Archive for June, 2017

Beijing – How much has changed in 9 years?

June 29, 2017

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It’s rare for a day to go by without at least one big story on China in the news. Beyond the usual toddler’s head stuck in balcony/couch/escalator type stories – we’re constantly hearing about the rise (or potential fall) of the Chinese economy, the Chinese buying up big, investing everywhere, their hands in everything (or facing a gigantic housing crash -the housing issues in mainland China making those in Sydney & Melbourne paltry by comparison).

But with a country that’s super-charging into the future, the number of wealthy and middle-class Chinese more than ever before, just how fast is the country actually changing?

The answer is – not much; at least, if Beijing is anything to go by.

I am sure beneath the surface there have been considerable changes I’m unaware of, but from an outsider looking in, the changes I saw in Beijing were minuscule. It was practically the same city I visited 9 years ago, albeit with sprinkles of modernization across the board. Despite these changes, it still looked and moreso felt like the Beijing of 2008, when the city was gripped with excitement for the upcoming Olympic Games.

The first thing I noticed were the new subway stations – or rather, I was made aware of them by a friend prior to arriving. Had I not been told, I would likely not have even known, so well were they integrated. Beijing like most other Chinese cities already had a pretty solid transport network, but if anything its now even more connected making navigating the city via subway a breeze.

But speaking of mobility – one thing that was definitely not there last time were these new forms of hire bicycles. These bikes are literally everywhere, rentable for a small amount and unlocked via a smartphone app. There were three specific colours or brands of these bikes, the most noticeable being black and yellow. Coincidentally, just this past week these same bikes have shown up in Melbourne and I read Sydney, delivered by a Singapore company whose  name escapes me. They work a treat in Beijing as they’re not only cheap, but the perfect alternative to the peak hour subway crush, or worse, the infamous Beijing car traffic. You’ll see the bikes everywhere, many in great tangled piles and in need of repair, but many more are on the roads. I saw everything from students to workers to even policemen using them. In China, anything goes. If its easy and provides mobility, then it’ll work. It’s the opposite in Melbourne where not wearing a helmet is a fineable offence – and of course there’s no such restriction in China, allowing you to literally jump on a bike, ride it to your destination and discard it. Piece of cake, and no helmet hair to boot!

I also noticed there were more public toilets dotted around – a benefit of the Olympic games. And in an amazing turn of events, many of these public toilets didn’t simply have lockable doors – but toilet paper dispensers also!!! For anyone whose traveled in China – carrying small packets of tissues in your pockets is essential (unless you have a magic, self-cleaning ass). I was in Beihai park, about to climb the mountain to the White Pagoda when I had this sudden rumble in my guts….then this horrible sinking feeling when I realised that I had completely forgotten to bring tissues with me……..ARGH!!! I turned around, beelined for the public toilets, my eyes on the bordering leaves and foliage (yes, it may have come to that) – and holy fucking Christ above, thank every god available there was a machine that dispensed  toilet paper beside the basins. So thank you modern China for this heavenly innovation – if only it applied to the whole country.

Travel in China protip: carry tissues with you – everywhere!

The last time I was in Beijing, Chinese mobile phones resembled the old Nokia, pre-iPhone era phones (although they mostly used their own brands). These have been naturally replaced by iPhones – or moreso, android equivalents – and bigtime. The Chinese *love* their mobile phones. If you think us western folk are obsessed with them, we aint got nothing on the Chinese. It’s no surprise then that paywave type payment is everywhere.

But beyond these few modernizations, a few new shopping malls here and there, more large buildings in the CBD area – the city is very much the same as I remembered it. And everywhere I looked it was the same old China. I couldn’t help but laugh when I watched the local Beijing life going on around me. The western world’s opinion of China is almost purely coloured by the media, and I get this feeling that many westerners fear the Chinese. There’s this underlying anxiety that they’re going to take over the world. They’re buying up anything and everything. Their rich are snapping up our properties. Their government buying up our natural resources. They’re buying giant farms in distant countries(including Australia), shipping food back to the hungry masses who have an insatiable appetite for clean produce.

But back in China, on the streets and down the laneways, life goes on, as it has for thousands of years but these days with a slightly more modern twist. The sidewalks are still cracked. Everything is dusty, like it’s been there forever. Empty storefronts will be a new restaurant tomorrow, a florist next week, empty again next month.

It’s changing, there’s no doubt about that. The quality of life for millions of Chinese has improved significantly. But ultimately, I don’t think China will ever change. Not the true China that you see there on the streets. The thriving chaotic China that just somehow works. The China that I love and the China that to me feels like a second home.

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After 9 years, I’ve reunited with an old friend, China.

June 12, 2017

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Well I’ve been back for several weeks now and been meaning to make a post about the trip ever since. I’ll probably post several as there is a lot to talk about as usual.

It’s been some 9 years since I last visited mainland China, a brief visit to Hong Kong for my 40th a few years ago the only break in that particular drought. On that trip I came close to taking the train to Shenzhen – not because I have any real interest in that city, but I wanted to return to that crazy place I had grown to know and love and to see whether after all this time, I still missed the place.

You’ve probably guessed from the infrequency of my posts that I’d sort of moved on from China. It was like a second home to me and so ridiculously interesting that for a long time after returning home I wanted to keep a solid link to the country – a link which became this blog. The more time that passed, the harder that link was to maintain and real life flooded in to fill that particular void.

