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.