If you want to understand the first 3000 years of China’s history, go to Xi’an.
To understand the last 300 years, go to Beijing.
For the last 30 years, go to Shenzhen.
That really about sums it up.[Read Rest of Article]
One of the things I have always enjoyed about Asia is the feeling of constant change. As a self-confessed junkie of experiences new and different, I find seeing everything slightly different every day soothing and intriguing, as opposed to stressful and disorienting. Watching a country like China not only change and evolve, but do so in a loony-short period of time is nothing short of intoxicating. While many people I know don’t exactly understand the scope or speed of these changes, I have a perfect example to show this: The Beijing subway system.
When I first moved here in 2006, the subway system was dominated by Line 1 – the straight east-west line – and line 2 – the line that follows the second ring road around the core of the inner city. Add in an extension in the east and a big sweeping line to try and catch the area north of the city, and you have the following map:
As an interesting side note, while circular subways and roads look really pretty on paper, I firmly believe they are an urban planning disaster. The rest of your transportation system basically degenerates into short straight routes to get people onto those circular systems, which then become massively overloaded and break down, yet remain the only way to get around anywhere. Witness Beijing’s 5 ring roads. The inner 2nd Ring Road is a giant parking lot. The 3rd, with a radius maybe 3km wider, is also a mess. Only the 4th and 5th Ring Roads, which stay well away from the city, finally have reasonable traffic. But to get anywhere, you basically have to still get on the 2nd or 3rd rings, which means you’re not going anywhere fast in this city.
Fast forward two short and very exciting years to the 2008 Olympic games, and the Beijing subway system already looks like this:
Ignoring the Feng Shui people screaming about how asymmetric or ugly the new lines are, the city is trying new lines that cut across key neighbourhoods requiring coverage, and also trying to get people to other key neighbourhoods (i.e. Guomao where Lines 10 and 1 meet up) without pushing them onto the circular Line 2. The new Airport Express line lets you choose between Lines 10, 2, or the giant Dongzhimen Bus Terminal, which is right where it meets the Line 2 station.
This is what we have now, although the map will be out of date in 6-8 weeks: Line 4 from the Northwest corner of the city down to Beijing South Station (trains) will be opening then.
But the city is still woefully undercovered by subway tracks. Unlike other metropolitan areas, however (poor Toronto comes to mind), that limp along with outdated and overused undergrounds, the Chinese are determined to solve this. Behold the plan for the next 6 years.
The nice thing is? It will happen. From simple and toy like to world-class in 10 years. Nice.[Read Rest of Article]
When I first arrived in Beijing in 2006, the city was booming. Everything seemed to be gearing up for the 2008 Summer Olympic games, and the locals couldn’t build fast enough. Part of this insanity was the embracing of everything Western, including Western-style grocery stores. For most of their history, the Chinese have been going to farmer’s markets, or 农贸市场 (nóngmàoshìchǎng) in the local vernacular. The folks here ply their wares selling fruits, vegetables, wheat products such as noodles and bread, or meat, but rarely a mix of them. When I first arrived in the city, we found one lady who wouldn’t rip us off too much, and would sell us vegetables at a fair price so I could cook at home. The arrival of the western-style supermarket looked a direct threat to their existence.
A key example of this was the newly opened 华普超市 (huápǔ chāoshì) or Hypermarket (Huapu is a transliteration of hyper) just up the road from my old house in Beijing’s Soviet neighbourhood. In addition to all the foods that locals were familiar with, there were huge sections carrying new, strange western goods such as cheese, bacon, breakfast cereals, more soda than you could shake a stick at, and candies, candies, candies. There were pretty uniformed girls hawking these goods heavily, and, more interestingly, other uniformed people explaining to the locals just what exactly things were, how you would use them, and why you would use them – “Yes, it’s smoked pigs’ leg. You put it in a frying pan and cook it, and then eat it along with some fried eggs for breakfast”. The locals weren’t sure what exactly they were buying, but with all the hullaballoo in the run-up to the Games, it must be good, so they patiently tried it out.
The French couldn’t open up their massive Carrefour stores fast enough to keep up with demand. All of the locations in Beijing were complete mad-houses on any given weekend, and there too, in addition to roast ducks, pigs feet, or the freshest in local seafood types, were the people helpfully explaining what red wine is and how to drink it, and what the best kind of washing machine and toaster over you should be buying would be.
