Beijing, Dec 2011

I had the pleasure to go on a business trip to Beijing, China. My project, the Network Element Software Manager, was being transitioned to a new team in the Ericsson Beijing office. I was there for 10 days to perform the handover training. My team in Ottawa will take on other roles after the transition.

The dates for the trip were adjusted so that I could see Rosa’s performance as Miss Minchin in ‘A Little Princess’ at Centrepointe Theatre and so that I would return in time for our vacation to Tanzania.

On the morning I left, I woke up at 6:30AM so I could take my second and last dose of vaccines I would for Tanzania in 2 weeks. The vaccines need to be refrigerated so I could not take them on the plane.

I spelt most of the way from Ottawa to Toronto. The flight from Toronto to Beijing was the longest flight I’ve ever taken – 13 hours up over the Arctic, and down through Siberia and eastern Mongolia. That’s 1/4 of the Earth’s circumference. The time zone difference is also 13 hours. I slept as much as I could during the first 5 hours of the flight, then I worked for the remainder. This would roughly correspond to the Beijing business day.

I was lucky that none of the other seats in my row were taken. I made a bed by raising the armrests and slept across the three seats. I got about 4 hours of sleep.

The flight arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport just after sunset. As we came in to land, we entered a thick brown layer of smog. Visibility was nearly zero all the way down to the runway. I could smell a burning odour once the cabin started circulating the local air. As we taxied to the terminal, I could hear jets taking off, and I could see them for about 5 seconds as they appeared out of the smog, lifted off, and disappeared back into the smog. Even their landing lights were impossible to see. The next day, I found out that many flights had diverted to other airports because of the smog.

Once in the terminal, it was a long walk to the baggage area. Beijing International Terminal 3 is the second largest terminal and the fifth largest building in the world. I had to walk through various gates that had infrared cameras and notices in Chinese and English that indicated they were for detecting fevers. Chinese officials want to prevent the spread of diseases like H1N1.

I collected my bags and left the customs area and walked into the chaos of the Arrivals area. There were so many people. The only person I heard speaking English was a guy soliciting for illegal taxis. He asked me three times, but not very enthusiastically.

The terminal did have signs in English, so I was able to make it down to the taxi area. There were two huge long lines of people waiting for taxis. It took over 30 minutes before I made it to the front of the line. As the next taxi came up, a Chinese man walked past me and took my taxi. Oh, right, I had read that that might happen. I was more aggressive for the next taxi – no one was going to take my taxi again!

I handed the printed Chinese language directions for the Sheraton Dongcheng to the taxi driver. He looked at them and then started talking to me angrily. Of course, I had no idea what he was saying. A manager came up who could speak some English. The driver handed the directions to the manager and started yelling some more. I got really freaked out. I grabbed my bags and took two steps back. I had no idea what was going on.

Eventually the manager calmed him down and told me the driver would take me. I imagine that perhaps the driver felt the distance was either too far or not far enough. Or perhaps he was not familiar with the hotel. It had opened only a few months before. I thought twice about getting in the taxi, but the manager seemed to have straightened out the confusion.

The official taxis in Beijing are actually very efficient. I never once had to ask for a receipt – they were always given and fares were always visible.

The Sheraton Dongcheng is next to the 3rd Ring Road in northeast Beijing. It is very new, modern and clean. I signed in and took my bags to my room and then thought about supper. I didn’t know the area around the hotel and it was now dark so I elected to stay in the hotel. I went to a sushi restaurant. My waitress spoke very little English and the menu was not clear, so I ended up with more food than I wanted.

Beijing Ericsson office
Beijing Ericsson office

The next day I met up with my two co-workers, Ho and Shashank, who were also there for other transition training. Ho speaks Chinese, which was very convenient for the taxi rides. We took a taxi together most days and arrived at the Ericsson (formerly Nortel) office near the 5th Ring Road.

That first morning, I signed in, got my visitors badge, and went upstairs to meet everyone. I started the training in the afternoon. I was anxious the first day, getting to know everyone.

