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Reflections on Beijing, China

I returned to Seattle this evening after 10 days in Beijing, China for work. This was my third trip to the city in the past 4 years. During the first trip, in 2007 there was plenty of chaos amid preparation for the Olympic Games. The roads were torn apart. The airport was not yet completed and I had no clue how they were going to manage to pull it off. The pollution was so bad at the time that when it snowed it looked like gray ash was falling from the sky. My second trip, in 2009, showed a massive difference. Traffic was moderate and the skies were far more clear. This trip was longer than my past trips, and the change even in a few years is quite large.

The roads in Beijing are really great. My points of contrast are those in India or South America where I have travelled. In fact, the roads there are smoother than most of the roads in Seattle. Traffic in general did not seem that bad, in part due to tight restrictions on which days you can drive (normally every other day) and steep fees and a lottery system for getting new car licenses.

While rush hour is horrendous and cars change lanes and generally make sudden moves all the time, there is general order on the roads. People stay in their lanes (mostly) and there is a separate barricaded lane for bikes (and motorized vehicles resembling bikes!). There were no wild animals wandering the streets, and everything was spic and span. The city was super clean. The infrastructure is modern and growing fast. I took a trip to the outskirts of Beijing for a meeting (it is massive…we drove 40K from the northwest to southwest corner and we didn’t even reach the end of the city) and saw the huge new high-speed bullet train system that has been built (it is being expanded to other cities as well). There are  corporate office parks being built seemingly in “no mans land” on the outskirts of the city complete with shopping malls and theaters and luxury clothing stores, with the assumption that in a few years time the city will expand to fill the space. It looks weird with all the empty space between things but it definitely shows that the government is thinking ahead. Everyone is building ahead of demand…..maybe brilliant…maybe a disaster waiting to happen!

The market for luxury goods is UNREAL in China, and Beijing is a hotspot. There are now over 1,000,000 millionaires in the country and that number is growing crazy fast. Just 10 years ago there were ~100,000 millionaires. The new rich are for the first time ever discovering luxury goods, and there is no shortage of retailers selling them. My hotel was on top of a massive shopping mall with all the major global luxury brands (Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Hermes, etc.). That wasn’t it though, just a kilometer down the road there were duplicate stores for all these brands (along with Armani and others). At one point during a 15 minute cab ride I counted 4 Prada outlets! It’s insane. China is one of BMW, Audio and Roll Royce’s largest markets. It is the second largest market for Rolls right now – with the a 1 year waiting list for the Beijing dealer at an average selling price of $1M USD! The Chinese middle class really like big cars, with the streets littered with the big BMW 7 series sedans and Audio A6″L” extended version cars. I’ve heard even the Honda Accord’s there are longer with more backseat leg room than the versions we get in the US. Part of this must be due to people having drivers, which makes them care more about the back seat comfort. Part of it also just seems to be that a lot of people like to show off their new wealth and cars are a good way of doing that.

While people might think of China as a “third world” country that is not the case. Progress has created a lot of opportunity and the large cities are creating a strong and large middle class. There is a lot of wealth being created as the markets open up to foreign investment and as the government continues to use its massive trade surplus to provide the infrastructure to make this possible. The consumer spending is being driven by the middle class….which is roughly 75 million households today and it expected to more than double in the next 3-5 years as urban centers grow. Someone was telling me that there are 10 cities that are half the size of Beijing right now, that are forecast to be just as big within the end of the decade. I don’t know how that is even humanly possible, but seeing all the construction even on the outskirts of Beijing tells me there is a hint of truth to that.

The food in Beijing is also…well…”unique.” Restaurants are fans of the picture menus, where they show you what all the finished dishes look like. It’s a horror show! Cow stomach, duck feet, squid, whole fish, whole ducks with the head staring at your…totally gross.

That said, it’s actually possible to survive as a vegetarian there. In fact the food can be quite good if you know what to order and aren’t grossed out by the tablet next to you eating soft-shelled turtles and Peking Duck. You just need to have someone with you to point things out and tell waiters to not add random bits of meat and fish to stuff.

Chinese are big on their veggies….you can see people trucking around massive cabbages and leeks on their bikes on the way home from the store. I ate plate after plate of broccoli, leeks, bok choy, lotus root, cabbage, celery and other greens. I also had lots of tofu, rice noodles, plain rice and some other veggies cooked in various ways. My favorite meal was a “hot pot.” This entails a massive boiling pot of broth (I’d get mushroom broth) in which you dunk all kinds of noodles and veggies. Normally there is a bunch of meat added…but these are pretty easy to make veggie as well. The fruits are also awesome. Mandarin oranges, dragon fruit and large fuji apples were my staples…though there was a ton of other stuff available at the markets (including durian!…no I didn’t try it).

I managed to escape for a day to see the Great Wall. I’ve seen it before, but opted to go to a different section of the wall near Jinshanling (75 minutes from the city) this time. It’s that good. If I went back to China next year I would go again. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. It is my single greatest memory of visiting this area. Unbelievable.

I do hope to go back again for more sight-seeing and exploration outside of Beijing. The country is growing rapidly and there is so much potential there, and also so many things of historic value to see. Of course, there is also a lot of poverty in China, but it wasn’t overtly visible in the city itself (unlike India where it is everywhere). I do want to get outside the urban centers on my next trip.

Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. I was lucky to find a crystal clear day, escaping the smog of the city.



  1. Julie says:

    Thanks for the eye-opening education, Ravi, as well as the mouth-watering vegetarian descriptions. It all sounds amazing and enticing.

  2. elmer says:

    Though the numbers are dwindling down now, there’s still a majority of districts in Beijing where bicycles and rickshaws ply. I stayed last summer in Haidian district and I noticed the roads there, they’re a daily battle zone! If the bicycles in Beijing and the jeepneys in Manila would meet, its the end of the world! Generally though, Beijing is an awesome place. A1 that is.

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