Just a very ex post facto post about my conference trip to Beijing last October. The conference was co-organized by my old prof, Dr. M, and Beijing Transnational Studies University on the topic of “Philosophy as World Lit.”
So I arrived in Beijing somewhat late, a little after 9pm, and there was no one there to pick me up, despite assurances that there would be. That was a hassle because I kept walking back and forth trying to find my hosts and wondering why my roaming wasn’t working for domestic calls. It was getting near around midnight and the last buses were leaving so I decided, fuck it, I’ll just go to the area around the university and find a hotel there. This was a bad, bad idea.
I should have led by saying it was bitterly cold in Beijing that night and it seemed some kind of Siberian cold front was sweeping in. The bus let me off at the end of one of those giant, 6 lane thoroughfares you see all over the city. Stepped off the bus into one of the most frigid and unwelcoming winds I’ve ever felt and it was past midnight, so everything was closed and abandoned-looking. Spotting a convenience store I dashed across the giant thoroughfare (with almost no traffic on it) and scooted my ass into that thankfully well-heated oasis.
My Taiwan-in-China internet was working sluggishly but I was able to send off an email to the organizers at BTSU, and to discover that there were no hotels to be found anywhere in that area…That’s when I called the wife who, god bless her soul, helped me find one in less than half an hour. (Outbound calls to Taiwan were working, but not domestic ones to my friend at Renmin Univ. for some reason). The place she found for me, the Five Pine Trees Hotel, felt less like a hotel than a state post-office: the woman at the counter eyeing me suspiciously even though my wife had already called her to book the room, the gate with a guard booth, the slightly military-looking decor…I’d stayed at a place like this in Vietnam, but this one was about 10 times less comfortable and far more government dormitory-like. Paid about $100 for the room but it turned out to be a suite with wood paneling, a sofa and chairs in one room and a decent-sized bedroom + bath.
Slept quite well under the heavy down blankets and went out roaming early the next day. About half an hour into my walk I got a call from a woman from the Uni telling me to stay put, they would come pick me. I went back to the hotel, sat in the lobby, tried to read my still incomplete paper on “Thumos and the Post-Truth Humanities,” and waited. The guy who showed up was a friend of Dr. M’s, a nice enough guy in charge of Beijing-side organizing, explained that he’d sent me an email saying my flight was coming too late for someone to pick me up…(Discovered later it was true, I didn’t receive that email because it was blocked by my school’s server). Anyway, this ZHANG H guy took me and a female professor (from Shanghai I think) to the university, where I finally met up with Dr. M and Dr. S (my MA thesis advisor from Carolina). That’s when I discovered we’d be boarding a bus to go to a resort hotel far, far from Beijing. I forget how long it took to get there but it was nightfall by the time we arrived.
The conference was an extremely unremarkable, slapdash affair, and Dr M almost lost his patience when they told him his keynote (along with the keynotes of 5 or 6 other professors!) would have to be limited to 10 minutes. I gave my talk the next day to a group of about 10 people huddled in a small but comfortable conference room. No one asked any questions or made a comment, which was weird considering the grad students there seem a lot smarter and more outgoing than ours (in Taiwan). Maybe it just sucked, but oh well. Later that night I hopped a bus with some grad students and went to see K., an actual friend, at Renmin University. Next day it was still bitterly cold but we walked around the area near his school (where he bought a teddybear for Meredith) and saw Bei-da at length–very scenic school actually, with a large park that we walked around.
All in all it was a pretty sloppy conference but a good chance to see some old acquaintances and check out some of the capital. And have to say I wouldn’t want to live there: a huge bureaucratic, cold city with bad air? The clincher was that there were no street vendors, local food, or signs of “old Beijing” to be found near universities–just bland shopping malls and government buildings all over. Asked K to take me to a used bookstore but he reacted- “uh, see, we buy those online now…” Granted he’s the worst person on earth to act as a guide because he’s half hermit, even though he actually worked as a travel guide for years back in St Petersburg, but it would have been very nice to see more of the real city…And will there be a next time?