You can’t touch this
Cue forward three years and one successful Olympic games, and what a difference in Chinese supermarkets today. Not unexpectedly, things have calmed down a lot since the Olympics, and while the local economy hasn’t crashed as hard as those in the west, things are definitely more sedate here now. In nearly all of the supermarkets I’ve been to over the last month, there has been quite the retrenchment in terms of products sold – gone are the breakfast cereals, the huge selections of dairy products and cheeses seen before, and even Carrefour’s wine section seems smaller. Even fruit, produce, and meat all seem to be reduced as well, with the stores now mainly making their money off staples such as rice, pulses, and dry goods (and instant noodles – never forget instant noodles).
The farmer’s markets and fruit stands are doing as well as they’ve ever done, and selling better produce than the super markets. This suits the local’s buying habits well, as they adore haggling over price with the vendors, and the fixed pricing scheme of supermarkets piques the local mindset to no end. Indeed, instead of encouraging the Chinese to adapt to unfamiliar Western dietary habits (sweet? for breakfast?), the large stores have had to really work hard to identify what the produce markets are missing, and focus on those – hence the increase in oils, rice, frozen foods, and cleaning supplies, with a huge decrease in perishable goods.
Does that mean there is no likelihood of the locals’ diets changing any time soon? One clue would be that the size of the soda and candy section at any given supermarket remains large and always looking to expand. Expect larger Chinese children in the near future.
And for those foreigners living in Beijing who simply can’t fathom waking up without a bowl of Frosted Flakes or fresh baguette, there are always the foreign supermarkets catering to them. Just expect to pay Manhattan-like prices for that half-pound of gorganzola cheese.[Read Rest of Article]
On Friday night I was at Nánlúogǔxiàng (南锣鼓巷), when the following conversation took place -
The scene: Me, standing around idly playing a game on my iPhone waiting for some friends to finish browsing in the jewelry store, watching the people strolling past.
Chinese guy (very drunk): Ha-looooooooo! Me (looking up): ? Chinese guy (getting closer): Ha-loooooooooo! Me: Ha-looo? Chinese guy (still drunk): Do... you ... uh ... speak ... Chi-neese? Me: Yes. Chinese guy (pointing): 啊太好啦！麻烦你告诉我那边是南边还是北边？ Me: 南边。那边是北边。 Chinese guy: 哈哈哈！我知道了，必须告诉我的女朋友！ Me (smiling) Chinese guy: Thaaaaannnnk .... you! (runs off)
Never a dull moment in this city.[Read Rest of Article]
Beijing has been a furnace of late. Over the last three days, the temperature has reached at least 35C (95F) every single day, with some days getting into the 36-37C range.
Thus, it was a bit of a jolt to my system when I want to check out the weather reports this morning and was presented with the graphic you see here. Tonight’s low would be in the -573C (-1064F) range. Never mind that this temperature is, of course, impossible, and well beyond absolute zero (which measures in at a wussy -273C) – it’sa be cold.
Now where is that sweater I packed away for the summer? I might be needing it after all ….[Read Rest of Article]
While I’m not particularly keen on spending much time posting or talking about Chinglish and bad slogans and signs here in China – there are already plenty of sites on the Internet that do this much better than I – on a recent walk home from having some business cards made, I ran into a number of particularly comical signs, all in the span of a few hundred metres, and all quite chuckle-worthy.
The day started off somewhat surreally as I walked past a local Chinese restaurant, only to have the restaurant name supplemented by “MYSQL”. Buy one bowl of noodles, get an ACID-compliant transactional engine for free?
It turns out that the name of the restaurant is 明月三千里, or míng yuè sān qiān lǐ. Hence, the MYSQL. Still, good fun:
Next, I walked past a massage parlour that advertised “Cupping and scrape measles”. Cupping, or báhǔoguàn (拔火罐), is a reasonably common treatment here in China, which provides topical relief on the skin for various ailments. Scraping, or gūashā (刮痧), is another frequently used treatment for heatstroke and other discomforts involving scraping the back of the neck or upper back. Unfortunately, there is no direct translation like cupping, so when you take the two characters separately, the first gives you scraping, the second gives you “acute ailment”, such as measles or some other virus. Hence, some great sign fun.
