilder -

September 01, 2009

Wangfujing Snack Street

There are many sites in and around Beijing that must be seen at least once in a lifetime, but only a handful warrant multiple visits. Apart from the Great Wall, Wangfujing Snack Street is one of the few attractions that has consistently drawn me back time and again. Wangfujing is a busy shopping district with two main areas where strange treats are sold alongside more mundane fare. Tourists mill about the rows of food stalls, many with looks of complete shock on their face when they see the delicacies awaiting them. Mysterious sea creatures and insects are top draws for the daring. Some merely gawk at others without trying any of the skewers on offer. The footpath is frequently hosed to get rid of the organic materials that have been dropped, spat out, vomited, or otherwise excreted on to the ground.

I compiled an incomplete list of items that I tried for the first time at the mother of all snack streets.

Visit 1
  • Starfish
  • Seahorse
  • Sea snake,
  • Soup made of cows inner organs
  • Stinky tofu
Visit 2
  • Scorpion
  • Snake
  • Silkworm
Visit 3
Visit 4
  • Bees
  • Dragonfly
  • Lamb testicles
  • Under the counter cat

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
James Beard

August 25, 2009

Temple of Heaven

Heaven. Earth. Sun. Moon.

Four elemental temples are scattered around Beijing, with the Temple of Heaven the most spectacular of the quartet. The name of the temple in Chinese is Tiantan, which translates to "Altar of Heaven". On a cloudless summer's day, I wandered its grounds for several hours. As the sun shined up above, beads of sweat graced my forehead. Rivulets of perspiration slowly trickled downwards, tracing the symmetric lines of my face. Effortlessly combining aesthetic principles and cultural values, the design of the temple was similarily well thought out. Squares, representing earth, and circles, representing heaven, serve as the chief design motifs for impressive structures within the temple complex such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Echo Wall, and the Circular Mound Altar.


“My soul can find no staircase to heaven unless it be through earth's loveliness.”
- Michelangelo -

August 11, 2009

798 Art District

Avant garde and trendy are usually words that come to mind when people are visualizing me, but in Beijing they are often associated with the 798 Art District. East German architects created the factory space in the Bauhaus style of design. At the cutting edge of China's cultural scene, the pedestrian friendly zone is a haven for creative types.  Beijing's artistic community found a home in the formerly deserted warehouse area. Art galleries, boutiques, and cafes are peppered among the austere old buildings. Modern art, such as strange sculptures of mutants, line the alleyways.

There is also a Nike Basketball facility, where a crowd had gathered to watch the action on court. A large picture of Lebron James adorns the exterior as China's basketball sensation Yao Ming is sponsored by rival Reebok. Nike, Reebok, and Adidas with its "Impossible is Nothing" slogan are busy combating China's homegrown athletic apparel company Li-Ning and their incomparable catchphrase "Everything is Possible". Fortunately, the contemporary artwork on display in 798 shows much more creativity.

"Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in." - Amy Lowell

August 06, 2009

My Fare Lady

Although there are crowd avoidance strategies that an experienced transit user can usually employ, sometimes he has no choice but to get on a jam packed bus. The population density becomes so great that it is not possible to count the number of people on board without falling asleep first. On one such busy occasion, I somehow found myself positioned between the two most attractive female passengers on the bus. I was tightly holding on to the overhead handlebars and trying to maintain my balance so as not to bop into either of the women, lest they form an incorrect opinion of the Prince of Honour.

The bus was idling at one intersection for several minutes due to the heavy traffic. The temperature was pushing 40 degrees. Everyone was sweating heavily, using their arms to wipe the perspiration dripping from their foreheads or just letting it splash onto nearby passengers. As I was drying myself with one hand, I was knocked from behind with considerable force. I lost my grip on the handle bar and felt myself falling. I used the lady in front of me to stop my forward momentum. She instinctively turned around and shot me a dirty look. I also turned my head to see what was going on behind me. The other pretty lady was flat on her back. She had collapsed from heatstroke or some other malady. I delicately attempted to lift her up with the aid of a scrawny Chinese chap. We were having some difficulty until we were helped by the fare lady.

Responsible for making sure everyone pays for their bus ride, the ticket collector was a big boned woman of sturdy stock. She pushed aside the crowd that had formed a circle around the prone body and picked up the young woman. She shooed away the occupant of one of the seats reserved for the sick, pregnant, and elderly, and dumped the knockout there. She had regained consciousness by now and was rubbing the shoulder she had landed on. The fare lady checked to see if the girl still had her wits about her. Once this was verified, she yelled at the bus driver to keep going. The remainder of the journey was not noteworthy.


Colonel Hugh Pickering: Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?
Professor Henry Higgins: Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?
Colonel Hugh Pickering: Yes, very frequently.

- My Fair Lady, the winner of the 1964 Best Picture Oscar

August 03, 2009

Traffic Jam

Most newcomers to Beijing have been warned in advance about the heavy traffic that they will experience in the city. This does little to prepare them for the gridlock that awaits them once they arrive. Weaving through traffic, whether in a vehicle or by foot is quite an endeavour. In rush hour, the approximately four kilometer long trip from my home in Dawanglu to my office in Guomao takes one hour by bus. There are four major intersections in between, and it takes 10-15 minutes to cross each one. If I am late leaving my apartment in the morning I walk one, two, or three stops down. The number of stops depends on how late I am. I board the bus when I have caught up to where I would have been in if I had been riding the bus all along.

