One month ago, the wheels of a Cathay Pacific plane touched ground at the Singapore Changi Airport. It was early afternoon and the sky was white and bright, like a blank canvas, full of expectations. As I walked out of the cabin and inhaled my first gulp of tropical air, a rush of emotions sped through my mind. Did I make the right decision by moving here? What happens if I don’t find a flat or a job by the time my hotel room and tourist visa expires? Goddamn it’s hot.
One month on, it’s still too early to tell where this adventure is going to take me, and I’m yet to find a proper job, but at least I’m starting to find my feet around this little red dot. I’ve settled into a nice little room that’s right beside the river, and I’ve just about cracked the code of bus numbers and untangled the colourful MRT lines.
Some of the rumours I’ve heard about Singapore are absolutely true. Chewing gum is illegal. As is graffiti. As is taking durians onto public transport. As is protesting. Drug use will get you spanked and imprisoned, and drug trafficking will cost you your life.
Sometimes it does feel a bit like a jungle of red tape here, especially when they ask for your passport number for everything, from booking theatre tickets to renting a Segway. Sometimes I feel like the government is stricter than my own mother (although to be fair, I am fortunate enough to have a very easy-going mum so perhaps I’ve just been spoilt).
And I guess I can see why some people call this place ‘Singabore’, amongst many other nicknames. In many ways the people here live extremely sheltered lives: the weather remains warm all year round; the food is cheap; the crime rate is low; the economy is relatively stable. But as I put on my explorer’s hat and start to discover the Real Singapore, I’m finding that there is much more going on here than people are initially led to believe.
Here are a bunch of things that I’ve managed to achieve in my first month here, and I look forward to digging even deeper into what this place has to offer. Enjoy!
1. Found a home.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the road to finding a roof over our heads was unnecessarily long and twisted. Rent is extremely high in Singapore. As my boyfriend and I are living on a tight budget, we can thus only afford to rent a room. After an arduous search, however, our efforts paid off in the form of a nice big ensuite master room in a maisonette at the Potong Pasir HUDC (Housing and Urban Development Company, i.e. semi-public) estate. It’s not the most luxurious place, but it’s clean and safe and spacious – and most importantly, it’s home.
2. Sniffed out cheap shopping places.
Toa Payoh, one of the larger residential districts in Singapore, is only a 15-minute bus ride away and is home to one of my favourite stores for home appliances. Courts is essentially the local version of IKEA, selling everything from sofas to vacuum cleaners to wall deco to TVs. For cheap clothes and accessories I go to Bugis Street (which earned bonus points for having an awesome website). Yes it’s touristy and yes it’s always crowded, but if you don’t mind spending hours digging through piles and piles of fabrics in search of those one or two hidden gems, your efforts will usually be rewarded with a great bargain. As for toiletries and kitchen things, there are a couple of cosmetic shops at Chinatown’s People Park Complex (I especially like one called Ocean) which on average sell them at a lower price than the big supermarkets.
3. Experienced the midnight shopping phenomenon that is Mustafa.
As a city girl, I’m no stranger to late night shopping. In fact, the only thing that I never quite got used to in England is how early shops there close – 6pm and every single store is locked and shuttered. Are they mad? Singapore, on the other hand, has shown me the opposite end of the spectrum. Mustafa (no, not Simba’s dad, that’s Mufasa, though I still get them mixed up far more often than I would care to admit) is an Indian department store that is open 24 hours. We decided to go at midnight in order to beat the weekend crowd, but it was still close to pandemonium in there. Who knew that so many kids would be toy-shopping at that time of night? Still, there is no doubt about the greatness of the place in both size and variety. It stocks pretty much everything you can think of – clothes, electronics, beddings, kitchen utensils, groceries, every type of spice under the sun. And buying them at 1am just somehow makes everything that little bit more exciting.
4. Became acquainted with local food.
I was given a crash course on Singaporean hawker food when I first arrived, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. The cuisine, like their bewildering Singlish names, is a mixture of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, Western and influenced by many others. Char kway teow, chai tow kuay, popiah, rojak, otak otak – you might as well just throw me a bunch of made-up sounds. Even the more English-sounding ones are confusing – what the hell is economy rice? And then there are the drinks, teh tarik, ee bee chui, bandung. Don’t get me started on desserts. To become well-versed in the local menu is to learn a new language, but as food sits right at the centre of Singaporean culture, it’s a compulsory life skill to acquire.
