Sunday, December 05, 2004

My plane which left from New York on Wednesday was supposed to arrive in Beijing Thursday evening, but with the delay it did not arrive till one o’clock Friday morning. That means I spent the entire day of Thursday on the plane. When I woke up in my hotel room Friday morning it took me at least 60 seconds to figure out exactly where I was, and another minute to so to figure out what time it was. I had not reset my watch and there was no clock in the room. I changed the time zone on my handy Mac laptop however and discovered that it was seven in the morning, although it was still pitch dark. By eight it was still very dark but I finally realized that this was because of the extremely smoggy air, which reeked of coal fumes. A bit late I joined the masses of people who were pouring out of the subway exits and plowing up Beijing’s main drag in the light rain. At the famous Friendship Store I stocked up on tea: two kinds of Oolong, one Green, and one Puer. This venerable institution has undergone all kinds of changes in the last few years in an attempt to keep up with all the competition from the new malls opening everywhere. Last time I was here I was shocked to discover the book store had been moved to a different part of the store and was in a state of complete disarray. Now the big souvenir shop which long dominated the first floor is gone, replace by an upscale jewelry store. The book store, in its new location, has been thankfully reorganized and seems to have a bigger selection than before. From the Friendship Store I went around the corner to the Mongolian Airlines office where I was pleased to discover that there was room on the flight to Ulaan Baatar the very next day. Although I am now restocked with tea I will not have to return to the Vale of Bruedersthal.

Then I called my friend Ms. R, who I have mentioned here before. She works at one of the embassies in the Sanlitun Embassy district. She said her embassy was very busy but she would have time to go out for lunch. So I took a cab to Sanlitun and met her and we then proceeded to an Egyptian restaurant, one of two in the embassy district which serves halel food, the other being a Palestinian-run place. She said that in the late afternoon she had to go to the airport to met some diplomats coming in from South America but would be free later on in the evening, so at nine o’clock we met again and retired to a nearby coffee house. This establishment was full of people playing card, chess, various other games, and reading the big assortment of magazines on hand. They had a wide array of coffee advertised, including Blue Mountain Jamaican, Sumatran, etc, but what we had was barely drinkable. It’s strange how Chinese just cannot get the coffee thing down. If you want half-decent coffee in Beijing you have to go to one of the forty-one Starbucks outlets. No matter, we talked for three hours over one cup each.

Ms R (right) and friend

Ms. R, who is a Uighur from Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China, regaled me with tales of her recent trip to Turkey where she took in all the sights of Istanbul. Uighurs speak a version of Turkish and she could make herself understood in Turkey with no problem. She has also been to Mexico (she also speaks fluent Spanish, in addition to of course Chinese and English). She would like to come the US but now it is very hard for single woman from China (although a Uighur she is a Chinese citizen) to get US visa, and she is a Moslem, which probably does not help. Uighurs, by the way, are the second largest ethnic group on the world without their own country, the largest being the Kurds. Xinjiang, previously known as East Turkestan, or Uighurstan, is extremely rich in oil, which makes it much coveted by the Chinese. Ms. R says that many Uighurs believe that Xinjiang, because of its oil, is next on the USA hit list, after Iran and possibly North Korea. I had to tell her this was highly unlikely because it would entail a full-scale war with China. She pointed out, however, that US troops are already in Afghanistan, which borders on Xinjiang. Like many outside the US (and indeed inside the US) she was stunned by the fact that Bush had won the election. She had been led to believe by the media that Bush was extremely unpopular in the US, so how could he win the election, she wondered? Having just come from the Vale of Bruederthal, a staunch Republican enclave, I myself could well understand how Bush won the election, but I had a hard time explaining it to Ms. R.

In the cab from the coffee shop Ms. R immediately got in a fracas with the cab driver, who she claimed was not taking the shortest route. After setting him straight, she said that about a month ago she and a friend of hers had gone from Santilun to the airport to met some visitors from South America, a trip which normally costs seventy to seventy-five yuan. On the way back in another cab the driver took a roundabout way and despite Ms. R’s protestations charged them 120 yuan. They immediately called the customer complaint number prominently posted in every Beijing cab and raised a ruckus. It turned out that not only did the cab driver get fined 3000 yuan (some $375) and have his cab license suspended for six months, but he also had to call Ms R and made a personal apology. And if the apology was deemed not sincere enough or worded wrong Ms R could file yet another complaint. I asked if she did not think this was a bit draconian for what amounted to a tiff over eight or nine dollars, especially if the man had a family to support, but she said no, people simply should not do dishonest things, like trying to cheat taxi customers. All this is all part of a general campaign to improve taxi service in Beijing leading up to, believe it or not, the 2008 Olympics. Reportedly cab drivers are also required to take classes in rudimentary English and courteous behavior. And the Olympics are still four years away!

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