Many faces of China

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Molouk Ba-Isa I [email protected]

Published — Wednesday 10 February 2010

Last Update 10 February 2010 3:00 am

BUSINESS between China and Saudi Arabia is thriving and as those trade ties grow, increasing cultural exchange is inevitable. While attending meetings in Beijing, my hosts were kind enough to ensure that I and a dozen others in our group saw the sights. This was not my first visit to China, so I had some idea of how to feel comfortable as a Muslim while still enjoying the experiences that can only be offered in a nation made up of 56 distinct ethnic groups.

When I first learned of my trip to Beijing I went online and downloaded the Mandarin characters for “I am a vegetarian.” In a nation where pork and lard are incorporated even into some seafood dishes and baked goods, eating vegetarian in China provides a way to experience many wonderful local specialties, while still following the precepts of Islam. Vegetarian menu selections in China can be quite amazing as Chinese chefs are famous for using various textures of soy or mushrooms as meat replacements.

During our trip to Beijing we stayed in the Sofitel, Wanda Plaza. This five-star hotel opened in 2007 and is a 417-room luxury business hotel. The hotel’s public spaces are impressive and the rooms, at first glance, are equally beautiful. But the maintenance on the bathrooms was clearly a problem, and the day after our arrival the air conditioning in the guest rooms stopped functioning. Temperatures in the rooms were above 30 degrees Celsius and there was no reasonable explanation for the problem, although it was never solved. Service at the hotel was slow, and very basic business functionality — such as printing a boarding pass at 8 a.m. — was not possible. These issues aside, the hotel is considered to be one of the nicer ones in Beijing.

On our second night in China, dinner was booked at the Laoshe Teahouse ( The teahouse was created in 1988 to showcase the entertainment that was available in Beijing in the days before television and movies. The restaurant on the ground floor serves a traditional multi-course Chinese meal complete with live folk music and then guests go upstairs to watch the show. Chinese opera, sleight of hand and acrobatics are part of a Chinese-style Vaudeville performance.

Interspersed with all the other activities on the trip were opportunities to stop at traditional markets, such as Silk Alley.

Abraham Hu, our English-speaking guide, was with us every moment we were out of the office and he begged us to buy Chinese handicrafts and textiles.

Sadly, most of the group went for the fake electronics and counterfeit designer goods. Even with the small price paid for these imitation products, Abraham told us that the vendors still make a good profit on each sale which further encourages the trade. I needed a lithium battery for my camera and purchased one branded “Panasonic” that appeared to be original — down to the hologram on the packaging. It lasted just three shots.

Our last day in Beijing was divided between two famous historical sites — the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. We rushed to get to the Forbidden City before 9 a.m. to avoid the larger crowds. Expecting to be surrounded by visitors from many nations, similar to the scene at sites such as Versailles, it came as a surprise to note that the other tourists at the imperial palace were mostly Chinese. It was a great opportunity to interact with the Chinese public in close quarters.

Entire books have been written about the Palace Museum, as the Forbidden City is now known, and tourists should consult these guides before coming to Beijing, because only audio guides are available at the site.

Tourists are not allowed to enter most of the buildings inside the Palace Museum. There are displays behind large glass picture windows set into the walls of the buildings, but it’s necessary to struggle to the front of the crowds to see the furnishings arranged inside.

Everyone is good-natured about the pushing involved to get a view and a photo, but the elderly are at a disadvantage. Don’t miss the touching sight of couples posing for photographs under the entwined branches of the Cypress “Lover’s Trees” in front of the Hall of Imperial Peace.

We set off by noon from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall of China. On the way, we stopped at the Golden Palace for lunch. Downstairs in the Golden Palace is a cloisonné, or enamelware factory, which tourists must pass through to reach their meal. After lunch, we continued on toward the Badaling Pass, about 90 km from Beijing.

The Great Wall stretches to over 6,700 km so tourists tend to walk just one section of this historic barrier. The day we visited, a small traffic accident close to the Great Wall caused a major traffic jam, so we had no choice but to hike the final two kilometers to the site’s entrance. It was the easiest part of the experience.

Due to the altitude, over 1,000 meters, climbing the Great Wall at Badaling is done a few steps at a time with stops to breathe in between. This portion of the wall dates from the Ming Dynasty, when it was constructed of large blocks of granite and bricks.

The view from the Great Wall’s signal fire platforms is stunning and don’t miss the chance to pay 20 Yuan for a personalized medallion proclaiming that the wearer has climbed the Great Wall. Yes, this souvenir is “Made in China,” but in this instance that just makes it a more amusing trinket to take back home!

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