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Beijing Dispatch, Part 2: China Travel Tips

Internet access is not yet standard or stable at all hotels, and of course some Web sites are blocked. (The Philadelphia Inquirer Web site, for example, was not accessible even during the Games, apparently for an aggressive article about Tibet the newspaper published early in this decade.) My room had access but it was turned off when I arrived. After a bit of troubleshooting I had to ask for help, and the front desk sent a very savvy technician up fairly quickly. Once he saw that I had already used the ping and ipconfig options in Windows, he knew immediately that the problem was not with my computer and fixed the problem with their system within minutes.

From there it was mostly smooth sailing, save for a hotel-wide outage one morning. Access was stable enough that a large number of folks were using Skype to talk with their kids, families and friends, which isn't bad -- I've experienced worse service in Boston.

During the pre-Olympics test event last year at the same hotel, however, Internet access was very bumpy, and some attendees stopped trying to do anything but quick e-mail checks after a couple of days. This may be more the norm at present, so if you will need reliable access, you will want to inquire with your hotel directly as to the stability of their Internet service.

Meals, Shopping and Air Quality
Restaurants are abundant and affordable in the Beijing area. Entries in the $6 - $12 range were routine, a big bottle of beer cost less than a dollar as noted above, and our hotel offered a massive breakfast with eggs, bacon, fruit, potatoes, juice, bread and croissants, cheese, Chinese noodles, omelets, and more. At the coffee station, four people poured coffee and tea, put in milk and sugar for you, and kept the coffee pots full. In a country of billions, self-serve coffee doesn't produce jobs, so it doesn't exist.

great wall of chinaA highlight of our trip to the Great Wall was a lunchtime stop at the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, where an abandoned schoolhouse has been converted into a restaurant-cum-art gallery and glass-blowing studio where good food, contemporary art and local crafts of a high order coexist gracefully and affordably. The most expensive item on the menu -- grilled duck breast and polenta fries -- comes to about $15, while most entries came in at around $8 - $11. When the owner of the restaurant approached our table with six wine glasses of pure crystal created in the glass studio, each "tuned" to a different pitch, and then proceeded to "play" them as he poured our wine, it became clear that the experience was worth more than the cost of six entries, without question.

Shopping is a varied and wondrous experience in China -- well, wondrous if you like almost humorously outrageous haggling experiences. Part of our host's tour group of visiting friends included the family of one of the Dutch marathon swimmers, and they were understandably enamored of the signature Dutch orange that makes up the national team uniforms. I had mentioned I needed a T-shirt for my 2-year-old son, and at the Great Wall the mother of the family saw a light orange shirt illustrated with panda bears and Great Wall tunnels -- perfect.

The woman at the shirt stand was repeating "One dollar, one dollar!" and following us with the shirt. I turned around and said absolutely, one dollar. She said, "No, this is neelon [nylon], you will want cotton." I said she was right, cotton would be better. "Okay; that is 250 yuan [about $37]." I laughed, said no thank you and walked away, which is an essential step to take at least once or twice in these negotiations -- both of us did so at some point, the vendor with entertainingly exaggerated gestures of disgust. She brought me a piece of paper and asked me to write down what I would pay; after a few times through on this, we were down to 25 yuan -- one-tenth of the original price -- which I allowed to bolt up to 30 in the final half-second before paying. The daughter of the Dutch family laughed and scoffed that I softened and gave in, but I always keep in mind that the 75 cents counts for a lot more to the vendor that it does to me.

traffic beijing chinaWhile some Westerners are uncomfortable with this type of haggling, it will be an essential skill in China; otherwise, you'll pay $37 for a T-shirt that the next guy will get for four bucks.

The much-covered pollution problem was very much in evidence my first couple days in Beijing -- you could see, taste, smell and almost hear it in the air. Remembering that auto traffic and factory activity were already way down, I would compare it to standing in an intersection in Midtown Manhattan; uncomfortable but manageable. A nightly drizzle cleared the air each day and offered considerable relief.

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