Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Outer Suburbs

Today I visited the outer suburbs.  Or, more accurately, I caught the school bus with the kids and had to walk a couple of kilometres or so from the school compound to the subway station.

Wow – that took it up a notch from the leafy in suburbs of Beijing in terms of being challenged. 25 million, I keep saying that’s a lot of people to crowd into one city. 

Now, I have only just arrived but my experiences to date suggest that on top of the sheer number of people, climate is a big factor defining the Beijing experience.  From what I have heard, and experienced so far, Beijing has a short and very sweet Spring – around a month or so over April and May.  June (and sometimes earlier) it begins to get very, very hot – Beijing is known, along with two other cities whose names still mean nothing to me, as one of the three furnaces of China.  It is dry as chips most of the year.  July and August, which the boys and I will miss this year, it gets bakingly hot and muggy and about 250mm of its annual rainfall of 270mm or so comes down in ferocious evening thunderstorms.  September and October, reputedly, will bring a brief and lovely Autumn before a long cold and very dry winter from November through to the end of March.

Anyway, the outer suburbs.  Dusty doesn’t begin to describe them.  There is something about the dirt in a big city. The street from the school to the subway station is straight and, like all of Beijing, dead flat.  It reminds me a bit of a very old main south road in Adelaide – just add decay, a few million people and a lot of dust and dirt.  And of course there are the smells.

All cities have their own smells – I remember many of the towns and cities in the French alps having a unique drainy smell at times that took some getting used to.  Beijing is the same, with a pretty consistent background smell of smog and drains that only dissipates on the rare blue sky days.  Where Beijing differs from what I’ve experienced elsewhere, is that from time to time, particularly where there are big eateries that spill onto the street, the smell steps up a notch or four.  The drains are clearly used as waste disposal for left overs and cooking scraps and there are often mountains of this kind of rubbish by the side of the road waiting to be picked up.  Again, it takes a strong stomach sometimes to walk through these stretches with an eye firmly on the ground to avoid stepping in something truly horrible.

The road here has a different class of traffic on it to where we are living.  While in central Beijing there is a mix of vehicles (more on this in a separate blog) with a pretty healthy smattering of very flash cars indeed, here the old workhorses chug by, spewing clouds of half ignited diesel as they labour under heavy loads of bricks or concrete.

Decaying single floor concrete shops and houses and fleets of old vehicles of dubious vintages of a first wave of industrialisation stretch into a distance punctuated here and there by brand new, soaring housing blocks that sprout out of this vast urban desert.  Between these blocks the ubiquitous power line towers fade into the smog and dust.

The shopfronts along this road, once you have wandered more than a few hundred metres from the school gate, are more locally aimed and industrial in purpose.  After an outdoor wet market (veggies and pork), the shopfronts give way to car repair, car cleaning, heavy vehicle repair, welding, and other shops whose exact goods are unclear and appear to be in various states of decay.  These are only punctuated by the odd outdoor restaurant strip for the next two kilometres.  The ground is a mixture of dirt and rubbish with incongruous roadside vegetation and gardens – dusty, dry but tendered nevertheless. 

Then, out of the blue on the otherside of the road is the recognisable sign of the underground and a relatively new and clean subway station is evident.  4 Yuan each, under a dollar, should see me and William back at the apartment after his half day introduction to the school and my half day introduction to the Beijing burbs.

Saturday, 23 May 2015


People who know me well have been asking me about the food in China – with a slight hint of concern.  Is my obsession that obvious?  You don’t need to answer that.

Well, I can’t speak for China yet, but Beijing, as one of the world’s largest internationalised cities, has pretty much everything you could possibly want on tap.

Lets start with the essentials.  Cheese and bread.  There is a strong local French expat influence in our district – I wouldn’t know the numbers but there are Frenchies here in force, the signs are everywhere.  French cheeses, wines, good baguettes, chocolate éclairs and milles feuilles are a dead give away – as is the French butcher that stocks goose liver paté, pork riettes and those funky rough dark brown sugar cubes the French love to put in their coffees.  But the true measure of this influence is probably the extra large tins of chestnut jam in the local supermarket.

