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Travel And Expat Life In Beijing, China

Return To Beijing

The last time my husband David and I were in Beijing was in 2005. Although we enjoyed being in the city then and seeing some of the truly remarkable sites in and around China‘s capital, we found the experience difficult and at times frustrating. Menus were seldom in English, the subway system was limited and more than a little confusing, and public restrooms were downright traumatic. Whenever we went outside, people would stare at us, point, and take our pictures. At first, that seemed amusing. They had never seen a Westerner before. But, after a while, we felt like animals in a zoo.

We were enchanted with the hutongs in Beijing, the ancient alleyway neighborhoods of stone, brick, and mud buildings with ornate, tiled roofs and mysterious inner courtyards. Life in the hutong revolved around family and neighbors, small shops and restaurants, much like it was in the Beijing of a century earlier.

When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, we read about massive improvements that the government had initiated in preparation for the Games. The subway system was being revamped, and the hutongs were reportedly being demolished, to be replaced with sleek, modern structures in an effort toward “urban renewal.” When we planned our recent return visit, we had no idea how this new modern Beijing would measure up.

I’m happy to report that the changes we’ve seen are mostly for the better. The hutongs are still the heart and soul of Beijing. These are active neighborhoods with crowded little shops overflowing with sundries, sizzling meats being cooked on outdoor grills, children playing in the streets, and elders carting their daily vegetables back to their homes. You can look down countless alleys and find medieval mysteries surviving in the heart of the modern city. Not all of the hutongs from a decade ago still exist, but there are enough of them to provide Beijing plenty of charm.

The subway system is remarkable. For a mere 2 yuan (about 30 U.S. cents), you can ride the subway almost anywhere in the city. There are 13 different underground lines with clean and modern cars, easy-to-understand bilingual signs and announcements. This system has helped to alleviate some of the city’s traffic problems, and, even now, more lines are being built. Most major streets seem less congested than we remember and most now have bicycle lanes, another improvement. Most motorcycles we saw run on electricity and so are nearly silent and less polluting than motorcycles with gasoline engines. Many Beijing city buses also are powered by electricity.

I can’t say whether Beijing’s new law prohibiting more than two flies from occupying a public restroom has been successful, although I did not see more than two flies in any restroom that I used, so perhaps they are having success with that ambitious scheme. We did notice, though, that there are many more public restrooms now than seven years ago, another improvement.

One of our errands while in Beijing was to go to the China International Travel Service to pick up some train tickets we had reserved over the internet while still in the United States. We arrived around lunchtime, so we asked the agent of this very official government travel agency if she could recommend a good Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, one where the locals ate. She thought hard for a few moments, then said that hygiene and sanitation in many restaurants is “not good for Westerners” and gave us directions to McDonalds. We had a good laugh after we left (and ate elsewhere), though we couldn’t help noticing how many Western chain restaurants have found their footing in Beijing as compared with 2005. We ate at several local Chinese restaurants that had either English menus or at least picture menus. Sometimes the staff seemed a bit terrified that we were there and that they would have to communicate with us, but it always worked out.

One thing we really enjoyed this trip was not being the center of attention. It seems that, in the past seven years, Beijingites have become more accustomed to seeing Westerners. We saw lots of friendly faces and a number of indifferent faces, but we experienced almost no open-mouthed gawking and no one asked to take our picture this time.

One other interesting change is how popular coffee has become since our last visit here. Back in 2005, we had either to search for powdered instant coffee or drink tea. This time, we found good coffee shops throughout the city.

We had a good feeling about Beijing this trip. The people seemed more welcoming, the neighborhoods more social, and the quality of life better. We saw fewer bicycles and more automobiles (though there are still plenty of bicycles and small motorbikes). As with any large city, Beijing still faces challenges, but we had the sense that the can-do attitude of the Chinese people will continue to make this city a better place to be.

Wendy Justice

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