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Earning a travelling crust in Beijing


Following five months in Beijing, my bank account is a few pounds richer and my body a few pounds fatter. I arrived just as winter was setting in and made the decision to work and save for the season instead of immediately continuing north to Mongolia where the weather is significantly colder (Ulaan Baatar is the world’s coldest capital).

Many things have struck me during my time in Beijing. One of the most pleasantly surprising things is the ease with which a foreigner can arrive and quickly build a life. Admittedly, I did have one contact which helped but it took just two weeks of dabbling with part time English teaching/tutoring before I found a full-time, salaried job.

I saw an advertisement on an internet forum seeking an English-language creative content editor for an online retailer (selling cheap Chinese products on the internet). After a year and a half of constant motion and borderline vagrancy I was suddenly rooted in a large city with a full-time office job, a room in an apartment, more than five items of clothing and a pair of shoes that were not sandals or rubber boots. It was a culture shock.

While travelling in China I saw a different world to the city but everything I saw, I saw in little depth. I would cycle pass a place/person once, and then never see it/them again. Many things bewildered me but I had scant time to stop and delve deeper. When I reached Beijing and became stationary I developed a sense of familiarity with the smaller things. The same woman making the same jiăozi (dumplings) in her shop all day every day; the same old migrant worker sweeping the same patch of swept tarmac at the same time each morning; the same old toothless, outwardly-genderless ‘traffic warden’ standing – ignored – on the same road corner obliviously waving a flag as the rush hour surges by. Seeing these people doing the same painfully-repetitive minute tasks seven days a week made me appreciate just how accepting the blue collar Chinese are of their often pitiful lots. In my time here I have strived to further understand the mindset. However, I am hindered by my shamefully poor language skills.

It seems that for many Chinese, work is a place to go rather than a thing to do. Shopkeepers slumped lifelessly behind counters for 12-hour shifts; policemen sitting on street corners staring into space; receptionists watching back-to-back soap operas on the internet. In my office, the atmosphere was silent and often stagnant. When people communicated with colleagues they often did so using online messaging rather than their mouths, even if to someone just two feet away. It was not unusual to walk through the office at any given time and see four or five people with their heads on their desks taking a lovely little power nap. It seemed that few people were ever busy in the way office workers are in other countries. I theorised that this might be part of the national “communist” effort to create jobs for everyone: hire many more employees than necessary who then work half-hearedly for less pay. However, despite the city’s absurdly swollen workforce, the government’s approach to time off is unusual. Any national holiday days off are made up for by working extra days on the weekends. The company I joined offers workers only 6 vacation days in their first year; after 10 years with the company this reaches the maximum of 15 days.

Charlie's department office show team

The company’s annual party was bizzare. It started (at 1.30pm on a Sunday) with 4 hours of speeches. Each department leader stood up and gave a sombre powerpoint presentation while the assembly of 500 disinterested employees openly talked, ordered-in takeaway food and played on phones/ipads. After this came the departmental entertainment performances. Ours seemed to have been coreographed with the marriage of a few random google searches and some LSD. Dressed in nuns’ habits, we took to the stage and swayed (hands clasped in prayer) and mouthed to the opening of Handel’s Messiah before flicking gold and silver pom poms back and forth to Little Peggy March’s I Will Follow Him while four employees performed an awkwardly timed (and wholly incongruous) bit of dance from an OK Go! music video. The bizzare piece ended with chanted lines of Chinese which roughly translated as “56 ethnicities all walking forward and striving together for a brighter future. I love China, I love China…hey!”

The other departments mostly opted for ‘raunchy’ and we sat for hours while scantily-clad girls gyrated vigourously to the latest pop hits (both Western and Chinese) with fixed, bored facial expressions. Thankfully, there was some respite later in the evening when the tables were supplied with wine and things took a turn towards the more European tradition of office party.

As December drew on the days got colder until the temperature reached it’s three-month winter hovering level of about -5°C to -10°C. The seasonally bare trees are colourfully adorned using ugly plastic flowers and hot-melt glue guns. The pavements became freckled with frozen, saliva-coated phlegm and all moisture becomes locked up in ice. The city gets amazingly dry and each day I received several static electricity shocks (I spectaularly dropped the office kettle twice as a result). It becomes usual to see people jump and shriek when their hand brushes a lampost or they press the button for a lift.

The week-long Chinese New Year holiday came in late January and the city emptied as around half of the 20 million population went home to their families in other provinces. The normally terrible traffic was non-existent and Beijing would have been gloriously quiet if it wasn’t for the Chinese love of fireworks. A centuries old part of Chinese culture, the production of fireworks became a state-owned industry in 2005 as too many poor quality products were melting faces and removing fingers. Colourful roadside stalls spring up all over the city to sell the suprisingly expensive explosives which can only legally be lit during a couple of two-week festival periods each year. At midnight on New Years Eve (which is determined by the lunar calendar) the city errupted into a seething storm of light, colour and noise. From a 30th floor flat, I watched as every part of the sprawling view bubbled and broiled with countless varieties of explosion. When I closed my eyes I could easily imagine that I was in a trench during a particularly heavy shelling in WWI. The noise was genuinely overwhelming; smell of gunpowder and cordite filled the air. This barrage, carried out by individuals everywhere, lasted seven long days. Twenty-meter strings of 2,000 firecrackers were unravelled on the roads and I would have to cycle past with my eyes closed for protection.

