Day 1: Welcome to Beijing

On the Road is a daily blog kept by Alexander Speirs documenting NZ Inc’s January 2013 research visit to China, Hong Kong and South Korea. 

Well, we’re finally here. Following a long day on the road, Fran and I have safely made it to our hotel in Beijing.

If you’ve seen the news in the past few days, you’ll be aware that China’s pollution problems are back in the spotlight. Beijing has long had problems with air pollution throughout the city caused by the rapid industrial growth of previous decades. You may recall the Chinese government notoriously closing factories down en masse in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. 

Thick smog had reportedly been blanketing the city in the days leading up to our arrival in Beijing, but the dire situation described in the newspaper was surely journalistic hyperbole to sell papers, right?

Wrong.

One look out of the window as the plane touched down and its clear that if anything, the paper was underselling the problem. A thick grey cloud distorts all in sight, with visibility nigh-on impossible past fifty meters. That’s nothing compared to when you get out in it. Acrid smoke makes breathing difficult outside, but even worse is the foul taste which lingers for many hours afterwards.

The damage that China’s growth is be doing to the local environment and population is unbelievable. It’s not sustainable in any way, shape or form and nothing short of a serious overhaul in environmental policies is going to change anything. In the absence of that change however, my interest in investing in Chinese hospitals and pharmaceuticals grows by the day.

But while the smog and sub-zero temperatures were sufficient reason to apparently keep most Chinese indoors, nothing was getting in the way of me getting my first taste for Beijing (second if you count the complimentary pea-soup on offer).

With only a few hours of daylight, I took the subway to Oriental Plaza and Wanfujing, a place described to me a megalopolis of stores, shopping malls and markets.

It sure didn’t disappoint. It was like being in China’s version of Times Square.

What I found particularly impressive was the cultural transition one could make by simply crossing the street. On one side luxury products from the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton are elegantly displayed in shop windows. On the other, the entrance to a bustling market selling local Chinese foods, crafts, products and so much more.The change in environments was amazing – one minute you could have been anywhere in the world: Dubai, London, New York – nothing would have looked out of place. The next however, it felt like I had truly walked into China.

As fascinated as I was with my surroundings, it appeared they locals were equally enamoured by my presence. Blonde haired albinos are evidently a rarity in Beijing, locals not shy to stare, point or worse – stroke my hair as I passed.  Albeit slightly disconcerting, the attention was certainly amusing.

That’s all from me today, I’m exhausted. Time for bed. Tomorrow is when the real work begins, with the first day of our China programme kicking off. On the cards – a morning briefing from David Mahon, lunch with Rodney Jones and a meeting with some of China’s foremost academics at the University of International Business and Economics. 

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