I had a great time in Beijing, even though it already feels like it was months a go as we have crammed so much in to our first few days in Chengdu. However, in amongst all the sightseeing and generally being amazed at the beauty and sheer scale of the city, we did also see some things which made us laugh, wince and our jaws drop in a very British way.
- It is the coldest place I have ever visited. I am from Aberdeen so that’s really saying something. I had known it was going to be below freezing for a large part of the trip and packed and then religiously wore my thermals accordingly but nothing had quite prepared me for just how cold you get when you spend almost all day outside in freezing conditions – particularly once the wind, sleet and then snow picked up. What really got it into my bones was the lack of heated space anywhere. Most of the restaurants do have heating but their old fashioned systems pump out limited warm air which does little to battle the cold. Cue me shivering over almost all of our delicious meals – thankfully the food was so good it pretty much distracted me from the worst of it!
- Beijing public toilets are a unique experience! Wandering around a Dongcheng Hutong I had to admit defeat and use a public toilet, of which there are hundreds littered around the alleys. Having expected a fairly grim squat toilet I was even more surprised by the fact that it had the added bonus of absolutely no partition – we all just had to pee (or worse) merrily alongside one another. There was thoughtfully a Western toilet in there too but it took pride of place right at the end of the row of squats facing the door so sitting on your throne, you would be the first thing anyone saw on arrival. Luckily for me, the toilet I chose was empty when I went in and it was probably the quickest loo trip I have ever had in my life. Amusingly for Joe it led to an almost excessive Google habit on my part, doing extensive research into where you could find a functioning Western toilet in Beijing should an emergency situation arise (thankfully it didn’t!)
- Everywhere’s a toilet for the under 5s. Luckily for some of the small children of China, using a public toilet doesn’t seem to be a scenario they often have to deal with, given their propensity for openly using the street as a toilet. Having already read about the infamous open bottomed trousers favoured by some parents, it didn’t take Joe and I long to see several (presumably very cold) children’s bottoms bobbing about through a split in the seat of their trousers. Whilst admittedly absolutely hilarious to see (and there a LOT more of them about in Chengdu!) it’s less funny when you see said child squat in the middle of the street. As Joe and I learnt, even the Forbidden City is not a sacred place if the urge takes you!
- Crossing the road was taking you life into your own hands. As a nervous pedestrian in London I was someone who diligently waited for the green man or walked the extra 20 metres to a zebra crossing and as a result only got run over once…and bar the whiplash and fact I could barely sit down for a week it was pretty minor! In Beijing, you definitely wait for the green man, but this by no means guarantees your safe passage across a road. To my untrained eye it looked like total chaos and that basically no one, a part from the very generous, stopped for pedestrians. However, it is actually only those turning right, whether in to or out of the road you are crossing that keep driving. My chosen method of crossing was to stick to a Chinese group like glue while waiting and then insert myself at the furthest possible point away from where a car would impact should it choose to mow down the whole lot of us. It also involved a lot of my squealing, grabbing at Joe, stopping suddenly and then running at random intervals and generally making a bit of an idiot of myself. However ridiculous, it worked and I survived! The same system exists in Chengdu but everything seems much slower here and the smaller roads and lots of one-way systems make it generally a much less stressful experience!
- Spitting is not something I am ever going to get used to. By spitting I don’t mean just a casual bit of saliva being ejected (which is still utterly gross). Here spitting involves copious amounts of sniffing and then hawking up before firing it out into the open. It’s not just reserved for inside – I’ve seen people spit in the subway (albeit thoughtfully into a bin), into sickbags on the plane and into napkins (I hope) in restaurants. Having asked other foreigners here, it’s not something we are likely to get used to. Thankfully, I have thus far avoided anyone spitting on me although I maintain (despite Joe’s denials) that some came perilously close in a Hutong when an old man got a good 10m range on his ejection. Apparently cycling is a time to be vigilant as fellow cyclists like to hawk up whilst going along at speed – should I be spat on once we have our bikes I will update you all.