Let me be honest with you all: I find an equal amount of grave, dismal, even abysmal faults in China, as I find it to be one of the best countries in the world. It’s natural: I was born here, and until I was 18, I used to be a Chinese citizen. I still live here — with all of my family.
I am hardly alone in this, as I’ve learnt. Most people — expats included! — have this conflicting love and hate of China and of Beijing. But I am not willing to be sold out to either extremes. I’m a poor Swiss citizen if we’re to be seen as “the best of” viewpoint neutrality. So what I do instead is to reinterpret neutrality as a “smorgasbord of views”.
I’ll continue to have a love-hate relationship with the city — and the Middle Kingdom as a whole — as it’s a real, living, breathing experience — and because we all care about this place. Dearly. ▶
In London, for as much as work as I did finding Swissness at Sainsbury’s, M & S, and Waitrose (I deliberately shun Tesco as much as I can, and I never do Aldi, Lidl, or the like), I found only limited Swissness when it came to dairy products. I was a regular Onken yoghurt consumer, but as it had German roots, I wanted to look for something “more authentically Swiss”. And the only Swiss yoghurt you got were at Whole Foods, from a local dairy in Bischofszell (or thereabouts), Canton of St Gallen. You could easily forget what Waitrose passed off as its Number 1 choice for chocolate — I as a Swiss feel quite insulted that we weren’t picked (but the choice was made pre-Brexit, so they could always reconsider!).
For Beijing, by no means are they cheap (apart from the occasional sale), but if it’s something that won’t kill you, I’m going for it at all costs. ▶
In Switzerland our only “really” global airport is not located in the Federal City (much the equivalent of a “real” capital in other countries), Bern, but Zürich. It is only the “real” 100% Swiss airport of a major dimension (since the airports in Geneva and Basel have connections to nearby France, but all exits at Zürich Airport lead solely to Swiss territory).
We are somewhat satisfied with our 3-runway (or two-and-a-sort-of-half runway) airport, which is in a well-forested part of suburban Zürich. We completed around a decade back the new Fingerdock E, which is where most intercontinental flights land. The inside of the airport has also been massively redone, from the toilets to the concourses and shopping areas. The inside of the Airside Centre, in fact, feels not much unlike Shanghai Pudong!
However, it is the explosive growth of Beijing’s new air hub — Daxing International Airport, as it is sometimes known — that simply wows me in full. A few days back, I took my car for a spin, dashcam and other imaging devices ready, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new airport in the making. What I saw was enough to make me faint: basically miles on end of cranes and construction sites meaning that this new airport was about to become reality — very soon! ▶
I was in Yanqing just a few days back. This part of Beijing joins Miyun as the last parts to be converted from county to district status. This wasn’t my first time to this part of the Chinese capital, but it was my first “real” trip inside the newly-upgraded district.
Yanqing is, admittedly, a fair bit away from central Beijing. Therefore, you can’t blame parts of it looking as if it was still stuck in the 1980s. However, it remains visibly vibrant. Just look on the main avenues… symbols of the Winter Games to come and winter sports symbols as well… All Yanqing really needs is a fuller upgrade and it’ll be good for two events — the 2019 World Horticultural Exhibition — and the 2022 Winter Olympics, together with central Beijing and Zhangjiakou. ▶
Urbanisation in China is something that is literally breathtaking to behold. In late 2009, I did a drive for about a hundred miles just east of Beijing. I was just absolutely stunned by just how urbanised this erstwhile rural part of the Middle Kingdom became. It has also meant massive upgrades for many Chinese. The hutong alleyways of Old Beijing, as an example, had communal toilets instead of toilets in each compound. For those living “above ground” as in what I call the “low-rise” flats, we had loos that looked like they were hastily rushed, and a minimal kitchen solution.
In newer flats, we have better amenities, an emphasis on recycling, better transport links, and improved security. And yet, what I find pretty saddening is whilst we’re being couch potatoes (or sucked in our 9 inch screens) in those newer, and probably glitzier, high-rises, we’re seeing more and more of the older parts of town go away — for good. ▶
It had every last David Feng element possibly conceivable on the planet. Trains. Subways. HSR trainsets. Audiences. Comparisons between the Metropolitan line and Beijing’s Line 1 and the Batong Line extension. The audience at the London Transport Museum was wowed for an hour as I did my shtick — a one-hour presentation on From A to B in London and Beijing. Everything was fully localised for a London audience. Miles per hour appeared next to their SI equivalents, and the Victoria line was shown its Beijing counterpart.