For those of you who are interested, here is a fun little video of a Hokkien song about a range of of Singaporean food. Don’t worry if you don’t understand a word – I don’t either – just marvel at the images and drool.
5. Checked out the arts scene.
This is still very much a work in progress for me, as I arrived with practically no previous knowledge of the arts scene here. There’s still a lot left to be explored, but so far I’ve been to the Singapore Art Museum and the Chan Hampe Gallery, as well as The Substation for my first taste of local theatre. Many outsiders think that the arts landscape here is ‘sterile’ and while I agree that it is still in its infancy stage, I am definitely seeing lots of sounds and colours with a distinctively Singaporean flavour bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a really exciting time to be in the country and I look forward to seeing much more of what it has to offer.
6. Started hunting out quirky places.
Again, I am far from being fluent in terms of knowing the coolest, quirkiest places in town, but I’ve made a start. So far the most amazing one that I’ve came across is BooksActually, an independent book and gift shop that opened in Tiong Bahru seven years ago. Since then they have established the Math Paper Press, which publishes the works of emerging local talents. I have ongoing plans to check out various districts and the hot hang-out spots associated with them – stay tuned!
7. Acquired sandal-shaped tan lines on my feet and sunburn on my shoulders.
A week of wearing the same patterned sandals on this mostly sunny island turned my feet into a two-toned painting of circles and lines. My mother bluntly described it as ‘ugly’ when she saw it, but I maintain that it’s artistic – if Miró gets away with it on a canvas, I should get away with it on my feet. Still, I made the effort to even them out by spending an entire afternoon sprawled across the sandy shores of East Coast Park beach doing absolutely nothing but listening to the waves. I got results and the tan lines vanished, but my shoulders suffered the consequences as they got severely burnt to the point where I couldn’t even have a strand of hair near them. You just can’t win with some things.
8. Acted as tour guide when my parents visited.
We had barely moved here for three weeks when my parents happily announced that they would be paying us a visit. As overjoyed as I was to see them, it’s hard to strike a balance in the itinerary-planning as my mum was perfectly happy to take things easy, while my dad made it loud and clear that he wanted to sightsee as much as he could. Plus they were only here for three days. (Certain people I know would insist that that’s all the time you need to see Singapore, but I beg to differ.) In the end we ended up going to Singapore’s newest tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, Orchard Road, Chinatown, Sentosa, a kopitiam (a smaller, indoor version of a hawker centre) and Swee Kee Chicken Rice. Everyone seems happy afterwards so I’m going to proclaim the whole shebang a success.
9. Partook in a local festival.
Last week the local community celebrated the 3,000-year-old tradition known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, which originated in China and is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar. Unfortunately I missed the Mass Lantern Walk in Chinatown, but still had plenty of fun with my paper lantern as I thronged through the crowds at the carnival, Buddhist temple and various light displays. Find out more about it on my last post.
10. Made it to Malaysia and back.
A more detailed post about my journey from Singapore to Johor Bahru will be coming shortly, but in short, it’s not as complicated as I had initially feared. It only takes about half an hour and a few bucks, and you’re there. Most expats go to JB in order to have their visas renewed, and luckily everything is fairly straightforward on that front.
The only problem I had was the fact that JB is a very depressing city. It has none of the ‘raffish charm’ that Tennessee Williams describes New Orleans as possessing in A Streetcar Named Desire, but instead just feels rundown and unloved. We initially planned on exploring the place seeing as we made it there anyway, but after a short wander we came to the conclusion that there really is nothing to do there. There is as much wasted potential as there is wasted retail space, as shopping malls are built but mostly remain empty and decrepit. The only place that one can properly wander round for an hour or so is City Square, apart from the Chinese and Hindu temples and Indian mosque, which are worth a quick glance.
To say that I was glad and relieved when we arrived back in Singapore is a big understatement. The country may be years away from becoming the next London or New York, but at least it’s definitely on the right track.
