Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sept. 9 Friday

Friday was my first free day after a three-day search for an apartment. The fourth day was spent in bureaucracy, more of which is to come (After paying nearly $900 for a comprehensive physical in DC so I wouldn't get stuck with needles in China, the international visitor's medical center at Heiping Hospital rejected my US documentation because there wasn't enough medical terminology proving that I didn't have syphilis).

Got around by myself without any trouble, but so can any tourist. You just need to pronounce where you're going and know a big landmark next to it. I beat out a line of locals rushing for taxis by shouting "Kai Lai Jiu Dian," the Chinese name for my hotel, but the driver probably just liked my destination.

Visited another journalist today who lives in a 30th floor three-bath, three-bed apartment in a big complex with a health club and pool. Very modern, very white and very expensive (US$3,000 per month).

Took a taxi to the Wanfujing pedestrian street and the Oriental Plaza shopping mall and got a real dose of consumer Beijing: large pharmacies, pearl emporiums, tourist trap curio stores and food shops with wall-to-wall bins of Chinese sweets, dried fruit and jellied candy, all packaged like brightly-colored holiday ornaments. The street is full of neon and people strolling, many wearing those lovely ankle sock pantyhose.

When they say you can get anything in China, it's true. From Lindt chocolate to Walker shortbread, from Biotherm to Clinique makeup, from cheap foot massages to Easy Spirit shoes. The imported chocolate biscuits I bought were expensive and stale; but the five-mushroom soup in the Gloria Plaza hotel's Cantonese restaurant was delicious.

I went into Adidas to see who was buying pricey athletic gear and authentic running shoes when fakes are available all over town. It was mostly young men and one tall Chinese guy with an impressively long set of dreadlocks.

The upmarket Oriental Plaza is packed with designer stores (Givenchy, Paul Smith, St. John, Valentino, Swarovski ... Missoni and L'Occitane are coming) and also more affordable gear (Esprit, Kookai, Nautica, Swatch). But all of it is expensive by Chinese standards. At one end there is a Volkswagen car dealership. There is also a BMW Lifestyle store: sweaters, luggage, coats, no coupes.

The Grace Kelly nail salon in the mall is deserted, probably because a basic pedicure and French manicure costs $26. In the tiny strip of boutiques in Sanlitun Road near my new apartment the same thing costs $8.

In open market stalls across Beijing you can bargain a fake Kipling nylon handbag down to $4 but at the omnipresent Starbucks, Chinese consumers are paying more than $9 for half a pound of beans. A cup of Starbucks coffee ranges from $1.50 to more than $2. The Wangfujing Starbucks was crowded with young Beijingers. Hotels and restaurants here seem mostly to not have heard of decaf.

I bought a cotton skirt and a light coat at Esprit. Because those two things cost so much by local standards, they gave me a pair of khaki pants for free. Hemmed them for me on the spot. And gave me a VIP card for 20% off future Esprit purchases. What service. Actually the pants took half an hour and I absent-mindedly went back to the hotel without them. Will go back for them tomorrow: they will remember me as the idiot who couldn't speak Chinese, who wore extra large and who forgot her pants.

I managed to bargain for some tiny "jade" ornaments, the kind with embroidered cord that you can attach to your cell phone if you want it to be ke' ai (cute). I probably saved twenty cents, but it was thrilling to be able to do it in Mandarin.

Sept. 10, Saturday

Met the agent and landlord at my new apartment this morning to sign the leasing contract. Needed translations of Chinese instructions on the microwave buttons and dishwasher dials. Learned how to turn on the electricity. You buy electricity at a bank; they give you a card which you insert in a meter outside your apartment door to see how many kilowatts you have left. Then we all trooped over to the local police station for a residency permit. Technically I have to come back next week after taking my residency permit to the visa office (where foreigners clear out their paperwork), the police said. But then they admitted that no one ever does.

Had lunch at a restaurant in the suburbs called The Orchard, organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club. The restaurant, owned by an American couple, is in a beautiful apple orchard in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The grounds have been irrigated to include a carp pond. Nice to get away from the highrises.

Met other journalists but also an Australian woman with a local NGO who then helped me navigate the subway. The fare is 37 cents to go anywhere on the East-West line. Only slightly more, I think, for the other line. Ticket ladies take paper tickets from you and rip them up. No maps with fancy graphics or electronic strips but the platforms are as wide and clean and the ceilings as high as in the metro in Washington DC.