Monday, September 17, 2012


It’s September again and that can only mean one thing: A fresh load of westerners has arrived in Beijing and is wandering around the community.

For the newbie, or in Chinese niu bi, Beijing can be a daunting place. Always fascinating, though often really dull, there’s a few things to watch out for in the city. Your humble correspondent has lived here now for nearly seven years in total – a few in the ‘90s, and the past four. I don’t want to sound like some crusty old hack who’s seen it all and knows everything, but I am, and I have, and I do. So here for you newcomers’ benefit, with several insights and only a few gross generalisations, is the only guide to settling in you’ll ever need.


Beijing is the easiest city in the world to navigate. It’s a grid pattern. Wherever you are, take four left turns or four right ones and you’ll be back where you started. In fact you’ll find this happens a lot if you ever break THE GOLDEN RULE: If you’re lost, never, ever, EVER, ask someone for directions.

This isn’t a man thing, although it is, of course, a soft, soft blancmange of a man who asks for directions. Do you think Nelson ever asked for directions to Trafalgar? No, in this case, it’s a China thing. One thing you’ll find about the Chinese is, to quote the song, they’re just a race who can’t say ‘no’. It counts as a loss of face.

When you’re lost, if you ask a local for directions, they’ll happily nod sagely and quickly point you off somewhere, not having the remotest clue where or what you’re after. It could be explained thus: “I don’t know where that place is, but I know it’s not here, ergo it must be somewhere else, so that’s where I’m sending you.”

The Beijing street map. To make it even easier,
the grid is laid out in alignment with the four
points of the compass. NOW do you get it,

The great man. He never asked directions.
But he did lose a bit of face - in an
explosion that buggered his eye - and
an arm.

Your search for your destination will usually not be helped by having an address written down. Often, official addresses bear little relation to physical locale. They’re kind of a hint.

My old abode was an apartment compound called Seasons Park (Motto: Home of Tycoons, and I’m not making that up). The official address is 36B Dongzhimenwai St, a major east-west road. But Seasons Park is actually about 250 metres south of Dongzhimenwai St, on a completely different, little, street behind rows of other apartment blocks. It’s as if the person determining these physical addresses, let’s call him The Riddler, is playing a game to guard against monotony: Let’s send the person to the general area, and see if they’re worthy enough to find it from there … character-building life lessons and all that.

It would help more if the official address read: Seasons Park, Get to the Workers’ Stadium, Go West For A Bit, Ask Someone, Turn Right, Keep Going For A While, Ask Someone Else, Look Out For Several Large Sandy-Coloured Buildings, Yeah That Sounds Like It, You’re Pretty Much On It, Beijing, China, 100027.


BIKE: Easily the best way. Beijing’s as flat as a biscuit, so it’s easy pedalling. Plus you beat the traffic. And you see far more of the city than in a car. AND you can get your competitive sport thrills from taking on cars, buses, etc, at intersections. You’ll need a bit of nerve, to look drivers in the eye and exercise your right of way. They’ll stop – usually – for if there’s one thing worse than a dead cyclist it’s a scratch on one’s car. But for God’s sake wear a helmet. For some reason expats rarely wear helmets, just because the locals don’t. The roads here are just as hard as back home.

SUBWAY: A good, fast way to get around and beat the traffic. It’s also dirt cheap, at two kwai to get anywhere. But it’s crowded, and prepare for a fight to get off. Western standards of waiting for people to disembark don’t apply. It’s a rule of thumb known as the “Quick quick QUICK GET ON GET ON!!!!” rule. The Chinese don’t have a history of lining up. A “queue” is best known as the old long plait of hair worn by subjects of the Qing Dynasty.

Cycling has long been considered a fun pastime in China.

The Beijing Subway. It's usually more crowded than this.

The Beijing traffic. Utter nonsense.

TAXIS: Taxis can be just marvelous. There’s billions of them, they’re cheap, and unlike the subway they can drop you to your door. Then one day you’ll wake up and they’re all gone. Just gone. It’s like that episode of The Twilight Zone where all the cabs disappeared. Then, when you do find one and ask where all the cabs have gone, the driver will usually stare blankly and say he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. And then kill you.

OK that last bit doesn’t happen often, but there is an eeriness about the whole thing. Usually, by prodding, you might learn some law or other has been passed, in secret, forcing cabs off the road to be fitted with emissions controls or some such.

If and when one does come, you’ll fight with 20 people for it. And if you happen to win, the “FOR HIRE” sign is merely a basis for negotiations. The driver will ask where you want to go, and you’d better hope you get the answer right, or he’ll bypass you for someone with a more convenient address.

