Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Getting Around in Beijing

One of the first things that spring to mind when people think of China is the use of bicycles. When I first visited Beijing in 2004 (10 years ago!) I had stayed with my friend David whose mode of transport was mostly foot or bike. I distinctly remember sitting on his bike rack as he pedaled away on the busy streets of Beijing. As we emailed recently he had said that we, “experienced the last of the golden age” of the bicycle in China. Since the early 2000’s, or really you could argue since the mid 90’s the number of automobiles on the streets of China has been increasing by leaps and bounds. This year the government announced it will reduce the number of aging vehicles in China by about 6 million and about 350,000 in Beijing. While this represents a step towards better air quality the traffic will likely still be horrific as new cars hit the road.  Considering the amount of time spent in a car traveling or finding a parking space would be a welcome addition as it reduces traveling times and is good for the environment as less driving is being done.
While all this has been a boon to the Chinese economy and wonderful in many ways for the Chinese people there are also concerns of environmental pollution and not everyone can afford to purchase a car. Speaking with a Chinese friend the other day he told me that he had bought a car in Shanghai where he lived and the cost of getting the license plate for the carewas nearly the price of the car itself. Shanghai has opted to price out consumers and therefore to reduce congestion by limiting the use of cars to more wealthy citizens. Beijing has taken a different path. Instead of raising the price of the plates here the system is by lottery. From what I’ve been told its very hard to get one. I have had people tell me its about a 2% chance, and some people told me it takes 10 years or more to get one. In either case, its not easy. In order to get around the restrictions on plates and the steep prices for many people of purchasing a car there have been efforts to find alternatives.
The metro in Beijing is dirt cheap and the buses and subways are plentiful, but just like in the US people want to the freedom to have their own mode of transport. Many have come up with what I think is a brilliant solution. Electric trikes were my first exposure to this when we lived in Shanghai. Silent and fast many people used these to get around even during the winters and many of the streets in the newer areas of Shanghai were wide with specialized lanes for bike or scooter traffic. At many of the subway stations drivers with trikes would wait for those alighting to ask for a ride for a few blocks. In Beijing I was surprised to see that this has evolved into what I can only describe as miniature cars. There are many different types, but these are all electric relying on a battery to run. Most people either plug into central spots or they haul their battery up to their apartments to re-charge them. I’m fascinated with this option as the cars seat 3-4 people (small Asian people) have head lights, blinkers, windshield wipers, heaters, the works! I really want to buy one just for the novelty, but I can’t justify the expense. Even though these cars are designed to fill the gap for those who desire an auto but can’t afford them they still run 500-3000USD depending on the size and age. For now I will just have to fawn from afar and hope to get a ride from time to time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

First Thoughts on Beijing

Aya and I have been in Beijing now for almost 2 months and so we have adjusted to the rhythm of life here, mostly. Having lived in Shanghai a lot of the things that most new expats here view as odd or surprising are old hand for us. Pushing on the subways, spitting on the street, split pants on babies, whatever man. However, Beijing is not Shanghai and we are not exactly in the same working positions we were there. 
Of course I knew that Beijing could be dry and that there was the likelihood that there would be some heavy pollution. In some ways I have been surprised because there have really only been 3-4 days where levels got to 200 or above. Most days have been around 100 but many days have also been below 50. For reference, most cities on the Eastern seaboard of the US range between 30-60  for the average day. On days where it gets to 150 I start wearing my Respro mask for cycling and if I am doing other heavy breathing outside. Nearing 200 I put a mask on for everyday use. I found the times that I didn't have the mask on and it got near 200 I was feeling odd. Though I have seen some wearing of masks by foreigners on the over 200 days I haven't seen any wearing by Chinese people and even when level has topped 200 not many foreigners don the masks. I think its mostly because people are self conscious about how they look, not me. Obviously looking good isn't my top priority. In addition to mask wearing Aya and I have bought some air filters for at home. Though air was the biggest concern for us in moving here it actually hasn't been a bother. My workplace has hospital grade filters so most of the day I am breathing cleaner air than people in Buffalo, NY or Milwaukee, WI for example. On the way home if the readings are high I will put on my mask while I bike so I have 10 minutes of minimized exposure. Then when I get home Aya has the filter going to levels aren't getting above the 40/50 range. Its not so bad, but I hear in the winter things get worse so I'm not making any big proclamations yet. 

