An affectionate, brisk and practical overview of Beijing from an expert expat, broadcast journalist and diplomat's wife.
Arriving in Beijing was a little bit like landing on the world’s biggest building site. Apparently something like 40% of the world’s cranes were in the capital, many of them of course helping the city gear up for the 2008 Olympic Games. What this meant for this editor, though, was the vision of Qing and Ming Dynasty tiled-roof buildings with intricate carvings and carefully painted timbers going up right outside of the window.
At first sight, Beijing is not a beautiful city. It’s sort of in its spotty adolescence of neither being a gleaming metropolis like Shanghai, nor a preserved ancient walled city like the Han city of Pingyao, where the filming of Raising the Red Lantern took place. All this considered, I knew I was going to love it, and one year down the line I do love it and have found many beautiful corners and peaceful havens away from the giant towers of tottering bamboo scaffolding or mountains of dusty demolition rubble. Beijing is fascinating, mystifying, frustrating, and never fails to surprise.
Of course, on arrival, the real concern is finding basics such as food and shelter, and this is where my pre-conceptions also fell at the second hurdle. I had images of living in a splendid courtyard house with wind chimes gently blowing in the breeze as I wafted in and out in my Chinese silks. This is possible, but really only if you are of very strong constitution and able to handle the sub-zero temperatures of winter and the oppressive heat of summer. Air conditioning and reliable heating are not commonplace in old traditional courtyard housing.
Initially, the most important choice to be made when looking for somewhere to live is whether to live in the city itself or in the suburbs. This can depend on the location of your work and also if you have children at school. Most offices are centrally located, yet many of the schools are in the suburbs, namely the Shunyi area to the east of the capital stretching up to the airport on the expressway.
There are pros and cons for each. If you live in one of the grandly named complexes in Shunyi such as Capital Paradise, Yosemite or Champagne Merlin Town, then you will live in a house, often with a garden and certainly with a large club-house facility including swimming pool and tennis courts. It is almost 100 percent expat living and there is a certain sense of community, but you do not necessarily get the feeling you’re living in Beijing. If you choose to live in town, then you have all the benefits of the city’s delights including restaurants and bars on your doorstep. There’s a huge choice of private apartment blocks, with the range in space and cost for these apartments varying enormously; finding a house in town, however, is not as easy.
Either way you will compromise on something. It’s at least a 30 minute drive into town from Shunyi, but if you don’t want the commute, then will you find the spacious accommodation you’re looking for in town? Your children maybe closer to their school in Shunyi, but how’s the drive home in the evening’s heavy peak traffic? It’s a case of deciding what will work for your particular needs.
Language and Local Info
Language is a stumbling block for many, and communication for non-mandarin speakers is a tricky thing to say the least. I would thoroughly recommend taking a few Mandarin lessons before arriving -- just to get the basics – and then continue if possible once you’re here. In the meantime lay your hands on a brilliant little booklet put together by the Rotary Club, simply called a Taxi Book [NB: possible places to find it are the American Club, Movenpick Hotel and ISB's PTA store].
The Taxi Book contains all the main hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, shops and vitals such as hospitals and Embassies, and with their names and addresses given in Chinese characters, pinyin (the phonetic spelling system) and of course English. This is indispensable when you first arrive, just in terms of getting around and being able to show it to a driver who will then know where you want to go. This is not foolproof, as many of Beijing’s taxi drivers cannot read, but you will eventually flag one down who can. Another must-have guide book is the Insider’s Guide to Beijing, written for people who live in the city rather than the tourist.
Mandarin is tonal, meaning that the word ma, when pronounced in one of four ways can mean anything from “horse” or “mother” to the verb “to swear” or it can change a sentence into a question. So, tone really is quite crucial to avoid any embarrassing misunderstandings. A strong Beijing accent can be particularly hard to fathom, and I find using the pirate accent of Long John Silver or a drunken slur actually makes taxi drivers understand you better.
Business cards are an absolute necessity and I now have at least three files full of them. Be obsessive and collect at least two or three from every restaurant, shop or place of interest that you visit. Next time you want to go there, you just show the card to your driver and it makes life so much easier. Or, you can hand one to a friend and arrange to meet in the right place without worry.
Other lifelines for me when I arrived were the International Newcomers Network (www.innbeijing.org) and the British Club (www.britclubbj.org). Both are extremely welcoming organisations open to all expats. The INN holds special unashamed networking meetings and covers anything ranging from where to find good food to where to find medical assistance. Everyone attending is either in the same boat, or certainly remembers that boat, so you can all paddle around together without feeling like a conspicuous new arrival.
What’s more, there is nothing an INN member likes more than a newcomer in need of a visit to Beijing’s markets. There will always someone looking for an excuse to shop and to introduce you to the treasures of places like the Silk Market, the Pearl Market, the Flower Market and any number of jade, furniture and cashmere shops as well as the more essential clothing markets such as Yashow. It really is a shopper’s paradise.
