Alright, I know, I haven’t posted a blog in two weeks. Some of you care about that, I’m sure, but hey – here now!
But I won’t be ‘here’ for long, as I am leaving Beijing tomorrow. It feels like I only just arrived but it’s been a full eight weeks, so it’s time for me to head over to Hong Kong, pick up a visa and fly to Ordos. I’m going to miss this city so much – I’ve really fallen in love with it. It has its bad points, sure, but Beijing is so busy, it’s full of life and it has so many good things going for it too.
Good – Transportation
I’ve already talked about the sheer number of bike rentals around the city, that are so cheap they’re practically free, but if you need to travel far there’s also buses, the subway and taxis.
An example of an ‘authentic’ taxi – photo from City Weekend
I haven’t taken a bus on my own because talking to people still seems like a lot of hassle, but my journey to the Great Wall involved using a public bus and it cost 6RMB (£0.70) to go 60km. Back home, I can’t even get the bus to the next town over for that price! On the way there it was comfortable, there was enough leg space and air conditioning. The way back was a bit different due to the amount of people making the trip. We got stuck in traffic for over an hour whilst crammed into the aisle with other tourists, but all in all, it wasn’t a terrible experience.
Then there are taxis. People tried to put us off taking taxis when we first arrived because a lot of people get scammed, but I’ve never had a bad experience – either with the official cabs or the unlicensed cabs. It’s usually pretty simple to flag one down and although some don’t want to stop for foreigners (the language barrier), those that do are very patient and helpful. Even late at night, the cab fare home hasn’t been extortionate (the most I’ve paid is 45RMB (£5.30) at four in the morning) and the drivers are always friendly.
As for the subway, it typically runs from 5am until 11pm, which isn’t always convenient, but a journey anywhere in the city costs about 4RMB (£0.50). My journey to work took 40-50 minutes and I never had to wait more than three minutes for the next train. Sure, it gets crowded in rush hour, but where in the world doesn’t? It’s actually quite impressive as you think you couldn’t possibly get another person in, only for four more to push on in. I think it’s partly due to this close proximity that everyone is polite when it comes to shuffling on and off the trains. It’s just a shame that the slow walkers who stop at the top of escalators to check their phones ruin the flow.
Good – Social initiatives
A really cool thing about the subway is that the carriages have TV too. Late at night it tends to be playing ‘Shawn the Sheep’, but during the day they play through lots of public service announcements. The most common one is for blind people – showing libraries that have books in braille and audio books; a little ant construction worker who helps blind Tony Stark not to get run over… that sort of thing. There are messages about increased disabled access and there was even a video trying to eliminate some of the stigma attached to depression – which would be considered pretty forward in Western countries, never mind China. There’s a lot of anti-smoking posters too, which I was shocked by. Beijing’s starting to implement a lot of the laws we have in Europe about where you can and cannot smoke and it seems to be going down really well. I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but when I came here I was expecting a lot of indoor smoking and in fact, it’s almost exclusively reserved for bars and clubs.
Image from China Daily – just such a shame I can’t find the Iron Man one
However, some of the social initiatives could be damaging. The government is currently bricking up the hutongs in order to keep the backstreets under control. This means that any shops, bars or restaurants they find undesirable get their doorway bricked up. It happens overnight. It seems to be dividing citizens too, as some understand the government’s desire to make the city a safer, more reputable place, whereas others see it as ruining the lives of those who own the venues whilst taking away from Beijing’s culture. I personally think it’s a very sad thing, but there are two sides to every coin.
Good – Clean Streets
Okay, I know this is going to shock a lot of people, most likely including the expats that have lived in Beijing – but hear me out. The streets might be dusty and trash gets thrown anywhere – but it never stays there for long. I’m embarrassed to recall the streets in the UK littered with cigarette butts, covered in chewing gum and the more-than-occasional dog turd. Chinese people may feel free to throw things on the ground, but it never stays there for long – they hire a large number of street cleaners to make sure the mess doesn’t pile up. I keep reading ex-pat articles talking about faeces on the streets, but I’ve never seen it.
Bad – Public Toilets
To start with, I am impressed with the sheer number of public toilets, you’re never that far from one. However, the term ‘toilet’ may be loosely defined. Nearly every toilet here is a squat toilet and that’s something you can get used to, but public toilets don’t always have dividers. There’s just a row of four squat toilets, with no bins for toilet paper (or any toilet paper, for that matter) and no hangers for your bag. If you want to hold hand with the person next to you I’m sure it’s ideal, but there’s a few too many inconveniences to the public toilets for me.
It extends to shops and public buildings too. Often the female toilets don’t lock, so you’re squatting, trying to keep your clothes off the ground, your bag precariously perched on your knee whilst you try to keep the door closed. It’s risky, but if you’re quick to wipe, you can probably grab hold of the door again before anyone comes in.
And as a side note, I really miss flushing toilet paper. Women have a lot of reasons to need a bin in the bathroom, and I have seen all of them up close and personal. I have long legs. Trying not to knock the toxic waste of a basket with my knee is an ongoing challenge.
An example of a hutong toilet – image from the Daily Mail
Bad – The Spitting
Actually, it’s not the spitting itself that bothers me anymore, it’s the big throat-rattling performance they make on the lead up to spitting. It’s everywhere, including indoors.
Bad – The Beijing Bikini
This one isn’t actually all that bad, it just took a while to get used to. Men have a habit of lifting their tops up so that their bellies are out, making a ‘Beijing bikini’. I’ve seen lots of different types do it, but the usual suspect is a middle-aged man with a gut large enough to block his view of his own feet.
The ‘Beijing Bikini’ – image courtesy of The Beijinger
Bad – The Lack of English
I feel bad saying it – how dare I expect them to speak my language – but English is spoken by a helluva lot of people. Getting about isn’t so bad because they have pinyin (pronunciation) over the characters but tourist sites don’t have English. Museums don’t have English. How am I supposed to learn about your culture if there’s no way for me to get the information? Sort it out.
As with anywhere, it’s a love-hate balance, but for me Beijing comes out on top. #IloveBJ