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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2008 |

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Beijing Bytes

Nader Rahman

Few cities in the world can match Beijing at any level, from the food to the people to the weather to its ambiance. Having come back to Beijing after almost a year, only now can I claim to understand the city better than the average tourist. While that may not sound like much it is more than one can imagine.

As for comparisons with Dhaka let's not even go there, Dhaka is a poorly run youth hostel compared to the seven star luxury of China's capital, but there are a few similarities which go without notice to the untrained eye. One of the most interesting aspects about the mega city is that there seems to be an innumerable number of roads and highways which criss-cross the city, covering almost ever square inch. Their roads and highway systems within the city are close to impeccable, endless perfectly paved roads drone on and on with drivers following the rules without question. One of the most amazing sights I cam across was at three in the morning my cab stopped at a red light and waited there till the lights turned green, without any other car in sight this cab driver waited a full five minutes on a completely deserted road, just so that the lights would change over. Now for the similarities with Dhaka, while the cars and the drivers may all follow the rules down to a tee the pedestrians are a whole another issue. They seem to travel in true Bangali fashion, crossing wherever they want whenever they want and even after having broken the rules they'll stop and curse at the cars. In a strange way it was refreshing to see something like that, not that I condone such boorish behavior, I'm just used to it from living in Dhaka too long.

Beijing is full of shopping malls and centres which house international brands along with chic Asian boutiques, yet people still rummage around the city looking for ancient artifacts and Chinese trinkets. The first rule of thumb is that there are no ancient artifacts for sale in Beijing, there are some rather fantastic looking fakes. The common fakes one will come across are copies of the terracotta warriors and at first sight they look exactly like the real thing and they ask for prices that would make Bill Gates blush. But the authenticity of those fakes comes from the fact that they are made of terracotta and then just aged a little with water to make them look moldy. As for the assorted Chinese trinkets everyone comes looking for, they are mass produced at an unimaginable scale yet they still manage to look hand made. To understand the proliferation of such trinkets one needs to visit such small stalls all over the city, each selling exactly the same products with the shop keepers using the same lines as well. The shopkeepers, well they are a different thing all together.

Everyone has come across pushy shop keepers, they are usually loud and brash and even intimidate, yet in Beijing the definition of a pushy shop keeper is stretched to the limit. They are usually young girls with a rudimentary knowledge of English. Simply walking past their shop is an invitation to be hounded, one need not even look at their products to be sucked into their vacuum. They usually come out and show you their wares to which many people simply walk away, but those people are the lucky ones. If you show no interest it only serves to enrage them as they start to follow you, pulling on clothes and straining ones good manners till they at least get a sing from you that you will talk to them if only to get away. That is their opening and their whole two page vocabulary of English is all spewed out in a few minutes. The most common lines are, “You killin' me, give better price, this original” along with “you so handsome, I give less price, don't tell nobody.” Some of their lines are far more imaginative, but I think their point is if they engage you enough you'll buy something from them no matter how bad their English and in a weird way it seems to work more than it fails.

In my opinion another interesting Beijing byte is the money. Aside from the fact that the currency is pegged at an astonishingly low rate to keep its exports cheap and imports expensive in a true protectionist manner the fact of the matter is that money supply seems rather loose for a country so huge with an economy so enormous. If one gives a 100 Yuan note to pay for a 12 Yuan cab fare there is no haggling over change, they give it every time without asking. The same situation is repeated at convenience stores and restraints. If this even makes sense there is an extraordinary amount of change in the capital city. Compare this to CNGs in Dhaka which often rip people off by claiming they don't have change. While Dhaka and Beijing do share a few commonalities for the most part Beijing is what Dhaka should strive to be, clean, paved, friendly with abundant amounts of change, what more can one ask for?

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