For a travel blog, six months in one country sounds like a life time. I’ve been through the coldest winter I’ve ever experienced, followed by watching the famous blossom grew and later drop off. I landed wearing the thickest coat I owned in the UK only to need an even thicker, warmer one here. Needless to say the seasons have come and gone and I am still here to witness it all. It was only a few weeks ago that I had to stuff all these extra layers under my bed to make room for my shorts and t-shirts. It is now 25 degrees on average. My time here so far has completely escaped me. I arrived with a list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do. This list is only getting longer. My work schedule limits me to exploring on the weekend. I feel like I now know Beijing and China in general very well from getting by day-to-day to dealing with sometime severe problems (flooding my flat comes to mind).
But, here goes, this is how I have spent the last six months, the pro, the cons and everything in between.
Before I arrived, I did all the necessary research, reading everyone’s blogs about the city and the general way of life, but all I learned was SMOG. Due to my friends’ reactions when I broke the news about my new job, I realised the most well-known aspect of Beijing life is the weather. (Some could say the same for the UK, I guess.) So I thought this was an apt topic to begin on. The smog is bad don’t get me wrong, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. We all adapt to the changes in weather at a new place, so it was no different here. That’s not to say it was easy, a few of my colleagues have since left due to the air quality, chasing to return to the UK or continue traveling perhaps finding somewhere with a visible sky. So, it is fair to say the smog is bad. There are certain ways to get through it, I always carry a mask with me, though I rarely wear it. I also have an app, which tells me the AQI (air quality index). On a side note, it is important to choose an app which also features the wind. The stronger the wind the less smog there is. So by looking at the strength and direction of the wind you can predict what the smog will be like for the coming days. I recommend China AQI as it compares all the cities in China as well as Beijing.
The air is certainly not an asset to the city by any means, but it shouldn’t dissuade any visitors because you would be truly missing a beautiful, vibrant city with fantastic people and the food…. need I say more.
Over my first few months I managed to cross off the most well-known tourist attractions in the city, the top 10, those that can be done in a day or a few hours. If you would like to read all about my advised top 10, click here.
Everything about it city was completely different to London, which made the average task take twice as long. I will never forget the first time I went to my local supermarket. I was walking about for hours, smelling and feeling all the weird and wonderful fruit and veg. At first, I used to buy something different every week just to try it out and see if I liked it. This worked out pretty well because now I know a lot more about what to buy and certainly what to give a wide berth.
Interesting fact: coke bottles are bigger here, 500 ml. Back home they’re only 350ml.
At the beginning it was hard to adjust to the majority of the Beijing life style. Obviously, jet lag was a big factor when trying to start a new job, move into a new flat and get everything sorted, the time difference did not help. I coped or struggled perhaps though my week of jet lag by forcing myself to stay awake a little longer each night and only getting out of bed at the time I needed to for work. This seemed to work for me, though I heard many other coping strategies. They say for every hour difference after the first three hours it will take a day to recover.
After jet lag my other main adjustment struggle was the water and the food. The water is not drinkable but from reading online they advise you to use tap water to brush your teeth and other general uses to keep up your immune system to get used to it. However, at the beginning the water made me quite ill and upset my stomach a lot. So my advice would be to use a mixture of bottled water and tap water at first until you’re used to it and then just use the tap water.
This is starting to sound like a Beijing downer, but these were the main things that impacted me on arrival.
Getting around is still difficult because you under appreciate the fact that in the majority of the world you can stop and point at your map for directions when lost. However, here unless you have a map in Chinese you can’t. Very few people actually speak English and most often those that do, don’t have the confidence to help you. Though this doesn’t mean that they won’t try at all, everyone I have tried to speak to have been very compassionate, which they may not encounter stopping a stranger in London I’m ashamed to say.
The subway is very easy to use, its one of the best I’ve used in the world. Beijing is built on a semi-grid map, with lines going horizontally and vertically across the city. These lines lie under the main roads with the circle lines running the stretch of the various (five) ring roads. Since the olympics here in 2008 much of the city maps and street signs now have English making it very easy to follow.
Buses are a different matter entirely though, as there is no English on the bus stops. To catch a bus you have to search the route online which will tell you the bus number from there you can check your local bus stop and see if it stops there. I have never taken a bus for a variety of reasons, mainly its too complicated and secondly it doesn’t go from my building to work. Though I do have a few friends who catch the bus around the city by writing down the bus numbers they see where they live and finding where they go. The bus is cheaper at only 1-2 ¥ per ride and they stay running later than the subway, which closes at 23:30 for most lines.
I bought a scooter after my first couple of months here, which is how I get around. Though, it’s not the safest it’s like many places across Asia, you just need to have your wits about you and take necessary precautions like wearing a helmet. My colleague laugh at my bright yellow helmet, claiming I look like a delivery man. I have seen too many accidents here already to not wear a helmet. I strongly advise buying one if you plan on cycling or scooter-ing anywhere. They are not expensive and can be easily bought online on taobao or baopals (the English translation version).
Being a foreigner (or alien as they call us here) in Beijing is not the easiest experience. I expected there to be more westerners but they is not the case, I can get through a week without seeing a single other foreigner, who I don’t work with. Perhaps now the summer is coming things will be different. However, due to the scarcity of foreign faces, locals do tend to stare. It shocked me at first because back home staring is just not done, even catching eyes with someone on the tube is awkward and you quickly look away. Here this is not the case. So it is important to note that it does not mean anything. I have never felt in danger or targeted due to the looks I get nor have I heard of any case where a westerner has been victimised due to being foreign. I think they just enjoy looking out of curiosity I always imagine them thinking what’s she doing here? where does she come from? These questions are regular, people will stop you for a chat especially on the subway. I have been stopped several times to help practice their English and for them to find out where I’m from and what I do here. It doesn’t bother me, the photos on the other do sometimes. There will be instances where you will notice people taking a photo of you, or recording you if you are on the phone or in a group. I have help babies to pose for photos or joined a tourist group who come from outside Beijing and are even less used to seeing foreigners. Don’t be alarmed just take it in your stride and smile, they have a fantastic sense of humour.
This leads nicely to personal space. There is none you’ll have to get used to it. People are happy to knock into you and barge through doorways and so on. Again, it’s just different to back home. I walked around apologising my first couple of months until I gave up and got over it. People will stand closer to you on the subway, walk through doors without even glancing at you waiting, there’s nothing you can do other than go about your own day in a similar fashion.
These are the first few things that struck me when I first arrived, tell us about your first experience of China or if you would like more information about anything I’ve mentioned please leave a comment. ♥