The cars, buses, and trucks spill on to the bike lanes once they have clogged up the roads. Smaller motorized vehicles, bicycles, and people fit through the empty spaces to be found amongst the larger vehicles, often barely squeezing past. Traffic comes from all directions. Although vehicular traffic is chaotic and slow, this is not to say that those walking are actually moving swiftly or smoothly. In fact pedestrians are waddling at a very relaxed pace, so as not to break a sweat, trip over uneven pavement, or collide with a defecating child. Sudden stops are not uncommon either, as a certain item being sold by a street side vendor may have caught their attention, they may have forgotten where they were going, or had the urge to clear their throats by collecting large amount of phlegm and indiscriminately spitting this out on to the street or on innocent bystanders. Although I have become adept at navigating the streets and sidewalks of Beijing, I have yet to perfect the latter practice.

“There are no traffic jams when you go the extra mile.”

July 28, 2009

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

When not instant messaging, napping, working, or watching subtitled episodes of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants on their computer, Chinese cubicle dwellers often play a web-based game that involves planting flowers and watering them. Occasionally another player comes along and steals a plant, upsetting the victimized player who has been robbed of a chance to smell the roses. Having never played it myself, I presume the social aspect of the game is what makes it so captivating.


"Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land."
- Chairman Mao

July 26, 2009

Training Day

I completed an epic 24 hour train journey from Beijing to Hong Kong. In the process, I saw the Chinese landscape through the windows of my compartment and felt the warmth of the Chinese people through my heart. Most of my trip was spent on a long distance train from Beijing to Shenzhen. Fellow travelers took great interest in the presence of a foreigner, especially one of such indecipherable origins and universal appeal. Intrigued passengers gathered around from nearby compartments to see what the hullabaloo was about.

Through the help of an interpreter I explained all the exotic foods I wished to eat while in China. The men roared with approval while the women squirmed in disgust. One chap led me to his compartment so I could practice English with him. He was going overseas for the first time to give a presentation to some Germans and was understandably nervous. Since I understood most of what he was saying, he was relieved and a great burden was lifted from his back.

Located directly north of Hong Kong on the Pearl River delta, Shenzhen is China's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ). In a SEZ many legal restrictions are lifted or eased by the government, allowing business to flourish. Shenzhen has developed rapidly from a small fishing village to a busy megapolis in three decades. From the Shenzhen train station, it was only a short walk to the subway which would take me to Hong Kong. I went through customs before hopping on board. This 40 minute subway ride pushed my total travel time to a day. My journey from Beijing to Hong Kong had come to an end.

"Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting."– Robert Thomas Allen

July 23, 2009


I was returning to work after having lunch. I had just eaten noodles, accompanied by chrysanthemum tea and several coworkers. As we approached my office tower, one of my colleagues pointed out a large gathering of beautiful women in the lobby area. All the security guards had gathered around the flock of fetching females, their jaws on the floor. Since I focus on the inner beauty of a person, I had not immediately noticed that they were all stunners. About 30 eager young women in high heels and full make up were present for the ARNABabe auditions.

I had not organized the event, nor had the Beijing chapter of my fan club, so I approached a cluster of cuties to determine why they had suddenly appeared in my midst. No response was given. They were completely speechless. Some surmised the blank looks on their face were a sign of adoration for the Indo-Canadian Temptation. Others mistook it as a visual display of their confusion at hearing English words for the first time in real life. My colleague, whose Chinese language skills surpass mine, was able to find out that they were trying out for roles in advertisements for either Trojan condoms or BMW automobiles. He was unable to ascertain which.


"We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting."
- Kahlil Gibran

July 18, 2009

A Good Egg

On my first weekend in Beijing I got on the subway and headed in the direction of Tiananmen Square. There were two stops in the Tiananmen area on the line I was riding on - East and West. I got off at the Tiananmen West station and wandered around. I could not find the actual square,but I did stumble upon a peculiar egg shaped building. It turned out to be the National Center for the Performing Arts.

Designed by a French architect, the modern building stands out in an area that predominantly boasts traditional Chinese architecture. The controversial structure is surrounded by a pool of water. Titanium and glass form the yin and yang of the building's dome. It took me around twenty minutes to circumnavigate the complex. The sun set as I completed my round, with observers witnessing my bold silhouette framed against the backdrop of the glistening egg with awe and anticipation. A new chapter in China's storied history was about to begin.


"If the stone fall upon the egg, alas for the egg! If the egg fall upon the stone, alas for the egg!"
- Ancient Proverb

July 15, 2009

The Bird's Nest and Other Olympic Venues

I emerged out of a subway station on the Olympic line, swapping my spectacles for my shades in one smooth motion as I entered the sunlight. A host of architectural wonders stretched out around me. Directly in front was the Bird's Nest, Beijing's showpiece for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Officially the stylish mesh of steel pillars is known as the National Stadium. The largest steel structure in the world can hold 80,000-90,000 people, but it has been lying largely dormant since the conclusion of the Games. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were held here.

To the west of the stadium was the translucent Water Cube and the iconic Pangu Plaza. The National Aquatic Center gets its distinct shimmering look from the ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) polymer that was used to construct it. The plastic material is much cheaper than glass and also much lighter. 25 world records were broken in this pool, but its exquisite appearance is what draws the attention of the masses.

The highest tower in the Pangu Plaza is shaped like a dragon's head. In Chinese mythology, Pangu was the first living being and the uniter of heaven and earth. In neighbouring Korea, pangu means "fart". To the north of the Bird's Nest is the Olympic Forest Park, an open space with an artificial lake in the middle. The public is not allowed to walk on the grass here.

"Tender fragrant grass. How hardhearted to trample them." 
- Warning sign posted within the Olympic Green