Actually I have not been particularly keen on shopping in the past but I have to say that Beijing has converted me. It must appeal to my Yorkshire background, but bargaining has brought me out of my shopping shell. It can get tiresome and make you long for Marks and Sparks and paying what’s on the label, but on the other hand this dickering will get you some incredible bargains.
Health and Hygiene
Generally speaking you should end up paying for one third of what the seller originally wanted. That varies from market to market but is always worth a try. The currency here is the “reminbi” or “peoples money” but is also know as the “yuan” or more colloquially “kuai”. A one hundred kuai note (roughly £7) is the highest denomination and rather makes you feel like you’re playing monopoly as you end up carrying large wodges around. This is a very cash-based society. I rarely use a credit card, although increasingly, some of the more expensive western restaurants are beginning to accept them.
Health matters are a concern in China and alarm bells rang for me when I heard talk of flying to Hong Kong or Singapore for treatment. In fact, there are plenty of options to choose from should you need medical help in Beijing. The top two choices seem to be SOS International (www.internationalsos.com) Beijing United Hospital (www.unitedfamilyhospitals.com). I have always seen either Australian or European doctors at SOS and found the care to be effective, efficient and prompt, but extremely expensive. You might be lucky enough to have expenses covered for this, but beware. Apparently Beijing United hospital is one of the most expensive in the world. Of course, you’ve come to the right place if you’d like to try traditional Chinese medicine and some of my friends here have tried that route successfully.
Generally however you go through a huge amount of liquid soap in Beijing. It’s wise to be slightly paranoid over keeping germs at bay. Our first winter was spent chasing throat, ear and chest infections round and round in circles. I’ve been assured that was the same for every new family in Beijing so I’m keeping fingers crossed for this year.
Although there is a government initiative to stop people spitting in the streets, it is still very, very common practice. It’s amusing at first but grating after a while, particularly if your three-year-old child starts doing it because he heard “that man over there” do it. Pollution is clearly a problem but not nearly as bad as I thought it would be and all the giant steel works are being moved out of the capital to comply with air quality regulations for the 2008 Games. As for flying to Hong Kong or Singapore? It does happen but tends to be for the more serious conditions or if you need extensive testing.
On the food front, Beijing exceeds my expectations enormously. Before we left the UK, I tried to introduce my three children to the delights of our local Chinese takeaway as much as possible, thinking there would be no way I was going to be able to buy sausages or pasta. In fact the quality of the meat is fantastic and the range of western food immense. However, something I never thought I would have, but I do, is fantasies over the convenience of Asda and Tesco [large British grocery store chains]: it’s impossible here to buy everything in one place. And when shopping for a dinner party it’s always a good idea to have at least three menu options up your sleeve, as what you saw in the shop yesterday may not be available today.
The most popular place to buy good quality meat is at the German butchers, Shindlers. It is open all day everyday and sells anything from pork sausages and chicken nuggets to rump steak and veal escalopes. The meat is always fresh and prices very good. They also have a fine range of cheeses and breads. Cheese is actually prohibitively expensive in Beijing. It’s all available, from camembert to Roquefort and manchego to cheddar, but because the Chinese don’t eat dairy products – in fact their bodies lack the enzyme needed to break down lactose – expect to pay through the nose.
I cannot live without bread so was delighted to see a huge choice here, although a lot of it is very sweet so it’s a case of trial and error. I was advised against bringing a breadmaker over, but now all sorts of flours and yeast are available here, so as a matter of fact, it would be a very good idea. An enterprising woman, Jenny Lou, has set up a chain of small supermarkets totally catering to the western market. She imports from Australia, America as well as Europe, and although there is not always a huge range, it is possible to buy pretty much everything there.
Another chain, April Gourmet, offers a similar choice and is particularly good on cheese and baking products. Both sell wines, beers and spirits, thank goodness. Rumour had it that I wouldn’t be able to buy wine and I was onto all sorts of scams to import it into the country but it turns out that a huge and reasonably priced range is available. There is even a locally produced Great Wall range of wines and the cabernet sauvignon isn’t at all bad, but the Chinese Dragon Seal brand is for a more hardened palate, I think.
Drinking water from the tap is not a good idea; almost everyone has a large water dispensing machine, and refills can be bought and delivered very easily. In fact, Beijing is very good at delivering just about anything you want to your doorstep at pretty much any time of day or night. Streets ahead of the UK in those terms. There are a couple of branches of Carrefour here, as well as the largest B&Q in the world and even IKEA, so hypermarket addicts are well served. Carrefour, however is not of the type you would visit in Calais on a quick trip across the Channel to stock up on French goodies.
In fact, I think the selection of western goods is better at the smaller grocery shops. Some, but not all, local fruit and veg markets are fantastic. You need to check them out carefully as hygiene is not always top of the agenda, but the choice is wonderful. Lychees are unbelievably delicate and juicy. Strawberries and peaches are in abundance plus many other delicious fruits I could not begin to name but all worth trying.
Vegetables are fresh, and the choice of fish in some of these markets is vast. I also buy chickens from a market, but not in the tidy cellophane-wrapped pack they come in from Tesco. In a pathetic, naïve British manner and with a very steep learning curve, I discovered that of course you have to ask especially to have them beheaded and gutted.
Still on the subject of food (which is so earnestly talked about in Beijing), there are restaurants representing just about everywhere in the world. You can eat Belgian, Brazilian or Russian to name just three and there’s always the fall back position of Fish Nation for a good old cod and chips. But for those wanting to explore past the local Chinese takeaway of the past, then there is every variation of Chinese food from every province the country has to offer. Peking duck or cao ya is perhaps the most famous and addictive. Great stuff. Not the best city for vegetarians in terms of restaurants, but improving. Meat is generally pork, and many Chinese find it difficult to make a dish without incorporating it. So often the vegetable dishes have a bit thrown in for good measure.
Having this great choice of restaurants makes it quite clear as to why Beijing is called the “Ten pound post” in expat circles. Many people top up the scales with just that amount after their first few months in the city. It’s difficult not to. So what you need to combat this excess is plenty of exercise and to my mind, not being gym person (although there’s plenty of scope for that in Beijing) the very best way to do that is by pedal power.
Traffic and Transportation
A bit like bringing coals to Newcastle, we brought our bikes over with us. In fact, they are very cheap to buy here, and besides a great way to exercise, they are a great way to get around and see the city or beat the traffic. Traffic in Beijing is crazy but methodical. There is definitely a method in the madness, and as far as I can see, this involves holding your nerve and your breath, and just going for it. Cars rarely use indicators but favour the horn, they ignore lane systems but would never jump a red light – often making the situation rather more dangerous than if they’d carried on.
Driving and cycling are definitely not for the faint-hearted, but can make you feel more in control of your own destiny than if travelling in a Beijing taxi. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, however, and we made use of them for a year before caving in and buying a car. The car, however, does give us the obvious freedom and spontaneity to go when and where we please.
Traveling out of Beijing
There are plenty of places to go, not just in Beijing but of course all over China. Weekend visits to the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, the limestone peaks of south western provinces, or the coastal resorts of Qing dao and Beidaihe where the Great Wall meets the sea are all fascinating places to see. The Great Wall is only a 40 minute drive from central Beijing and lives up to all expectations. Beijing itself has some wonderful temples and palaces, but there are also all the usual things to be found in capital cities – art galleries, museums and parks.
What do I miss?
I miss magazines, newspapers and decent television. I was never much of a telly fan back in the UK but it was nice to know it was there to dip into. Routinely here you can only get CNN, BBC World and two movie channels, HBO and Cinemax. Nothing can be published or any press distributed here unless there is a Chinese partner in a joint venture. This means the only foreign press easily available is the International Herald Tribune or the FT Asian edition and the odd copy of Time Magazine in the big hotels. I really miss a decent daily newspaper and a nice range of mags to browse through in a newsagency. Needless to say people who leave the country are obliged to bring back at the very least a copy of Hello and The Guardian.
What should you bring with you?
Well as many of the aforementioned as possible along with a few tins of Branston relish, or say, non-scented deodorant, which cannot be found here. My mother brings me golden syrup, hula hoops, various baking items as well as odd requests such as Battenburg cakes [Note to non-Brit readers: a very synthetic pink and yellow cake covered in marzipan and generally made by Mr Kipling - totally rubbish yet totally delicious and only ever to be found in Asda, Tesco, possibly far too down-market for Waitrose...!] as well as Cadbury’s chocolate. You can get Cadbury’s here, but it’s made in China and like many things in Beijing, it’s just not the real thing. I would also advise bringing over a decent vacuum cleaner. The dust is unbelievable and I now understand why it was recommended that I bring my Dyson out with me [or althernatively, a hoover/vacuum cleaner NOT designed by a man who thinks going bagless is a great idea].
So what would I miss about China?
I know life will turn around when we return to England and it will be my turn to miss so much about China. I would miss a city bursting with enthusiasm for a new century. A city booming at a rate nobody can believe, full of faces of people who have seen so much happening to their country in such a short time. Beijingers struggling with a new age and a new identity, eager to learn and please, yet passionate about keeping a hold on their old Beijing.
Most of all what I’d really miss about China is Sunday morning in one of the city’s parks: the measured movements of a Tai Chi routine, a weathered face of a man flying a kite with the concentration of a zen buddhist, spontaneous ballroom dancing to cover versions of the Beatles, loud bursts of patriotic songs from shrill haunting voices, slick brushes of calligraphy with water and thick horse-hair, families parading their prized and only child, and all this whether in the magnolia-lined avenues of a quiet backwater or right on the very edge of an eight-lane highway thundering through the city centre.
This is China, responding to change in its own enigmatic way, reacting to capitalism in a blatant yet traditional manner. Moving with the times but keeping one foot stuck very firmly in the past.