15 February 2006 2006 nian 2 yue 15 hao

Journal: First Impressions of Beijing

After all my enthusiasm for Beijing, I suppose some of you are wondering what I actually think of the place, now that I've been here for a month already. Certainly, some of the differences between Beijing and Xining struck me right away—which is what I'm now going to write about.

My very earliest impression, in fact, was that Beijing was frighteningly expensive. But that was because I asked the friend who I'm staying with where I could go to buy clothes, and being himself not very familiar with the city, he could only suggest well-known locations like Guomao and Wangfujing. These turn out to be possibly the two most expensive shopping districts in the whole city! I didn't even step into a clothing shop, but when I made a photocopy it cost three times more than I had ever paid before. For lunch, it was hard to find anything except KFC, MacDonalds, Subway, Pizza Hut, Häagan Dazs, and Starbucks (I chose Subway). And when, tired and thirsty, I wanted to buy a bottled drink, I found that I couldn't! The sort of tiny deli (or tinier kiosk) which are hardly ever out of sight in Xining were nowhere to be found.

In a department store near Dongdaqiao I saw a German-made clothes-drying rack on sale for 999 yuan. Technologically it was indeed quite innovative, and no doubt top quality, but it cost at least four times the price a locally made clothes rack would cost. That there are people in Beijing willing (and able) to buy imported European clothing labels for more than I could earn in a month (in Australia!) does not really surprise me, but that a department store could stock such an expensive clothes rack was quite an eye-opener. That's when I thought to myself, "Taotao, I've a feeling we're not in Qinghai anymore".

But something told me that this wasn't the real Beijing. Even walking around the streets at Guomao, I felt a certain sense of familiarity. There were wide roads and crowded buses. There were bicycles and illegal street vendors. There were occasionally examples of architecture that weren't an eyesore, but they were the exception rather than the rule. In short, I felt that I was in an ordinary chinese city. Beijing, I realized with relief, was not Hong Kong. And I was sure that once I knew the city better, I would be able to find all the things that I was used to relying on in chinese cities, like cheap restaurants, shoe shiners, public phones that you don't need exact change to use (because they are sitting on the counter in somebody's shop), and inexpensive "discardable" clothes and shoes ("discardable" because they only last a season).

Ironically, I ended up finding reasonably-priced clothes at another famous Beijing location, the so-called Silk Market. A comparison between this and Wangfujing might follow the lines of what a friend told me when describing Erguotou, Beijing's trademark liquor. He pointed out that Erguotou is just as famous as Maotai, but is far far less expensive. This beverage is not, mind you, renowned for its flavour. Since coming to Beijing I have tasted the famed Hongxing Erguotou (ironically it was offered to me by a guy from Qinghai, now working at a university here) and I didn't even have a gag reflex, which just goes to show the effect that 18 months in Qinghai has on even the most moderate of drinkers.

One notable feature of Beijing is that it is much bigger than anywhere else I've lived, in China or Australia. And those who criticize the transport system here have good reason to. The roads are packed, and on my third day I experienced a traffic jam on the Third Ring Road. Buses rumble from stop to stop as if they have nothing higher than second gear, but unfortunately it's rarely possible to get anywhere by subway alone.

In Xining I had a rechargeable swipe card for the buses (more convenient than searching for spare change to drop in the box, and 30% cheaper), so I was surprised to find that most buses in Beijing adopt the more "archaic" system of onboard ticket sellers. Friends have suggested that there are just too many people getting on the bus at each stop for an automated system to be efficient. Some buses are huge articulated monsters with three doors, and the most crowded routes often have two ticket sellers on each bus, enclosed in a narrow "pen" running along the wall so that they can walk back and forth and reach most passengers without needing to push past people. Monthly tickets are available for a fixed price of 20 yuan for adults and 10 yuan for students. If you ride the bus twice daily, that could amount to a saving of 50% or more. That price is only for route numbers under 300, though. Monthly tickets valid for the longer routes are more expensive.

I have come to realize that I like subways. I even like Beijing's, although its limited network hardly compares to, for example, Hong Kong's ultra-efficient MTR. Fortunately, I hear that the network will be expanded in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Of course, subways are fast and convenient, but that's not all I like about them. I like being able to leave the hustle and confusion of street level and, twenty minutes later, reappear in a completely different part of the city, as if I had stepped through some kind of warp hole. In a city the size of Beijing, I would rather think of each address in relation to the nearest subway station, rather than thinking about its position relative to the city as a whole.

Having said that, one's position in relation to the city as a whole, or rather in relation to the imperial palace, is sometimes hard to forget in Beijing. All the chinese maps I have seen, even the most basic illustrations of the subway network, include a pictorial representation of Tiananmen, the main gate of the imperial palace. There are several rather square "ring roads" centering on the palace, the innermost being the Second Ring Road (with the implication that the First Ring Road, although not actually an artery road, is the road that circles the palace wall). Some distance to the east of Tiananmen is a subway stop called Dongdan. Literally it means "Eastern Dan", although what a dan is I have no idea and it probably no longer exists anyway. Naturally, there is a "Western Dan" an equal distance to the west. The "loop line" subway, of which three sides are concurrent with the Second Ring Road, evidently traces the position of the old city wall. There you will find "Front Gate" (the central southern gate), "Facing Sun Gate" (the central eastern gate), "Eastern Straight Gate", "Western Straight Gate", and various other gates, all of which no longer exist. Nearby roads are usually named after the gate, with a character added to indicate whether it is on the inner or outer side of the city wall. Olympic Park, lying outside the Fourth Ring Road, is situated directly on the axis extending north from the imperial palace, considered an extremely auspicious location.