So far we are very happy in our jobs and we feel pretty fortunate to be here. I've been well taken care of by the HR staff here and have fit right in with school life. I expected a bit of long nights and weekend at the start here trying to adjust, but I haven't actually found too much of that and the school has a good emphasis on healthy living from vegetarian lunch option everyday to allowing teachers to exercise in the school domes during school hours (if I don't have a class to teach). Aya has been well taken care of too and has often had her questions answered promptly and politely. I love the kids. Lots of "thank you"s as they head out the door after classes and a general atmosphere of hard work and polite behavior. My classes are very enjoyable, the school has great facilities and my co-workers are all experienced, hard working, and affable. I could see myself being here a long time.  

In about a week we will move into our new place in Star City, Lido which will be closer to the downtown area. It will be nice to have more amenities available and we will be right next to the 798 art district so will have lots of interesting things to see and do right next door. Of course I have to say that the property market in Beijing is absurd. We visited about 10 different properties covering around 40 different apartments before finding one that we are reasonably happy with. Mostly we feel ripped off. For example, we saw one apartment that was three bedrooms/2bath with peeling wall paper, crayon drawing on the walls, dust and dirt everywhere, minimal furniture that was old and chipped, old appliances. The landlord wanted about 1800USD per month. When we asked if they would repair the wall paper they said no. Many places are like that and we have struggled to find a place for under 1500USD that has decent furnishings in a good location. Mostly this is caused by the property market being one of the only ways for average Chinese people to invest their savings. It will be an interesting day when/if the Chinese government opens other opportunities to them. 

Getting around has been a bit tough since we are in the suburbs and don't have a car. I have become fascinated with a solution that many Chinese and foreigners have come up with, make a smaller car to sell at a cheaper price. Many of these little electric cars can do near 30kph, have heating, headlights, turn signals, windshield wipers etc. and retail for about 2000USD brand new. A number of the teachers that live near the school have bought them for hauling the kids and groceries around. I wish I could buy one, but when we move downtown my reason for doing so will be gone. We will most likely rely on the subways and taxis. The subway is super cheap, about 35cents per ride no matter the distance. However, that also means a lot of people take it and during commuting hours the trains are packed. There is a new stop being constructed just across the street from our new apartment, but when that will be completed no one knows. We often take taxis or hire a driver for the day or night to take us around. These options are pretty reasonable. Taxis seems to be about 1 dollar every kilometer or two while to hire a driver for about 6 hours is about 35-50 dollars. When we know a group of us will be going downtown or that we will be coming back late we have opted for a private driver. 

The food here has been hit or miss. Since we are in a foreign area many prices at the grocery stores are at or above western prices, but those are for mostly western brands. Last weekend we stopped in a local grocery when we were downtown and the prices were noticeably cheaper. Restaurants are similar. Going to western food outlets will run you western prices or dearer. Local places are much cheaper and Aya and I can have a decent dinner with drinks for about 5 dollars each. Of course my favorite things is that beer is cheap. Local beers go for about 50 cents a can and foreign brands range from 1USD to around 5 for the specialty stuff. Booze and wine are similar, but the problem with that is the chance of buying fakes. I can't prove it, but I think I bought a fake bottle of Johnny Walker from a store when we got here. It just doesn't taste quite right. From readings I have learned that possibly more than 50% of all alcohol sold in China is illegally made. 

This brings me to my last observation about China, 'Anything is Possible'. This has been Aya's motto and I think it is appropriately positive and negative. Can you get that hang bag for 1/4 of the asking price? You bet. Will that cooking oil possibly make you sick? Sure, maybe. Would the government ban the growing of beards in order to curb terrorist activity? I wouldn't be surprised. Love it or hate it China is a place where, 'Anything is possible' so you have to embrace the positives and have a good laugh at the negatives(and be cautious!) to live a happy life. For now, we are happy.