I love exploring cities just by walking around, and from what I’ve gathered so far, Singapore the perfect place for that. Its transport system is one of the most advanced in the world, but the sun is shining and there are lots to see on foot. I was lucky enough to stay at the gorgeous Fullerton Bay Hotel on my last visit here, and so decided to make the most of it by exploring the Marina Bay area. Here is a map of the route I took, which took about 50 minutes in total:
The Fullerton Bay Hotel is the newer, more modern sister of The Fullerton, which is located just across the road. Although the Bay branch is slightly smaller in size, it is by no means less superior. Our room had a private balcony with a lovely view, breakfast was always delicious, and the staff were all very polite and helpful. But its best hidden little secrets lie on the rooftop: the pools. There is one big pool with deck chairs and little tables laid out along the shallowest side, and two smaller jacuzzi infinity pools that show off one of the best views of Marina Bay. On a lucky day you may even get the entire little pool to yourself – bliss!
Singapore is very proud of its urban planning – and with good reasons. While most buildings located on prominent skylines around the world all try to compete against and outdo each other, the ones here seem to coexist in harmony. This is mostly owing to the careful and sometimes very strict hands of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). There are two City Galleries in Singapore, and while the one in Tanjong Pagar is no doubt more impressive (keep an eye out for an article on this that will be coming soon!), the Marina Bay branch nonetheless provides a quick and interesting insight into the island’s city planning strategies.
The Marina Bay Sands, which opened in 2011, is one of the world’s most expensive casino resorts. Developed by American firm Las Vagas Sands, the building is quite something to behold, boasting over 2000 rooms and the biggest elevated infinity pool on the planet. It also takes part in the nightly Wonder Full light show, during which lasers beam across the Bay to music. Apart from the hotel, the Sands also comprises of a huge convention centre, two theatres, a string of high-end restaurants and a shopping mall amongst other features.
With 800,000 square feet of retail space, The Shoppes is a self-dubbed ‘shopping mecca’. It is home to pretty much every luxury brand as well as some newer emerging labels. There are also cafes and restaurants to rest tired feet, and an ice rink for the more adventurous (although its floor is actually made of cold plastic rather than real ice). But its most unique feature is probably the Sampan ride, inspired perhaps by The Venetian Macao. For S$10 per person, visitors may enjoy a mini boat trip around the mall, which includes an up close and personal view of Ned Kahn’s waterfall art piece ‘Rain Oculus’.
The lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum is yet another part of the Marina Bay Sands. Being spoilt by free shows in England, I was a bit disappointed to find that the exhibitions here all require an admission fee, although they certainly look very impressive. There is currently a Harry Potter and an Andy Warhol show going on, which will be there until 30th September and 21st October respectively. The museum consists of 21 galleries and has a total floor space of 50,000 square feet.
6. Helix Bridge
The Helix Bridge offers a spectacular view of Marina Bay, especially at the four designated viewing pods. A joint venture between Australian and Singaporean architects, the bridge’s design keeps the city-state’s temperamental weather in mind, so that its users are sheltered from both the scorching sun and heavy rain. Its unique and complex shape follows the double-helix structure of the DNA, and if you look closely you’ll find that there are pairs of alphabetic letters along the floor, which are actually meant to represent the base pairs of nucleic acid!
7. The Float@Marina Bay
The world’s largest floating stadium, The Float@Marina Bay, is where the Singapore National Day Parades have been taking place since 2007. It can fit 30,000 seated spectators and can support over 1,000 tonnes. The platform also hosted the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010 amongst other major – mostly sporting – events.
Nicknamed ‘The Durian’ in reference to the tropical fruit due to the shape of its exterior, Esplanade is Singapore’s most prominent stage and music venue. There are two main performing spaces – a theatre and a concert hall – with another Outdoor Theatre right by the waterfront for free open air shows. Aside from being a centre for the arts, Esplanade also has a bunch of restaurants and quirky shops for the casual walk-in visitor.
