It’s fair to say I didn’t give much forethought to my time in Beijing. My thoughts were rather preoccupied with the joy of getting to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar by train: Definitely a case of travel for travel’s sake, rather than travel for a destination as such.
But a little over 24 hours into my stay, I can safely say Beijing has defied most of my expectations (both the good and the bad).
- Likely to be hustled
- Budget friendly cost-of-living
- Busy (to the point of agoraphobia)
- Polluted (from smog dense skies to rubbish strewn streets)
- Bitingly cold
- Great dumplings
- Good naturedly hustled by taxi rort
- Budget blowing cost-of-living (pang maak maak [มีราคาแพงมาก], or as they say in Mongolia, маш үнэтэй (mash unte!))
- Cleaner (than most cities UB)
- Crisply cold
- Great dumplings
Bear in mind that my experience is limited to interactions between the central railway station and the Chaoyang District, so perhaps things are busier, dirtier, and cheaper outside this quarter of the city.
Let’s start with the hustle. Have you heard the one about the foreigner approached by two young women who say they’d like to practice their English and offer to take the foreigner to a teahouse, only for the hospitality to cost the foreigner hundreds of dollars for the pleasure? What about the one about the businessman offered an exclusive whisky tasting, only for the bill to be thousands of dollars and an inability to pay resulting in a night in prison? I would normally assign such tales to the stuff of hyperbole but the first happened to a friend (her first-hand account was gripping and stripped of exaggeration) and the second to a friend’s father (another seasoned traveller, more embarrassed than boastful about the misadventure). So, I was wary of how I would get from the station to my hotel relying on the kindness of English-speaking strangers.
I headed roadside and was corralled into a taxi queue which assuaged my immediate concern of touts. I was told it would be ¥350 (Chinese Yuan) – which is approximately AU $72 or US $60 – and thought, “here we go, a special foreigner price.” At any rate, I didn’t have that amount of currency me, and suggested payment could made at the hotel, but alas, cash is king. So off to the bank we went. My poor driver may have ultimately cursed his luck at having me for a passenger as it was 30 minutes and three hapless CMBC bank tellers later that I was at last able to withdraw cash. During this time I had two visits from my driver’s “supervisors” who attempted to speed up the cash withdrawal process. They may well have thought I had never used an ATM before given my inability to use it for its primary function, but never have I been more grateful for the temperamental nature of my banking card which requires a greater level of security than simply PIN and go; interaction with a human is generally required. Limited cash in hand, back in the taxi I went and was joined a block later by one of the supervisors. Cash was handed over and the supervisor chaperoned me to my hotel. I will confess to several flights of fancy where I questioned whether I would arrive at my hotel or not during the 15 minute drive. Needless to say I arrived alive.
For future reference, a taxi should cost ¥13 for the first 3 kilometers and ¥2.3 for each subsequent kilometer. So really my fare should have been around ¥50. But idle taxis charge ¥4.6 per five minutes in rush hour…so make that any extra ¥30.
So, yeah, while I was leaning toward categorising the experience as “bloody expensive”, it might more accurately be filed away as “foolishly ripped off”. C’est la vie.
Now to cost-of-living. For the purposes of this exercise I am going to use the humble cup of coffee as my point of comparison. I have got used to paying ₮ 5,000 (Mongolian Tughrik) for a decent sized café latte (AU $3 / US $2.60) from the charming and reliable Café de Amor, which is less than I’d pay back in Oz, or ₮ 7,000 from the delightful Helmut Sachers Kaffee (AU $4.70 / US $3.60; which is a little more than I’d pay in Oz). Today I went to the hipster friendly Vineyard Café on the River to grab a takeaway coffee that set me back ¥32 (AU $6.60 / US $5.10). In the words Steve Irwin, “Crikey!”
I had visions of traffic-clogged streets, and pedestrian-packed sidewalks, some capital-B Bustle to go with the hustle. Imagine my surprise to fairly zip along the multi-lane roads from the train station, not even the shadow of congestion to impede the flow of traffic. My surprise continued when walking along to Liangma River, footpaths dotted with fellow walkers but we idled past one another, ensconced in plenty of personal space, nary a bump or casual brush of coats. I am tempted to go as far as to proclaim the streets quiet.
I remember my grandmother describing Paris as a “dirty” city, and as a child finding that an odd adjective to ascribe until she clarified that it was the preponderance of canine faeces that dotted the streets that influenced her choice of words. My Aha Moment™ came over a decade later when I saw a man use a bin in a Parisian train tunnel as a urinal, and noted the aboveground situation was much the same as it was for my grandmother when it came to dog defecation. That said I love Paris. I love the art, I love the architecture, I love the history, I love the food, I love the wine, I love the attitude, I love the grit and the glamour. So dirty is not a deal breaker when it comes to my affection for a city. Which is all a long way of saying it was not with prejudice I assumed Beijing would be dirty – that smoke would congest the air in competition with exhaust fumes, that spit would speckle the sidewalks, that litter would line the streets. Not only is there room to move as a pedestrian, so far I have not seen a single expulsion of bodily fluid, nor a blight beyond an aberrant dog doing its business*. The Liangma River is currently frozen over, and older folks wipe the surface down in the morning – a human Zamboni – preparing the ice for children to skate, and adolescents to pick up sticks and play hockey. It’s all very picturesque, very, very unexpected, and utterly joyful.
As for the cold, China’s got nothing on Mongolia. I expected that much, but I still thought I would face some wind chill to offset the comparative rise in temperature. Pleasantly, the weather has been crisp as opposed to bitter. I even went so far as to walk sans gloves, scarf and beanie, and dared to wander with my down-filled coat unzipped today. Scandalous. That being said, if you were venturing to Beijing from warmer climes (and frankly outside of Antarctica, most places are warmer than Ulaanbaatar in January) the weather is chilly, so best to don layers of cashmere, wool, leather and goretex.
I shall now end with great dumplings. Many a steamed and fried dumpling has been joyfully consumed at Din Tai Fung. Top nosh in plentiful supply, although served in somewhat utilitarian surroundings.
TL; DR: divide by 5 and it’s still how much???
* this post became strangely entangled in documenting dog excrement – this is unlikely to be repeated in future posts (we should all be pleased to note)
™ Oprah Winfrey
- Café de Amor: Cuban Embassy Building (United Nations Street), Ulaanbaatar, MONGOLIA
- Helmut Sachers Kaffee: Baga Toiruu west, Ulaanbaatar, MONGOLIA
- Vineyard Café on the River: 1 Xindong Lu, Chaoyang, Beijing, CHINA
- Din Tai Fung: 24 Xinyuan Xili Zhongjie, Liangmaqiao, Chaoyang, Beijing, CHINA