The Beijing team took me out for lunch at a nearby restaurant for the first day. I was very nervous, and I think they were too. I was handed a huge menu and was asked to choose some dishes. It was an overwhelming list of options; too many choices. The menu contained pictures and some English. Together, we all picked a few dishes, which were brought to our table and put in the centre for everyone. But more and more dishes came and my eyes got bigger and bigger. I couldn’t believe the amount of food. I tried to eat as much as I could, because I didn’t want to waste food, but in the end it was too much for me. The food was delicious – a common experience during my trip. I ate so much; I had no room for supper that evening.

Most mornings I would present the training slides while a subject matter expert in Ottawa would give the training over the phone bridge.  I would present for another 3 hours in the afternoon. I felt the training went very well. I was able to easily answer almost all of the questions. Everything went so smoothly. I felt like I was at the top of my game.

My mother-in-law Lemin has brothers and sisters who live in Beijing. Rosa, Lemin and I arranged through emails and phone calls that I would meet some of them. On the third evening we arranged that Rosa’s cousin, Baolu, would pick me up at the hotel and take me out. He arrived with his father (Lemin’s brother Lin). Baolu asked if I was hungry and I said I was.

They took me to a nearby dumpling restaurant. It was clear not for foreigners – there was only one menu, in Chinese, and no pictures. We managed to communicate that I like pork, so some pork dumplings were ordered. To fill in the gaps, we used language translator software on Baolu’s phone, and we also enlisted a couple that sat at the next table and who also spoke some English. I was so nervous, and before we could get to know each other, the language barrier seemed daunting. Again, so much food was ordered – 3 full plates of dumplings. I ate as much as I could, and was relieved that Baolu took the rest home. And no matter how hard I insisted I was never able to pay for a meal while I was there. Everyone there treated me like a guest.

Beijing National Stadium
Beijing National Stadium

After dinner, we drove to the site of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. We saw the famous Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. It was night, and all of the buildings were lit up. It was cold though – about -5°. Baolu and I walked into the plaza that runs through the site and took photos. He and I have the same camera – the Canon 7D.

The next day, I went to lunch at the Ericsson café with Yuqi, Maolei and Weijing. The café is in a nearby building. The bad air had cleared overnight and the skies were bright and blue. The café had tables at the entrance with plates of food showing everything on offer that day. Everyone entering the café would walk past the tables to choose what they wanted. Then they would go to the corresponding line-up for each dish. My first time, I tried the Lanzhou noodles (see video below). I thought it would not be so much food, but was I wrong! I ate as much as I could and still could not finish the entire bowl. My co-workers Weijing, Maolei and Yuqi ate even more – bowls of rice and multiple plates of food. They ate so much! They didn’t believe me when I said it was too much. The food was always made fresh, and it was good. There are big cauldrons of soup and rice at the checkout – everyone can take as much as they want. A typical meal at the café was less than $2 Cdn. Later I found that I could order a small plate of dumplings so that’s what I ate for lunch for the rest of my trip.

The third evening Baolu picked me up at the hotel again. We first drove to a restaurant where we could have something to eat. It was so exotic to me – it was also a place only locals would go. It was somewhat like the café – each dish was prepared fresh at a different window. I looked at the offerings, and picked out a kebab and what looked like deep fried sugary dessert. Baolu picked out two more things for me to try – a sweet-flavoured gelatinous square that he said was made from peas and a soup-like dish made from peanuts. The kebab was very spicy. Everything tasted good, even the one made from peas (which I hate).

After dinner, we toured around the city. We drove down Chang’an Avenue, past Tiananmen Square and the famous Tiananmen Gate (the one with the picture of Chairman Mao). We stopped to take some photos at the southern end of Tiananmen. There are two ancient buildings there. One is the Zhengyangmen gate, which is an entrance to the square and the other is an Archery Tower. South of the Archery Tower is Qian Men street, which I would visit later in the week.

