adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Friday, June 30, 2006


Getting around in Beijing

I can hardly believe I've only been in Beijing for three days. It feels like at least a week has passed; I've learned so much and I get a lot done every day.

So far I haven't really been able to capture the feeling of Beijing in photos. Sometimes you see the perfect moment for a photo, that moment when the intersection is in absolute chaos and there are cars and bikes and people everywhere, and you don't have time to pull out your camera and take a pic because the bus keeps shaking around and braking or you're dodging cars as you cross the intersection. Give me a couple days to take better pictures that really give you a good feeling of the city.

A busy intersection in Wudaokou(the university area).

Everyone I've talked to describes this feeling of complete helplessness and "maybe I shouldn't have done this" when you first get to Beijing. There was certainly no exception for me. I was just overwhelmed by how different everything is here. I don't think I can put it into words, but maybe the photos will give you some idea. It's impossible to put everything I've experienced so far into one post, so this one will focus on transportation.

The first day I got here, my host took me to the school to register. The traffic is absolutely crazy and the sheer size of the city is really disorienting, especially if you're from a small city like me. Following him around, getting on and off buses and taxis, I felt like I would never be able to get around Beijing by myself. I've gotten a lot better, but I still have much to learn.

Right outside my apartment building at around 7:30 in the morning. I don't know if it's jet lag or being exhausted from doing so much every day, but I've adopted an early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyle like most of the inhabitants of Beijing.

The school I go to is about 30 minutes away by bus. Riding the bus is a little tricky. This sign shows the bus routes - once you figure out, it's pretty easy to use. The names of the stops on each route are listed in columns. The bus always travels from left to right. The stop you're at right now is sometimes marked with an arrow. The best thing to do here is to count how many stops until you need to get off, although in practice it can be difficult to remember(especially if you have more than one choice of bus). The bus stops are usually named after nearby roads or landmarks, but it's hard to figure out which stop is the closest to your destination if you're unfamiliar with the city. The bus only travels from the leftmost stop to the rightmost stop, so if your destination is listed to the left of the stop you're at now, you're on the wrong side of the street. I learned that the hard way this morning after getting on a bus going the wrong way. Fortunately, the ticketseller stopped the bus for me. As I walked off, she was nice enough to yell from the window that I needed to go in the other direction.

This picture was taken inside of the nicest kind of bus, with air conditioning, LCD TV screens, and an electronic ticker and recording that tell you what the next stop is. When you get on the bus, you find the ticketseller, tell them where you're going, and buy a ticket depending on distance(it is usually no more than $0.25). The ticketseller announces each stop, although in practice it can be hard to understand what they're saying, because most of them have really strong accents and sometimes there's just so much noise that you can't hear them.

This picture doesn't do justice to the tons of people that were waiting here. During rush hour the buses are literally packed with people. Before I came to China, I read that people don't queue up here, but really, I don't see anything strange about everyone rushing to get on the bus at the same time. I've never ridden the bus in the US, but I can't imagine people making perfect lines just to get on the bus. Do they?

Taken crossing an intersection. You have to be a bit careful crossing the street in China, because the drivers are pretty impatient and will often blast their horn at you to get past even if the "walk" signal is on. The key is safety in numbers. Getting around on foot in Beijing is easy, although the distances can be very long.

Beijing traffic. Cars drift freely from lane to lane and it's not uncommon for them to drive in the bus and bicycle lanes. Nobody wears seatbelts here, either. Taxis are a really easy way to get around, but it can be expensive to ride them every day(a taxi ride is maybe $2 - $5 depending on distance, most of my trips are only around $2).

I haven't yet ridden the subway, but it's not the most convenient way to get around, mainly because the system is not very extensive and it can take a long time(half an hour or more) just to reach the closest station by foot. Using a combination of bus and subway would probably be the best way to get around.

Bicycle riders are everywhere here, although they aren't as numerous as movies would make you think. You get the feeling that people are riding bikes out of convenience rather than necessity - the traffic is really bad around here most of the time, making car and bus travel incovenient. The first day I got here, I was so shocked by the traffic situation that I instantly dropped my idea of riding a bike around Beijing. But I'm starting to reconsider. You just have to be good at avoiding people and cars, and know where you're going.

