Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

Beijing – How much has changed in 9 years?

June 29, 2017


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.






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

June 12, 2017


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.


Beijing Friday!

April 25, 2017

I can’t believe that this time next week I’ll be back in China. I’ve gone through all the fun and games of re-obtaining a Chinese visa and I have to say, the process has improved incredibly since the first time. No longer is it a case of jumping into a moshpit of middle-aged mainlanders, crammed into a tiny building built alongside the palatial mansion in Toorak. Now there’s an actual centre – similar to getting cashback from medicare – with a good 10+ counters and 2 dedicated to paying. And amazingly – the form you download from the Chinese visa centre’s website matches the form required! The future!

After much indecision, I’ve settled on a cheapish hotel not too far from Wanfujing street – just east of the Forbidden City. It’s in a different part of the city than I was in last time but still in one of the primary hutong (traditional chinese courtyard homes) areas. In fact, I am keen to return to where I stayed last time as that area was also primarily hutong but I read after we left that much of it was earmarked to be bulldozed. This was extremely disappointing to read as they’re beautiful areas, but unfortunately the reality is that the quality of living within the hutongs leaves a lot to be desired.

It reminds me of these large blocks of residences in Shanghai – just a block or two back from the Bund as you head inland. These were wonderful places on the outside – at least 5 stories high and jam-packed with tiny homes. Clothing hung from wires, neon signs extended up their outsides. When you walked past them, you’d see bicyles and old Chinese characters painted on the walls – literally as if plucked from a movie scene. But like those in Beijing, the quality of life in these places was abysmal. The last time I saw these, I remember looking down on them from a neighboring apartment which we had rented for the weekend and could see only a few lights inside. As is typical in China – there’s always a few stubborn residents unwilling to move until the place is literally falling down about their ears. I suppose if you were that person, forced to leave your home of decades only to be moved to  some non-descript highrise far from the city, far from the place you know as home, you’d feel pretty much the same.

This time next week i’ll be in Beijing, and man I cannot wait.

I’m heading back to China! (briefly)

March 13, 2017

Well after 9 years I’m finally heading back to China! Technically there I was there 2 years ago to celebrate my 40th in Hong Kong, but this time around I’ve picked up some ridiculously cheap tickets and am going to Beijing for 7 days on a bit of a solo travelling mission.

I can’t wait to see how China has changed in those 9 years. Had I a choice I would have gone back to Shanghai – which would have made it easy to then jump back to Wuxi and/or Suzhou, but Beijing was a really chill city and one I had fond memories of.

My mandarin is rusty but still pretty good as I have never really stopped studying it. I’m keen as hell to walk around and just hang out rather than hit up the tourist sites, but in saying that I’ll likely return to the Forbidden City and maybe even back to the Wall.

This time I’ll be taking an SLR rather than the crappy point and shoot compact camera I had in 2008. Can you believe I lived for just under a year in China and only had a shitty little camera to document it?! I suppose technology has changed a lot since then – hell, I remember drooling for my return to Australia to pick up the first iPhone.

Good times.

The air quality in China – oh dear.

March 29, 2014

In my regular web rounds I came across an article over at Kotaku which allows you to compare the air quality in China with the rest of the world. The article links to Air Pollution in Asia, a website which offers real-time data of global air quality. Having lived in China, I was more than aware that the air quality was terrible, but this website clearly shows just how bad it is – it’s horrendous.

We had a smoky day in Melbourne the other day, where smoke from planned burnings out East (a bushfire preventative) had the city so smoky it was like a thick fog. That kind of condition is abnormal for a place like Melbourne, where we’re blessed with very good air quality, but is normal for China.

I remember a few weeks into my stay in China, driving along with Pan Zilli (a good friend), and commenting on the haze. It was very smoggy – with visibility down to a few hundred metres at best, and I said to him, “The air is pretty bad today, huh?”

And his reply, “Oh no! Today is clear, the air is good.”


Sure enough, he wasn’t kidding. That kind of air became normality. Upon my return to Australia, I couldn’t believe how crisp things looked. From the airport to the trees beside the road as we drove home, everything was crisp and vividly clear. Why? Because almost everything in China is hidden behind the almost permanent blue haze. Buildings 10-20 metres away, would still have this haze before them, never crisp and clear.

There was a tower several blocks away from the school we lived which I referred to as Dongting’s Eiffel tower (we lived in Dongting – or was that Xishan district – that never became clear), and it was always in a state of semi-visibility, despite being so close.

For much of the time we spent in China (during 2008), we had coughs and sore throats, particularly my poor wife who spent much of the year sick because of it. Looking at the map – Wuxi (just southwest of Shanghai) has poor air quality – but nothing compared to what you can see around Beijing.

Seriously – that’s a capital O.M.G. Look at that map – it is a *disgrace*. At what cost are the Chinese paying for their rapid progress? The total destruction and pollution of their formerly beautiful countryside? Or at the cost of their citizens.

Years from now, when the people who are living and breathing this air begin to die from various forms of lung cancers, there’s going to be a reckoning. China is trying to do something about it, but the real question is – have they already gone too far

Tian Yi, Wuxi

A bridge at Tian Yi school where I lived – note the haze between the location of the shot and the building in the distance – and that’s a somewhat clear day.

Remembering China # 2: Beijing beer

May 21, 2013

Talking about the World Nomad’s travel scholarship prize in Beijing had me thinking about Beijing itself. What an amazing place – really. When you think of China, there are two main places that instantly come to mind (well other than the Great Wall) – Beijing and Shanghai – two cities that could not possibly be more different. While Shanghai is the true land of hyper-lit skyscrapers, Beijing is not really a city in the traditional sense. There is a CBD area, and there are some large buildings, but Beijing covers a large, sprawling area.

Roof lions

The roof kitties observe

Beijing is rich in culture and history, but is also spread out in such a way that it’s difficult to take it all in in a glance. If you go to Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden City, which has a large hill that was actually made from the soil dug out of the Forbidden City’s moat, you can see exactly how extensive the city is – and in fact, it’s probably the place to go if you want the best view of the Forbidden City itself.

Every place you go is flat and long. When you exit the Tienanmen Square train station – finding your way to the square is a challenge that involves a lot of walking. Going from the square past the Forbidden City, down to the Wangfujing shopping street – or the famous night food market behind it – walk walk walk.

Beijing to me though, is most fondly remembered by the tiny rooftop bars that were among the cities famous hutongs (courtyard homes). One such bar we had to ourselves, sitting amongst a large assortment of roof lions and tiny potted plants. From this rooftop, we had a great view of the Bell and Drum towers, and could simply unwind. Downstairs, within the hutong itself, the owner, a young and chic Beijing girl, would play cruisy Norah Jones and other western beats.

Down the road from this place, bordering the courtyard between the two gigantic towers, another tiny bar, marked out by Nepalese prayer flags. Go here, grab a tsingtao and nibble on nuts while you watch the locals play chess and do their dusk exercises.

As the sun began to go down, amongst the hutong’s you’ll find an array of street barbeques suddenly making an appearance. Men armed with hair dryers, lay an assortment of skewered meat over thin grills, then blow them with the dryers to speed up the process. Grab a seat, order 30 lamb skewers and a cucumber salad with a pair of matching tsingtao’s. This place is heaven.

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!

Comfortably fast

August 10, 2011

                As I read yet another article focusing on China’s ever increasing rail system I think, why oh why can’t we pay the Chinese to come in to Australia and build us some proper high speed infrastructure. Despite all the problems and issues, the Chinese just seem to get it done. While I am aware that train travel is also an integral part of Chinese mobility, it still doesn’t stop me from feeling like I need to have a whinge!

                This latest train, which reportedly gets up to a speed of 314km/hour, looks like an absolute beast – a luxurious beast at that. This one comes complete with first class trappings, more akin to flying than train travel.

                I have particularly fond memories of the high speed train we used to take between Wuxi and Shanghai. It was an hour long trip in comfortable seats on a train so stable that you had to double-check  that it was actually moving. That train was also fast, but seemed to only really hit the higher speeds (from memory around 230ish km/hour) in the middle of the trip. For most of the journey it would cruise along at around the 150 km/hour mark, making me wonder whether there were some kind of speed limits within certain proximity of towns.

                The train takes around five and a half hours to get between Shanghai and Beijing, with around ninety services running per day – that’s some serious people movement.

                Ah China, I wish I could return to you.

The Governator checks out one of the new high speed trains...

Speak English or die!

July 21, 2010

Beijing is set to become a ‘world city’. What is a ‘world city’ you ask? Well naturally, it’s a city where the majority of the population living within it…can speak English. Why? Because English is the most spoken language in the world – oh wait, no it isn’t – Mandarin is.

So why are authorities looking to get at least 60 percent of shop assistants, receptionists and…hairdressers under the age of 40 to pass an English exam by 2015. Or 80 percent of police officers to follow suit.

The programme is touted to provide “greater convenience to foreigners working or studying within the capital and enhance international relations and co-operation.” Sounds great! I wonder now if Melbourne will likewise be forcing 60 percent of its citizens to undertake Chinese lessons. I would like to see that happen…

China is going to great lengths to bring itself into the modern world. Much of its transformation appears to be simply submitting to the western ‘norms’. I often wonder whether their own culture is going to become so watered down that it barely exists.

I for one enjoy learning Chinese, and enjoy reading about Chinese culture. I feel like that in my country at least, I’m in somewhat of a minority – though I may be wrong. I am fascinated by foreign language, even if most days that it feels like I am climbing an impossibly large mountain, and will never actually get to the summit.

Stern Hu cops ten years in a Chinese prison.

March 30, 2010

In what has been a long and drawn out process, the verdict has been finally delivered to Stern Hu; the Australian Rio Tinto executive who was accused by the Chinese Government of accepting bribes and stealing state secrets. For his efforts; whether they were true or not, Mr Hu has been awarded ten years in a Shanghai prison in which I am sure is to be ten years of unabated enjoyment. His fellow Rio Tinto employees likewise scored sentences ranging from seven to fourteen years.

Stern Hu admitted to accepting bribes, though it is unclear to this particular reader whether or not he actually confessed to stealing state secrets. This whole ordeal has been critisised for its secrecy and it makes you wonder whether simply admitting to anything was outright better than potentially nastier punishments. In particular, it raises the question of whether or not it is in fact safe to work in China as a high level foreign businessman as it seems that foreign Governments can do little to weigh in, when Beijing has made up its mind on a particular matter.

One thing is for sure in that China is gaining momentum in the power stakes, as more and more countries such as Australia seem reluctant to want to tilt the boat when it comes to potentially risking their precious trading agreements. So what then if you become accused of something you didnt do, and your Government cant protect you? I for one consider that a scary thought.

We will link you

March 10, 2010

China is reputedly in negotiations with 17 different countries to build a high speed rail network. In what is expected to take ten years, China would suddenly be linked to places such as India and Europe by a system of trains that could travel up to 320 km/hour. Passengers would be able to jump on board a train in England and arrive in Beijing two days later! Now that is cool – and likely preferable to the extreme discomfort of flying. Sure, flying might shave off some hours, but does anyone other than first class actually feel comfortable in those cramped seats?

We travelled around China in sleeper trains that went nowhere near that speed and while I still found it almost impossible to sleep on them; as they noisily rattled their way across the countryside, give me a pillow and an actual bed any-day to an airline seat. And another thing – whilst we didnt sleep on one, we used these faster trains extensively and despite their extra speed, to ride in one is absolutely smooth as silk. I would bet that sleeping in one would be that much easier.

 Here’s hoping the next step is to build some massive underwater train connection to Australia, as I sure as hell would like to re-include Shanghai on my regular visitation list again.

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