Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.

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Epic Traffic

You can’t talk about China without talking about the traffic. We’ve
only been in Beijing for a few days and already we’ve been in multiple
traffic jams of epic proportions, where nobody moves for an hour and
everybody is just honking. Yesterday we were stuck on a bus for forty
minutes at a single intersection, we moved no more than a hundred
feet. And it’s not like we could have gotten off and walked, we were
miles from our destination because everything in this city is so
spread out.

Our acupuncturist friends have dubbed situations like this as “CCF”
(China Cluster Fuck), and there’s really no other way to describe it.
Wayne’s already written about how terrible and crazy the drivers are
here, and it’s been true everywhere we went. But the problems in
Beijing are magnified because of the sheer number of vehicles on the
road (apparently the statistic is that 1,000 new cars hit the road
EVERY DAY in this city) and the fact that no one follows any traffic
rules. For instance, we’re not really sure what the cause was of the
traffic jam we were stuck in yesterday. But a bunch of drivers got
impatient because traffic wasn’t moving, so they pulled into the lanes
of oncoming traffic. Which of course blocked everything up even worse
for far longer. A couple of drivers even drove up onto the sidewalk
and started honking at the pedestrians to get out of the way!

It’s not like you can avoid the traffic on the subway either. There
are just so many people crammed into the cars that you can barely
breathe or even get off at your stop. Even with all the new subway
lines, it doesn’t seem to fulfill people’s need for getting around the
city. Most expats that we’ve talked to swear by their bicycles, and
that the only way to get anywhere remotely on time is to ride.

Unfortunately it seems like people here feel like they “need” cars,
and it’s understandable given the distances between things and the
uncomfortable ride on public transport. But unleashing huge numbers of
new (bad) drivers onto the road with no apparent plans for traffic
calming just seems like the craziest, ass-backwards thing to do. I
feel like there had been an opportunity to do something totally
innovative with urban planning and transportation given that ten years
ago the city was mostly filled with bicycles and that there weren’t
any legacy systems that had to be dealt with. But instead it seems
like it’s a headlong rush into crappy car culture that’s just going to
get worse and worse. It makes me appreciate New York so much more –
and the next time there’s a twenty minute delay on the subway, I am
going to thank my lucky stars that I’m not stuck on a bus in a two
hour traffic jam in Beijing.

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