As for the people of Beijing, one of my early impressions was that they seemed quite orderly, content to form queues or even to wait patiently for passengers to alight from the subway cars before boarding. I've also discovered that the Beijing accent does not merely involve adding a retroflex "r" to the end of every second word (which I have nothing against, by the way), but is in fact sufficiently different from standard Mandarin to make comprehension sometimes challenging for the newcomer. In truth, though, I don't know enough Beijing people to really have any particular impression of them.

An interesting phenomenon is that if you open a map on the street (and contrive to look foreign), usually within one minute a student will approach you and ask in english if they can help you. This happened twice while I was standing at a bus stop, trying to decide which bus to take, and both times it ended with the suggestion that I catch a taxi, which I didn't find particularly helpful!

Stares and "hellos" are fairly rare. Indeed, if I catch somebody staring I often suspect that they are from out of town, or just don't get out very much. There are indeed a lot of foreigners in Beijing (although not many on buses I have to admit; see previous paragraph). "I've noticed that foreigners are all very tall," I commented half-jokingly to a friend recently. "Yes!" she exclaimed, as if she had noticed the same thing but hadn't dared to mention it before. "Are you the shortest one?"

What's the Silk Market?

This is the english name. In chinese it is simply called Xiushui Jie or Xiushui Shichang, after the street were it was formerly located. A year ago, the outdoor market was closed down over concerns that the narrow alley presented a fire hazard, and a multi-storey building was built nearby to rehouse it. Ride the subway (line 1) to Yonganli, take the northern exit, and it will be directly in front of you.

The Silk Market is well-known by chinese and tourists alike, not for silks but for clothing, shoes, and accessories. Everything is from famous brands, and everything is faker than a Spinal Tap tribute band, but reportedly fairly high quality nevertheless. It's also not just label-borrowing, but actual fashion piracy: I asked one of the sellers why the shirt I was looking at had two buttons for the collar, and she told me quite openly that the real Timberland shirt had buttons there, so this one did too.

But the special thing about the Silk Market are the marked prices. Expect them to be about 10 times the real price. Apart from that, it's the same as haggling anywhere else, but you have to have the nerve to look the seller in the eye and offer 40 yuan as an opener when the marked price is perhaps 600 or 700. The day I went, I bought a pair of "Marlboro" trousers for 100 yuan (asking price: about 800) and a "Timberland" shirt for 80 yuan (asking price: 650). Another unique thing is that some of the sellers will call out "handsome man!" to attract you to their stall, or flirt with you in the hope of a bigger profit margin. And the second seller I dealt with, apart from speaking excellent english, also tried a trick I hadn't encountered before. At first she was all smiles and jokes as we began to haggle, but when the prices I was offering failed to meet her expectations she suddenly began to pout. "Don't cry!" I joked. "I really feel like crying!" she said. When she realized it was having no effect on my heart of steel, she soon snapped out of it.

A walk through the Silk Market is certainly an eye-opening experience.

the last two paragraphs are funny,lol~

i hvn't been to beijin,so i really want to go there...i'm always in sha.
03.03.2006 , 13:36

i like this one:That's when I thought to myself, "Taotao, I've a feeling we're not in Qinghai anymore".

it`s really interesting to read things you met in Beijing , i also read some journals you wrote in chinese.it`s amazing!

btw, the last two words mean ۽磿
12.03.2006 , 21:31

mean "da kai yan jie"?
12.03.2006 , 21:32

very good! i think i know beijing from your eyes.
walker [homepage]
21.03.2006 , 10:22

You might recall I was one of the"Gang of Seven" who visited Sanchuan in May 2005. What are you doing in Beijing?
Peter Downie
24.03.2006 , 11:10

Peter, when I know the answer to that myself, I'll write about it! But let's just say that I'm keeping pretty busy right at the moment.

Let me know if your travels ever bring you to Beijing.
25.03.2006 , 15:22

HI Todd,
Reading your journal over the past 3 years has been facsinating. Your Programming legacy at DLU remains... next time you're back in WA, come visit!!
30.03.2006 , 18:23

Yeah, the second ring road was actually built where the inner city walls used to be, that is to say, after they were torn down relentlessly in the name of developping new Beijing in the 1950s.
09.04.2006 , 23:57

i think you'd better spell "Yonganli" like "Yong'anli".
Jeff Goss
27.04.2006 , 16:00

Didn't go through all your articles or posts yet. Looks like you do get yourself in a relationship with China, or Chinese culture. Do you feel that more things you know and more time you spend there, more difficult to confirm whether or not you belong there. I have been living outside China for over almost 5 years. Day by day my desires of backing to China get stronger and stronger. Am I a loser who has no the ability to adapt to changes or does every foreigner ask this question to themselves?
04.05.2006 , 06:13

SIXIAN, I'm happy living here at the moment, although my plans for the future are not entirely certain.

I think that adapting to a new culture, and wanting to go back to China are two different issues. Surely, after 5 years, you must be used to living overseas. Perhaps you just prefer living in China. That's perfectly natural -- everybody likes some places more than others. Some like big cities, others like small towns. Some like cool weather, others like hot. Some like China, others don't.
04.05.2006 , 16:57

For sure I like the city where I am living. Fresh and clean air, more distance between people; life is more simple for me as I don't know as much people as in China. But I always feel I am a one from the ourside and will never be a part of this world. Sometimes I enjoy this, sometimes I hate this. I know I will have same situation when even living in my hometown. People are just never satisfied with what they own; and then they struggle with the problems created by their unsatisfication.
04.05.2006 , 22:54

thus,wouldnt you never have been satisfied with anywhere,SIXIAN? even if you were back to China...i reckon
06.05.2006 , 23:33

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