Who would’ve thought that in Beijing, even more so than in Ulan Bator, people really wouldn’t speak a word of English? In UB, I asked at the hostel and they gave me directions to an electronics store where I could buy a SIM card. My friends and I found the store, asked again for directions and had a working SIM card within minutes. The staff spoke some English at the bank, at the restaurant, at the store and there was always a way to be understood. In Beijing, so far, one person was able to help me buy a SIM card. From what I understood, he was an intern and was learning English at school.
How is it that in the capital of China, in a mall packed with tourists smack in the city center, no one speaks English? I went down to the information desk to ask where the toilets were and the woman called someone else as she didn’t understand “toilet”. Then the other woman shook her head at me like “no, we do not have toilets in China”. Ha. So I went up to the food court and found the toilets anyway. Note to self: always look for the food court to find some toilets. So now I know, for next time I’m in China, that if someone doesn’t understand “toilet”, there’s a good chance they’ll understand it if I make a W with 3 fingers, then a C with my hand, YMCA style.
Surprisingly, the metro is quite easy to use, whereas buying a SIM card is much harder, especially in a store where no one speaks English – let alone a SIM card that works. I’m stuck with EDGE because my iPhone is not supported here in China – where it was made. So here’s the picture: me on the sidewalk, with a new Chinese Sim card in my phone trying to get in touch with the world … loading … loading … loading … That little E up in the corner of my screen was really testing my patience.
People were curious about me and checked me out discreetly in the subway. Every single one of them, young or old, rich or poor, was using an large smartphone, and almost every iPhone is an iPhone 6S or something that looks like the latest version of a fancy smartphone. I wondered if it was cheaper here or if people could afford it more easily than anywhere else. It seems it’s not cheaper. Let’s just put it this way: buying the latest iPhone 6s in China is like buying a brand new car in Europe. It’s fashionable, useful and it makes you look good when you take it out. And if you don’t have one, you pretty much suck. Those were the words of my CS host in Guangzhou.
I spent the evening and the night at Tobias’ place, my Couchsurfing host, and we talked about a lot of things, from girls in China to teaching French to a Japanese girl and to Chinese in general, and from car stories to people who go to the gym. Tobi and I went out for noodles, and had a good time. I had the eggplant noodle soup, which was very good but O so stuffy. I paid 38¥ for both meals, which is about 5€. Then Tobi’s roommate Henri came home and we went out shopping so I could cook for them a typical Belgian dish – la salade Liégeoise. Henri and I had the best time in the supermarket trying to be understood and to find what we needed for the recipe. Now I know that Hu Fa Su means “conditioner” and there’s a good chance I’ll remember that word for a long time.
Cooking at Henri and Tobi’s was a challenge as they’d only just moved into their new place. I used an empty noodle plastic container as a bowl, and we ate the hot salad Chinese style with chopsticks. There’s still talk of the wild beasts one might encounter in the bathroom, too.
Around 11pm it started raining over Beijing, heavy rain with lightening and thunder. As it turns out, it never “just” rains in Beijing. It usually turns into a thunderstorm. From the window I could see flashy neon lights in the distance, but couldn’t see the Olympic stadium I was supposed to see because of the fog. It was like looking through a dirty window. The outcome was surprising; a foggy, misty cityscape with bright neon lights flashing their colors at the world under a heavy rain. It looked like the lights were sweating, like some halo was stemming from them. And it felt fresh.
Beijing by day is very different from Beijing by night but one thing remains: the smell of meat frying in a pan and the smell of those very typical Chinese spices is everywhere. It can be appetizing just as it can be overwhelming. There is nothing better than the smell of duck cooking in a street food van when you are hungry, but there is nothing worse than the smell of burning fat at 8 o’ clock in the morning when you’ve already had breakfast.
The sky in late September is neither blue during the day nor black at night. It is milky white, yellowish even because of the pollution and dark red at night, which gives it a creepy yet romantic feel.
