Beijing and Shanghai are different worlds. When I first came to China, just to visit, with the MIM program in 2010, I enjoyed the history, historical sites and tourist attractions in Beijing. But when we got to Shanghai, I was blown away. Shanghai is an awesome city. Even at that time, after spending only about 5 days in each city, I said, “If I were to even live in Beijing or Shanghai, I would live in Shanghai. Beijing is great to visit, but I would rather live in Shanghai.”
Well, fast forward 18 months, I’m living in Shanghai and when M&M (mom and Matt) are in town, I take my second ever trip to Beijing. Another 4 days in Beijing and I draw the same conclusion. I much rather be in Shanghai.
The air was awful in Beijing, not that I can hold that against them – chances are if you pick four random days out of the year to visit Shanghai you won’t be blessed with blue skies either. Foreigners aren’t as plentiful, which isn’t a bad thing while living in a city – but I think Beijing gets enough foreign visitors who don’t know anything, that everyone assumes you can just screw over and rip off every foreigner you see. In Shanghai, there is such a large expat community, with people from all over the world that LIVE here. There are plenty of laowai (foreigners) in Shanghai that have been here for 3, 5, 10 years, who speak Chinese, who know what they are doing. I don’t think Beijing is as used to that large of a community of foreign residents. So taking a taxi, for example, becomes a major headache unless you look and speak like them.
I hated taxis in Beijing. The worst cab riding experiences ever! And if you think you can top me, just tell me this: Have you ever had a cabbie stop to get gas (when their tank was half full) AND go take a leak while you were on the meter? Plus, he was coughing like crazy and spitting constantly, he told May he had been sick for the past few days but was back at work because he needed the money. I love taking cabs in Shanghai. I hate taking cabs in Beijing. Even if you can manage to flag one down (empty cabs drive by and just ignore you constantly), it doesn’t mean they will be willing to take you to your destination, or they don’t want to rip you off by bargaining a price and not using their meter.
This being said, everyone – if given the chance – should visit Beijing (and eat the roast duck). The Forbidden City, Tiananmen, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and the access to many locations on the Great Wall are fantastic, beautiful and historic sight seeing opportunities. Even with hazy skies, you can get stunning pictures. The culture runs deep and history surrounds you – unlike the westernized, modern, metropolitan Shanghai.
My favorite part of Beijing though – was not at the historic wall to keep out the mongols, it was not in the palaces and forbidden gardens of past emperors which survived the many dynasties. My favorite part of Beijing – the part of Beijing that I loved, that I wish Shanghai had – were the huotongs. Hutong (胡同 – translation alley or lane) are small, old alleys, passageways of historic homes and buildings that make up large areas in Beijing and have been protected by the government so they are not torn down and replaced by skyscrapers and tall apartment complexes. I thought it was just one area of town when I first went to Beijing, but I quickly learned there are hutong all over Beijing – each a huge network of these small alleys, waiting to be explored and full of treasures to discover.
I loved walking around in, getting lost in, finding new places in the hutong. May and I went to a bar one night to meet a friend of hers from the UK – he gave us instructions on how to get there. As we turned off the main road into this teeny, dark alleyway, about the width of a car, we wondered if there was actually anything down there. It was about a ten minute walk down this alleyway to the bar. At one point we saw some neon lights and signs of restaurants, but the bar (Yes Bar or 好吧) was not there. A few more minutes of dark houses and no sign of anything that looked like a place of business we found it – a little teeny bar, stuck in the middle of an seemingly abandoned hutong – with a selection of beers from all over the world. We went back again the next night. In the two nights we were there, we were the only customers and we just hung out and talked with the bartender from Xinjiang, China (the far northwest province in China).
Way back tucked away in another hutong – in a nearby part of town – is another killer find for any beer loving American tourist. Thanks to MJ, brewmaster at my all time favorite, Boxing Cat Brewery, I knew of this little treasure in Beijing. A microbrewery run by a bunch of Americans that has been brewing and selling beer out of a location in a Beijing hutong for less than a year. Great Leap Brewery was one of the top things on our to do list in Beijing. It took some time to find – both times we went – but it was well worth it. With 9 freshly brewed, local mircobrews on tap, a killer garden setting to sit and relax in, and the owners there to chat with you can’t complain! Oh, yea – and the beers were FANTASTIC too. If you are ever looking for beer in Beijing, I highly, highly, recommend checking them out! (see link here – they are also on Facebook.)
The hutongs are old houses, communities. Not big fancy houses but little small rooms (which now can be extremely expensive to rent or buy) where Chinese families grew up and many still live. Things are simpler in the hutongs and things like, well, your own bathroom, aren’t necessarily available. My mom was shocked with the number of public toilets everywhere in China – but especially in the hutong. After I witnessed an older woman coming and dumping a bucket with her days “waste” in one of the public toilets, we inquired about it. My friend (and fellow MIM alum) Junyi, who grew up in a hutong near the Yes Bar, confirmed our suspicions. Most homes within the hutong don’t have their own bathroom. They use the public toilets and probably bathe in a sponge bath manner. Some of the nicer residences, with the help of a larger income and lots of official paperwork, may have added bathrooms to their homes. The majority, however, even the businesses and restaurants, rely on the public toilets.
Life in Beijing takes place in the hutong. I would go back to Beijing, despite my many frustrations with the city, just to explore hutongs. And of course, take more pictures. Below are a bunch of the shots I got of life in a Beijing hutong.