So it has been a long time since I have blogged, but I think now is going to be as good of a time as any to start up again. No explanation, other than I was too busy with life and work- also mixed with some laziness.
Anyways, a few weeks ago I got a call from one of the managers in my group at work. This was a pretty surprising (but welcoming) call. I answered the phone and the first thing he pretty much said was, “Do you want to go to China?”. I jokingly replied “Can I leave tomorrow?” To my surprise, he was completely serious and wanted me to leave tomorrow, but the visa would take at least a few days to go through.
I am not going to go into the details of why I went over there for work. The majority of the trip that related to business was tough. Anytime a software engineer travels long distances (and it isn’t for a conference/show) they can expect to work long hours and hard days. On the bright side, I did learn a ton about certain modules of the MSP430 and got some valuable experience with customer interaction.
So this brings me to the first aspect of the trip; the Chinese visa. Literally I was called on a Friday afternoon and had to rush around and get all of the visa application material together. The closest Chinese consulate is in Houston and my company uses a courier service to send the passport/paperwork to Houston and express it back to Dallas. After scrambling around to get my passport, visa pictures, invitation letters, etc, I did the ultra mega-fast FedEx to the courier service in Houston. I was told that the visa process would take about five business days.
After that craziness, I booked my travel through my company’s travel site. A last minute ticket was not cheap (even if my company is paying for it, I don’t want to bankrupt anyone), but surprisingly I was able to get a round trip to Beijing for only a few hundred dollars more than the average advance booking price. I also booked my hotel arrangements. I always like traveling with my company as they put their employees at really nice hotels. This time they put me at the Beijing Crowne Plaza Zhongguancun.
The next week before I got my visa were pretty hectic. I was doing everything I could at work to learn about the MSP430 modules involved with the business of the trip. I wanted to do as much as possible before I landed in China. My visa was scheduled to arrive at my apartment on Friday morning and I was scheduled to fly out on Friday afternoon (so it was pretty tight).
Friday morning came, my visa arrived, and I was off to the airport in a taxi. My flight to Beijing was pretty straight forward with no insane layovers (Dallas->Tokyo, Tokyo->Beijing) with the same trip on the flight back. Regardless, it was a long flight. I flew American Airlines on the DFW->Tokyo leg. I was fortunate and got into an exit row seat, but unfortunately I was stuck next to an armrest hog. I flew Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Beijing and that was awesome (Haagen Dazs ice cream!). On the Beijing leg I was completely out of it. I cannot sleep on airplanes and was more or less like a zombie when I got to Beijing. We flew over Seoul and Dalian which was pretty neat.
I arrived in Beijing around 9pm on Saturday and quickly moved through customs/immigration. After a small monorail ride over to the airport entrance, I waited in line for the taxi queue. I am convinced that there is no stress-free way to get into a taxi in Beijing. The way the taxi queue worked is that a bunch of taxis would drive up to the line and they would let people through the line in chunks. This means when it is your chunk’s turn it is absolute chaos trying to find an open taxi. Some way or another I did and showed the taxi the hotel address in Chinese from my iPad.
The taxi ride over to the hotel was definitely an experience. I am convinced that I picked the “Fast and the Furious” taxi. He was literally going 180kmh(120 mph) only to slow down for the speed trap cameras. At first I thought that it was just how taxis drove in Beijing, but then I realized that we were the only taxi going this fast. In any case, I eventually arrived at the hotel and checked in. Since it was a last minute hotel reservation, they put my in the “club” level. The club level has a slightly bigger room, free breakfast (which I found about a couple of days in), and various other amenities.
Since I arrived on a Saturday, the first opportunity I had to work was Sunday. The hardware at work wasn’t ready on Sunday so I had the day to get over jet lag and explore Beijing. I have a friend that lives in Beijing that I knew from Dallas. She wasn’t able to meet until later in the afternoon so I took the opportunity to explore the area around my hotel by myself. I was able to find a Chinese Walmart within walking distance.
After Walmart, I returned for the hotel and bummed around in my room a while until my friend arrived. We hopped into a taxi and headed to Tienanmen Square. This is where I caught my first experience of Beijing traffic. I am used to Dallas traffic- and in all honesty compared to Dallas rush hour the Beijing traffic wasn’t too bad, but the traffic made a 20 minute taxi trip into a one hour ride.
Tienanmen Square was peaceful. There were a lot of Chinese soldiers everywhere, but it was pretty interesting to see a place that had so much history. Walking around the square today you would have never known about the dark history that happened (and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it there to avoid conflict). I saw the picture of Chairman Mao and I saw The Forbidden City (from the outside, got there too late to go in).