Not that it’s a hugely common problem here in China, but I guess the maintainers of this little garden next to a scrool, across the road from the parlour, wanted to make sure that nobody would use their cute little park as a public toilet (there is actually a public toilet about 20m away). Hence this sign asking exactly that:
With the huge fire of the Mandarin Hotel building next to the new CCTV complex on the east Third Ring Road due to unauthorised fireworks, construction sites all around the city are now being extra careful to point out that fireworks are illegal in the city now that Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is over. This one reminds readers that fireworks are illegal inside the 5th ring road:
And finally, I went to meet a friend for some lunch, and walked past a DVD store with this gem in the window:
Evidence suggests they meant to use the word “painting”, which would also be incorrect. The sign asks you not to write any graffiti on their windows. This is in Sanlitun, a big party area on Friday and Saturday evenings, with huge crowds of drunken foreign kids from 10pm until late.[Read Rest of Article]
Winters in Beijing are noted for being both cold and long, with late-January and early-February promising the most bone-chilling cold temperatures and blustery winds.
So, it has been with no small amount of surprise this week that the weather has been hovering around 9-11C (that’s around 50F in ‘mericun units), with nighttime temperatures barely breaking freezing any more.
Snow? Not even a dream any more in Beijing. Locals will tell you of a time 10-15 years ago when it would snow regularly here in the capitol during winters, but this year we didn’t even get the 1cm dusting that we’ve seen in the last couple of years.
As an absolute lover of both winter and snow, it’s been pure torture to watch all my friends in England upload photos of all the snow there, as well as the crazy-record amounts on the east coast of the US and Canada. Drat![Read Rest of Article]
Well, after a good six weeks of traveling to many different places (Singapore, Hong Kong, New York City, Maine, and finally Seattle), I’m back in Beijing now. I had originally planned to avoid coming here on account of how difficult the visa situation was supposed to be, but after some research, it turned out to be quite trivial to get a full year tourist visa (with the caveat that I have to leave every two months and then come back). But with all the pre-Olympic-hullabaloo, I was still nervous about coming back here during the middle of the games—what would things be like?
The short answer is that it’s a bit more annoying here, but not ultimately not all that different. Security measures that have been in place for years but were never seriously enforced before are suddenly being checked rigorously. I awoke in a panic this morning when I realised that I slept through most of yesterday and didn’t make it to the local gong an ju – public security office – to register. So I ran there this morning and started chatting with them and they were all smiles and then told me to come back later because they couldn’t get to the government website anyway.
Traffic definitely is better than it was before—Banning half the cars from the road is, it seems, an awesome way to improve traffic and air quality. There are dedicated lanes for the Olympics here and there which make the occasional mess of traffic still, but overall, the roads are deserted compared to what they were merely two months ago.
Air has been harder to measure. The first two days after I arrived were very cloudy, humid, and overcast, so it didn’t seem that nice out. A nice round of thunderstorms, yesterday, however, cleared nearly everything up, and today one can see the mountains surrounding the city (which I didn’t notice when I first moved to China until after nearly three weeks of living here!).
Oddly enough, compared to some of the DSL I was experiencing in the USA, the Internet here is stunningly fast and reliable. Sure, some sites are blocked, but that’s what SSH proxies were invented for, and I’ve pretty much got everything I want at my fingertips, with great speeds to boot.
My favourite thing about being back? The food. It’s awesome eating here. Lots of vegetables (even the meat dishes), lots of fruit, and the occasional ice cream here and there to help with the heat and humidity. I’ve already hit up the good Szechuan restaurants, and will keep working on all my regular smaller places before leaving again next week.
One thing I found interesting is that, despite the obvious pride at doing so well at the Olympic games and winning so many gold medals, many Chinese people I talk with are pretty sardonic about the whole thing, recognising that governments can pretty much buy as many gold medals as they’re willing to spend money on…
So, here’s to hoping that by the time I come back from India, China has returned to being the same old crazy and fun place that it’s been to live in. I can’t wait.[Read Rest of Article]