Letter One – (Follow Mario’s incredible journey online and in our printed newspaper)
The journey to Beijing already gave a glimpse of just how advanced China has become. During the final leg from Hong Kong, a small electrical fault on one of the ovens prompted HK Dragon Air to immediately return shortly after takeoff as a precaution. Back at the airport we were treated to a very nice hotel room, meal vouchers and another flight of our choice. Consequently, we were very well rested upon our arrival in Beijing.
The tail-end of winter’s cooler weather, miles and miles of barren trees and the infamous Beijing haze greeted us as we drove from the airport to our suburban apartment in Tongzhou, a ‘smaller’ suburb of close to 2 million people, situated 40 minutes from the city centre.
Fresh from Cape Town, I immediately compared the outside of our apartment block to social housing and felt a sense of dread. What was confusing, though, were the latest BMW, LEXUS and futuristic looking hybrid vehicles, probably worth millions in South African Rand, some plugged into charging stations throughout our ‘social housing’ complex.
The neighbours were so warm and friendly that we thought they had been informed we were coming. Only later did we discover this to be part of the true magic of Beijing. Our delightfull apartment on the top 12th floor had gas heating and air-conditioning, floor to ceiling windows, a lovely timber floor and views all the way to the surrounding mountains.
The very next day I was told I had to take the subway to the opposite side of the city, an hour and a half away. I was given a map and told I had to change trains at three stops, called transfer stations. All the names were foreign and I wondered if I would ever reach my intended destination.
The start of my journey already gave me reason to relax. To me the train station resembled a space station and the spotless interior of the train, with its TV screens, heated carriages and ample seating, that of a spaceship. Seeing that the TV system was running on South African Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu made my heart fill with pride. Above every train door an electronic map provided a live update on passengers’ location.
The transfer stations were so simple to navigate. Suffice to say, I arrived at my destination earlier than anticipated. My 3 hour roundtrip cost R30. I was so impressed with my Beijing subway experience, and after further research learned that they move 10 million people on average per day. At the station where I got on, a train arrives every seven minutes. I did not know whether to laugh or cry when one of the locals told me he thought seven minutes is a bit too long to wait.
After the journey from Cape Town to Tongzhou, the warmth of the Chinese people, the efficiency of their subway system, and trips to local restaurants, I started to realise that there is something diffferent about Beijing. For one, there is no crime. I have become enthralled with China and am determined to discover the fabric of their society, particularly how the ethics of an ancient Chinese philosopher called Confuscious and his teachings such as “The North Polar Star” philosophy has a lot to do with why the Chinese treat foreigners like family.
The warmer weather had quickly arrived, transforming stark streets into lush gardens. The sound of happy children playing in community spaces has become a normal daily occurence and music has started drifting from the local parks. Traditional Chinese music sometimes start at 10 am and carrying on until the evenings. I decided I must go and investigate what this celebration is about …
Beijing greetings, Mario Michael Segal