In Beijing, five years is more like two decades. The last time I was in the Chinese capital was before the 2008 Olympics, when the city was just entering a building frenzy and gaining prominence on the world stage. When my husband announced that he had gotten a job in Beijing, I knew to expect a transformed city—China, after all, has emerged as an economic powerhouse. But the pace of change is still breathtaking.
For starters, I don’t recognize anything. Granted, I haven’t had a chance to visit the historic monuments like Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. (Expats’ dirty secret: you save the sights for when visitors are in town.) But I thought I'd at least recognize old haunts that survived the construction boom. One night, I confidently told my husband I knew the exact location of Nali Patio, a complex in the Sanlitun neighborhood that’s home to trendy restaurants and bars, where we were meeting friends. What I hadn’t reckoned on was that everything around Nali Patio had been demolished, with a shiny shopping development and dozens of bars in their stead.
Other changes are less tangible. “No one comes to Beijing for the weather,” says a friend who’s lived here for six years. But they are coming here—expats of all stripes—to pursue their dreams in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Take Prague in the 1990’s after the Berlin Wall fell and multiply that 100 times. And along with the artists, intellectuals, and wanna-bes, throw in fast-thinking entrepreneurs, older couples looking for one last adventure before retirement, business school graduates, itinerant chefs, budding designers—anyone with an idea and a curious nature. Beijing is no longer the provenance of diplomats, journalists, and Sinologists. It’s not New York—at least, not yet.
Meanwhile, Beijingers—once stereotyped as being more traditional, more hidebound than their worldly counterparts in Shanghai—have become more cosmopolitan. Taxi drivers aren’t fazed by my husband’s halting Mandarin—all the laowai, or foreigners, here speak a smattering of the lingo. Sleek pedigree dogs—some with their paws shod in designer shoes—scamper around the courtyard of our apartment complex, chased after by Chinese children who speak perfect, American-accented English. At the glitzy Shinkong Place mall next door, young women dressed head-to-toe in Chanel quiz the baristas at Costa Coffee on the flavored syrups they can add to their lattes—skinny, no foam please.
Still, unless you're in the top five percent, modern Beijing is not an easy place to live in, even when you’re a sheltered expat. Reams of paperwork are involved in everything from getting a mobile phone to renting an apartment. A Chinese friend once commented that things are always farther than they seem in the capital. That is, you might think your destination is only a 15-minute walk, but next thing you know you’re dodging electric bikes, rickshaws, buses, and BMW’s with tinted windows barreling along a multi-lane road. Beijing, the former imperial capital, is built on a scale meant to impress—actually, to cow.
There are other ways of getting around, but they come with a caveat. The subways are so packed at rush hour that women with yellow gloves come around the cars to shove passengers in. Buses are plentiful and cheap but they require patience given Beijing’s sometimes daunting traffic. And then there’s the Mysterious Great Beijing Taxi Shortage—there are about 66,000 cabs in this city of 20 million. They’re cheap, which means not only are they in demand, but drivers are becoming increasingly disgruntled and picky about where they go. (Here’s an Economist piece on the taxi dilemma.) A taxi on a rainy Friday night? Forget about it. The best way to travel by far is to have a set of your own wheels—that is, just two. Though a city of cyclists is turning into a city of car owners, bike lanes are plentiful. Just beware of the smog. (The U.S. Embassy once called the air quality “crazy bad.”)
Of course, I recognize that Beijing’s challenges are thrown into sharp relief by our nine years in Bangkok, which, despite seeming like yet another sprawling, chaotic, polluted Asian city, is one of the nicest places for an expat. Politeness is important to Thais, as is patience. And while old-school Beijingers are some of the loveliest people you’ll meet, you need sharp elbows in this town. We live next to the worst intersection, and we’ve discovered Chinese drivers love their horns. From about 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., drivers are trying to blare their way out of traffic. We aren’t talking about a demure honk or two, but leaning-on-your-horn-for-two-minutes action. The fancier the car, the worse the offender. My husband and I joke that someone could have a heart attack at the wheel of their car, slump against the horn, and no one would know that something was amiss. When the shouting starts, that’s when we know things have turned really ugly on the streets below.
Impatient drivers aside, there’s a lot to love about our new home. Last night, we sat in outside a friend’s café, which occupies a century-old siheyuan, or courtyard house, in an ancient hutong. The moon was out, and all around us were the low-slung tiled roofs of other siheyuan. A cat curled up next to us and we could hear the voices of locals out for their evening walk drift by. For that moment, there was no other city we could be in but Beijing.
Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at xiaochen6.