人山人海 (rén shān rén hǎi): a Chinese phrase literally translating to “people mountain people sea”， or “packed”. With 21,150,000 people, my goodness is Beijing rén shān rén hǎi. Walking around Peking University campus everyday, is like walking down Oxford Street during the sales, everyone fighting to get to their favourite shop (canteen), or scrambling to find their much needed shoes (bike) amongst the masses. I recently experienced my first ‘crash and lodge into the side of another bike’ collision – Katie Melua’s song ‘9 million bicycles in Beijing’ was spot on.
‘Personal space’ is not a well-known term. If I am travelling by bus to one of my four-a-week 8am classes (!!), scenes can be seen of people swarming and pushing to get on, as though there is no tomorrow. I have had my fair share of being squashed against a window, door…or many Chinese men. Safe to say, when there is a sharp corner, it is like a game of dominoes. Thinking this was amusing, here are some snapshots of a couple of journeys around Beijing:
Some advantages of Beijing being so highly populated:
- More people to practice Chinese with…!
- Despite what I think is the Western perception of the Chinese being rude, Beijing people on the whole, are absolutely lovely. The lady who took me across the city on the subway for an hour when I asked for directions; the man selling melon on the street who thought I was Chinese (ha); the taxi drivers who want to chat about England, and why we are in China; the security guard who lent us umbrellas in the pouring rain; even ‘Bruce’ who wanted to be friends so to practice his English – I politely told him I was sorry but I “didn’t have a Chinese phone yet”.
- The city is extremely international. In my class of about 15, there are French, German, Norwegian, Japanese, American, Russian, British, and North Korean. Meeting people from all walks of life, and having a mutual language of Chinese, is fascinating. The most fascinating being the two North Korean men who wear badges of Kim Jong-un, and have a supervisor; I once heard one of them ask the Russian girl what the iPhone was. A thing so commonplace to you can appear so foreign to others.
But, what seems crazy to me is how easily such a vast amount of people can be structured. Recently, Obama came to town for the APEC conference and, just like that, the city came to a standstill. Everyone was given a weeks holiday so to clear the city of people/congestion, and those with cars could only drive on one certain day during the week. Every single train leaving the city was fully booked. Even the weather was controlled: factory workers were on holiday and the common pollution was swapped for fresh blue skies, hence the media term ‘APEC blue’. Impressive change in air-quality when the important people are in Beijing.
“What is the food like?” Answer: minus my (lovely) host family cooking spaghetti bolognese for breakfast a couple of times…amazing. I am going to have withdrawal symptoms, (luckily there is a great little Chinese supermarket in Edinburgh!). Dumplings (饺子）, noodles （面条）, tofu （豆腐）, hot-pot （火锅）…you name it, they’ve got it. Yes, you can buy your Dominoes Two For Tuesday, or virtually any other Western food you like, but when campus food is at maximum 70p a meal, you cannot go wrong. Although maybe when you see live scorpions on a stick for sale, and breathe in the smell of some street markets you might think again…
I am yet to be a true tourist and visit all the typical tourist sites, but below are some of my favourite photos of the weird and absolutely wonderful Beijing so far.
As winter approaches and it starts to get colder here in Beijing, tales from warmer climates of Peru join you next week…