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My First Seven Days in Beijing

Old hands may have forgotten their first impressions of China's capital. Our intern Joe Doran reminds what it's like for new arrivals.

05·02·2012

My First Seven Days in Beijing

Old hands may have forgotten their first impressions of China's capital. Our intern Joe Doran reminds what it's like for new arrivals.

05·02·2012

Our intern Joe Doran reflects on his first seven days in Beijing after being catapaulted in directly from London. 

Day One – Saturday
Chaos. That’s how I would describe my first impression of Beijing. Transported from the airport to my hostel by taxi, I was treated to a white-knuckle ride by a cabbie who preferred to use his horn over his indicators when changing lanes.

Little did I know that this was merely symptomatic of the traffic that would greet me once I entered Beijing proper. Zebra crossings that went ignored, cyclists weaving in and out of swerving cars, children on the back of wagons being pulled across frantic junctions: it all took me by surprise. I knew Beijing was going to be a busy, but this? This was madness.

Day Two – Sunday
Riven with jet lag, I did very little on my second day, though with the help of a fellow traveler, I did venture into the city in search of food.

Running across busy roads, we stumbled across a noodle bar. Chinese food is not uncommon in England, with every town having at least one restaurant serving dishes inspired by Chinese food, so I thought I was reasonably well prepared.

Inspired turned out to be the optimal word. Of course, I wasn’t expecting actual Chinese cuisine to be anything like what I knew from home, but I was still surprised. The spiciness especially was unexpected. The beef/noodle/something that I ordered ignited quite the fire in my mouth. It was tasty, however, and gave me valuable experience in that most sought-after of skills: the wielding of chopsticks.

Day Three – Monday
Monday marked my first encounter with Beijing’s public transport. Thus far I had been able to walk everywhere I needed to go, but my internship was a good forty-minute trek and that didn’t sound appealing. My level of success was limited. Finding my way there (with the help of my guide) was no problem, but getting back on my own was less fruitful. Thrown off the bus in an area that I didn’t recognize, I was forced to wander the streets until I found a subway station. With some luck, I navigated the trains and made my way back to the hostel, resolving to choose rail over road for the remainder of my stay.

That evening, I found myself looking past the previously impenetrable chaos of Beijing’s streets. The driving was nerve-racking, certainly, but it actually had a certain sense to it. When a driver honked his horn, he wasn’t saying “Get the hell out of my way!” he was saying “I’m coming through, be careful.”

The city’s architecture, which had previously seemed cramped, I now saw to be fascinatingly contrasting. Concrete apartment blocks, dingy and neglected, stood mere feet away from beautifully designed high-rise offices. It was like two worlds – China’s austere past and ambitious future – coming together.

Day Four – Tuesday
On Tuesday I made proper use of Beijing’s subway and loved it! I’ll admit that I don’t have the greatest sense of direction. The Underground in London has always left me a bit bamboozled, but the subway here was a pleasure. Myriad signs ensured that getting lost was impossible, LCD screens on each carriage kept me informed of my progress and the frequency with which the trains arrived ensured that I rarely had to wait longer than a few minutes.

It was a liberating feeling to know that in a city as disorientating as Beijing, a transport system existed that could take me from Tian’anmen Square to the Zoo with next to no hassle.

Day Five – Wednesday
Oh American food, how I missed you! It might seem pathetic that after only a handful of days, I already craved more familiar flavors at mealtime, but I’d found Chinese food to be something of a challenge. Don’t misunderstand me, I was enjoying it, but the unfamiliar ingredients and strong spices didn’t always “agree” with my stomach. As such, a simple cheeseburger accompanied by French fries smothered in cheese made for a welcome relief!

 Day Six – Thursday
On the penultimate day of my first seven days in Beijing, I was introduced to Sanlitun, a shopping complex popular with expats and foreign visitors. Filled with designer label clothing shops, restaurants, an Apple store and a cinema, it gave me a fascinating insight into China’s ever growing cosmopolitan nature. Native movies were advertised alongside the latest American blockbusters and familiar brand names were placed next to ones I had never heard of. It showed me a willful blending of cultures that just does not exist to such an extent in other countries. And while I was there, I had one important matter to attend to: sampling the local Mac Donald’s. If you were wondering, yes, it does taste the same.

Day Seven – Friday
If there is one thing I’ve learned about Beijing, it’s that when they do something, they do it big, and the same is true for their weather.

After six days of moderate to excellent conditions, I experienced firsthand a Chinese thunderstorm. Rain hammered down in sheets and lightning lanced across the sky, illuminating the skyscrapers with fleeting white light. It was both terrible and awesome.

But much like the city itself, I quickly became accustomed to it. At first, Beijing had seemed insane, but with time I’ve come to see it as a truly unique experience that I’m glad to have the opportunity to enjoy for the rest of my gap year.