9. Esplanade Bridge
Finally, to end our walk, we crossed the flower-clad Esplanade Bridge to get back to the Fullerton Bay. The Merlion Park lies at the end of the bridge, where a huge statue of Singapore’s mascot – a mythical creature with a lion’s head and a mermaid’s tail – stands tall. A two-meter Merlion cub may also be found next to it. If you go at the right time (which we didn’t) you will even get to see the big Merlion spouting water from its mouth as a symbol of prosperity.
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Check out Marina Bay’s official website for more info about what to do in the area!
Many very clever men and women have told me over the years that the one thing you can be sure of when it comes to flat hunting is that it will always be a big fat nightmare. I have never questioned their wise words, but it’s not until I recently started taking on the seemingly impossible task myself that I realised their true meaning.
I have dealt with rude and incompetent estate agents in my university days, but with hindsight they were little more than an inconvenient itch. The Real World is, of course, much harsher than that.
When my boyfriend and I started our hunt for a place to stay in Singapore, we were told by friends in the know that it’s not worth asking estate agents to search for properties for us unless our budget is at least S$3,000/month, because they usually charge an exorbitant commission fee. Being fresh graduates – and hence cheap labour – our budget is definitely not S$3,000. It is not even remotely close to that. And so we have to resort to our best friend and worst enemy, The Internet.
A few websites have been recommended to us, such as Property Guru, Rent In Singapore, and Easy Roommate. We decided to go with Easy Roommate. We had to pay a small fee to entitle us to use all of their features (such as being able to directly contact other users via private messages) but so far it seems to be paying off.
We have finally shortlisted four properties that fit our requirements and budget, but not before we learnt a few lessons. So here’s a mini guide on everything I’ve learnt about online flat hunting in Singapore so far…
Only people who are either Singaporean citizens, Permanent Residents (PR), or have valid work permits can rent local property. If you’re holding a tourist visa, you are legally only allowed to stay in serviced apartments or hotels. Some landlords may be more flexible, however, and will not mind if you’re still in the process of applying for work as long as you can pay rent on time and don’t get into trouble.
Overall I would suggest finding a job and sorting out your permit before getting started on flat-hunting, as it will make the paper work a hell lot easier. It also means that you will have a clearer idea of which area you’d like to stay in in order to get to work more conveniently.
Types of Properties
There are 6 main types of properties in Singapore you can stay in:
- Housing and Development Board Flats (HDBs): These are government-owned buildings comparable to council estates in England. Over 80% of the country’s population live in HDBs, as they are substantially cheaper than private housing. Strictly speaking it is illegal to sublet rooms in HDBs, but it is a common practice to do so nonetheless. There will not have security guards or management people on site. They are usually located near public transport such as MRT stations, however, and there would often be a playground, food courts and other small shops within close proximity of the flats.
- Condominiums (Condos): Privately owned apartments that are especially popular with expats. These are more expensive than HDBs, but for good reason as they tend to be more spacious. They would also have full facilities inside the compound including 24-hour security, green space, swimming pools, gym, etc. Some condos may not be as close to MRT stations or other amenities such as food courts and supermarkets, however, so do take that into consideration and check on Google Maps or with the landlord.
- Flats: Similar to condos, but with less or no private facilities.
- Landed Properties: Houses, basically. They are obvious much bigger than apartments, and you get your own garden as well as more privacy. It’s rare to come across them though, as there aren’t very many houses around. Like flats, they usually have less facilities in their immediate vicinity, but if you have a car then it wouldn’t be much of a problem.
- Serviced Apartments: A cross between a hotel and studio flat, serviced apartments are most suited for extended trips. They offer the comfort of home, complete with living room and kitchen, and usually get cleaned and tidied daily. The trade off is that they are generally very, very expensive. No work permits are necessary to stay in these.
Budget and Location
In a nutshell, property prices are ridiculously high in Singapore. By that, I mean they are even more expensive than London. If your budget is as low as ours (around or below S$2,000/month), your best bet would be to rent a room rather than a whole apartment. On the other hand, if you want to buy a property and rent it out, it’d be a good time to do so now as the rental market is doing well.
In terms of location, everything is pretty straightforward: the closer you are to the city centre, the more expensive property is going to be in general. Transport is relatively cheap in Singapore, so as long as you’re close to a bus or MRT stop you should be okay if you don’t mind the rush hour crowds.
