Friday, January 16, 2009

From Hutatma Chowk to China

One reason for my long silence on this blog is that I went to China, and was suitably overwhelmed.

Beijing airport's Terminal 3 is gigantic, dwarfing every airport terminal I've ever seen. It is fronted by gracefully slanted red pillars and makes a fine blend of modern glass-and-steel architecture with traditional Chinese royal motifs such as one sees in the Forbidden City. To get from the arrival area to the baggage claim and exit one takes an intra-terminal train, as in many other airports today (Kansai, Newark and Hongkong come to mind, but Beijing has the fastest train of its kind).

Once out of the airport, via the underground parking (a student had come to receive me in a rental car with a driver, as might happen in India) we were on a broad highway and drove smoothly along it all the way to Zhongguancun where the Beijing Academy of Sciences is located. This seems somewhat of an umbrella institution with several sub-institutions situated within its campus, such as the Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP) and the new Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, China (KITPC). We covered about 40 km in a mere half-hour, and I was ejected into the bitter cold (-10 to -2 degrees C on that day). The blue skies and brilliant sunshine on the way had been quite deceptive.

On the way we passed the famous "bird's nest" Olympic stadium as well as a squiggly looking glass and steel building described as a "7-star hotel".

The hugeness of everything in Beijing continued to overwhelm me for the rest of my short (5-day) stay. The 4th Ring Road has a service lane, three regular lanes and four "express" lanes that dip under and fly over intersections, making eight lanes going in one direction. Then there are eight in the other direction, making a total of 16 altogether! Crossing such a road is daunting for many reasons - one being the bitter cold and the thought of the sheer distance to be traversed, given how small and faraway the pedestrian traffic light looks.

The traffic is an enigma. There seem to be only big (Honda-City size and above) cars in Beijing, I hardly saw any small ones. Now between intersections the traffic is smooth and gracefully flowing. But at each intersection, we go back (metaphorically) from China to Hutatma Chowk. It's a free-for-all, with cars honking at pedestrians, making illegal U-turns, running red lights, blocking each other and all that. Eventually the mess resolves itself and all the cars go sailing off smoothly until the next intersection.

Nothing had prepared me for Tiān'ānmén square on what turned out to be the coldest day of my stay. At around 11 AM in bright sunshine, far-subzero temperatures and biting winds, I had to cross this from the southern end (Qianmen station) to the northern end from where one enters the Forbidden City. It was among the coldest moments of my life, which I survived only by cupping my freezing jaw in two gloved hands. The rest of the trip through the Forbidden City was almost as bad though the wind did let up briefly in between. By the end I wondered why the Ming and Qing emperors didn't get fed up with their Forbidden City and move to a more salubrious climate. I would have simply taken over Thailand and spent my winters in Phuket!

Fortunately the hotel where I was staying had excellent heating and I was able to prepare and deliver six lectures in four days with no problem at all. The closest thing to a problem was when our hosts took us out for a stunning Hunan-style dinner and insisted we drink plenty of what they called "Chinese liquor". This is very strong stuff and we were obliged to toast each other several dozen times so a rollicking time was had by all. By the time I got back to the hotel to prepare my last talk, my pdf presentation looked rather blurred! So as a joke I used Gimp to create a page that would illustrate my blurred vision to the students next day. Here it is:

Being Chinese rather than Indian, the students did not faint at the thought that their teachers had been drinking the previous night. Nor did they think I was an alcoholic, which I suspect some of my colleagues in India do to this day...


Rahul Basu said...

Sunil: I was hoping you would actually say something about Hutatma Chowk and Tiananmen Square, both being considered a martyr's square, in a sense....couldn't help noticing that you had carefully kept all politics aside....

sz7 said...

Good job Sunil! I had a good laugh when reading the 'we go back (metaphorically) from China to Hutatma Chowk' paragraph. That's truly China!

BTW, the 'Chinese liquor' you drunk is 'baijiu' in Chinese which means 'white alcohol' though it's actually transparent :)

Best regards from a Chinese student.

Sunil Mukhi said...

sz7: I guess that makes me a "baijiu bawra"! Sorry for the multi-lingual pun!!

sz7 said...

After searching 'Baiju Bawra' for a while, I understood what you meant. Man I'm crazily in love with baijiu! Nice pun!