When I started my trip this summer, one thing I had in mind was to see where else in the world I could potentially happily live. At the top of my list I already had Hong Kong but I wanted to see if there were any other contenders out there. (This seems like an expensive way to ‘just make sure’ but ya know, here I am).
Beijing was my first stop so let’s see how it ranked. If you’ve read my other blog posts you’ll know that Beijing isn’t my favourite place I’ve been but let’s try and be fair about this. I’ve only employed a ‘rating out of 5’ system so I have an easy way to rank each city! I’m not wanting to judge anyone else’s homeland harshly…!
This is something Beijing is certainly not short on. Whether I like it or not is a different question but you are guaranteed a whole other cultural experience in Beijing. It’s a very surreal place and I’ve definitely never been anywhere like it. However, call me paranoid, but I always had a down-trodden feeling that ‘big brother’ was watching – perhaps because of things like internet censorship and the presence of military in lots of places. I also really wish there wasn’t so much spitting, staring and pushing. On the upside, I found old people in the parks to be very friendly and interesting, even if we had a hard time communicating, and when I ended up almost homeless on my first day, people were SO kind and really went out of their way to help me even though I barely spoke any Mandarin and was probably a real headache for them.
Unsurprisingly, this was perhaps the trickiest aspect of Beijing and one I greatly underestimated. Very few people speak English (even in customer service roles) so if you’re wanting to live there, you better invest in some Mandarin lessons or a hire very dedicated interpreter to follow you around. The way people communicate is also quite different to the West and was something I couldn’t adjust to. When there’s an opportunity to save time or money, people will frequently shout and push instead of queuing for things, like at a customer service counter in a train station. When there’s several hundred people doing the same thing it can all feel a bit much. On the other hand, if your main goal is to learn or improve Mandarin quickly, then Beijing would be an ideal place. I certainly picked up a fair bit in just a week without really trying.
Beijing has a great cheap subway system in the centre of the city but further out is trickier. There are buses too but none of the timetables at bus stops are in English so again, rather tricky. However, taxis are very cheap but traffic in Beijing can be horrendous and I found taxi drivers didn’t speak English so make sure you come with the address of your destination written in Chinese.
Things to do/nightlife 3/5
There are lots of nooks and crannies, like Hutongs, to explore in Beijing but most ‘things to see and do’ fall under the umbrella of historic sites which are wonderful and unique but I can’t imagine you would want to visit them several times over if you lived there. Nightlife-wise, Beijing certainly can’t compare with Shanghai but it still has a decent share of small bars and pubs in the Sanlitun area and also Shichahai.
As you’d expect, there seems to be a perpetual grey-ness about Beijing, which is probably down to the pollution. However, I was only there a week so perhaps I was just unlucky. And this might sound weird but I love cities that look bright, exciting and energetic. Back home in London, I love the variety of the skyline that winds round the Thames, with the ancient Tower of London and St Paul’s sitting one side of the river and the shiny modern Shard opposite. I also love the busyness of the city centre, the buskers at train stations, colourful mural art and the bright red double-decker buses. In comparison, Beijing might have it’s fair share of historic monuments but to me it just looks and feels quite dreary. Maybe it’s because it’s not in their culture to express themselves as individuals so freely in public meaning everywhere has a ‘sameness’ about it…? Even the buildings look weirdly communist, with their garish 1980s-style signs hanging atop. I always seek out a city’s centre but I never really found one in Beijing. I suppose it’s Tiananmen Square, in which case it’s always been that way but it just felt a bit ‘over-bearing’. I don’t know. And to truly love a city I’ve got to have moments where I walk down the street and I can’t find the words to properly describe just how exciting/bright/colourful/diverse a city is. I still have moments like that in London but in Beijing I didn’t.
As the capital of the enormous China, Beijing will always be worth a visit purely for the cultural immersion but it’s no surprise that the two of just weren’t the right match from the start. So no, Beijing, I cannot live here. However I’m still really glad I went because I would have been forever curious otherwise!
Have you been to Beijing before? What did you think? Tell me in the comments below 🙂