Check out this page on the Rent In Singapore website for average asking prices in different districts.
Everybody knows that the internet is as full of great stuff as it is full of crap. I was reluctant to flat hunt online, but that’s apparently what people do nowadays so we didn’t have much of a choice. We initially tried looking for properties on the American classified ads website Craigslist, which was a really bad idea as the site is a haven for scammers. Even after we’ve joined the more reputable rental website Easy Roommate, we still encountered quite a few bad guys. Some of them can be very convincing, but here are a few ways I’ve learnt to avoid falling for their traps. It all just comes down to common sense at the end of the day, really…:
- Check images in the ad: Be very cautious if the rooms in the pictures look too good to be true, especially if their asking price is substantially lower than your other finds. Scammers would also often use photos of flats from other places, so check for irregularities and keep a sharp eye for details. One of the photos we came across had a radiator on the wall – something you will never find in a country as hot as Singapore – and another one had an ashtray on the table despite their description clearly saying ‘*STRICTLY NO SMOKING!!!*’.
Do a reverse image search on TinEye if you’re unsure. You simply upload a photo and it will perform an extensive search to reveal where else the image has been hosted. Both the radiator and ashtray photos we came across turned out to be taken from hotels in Amsterdam!
- Check the property address on Google Maps: It will only take a minute, but do it anyway. One of the addresses we looked up turned out to be the location of Singapore Pose Office! (The ‘owner’ later said that she had ‘gotten the address mixed up’.)
- Google their email addresses if provided: Fortunately, the good people of the world have compiled websites such as Chicanery Cons Scams that post lists of known scammer email addresses. A quick Google search will reveal at least the more notorious scammers.
- Typical scammers… will often have atrocious grammar, and use excessive capital letters and exclamation marks. The ‘owners’ tend to be out of the country for family or business reasons. A lot of them will also give a strangely in-depth description of themselves and their family history – which usually includes a death (for sympathy points maybe?).
Do not ever trust anyone who asks you to complete an ‘application form’ or says that they would have to send you the keys by post. Also, never wire money to anyone before you meet them in person. Always arrange a house viewing and see the place before you sign any documents.
This is an example of a scam messages I got:
Other Things To Consider…
- Check whether wifi and utilities are included in the rent.
- Ask if cooking is allowed. I came across many places that only permit ‘light cooking’ – make sure you find out exactly what they mean by that.
- Check if the flat is fully or partially furnished.
- Room type: Master rooms are larger and have ensuite bathrooms attached, common rooms are a bit smaller and will have to share a communal bathroom.
- Whether there are food courts and/or other shops and amenities nearby, especially if you get peckish easily!
WHEN: 14th-21st July, 2012
TYPE OF TRIP: Cruise – P&O’s Azura
MY STORY: I’ve found that people’s feelings about cruises tend to be one of two extremes. They either think that being stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean is unbearably claustrophobic, or that cruises are essentially five star hotels that conveniently travel around with you. While I was more than happy to get back on dry land by the end of the week, I had a wonderful time onboard P&O’s newest addition, Azura, as I explored the mighty rugged coastline of Norway with my family last month.
Our Captain told us that the length of the Azura is the equivalent of 4,444 Hobnobs lined up nose to nose, so that gives you a rough idea of just how big this beauty is. It has all the facilities you could possibly want: four swimming pools, spas, multiple restaurants and bars, gym, shops, and even a Whitewall Art Gallery, which was displaying a selection of Rolf Harris paintings as their centrepieces at the time.
There was an excellent range of entertainment throughout our time onboard. I spent most of my evenings at The Playhouse Theatre, where Headliners Company put on a different all-singing, all-dancing medley each evening. I also enjoyed Anna Stolli’s and Peter Cutler’s beautiful concerts, Manuel Martinez’s crude jokes and magic tricks, former Chief Police Detective Terry Brown’s informative talks, and the interview with Darcey Bussell CBE, one of the greatest English ballerinas of all time and also Azura’s Godmother.
But my best memories from the cruise are the sunny, lazy afternoons spent on the deckchair in our private balcony with a book in one hand an a hot cup of tea in the other. It was so soothing just to breathe in the sea breeze, and not having to worry about anything just for one week.
