I have been to Beijing twice. Both times, an interesting experience.
The first time I went to Beijing was in June 2019. It was a last minute trip planned about two weeks in advance. As anyone that has been to China knows, the Visa process to get into China can take months. I didn’t have months. I was invited to attend a dinner hosted by one of the top crypto funds in China. I was to be the “guest of honor” and give a short talk on the work we had been doing over the last two years. The attendee list was a collection of important decision makers at the top crypto funds in China. We hadn’t spent much time in Asia, so this was a good opportunity to make connections with the important decision makers. I had to make this trip.
The Visa situation was a challenge but luckily I found a work around. China has a visa-free 72 hour travel policy if your beginning and end destination are different i.e. you are stopping in China between two places. The way the process works is that when you land in China, you go to a tourism desk and request entry to China for a period of time under 72 hours. To do so you should your arrival ticket from one country and your departure ticket to a different country you just came from. As long as you have those two things they *should* let you in. Good enough for me. I had been meaning to go to Singapore for a while so I thought this would be a good way to satisfy the travel rule in China and also hit a city on my list of places to go. I booked the trip.
YYZ -> SIN -> PEK -> YYZ
Note: I recapped Singapore in its own post (here) so I will skip over that leg of the trip in this post.
I departed Singapore on an 8pm flight. The flight itself lasts just over 6 hours, so I was set to arrive at approximately 2am. When I got on the plane, I had now been awake for about 36 hours. The sleep before that was an hour(ish) nap on the flight to Singapore, so needless to say I was ready to crash. Through a bona-fide miracle, as I boarded the flight, which was fairly full, I somehow ended up with a full four seat row to myself in economy. I looked around and most of the other benches were full, end-to-end, with a few empty seats scattered throughout. There was, however, one other person who had a bench all to themselves. She was the only other white passenger on the plane from what I could see. Coincidence? Maybe. But I did not care – I was about to hit snooze on this six hour flight. The only problem was that the service was so good on this flight, the crew seamingly wanted to dote on me every 30 minutes. It took about an hour and a half to convince them that I truly did not want anything other than to lay down and go to sleep. Finally they acquiesced and I hit the seat, hard. When I woke up about five hours later as we were pulling into Beijing, I noticed I had two full course meals laid out on trays beside me, and 6 water bottles jammed into the sat pockets around me. They really had to serve. I appreciated the care, but there was no way I was going to be able to eat/drink all of this. I mixed the food around on the tray to make it look like I ate a bunch. They seemed pleased when they picked up the tray. Mission accomplished.
I now had to go apply for my visa-free entry. If they didn’t give it to me I would be stuck in the airport until my flight out, which was 2 days later.
At this point the airport is near dead. It’s about 2:30am and, maybe in an effort to conserve energy, almost all of the lights are off. It was an eerie feeling – walking through this massive terminal with my phone flashlight on trying to read the signs. I finally turned a corner and saw customs. There was one lane open for people with visas and a desk off to the side that you could apply for the temporary entry. I got in line, filled out the little bit of paper-work they needed and waited. There were five people ahead of me. By the time I got to the front of the line, all five had been turned away. Told to either wait in the terminal until their flight out, or book a new flight. At this point I was getting a little worried – if the trend continued I’d be bunking up with my fellow drifters.
I got up to the desk, handed over my tickets and my paperwork and waited. No words were spoken, the agent simply held up a camera, took a photo of me, and then proceeded to type away on his computer. I wasn’t sure if this was progress, or if he was putting a call into the police. About a minute later, he handed me a slip and motioned to go through customs. I made it. Much to the chagrin of my would-be compadres who all just got denied.
I took off through customs, which, for a country so heavy on surveillance and security, was surprisingly light. After I showed my papers to the customs agent they pointed me towards a big bag scanner. With no agents in sight, I put my bag down on the conveyor belt, walked to the other side, picked it up and was on my way. Weird.
Once I got down into taxi bay though, this is where the surveillance picked up. I am not allowed to hail a cab myself, I had to go to a desk. They took down all of my information – more than what was asked for my entry card – and asked for a detailed itinerary, including proof that I was staying at the hotel I said I was. After all of that was collected I was then matched me with a driver. I noticed a lot of cameras in the bay, and once I got in the cab, I was on camera the whole time. As we drove the streets in the wee hours of the morning I could see cameras scanning the roads at roughly 100 meter intervals. The rules of the road in North America are surely not followed. As I learned, if a car’s front bumper is even an inch ahead of another car, they have the right of way to change lanes. No regard for safe stopping distance or lane change buffer. Needless to say, horns are used with reckless abandon.
