A Travellerspoint blog

Beijing - A Tale of Two Cities

sunny 14 °C

It was the best of times: it was the worst of times… Nowhere else on earth is the contrast between the haves and have-nots so great as in China, and nowhere is the division more starkly observed than in the capital, Beijing. The growth of Beijing has been truly phenomenal since Sheila rode her Flying Pigeon bicycle through the streets here in the early eighties, but a few iconic buildings remain. This is the Beijing Hotel – once the top spot in China…
But today it is eclipsed by numerous palatial joints like the super snazzy Legendale Hotel…
There are many mega-rich in China today so it’s not surprising that the streets that used to teem with bikes are now flooded with Bentleys and Beamers and the stores are chock-a-block with luxury goods from all over the world – with five Rolex stores on Wangfujing street alone!
But hidden behind the gleaming facades of the office towers and five star hotels; facing away from the ultra-wide tree lined boulevards...
...decorated with fabulous floral displays…
… are the hutongs – the narrow lanes of old houses where life for the poor has barely changed in a century or more...

To determine the relative difference between rich and poor we apply what we call the Starbucks Equation. Wherever we go we equate what the average man in the street can buy for the cost of an American coffee? For instance: In Beijing a small latte at Starbucks costs 30 Yuan, ($5 Cdn or about £3.50), and there are no shortage of takers. But that’s rich even for us. So what have we bought for the same price?
How about a complete dinner for two, including a large beer, at a restaurant in our apartment building offering such interesting items as…
Though don’t ask us for the recipe.

And for the same $5 we bought a basket of shopping including a dozen eggs, a papaya, a kilo of clementines, a loaf of bread, four custard tarts and a package of serviettes.
What about a trim…?
Actually we both needed tidying up after six weeks of travel, and James’s beard was completely out of control. Both haircuts, and a beard trim, cost the same as just one large latte – 40 Yuan (Less than $7 for both).
So, while life at the top may be rich and getting richer, for millions of poor Chinese a cup of Starbucks is something to dream about. Sheila lived here for three years in the early eighties when almost everyone was poor, and cabbages were a staple winter food, so this young television reporter in Tiananmen Square was very interested in getting her views about the amazing revolution that has occurred in this country...
Stay tuned, dear blog reader, and you will be as astounded as we are at this fascinating city.

Posted by Hawkson 06:37 Archived in China

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I am not at all surprised about the differences between the rich and the poor. They want to be like the corporate guys in the US. But will it ever make them happy? Money certainly doesnt do it. JEan

by Jean

Thank you Jim and Sheila for your insights - they put your beautiful pictures in context.

by Janet

Actually, from the hindquarters of a Xiang come the best of cuts. You got a real bargain.

by R and B

Nice to see some bicycles left in the Hutong. Don't imagine locking up a bike is much of a concern in the world of Bentleys and Beamers. The trees are still green and in full leaf I see so I guess you didn't need the hair or beard for warmth anymore. Very modern array of hair products on the wall of the barber shop.

by Tom

A fascinating account of a booming city which has had many changes over recent times

by David Henderson

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