For meat then, you have the choice of Frenched lamb chops, pork sausages, veal escallops, bifsteak etc or you can go around to the local wet market and buy the local pork.  Of course we are doing a mixture of both, depending on which cuts and kind of meat we are after.

The local veggies look and taste great.  We do wash them carefully, but have baulked at using a dedicated veggie washing liquid to do so – I might need to research this as I’m not sure how strong the arguments are for using it.  Also, it is early summer, so it will be interesting to see what the markets have in them when it gets colder.

There are heaps of shops – from giant supermarket chains like Carrefour to street vendors with those old fashioned hand carts and, for example, only fresh peaches for sale – so the we are shopping frequently for what we need, when we need it.

All this shopping, particularly in the small shops, is helping me learn my numbers.  I have surprisingly poor retention of new words – it was much easier learning languages when I was a kid – but repetition is slowly overcoming my shortcomings in this area.

Anyway, with me cooking during the week, and K on the weekends, the result is pretty familiar fare chez Vickers – which is a good thing in my book.

And then, at least every Friday night, we are eating out, which is where it gets much more interesting. . .

Monday, 18 May 2015

Mid Week Visit to Tiananmen Square

On Sunday Henri, K and a colleague and I wondered down to Tiananmen Square after Yum Cha on a slightly smoggy day and without Oliver and William who made their own way back to the apartment as neither was feeling 100%.

Being a weekend, the square was packed and it felt at times that we were there along with 20 of Beijing's 25 million inhabitants.  I tried (but failed due to fumbling iPhone fingers) to take a photo that would have been a classic - an old Chinese guy wearing a t-shirt with a well known Dead Kennedy's song title on it standing in front of the big painting of Mao.  Next time.

Anyway, with a gorgeous day on Tuesday, I thought a lightning visit there, via the subway, was in order - to catch William up as it were.  The sky was clearer and the crowds slightly less with maybe more obvious tourists but William and I enjoyed it.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Morning After The Night Before

The alley behind the apartment turns into a street café for workers every evening after work with tables pulled out from a series of rudimentary kitchen fronts that run for 100m or so down the alley.  An early morning stroll down this alley any morning before the street sweepers and rubbish collectors have been through is not for the squeamish – with piles of food related refuse waiting to be shovelled and scraped up and taken away.

So you can imagine perhaps what Sunday – the morning after the night before – looks like when a city of 20 million goes out on a Saturday night for a bit of a feed on the town.  Add to this the fact that Beijing had its first rain for a while (rain is rare outside of June-July-August) and you might get a bit of a feel for our Sunday walk.

We set out to visit a Hutong that comes off the large boulevard that our apartment complex and K’s work are on.  While Beijing is a grid, the boulevards are not of a consistent character and width along their length.  In parts, new, modern and quite soulless office buildings dominate for blocks and then, suddenly, over an intersection, the street has narrowed and the restaurants that line the old Hutongs (or neighbourhoods) dominate and crowd onto the footpath allowing glimpses down narrow alleyways into 12th century houses – its very romantic.

Anyway, the place is always going to look a bit worse for wear first up on a Sunday – but the yabbie restaurant stretch where large parties are held is something else – particularly after not enough rain to wash the place clean, but enough to get everything um, merging. This combined with food preparation smells for Sunday lunch is an assault on the olfactory glands.  One minute you’ll be thinking, wow, those spices and that meat frying smells great, next wondering whether you’ll ever dare to eat out in China again.

Luckily the rain persisted and got heavier - which is apparently quite rare for this time of the year - and we were treated to streets washed clean of both the detritus and accumulated grunge as well as of the less hardy tourists.  This lent a wonderful atmosphere to the old Hutong with those great tiled roofs channelling water into the narrow alleyways and gutters.  The only people left on the streets were those  who had to be there - locals going about the business of keeping the immense city alive - it was great and K and I racked up almost 15k of walking either side of nice lunch without the kids for a change.

