I arrived in Beijing on November 1st 2009 in a blizzard. It was freezing cold with about 5 feet of visibility. Hats off to the pilot, whether he be auto or human. The plane then stayed on the tarmac for ages. Why, I wondered? The Western paranoia and butterflies kicked in straight away, stoked by nytol and beer intake on the ten hour flight, which had helped me get exactly zero hour’s sleep and made my brain feel like a duvet. Were papers being shuffled already, shifty looking leather coat wearing officers gathering in small offices, passenger lists being perused…
Just sudden unexpected snow of course. And a queue of planes taxi-ing along while armies of workers scoop up the snow in front of them.
The snow has been on and off since. Until mid March, it was well under 0 degrees most days. For three months, we lived in Tongzhou, which is a suburb in South East Beijing, about 30 minutes away from town. It’s developing quickly, buildings going up everywhere, trendy western style hairdressers offering the outrageous shoreditch mullets appearing by the minute. I was literally the only foreigner in the area, judging by the stares. More on staring later.
We had a nice warm and spacious flat, with a decadent red sofa. There was an infant school by our block with a booming PA system that played “Doe A Deer…” every day at full volume at about 10 am, while the tiny kids did side step routines in lines like penguins, all wearing huge eskimo coats. This was followed by kids singing karaoke, at the same volume. Meanwhile a rooster would join in, wandering about outside, belting it out with no regard for the local jobless sat at home trying to drink coffee…
One of the strangest and nicest things to see here are the old people outside everywhere, looking seriously fit and healthy, exercising on the outdoor gym facilities that line most pavements and estates, line dancing in the public squares, doing Tai Chi or some kind of slow motion sword fighting, and playing outdoor ping pong . There’s always a doubles game going, gramps v grannies, all in duffle coats. This remains one of the most striking differences between China and the West. It’s not that there aren’t generation gaps, but old people aren’t scared, or hiding away in front of their TVs. They’re out there and in your face, being loud and sociable and enjoying themselves. Whatever the reasons, young people are totally respectful, there is literally no anti-social behavior or even a hint of aggression of any kind.
I joined a badminton group, all Chinese. They were mostly a seriously amazing standard, i kind of just about held my own, but I’ve never hurt so much. I used to think I was a good badminton player. Badminton and ping pong are big in China (obvious fact for you there).
The local hotpot restaurant by our block was fantastic, we became regulars – dinner and beer for £3 each, who can blame us? Hotpot is popular in China. It comes from the North and Mongolia, and somehow doesn’t seem to have made the same leap across Russia and into Britain the way Chicken Chow Mein has. Maybe it’s the western health and safety thing…you get a lit gas flame or electric hotplate in the middle of your table, and a big pot, sometimes with more than one compartment, with different flavours of stock. Then you order your vegetables, tofu and meat, which is all delivered raw. You bung it in bit by bit, and eat it while it’s cooking, with some dipping sauces. I could eat this literally every day. Unfortunately you need a bit of free time, it takes a while, but it’s very sociable to eat like this.
Tongzhou was a great place. Clean air, blue skies. Cheap and honest. It had everything right at hand. Hardly any need to go into Beijing.