Day 5 in Beijing and I’m bundled in my quilt in the corner of my room with the heating turned up to 25. Can’t solely blame the smog for my heavy head, then.
My first four days have been a whirl of astonishment on many fronts. I have bought a bicycle (£15), got a prepay phone card (£4 admin fee, £5 loaded up), got 2GB of data valid for 6 months (a relatively eyewatering £30) and stocked up on towels, a bowl, a miffy mug: all the essentials. I remember when buying a train ticket to Xi’an was a three day mission.
I arrived in Beijing at just before midnight and the coal scent hit me the second I got off the plane in much the same way that diesel smacks you in Delhi. It’s pretty acrid and by day 2 my eyes were stinging as I drifted around the supermarket slightly dazed. Still, there are few adventures to lift the spirits like an exploration of the local offerings of cleaning products, I find. It will be all I can do to stop myself from taking a holdall full of 30p rubber gloves and Scotchbrites back to the UK with me. If the household goods index is anything to go by, it’s about a third of the cost to live here that it is in London.
The lovely cabbie who drove me along the deserted highway and streets to my digs told me that I arrived just in time for the first truly bad day on the smog front. I observed that the English are reknowned for discussing the weather but he confirmed it’s quite an obsession in Beijing these days too, for obvious reasons. He left me at my dorm at past 2am, having steered me around the various buildings I had to visit and waited while I carried out all my check-in formalities, backing away and saying we’d sort out his fare “Next time”. It’s ok: he came recommended through a friend and he knows where I’m staying but I’m not sure you’d get a cabbie in London that hospitable.
The people here have all been lovely. Not just the ones in the dorm, who you might expect to be all smiles, but the ones on the street too. I’ve had conversations with students to fruit sellers about the relative development and wealth of the UK, US and China and they are unfailingly polite and charming about my somewhat rusty Mandarin. Nothing beats the glee of the old geezer who keeps repeating “nihao! Nihao!” when all you’ve done is say “hello”. Infinitely more glee from the lady to whom I shrugged “milule” at the end of a looong dead end road. She yelled at anyone who would listen “lost! She’s lost!”
I remember the first time I started to understand the conversations around me in China. On the bus, on the bicycles swarming past. They were, despite sounding so very alien, exactly the same as conversations anywhere else (and why shouldn’t they be?) “so did you call her?” “What time are you getting home?” “My boss just doesn’t get it”. I had a chat with the lady in the stationery shop (that’s what will be in the other holdall: stationery) about Chinese New Year. It was great, she said. The whole family came and they ate too much. The kids were like little dumplings. Yep, sounds just like Christmas, I said.
Of greatest amazement to me has been how delighted I am to be here. I’m sure it helped that on the third day the sun broke through the haze and the sky was blue for two days in a row. But each day I smile at some stern looking face and it cracks a smile back, the city becomes brighter and brighter. It more than makes up for the descent of the pall now that we’re all back from the New Year break.