Walking around Tiananmen Square proved tougher than I expected. I knew it was one of those major sights in Beijing that I just couldn’t miss, but elbowing my way through the crowd and trying to dodge the many postcard and umbrella vendors, I remember thinking that I could’ve done without it. Almost 30 years after the famous protests and massacre of Tiananmen Square, the world famous picture of a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks couldn’t be further from what the square looks like today. Packed with tourists and hawkers trying to sell you postcards and Polaroid pictures, groups of tourists flocking behind a guide waving a flashy flag or a stick, or listening to their guide’s distorted voice coming out of an portable speaker. As I tried to make your way around the Square to snap a tourist-free picture of Tiananmen’s Gate Tower across Chang’an Avenue, I already wished I’d chosen to spend my time on something else. Yeah alright, I’ll get to tell my friends and family that I was there, that I’d walked that pavement where major historical events happened and changed the course of Chinese history for ever, I could maybe hashtag an artsy picture on Instagram, but what would that bring me?
After suffering the heat and the crowds of tourists and street vendors for a good half hour, I didn’t think I could take any more of that and thought I’d visit the Forbidden City some other day, possibly early in the morning to avoid the herds of tourists. I did, however, do a refreshing stroll around one of the nearby lakes, stopping here and there to buy a couple fridge magnets. From what I understood, the lakes used to be part of the Emperor’s private gardens, back centuries ago, and they’re still a very pleasant walk, even though golf-carts carrying lazy tourists have replaced the Emperor’s advisors and concubines.
Instead, I retreated to the much less touristic Panjiayuan Antique Market for an hour or two. I lazily strolled around the various areas and snapped pictures of the typical clay teapots, jade jewelry, sets of paintbrushes designed for calligraphy, but also blessing calabashes, or bottle gourd souvenirs. There was even a section selling all sorts of items dating back from the Communist Party such as hats, pins, clothes, pictures of Mao Zedong, copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and flags.
One afternoon, I got lost in the typical crisscrossing Hutongs in and round Guloudajie Road. I thought it best to just stroll aimlessly around those narrow alleyways and found myself surrounded by traditional one-story houses and courtyards. Food stalls, street vendors, flashy clothes stores and boutiques selling everything and anything, like leather purses, gadget souvenirs, ice cream or sugar animals on a stick, some Hutongs have now become modern tourist attractions. Some other Hutongs are still, however, hidden from the crowds in areas such as Sichahai or down Nanluogu Xiang. But don’t tell anyone!
As I started seeing fewer tourists and even fewer rickshaws, I knew I was on the right track and about to discover one of the real Hutongs, something authentic where dust and dirt would coexist with cozy little cafés and artisan creators boutiques. I had the most pleasant afternoon stopping randomly to take in the unique atmosphere of that quiet street drenched in sun, and wondered if I should buy a paper fan, some artsy jewelry, a couple of cactuses, clothes or green tea, as everything looked equally tempting.
The romantic voyager in me felt immediate curiosity when I read “Paradise Time Travel Bookstore” in Beiluogu Xiang. A wonderful coffee shop with shelves and shelves of postcards and books on the walls, the soft smell of coffee and young wood, comfy sofas and chairs, and a cat purring on a nearby table bathed in sunlight. I think I could’ve spent days there if I’d had the time, and had I been living in Beijing, it would’ve surely become one of my favorite spots.
It’s also in that street, near Jiugulou Dajie, in Gulou, that Henri, Tobias and I went for drinks one evening, in a bar called 8-Bit. Didn’t look like much from outside, but as it turned out, that bar was a real treasure cave for nostalgic lovers of antique vintage video games, consoles and retro-looking computers. Pacman is everywhere, drinks are totally affordable and if the waiter’s busy, just pick a board game like the Chinese version of Liar’s Dice. We were quickly invited to an expat party happening on the rooftop and had the best time for a few hours. Would totally recommend 8-Bit on 13 Bei Luo Gu Xiang 北锣鼓巷13号 if you’re ever in Beijing.