My only criticisms would be the lack of free wifi in the ship, and that it can be a bit difficult to meet new people when there are nearly 3,500 passengers onboard. That aside, however, I really did enjoy my time on the Azura.
In our week-long excursion, we stopped at four ports: Bergen, Andalsnes, Olden and Stavanger, which were all lovely places each with their own characteristics.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway and is most famous for its fish market. Despite being blighted by quite a few fires in its long history, the city remains beautiful regardless. The quayside – Bryggen – is especially pretty, with rows of brightly coloured houses that are reminiscent of the medieval times.
We explored Andalsnes by train and coach. The town reminded me a lot of the Canadian Rockies, with its beautiful mountains, rivers and glacial landscape. The Rauma Railway is one of the best ways to enjoy the spectacular fjords, and is a tremendous feat of engineering in itself. One of the greatest sights in Andalsnes is the Trollveggen, or Troll Wall. It is Europe’s highest perpendicular mountain wall, and has long been a popular spot for climbers.
Our third stop was by far the smallest – but arguably also the most stunning. Olden is a tiny town with a population of merely 1,000. (Just for comparison’s sake, our cruise ship alone has the capacity of over 4,000 passenger and crew members.) Its ‘local glacier’ is called Briksdal Glacier, which is part of the great Jostedals Icefield – the largest on mainland Europe. We did a big trek up to see the Briksdal, which sadly has been shrinking for centuries. According to our guide, the glacier will no longer exist in four or five years time, so we were lucky to have witnessed it now. Another thing about Olden is that it has thrice been destroyed by avalanches over the years. In fact, although the last avalanche didn’t physically touch the Old Church, the wind caused by it was strong enough to move the entire building by a few feet. The result is that while it is still erect today, its foundation is extremely unstable.
Finally, we arrived at Stavanger on our last day ashore. It was traditionally known for its sardines, but today it is the oil capital of Norway. A large part of the city is protected as cultural heritage sites. Gamble – or Old Stavanger – is particularly charming, with lots of traditional houses painted in an array of colours and decorated from head to toe in flowers of all kinds. There are also many museums, including the Canning Museum, the Printing Museum, and many more. While I didn’t get to visit it, I’ve heard great things about the Stavanger Museum, which is friendly for adults and kids alike.
Overall the four ports all showed unique sides of Norway. It was nice being surrounded by so much clean air without ever completely losing touch with the outside world.
10 NORWEGIAN FACTS I GATHERED DURING MY WEEK THERE:
1. Norway used to be one of the poorest countries in Europe until oil was discovered in their seas in the 1960s. It is now amongst the most expensive places in the world, with an extremely high cost and standard of living.
2. Vikings used to think that water was poisonous, and so they would only drink mead – the bygone days’ equivalent of beer. They would, however, also drink dew collected in the conical structure of the leaves of lady’s mantles, which they believed had spiritual powers.
3. Red houses nestled in hillsides is now the stereotypical scene that comes to mind when we think of Norway, but the origins of the colour of these idyllic cottages is a bit morbid. Back in the days before the discovery of oil, most Norwegians didn’t have enough money to paint their houses. The rich folks could afford white paint, so white houses used to be a symbol of wealth. The less privileged would instead coat their humble abodes with the blood of fish or sheep – hence the red.
4. While on the topic of houses, it is also quite a common sight to see grass growing on Norwegian rooftops. This is actually an old form of insulation that consists of seven layers of flexible and waterproof birch bark to keep out the cold and rain.
5. 99% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower, which means that locals pay less on rainy days when water is abundant. They hardly use any of their own gas or oil, and instead ship them out to countries such as Britain.
6. The largest trade in Norway is petroleum, followed by fish and timber.
7. 37% of the country is covered by trees. Norwegian law states that at least two trees have to be planted for every tree cut down in order to keep the timber industry sustainable and the country green.
8. In order to constitute as a city in Norway, a place has to have a population of 1,000 inhabitants or over.
9. Although there are churches in every town, most Norwegians used to go there more for social than religious reasons. This is because in the days before effective communication tools and transport, Sunday mornings were the only times when people would meet up and socialise.