Beijing taxis look like this. Inside, they always have seat
belts. But mostly they're tucked away under the seat
because they're an unsightly mess, and people don't
want to be sitting on those hard plastic bits. You can
insist on the driver pulling them out, but then he'll get
annoyed. This is OK because you'll never see him again.
Alas, there's not a lot of space in the boot/trunk. That is
to say, there wasn't a lot to start with, and then what
space there was is usually taken up by a big box containing
all the driver's worldly possessions. If you're going to the
airport, this can suck. TIP: Avoid sitting in the front
seat in winter, for these worldly possessions rarely
include a toothbrush.

Beijing taxis can also look like this ... 

... and this. Not very often, unfortunately. (And yes, they're
made by the same people who make London cabs).


Try to learn Mandarin. It makes the experience far more fun. The trouble is, it’s a bugger of a language to learn, but it can be great for your ego. You’ll say something like “Ba” and the locals will say how great your Chinese is and how you have this other-worldly intelligence.

One day it will all click, and you’ll know you’ve mastered it. The next day you’ll be out and not one person will understand a single bloody word you say and it will, again, be like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

For more on this, see my soon-to-be award-winning post: HOW TO SPEAK CHINESE. (Found under 'Search this Website').


You’d better like doing this, for it’s one of the things to do in Beijing. But the accumulation of items can in fact be fun here. Shopping, in particular bargaining, can be a fun game, and even a contact sport. Start ridiculously low. All they can do is say ‘No’ and call you a cheap scoundrel. Then after you leave they’ll call you back.

For produce at your local market, find a vendor and cultivate him/her as a long-term ‘partner’ you can trust will give you good prices. Then don’t get disheartened when you see them the next day and they rip you off blind. The ‘long term’ doesn’t seem to matter much. Just move on.

For more, read my piece which won’t win any awards: SHOPPING CAN BE FUN! NO, REALLY. (Found in Popular Posts).


What more can be said about this thorny, stinky issue? I know: It’s not getting any better. But like having a tooth pulled or doing your taxes, using a public toilet in China is just something you’re going to have to do sometimes. TIPS: Use them as a motivator to make children or elderly visiting relatives go before you leave home. And always carry your own toilet paper, because there’s never any there.

Hold your nose, it's a public toilet! Caution: They're not
always this well-appointed.

Please also see ONE TOILET TWO FLIES.


To find a home you’ll need a real estate agent. In today's market these people can be quite enthusiastic. I once saw a German film called The Tin Drum, in which there was a scene where some people went to a quiet part of beach for a spot of fishing. They were fishing for eels. To do this they took a horse's head, tied it to a rope and dropped it in the water. When they pulled it out the horse's head was full of eels - a writhing, slimy, churning mass off them, twisting in and out of each other in a frenzy of eating and gasping for life. That’s what Beijing real estate agents looks like.

They will go after you like jackal to a wounded wildebeest. They'll want a detailed list of your requirements, such as size, location, and rental price. Then they will show you whatever they want to show you anyway. (“The owner is waiting inside. Face will be lost if we don’t go!”)

Eventually you’ll find something. Your landlord/lady will say you can keep whatever furniture you want and they’ll remove the rest. Then when you move in you’ll be surprised to see that it’s either all gone or all still there. You may then be asked to store some of it in a bedroom. The landlord/lady will also assure you they will have your place cleaned. When you move in, they’ll usually add a dash of humour by insisting that it has been.

At some stage early on you’ll become aware you need to recharge your electricity card. Usually this will happen when you’re at home minding your own business and are plunged into darkness. Typically this will be 11.30 on a Sunday night. For the rest of your tenancy you will check your electricity meter like a crazed zealot every half hour.

TIP: Always check your oven. If
you're the first western tenant
there'll probably still be some
packaging inside. The Chinese
sometimes use ovens, but only
as a place to store books, shoes,
et cetera.

* More handy hints as they come to mind, newbies. Meantime just enjoy the place, and keep this website on you at all times as a guide.


  1. Thanks for the laugh. I think I'll stay in France!

  2. Absolutely hilarious. And can I say that I appreciate it all the more since living in Hawaii which is surely like China with Japanese style fashion and Taiwanese manners. My friend told me a story last night of furniture shopping... after being shocked at the 1,000 dollar price tag of a heap of junk ..ahem.. "antique".. the woman running the shop looked at her sagely, then nodded, then pointed to the corner where a flat of mangos sat. "Mango, 49 cent pound" she informed my friend, as if the only options in the world were cheap mangos and expensive chairs.

  3. Very funny, and quite educational! Haven't made it to China yet but it's on the list.

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