Since my trip to the mainland, I’ve been mulling over my impressions of Shanghai and Beijing, and how they compare to the closest thing to a big city Taiwan has- Taibei. Before my vacation, I had a really distorted view of what the mainland was like. Living in Taiwan, I haven’t really had access to much mainland media, and everything in the papers here is pretty negative. Anyway, this is what saw in Beijing:
When I first arrived in Beijing, I was completely overwhelmed. I had just finished a “colorful” 26 hour train ride on the cheapest sleeper class train available. An incredibly kind co-passenger who was heading the same way, walked with me to the subway and even used his card to swipe me in! Ten minutes later, as soon as I left the subway, I was beset upon by half a dozen asshole rickshaw drivers who tried to rip me off by asking for seven times what it should have cost me to get to my hostel. When I refused and started walking by myself, one of them even followed me for ten minutes shouting at me about how it was really far and I wouldn’t make it! Still, even with annoying bozos like him trying to rip off every westerner they saw, Beijing was awesome. The food was both cheap and incredibly tasty. I met amazing people. Other than those who made a living off the tourists, Beijingers are the friendliest group of people I’ve met in my life. The atmosphere was amazing. I almost decided not to leave!
There’s quite a bit to say about Beijing’s finer points, aside from the low cost of living. One big one was the sidewalks. Usually, in Taibei, sidewalks are narrow, cluttered with illegally parked scooters, and built at a different height in front of each building. In Beijing, they were level, wide, and uncluttered. Walking was there was a joy, and bicycling was even better! Beijing is a paradise for bicyclers like no other city I’ve ever seen in my life. That alone made me wish I lived in Beijing. Another nice thing was the fact that people seemed to expect me to speak in Chinese and to do so as a default. Not only that, but they all seemed to be used to westerners speaking great Chinese. Maybe I should thank Brendan for that. The very one thing that frustrates me most in Taiwan is how often locals try to speak English to me… even if I initiate the conversation in Chinese. Beijingers, even those who speak great English themselves seem to expect foreigners to speak Chinese… and I loved it!
The city’s huge, and there are a great number of cutting edge tech companies, but it still didn’t have the same money-grubbing feel that Shanghai did. Beijing is a bona fide world-class cultural center. Everything from classical puppet shows to ballet to Xiangsheng to a wild indie music scene is there. The people I met in Beijing were friendly and interesting. The selection of dining, both Chinese and western, in Beijing was also better than anything I’ve seen in Taiwan. Especially in terms of Chinese food, it was amazing. Besides the obligatory “Beijing Duck”, they had authentic foods from every province, and even a pretty kickass pizza place, too. The thing I loved most about Beijing, though, was the sheer Chineseness of the place! Every morning, as soon as I stepped out the door, I’d be greeted by shirtless old men playing Chinese chess on the sidewalk, old ladies doing heading off to the park to exercise, 6-year olds playing with their Chinese yo-yos, neighbors zipping around on their bikes, and all the hustle and bustle I’ve been seeing in Chinese movies since I was little.
As for Beijing’s dark side, there’s also a lot to say. Tons of people there make a living off of western tourists, and basically try to rip off every white person they see. Worse still, they don’t wait for you to go to them, they follow you around offering to sell you over-priced knockoffs, rickshaw rides, tours of art shows, etc… Another thing is that while ATMs are a pain in the ass to find. In Taiwan, you can find one in almost any convenience store. In Beijing, on the other hand, I had to walk for 15 minutes from my hostel to get to the closest ATM. The subway commuters weren’t nearly as rude as those in Shanghai, but they didn’t line up as well as those you’d see in Taiwan, either.
Random Observation: Beijingers can actually put an 儿音 into the words 门 and 水!!! Talk about tongue-curling fanatics!