10. Norwegian drivers on the whole are some of the most polite people I have ever come across.
It’s easy to start taking things for granted when you have lived in a city for any significant period of time. Beijing has been my home for the past seven years. My family still lives here, so I would come back at least once a year even during my time at university. The city has always been special to me, but when people ask me to describe it I never feel like I can do it justice. I know this sounds cliche, but Beijing really is something else.
When I was told by my parents that we would move here back in 2005, I refused to speak to them for a week and maturely nicknamed the place ‘City of Doom’. I was perfectly happy living in London at the time, and could not understand for the life of me why we would want to move to a place that I considered severely backwards.
We arrived on Christmas Day and found ourselves in a city empty of festive lights and carols. The only things that greeted us were a pile of yellow snow on the pavement and a cab that looked (and felt) like it was about to give up on life.
Incredible things happened in the next few years, however, as Beijing prepared for the 2008 Olympic Games. I watched it change before my eyes. Decrepit buildings were torn down as fast as glassy skyscrapers grew up. The cars on the road got shinier and less like scrap metal monsters. The subway map that used to consist of only two lines has now multiplied to incorporate 15 (and counting). McDonald’s and Starbucks started to pop up everywhere.
The Beijing today is a completely different landscape, and I have grown to love every quirky thing about it. People unapologetically clearing their throats and talking at an unnecessarily high volume may be uncouth, but it is part of the city’s soundtrack. Driving through the streets is like being in a bad video game, with cars travelling in all directions and their drivers dismissing traffic signs as mere decoration. But once you get used to the craziness, it’s really quite amusing.
I can now say that I know the city relatively well. I know where to go, how to get there, and what to expect when I arrive. What I have forgotten, however, is how Beijing looks from the other side, when it’s seen through the eyes of a tourist.
I’ve played the role of tour guide many times when visiting the big local attractions with family friends, but not this time. This time, as I joined my boyfriend and his family on a day trip around town, I was to be tourist in my own city for once. It was a surprisingly refreshing experience.
Our first stop was the Beijing Capital Museum. The museum was established in the 80s, but the current building only opened in 2005. It is home to some incredible pieces of relics, from traditional wedding outfits to gold plates to calligraphy scrolls by old masters. Admittedly, it’s not the most child friendly place and little ones may find that it can get a bit dry after a while. I’ve been here on a school trip before, but having James, our tour guide, with us really made a difference. It was interesting to hear him talk us through the items on display while giving us China’s history in manageable – if somewhat censored and carefully phrased - doses.
We then had lunch at a famous vegetarian restaurant, Gongdelin. As a meat-lover, I was not especially impressed, especially since the dishes were all named after their carnivorous counterparts: ‘Sweet and Sour Pork’ was actually made of lotus roots, and ‘Gongbao Chicken’ was really tofu. Much as I felt cheated, though, it was still a place I would not have even glanced at otherwise.
After the food we did one of the most touristy things you can do in Beijing – we rode a rickshaw through hutongs in the Houhai area. Hutongs are narrow alleyways where most people used to live in the old days. There were once over 6000 of them in the city, tour guide James told us, but urbanisation means that there are now only less than 400 left.
I was initially sceptical about the rickshaw ride because it’s so embarrassingly cliche, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Our driver was a thin, tanned man in his 40s who has been doing his job every day for the past eight years. He also qualifies as a speed devil. It was both terrifying and exciting sitting in the back watching him weave in and out of other rickshaws, bikes, and cars with breathtaking speed, shouting ‘Ey, ey!’ as he pushed pedestrians out of the way.
‘I keep fit riding the bike every day,’ he says, laughing. ‘It’s a healthy job!’
He dropped us off at the Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling (website in Chinese), where James gave us a quick tour. Madame Soong was the wife of Sun Yat-sen, Founding Father and the first President of the People’s Republic of China. Like her husband, Madame Soong also played an important role in the Communist Party. She became the only Honorary President the PRC has had to date.
