A friend said this to me via email, “You know, you’re not selling Beijing to me. You really aren’t. To be fair I never had much of a desire to go there before, but now? Not at all.”
Okay, does this do it for you?
That’s not an overexposed shot, that’s the view from my desk. According to BeijingAir right now it’s “unhealthy” levels. Last night it was perfectly clear and rated “good”. It comes, it goes, and after a month of living here, it’s as much a part of our life as the weather. Is it sunny out? How’s the air?
I thought about leaving, came close to doing it, until I researched other cities in China (like Harbin in the north) and Beijing isn’t even the worst. It’s not even in the top 10 for worst air quality. I could go south, but then I’d be in areas where Cantonese is spoken on the street, not Mandarin. It’s only six months. It might cause me to have a cold longer or aggravate my allergies, but from everything I’ve read, spending six months here won’t do any permanent damage, even for small children.
So we decided to stay.
Why? I think I’m slowly becoming charmed by Beijing. I like the idea of going somewhere unpopular but culturally important. I feel like I’m on an adventure. If nothing else, I’ll learn a lot. Plus, we finally found an apartment.
I had no idea how unprepared I was to live with an almost 2-year old in a hotel room for a month. He needs space! Or at least warm weather. If he doesn’t have either, he’s kind of a mess… bursting into tears when we put on his clothes, clinging to me, refusing to walk anywhere, just wanting to be at home, with mom, in bed. So I did that. It’s not his fault that I wanted to go to China, so I made myself as flexible and malleable to his desires as possible. We snuggled. I stayed in. I sent Drew out for food and read books while Cole used my body as a jungle gym. Slowly he’s been adjusting, but the biggest breakthrough came when we stepped into our new 2-bedroom apartment. He can be naked. He can run! He can climb things! He can have his cut-up bananas on the sofa and watch cartoons. He can shove his toy cars under the couch and then throw my books off my desk. There’s drawers for hiding mom’s shoes and full bathtub for mini-swims. We’re back in business.
Granted, our apartment hunt took a long time, even if you let me play the “But I’ve got a toddler!” card (you are letting me play that, right?). I had a lot of people giving me advice, but the first thing you should know: I’m cheap.
I really don’t like the idea of paying an agent a month’s rent (or $1000) to find me an apartment I’ll be in for six months. Plus, landlords in China want a few months rent in advance for a year rental. For short term rentals, they often want the entire rent (all six months in our case), plus a month’s rent deposit.
Apartments are kind of expensive here. For us that means at least $1000 but realistically more like $1500. So that’s $9000 for rent, $1500 for the agent, and $1500 for the deposit. Oh and they want that in cash — in this case, all $12000 of it. Which means doing a wire transfer to a bank in China and withdrawing it here (not even sure how that would work) or trying to take out that money via ATM which at $300 withdrawal per day, it would take me 40 days just to get the money on hand (assuming I spent nothing else). I’m sure I could have worked it out if I had to but I wanted to avoid that. Second thing you should know: I’m stubborn.
Finally, Beijing is big. It’s about an hour cab ride from one end of the city to the other, and that’s not even all the way out to the suburbs like Shunyi. I really hate the idea of being stuck somewhere lame, so I wanted to find the perfect place that’s close to everywhere, cheap and has flexible short term living arrangements.
To modify a popular expression in graphic design (cheap, good or fast): There are three things you can have in Beijing:
2. Good location
3. Clean, nice apartment
Now, pick two.
Third thing about me: I can be obsessive.
So we started in Wangfujing (near the Forbidden City) and moved hotels every couple of days, checking out different areas, coming close to staying in Haidian (near the universities), then perhaps Xidan St. (nice apartment, but located in the middle of a mall), then near Sanlitun (too expensive) and finally Wangjing (Koreatown, a hike from downtown but cheap).
I was determined to find a place that met all three. I’m cheap, stubborn and obsessive. I failed, but I did get a month-long tour of Beijing, and I’m sort of pleased to say I know my way around the different districts pretty well now. (I can also find the silver lining in just about anything).
In the end we went for the big, clean, nicely appointed apartment in Wangjing, in an area that fits us well (mostly locals living here, an art scene at 798 Art Zone and a great market next door) but we’re about a $10 cab ride from any of the tourist-related activities, a concession since I’d still like to visit the old Hutongs more and take some cooking classes, but one I felt the best about making.
It’s a serviced apartment, so we’re renting month to month. It’s still pricey ($1500/mo) but if you factor in agent fees and deposits, then it’s not bad compared to straight rentals for short term leases. (Sorry I won’t share the name of the place until after we leave, but you can find similar places online).
Timeout Beijing has an excellent housing guide which is pretty damn accurate about the pros/cons of different areas. Their color-coded map of Beijing is practically a guide to everywhere we looked: here’s the map. The Beijinger is a good resource, but chock-a-block full of scammy listings where the photo isn’t real or the agent does a swap (“Oh that place *just* got rented, but here’s a twice as expensive option”). Craigslist, Homeaway and Roomarama weren’t helpful. For agented rentals there are these sites: Beijing Relocation, Fangeasy, Homelink. Ctrip and Agoda are good for finding hotels, although check both, sometimes the price is cheaper on one or the other. They also list serviced apartments or hotel rooms with kitchens or multiple bedrooms. Student and Beijing resident Nate Nault recently wrote about his experience “Finding My First Apartment Abroad” and Timeout Beijing also has a round up this month called Apartment Horror Stories. For any of the listing sites, using the map feature will help you pinpoint where you’re looking until you start getting a hang of neighborhood names (the same area might be called a few different names depending on the site).
And that, my friends is how I found my Beijing apartment. I’m going to take a nap now.