Next, my friend and I hopped on a bus and headed towards a popular shopping/snacking area of Beijing called Donghuamen, Wangfujing (东华门王府井). I can only describe this area of Beijing as the “Times Square” of Beijing. There were a lot of lights, a certain energy energy in the air, and overall showcased the “big city” feel of Beijing. In this district, there is a special street that is devoted almost entirely to Chinese street food. I only sampled the “tanghulu” (糖葫芦), which is a sort of candy-marbled set of crab apples on a stick. They are sweet and sour but very delicious.
After we got back to my hotel area it was already night. We went to eat at a Peking Duck restaurant and then called it a night.
The next few days were the stressful “business” days. Luckily, by Thursday, I (along with a magnitude of support from the team back in Dallas and the FAEs in China) were able to sort out the majority of business that we had with the customer. One of the nights I went out with the FAEs to a Chinese restaurant. One FAE ordered a couple bottles of 白酒 (baijou). This is Chinese white liquor which is about 50% ABV.
On Thursday, I woke up, caught up on emails/calls, and then headed to The Great Wall. My friend told me that you aren’t considered a real man until you visit The Great Wall. Another friend told me that it is a sin to go to Beijing and not visit The Great Wall. Since I was fortunate enough to have everything sorted with work, I felt that it would be shame if I didn’t go.
From my hotel there were two “sights” of The Great Wall that I could go to: Badaling and Mutianyu. Badaling is apparently closer to Beijing and has more smog so I opted to go to Mutianyu. The concierge at the hotel arranged a taxi to pick me up and take me to The Great Wall. He said the taxi driver would wait for me while I visited the wall and take me back after a few hours. The round trip taxi cost was 900 rmb ($143 USD). The taxi took me out of Beijing, onto the highway, and through the rural Chinese countryside. The ride alone was very interesting and I got to see a lot of rural China.
Once we got to Mutianyu, it was pretty breathtaking. Honestly words and pictures can’t do The Great Wall justice.The wall is just so massive and impressive- it’s hard to put in words. As an engineer I guess I was amazed at how something so massive was built (considering it was started over a thousand years ago). At the base of the wall were a bunch of touristy souvenir shops and food stands. I paid for the entry ticket and chair lift to the top of the wall with a toboggan ride down (which round trip was 120rmb). This was definitely the defining point of my visit to Beijing.
I definitely found out that I was not in the best shape by walking on The Great Wall. From the chair lift, I walked to the end point of the portion that was open to tourists and back to the chair lift station. I had to stop multiple times along the way to catch my breath and went through a couple of bottles of water. It was an awesome experience though and I am so glad that I was lucky enough to have the time to visit.
For the ride down I bought a “toboggan” ticket. I was a little worried about the safety of the toboggan, but convinced myself to do it anyways. I am a pretty tall guy, but nonetheless I was able to fit into the toboggan without a problem. I wizzed down the mountain side next to The Great Wall to the base station in about five minutes.
After getting to the bottom of The Great Wall, I bought a few touristy souvenirs, found my taxi driver, and then headed back to the hotel. Back at the hotel, I caught up on emails/work, and then met the FAEs and my friend in the hotel lounge to go out to dinner.
We went out to a “Nanking” style restaurant. In this restaurant, we had our own private room with a table. It was a very nice “common” restaurant and the food was very delicious. After ordering a pitcher of beer and saying cheers, we dug into the food.
I was stuffed after this meal. I would have had more beer, but considering I had to wake up at 5am the next day to catch my flight back to The States I refrained. We caught a taxi back to the hotel, I packed, and then I passed out in the comfy king bed.
The trip back was pretty uneventful. I had a six hour layover in Tokyo (I got some delicious ramen and Kirin beer), but it was just a normal trip. I was lucky enough to get a seat with an empty seat next to me. I could stretch my legs and even managed to go into a half “sleep” state for about an hour. This trip did bump me into Gold status with American Airlines and give me copious airline miles that I will use for a vacation down the line.
All in all, it was a productive trip. Of course it was extremely stressful getting all of the work done, but the day or so that I got to visit the sites made it all worth the stress. I’d like to go back to China someday on vacation and have a little bit more relaxed schedule. Everyone I met was very friendly and I am glad I got to experience Chinese culture.
On a side note, I also went on two business trips to Taiwan earlier this year. I was too busy and involved in the project that I didn’t have time to blog, but here are the Picasa albums from them: