After the ordeal of my first 24 hours in the city, I was ready to see actual Beijing. I’ll soon put up blog posts about individual activities I really enjoyed (and some top tips) but for now I’ll give an overall summary of Beijing.
Come day 2 in Beijing, I was still unnerved that no one I had met so far could speak more than a few words of English (call me precious but I thought at least a couple of people would, especially in hotels!) and so I had to get by with my broken Mandarin (plus some help from a Mandarin dictionary on my phone). I think I learnt more Mandarin in that one week that I ever had previously, so there was definitely an upside! My experiences gave the phrase ‘Survival Chinese’ a very literal meaning…
Mercifully, subway signs and station names are in English as well as Mandarin. I was beyond delighted to see some written English again. The subway is also insanely cheap. About £0.30 per journey. Crazy compared to London! You’d pay about 10 times that price! It was also fairly easy to navigate. The downside was that my accommodation was about an hour by train away from central Beijing and the nearest station was a good 20/25 minute walk. Taxis were cheap but not many of them knew where the address was (which seemed to be the case for several places I took taxis to…) and this proved hard work so I ended up doing a lot of walking home. (At least I saved money). Taxi drivers also had a habit of asking me for what I assumed were directions, in Mandarin of course. All I could mostly do was communicate my uncertainty with body language and apologise in Mandarin! (Quick story – I did meet a really sweet taxi driver who was dying to chat to me when he was driving me home but he couldn’t speak any English. It really tested my Mandarin and dictionary-using skills. He asked me stuff like what I do for a living back home, why I was in Beijing, if I liked Beijing, where I was going next. It was a very pigeon-Mandarin conversation on my part but it was so lovely that he went out of his way to talk to me, especially as I hadn’t met many friendly locals by this point!
As a Westerner, there were several things that drove me nuts about Beijing. First, the spitting. Before I came to China, I knew spitting would be a common sight but I wasn’t entirely prepared for it. As a germ-a-phobe, it made me shudder every time! That god-awful sound of someone hawking, snorting/clearing their throat and then flinging onto the pavement what was in their mouth. You better watch your step. Even when I was in taxis, drivers would spit out the window or merrily burp away like I wasn’t there. (While I’m writing this sitting on a train to Shanghai, there’s a man a few seats in front of me hawking… I dread to think where he’s spitting as there’s no open windows…). And I did always wonder why in Hong Kong I saw signs that said ‘no spitting’! Spitting is not a common Hong Kong habit so clearly erring on the sound of caution when it comes to Mainland Chinese tourists! People would also fart away merrily in public (enclosed spaces or not). One particularly memorable moment was when I was walking through a narrow Hutong and past an petite elderly lady when I heard the unmistakably sound of a ginormous fart come from her direction. She just carried on her merry way, no shame. I was kind of speechless.
Next, was the road usage/driving. Sometimes I found it funny but at other times it was just infuriating. I’ve never been to India but the road usage in Beijing reminded me a lot of what I’ve seen from India! Again, I was warned about this but still wasn’t fully prepared. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings in Beijing are more advisory rather than law. This is particularly alarming when you’re trying to cross a six-lane road, with the green man flashing, but you’ve still got cars driving at you honking their horns as if you’re in the wrong! You’ve just got to be fast and very very alert. The sound of constant horns is also normal background noise. Once one car honks, it seems everyone likes to have a go, which again can be pretty funny but at other times you just want to cover your ears. I also saw on a regular basis cars parking on pedestrian crossings and driving on the pavement. Motorbikes like to drive on the pavement too, as the traffic can be bad, and will nip at your heels, honking their horns.
Out on the street and public transport, I found Beijingers on average to be quite unforgiving. There is a lot of unapologetic shoving, queue jumping and shouting as if they’re the only people around. The kind of shoving that would get you an “oi, what’s your problem?!” shouted after you in London. Having said that, individual Beijingers I interacted with were lovely. I suppose in a city with so many people, there isn’t such a thing as personal space. It’s a ‘shove or be shoved’ mentality and everyone’s focused on themselves and not other people. There’s a similar mentality in Hong Kong but it’s definitely not as bad as Beijing. The old favourite British pastime of queueing also doesn’t seem to have reached Beijing. People generally do not like to queue. (Or perhaps just don’t know how to). They have no qualms pushing in front of you. And you thought dreaded ‘side-queueing’ in the UK was annoying… People also don’t understand the concept of personal space. (Again, in a country that has 1.3 billion people, perhaps not surprising).Be prepared for people to literally breathe down your neck when waiting for things like trains. Then they’ll make a big fuss when you step back onto their foot. Don’t stand so ruddy close to me then!!
On a lighter note, the funniest thing about Beijing was that I was basically a celebrity with my Western face and blonde-ish hair. Whenever I went to a tourist attraction or somewhere busy, if I stood still longer than about 30 seconds I would have people coming up to me asking if they could take my photo! Tiananmen Square was probably the most intense. My favourite encounter was a mother and her young son who wanted a photo with me. The mother insisted I held her son’s hand for the photo. He was so cute I didn’t want to let go!
As one Beijinger explained to me over lunch, lots of tourists in Beijing are actually people from rural parts of China and so they’ve probably never seen a White person before, hence the novelty. In a park, jet lag got the better of me one afternoon and I fell asleep on a bench. I later awoke to the sounds of someone asking if they could take my photo! Another occasion, I had a girl chase after me to ask for my photo and she threw her arms around me like I was some kind of celebrity! Very funny but occasionally unnerving when you have people on public transport taking your photo without permission or just staring at you and not breaking eye contact, even when you look back at them. One sweet encounter was also at a park. I’d noticed a young girl had sat down next to me, with her mother on her other side. I wasn’t paying attention but my ears picked up the English word ‘hello’ and the two of them seemed to be discussing how to start a conversation with me as the girl was staring right at me with big eyes. I said ‘hello’ back in English and Mandarin and giggled bashfully. No photo on this occasion but she was one of many who simply just wanted to say ‘hello’ to me as I went about my day which was quite nice.
One night when I was having dinner with a group of Westerners and they summed up Beijing quite well. As with many countries, China’s government/geographical capital was different to it’s cultural capital. (In this case, Shanghai). Think about Australia (Canberra versus Sydney), Brazil (Brasilia versus Rio de Janeiro), and the United States (Washington DC versus New York/San Francisco). From here, Beijing started to make more sense to me. Beijing was certainly not the epitome of modern China and it would be unfair to assume it was.
Overall, Beijing just wasn’t for me. The only other Asian cities I had been to were Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau and these were most definitely westernized so perhaps it’s unfair to compare. Beijing in comparison felt quite ominous, unfriendly and there wasn’t as much character (unless you went to the Hutongs or historical landmarks). Things were very spread out, simple tasks were difficult to get done and there didn’t seem to be a ‘city centre’. I always like to try and find a city’s centre as I think this gives you a good foundation and initial understanding of a city. On reflection, I suppose the centre was Tiananmen Square/The Forbidden City, which tells you a lot already. This was the geographical centre of Beijing and everywhere else seems to be based around it. Call me paranoid but I always had a feeling that ‘big brother’/the communist government was watching me! For me, freedom of speech and access to knowledge is really important and so these restrictions just didn’t sit at all comfortably with me, even if it was only a temporary annoyance for me. (And luckily I had sorted out a VPN so it wasn’t all bad).
Despite everything I’ve said above, I think it’s worth coming to Beijing at least once for the cultural immersion/understanding and to see some of this ancient country’s history.