I was exhausted when I got back to my hotel Friday evening. I just sat in a chair and stared at the wall. My brain completely turned off for an hour. After that, I thought it was silly to be in Beijing and not do as much as I can. So I decided to take the subway. I would go back to Tiananmen (because it was the only place I knew). I hoped that I would find a restaurant. The subway was a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The Beijing subway is very easy to take. All the signs and voice announcements are in Chinese and English. I did struggle getting tickets. The automated machines were not working, so I had to go to buy from a person who did not speak English. But I can count to three in Chinese, so I said “二” and held up two fingers. I wanted two one-way tickets. A one-way ticket is only $0.16 Cdn.

When I arrived at the Qian Men station, I could not enter Tiananmen Square. The entrances were blocked off and there were security guards everywhere. I did not want to push my luck, so I gave up. Instead, I walked south to Qian Men Street looking at the shop windows. It’s an authentic-looking pedestrian shopping street. I did find a place to eat. It was a Starbucks and it was made to look like the neighbouring buildings; it actually blended in very well.

After walking around for an hour, I walked back to the subway and went back to the hotel.

Taking the subway was easy, but it also made me feel very foreign. I was the only Caucasian among thousands and thousands of Chinese. During my trip, when I saw young Chinese women going home, on the subway or on bike, I thought of Rosa and wondered what it was like for her when she lived there.

Saturday and Sunday were very special for me. Wei, her husband Jimao, and Nan took me out for a day of sightseeing. Wei and Nan are Rosa’s cousins. I requested to see the Ming Dynasty Tombs. They are an hour north west of the city, so I could only see them by car. It was another cold day (-10°).

It was great to see the world outside Beijing. In some ways, all large cities look the same, just with different lettering on the buildings. So it is by seeing the countryside that you can get a better sense of a place.

Great Red Gate - the start of the Spirit Way
Great Red Gate - the start of the Spirit Way

The first stop was at the Spirit Way. It was part of the 7-kilometre road that led to the tombs. Only about a kilometre is preserved today. At one end is the Great Red Gate. Along the walking road are 18 pairs of statues of animals and people. There are two pairs of each animal – one pair sitting and the second pair standing.

After walking along the Spirit Way, we drove to the area of the tombs. Emperor Yongle created the first tomb (his own) in 1420 after he had moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and constructed the Imperial Palace (today known as the Forbidden City). There are thirteen tombs in the valley but only the Ding Ling tomb, the third largest, has been excavated.

The Wanli Emperor was entombed in the Ding Ling tomb. His reign, from 1572 to 1620 was the longest of the Ming emperors. The Ding Ling tomb is reached by walking through the grounds, through a few ornate gates, then take an endless set of stairs down to the tomb itself. The tomb is built 27-metres beneath a huge circular citadel.

Amazingly, the tomb had been undisturbed until it was first opened in 1956. It originally cost the equivalent of 300 tons of silver to build. There are five chambers in the tomb, all built from stone with no supporting arches.

There are two annex chambers. Each has a coffin-platform with a square hole in the middle, called the Gold Well. People left money in the well, similar to how people use wishing wells in western societies, although one book indicated it was to bribe the ghost of the Emperor.

In the central hallway are three white-marble thrones. Between them are huge porcelain vases that once contained sesame oil for an eternal flame. The main chamber contains three massive red-lacquer coffins for the Emperor, the Empress and the First Concubine. On both sides of the coffins (replicas of the originals) were 30 offering boxes, also in red-lacquer.

I found it amazing that the tombs were undisturbed for hundreds of years in the middle of a poor and densely populated country. The tomb was also an interesting contrast to the more richly decorated European tombs.

Xiaoxing, Wei, Yi, myself, Jimao, Yang and Baolu.
Xiaoxing, Wei, Yi, myself, Jimao, Yang and Baolu.

As the sun started to set, we drove back to the city. I was dropped off at the hotel to freshen up, and was picked up again an hour later. We went to a nearby restaurant. The restaurant was huge – 2 floors with many separate rooms. We had a room for ourselves. Baolu, Wei’s son Yi, Xiaoxing (who came up from Jinan) and Yang joined Wei, Jimao, Nan and I for dinner. Again there was so much delicious food. The highlight of the meal was the traditional Peking Duck, which was prepared by a chef on a side-cart next to the main table. It was a fabulous end to a great day.

