Last year, National Geographic Traveler and tour company Travcoa partnered to host the "Next Great Travel Writer" essay contest. The winner, Suzanne Roberts, won a trip to Mongolia with Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows, and the two have just begun their journey. They'll be sending us dispatches from the road while they're gone, and making us jealous in the process... Today's post comes from Keith Bellows, the ultimate Traveler himself.
Full disclosure: I’m routing through Beijing and headed to Mongolia as part of a tour group. This is decidedly strange for me—as editor of National Geographic Traveler I’m used to traveling incognito, usually alone, and completely free to discover places on my own. Going in a group with much of my route preordained is not how I normally make my way around the world. But more than a year ago Traveler and Travcoa, a global travel operator, partnered on a contest to pick the next great travel writer. The winner was Suzanne Roberts, who is studying for a doctorate in creative writing at the University of Reno-Nevada. My assignment: to go into the field with her to offer support and coaching. Her assignment: to write an article about the experience that we’ll run on our website.
It’s just under a month until the Olympics. I’m riding in from the “old” airport (not T3, Beijing’s newest and the world’s largest) after a 14-hour flight from Newark. Clearing customs was easier than getting money from an ATM machine. My baggage made the carousel before I did. The airport was virtually deserted. The squeaky clean thruway from the airport seems swept of traffic and the torrential rains from day before have left the sky uncharacteristically clear blue and smog free. This is not the dingy, auto-clogged Beijing I had encountered when I was here last October.
The place is papered with the “One World” Olympic Games motto. The city has gone gaga over the so-called Green Games—it has spent $20 billion on an environmental clean-up that includes installing new water purification plants, retrofitting gas stations, upgrading power plants, cutting power usage, installing solar power generators, planting millions of new trees. Countless factories are going offline and in one area alone more than 260 steel plants will shut down July 8. The streets bristle with flowerpots. The roads are lined with newly minted apartments. Freshly poured concrete is everywhere. Old women roam the streets hunting for plastic bottles, which they redeem for roughly $7 a thousand.
The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium—trumpeted here as the world’s largest bird’s nest, its nickname—opened a week ago. Rem Koolhaas’s strange but striking national television building is days away from losing the last cranes that hover around its perimeter. The twin 750-foot-high L-shaped arches—the locals call the result “Underpants,” an accurate description—are big enough to house 200 television stations. (For some great photos of the building boom, visit National Geographic's photo gallery).
I head out to one of my favorite guilty pleasures—the Silk Palace and Pearl House. Less than a mile from the Forbidden City, it’s a seething shrine to commerce (its slogan is “Market with Confidence,” which may be pushing things if you don’t keep your wits about you). I slog the mile from my hotel through a gauntlet of global generica—Sizzlers, Starbucks, Subway, Pizza Hut, Fridays until I reach what is uniquely, authentically Beijing—a free-for-all of a market that once dominated city streets but that has been relocated to a seven-floor emporium. While it is packed with every imaginable product found at home (at steeply discounted prices), it is also the place to buy genuine Chinese. And while the impending Olympics have brought more tourists, they are heavily outnumbered by the locals who come to shop, gawk, and browse hundreds of stalls staffed with sales touts who screech, cajole, flirt, bray come-ons, brag, step into your path, grab you by the arm—anything to draw you into their web. Unless you want to buy, you keep your eyes locked ahead while chanting a mantra of “No, thanks.”
But buy you should. Leave wallet, passport, and valuables in a hotel
lockbox and bring only your ATM card and cash in 100 Yuan notes
discretely stored in a belly belt —vendors will stick you with the
credit card fees if you use plastic. Last time I was here I stocked up
on silk scarves and pajamas, gifts from Lu’ Wholesale Sea Water Pearl
and Ya Yuan Jewelry, a faux Rolex and several mock Mont Blanc pens. A
guide has told me that knockoffs have been outlawed. “Very hard to find
now,” he said. “Place very closely policed.” Not true, considering the
abundance of Gucci shoes for less than $100 and iPod mimics at $150.
But the genuine articles are still a steal and fierce, aggressive bargain is mandatory (“They won’t respect you if you don’t get tough,” insisted the guide).
“Mister, mister, you come see my shirts here,” a young girl implores. “Very good quality. Good price.”
“Come, I give you special deal. Just for you.” She smiles winningly and pulls me into her booth.
I inspect Polo shirts at 580 Y each (slightly less than $10).
“Too much,” I say.
“How many you want?” she counters.
She bows to her calculator and taps out 2000 Y.
She gives me a stricken look.
“How much you want to pay?” she asks.
I tap out 500 Y.
“For all four,” she asks incredulously. “You crazy.”
I make to leave her booth.
“Wait, wait,” she begs. “Seven hundred.”
I consider and counter with 550.
“Six hundred,” she replies.
I accept. Four shirts for less than $10.
Within the next hour I buy two custom-fit blazers for $200 and three pairs of reading glasses made to order in less than 30 minutes for $25.
I'll leave the custom-designed underpants to Koolhaas.
Photos: Guang Niu/Getty Images via the Places of a Lifetime photo gallery