Monday, February 4, 2008

Beijing in Winter

I arrived Saturday afternoon to a cold and grey city. It's the middle of winter and everyone is bundled up. My flight went well, customs and immigration were quick and painless, and I found the person meeting me fairly quickly. We had to wait for several other people to arrive before we could go into Beijing so it was around 8pm before I saw my new apartment. It is on the 11th story of a building in the south of Beijing, inside the fourth ring (Beijing is divided by 'rings,' concentric circles going out from the center of the city) and not far from the China World Trade Center. After arriving I had to go to Carrefour to buy bedding but I was tired from the long trip and didn't have the energy for exploring at that point. The bed is much firmer than I'm accustomed to sleeping on but it was a welcome respite after 24 hours of travel.

On Sunday I woke up early and relaxed. At 8am I went out for breakfast with a colleague - he ordered a fried egg and ham while I ordered the congee (rice porridge) and a yummy hot chocolate-like drink. When the congee arrived I was surprised to see that it had meat, so we switched part of our meals. After that we slowly wandered north, making our way to the Sanlitun neighborhood and Worker Stadium and walking past multiple Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and a Hooters restaurant so that I could attend my yoga class at Yoga Yard. The class was taught by a young woman from New Zealand, and there were students from Wales, Hong Kong, India and other parts of the English-speaking world. It was a wonderful way to stretch out, shake off the airplane trip, and start to find my bearings in my new city.

A woman from the class directed me to a nearby English-language bookstore afterwards so that I could pick up a good local map. The Bookworm has a literary festival planned for March. I'm looking forward to attending.

That was followed by a slow wander south, broken up by a leisurely lunch of green leafy vegetable cooked in a garlic sauce and some steamed rice. Picture menus are wonderful things to have when you aren't literate in the local language. After leaving the restaurant I aimed myself back towards the apartment. A few times I attempted to ask for directions. Right now that means showing someone a piece of paper with my destination written in Chinese characters and saying "ching ching, na li?"(please, where?) in a very friendly tone. One time a guard didn't know the address so he showed it to a cabby. The man proceeded to give me detailed directions which I didn't understand, until I heard the word 'lu' (for 'street') and realized that the several syllables before lu were the name of the street where his hand signals indicated I should turn. When I repeated it back he got very excited, nodded and started talking even faster. I thanked him and moved on, finding the street and making the turn and ecstatic that we'd been able to communicate with each other.

My biggest frustration so far is powering my MacBook. I'm wary of plugging anything in after have my surge protector blow twice. Today I went to a shopping mall in the center of Beijiing called Oriental Plaza in search of the Apple Experience store listed in the Insider's Guide to Beijing. The store is actually called "Lifestyle Experience" and they are an authorized reseller. I used my MacBook charger to pantomime that I needed one that would work here. It took a few moments, and some laughter, but then they realized what I meant. Unfortunately they sold me a charger for the U.K., not China. I'll be returning it. Back at the office I was able to plug my charger into a surge protector/adapter that allowed me to finally use my computer. My apartment doesn't have Internet and the neighbors have passwords on their accounts so I suspect I'll be spending lots of time at cafes with Wifi connections.

After finding the Apple vendor I did some exploring with colleagues and we walked past vendors selling scorpions on a stick while going down an alley off of a main shopping street. This city is an interesting blend of international city and Chinese culture.

Much of China has been blanketed by snow and ice but Beijing has not been touched by the storms. It's cold here, but it's the beginning of February and that is expected. The streets are packed with people wrapped up in winter garb, both western style winter coats and traditional padded cloth coats. Street vendors selling hot boiled corn, baked sweet potatoes and other warm treats offer a delicious way to warm up while eating a snack. There are also many 'meat on a stick' options but they aren't nearly as appealing.

Right now I'm sitting in a cafe/restaurant called IS Coffee, with coffee and tea drinks and a small food menu, about a mile from my apartment. They have wifi and a very friendly and helpful staff. My computer ran out of power while I was typing this and a waiter was nearby. He noticed me looking for a plug, went into the back and came back with a surge protector so that I could plug in. That level of service is a great way to inspire customer loyalty.


Peter C said...

Take care, Alicia! We're thinking of you!

katy & john said...

i'm so glad that you're doing this. your descriptions are wonderful - i almost feel as though i am wandering the city with you! hopefully i will one day. :) have an amazing time, and i will look forward to reading/hearing all about it. :)