26.01.2013 - 27.01.2013
There are times in my life where I wonder if I am one of only a handful, perhaps the only one, who will stubbornly walk for miles until I get exactly what I want, rather than adjust my expectations. I just can't quit the habit. Now sometimes I arrive in Beijing- a city I've visited more times than I have fingers, though maybe not fingers and toes- without a hotel reservation, because one can usually arrange a room as soon as one gets off the train. There was a time when you could barter with a hotel hawker and get a 2 star one for 100 RMB, sharing it with Chinese and business men from Pakistan. (The hotel, not the room). You'd be driven to the hotel in a little mini bus and driven fast because it would be about 15 km away. Those days are gone. Conspicuous bargains in Beijing have been crushed and had wind passed on them and hotels in London are starting to look like excellent value. That said, my wages have doubled since then, so I could be talking complete tosh.
Anyway, I ought to have noted down where the nearest Jinjiang Inn was, I am a member now. I just had an idea that there was one a few streets west of Beijing West Railway station. After an hour looking for that I gave up the search. I did come across a man walking along singing in a very high pitched voice and I saw a person sleeping on the pavement in a tunnel. I thought about giving them money but reasoned that they might be rich and choosing to sleep that way because it's good for your back.
Then I caught a bus to Beijing Central Station in the hope I'd see a Jinjiang on the way. I didn't. Only fat buildings that show Beijing has leaped the UK in the 'look at how grand my building is' game and aimed its sights straight at the USA.
I had a McDonalds egg and cheese burger(no meat), a hash brown and a coffee, partly to re-fuel, partly to use their WIFI to look up where the nearest Jinjiang was. The burger miraculously shrank when it appeared on the tray, and the picture of 2 hash browns morphed into one. When I tried to use the WIFI a complicated series of menus came up in Chinese, all with fields you had to fill in. I left still hungry and with no internet but with no permanently hard feelings against peroxide red Ronald or his purple friend.
A sniff around Beijing Central station revealed that the bargains of yesteryear now cost most of 200. I went to one such hotel and it was sold out and I was in the wrong area for enjoying Beijing anyway so I walked to Jianguomen tube station and took the train Dongzhimen. I then headed for the Golden Pineapple, a last resort. I was knackered now, I'd take it. The Golden Pineapple is getting less Golden with each passing year. I found it to be looking shabbier than ever and the offer of a room without internet for 240 to be insubordinate. Though I had been on my feet for hours I trudged off again into the great unknown. Ah well, I'm heading toward Sanlitun, I thought. I'll find something there.
Then, as I approached that drab and low key district on the outer edge of Sanlitun where there isn't much except unobtrusive massage parlours (the wave it in your face pink shops are gone), there incongruously appeared like an oasis in the middle of a desert, a spanking Holiday Express Inn. I remembered I had 15,000 points on my Priority Club Card. Could I…
I could. And that is how I got a lovely room in the Holiday Inn, which was absolutely spanking. Spanking it was. My only complaint is, the hotel was so spanking I discovered something odd about perfection. It has no soul. And you get rich Scandinavian customers who are polite-ish but cold and would push you into a shark tank, probably...
The next day I'm in Costa Coffee, keeping the British end up, sir. Table is too small, drinks selection iffy, but Mr Oxford swears by it because by gad it's British. I am very pleased to have just merited something that can go in the plus box, given a recent spate of minuses. I'm standing at the counter and I ask the girl if I may have some milk. She immediately replies "We don't have any" and I say affectionately, in the way I might to a small child or a pet dog that tells me he can't find his chewy toy when it's right between his paws, "yes you do" and help myself to some of the milk that is standing in a large carton between us. She smiles and I score a little victory for being nice to people amidst all the gun ho diplomatic incidents I get myself embroiled in and now have to write about and put in a cardboard box. Of course, it's possible that she's saying "we don't have any" with regard to the salad dressing I asked for before I asked for milk but they also have that and I think in China it's just easier to say "we don't have any" because it's like casting a spell. A spell to make the horrible man go away. The horrible man goes away and sits down by a maroon papered pillar that's peeling and has paper bits chipped out of it and picks up a copy of the China Daily. It's as bland-sort of interesting-sort of disturbing as ever and after spilling some salad dressing on it and sitting on it by accident (no space) I stick it back on the rack in a less than proper way, hoping it doesn't fall down.