When I reached the hotel it was almost 4am at this point. On point, as I rolled into the hotel, looking like a disheveled mess with nothing more than a backpack I was greeted by the hotel manager and three other staff. The service acumen I experienced on the plane was clearly a practice embodied here too. Within minutes I was checked in and in my bed. I had just slept on the plane so I was feeling pretty good, but I figured it would be good to try and bang out a few more hours of sleep. The way this trip was shaping up I just had to bank sleep when I could.
The dinner was that night, but while I was in town I figured I would set up some other meetings. So I had a fairly packed day. I hit the gym, which was much better than what I expected from a hotel gym, and then went to grab a bite to eat. I let the people at the hotel know that I had an allergy to peanuts and legumes, and they simply told me not to eat anything. Being in a foreign country with no epi-pen and no concept of how someone even participates in their healthcare system I decided I would fast.
I was staying in the middle of the city in the Dong Cheng region. This gave me a central base to operate from. What I didn’t realize was that traffic in Beijing is so bad that a destination as close as 5 km can take an hour to get to via car. So while I felt close to everything, it turned out I was not close. I somehow made it to all of my meetings but I spent an inordinate amount of time in taxis, barely moving. The good thing was that I got to see a lot of the city.
One of my meetings happened to be close to the Olympic Stadium. Naturally, I had to check that out. I cruised up to the front gates and was abruptly denied by two guards who could not have been older than eighteen. I didn’t get an explanation, they just made it very clear with their body language, and their rifles, that I was not welcome. As this was going on, many other people were walking through unencumbered. I was searching to see if they had badges, or tickets, or something that denoted their entry rights – I could not see a thing. I thought I would try my luck again. Again, I was denied – this time with a smirk from the two guards. Now I was annoyed. As I turned to walk away, another guy walked up and had the same fate – we looked at each other, looked at the others walking in, and very quickly saw what was happening here. We were the only two white guys in a sea of others. Well at least I knew why I wasn’t getting in. Disappointing but not the end of the world. On to the next destination.
I finished the day of meetings and made my way to the restaurant. This restaurant it turns out is famous for its Peking Duck – *allegedly* the best in the city. I’ll bite.
I still had not eaten during my time in China, so I was ready to get after it. The restaurant was situated along the main stretch where the most popular restaurants, bars, and clubs are situated. The person that dropped me off spoke a bit of english and he let me know that this stretch is where the parties are at. Noted.
In a stretch of buildings and flashing lights along a busy street, off to the right was a section of tall trees encapsulating a green sanctuary – a rarity from what I had seen so far in Beijing. I got let out at the far end of this make-shift forest and was told to start walking. With no building in sight I just had to trust him. After about 100 feet, I saw a clearing, and as I came through I now saw my destination. On the other side of a large pond, there sat a regal entrance, with fountains on either side of the large wooden doors. The only way to get there was across a long narrow, wooden bridge. Reeds poked through the glass water and ducks cut across, in peaceful tranquility. I wonder if these are the same ducks that will be on people’s plates tomorrow. My guess is no, but it’s an interesting thought.
I pushed through the large wooden swinging doors to a great room supported by large stone pillars that stretched up to the top of the thirty foot ceiling. Before I could give my name to the Maitre D I was waived over by my host. They had a private room in the back. A large wooden round table that could comfortably seat 16. Something I imagined King Arthur would have. At this point almost all of the guests had arrived. I was seated next to the host, and as I sat, all eyes were on me. I spent most of the evening asking questions, trying to learn more about the culture and their perspective on this new global movement in crypto. There were a lot of great takeaways. I shared my perspective from North America. I think it was received well.
As the night went on, more and more food came out, family style, but each dish came with a warning: “don’t eat that, it has peanuts”. By the close of the evening I still had not eaten anything, until finally, the chef brought out an individual plate, just for me. It was duck with salt, nothing else. I don’t want to over-index because I was so hungry, but that duck was special. It had the aesthetic glisten of the turkey in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but unlike the turkey, it was cooked to perfection. Okay Beijing, you win, your duck is the best.
