Monday, May 07, 2007

Bashing Beijing Rant

Beijing is the most disappointing place I’ve ever been. When I first came in 2004 I was expecting to see a clean city of parks and hutongs nestled between gleaming skyscrapers. What I found instead was one of the least pleasant places I’d ever been.

The most obvious problem is the pollution. There are days where it is so thick you can’t see more than a quarter mile or so. Exercising outside is a bad idea on at least a third of the days in a year. I get colds about every 2 months here, usually when the air quality gets especially bad and I’m foolish enough to venture outside. Aside from the pollution, much of the city is surprisingly dusty and dirty, especially during the spring sandstorms, which can make going out dangerous. To be fair, though, much of the city would be better without the constant construction.
I’m used to the pollution by now, but getting around will always frustrate me. The city is so spread out that even if I lived in the middle of the city it would take forever to get where you’re going. Walking in particular is impractical and unpleasant. When IO go out I usually can’t avoid six or eight lane traffic-choked streets is usually unavoidable. Crossing these streets is even worse than walking along them, and involves either risking your life at an intersection where pedestrians seem to be an afterthought, going through a dark underpass or crossing a bridge. Things are better in older neighborhoods, which have narrower streets.
The subway is occasionally useful, but covers very little of the city. Stations are spaced so far apart that even places on subway lines can be a ten-minute walk from stations. Things will get better when new subway lines are opened before the Olympics next year, but even then much of the city will be a long way from subway stations.
Usually the bus is the only practical way to get around. Buses are cheaper (5 cents a ride) and cover more of the city. However, I often have to take two buses to get where I’m going. Buses are always crowded and often get stuck in traffic. In summer they become intolerable tin cans stuffed with sweaty passengers and baked in the harsh Beijing sun.
Even driving has drawbacks, though Beijing appears to have been designed for cars. The city is laced with highways, but they are poorly designed and overused and nearly always jammed with traffic. One turn on a bus I often take always takes 15 to 20 minutes because of traffic, for a distance I could walk in about five. A car would only be a little faster. Another problem with Beijing’s highways is that because they are so big they are hard to cross or turn off of, so what could be done by driving straight or just turning in other cities requires detours along a complicated system of turnoffs and auxiliary roads. Still, driving is at least more comfortable than the other options. If I could afford it, I would always opt for taxis.

Despite being China’s cultural center, Beijing is a surprisingly impersonal city. Part of the problem is the large highways. They smother street life and cover a lot of the city in concrete. Another problem is architecture. Aside from the old hutongs, many of which have been torn down, Beijing’s buildings have very little character. There are some interesting modern buildings, but most are grey, huge and generically modern. They are often set back from the sidewalk, to make space for parking lots. New residential complexes are built in cookie-cutter rows across the city and are usually in gated complexes that at their worst (like the one I’m in now) try to imitate baroque Roman architecture. Ironically, Communist architecture isn’t so bad. Some are covered in white tiles that remind me of bathrooms, but others, made of brick and with slanted roofs, are pleasant and give the city some color. They are also modestly sized, which is refreshing in a city where modernity is equated with hugeness.
Finally, Beijing lacks many things that make city life appealing. Food is overall mediocre; you have to do some hunting and know where to go to find a good restaurant. Aside from various kinds of Chinese food there isn’t much diversitythough there’s a fair number of Korean places and (of course) a lot of Western fast food. Most Asian food, though, and even some types of Chinese cuisine, such as dim sum and simple Cantonese food, might be better in New York or even Boston. There are a lot of excellent high-end restaurants, but only people with Western incomes can afford to go to them regularly. Parks are few and far between- the nearest to my current home is a forty to fifty minute walk away. There aren’t many movie theaters (though there are many bootleg DVD shops), there are no libraries that I know of and no good place to play sports outside (not that that’s a good idea anyway). The city’s neighborhoods lack diversity, which is surprising given that people from all over China come to Beijing to work.

To be fair, though, Beijing does have some good things going for it. The rock scene is very good, as is the art scene. What parks Beijing does have are large and often beautiful, having previously been for Imperial use. It is not too difficult to seek respite from the city at a number of temples, preserved villages and segments of the Great Wall around the Beijing area. The hutongs are some of the best-preserved old neighborhoods in China, and are often very elegant and lively.
I have other reasons for wanting to stay here, despite disliking it. I have friends here, for one. There are a good number of expats and first world products and facilities but the city isn’t as Westernized as Shanghai. People are generally well educated and there are a lot of college students and graduates, who I find easier to get to know than uneducated Chinese people. There is a lot of demand for English teachers with the Olympics coming up. Finally, after living here for about ten months, I know the city better than I know any place other than New York. Aside from not liking Beijing, I have every reason to stay here, for now.

1 comment:

Larry said...

There's a library near 白石桥 & 中关村. National Library I believe.