I've been reading 'Hello Dubai' by the travel writer Joe Bennett. He makes the point that most of us know someone who has been to Dubai, it rings true, because my sister and her clan have been there. He also relates a story by a authoritative Brit at a party who says all Arabs are stupid and cites the 1st service on Emirates airways. It's just like the Bordeaux and Claret thing in Fawlty Towers (see the Hotel Inspectors). So the Brit in this story is asked if he wants red or white wine, he asks for a Chardonnay, they say certainly, red or white? (Seems familiar, but in China they might say 'yes' and then you wouldn't be given any drink at all. This is what happened in Mr Pizza the other day). And hence, Arabs are bloody stupid, he says. But the way I would see that, not being caught up in the whole thing myself, is that in the grander scheme of things, things are fairer than they often seem. Firstly, isn't it much fairer-weather wise- to be the man in the seat being served wine, than the serf serving you? Secondly, is it completely a case of master of servant, or can the customer be of some service?
You see, in a way I actually disagree with John Cleese. Fawlty Towers is a kind of customer service video, showing that the customer is "always right" but isn't treated so in Britain, or wasn't in bed and breakfasts in seaside towns in the 1970s. Customers certainly still aren't in modern day China where you can walk into a 4 star branch of Holiday Inn Express and be served by young sprogs from the countryside that don't speak English and don't know overmuch about the niceties that smooth the path of true customer care, in spite of what Holiday Express Inn might say in their propaganda video that I watched when I turned on the TV in my room. So I might feel a cause par grievance and if I start imagining that these chaps are my slaves and me an Emperor I might get into "these bloody (pick your insult)" or "I'm surrounded by scatterbrains (or some other less delicate phrase)" sort of huff. Or I might stand back and think about things more holistically. Which is to say, I'm in China because it is the best place I can eek a living right now and therefore I should accept that there is a price to pay for that. Hundreds of tiny hurdles each day which are like pay as you go tariffs. Anyway, oim not perfickt, am I? ("Oim so sorry I'm not perfickt."). It's time to start embracing the hurdles, (in some cases, literally but with their consent) rather than seeing them as annoying checkpoints on the way to my selfish goals. Don't quote me on that….
Another plus, yesterday. I went to that peculiarly cheap Italian restaurant in Dongzhimen (48 rmb for a bottle of house white, it's hard to find it that cheap in me shops) that you have to be 'in the know' to find, because it's unsignposted and hidden on the 2nd floor in an 'office building' (it actually says that in the reception) that doesn't look like it has a restaurant inside it. That said, word gets around, and it was nearly full when I got there. I waited about half an hour to be served and was getting increasingly hot under the collar when I saw others served way ahead of me. Why am I being neglected I thought? The waiters are looking at me and ignoring me and this is humiliating but this time I'm just going to stay cool. As I sat there thinking about my precious feelings I saw a button on the wall with an inscription written in Chinese. The penny dropped. You have to ring for service. In my time, I've given folks a hard time about it. I er...got my 15,000 point after complaining about bad service a previous time I was in Beijing. When all is said and done I'm an imperialist going through a painful period of re-construction.
And that is not all. This morning I had a dream about buying a book and a mustard coloured Austen Allegro off a nice woman for 75 pence. Probably a 1300 super. But oddly, when I drove it home almost all of it was gone, there was just a cartoon like outline with wheels. No engine, seats, chassis etc. I told the lady why I liked Allegros, about how when our next door neighbour's mini broke down my mum came and rescued us in our new Allegro but she didn't seem to think the story was an impressive one or perhaps that it was the real reason. I've migrated to an empty SPR cafe and a Chinese man has just come in and sat at the table right next to mine, his neck inches from mine. A very Chinese thing. Europeans would sit far apart.