Yesterday morning I had to schlep into town to fetch a credit card replacing the one I lost a fortnight ago (and found the day after I had cancelled it, natch). The university is based up in the north eastern suburbs of Beijing; the journey roughly equates to travelling from Richmond to Bond Street to go to the bank.
Much like London, Beijing has expanded from the stronghold around the Imperial Palace to engulf our neighbourhood abutting the old imperial summer residence. An expedition that probably once took weeks of planning and the best part of a day to complete now takes 45-60mins by train and subway, if considerably longer crawling around the ring roads. Public transport connections, with the subway extending beyond Beida, and the fact that the fifth ring road encircles our campuses and both of the Summer Palaces, cement our place inside the growing city boundary.
In a mark of how Beijing’s middle aged spread has been a fairly recent phenomenon I was amazed to come across the Beijing Friendship Store after I left the bank. I last visited it in 1990 when the paltry luxuries on offer could only be bought with FECs thus underpinning our black market exchanges. At that time it seemed a considerable distance from anywhere else worth seeing and demanded a dedicated bicycle trip. Now it is only just outside the second ring road.
I mentioned in a previous post how much Beijing property prices have risen in recent years, the example given being from Rmb9kpsm (or £90psf) in 2004ish to Rmb40kpsm (£400psf) today. A couple of our teachers have told us that the most expensive properties, at Rmb100k psm or c£1000psf, are right on our University’s south eastern doorstep. Despite our suburban location do not imagine chi chi Richmond terrace with glorious views over the Thames. Wudaokou, where the properties are located, is more like the area around Centrepoint at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street before it was gussied up: urban and ugly. It is not for its charm that people pay a fortune.
It turns out school catchment areas are as much of a thing here as they are in the UK and Wudaokou has one of the best primary schools. As with the UK you have to start planning for this school virtually at conception since you can’t just buy a property and get a place for your child forthwith: you have to have lived there for at least three years and renting doesn’t count. Plus your child has to have a Beijing residency permit which is only possible if a parent is also an official Beijing resident. This explains why residency, or 户口, is such an issue as without it one’s right to public services is severely limited.
To the north of the University one evening I passed some rental property agents hanging out with their sign boards on the pavement. Maybe like the parcel post guys people knew where their habitual hangout was although to me it seemed a random place to set up shop with prices not directed at your average student. A 107sqm 2 bed flat was asking £1300/month; a 137sqm 3 bed £1600/month. The range was from £0.78psf/month for the smaller units to £1.5psf/m for the larger. By way of comparison my awesomely located pad might fetch £1.4psf/m and probably costs about the same as those would to buy.
To our west the city creep is temporarily blocked by Beida and the palaces and ultimately Fragrant Hills; on a clear day these are tantalisingly close. Down to the southwest the neighbourhood is called Zhongguancun, or 中关材. Today’s class taught us that this was originally 中官材, a homophone which became too un-pc to survive, as did the original residents. Zhongguancun used to be Eunuch’s Village, where wealthy elderly eunuchs retired, a stone’s throw from the palaces and our beautiful Qing gardens.