On Sunday, Baolu picked me up at my hotel early in the morning. It was another sunny day and warmer than the previous day. We drove to the hutong where Nan lives with her parents. A hutong is a traditional style of dwelling with a shared entrance courtyard. The hutong of Nan’s family is 300 years old.

Nan, Baolu and I took the subway to Tiantan. Tiantan, which translates as Temple of Heaven, is a collection of Taoist temples surrounded by a lovely park. Tiantan was also constructed during the reign of Emperor Yongle.

I was enthralled once we entered the park. This was like seeing the real China, away from the high-tech offices, hotels and restaurants that dominated my week. The park was filled with thousands of people doing all sorts of things. By the entrance, a small group were ballroom dancing. Further in was an amazing sight – dozens of people were all dancing for their exercise. They were mostly women and they were of all age groups. They were all neatly spaced out through the lawn and scattered trees. I just stood there awestruck watching them. I recorded some video so that I would always have this memory. It was so unlike what we see in parks in Canada or Europe. Nearby was an older man practicing Tai Chi. We also saw another person practicing with swords.

Moving on, we came to a long covered gallery. All along the length were groups of people playing cards, dominos and Chinese chess in the sun. Some women were sitting in the shade knitting.

I could hear singing at the end of the gallery. I stepped out and saw another amazing sight – a group of nearly a hundred people in a circle around a small 4-piece band, a singer, and a man wearing white gloves who was conducting the crowd. Everyone shared photocopied songbooks and everyone was singing along. It was an extraordinary experience for me.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Moving further, we came to the first temple, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasty visited the temple every year, where they would pray for a good harvest. The temple is very beautiful. It is a triple-gabled red temple built from wood with a blue tile roof representing heaven. It was built without a single nail. The current building is a reconstruction after the original burnt down after a lightening strike in 1889. There were three large openings for viewing the interior of the single-room temple.

The next temple, named the Imperial Vault of Heaven, was at the end of a 360 metre long raised walkway leading from the first temple. It is a single-gabled building, similar but smaller than the other temple. Around this temple is the Echo Wall. It is a circular stone wall that is very smooth. Words spoken anywhere along the circle can be heard everywhere else along the wall. I whispered, “I miss you Rosa” into the wall, but she could not hear me of course.

The final temple was the Circular Mound Altar. It is an large empty marble platform with three levels, intricately carved with dragons. This is the location where the Emperor would pray for good weather.

At noon-hour we left the park and stopped for lunch. I was given a 65-page menu to choose from. I cannot believe how much selection there is available in Chinese restaurants. Many other tables were ordering Peking Duck. Baolu, Nan and I had a big meal, and we packed up the rest to go.

Our next destination was Tiananmen Square. It is the third largest square in the world, but contrary to the popular myth I could not see the curvature of the earth. At the south end are the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the Zhengyangmen gate. Across the street to the west is the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the Chinese legislature. Mao’s Mausoleum is much larger than Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow. There is a tall stele in the middle of the square. The north end of the square is open. There were many people out enjoying the warmth, but it was not crowded.

Tiananmen Gate
Tiananmen Gate

At the north end of the square, across Chang’an Street, is the Tiananmen Gate on which hangs the famous picture of Mao Zedong. The gate leads the southern entrance to the Forbidden City complex.

Once we passed through the Tiananmen Gate we bought our entrance tickets and then we entered the through the Meridian Gate. The Forbidden City is a massive Imperial palace with 980 buildings (9,999 rooms) inside fortress walls. Construction started under Emperor Yongle in 1406, after he moved the capital from Nanjing.

The buildings were the traditional Chinese palatial style with red gabled roofs. The main buildings are the Gate of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity, and Hall of Central Harmony. Off the main north-south axis are hundreds of other buildings. With a limited amount of time remaining in the afternoon and only a small map, we could only glimpse a small fraction of the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City closed at sunset and we had to leave. It was getting cold and we could not find a taxi despite waiting for a long time. Baolu called his father Lin, who came to get us. We waited on a bridge in BeiHai Park until we were picked up.

