Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘pollution

4 Good & Bad Things about Living in Beijing

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The Bad

1. The Size of Beijing

And no, I don’t mean how big Beijing is. And Beijing is plenty big: the metropolitan area is about the same size as London, but with a population numbering a million more (12.7m). But actually, for an expat, Beijing can be surprisingly small.

The main areas where foreigners hang out in Beijing are Wudaokou, Sanlitun and Gulou. The first is a university area, where overseas students from the US, England, Korea and elsewhere hang. Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping area featuring a huge Apple store and expensive brands, as well as plenty of dives, clubs and bars. It’s very popular with expats.

Finally, Gulou is a trendy area liked by creative types, where Beijing’s traditional alleys (called ‘hutongs’ in Mandarin) are still in place. Nestled in these alleyways are cool little bars and cafes, and music venues such as the legendary Mao Livehouse and DJ-heavy Dada.

These three places are vacuums into which foreign residents of Beijing invariably get sucked. They are the go-to places, the natural recourse. But it can feel humdrum & cliche telling a taxi driver to take you to Sanlitun the Nth time.

2. Budgeting

Beijing is a pretty cheap place to live, even though it’s pricier than most the rest of China. I can eat well for less than £5 a day. Bottles of beer are less than a pound. Buses are four pence(!) a journey. Subway trips are 20p. So spending becomes automatic. Cash flows through your hands like water. You end up eating out all the time, treating yourself to snacks, going to lavish restaurants, buying clothes like it’s nothing. Beijing becomes an arena to give away your cash for stuff. It’s a ‘communist’ country by the way.

3. Taxis

This is another budgeting thing. Transport isn’t so great in Beijing despite its cheapness. Subway stations are not so numerous and bus routes can be elephantine. Taxis are the easiest and relatively inexpensive. But it all adds up and taking taxis regularly can be a significant drain on finances.

4. The DUST*

It is everywhere. In the air. On the floor. In your pocket. Up your nose. On your clothes. Smeared in your hair. Layering over your face. Inside your mouth. Invisibly on your food. It’s a mixture of sand blown in from the northern Mongol deserts, brick dust (demolition and building is rampant) and general pollution (car fumes, smoke etc). Let’s not even talk about the cancerous air pollution… *It isn’t as apocalyptic as this description may seem, but it does go everywhere.

The Good

1. The Size of Beijing

Didn’t you already say this was a bad thing? Yes I did, but things can be contradictory okay? This is China we’re talking about. Where you can buy tons of stuff but kids are schooled in Marxist theory. Beijing is small enough so it can feel like a village, where you can bump into that pretty girl who you’ve noticed but can’t ever seem to talk to again and again and again. And large enough that you can find weird, soothing, crazy, peaceful places too.

2. Access to VIPs

This ones for the journos. You can quite easily bump into local luminaries. If you’re at a popular dive, you’ll probably be glancing over various entrepreneurs, star writers and local ‘celebs’. They’re all very approachable and easy to get in touch with.

3. Availability of Information

Want to know what’s cool in Beijing? Where to go, what to do and what to eat? You are well served. There are four big expat publications here all catering to that service: The Beijinger, TimeOut, City Weekend, That’s Beijing. Not too mention countless blogs and websites. It’s all free too. Beijing’s grapevine is a generous bounty.

4. The Dating Scene

Because the foreigners here tend to be a self-selecting bunch it means you get to meet interesting, lively, thoughtful, intelligent and bold people. Because why else would you decide to come here if you weren’t crazy enough to leave your comfy life back home for this dusty, cash-sucking city? Chinese girls are a totally different story and one we can save for a possible future.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo by blog author.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo: Lu-Hai Liang

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Back in The Big Beige

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My nickname for Beijing is The Beige, which is usually the colour of the sky, owing to the terrific pollution and smog. I’ve arrived in the city from my small hometown of Hastings and the first couple days I always find it a surrealist experience. It takes a little time to adapt to the ‘Chinese-ness’ of everything. Also Beijing is massive and colossal in many aspects, the size of everything, the number of people and cars, the dysfunction of blocky communist architecture with islands of modernity nestled between roads the size of Wales.

The pollution sucks. It’s not just the tiny particles which can have health-screwing effects in the long term, there’s also the dust. Oh the dust. Already my nose is perpetually blocked and every time I come home I feel like Han Solo; dusty and disheveled.

Still there are benefits, the cheap food (I almost never cook in China), the cheap beer and the opportunity of it all. It’s a city built on dreams: gaudy, grand governmental dreams, small and large foreigner dreams, and the many million migrant dreams which are invariably crushed by reality.

What will I do different this time? Hmmmm, lots of things I hope. Really try to completely fluent up my Chinese, try to actually get a steady paying, no screw that, a big paying job. Get a bike. Make more cool friends. Travel more. Write more. Essays.

I’ve already landed an apartment. 1200 Yuan a month. That’s about £120. Found it on a Chinese site – they’re cheaper than the expat sites. The place doesn’t have a kitchen and the room is small, but for that price, I cannot really complain. I’m also heavily cash-less, relying on my bank overdraft. And waiting on several hundreds of pounds from freelance clients. It’ll come.

So for now, I’m sitting pretty, soaking it up, keeping busy and sipping coffee. The Beige is a colour you get used to.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 17, 2013 at 12:53 am