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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Sounds of Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth?

I hate long goodbyes. I guess I’m that kind of person who believes that really good friends will always keep in touch; whereas the fair-weathered variety, who appear from the woodwork whenever anyone is leaving, may or may not keep in touch depending on a whole load of factors. If they want to stay in touch, then they will find a way.
But I was really touched this week as I was sitting in the office, minding my own business, when I was asked to go up to the board room on the 6th floor.
The entire assembly of my fellow workers trooped up with me as a large fruit and cream cake was produced from nowhere to wish me well in the future.
I have been working in Beijing for the past two years – it seems like it was only yesterday that I was being interviewed for the job – and the time has simply flown past.
Beijing is one of those cities that surely has something for everyone. Love it, or hate it (and I actually love it, despite all its shortcomings) you can never get bored in a place like this –though for sure you will get frustrated, disappointed, disgusted and resigned, while at the same time get excited, amazed, impressed and want to keep coming back for more.
Famous sites that are on every tourist’s itinerary – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and so on – lend themselves to appearing on my disappointment list, while other places that 99.99 per cent of tourists have never even heard of (let alone some of the Beijingers themselves!) are must-see places that I always insist my visiting friends go to.
I haven’t met a single person in Beijing, for instance who has even heard of the Ancient Architectural Museum – which isn’t surprising as it’s almost impossible to find, even with a good map.
I have only met one other person who has found their way to the Eunuch Museum – the only one of its kind in the world. The Watermelon Museum, where you can gawk at plastic models of water melons, must also surely be unique. And who cannot be moved by a visit to the Museum of Tapwater?
And if you ever need a quick escape from BJ, then a visit to Tianjin just “down the road” or Shanghai – a little further down the road - is guaranteed to raise your spirits. Whereas BJ looks over its shoulder to the past, TJ and SH look to the future; they’re the exact antithesis of the northern capital.
They’re also amazingly cleaner than BJ, not least in the way that you won’t find everyone competing with one another all the time to see who can spit the most. Rarely have I been anywhere in this world where the local population likes to gob as much as they do in BJ. It’s disgusting; but then I guess all nationalities have their less appealing habits that others really hate.
But while it’s easy to list the negative things about any place in the world, with Beijing it is also incredibly easy to find things to savour. Amazing places such as Hong Luo Si spring to mind. It may be nearly two hours away by bus, but the fact that none of the expats here seems that interested in finding their way there by themselves surely reflects more on them than the fact that some Chinese in times gone by were stupid enough not to have built it on one of the routes frequented by BJ’s ever expanding subway network.
Some places such as the Botanic Gardens also change season by season. The first time I went there I wasn’t much impressed. The last time I was there it couldn’t have been better. And the many times in between showed the gardens up in totally different ways. It literally is never the same from one visit to the next. (Oh, and don’t forget you can get in for free if you walk round the side to the north west exit!)
I mentioned BJ’s subway – which must surely rank as one of the top ranking subway systems in the world. It’s massive; it’s overcrowded; it’s incredibly cheap; and it’s expanding exponentially, such that they even have a plan for a new line to be opened every year for the next few years. But good though it undoubtedly is, I much prefer taking the bus if at all possible. Not only do you get to see a lot more, and not only are many of the fares a mere 20 per cent of the already-cheap subway fare, but you also have a good chance of even getting a seat on one of them. Many foreigners tend to shy away from the buses as they have no idea how they work. But this is a poor excuse in my book; and anyway, when you work out how easy they are to use, you will go back to using them again and again.
As well as BJ’s 160+ museums, there are also loads of beautiful temples and parks which have a propensity to delight. Near my office is a 9km long park made from what’s left of the old city wall and called Yuan Dadu Chengyuan. It’s a microcosm of Chinese open-air society and is a delight to walk through every time I go there. Other parks such as the Black/purple Bamboo Park or Taoranting (which surely must have one of the best Chinglish signs in the whole of BJ) are also a joy to experience.
BJ is also a place where you are never short of something to do. I found I greatly enjoyed teaching English to Chinese kids who are well mannered, fun to be with and want to learn. Equally rewarding were the lectures I gave to incredibly polite and earnest students at Renmin University – and the fact they even paid me was a bonus as far as I was concerned.
And every day, the discovery of something new, be it a place, or a thing of beauty or just enjoying the totally different ways that the Chinese as a whole live their lives, was stimulating in the extreme.
I well remember my visit to a dentist in one of the big hospitals here. (I even had my dentist back home in the UK falling over herself with laughter when I told her at what had gone on.) It was both amusing but in another funny kind of way incredibly impressive too. I have recommended this Chinese dentist to everyone I have met who is in need of some work on their mouths and all have come away equally impressed.
So my two years are drawing to an end and I am now torn between looking forward to the next chapter in my life and also knowing I will miss new friends too numerous to mention here.
Thank you, Beijing, for putting up with my foibles. It has been an amazing time and I will always look back fondly at it. And I really look forward to welcoming old friends to come visit me in my pastures new.
As those obnoxious children in The Sound of Music sang: So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu… except in this case it will not be ‘adieu’ nor even zàijiàn but very much ‘au revoir’.
For have no fear… one day I will return!