We drove back to Nan’s hutong for dinner. Her father (Lemin’s brother) was a famous chef in China. He showed me a hardcover book of all the famous Chinese chefs and he had a dedicated page complete with his photo. He and his wife Baoqi prepared a scrumptious dinner for all of us. I also met Lin’s wife (Baolu’s mother), Yan. Three of us sat on a bed, which doubled as a couch, and the rest of us sat in chairs or on a piano bench (Nan is a music teacher). I was given a set of steel chopsticks, but I had a difficult time as they provided very little grip for picking up food. They took pity on me and found a wooden set for me to use.

I had made special plans for Monday evening. I wanted to see a Peking Opera performance. Weijing helped me get tickets for the show at the famous Lao She teahouse where they had a variety show that included opera. I took the subway to Qian Men again. However, by the time I got downtown I did not have enough time to eat before I was scheduled to meet the ticket agent to buy my ticket. I met her outside the teahouse and we went inside to make the payment. The teahouse is across the road from the Great Hall of the People.

I had a front row table. There was only one other table occupied in the front row and the next three rows were empty. Just before the show started three gentlemen sat down at my table. One of them spoke good English and translated for me a few times. On the table were a few biscuits and candied hawthorns and all the tea I could drink. But I was hungry so I bought some more biscuits. It was not enough to fill my stomach, but it was all that was available.

Peking Opera
Peking Opera

The master of ceremony for the show spoke as if he was telling a joke but no one was laughing. He had this strange smile all the time he was talking and he stared into the air above the audience instead of looking at anyone. There was a female singer, two impersonators (of animals and things, not celebrities), two comedians, a strongman/acrobat who could balance huge porcelain pots on his head, a few musical sets and a performance of mask changing. There were three sets of elaborately choreographed tea-pouring ceremonies. For the ceremonies and the singers, the English translation was shown on a small screen next to the stage. The Opera started after an intermission. It was the Opera that I really wanted to see. I had desired to see an entire opera, but everyone said I should see a shorter piece first, which is why Lao She was recommended. The scene was a battle between three performers. It was so interesting. The choreography was physically challenging for the lead character, who was playing a general. There was a live band playing behind a curtain next to the stage. The costumes were elaborate. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it and wish to see an entire production sometime in the future.

On Tuesday I went out for a lunch with some of the managers at work and again had a great lunch with too much food.

That evening, Baolu picked me up at the hotel and we went to his place for dinner. He lives with his parents in an apartment south of the Olympic park. The apartment is small; a kitchen, a combined bedroom and living room for his parents, a combined bathroom and laundry room, and Baolu’s bedroom which was also the entrance. His parents had prepared a delicious dinner. They made a special dish called silk potatoes, which uses a liquid sugar to caramelise the potato slices; when a slice is pulled off the plate, the sugar is pulled into silky threads. Everyone had learned that I like meat (pork especially) so everyone was making sure I had enough pork.

The final evening I went back to Nan’s with Wei. Their father had prepared another dinner. He prepared my favourite dish cha siu bao (BBQ pork buns). But the highlight was a red bean paste. It was so smooth and delicious. It was so good I had four servings.

Each time I had the opportunity to spend time with my in-laws, I was honoured that they treated me so well. I was very glad to meet them all.

The Ericsson team in Beijing
The Ericsson team in Beijing

The final day at the office, we had the entire team and the managers come out for a group photo in the main foyer of the building. I was happy that the training went so well and feel the team in Beijing is a strong team.

In the late afternoon, after saying my goodbyes, I took a taxi from the office to the airport. I had more time to look around the huge Terminal 3 and had supper there (Korean food).

The return flight to Canada was shorter than the flight to Beijing. It did not go over the pole; I think the different routes might have something to do with the rotation of the earth or the prevailing winds.

I was home only 2 days before heading off to Tanzania with Rosa and my mother for a 2-week safari.

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