Monday, October 24, 2005

An Open Letter to the China Bureau of International Tourism

To Whom It May Concern at the China Bureau of International Tourism,

I am currently on vacation in your country and thought, given your focus on improvement for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, it might be helpful to you to receive a letter from an 'outside' perspective about what I've found most wondrous and most disturbing during my travels here thus far. Please take the following suggestions with a grain of salt.

1) Cheap and abundant massage is a good thing. I believe the fact that I got a head, back and shoulder massage for 30 minutes followed by a foot massage for 30 minutes for a total cost of $7 USD is a definite winner. Keep up the good work.

2) Dehyrdrated bengal tiger paw from a decrepit street vendor is not an item that most westerners are actively seeking. Perhaps a slight curb on the use of endangered animals as 'street fare' would be recommended prior to the Olympic games?

3) Ability to purchase 15 DVD's for $10, cashmere sweaters for $10, and freshwater pearls for pennies on the dollar is truly astounding. Thumbs up to that.

4) Beijing Zoo needs some work. The pandas look bored and overpampered.
Note: Perhaps start in the small mammals section. I believe you will find most westerners offended at the fact that you have four gorgeous white artic foxes in a cement cage measuring 3' x 3'. Also, you may want to reduce the urine smell from that area prior to the Olympics as well.

5) Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City are every bit as magnificent as I thought. All are absolute monuments to mankind and the country of China in their own right and I think your spending $3 billion Yuan (RMB) to rennovate these great areas prior to the games is paying off. Good work communist party!

6) It's come to my attention you might be beating down some religious groups with extreme physical violence if they don't agree with your views. Hint: maybe not such a good idea for international relations.

7) Love the Jasmine tea. However some westerners do find it possible to drink more than one glass of liquid at a time. I will provide some examples of what it is possible to have on the table in Europe or the USA: Water and Tea. Tea and Beer. Water and Beer. Beer and Water. Water, tea and beer. Water, tea, beer and wine. Wine and water. Etc. Etc. Please look into this matter as thus far we seem to be limited to one item exclusively.

8) Local Chinese restaurants should be given priority for feeding visitors to your country. They are much tastier than the 'tourist' spots and cheaper too.

Our fried salty prawns and spicy peas last night that we chose by pointing to pictures in a menu were considerably better than the pre-chosen menu of sweet and sour mystery meat and bok choy that we had for lunch with the tour. I would be happy to create a guide for you based on the following criteria:
a) The less English in the restaurant garners higher star ratings
b) The more heads and tails on the food garners higher star ratings
c) Eyeballs on the food garners higher star ratings
d) Availability of multiple beverages garners higher star ratings

I know this seems opposite to western sensibilities but I think if people are exposed to items a-d they will see the light. The restaurant 100 meters from our Beijing hotel gets 5 stars based on the above. There is no English, everything is whole, everything looks at you, you can get beer and tea and it's absolutely lip-smacking delicious.

I won't burden you with further insights into the small items I've encountered (ex: older Chinese ladies climb the Great Wall and then find they can't get down) as I'm sure you can sort them out for yourself.

Thanks for taking my suggestions into consideration and the best of luck to you in the coming 2 years preparing for these great Olympic Games! If I had cable I'd surely watch on TV, but alas, I do not.


Gary Penn
US Citizen and fan of China
Author of "My Food Is Looking At Me: A Star Rating Guide to Obtaining the Best Cuisine in China, Bar None"

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Everything Name Here Has the Letter "X" In It

On a recent sunny Fall afternoon in the streets of Beijing, a young man made a keen observation that seems worth repeating. "Every phrase, restaurant, sign and street name here has an 'X' in it," the man said. That'll do pig, that'lldo.

Sitting here among the somewhat-lacking-in-grandeur buildings of Beijing I can't help but think to myself, "Self, what was this place like BEFORE they started 'fixing it up' for the Olympic Games 2008?" Truly this place is a world apart from Shanghai. The buildings are run-down, the people noticeably poorer, the pace slightly slower. And yet, we're still speaking about China. In a country of 1.3 billion people (most of them in cities), there are... well, a lot of Chinese people speaking Chinese. Also of note is that the people still seem generally wanting to help and aiming to please. Maybe it's the 100 Yuan bill talking (it's worth all of $12 USD but it stretches a loong way here) or maybe they actually want to help. Hard to tell but I'm taking the optimistic approach and picking the former. And where the city is 'older' than Shanghai at least there is culture within the city aside from shopping. We spent the morning and afternoon at the Emperor's (and Empress's more importantly) Summer Palace. An IMMENSE palatial estate that dwarfs any of the temples in Japan in size and scope but not in physical state (note: it IS under re-construction for the Olympics).

Identity-wise, this IS China. We're talking rows upon rows of restaurants and they all serve the same food (one guess for you what type of food it is). But that's not a bad thing. It's just China. And that speaks volumes when you see the people who move about this country daily. They are a world unto themselves. Seemingly trapped in a time-warp for 40 some-odd years and then suddenly thrust into the throws of westernized capitalism in the last 15. An odd mix of not-so-tantalizing and faded photos of "Shrimp with Black Bean" adorn the windows alongside miniature gadgets that claim to play MP3 and MP4. Given a 9% growth in their GDP annually, it would not surprise me if they have MP6 advertised before the rest of the "western" world.

I've sat amongst private family conversations in Lasaunne, Switzerland (before I learned French) where I understood not a word of the flowing French aroundme. I sat just 3 weeks ago in the lovely home of a Dutch family in Hardewijk, The Netherlands where the torrid (and frankly less than beautiful) sound of Dutch left me numb but smiling. And I've sat in many a business meeting listening to Japanese as though it were a bad mockery of Wierd Al Yankovick making light of Asian pop songs. But none of these language barriers are quite as foreign as Chinese. I'm struggling to pronounce the words "Thank You" (Xie Xie in transliteration) but I'm laughing all the way. Does English sound as foreign to the taxi driver as Chinese does to me? And if it does... well, what must he think of German?! And for the love of God, can somebody buy a consonant instead of a vowel? No wonder I can't pronounce anything.

Speaking of German, our hotel is flooded with them. I've come up with two possiblities:
1) There is a popular and timely sauerkraut and wurstli cook-off competition here in the coming days
2) Beijing is a popular tourist destination for Germans
3) A tour company booked a lot of Germans in this hotel

Lastly, massage here is cheap and abundant (more so in Shanghai but here too). Had a nice Thai massage last night at the hotel. Any society offering 60-minutes of massage for $35 is one that I need to return to.

Tomorrow it's the 'official' start of the tour. Up until now it's just been aplay-it-by-ear adventure. So that means Tiananmen Square and the like. Think it's time to go eat more Chinese food.