A First Trip to Beijing

Matthew E. Kahn's picture

I have lived in Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco but I have never seen anything like Beijing.  Over the next two weeks, I'm giving a series of talks at Tsinghua, Peking University and the Lincoln Institute, and the CASS.  While I was little surprised to see Mao's face on all of the money and to not be able to access my blog, I have been very impressed with everything I see and I see glimpses of a future "green city".

I like the food, the subway, the density.  Permit me to offer a quick diary of my trip.  Why am I in Beijing?  I have written 3 papers about China now and I thought that I could only do such empirical research if I knew what I was talking about and toured and talked to more people who actually live and work there!

On 9/5/2009 at 8pm at night, I took a Taxi to LAX.  While my flight for Beijing left at 140am, I knew that I didn't have an assigned seat and I didn't have any Chinese currency.I thought that I would beat the rush but I was "too smart". The Air China line to check luggage and to get a seat didn't open until 930pm so I stood around and talked to some guys.  I did get a window seat (52A on a big 747).  Knowing that if I fell asleep at the airport that I might miss my flight, I read People magazine and other magazines for hours until the flight finally boarded at 1am.  The flight itself was good. I fell asleep immediately and slept for 8 hours only waking up because my neck was killing me and the guy in front of me kept pushing his seat into me and the baby behind me was crying.  The ride is 12 hours so there was still time to watch an Adam Sandler movie.  The food on the flight was pretty good.  A pork breakfast! 

I arrived at Beijing at 5am and quickly got through my temperature check.  Wallace from Tsinghua University was kind enough to pick me up and drove me through the quiet highways of Beijing at 6am on a Sunday. After checking in at a really nice Wenjin Hotel near Tsinghua University, I fell asleep for 3 hours and woke up and found my friend Rui and we had breakfast at the hotel.  The food is good.  We went for a 2 hour walk around the neighborhood.  The prices for housing are quite high here. There are no single family homes. People live in towers.  This is not a tourist area and there are few non-asians around.  Google China is next door and this is no accident because Tsinghua and Peking University are right here.  The commercial buildings look nice.  Like in a Jane Jacobs fantasy, walk two blocks off the commercial path and you are in a residential community with residential buildings, small stores and schools. 

Amazingly, Rui tells me that farming used to go nearby just 20 years ago.  I spotted some strange poop on the street and Rui told me that it could be chicken poop from one that ran away.  There is anarchy on the streets. Rui warned me that  I could be hit by any car or bike rider.  I am being extra careful. 

We walked all over Tsinghua University.  The architecture is a mixture of "Soviet" style buildings and newer better stuff.  Everywhere you look there are 25 story towers looming.In the late afternoon, Wallace and I got caught in a terrible traffic jam as traffic to the CBD is awful but it was quite good to learn about "real Beijing" and to see cross-sections of the entire city. 

The city is clean but grey. The Olympic beautification has had some long run effects but then you see a steaming lake and you realize its water is red hot from power generation.Rui took me to a dinner restaurant where people were smoking and you can order dog, frog and other such foods.I have an Internet connection and have been able to access any site with only one exception. I can't access my blog page to post blogs!  I was surprised by this. 

9/7/09 Monday I had breakfast with Rui and we talked about research.  We then met at 830am and walked to Peking University. He gave me a tour of his pretty campus.  It has several nice lakes and some traditional Chinese structures.  I saw a few birds and many students.  The traffic is dangerous here. Every time you try to cross the street there are cars and bikes eager to hit you and not yielding.  On campus we met with Professor Shiqiu Zhang.  She works on environmental policy issues and is doing some very interesting work on air pollution.  We then met Ye who was a classmate of Rui's at Peking University. He is now an Asst. Prof at Peking University and he treated us to a great lunch at the faculty club. Their club is much more elegant than any faculty club I have seen in the USA.   

I then walked back to the hotel and made my first purchase in China going to the Starbucks and ordering a grande cappuchino on my own. In the late afternoon, I took my first ride on the Beijing subway. It was nicer than the New York City subway but similar in looks. It quickly got us downtown to the west of the city center where we met with a set of urban planners who advice local governments on satisfying the constraints they face as posed by the economic planners and the regional governments.  These planners will be visiting UCLA this coming year and it we went out and had a very nice dinner. Rui translated and everyone was quite concerned that I enjoy the food. We had our own private dining room and the toilets at the restaurant and at Peking Univ were "not-Western". 

At Peking University, all of the lights were out to save power.   Rui and I took the subway back and stopped at a Mall to pick up dental floss for me. 

There are very few westerners around here...


Matthew E. Kahn is a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment.


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