K telling the kids the bad news that their parents were out having too much fun to come home and make them lunch.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Week 2

What with getting some basics organised such as bank accounts, Internet and mobile phones, as well as an induction at K’s work and the sensory overload that is China, week one raced past.

Week 2 started at a cracking pace too, with the two older boys starting school and leaving for the school bus at 7 something in the morning.  It wasn’t too hard – with the sun coming up at around 5 in the morning and the weather being mild – but I suspect the schedule will challenge the teenagers (as well as their parents) when winter comes and its dark, freezing and smoggy.

Speaking of the weather, we were treated to some absolutely glorious blue skies and sunshine that allowed us to see the mountains around Beijing and even the stars at night – I had heard that this was impossible, but clearly the pollution is variable (the apps are great for that too).

With K at work and the two eldest boys at school, William and I were left to fend for ourselves during the day.  This generally involved some book reading (a luxury I had forgotten about), daily visits to an indoor pool, shopping (more on this later), as well as a fair bit of cleaning and cooking.  There was also considerable liaising required to get our permanent apartment ready for us to move into to.

Over the course of this second week, in the temporary apartment, nearly our fourth week since packing up our house in Australia, the will to live out of suitcases began to wane and our stuff quietly migrated throughout the apartment into every cupboard and drawer.  We were settling in – just in time for the announcement on Thursday evening that we could move into our apartment earlier than expected – the following day.

So, with K at work, and the older boys at school, this early mark was a bit of a mixed blessing.  38 sets of stairs and 12 kilometres later (love that Apple health app) I had moved everything from one apartment to the other without having to repack everyone’s luggage and with a newly set up pantry and other sundry items.  I did a pretty good job only leaving passports and airline tickets behind in a desk drawer.  And I had checked the apartment three times for anything I might have left behind.  How does this happen?

Sunday, 3 May 2015


We decided not to get a car in Beijing.  I have always wanted to live in a city where it didn’t make sense to have a car – and if we can’t do that here where K’s work is walking distance, there is a school bus, and the surf is not driving distance away . . .  As well as reducing our contribution to the local air pollution – which clearly doesn’t need our help – there is the added bonus, borne out by my daily pedometer readings, of considerable incidental exercise.

The Beijing Subway, unsurprisingly, is so easy to use; and it's made even easier by a funky little app that tells you everything you need to know before starting your journey such as: where your nearest subway station is, what line to take, in which direction to take it, how many stations to stay on each train for, where to change trains and how much it will cost – which is not much.  Apparently, it’s the busiest subway in the world with 3.387 billion trips delivered in 2014, averaging over 9 million per day (thanks Wikipedia), but it was quiet on the weekend holiday.

Anyway, we took the subway to the Lama temple with its traditional architecture, great textures and colours.  The buildings, some of which dated back to the 1200s had been an imperial palace before becoming a monastery.  Henri, Oliver and William burnt some incense (and singed a few hairs in William’s case) and spun some prayer wheels in an observant exploration of Buddhist rites as we mixed with the local and western tourists (Henri counted a dozen selfie sticks in the first half an hour).

We then treated ourselves to our first meal out, a Beijing duck lunch.  Of course we ordered too much, but Henri and Oliver, K and myself did a pretty good job of getting through it all.  The highlight had to be the crispy duck skin that you dipped in a kind of sugar before eating – heaven on a stick!

The rest of the weekend was spent catching up with a colleague of Ks and his family for a burger and some tasty locally brewed bears at the Great Leap Brewers Collective as well as a stroll down a very pleasant river that runs close to the apartment.  

The river is actually remarkably clear, with people fishing, frogs croaking and, surprisingly, people swimming.  Luckily we have access to a great indoor pool as I’m not sure we will be joining them just yet.

And of course, lots of orienting ourselves for shopping.  On this score there are western supermarkets where you can get anything you need at Canberra prices, but we have also been exploring the local shops where the prices are excellent but some of the goods less familiar.