1. Greasy street food
Every morning on my short walk from the subway exit to my office, I have to pass at least 20 different street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurants selling all manner of tasty breakfast treats – ranging from the slightly greasy to the full-on artery clogging. My favourite is the Beijing classic煎饼 (jiānbǐng) – a crunchier and ultimately oilier cousin of the French crêpe, with a deep-fried dough wafer folded inside. You can usually expect to pay only 5 RMB (less than USD $1) for one of these, unless you’re feeling a little daring and get a neon pink “sausage” in your pancake for an extra couple of RMB. Outside most subway exits in the city there will be a couple of mobile 煎饼 carts surrounded by a queue of hungry morning commuters. Other roadside temptations in Beijing include trays of steamed bread buns stuffed with meat, 包子 (bāozi), which are popular across Northern China, or deep-fried dough sticks油条 (yóutiáo) to dip into soy milk.
2. Your phone (yes, even more than you are now!)
Before I arrived in China I thought I was addicted to my phone, and imagined that since most of my favourite apps would be blocked here (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube…) I would spend less time staring aimlessly at my phone. Boy, was I wrong. It’s no understatement to say my phone is my lifeline here. The big daddy of Chinese apps is WeChat, and yes, it is basically WhatsApp but it is also SO much more than that. Need to pay the rent? You can just transfer the money to your landlord via WeChat. Want to pay for your noodles? Simply scan the restaurant’s QR code using the WeChat scanner, input the amount and voilà. Need to order a taxi? Top up your phone? Buy cinema tickets? Yep, you can do all that in a couple of taps too. Paying for things with cash or card is so passé, dahling.
Oh, and in any case, it turns out that with a good VPN (Virtual Private Network) subscription you can access all your favourite Western apps over here too. So much for a social media detox.
3. Pampering sessions
When the constant screech of car horns or the stress of the daily commute has got too much, I retreat to one of Beijing’s massage and beauty salons. Before coming to China, I could have counted on one (non-manicured) hand the number of times I had gone to get my nails done. Now I do it every couple of weeks. Maybe it’s because the salons really are everywhere. Maybe it’s because they’re pretty damn cheap too (yay for market competition!) But either way, it’s become a habit of mine. Sometimes the staff even offer tea and slices of watermelon while you wait. But the best thing about going to a salon in Beijing is that you get a free Chinese lesson from it. The manicurists are always curious to see a foreigner in their salon and will ask a million and one questions. With your hands busy being made pretty, you can’t just look up words on your Chinese dictionary app either. You have to work out how to explain your own life choices, your parents’ jobs, your relationship history etc. using the Chinese actually stored in your brain. The same goes for massages – with your mouth squashed against a towel, the masseur will ask you for a detailed breakdown of all the countries you have visited and when. Anyway, as long as they keep teaching me new vocabulary, I will keep having a good excuse to return.
4. Home delivery
Sometimes (ok, most of the time), I just don’t want to spend my evening slaving over a hot stove to make my dinner. That’s ok here, because everyone knows Beijing is bursting at the seams with places to eat, from the swish Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant to the scruffiest 拉面 (la mian) noodle joint. Most locals will eat out at least once a day, because it’s often cheaper to do so than buy the ingredients. Except eating from restaurants also means getting out of bed, right? Wrong. In the last year or so, the popularity of apps such as 美团, 饿了吗, 百度外卖 and 大众点评 has sky-rocketed. These apps may be competitors, but they have a common promise – to get you your favourite food from your favourite restaurant in the city, and deliver it to your home. And do it fast – or at least faster than the rival companies. In Beijing it’s a common sight to see a delivery guy literally sprint out of a restaurant towards his electric bike, racing against the clock to get the food to his client.
And why stop at food? With websites like Taobao, you can get virtually anything delivered to your home. Taobao Marketplace alone has nearly a billion products to search through – from tutus for your dog to boyfriends-to-hire for that dreaded family event. You are sure to find something you didn’t even know you needed.
5. Drinking on the street
Where I come from, drinking on the street is what you do when you’re too young to get into the pub. Maybe that’s because I’m English and it rains a lot there, but it’s also because Western countries tend to be much stricter than China about where you can and can’t drink alcohol. In Beijing during the summer, drinking is definitely an outdoor event – whether you’re sat with a bottle of the ubiquitous Tsingtao on a fold-up table on the pavement, or standing around drinking craft ale in the hutongs (Beijing’s traditional alleyways). Beijing is definitely not short on beer fridges, and the attitude to drinking on the streets is so relaxed that it’s common to take your drink along with you to the next bar. The Saturday night crowds outside the drinking shacks of Sanlitun bar street are a sight to behold. But a word of warning – be wary of the Mojito Man and his 15 RMB mojitos – those potent cocktails have been known to rob many a previously respectable person of their dignity.
6. Taking taxis everywhere
It’s the end of a long day of gluttonous eating and drinking. You’ve washed back your final Tsingtao beer of the night, and it’s time to head home. You really should walk it off and enjoy that famous fresh Beijing air. The only problem is that on the walk home every other car will be a taxi, winking their red light at you as they drive past. Coming from England, where you pretty much have to remortgage your house to pay for a black cab home from the pub, I was initially good at resisting the temptation to flag one down. But as soon as I realised I could get from Sanlitun to my apartment for less than 25 RMB (USD $4), my resolve was well and truly broken. Now I whizz from place to place in a taxi like the Queen of Sheba, comforted by the thought that my very own 司机(sījī) will drive me home for less than half the price of one measly pint of lager back in London. My wallet is happy – my waistline, not so much.