It’s Friday Armchair Travels time again and today we’re visiting the capital of China.
In 1994-5 I spent a year as a student in Beijing. It was, in retrospect, an amazing experience. Of course, at the time I cursed the many inconveniences, and head-banging frustrations of dealing with the Communist system and when I got back home to Canada I kissed our Maytag washing machine and front loading dryer. Kissed and hugged them.
For a pampered Canadian kid, it was an eye opening experience. Us expat students had hot water for one hour every night. It wasn’t totally reliable, and sometimes we only had hot and no cold so couldn’t shower in the scalding water anyways, but it was still better than the locals who only got hot water once a week. We washed our clothes in these horrid little plastic things with metal drums that would eat up your clothes. The rice in the school canteen was served in squares, cut out from huge trays, and still complete with tiny stones and pebbles and other small dark crunchy things I didn’t want to look at too closely.
Customer service was a fledgling thing. Actually, more like embryonic. The tiny tuck shop where we used to go buy yoghurt and bread was manned by two ferociously grumpy women. If I didn’t have exact change, if something cost 50 cents and I gave them a dollar, the look of utter disgust was something to behold. The dollar was usually chucked back in my face with some barked out curse. That was the VIP treatment. Most times, I couldn’t even get them to look at me, much less sell me anything. That year, TGI Fridays had just opened and they were trying hard to train their staff how to run a western restaurant, with western standards of service. Many meals had to be comped because dishes would fail to turn up, or the wrong thing would show up.
The last time I’d visited after that was 2002, and those old school tuck shops had given way to happy-clappy cookie-cutter Starbucks. A smile with every order of wet skinny double shot caramel latte, and a triple echo as the till girl echoed your order down the counter and the barista shouted it once more.
Fast forward another 13 years, and the city has transformed yet again. It’s almost unrecognisable from the Beijing of my student days.
First of all this. This is the car park at the Beijing airport. Shiny. New. Clean. AND FILLED WITH CARS. There were so many cars, I was agog. In 1995 there were a gazillion bikes. I rode a huge heavy thing called the Flying Pigeon that had maybe 2 speeds. Once you got it going inertia took you the rest of the way. Now there are almost no bicycles. In fact, I can’t remember actually seeing anyone on a bike.
In 1995 Sanlitun was a collection of Embassies, dirt pavements, shoddy lighting and a small but growing collection of expat owned bars, bakeries and cafes. We used to change our US dollars for RMB in a little hut on the side of the road cause the lady had the best rates. Jazz Ya was our bar of choice—a hidden Japanese bar with killer cocktails down an unlit dirt road.
Fast forward to 2015. Dirt pavements have given way to Miumiu, Marni, Balmain and Prada. Bar Street is still there, as is Jazz Ya, but now they are surrounded by big shopping malls. Swire owns a huge swathe of land, and has built multi level malls over what is now known as Sanlitun Village. This was the view from the hotel. My how times have changed.
This is the lower level of the mall under IT Beijing and Miumiu. High end glasses shops, more designer clothes. Taikoo Li North is high end which may be why it was also very quiet. Taikoo Li South on the other hand, home of Zara, Apple Store, Page One, Benefit, Mac, Bread n Butter, Puma, and all manner of mid range shops was buzzing.
We checked out BHG Marketplace, one of the supermarkets. They also have Carrefour. It was just like a supermarket back in the UK, or in Canada, or even here in Hong Kong. Lots of pretty produce, packaged meats (much of it imported).
The streets were crazy clean. Like OCD clean. My mother would approve.
And the restaurants were filled with hipsters. This is the new China. And they like paella and Sunday brunch with free flowing martinis. Colour me impressed.
Our hotel had these cool art installations in the lobby.
We had peking duck. Twice. The second time at this place Duck de Chine. Gorgeous building, delectable food.
The building is a converted Chinese courtyard house (siheyuan). The garden had these statues hanging out looking Zen. What I wouldn’t give to live in one these!
I parked myself in this cafe one morning to do a little work. They did a tasty flat white. And a darned decent slice of pizza.
While certainly much has changed in Beijing, some things have stayed the same. Mao is still plastered over the entrance to the Forbidden City 66 years later, and his pickled megalomaniac remains still stand guard over Tiananmen Square.
Love this – the van is stuffed absolutely full of cabbages, so full, the leeks have to go on top. Quintessentially Beijing.