2017-06-18

Beijing

My team at work has gained a few new members who are located in Beijing. We arranged for an all hands meeting for one week in June. So we all flew to China from New York, Mountain View and Zürich. At nearly 22 million people Beijing is by far the biggest city I've ever been to. It was also my first time to Asia. I'm still digesting, but a few observations jumped out at me:

Zack leading us down some dark back alleys to sell our kidneys.
All my ducks in a row. Photo by Matthias.

The air is incredibly bad. I don't deal well with heat and when we landed it was in the mid 30° degrees celsius. Add the smog to that and my eyes burned and I got nauseous and dizzy as soon as I went outside. Locals shrugged it off and suggested I come back in winter when it's really bad. Objectively the air quality index was at medium warning level, suggesting limiting strenuous outdoor activities but otherwise no restrictions. Lucky for me it rained halfway through the week, improving both the temperatures and air significantly.

The Forbidden City. Photo by Matthias.
Photo by Matthias.

Traffic is crazy. Our airport taxi spent the entire ride to the hotel on the emergency lane, honking and cutting through off-ramps and on-ramps. People would stop in the middle of the highway to drop off passengers. Scooters would go every which way - including straight into oncoming traffic. Whenever we had to cross a street as pedestrians we'd ignore the traffic lights (as most everybody else was doing) and simply wait for a critical mass of people to accumulate and then follow the throng into the intersection.

Photo by Matthias.

That said, Beijing has awesome bicycle lanes on nearly every road. They are the width of a full lane and separated from the cars by a knee high fence. They are also extremely well utilized with bikes and e-scooters zipping past. Every sidewalk is lined with thousands of rental bikes which you can get by simply scanning a QR code with your phone. There seemed to be hardly any personal bikes. We learned that these bike sharing companies have only been around for a few years and that they put ten thousands (!) of new bikes into circulation every week (!). The scale and speed at which things are happening here boggles the mind.

Smog? I don't know what you are talking about. Maybe that's why the locals wear masks?

Despite visiting all the super touristy places (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace) we saw few western tourists. I had a Chinese tourist ask me to take a selfie with him and two women chat me up for a beer because they wanted to brush up their English. Apparently even in the worldly capital my cowboy hat and white boy face was still enough of a novelty to be interesting. We even had the occasional kid staring or a random security guard walk up to us on the subway and take a picture (although, who knows, that might have been something else ;-)).

Never ending rows of rental bikes.

The entrance to the Forbidden city has 30 parallel kiosks for buying tickets and still you are queuing for half an hour and more. It's weird to stand taller than almost anybody and look across a sea of black shocks of hair. That seems to be the only hair color available. Size had consequences in other places too - some toilets seemed to be Kindergarden size and the sink in my hotel room barely reached my groin. On the older subway trains I'd bump my head in the door and had to duck under handrails on the ceiling.

The subway system is super efficient and fast. There's a train every few minutes. Every single person, from the kids to the elderly has a modern smartphone and apparently connectivity on the trains is perfect as everyone is dabbling all the time. Notable on the trains was the absence of something: from major cities like Berlin, San Francisco or Zürich I'm used to interesting train rides. There's always something going on - a street musician, a beggar, a drunk person sleeping in the corner, a student trying to get an Ikea couch home, a stag party or a bunch of nudists casually walking by. Not so here.

From an arrogant Westerner's point of view I was expecting the Chinese internet would be severely crippled and barely usable. This was true - almost none of my apps and only a handful of my frequented websites worked (crucially, Google doesn't work!). However, the Chinese equivalent of the services I was missing seemed to be quite sufficient indeed. And in fact, in many ways seemed to be superior. As I understand credit cards have already been surpassed by mobile payments for example. It seems it might be just as likely that WeChat will eat WhatsApp and Facebook than the other way around. Exciting.

The food was great. Google offices are famously known for their cafeterias, but we also explored the local cuisine from street food carts all the way up to high end restaurants with several waiters per table and everything in between. I sampled "Hutong explodes the lamb", "Pine nuts detonation santian", "Wok-seared lab chops" that were really fish, hot pots, authentic Peking duck, frogs and other exciting dishes. In the end I gained a kilo during my stay there.

Only in China: an entire city block of skyscrapers under construction. Growing by a few stories every day.
The iconic CCTV headquarters.

A big thank you to the Beijing crew for being great hosts and introducing us to this great city and culture!