Fall

The scallions are piled high on Andingmen Nei Dajie. That’s how you know it’s fall — that, and the shortening days, where the sunlight comes in at a 20 degree angle earlier in the afternoon than it ought to. By 4:00 the buildings burn orange in it.

Beijing is not what you’d call a user-friendly city. The streets are too wide; the blocks are too long; the climate is not really the sort usually considered habitable by humans. Winter is cold, with piercing winds sweeping down from the northwest and piercing however many layers of down armor you wear against it. Spring is short and sandy – I never knew that was an actual category of weather until I installed the Firefox weather plugin. In Spring, the streets silt up with fine-grained dust swept a thousand miles south and west from the plains left denuded by the grazing policies of the last century. In other places, green is the color associated with the spring; not so here: it’s a brownish-orange, the color of loess, the color of sepia-toned Photoshop nostalgia filters and poverty.
Summer is hot and hazy. There was a time a couple of years ago when, sitting in a taxi on the second ring road, I found myself actually unable to breathe for a space of about 30 seconds. Usually it’s not that bad: usually it’s like being in a movie shower scene co-starring everyone around you (usually middle-aged men with t-shirts rolled up to their nipples). Fall is the only really good season, and it too gives way all too soon to Winter.

But there’s a period in the fall of about three or four weeks when you think to yourself that you could love this city.

The late harvest comes in, and that’s always the sign that fall is fell and it’s time to get ready for winter. The cabbages come in from the countryside on loud blue flatbed trucks, and the scallions, and the farmers with them. They sleep piled in blankets on the sidewalks, nestled in between the stacks of scallions, and they burn too in the sunset.

18 thoughts on “Fall

  1. Reading this, I have to ask why you (and so many other smart friends of mine) chose Beijing as your adopted home. This is relevant to me right now, as I am weighing moving to Shanghai or Beijing after CNY. It seems like the nicest, smartest people have chosen Beijing, despite the human-hostile qualities you document. Do those four sublimely comfortable, near-perfect weeks in late September and early/mid-October really outweigh the misery of the other 48 weeks? Shanghai seems to have it a little better, both in terms of weather and of neighborhoods you can happily stroll through, as opposed to football-field-sized blocks that seem never to end. Livability vs. quality of relationships. That’s where I’m deeply conflicted. What to do?

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. I’ve never been able to articulate why exactly I like Beijing, but I do — all evidence and whining to the contrary. Shanghai has certainly got it better from a material standpoiint, but I’m a Mandarin snob, and on top of that I got a massive “greedgreedgreed” vibe from the city the last time I was there, and I didn’t like it at all. (To be fair, I’ve only been to Shanghai twice – and I had a great time the first time I was there.)

  3. sheesh, sorry about Xmas. How does February sound (after Chinese New Year)? We can retrace the steps of Richard M. Nixon. I’ll have to talk wife into it, but if you can assure her of a decent hotpot jernt half the battle is won.

  4. As always Brendan, I wonderful post and absolutely moving writing. I hope Beijing is well, but more importantly I hope you’ve had the chance to get some more huo guo.

  5. That part about the wide streets and long blocks is precisely the first thing I mention when people ask me about my impressions of Beijing–that, and the large Lego block buildings. Somehow it reminds me of one of those deserted old towns that you see in Westerns, with tumbleweed rolling around. I haven’t spent more than a few days there, mind you, but I should be there for all of next summer studying Chinese.

  6. Fall is the best season out here in Xinjiang as well… it’s crisp, sand-free, and perfectly blue at the moment. To top it all off, watermelons, hamigua, and tiangua are all still available. It’s the Xinjiang secret hidden stash, available only in Uyghur markets. Of course, there’s a nip in the air and any day now the temperature could plung to, well, Beijing-cold levels.

  7. I love Beijing’s winter, those days when the wind clears the air of pollution and you’re left with a sky so bright and blue you need to wear sunglasses. There is a raw, rugged beauty to Beijing, I guess in keeping with it’s position on the edge of a desert in the North, so different from the delicate shapes that come to mind you think “China”.