After dinner a few people there wanted to show me the town. We went for a walk through the district – my cab driver was not joking, this is where people come to party. Even though it was a Wednesday night, the streets were packed, lit by the blaring lights from the buildings that lined the streets. It was like each building was competing with the others on who could deliver the best light show. We stopped into a few local taverns. I don’t drink, so my running mates just drank double – it seemed to be a win win for them. After a few hours wandering the streets I retired back to my hotel. I had a few meetings in the afternoon and then an evening flight. But before I left Beijing I had to see the Great Wall. To make it work, a 5am departure was in order.
I got back to the hotel around 2am and asked if I could get a car at 5am to take me to the Great Wall. That was in 3 hours they reminded me. No problem, I can sleep on the plane. I jetted up to my room for a quick cat nap, but as expected that didn’t last long. I was in the lobby by 4:30am, ready to go.
Like clockwork, at 5am the car pulled up and we were off. The drive was worth the trip in itself. After twenty minutes we were out in the countryside driving through rural areas with winding roads and small farms to each side. After about an hour we reached a body of water. The driver stopped, pointed, and in the distance I could see the Great Wall winding over a hilly area on the other side of the water. The sun was just starting to peak over the hills, the rays of sunlight interrupted only by the towers situated on the wall. The only living beings in sight were us. What a moment.
Another thirty minutes he informed me. We had to drive around the body of water. I had to be back in the Beijing city center by noon so I needed to move quick. We pulled up to the entrance at about 7am. My new friend walked me over to the ticket booth and did all of the translating for me. He then sent me on my way down a path to a terminal. To get up I had to take a shuttle bus to the base of a small mountain. Once there I would take a chairlift to the top. This was bringing me back to my Canadian roots going up ski hills.
I was the first person off the chairlift that morning. For about 10 minutes I had that section of the Great Wall all to myself. It was an experience I will never forget. As far as I could see in both directions was this winding wall, up and over steep inclines, snaking through trees and around bodies of water. What an engineering marvel.
I wasted no time while I was up there. I visited two beacon towers, approximately two kilometers apart. The distance does not do it justice, however, you are almost always in a perpetual state of forty-five degree incline or decline, with the odd thirtyish degree incline as a reprieve. After about an hour I had seen what I felt I needed to see, and at this point the wall was starting to fill up with other tourists. That was enough for me. Time to head back down.
I went back to the place I came up, thinking I would hit a chairlift on the way down, like my friends who operated the lift at the local ski hill used to do at the end of a shift. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was in fact an alternate route I could take though. A large metal slide that snaked its way through this mountain lay at my disposal. There were tiny boards you could ride, almost like a skeleton you’d see in the winter olympics. I’m game. An older gentleman hopped on in front of me to show me how to operate it. He took off. His colleague motioned for me to follow. I kicked off and away I was. In all it probably took me about ten minutes to get down, every now and again I’d see the old guys blazing around a turn – I tried to catch him, no dice. He was a pro.
When I came to the bottom he gave me a hat tip and I was on my way. That was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I almost felt like the team from Cool Runnings, learning to bobsled in ninety degree weather.
I surprised my driver when I showed up back at the terminal less than two hours after I departed. I take it he’s used to people spending a whole day up there. Not me. I’m efficient.
We headed back to the city with time to spare for my next meeting. I had already checked out of the hotel so was not planning on going back, but he explained to me that he was required by law to bring me back to where he picked me up. That seemed inefficient, but both he and the hotel were responsible for my whereabouts given I was a visitor – dropping me off elsewhere was out of the question. So back to the hotel I went.
I walked in the doors, showed my face, and requested another car to take me to my meeting. A few minutes later I was back on the road and on my way.
My last meetings were on the outskirts of the city core, the Haidian district. A predominantly industrial area – not where I was expecting to find finance teams. The dead heat of summer, combined with the fog induced haze over the concrete metropolis gave a dystopian feel. Almost no one was in the streets. I was ready to get out of there and get back to Canada. I finished those two meetings – interesting, but a story for another time – and grabbed a cab to the airport. My flight wasn’t for another five hours but I was not planning on spending my remaining hours in the hot, grey fog.
Getting out of China was definitely easier than getting in. I think they were probably happy to see me go. I gave them my papers and I was through security in about ten minutes. I still had only had a small plate of duck since I had been in China so I was hopeful to find some food. I got the same answer at all the restaurants though: “don’t eat here”. I was about to embark back home so I figured I would suck it up and kick off another fast. Green tea it was. A few hours later I boarded the flight and I was en route home. I may have only been there for about 48 hours but it felt like a week.
China was good to me. An experience I would recommend.