If you get lost, you can always ask people for directions. I always ask in Chinese, but I think most people around here don't speak enough English to give directions in that language. Beijingers are decently friendly people and will sometimes even accompany you to your destination if they're going in the same direction.

By the way, everyone, I really get a kick out of hearing from people back home and especially what you think of the blog, so leave me some comments.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006



It looks like I can access Blogger from behind the Great Firewall of China. In fact, I haven't noticed any blocked sites yet, although I haven't had time to do much web surfing.
EDIT: OK, the weird thing is, apparently you can access the Blogger dashboard to update your blog, but you're not allowed to actually look at any blogs, including your own. Fortunately, I have a few ways to circumvent the internet block.

The trip here was relatively painless; I was able to sleep on the plane more than I usually do, and I met all sorts of interesting people in the airport. The flight across the Pacific is about 13-14 hours, and from Seoul to Beijing it's about 2 hours.

In-flight bibimbap. This won Korean Airlines the 1998 award for best in-flight meal. Unfortunately, it wasn't the raw beef kind.

Somewhere over the East Sea.

Seoul/Incheon airport is pretty cool. If you don't like the bathrooms there, you can call the designated janitor and complain. I certainly couldn't find anything to complain about.

I had planned on a short trip to Incheon to wait out my 5-hour layover, but then as I was walking towards the bus stand I realized I had left my camera at the customs desk. I ran back in 5 minutes and it was already gone, shattering my beliefs that Korea was one of those countries where people just didn't steal things. However, all of the Korean airport staff that I asked were very helpful and tried their best to help me find my camera. After two hours of running around I realized I may have left it at the immigration desk after I got off the plane. I persuaded the security guards to let me back through and sure enough, one of the airport staff had noticed it and kept it for me! As he presented me my lost camera, I felt a strong affection for the honest inhabitants of this land that produced kimchi, Shin Ramyun and the world's #1 Starcraft player.

20,000 won. I love South Korean money; it makes you feel like you're loaded buying things that cost several grand. 20,000 won is about 20USD by the way. Sometimes I wonder why they don't just issue a new won that is worth 1,000 old wons; I guess Koreans think being multimillionaires is more fun.

Plastic food displays, a common sight at many Korean and Japanese restaurants.

Kimchi soup and a can of Pocari Sweat. This set me back 12,000 won. I would say Kalbi House's kimchi soup tasted a bit better, but then again, this was an airport restaurant. Pocari sweat, despite the funny name, tastes more or less like Calpico water. Which tastes kind of like a sports drink. This meal came with a really tasty dried squid banchan.

Goodbye, Korea. I'll be back in a month or two. If I was ever thrilled at being mistaken for Korean in the US, the novelty certainly wore off here. Hanguk sarami anieyo, chungguk saram ieyo!

Immigration at Beijing airport. This picture doesn't really do justice to the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Row upon row of monolithic apartment buildings. A common sight in Beijing.

There are certainly a lot of bike riders in China, but nowhere have I seen the huge masses of bicycles you sometimes see in movies. I also noticed that there aren't very many motorcycle riders in Beijing, in contrast to cities like Bangkok, where they cluster up at intersections and fill spaces between cars in traffic jams.

Room with a view. My home for the next month.

I don't think I've taken enough pictures of Beijing to do a "Beijing is really crazy" post justice, so give it a day or two. The problem is that 1) I don't really want to carry my camera around all the time, because it could get stolen 2)I feel weird pulling out a camera in public and taking pictures of completely ordinary(for here) things and 3) Experiencing Beijing's craziness every day, as well as my previous experience with large Asian cities, sometimes makes me forget what people back home would find interesting.

But anyhow, Beijing is really crazy. Check back in a day or two for a full Beijing post. If anyone has any questions about China or funny photo requests, leave me a comment and I'll try to find out for you.

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