A moderate Beijing smog

As a result of the New Year fireworks, the smog was particularly bad. The problem being nanoscopic PM 2.5 particles (amongst others) that work their way deep into the human respiratory system and can lead to black lung. The World Health Organisation recommends that a city’s daily air quality shouldn’t exceed 25 (µg/m3) on the PM 2.5 meter. The US embassy measures and publishes the levels of PM 2.5 particles in the air and Beijing averages around 50. Often it tops 300 and on really smoggy days (when the building across the street is little more than a grey blur) it can reach 500. The first night of heavy fireworks saw the scale quivering at around 850. Unsurprisingly the lung cancer rate has increased by 60% in Beijing in the last decade.

During the New Year holiday I visited the Old Summer Palace (or “the Gardens of Perfect Brightness”) which was the temporate retreat for the Qing dynasty emperors until the second Opium War in 1860. A British diplomatic envoy of 20 was tortured and executed leading Lord Elgin (son of the Lord of marble fame) to order the destruction of the palace, in which the British were aided by some very willing Frenchmen in an unusual demonstration of Anglo-Franco cooperation. Today the area is a collection of once-elegant rubble around which thousands of people strolled in the cold air. A game of ring toss was being played at a stall. However, the prizes people were trying to land their ring around were not toys or sweets but terrified little white bunnies in tiny cages. I dread to think of the fate of those rabbits that were won. On a frozen lake nearby, people struggled along in groups sitting on trains of metal chairs with sledge runners. Beijing leisure activities are always fun to watch. A particular favourite are the groups of old women slowly line dancing on the pavement at night with pain-inducing pop music blaring.

A twin daily irritation for a bicycle commuter is the terrible standard of both cycling and driving on the roads. The road system is spacious and relatively organised but the cycle lanes (which are often separated from the road with a foot-high fence) are filled with lolly-gagging pensioners (a bit of a misnomer in China as they are unlikely to be receiving any pension) who cycle at rougly walking pace and so must swerve often and dangerously to maintain their tenuous balance. I have blamelessly knocked off no less than two of these road hogs; their slow, swerving aimlessness was their downfall – literally.

The drivers are a different story. The driving test is a formality many don’t go through and those who do are faced with an open tarmac area dotted with cones rather than a functioning road with moving cars and real situations. One of the questions you might be posed if you were to take the theory test is as follows: “If you have to suddenly jump out of an overturning vehicle, in which direction do you jump? And once you hit the ground, what’s the best way to roll?” It is hardly surprising that motorists often undertake, inexplicably stop in the fast lane, drive on the lines rather than between them, and ignore red lights all together. Going the wrong way down a cycle lane in a car is commonplace.

A couple of other things that have bemused me in Beijing:

  • The trend of waring garish glasses frames with no lenses. Not with non-perscription lenses, but with no lenses. As in, not-protected-from-a-poke-in-the-eye lenses. Where I am from, glasses are an irritation and a hinderance which people often circumvent with contact lenses or, as in my case, an acceptance of never seeing the world with a crisp focus. On a train journey I asked a young girl why she wore these functionless things. Without a moment’s hesitation she replied simply “because it’s fashion,” while her smile revealed an unattractive grey mesh of dental braces. “My braces are fake too”.
  • The polite, single-file queuing (as the arrows on the floor instruct) either side of where the doors will stop when waiting for the subway…followed by a mad every-man-for-himself bodily crush into the passengers desperately trying to exit when the doors have only opened half an inch.
  • The stern refusal to walk, or even move, on an escalator. Beijingers nervously, and with great concentration, hop over the teeth-like point of origin of the strange folding steps before firmly planting themselves until it is time to make another fear-ridden hop at the other end. I have severally seen people, evidently late, rush down a subway corridor and then stand still and agitated for the duration of their ride on an otherwise deserted escalator. At the top they break into a run again and hurry off a few seconds later than they could have been.

As a short-term member of the roughly 100,000 expatriates in Beijing I must resign myself to never understanding most of these mysteries.

* * *

Last week, in an upmarket apartment block, I saw a 5-year-old child urinate in a lift, a little less than a yard from my feet. The unreprimanding mother looked on nonchalantly while I edged away from the slowly approaching amber tide. The lift reached my floor and the door opened just in time for a panicked leap to dry land. Despite the great fun I’d had and the great friends I’d made, it was definitely time to leave this city. To that end, I will depart from Tiananmen Square on foot at dawn tomorrow for a 1,000 mile hike across the eastern Gobi desert to Sukhbaatar Square in Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Baatar. I cycled this route in 2009 and so have decided to give Old Geoff (my bike) a further two months of hibernation.

More by this author, covering his four years cycling round the world, on his very excellent blog.

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