    It almost makes me forget the agony of summer, sitting in the back of a cab next to a bus-furnace, sweating like the fat-man that I am.

  8. Richard, like Brendan I love Beijing despite the general unliveability of the place. By all objective measures, Dalian and Jinghong rate as the most liveable Chinese cities I’ve seen, with Kunming coming a close third. Or second. Dunno, my maths is crap. But given the choice I’d still choose Beijing any day. I generally prefer rural Beijing to urban Beijing, but even the city is still that hardbitten, down to earth, humane place it always was (despite the architecture and what passes for city planning) and it’s still possible to find cool bars with good music that haven’t been overrun by yuppy scum.

    Never been to Shanghai, but everything I’ve been told by those who have and the few Shanghairen I’ve met lead me to believe that it’s just a big pile of mud covered in ugly buildings and seriously 变态 people.

    And autumn in Beijing can make the whole thing worthwhile.

  9. You’ve really got something special here with this blog. I’ve greatly enjoyed your writing, my favorite being the piece about succumbing to Chinese-girlfriend-dom — her chin tucked tenderly into the crook of your neck. Chills! zaijian, Alcibiades

  10. I really don’t know how you can stay in Beijing, aside from the slightly better food and work and music options and slightly fewer sketchy expats, does not hold a candle to Shanghai.

    Well, I can’t really say that. I now only miss the awesome restaurant run by BJers in my old hood and cheap buses. What in hell is up with Hong Kong having buses that cost almost as much as the metro!? (Oh, I miss the quaint Hongkou neighborhood where I lived until June as well. It made Shanghai living seem not so awful, unlike my daily trek to the hell that is People’s Square and Xujiahui.)

    And I guess I even miss Shanghaihua. Canto, especially spoken by HKers, is an awful, awful language. Even our floor’s ayi agrees and has rambled at end on how she prefers the sound of Mandarin over the whiny, drawly HK Canto.

  11. I really don’t know how you can stay in Beijing, aside from the slightly better food and work and music options and slightly fewer sketchy expats, does not hold a candle to Shanghai.

    Wow. In my defence, I’ve been getting little sleep because my kittens are both going through heat and I can’t have their girly parts removed until I’m paid at the end of the month.

  12. Really funny stuff! Guangzhou weather much better but makes for many more man nipples in my movie. Great reading your words – just can’t shut it down…

  13. 我也一直很奇怪为什么很多外国人虽然不停抱怨北京这不好那不好–同时抱怨的也都挺有道理的,我们自己对北京也有很多不满,但我们没什么选择的余地,或者说,这么多年来已经适应了。而你们不同,却还是愿意呆在这个不适合所有人类居住的地方,真的很让人觉得奇怪。现在我明白一些了,总结主要原因应该有以下这么几点:
    1,北京东西便宜-对于从欧美等发达国家来的人说,手里的货币一块能当7-15块花,那是什么感觉我没体验过,你们肯定更清楚;

    2,北京物产丰富,从吃的穿的到住的用的,应有尽有,而且价格便宜,尤其是吃的。我听说从欧洲留学几年回来的人说现在看见方便面就想吐,因为留学时吃了太多的方便面,但是如果让他在方便面和西餐里选他还是会毫不犹豫地选择方便面(真够悲壮的这哥们儿);

    3,北京方便,不说别的,taxi满大街都是,招手就停,bus四通八达,隔几分钟一辆,虽然人多挤点儿吧但总比两小时一趟要好得多,各位说似不?

    4,北京没那么多的条条框框,都说中国没人权,但是你在中国可以不走人行道,可以想绿灯亮走绿灯亮走,想红灯亮走就红灯亮走。看看国贸最乱的那带,现在抢着走红灯的已经变成老外了,而且竟然是德国人居多~先分析这么几条儿吧,不管对不对,反正我是这么觉得滴~

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