In the London Transport Museum’s Cubic Theatre, over 80 were seated as they discovered how the Chinese rails and roads worked. I first started with a fact-and-distance check: the easternmost end of the bridge by the Tube platforms at Upminster, in essence the closest point on the Tube network to Beijing from inside the M25, was 5,302⅔ miles (8,099.2 km) away. That station was a new late 2015 addition: Changping Xishankou station. ▶
Just yesterday, I had left the Starbucks not far from central Oxford and was headed to the town hall, apparently for “lunch”. Tracy got me into a room in the town hall, which was to be used in the afternoon for an event we would take part in. She asked me to come to the lectern for a photo opp. (You like doing that and giving speeches all the time!, she said, so on I went to “the set”. There was also virtually no-one else there, and it would be at least a full hour until the event would be underway, so we had plenty of time.)
I thought about using this pic (look at this great shot, my wife said to me) so to tell you all about a key shift in my life as I prepare for what’s next my end, career-wise. Now Tracy and I had just finished a few weeks where we consulted one other for solid plans. I myself am putting behind unpredictable times and have a fresh new vision, but also am true to that age-old adage — If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I have to say she is far more optimistic than I dared imagine — and both of us were also realistic. ▶
There’s one thing I’m not all too happy with the food I have in the Jing: salad isn’t part of the menu in many a restaurant. (You pay the equivalent of £7.— or so for that in Beijing — cheap by London standards, quite a pocketbook-thumper by the standards of the Jing!) Obviously, in China, things are massively different: vegetables, especially cooked / stir-fried / ____ed ones, take their place most of the time. In particular, I don’t get rocket (the veg, not the Cape Canaveral version) as much as I’d like to in Beijing. And the greens and fruits I get at the average supermarket in town are astronomically priced for a Beijing budget.
The other thing I’m seeing is I easily get more mileage on foot in London than in Beijing. This strikes me as odd, as I take the Tube (or Subway) pretty much as often I do in Beijing as I do in London. Plus, Beijing has a larger still network; London’s next addition won’t be until 2018. However, in the end, my device reports I get less miles done on foot in the Jing than inside the M25. ▶
At precisely 18:57:39 on 14 January 2016, a Daxing Line train, extraordinarily crowded until Xihongmen (where they’ve a ginormous IKEA with the obligatory Costa next to it), emptied itself of all riders, yours truly included, at the Tian’gongyuan terminus. That was it. I had completed all of the Beijing Subway opened to the public. And Beijing thus became the third city in the whole wide world (after Chengdu in 2013, and London in 2015) that I had travelled on its mass transit system across all lines in revenue service.
I actually was able to pull off this stunt earlier — in April 2008 — so strictly speaking, it would have been the first such system around the planet. But then the network quintupled itself, adding since that record Lines 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, and 15, as well as the Airport Express, and Changping, Daxing, Fangshan, and Yizhuang Lines.
The new station I have absolutely come to yell for (not yell at) is Dawanglu. The city’s south HSR hub, Beijingnan (Beijing South) Railway Station, once was remotely inaccessible for CBD people — you in essence had to cram yourself onto a Line 1 train (stuffy it was!), and make yourself through the spaghetti interchange that was Xidan onto Line 4. Now, it really is a no-brainer… I can imagine nothing better than leaving the CBD onto a direct connection to the HSR hub at Beijing South, all without having to change trains halfway through. ▶
I do admit I left China at a time when it was pretty much in its doldrums. 2014 was a slow year. Earlier that year, me being stuck in smog in very bad traffic was pretty much it to me.
It would be nearly 7 years since I was last in London, so I imagined development had really picked up there. I took the Metropolitan line to the city terminus at Aldgate twice — once in November 2014, and again in summer 2015. It was highly disappointing: there was just about no change there in the City.
In the meantime, Beijing had engaged Magnet Mode again: just about everything from the Winter Olympics and the G20 meeting to international gardening and relaxation summits headed its way into the Middle Kingdom in a chain series of events starting from summer 2015.
With this return trip to Beijing, the absolutely amazing pace of development just completely took my breath away. I took the Beijing Subway the day I landed to see how fast things were picking up in the CBD, after seeing pics on the Web that there must have been at least one new skyscraper in the making. The entire city took my breath away. Even more breathtaking was Hebei, especially that part which would host the world in 2022. ▶