China and Thailand (revisited #8)

Surreal. That is the only way I can describe almost any trip I've taken to Asia, especially one that includes Thailand. I had been scheduled to visit Beijing, China and Bangkok, Thailand for a while, and I finally was able to make the time to do so. I spent about 12 days in Beijing, and 11 days in Bangkok.

My primary reason for the visit to talk with my research collaborators at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) and the Thai National Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), present a few seminars (one at BGI and one at the Beijing Biophysics Institute), and generally try to move things forward in ways that can't be done by simply exchanging e-mail. In this regard, the trip was a huge success.

The trip successfully mixed scientific conversation with sightseeing. On the first day I was there, I was taken by BGI students to the Temple of Heaven. As we walked around the temple, we also engaged in interesting scientific discussions about the research we did.

That evening, I got my first taste of Beijing Nightlife when I was dropped off at this club called Rock and Roll near a street full of bars called Sunlitun. This was a place that was open till 5:30a, and it was a completely packed until closing every single day. There was no concept of weekday vs. weekend here (unlike at most other clubs). I had a great time at this club, being one of the few foreigners dancing to a mix to trance, techno, and Chinese pop anthems surrounded by hundreds of Chinese people. One of the songs I really got into, as did the crowd, even without understanding it. I later learnt that this was Hui Xin Zhuan Yi by Hei Long, and it was popular even in Bangkok.

The next day, I was taken by another set of students to the Forbidden City and Tianmen Square. It was amazing to me how people don't seem to be aware of how the Western world views what happened in Tianmen in 1989 and how that defines the square for them. That evening, I had dinner with the sisters of one of my students; I currently have five graduate students from China, and one of my students attending my meetings with me and showed me around while I was there, for which I am extremely grateful since I don't speak much Chinese.

After dinner, I went back to Sunlitun. In general, I went every day to Sunlitun. I got tired of the bars on the main street very quickly, but a couple (Kebab Korner, and Day Off) were decent enough. The bars off the main streets were a lot of fun. These included Poachers, Cloud Nine (where I saw Ken Ishii), Bar Blue, and Kai Bar towards the North, and Club Look, The Loft, and the above-mentioned Rock and Roll toward the south. I met a lot of interesting people at Poachers, and one day ended up at the infamous Maggie's (where Chinese males aren't allowed) which ended up costing me some money, but it was worth it for the experience.

Before I went, my student warned me that Sunlitun is a place where people will take your money. I thought she was talking about muggings, but really, it was about aggressive women who will demand money from you for smiling to you, to a point where it is almost either a fleecing or plain harassment.

Another party area in Beijing is called Hou Hai. This is situated on a lake and is very pretty. I didn't spend as much time here since I like to dance and it didn't look like there were too many dance club style places here.

Besides dancing and sightseeing, one of my other major activities involved a six-hour round trip climb to the Great Wall, at a place called Jian Ko, a couple of hours from Beijing. Having climbed mountains before, I thought this would be easy and so I stayed up until 4a the previous day which was a mistake. The climb itself went okay, but coming down was terrible since I am scared of heights. There were points where one really had to rock climb without any ropes and a single slip would've meant a long fall.

I was also fortunate to have one of my students show me around the university she graduated from, Peking University, which has a beautiful campus.

In general, I found Beijing to be a depressing place. It seemed people worked very hard and made little progress.

Thailand was a little more relaxed after the frenetic pace in Beijing. Since I was more familiar with it, I went to my usual haunts including eating spicy Isaan food by the Bumrungrad Hospital, hanging out at Big Dog in Nana Plaza and watching the punters go by, and I also found a small low-pressure bar (whose name I forget) just on Sukhumvit where no one pestered you to buy drinks all the time. I also checked out a couple of clubs I hadn't been to before, including Mystique and Q-Bar. The latter is arguably one of the most sophisticated clubs I've been to in Thailand, Q-Bar is more of a bar than a dance place.

As usual, I had a lot of meeting and scientific discussions but managed to keep my evenings free. Besides hanging out in the Sukhumvit area, I did get to check out Patpong a couple of times.

I heard some good and interesting music, including songs like Country Roads, and Temple of the King, remixed to a techno beat. Sang (or semi-butchered, which is okay since I don't speak much of the language) some Thai songs in the one time I did karaoke (usually do this a lot).

As usual, I ran across funny cultural incidents that could only happen in places like China/Thailand: In Beijing, when I called to ask about the Internet connection not work, they brought me towels (perhaps they were trying to tell me something). When we drove about 3 hours away from Beijing, we through this tiny village where firecrackers were being exploded to celebrate the opening of a new business: a financial investment firm in the middle of nowhere. The cyclists in Beijing appeared to form a complex dynamic system with the cars and other motorised vehicle--I never saw a single accident. It's almost as if people could read other's thoughts.

My next trip in this area will be to Huangzhou/Shanghai and again to Bangkok and perhaps Chiang Mai. I can't wait!

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || || October 6-30, 2004