The belly of this other beast
Trip Start Jul 26, 2006
109Trip End Apr 01, 2008
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One I'd transcended the panic stage however, I armed myself with the facts at hand by studying my map of Beijing and memorizing the Chinese characters that equal "internet cafe." As the train arrived at Beijing West station, or "Beijingxi," I took my time (one might even say procrastinated) getting my belongings together and exiting
I dropped my bags off at a luggage counter and, equipped with my one Chinese phrase, a map, and my wallet, took to the streets. I was hungry, lost, alone, and determined. I chose a direction, sort of at random, and began slowly making my way down the street, stopping to examine each and every sign and shop along the way for those much longed-for Chinese characters which would get me access to my email account and hence Tiric's contact information. After about an hour of walking with no luck (I have since learned that there is an internet cafe just across the street from the train station--the other street, the one I didn't take!), I was getting desperate, so I walked into the first store that I saw with a computer (I'm still not exactly sure what the store was, or if it was even a store, but it certainly wasn't an internet cafe), and between a meek smile and a handful of bills, convinced the teenage proprietor to let me purchase a few minutes of i-time.
This adventure was followed by the adventure of finding a payphone and calling Tiric (who it turns out was off enjoying the countryside for the day anyway), then the next adventure of lugging all my belongings to his apartment
*BIKES. More of them than I've ever witnessed, anywhere. The streets of Beijing look like some Critical Mass bike rides that I've seen, but pretty much all the time. People have since informed me that as automobiles begin to become ever more a status symbol, and as the Chinese middle class continues to grow, cars are crowding out the bicycle culture that used to dominate Beijing. Which leads me to my second observation:
*Filthy air. Yep, it really is as bad as I was told. I'd read that Beijing is amongst the worst cities in the world for air quality, and they haven't let me down. The air quality is actually looking to be a significant hurdle as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, not to mention the thousands of Chinese who experience premature death each year as a result. Fortunately, they seem to have a pretty top-notch public transit system as well, it's heavily used and they're in the midst of significant upgrades now. So there is hope!
*Public toilets. Yaaaaay for public toilets
*Make-work. China's the second "socialist" nation I've been to, the first being Cuba. In both instances society seems to value people having jobs over said jobs actually being completely necessary. And I have to say, I tend to agree. So to the smiling young woman whose job it is to push the buttons in the elevator in my building, the plentiful young men who help make sure that we're appropriately entering and exiting the subway trains, the heroic restroom attendants, and the many, many conscientious souls who keep the streets, sidewalks, and subways all shiny and clean--here's to you
*Mad amounts of po-po, everywhere. I reckon this trend is really yet another facet of the make-work economy, but I have to admit, a less welcoming one. There are young men (mostly) in uniform at the front of every important-looking building, on many street corners, and really just all over the place. I don't think I've ever seen so many cops/army men. On the bright side, they have spiffy uniforms and they're kind of fun to watch; they can be helpful if you're lost, and, for whatever role they actually play in it, Beijing does feel like an incredibly safe city thus far, at least in terms of crime.
*Informal economy. Another aspect of Beijing that I'm really enjoying--there are street vendors, hawkers, and small markets around every corner--people selling everything from pirated DVDs to faux designer accessories to pomegranates. The only downside is that there are very, very few people at these venues who speak English, so especially with food, and especially for a vegetarian, it's been a struggle to communicate. My hand gestures are certainly improving, however, as is my tolerance for embarrassing myself...
So all in all, and communication difficulties aside, Beijing is a clean (well, except for the air and water quality), safe, thoroughly modern city, much more so than I think I was expecting, and definitely more so (at least in some respects) than Delhi and even many U.S. cities I've spent time in. I'm really looking forward to spending a few weeks here and exploring the place as much as possible.