Her former home, although a lot more comfortable than other living areas of her time, is distinctly simple. James pointed out that nowadays even the poor people’s houses are more luxurious than Madame Soong’s. Her high status is only reflected in the size of her siheyuan - Chinese quadrangles where four buildings surround a courtyard area. The gardens around the house are also impressive. As a dove-lover, Madame Soong used to spend much of her time outdoors tending the birds.
After walking around for a while, James informed us that we would be visiting the home of a lower class family next. And so the rickshaw driver took us to the Zhang residence, located on Beiguanfang Hutong, where our journey on wheels ended. This siheyuan is much smaller than Madame Soong’s, but it’s nonetheless very cozy.
Mr. Zhang, a former mechanic, greeted us and gave a brief history of his family home with the help of a photo album. They have owned the grounds for over a century, he said, and it has been passed down through five generations. Their courtyard is a happy riot of fruit and vegetables, and Mr. Zhang’s face lit up as he pointed to the twirls of grape vine and green tomatoes peeking out from their leafy homes.
After Mr. Zhang’s retirement he and his wife have been carrying on the family craft of paper cutting from home. They have converted one of the rooms into a workshop, in which all their wonderfully intricate works are made and sold.
We then bid our goodbyes and James led us down Yandai Xiejie, an alley that resembled a Chinese version of The Shambles in York, UK. There were shops on both sides, selling everything from qipao (traditional Chinese dresses) to postcards. A few more minutes’ walk took us to our final destination of the day – Gulou and Zhonglou, the Drum and Bell Towers of Beijing respectively.
I’ve passed by these magnificent buildings many times, but have never given them a second thought, let alone make the effort to step inside. James handed us the tickets and ushered us towards the entrance of Zhonglou. I peered up and felt momentarily queazy.
‘The guide books all say that there are 70 steps,’ said James. ‘But I’ve only ever counted 69… Anyway, let’s go.’
And so began the long march. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated, but I lost count of my steps half way up and therefore cannot confirm either figures.
The view from the top should have been stunning were it not for the white smog that covered the city like a giant ball of cotton candy, but the bell alone was worth climbing up the stairs for. The massive copper structure was built in the 13th century and renovated and relocated to its present location in the early 15th century.
Legend says that the Emperor had ordered the bell to be cast in three months after three years of failure, threatening to kill all the craftsmen if this were not achieved. When the set date came, however, the copper was still not properly set.
Just as the men thought that they were all doomed, the head coppersmith’s daughter, Hua Xian, ran forward and jumped into the furnace. The fire immediately roared and the copper began to change colour. As heartbroken as the coppersmith was, he ordered the bell to be cast, and it was beautifully complete by the time the Emperor arrived. Hua Xian has since been referred to as the Casting Bell Goddess.
The bell was the city’s official timekeeping mechanism until the end of the Qing dynasty, and James told us that it used to be struck every two hours. Sadly, its deep bellow can now only be heard once a year on Chinese New Year, and even then it’s mostly drowned out by the cackles of fireworks.
We then stumbled our way back down to ground level and made a final stop at the Bell Tower Tea House. There, a lady called Miss Deng introduced us to various types of tea as well as their characteristics and benefits. As a half-Brit and avid tea-drinker, I thought this was an apt way to end our day. We sampled some great teas, but my favourite was without a doubt the Lychee and Rose.
All in all I had a great day. I would not have had the motivation to make such a trip by myself, but I am so glad I went along. I learnt more about Beijing that day than I did in the past few years, just because I’ve never had much of a reason to do so in my daily life.
I found out, for example, that the wires tracing the rooftops of ancient buildings are there to protect them from lightning. I also learnt that the city gates are aligned so that in the old days when they were all opened, you could stand at one end of Beijing and see right through to the other end.
The biggest lesson I learnt from the trip, though, is that it’s good to play tourist in one’s home city once in a while. This is especially the case here in Beijing, where thousands of years of history has been preserved and is allowed to mingle with the modern world. And sometimes, in a place that is still undergoing such rapid change, one does need to take a step back and just see the city for what it has been, and for what it is now.
I feel that I got to re-know my city that day, and can appreciate it even more afterwards. I really enjoyed myself despite how cheesy everything felt at the time, and would definitely recommend doing something similar wherever you are.