Of course I’ve maintained a deep interest in the culture and tried to capitalize on it multiple times through my work. I’ve tried and failed to keep my study of Mandarin going – while I do study it in fits and starts, living in a non-Chinese speaking country is a real prick when it comes to motivation – despite our giant Chinese population here in Melbourne, but that’s another story. I still watch as many Chinese movies as I can, read Chinese books where possible (the awesome Three Body Problem being one), and listen to Chinese music. It all helps.

But damn, being in Beijing just a few weeks ago…it already feels like it was forever ago and I’m rearing to go back. Sadly that’s not going to happen – possibly not ever, but it felt so good to be back. Not wanting to sound clichéd but it was like I had never left, and travelling solo overseas for the first time proved to be every bit as intoxicating as I’d predicted.

I’d wanted to travel overseas for the longest of times. Like many others, I wasted my 20’s working shit jobs I cared nothing for and basically doing nothing with my life. Oh for the gift of hindsight then! By the time I was devoured by the travel bug, I was bogged down in commitments of the monetary variety and then  part of a long term relationship, spending the money solo just wasn’t an option. Not that I really wanted to at that point – travelling with my partner in crime, my wonderful wife is one of the highlights of my life. But I still had this nagging thing in the back of my mind, urging me to do it.

Then along came this bloody amazing Qantas sale where I picked up return tickets for a measly $499 return and on my wife’s suggestion, away I went.

As much as I love travelling with her, I still wanted to experience the unpredictable nature of international travel – but only relying on myself. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I could get by with my rusty mandarin and get around relying on my own sense of direction and ability to navigate the various public transport systems.

There’s also two big differences between the way my wife and I like to travel. In addition to exploring unfamiliar cities and dining out, much to her annoyance I’m always bringing up the rear, stopping to read each and every inscription in its entirety. I’m always interested in the who/what/why when I visit historical sites. I like to know what was there and what happened while she couldn’t give a toss! Well that’s not completely fair, she can appreciate something for what it is, but you won’t find her googling the backstory when we return to the hotel that night like I will!

It still fazes me to this day that I found this awesome old Samurai cemetery in Kyoto, a place high on a hill that was being visited by elderly Japanese, and I still have no idea what it was or who was buried there. Something that fazes me even more because I have a good knowledge of feudal Japanese history!

The wife just doesn’t share this same passion, a good example: one afternoon in Copenhagen – she went to a modern Danish furniture exhibition while I spent mine in the Viking museum J

But getting back to China – damn did it feel amazing to be back. Almost immediately it was like I hadn’t left. Everything was familiar, from the hazy, yellow night lighting on the freeways to the scent of deodorizer in the taxi covering cigarette smell. Even the taxi was identical to those we’d used back in 2008 – one of the newer variety of Volkswagen’s that begun to roll out and replace the older models while we were there, I was expecting them to be newer this time around.

I had forgotten that the Chinese drive on the opposite side of the road to Australia, but not how they pay little to no attention to the road markings and duck and weave around other slower moving vehicles. I’ve always found Chinese roads interesting in that it feels like you’re on a never-ending freeway with exits constantly peeling off towards other freeways in other directions so that you never truly know where the hell you are. I remember looking at the signs as I did back in 2008 – clearly marked, but in Chinese and Pinyin and couldn’t for the life of me imagine navigating these roads.

Given it was after 11pm by the time I was on the way to my hotel, there wasn’t too much traffic on the roads – a good thing given the congestion that often afflicts Beijing. I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver in broken Mandarin and was surprised at how easily it came back. We spoke about Wang Feng – a singer I like (and who married the awesome Zhang Ziyi), who coincidentally came on the radio. He had no idea what I was talking about until I gave him a lyric or two from ‘Flying Higher’, in which case he immediately understood and ended up playing me some music that he liked from his phone through the car stereo. I didn’t feel overly bothered by him pissing around with his phone to find the music as we drove at night, moving through other vehicles, at speed, because shit – this is China.

I’d booked a cheaper hotel – Beijing 161 Wanfujing Hotel, about half a block from the Dongsi subway station, and several large blocks from the Wanfujing shopping street. I picked this area as I thought that being solo, a somewhat close proximity to Wanfujing would mean guaranteed western comforts if I needed them but it was also a different part of Beijing to explore. I’d previously stayed just north of the Bell and Drum towers.

I’d also picked a hotel that was specifically amongst the hutongs as I knew this was a much higher chance of being near street food (specifically spicy skewers!). And I chose a hotel that had a decent common area for being solo I had a completely different agenda than when travelling with my wife: I had no agenda at all!

Each day I only did precisely what I felt like on that particular day. I’d get up, have a nice lazy breakfast in the hotel’s café, read for a while, dick around on my phone and look at the local map on the Apple maps app. I thought with google maps being blocked by the Great Firewall that getting around would be annoying, but lo and behold the apple official map app was fantastic, particularly for navigating the subway. I’d look at this app, look at a few locations I wanted to visit and determine how annoying it was to get there. And that was it!

I’d either hang out for the morning and head out in the afternoon, or head out for most of the day. In short, I wanted to live the expat lifestyle as closely as possible within that 10 day period – not unlike being back in Wuxi. And that’s exactly what I did.

Next time I’ll tell you exactly what I got up to and just what I thought about Beijing, 9 years later.

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