Descending into Beijing, the ground looks funny, like the light is hitting it in a special way. It takes me a few seconds to realize that it’s not just a light phenomenon I’m seeing, it’s snow. Coming from three weeks of 30 degrees heat to Beijing’s -5 is not all that pleasant, but I finally get some use of my winter jacket that I’ve been lugging around Indonesia. I can’t be arsed to change into pants though, as it would entail having to fit all my luggage into one of the tiny airport restrooms. So I just wear the shorts, something that draws a lot of eyes and smiles from people.
Not wanting to attempt to navigate the streets to my hostel I set out to get a taxi from the subway station. But after being waved off twice in a row I get pissed and decide to walk anyway. It turns out that it wasn’t very far, and that there are surprisingly good street signs. In the end I have no trouble finding it, even though it’s up a back street among the hutongs (old Chinese quarters, which are not in any way built to be accessible by car, which likely is why I was waved off by the cabbies).
My first three days are not very pleasant; I’m coming down with a fever and Ericsson has lost my transfer details, so it will be a good while before I get a computer, phone, or even an ID card. The hostel is very cold, with the AC struggling at 31 degrees, I’m not used to the cold and I have to find an apartment to live in. I do manage to power through however, and after some haggling I manage to get a never-lived-in studio apartment, right next to Lido place – for those of you familiar with Beijing geography. For those not so familiar, it’s right outside the 4th (out of six) ring road, positioned at about 1:45 if you look at it as a clock face. The upsides of the place are that it’s brand new (no previous owner that has smoked in it), just the right size, has floor heating, is fairly close to work (around 45 minutes door to door when taking the bus), nice area, the owner speaks great English and that the real estate agent is operating out of the very same building, so it’s easy to get help when it’s needed. The downsides are that it’s fairly far to a subway station, the apartment is designed by a moron and that it’s pretty far from city centre.
The apartment design merits a bit more explanation I guess. The place is obviously built with the express purpose to be impressive rather than useful. There is for instance no place at all to put your shoes or hang your jacket. Additionally, the bathroom sink has no cabinet to put your toiletries in, only the one under the sink, which incidentally contains no actual shelves. There is a big light fixture in the shower (five lamps) that is not controlled by any of the light switches in the apartment. And the entertainment center around the TV is apparently built to house large bronze busts of Mao or something, because anything else would just be dwarfed.
There are also several glaring building quality issues. The floor boards are not fitting flush together, but have almost centimeter-wide gaps between them at places. The aluminum skirting board between the two floors have just been glued down, and every 20 cm or so a large gob of glue is sticking out from under it. The floor itself exudes little puffs of fine wood dust when you step on certain boards, so the entire apartment gets covered by that fine dust when I run the AC. There are also little things like the fact that they’ve only used two screws for the hinges on the bathroom door, when there are holes for four. But that lack of attention of detail is something I will have to get used to, the same thing is evident in the building where I work. It looks very nice and impressive at the first glance, but as soon as you look more closely, you spot all sorts of glaring mistakes and omissions. For instance; even at Ericsson there is a sign not to throw toilet paper in the toilet! That’s something I’d expect to see in really old building in places like Rome or Mexico, not in a modern office building in Beijing…
Some tidbits from my first week:
There are so many women working at Ericsson in Beijing, and not only in HR, which traditionally is heavily slanted towards women. My gut feeling would say that it’s easily around 50% women, if not more, in the building I’m working.
Electricity and hot water you buy as a pot, like a prepaid cell phone card. You go down to property management (where no one speaks any English whatsoever), wave a couple of bills and point to your hot water card and eventually they charge it with the money. Incredibly convenient for everyone but the actual consumer…
The streets are often 30-40 m wide and pedestrians are clearly not a priority. Beijing seems to have the right-on-red rule, so even if you have a green man signal, there will always be cars trying to run you over when you cross. You need to continually be looking in all directions while crossing if you are to escape unscathed.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing that in Beijing everybody rode a bike. That certainly isn’t true anymore, these days the regular bikes are few and far between, instead you have the electric bikes and scooters. Silent and deadly, you can’t hear them coming, you have to be constantly looking around you and not make sudden course changes without looking over your shoulder first.
There is surprisingly light traffic, but when I talk to my boss’ boss (who is Swedish) I get the explanation: The Chinese New Year isn’t properly over until Friday when it’s Lantern Day. Right now the city is missing about five million cars…
Every time you enter the subway you have to put your bag through an x-ray machine. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of, aside from that car crashing on Tianamen Square back in October last year, I haven’t heard of a single terror incident in China. But I guess that doesn’t mean anything since China has a habit of manipulating news and other shenanigans.
Apartment contracts run over a year and rent is paid quarterly in China, which meant that I had to come up with 3 x 6000 rmb, plus a deposit of an additional 6000 rmb (that I will lose if I terminate the contract early). Since the owner is a private individual, I couldn’t pay using my credit card either so I had to get the cash and make a bank deposit. Not all that easy when no one at the bank spoke any English either.
I’ve never been to a country where English is less of an asset. Not even kids in their late teens, something that’s usually a safe bet, speak any English. That is mind-boggling to me. I thought Japan was bad in that respect, but Beijing is so much worse. If you find someone who speaks decent English, have them write stuff down for you, like the location of your apartment/hotel. Stuff you want to buy at a store, addresses. That’s not always a guarantee though, because not everyone can even read. The best solution is to have a Chinese friend you can call for an impromptu translation of course, but now everyone has that luxury. Also, showing a cabbie where you want to go on a map is surprisingly useless. In China people more or less don’t use maps, they go more by neighborhoods apparently. Even if you have everything written down in Chinese, chances are that your cabbie won’t know the address, Beijing is a really big city after all, so after a while I had a friend write down the closest well known landmark as part of the description, which helps a lot.
It’s really cool to be able to go out at nine in the evening and find a mall that is open for another hour! That’s when you really know you’re in the big city. The stores are usually hilariously overstaffed as well, an employee on every corner, engrossed in their smartphone and bored out of their minds.
The infamous Beijing smog was not very bad the first few days, I could even see stars at night the first two days. But on Thursday, when I had to go to the police station and register my new address, it really hit me. The rest of that afternoon my throat was burning and I was coughing constantly. It was extremely unpleasant and on my way home I bought my first breathing mask at a pharmacy. The clerk asked several times if I really wanted that color since it apparently was meant for ladies. The Chinese are really hung up on gender roles. The mask came with a separate filter that you’re supposed to change once a week.