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CNBC's Quintanilla: Our Trip to China

As we've told you--CNBC's Carl Quintanilla was part of the crew covering the just ended American-Chinese economic talks in Beijing. His reports appeared on "Squawk Box" (see our earlier post today). Here are his personal and behind the scene comments on the trip.

If you're a fan of big cities, you're a fan of Beijing. CNBC Washington Bureau News Director Matt Cuddy and I have spent four days in the Chinese capital and -- being from New York -- I think it's as vibrant and energetic as any big, American city. The subways, for instance, are crowded but efficient. Last night, we were running some tape of an interview with U.S. Trade Ambassador Susan Schwab from the Grand Hyatt Hotel back to the NBC News bureau. A trip that would have taken us 30 minutes by cab took us only 10 by train -- just like rush hour in midtown Manhattan.

It's not all good, of course. China lays claim to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world -- and Beijing is a prime example. The smog never seems to lift, which means it's tough to see farther than a mile or two down the skyline. There is construction EVERYWHERE. Yellow cranes seem to crop up every few blocks, along with small armies of men in yellow construction hats, smoking cigarettes and creating sparks with their welding equipment.

Many of the locals here resent that. They say the government has ruined much of the city's historic architecture in order to make way for new high-rises. Everywhere, it seems, giant posters advertise the phone numbers of new apartment and business complexes.

But that's what comes from explosive growth. The city is under tremendous pressure to finish its stadiums and new subway lines in time for the 2008 Olympic Games. (Which kick off on August 8, 2008 -- something you're reminded of by all the Olympic countdown clocks around downtown.) Those games will put China on the world stage in ways it has never been before. And some members of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Economic Dialogue say it's one reason the Chinese have been willing to engage in this new generation of bilateral talks.

I'm still not used to having to bargain for prices, but that's what happened yesterday as we took a break from shooting to buy some trinkets at a local market.

The market is a kick. Every imaginable kind of trinket and toy: little "Chairman Mao" statuettes, "Chairman Mao" hats, "Chairman Mao" watches (I like the kind where the second-hand is really his arm waving in solidarity). They sell chopsticks, teacups, figurines of pigs, horses and dragons.

I found a small, plastic clock I wanted to buy for some co-workers back home, and figured it would cost me, what, three bucks?

Not a chance. They could tell I was American and instantly told my translator the price would 150 yuan -- roughly $20. My translator laughed and told her we would pay 60 yuan for TWO clocks. They yelled and screamed at each other for a few minutes, my translator threatened to walk away, and only then did the vendor agree to the price we wanted. "All you have to do is start to walk away and they'll come down," she said. It was my first lesson in Beijing's tourist traps, which are so colorful and fun you hardly pay any attention to the prices at all.

Economic talks like these are incredibly important, with huge ramifications for the markets and the U.S.

But as reporting goes, it's not terribly sexy.

There's a lot of waiting around. You get to know the hotel lobby pretty well, if you know what I mean. Reporters sit, talking to press officials from the Departments of Treasury, Energy, the EPA, Commerce. There's a lot of nagging about whether we're going to get good video of Secretary Hank Paulson. What time is the photo op? Which TV network will provide the "pool" video (if there's no room for all networks to send their own cameras.) It ain't like covering a hurricane.

Still, there's a palpable sense that what's going on in Beijing this week borders on historic. Trade officials who say they've been to hundreds of these things report the meetings have a different feel. The Chinese are better prepared, more succinct, more sophisticated in their presentation. They're asking more questions about how U.S. trade policy works -- even thanking U.S. trade officials for the small victories the two sides have shared since the U.S. initiated their "open-door" policy decades ago.

Carl Quintanilla in China

The cabs here may be the smallest cabs on the face of the Earth. The backseats seem like they're built for small children -- the polar opposite of the roomy cabs you find in London. The driver sits in the front seat, enclosed by an odd, glass box. Does he think we're going to rob him? My producer, Matt, is 6'2" or so, and I love watching him try to get out of the car every time we arrive somewhere. It's better than 10 clowns getting out of a Volkswagen at the circus.