As a modern wise man said before, if you’ve never been stuck in traffic for an hour at 1 am, you haven’t experienced Beijing. Luckily – or sadly – I didn’t have the pleasure of getting stuck in traffic for an hour, but we did have a pretty hard time finding a cab on our way back from Houhai, in Shichahai, around 1 am. Walking around the Houhai Lake under the colorful lanterns and the light strings was as pleasant as it was annoying. Between the rickshaw drivers and waiters constantly calling passersby to go in their establishment for a drink, I didn’t get any vibe of authenticity. Just that of a huge touristic business going on in a touristic area. I remember the scent of grilling meat, the flashy neon lights of a karaoke, the techno music and gogo dancers of its neighbor club, and the dimly lit rooftop overlooking the lake where we decided to have a beer.
It was, however, pleasant to walk around in the evening, especially down Yandai Xiejie, a cute Hutong street packed with souvenir shops, expat joints and creative art stores. I went back there during the day and it was also pleasant, although jammed with tourist groups, rickshaws and organized tours. And the heat and humidity was a lot to handle in such a busy place.
Another short trip I did was to the Silk Market at Xiu Shui in Chaoyang District. As I’d expected, it was very touristy, big and crowded, and I didn’t feel like spending hours there – so I didn’t. I will tell you what an expat told me when I was in Beijing. The Silk Market is a great place to find all sorts of weird, one-of-a kind items, clothes, softs fabrics, and other usual electronic devices. Brace yourself for pushy sellers and be ready to bargain the hell out of everything you want to buy there!
That evening, I went out for a couple of drinks in Gulou with an American expat I’d met on the bus from Mongolia to Beijing. Temple Bar is a dark 2-storey building in the back of an equally dark alley smack in the heart of a very lively neighborhood. Expats, tourists and locals all get together there to enjoy live music and have one of the many unusual cocktails and shot glasses they offer. Great atmosphere, friendly English speaking staff, fantastic concert when we were there and another band was rehearsing in another room on a different floor. Would definitely recommend going there as well! Oh and of course, you can pay with WeChat if you want to do like the locals.
Speaking of WeChat, I discovered in China that I was less a geek than I thought. Had someone told me this before I went to China, it would probably have made things a bit easier. WeChat is a brilliant, free App that everybody uses in China, halfway between WhatsApp, Skype and the QR Code Reader on your phone. Take five minutes to create an account, upload a profile picture and get your info set up and you can start paying with WeChat just about everywhere. You can link a payment card to your WeChat account, or transfer money to your Wallet. Once you’ve done that, you’ll discover what the rest of the iceberg has to offer, like ordering a cab, topping up your cell phone if you’re out of credit, or paying for drinks at Temple Bar. I saw my friend do that like it was the most natural and uncomplicated thing in the world. When the waitress gave him the bill, he just scanned the QR Code on the receipt and used the money in his WeChat wallet to pay for our drinks. Easy come, easy go!
One more thing I should’ve thought about before I crossed over into China was to download a VPN on my phone to bypass China’s Great Firewall! Do you feel like letting the world know that you’re partying in Beijing? Forget about Facebook! Want to WhatsApp your friends to whine about the resulting hangover? Not possible either. And how about Skyping your family to let them know that you went to bed early so you could start exploring Beijing at dawn the next day? Ha ha ha, that’s not happening – for a couple of reasons at least. One of them is that many popular apps and websites have been banned by the Chinese Government, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, WordPress, Youtube, Netflix, Vimeo, Flickr, Google and all Google-related websites like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, DropBox, etc. Fortunately, a great deal of VPNs and other tricks are now available to manoeuver around this frustrating Internet censorship. You actually have two options. 1, install a VPN on your phone and keep using your usual apps and websites but keep in mind that you have to pay for most efficient VPNs, although free VPNs are also available illegally and that some might slow down your internet speed considerably. 2, don’t install a VPN and abide by the Chinese laws. Don’t use Google, use Yahoo or Bing. Don’t use WhatsApp, use WeChat. Find out what is censored and what isn’t before you leave, and take actions while you can, because remember, once in China, it will be incredibly difficult to access most of your accounts.