Note: Long day = long entry. You have been forewarned!
Finally met my future roommate, JK, last night who got in late Friday night from California. We chit-chatted a bit over his chao mian(r) dinner and tried looking up more apartments on websites like the Beijinger, Wo Ai Wo Jia, and Homelink. Thankfully he is VERY fluent and was able to talk to the agents on the phone and even set up some appointments for us for the next day.
The day started off bright and early again with me trying to catch up with the on-goings of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. I managed to watch about 40 minutes of the previous night’s match between France and Ukraine (France won 2-0 by the way) but was left craving for more.
Taking full advantage of the easily accessible jianbing outside of the hotel, I happily munched away my breakfast while we called up more agents to set up appointments. Interestingly, one of the agents we went with took us to two of the same apartments I saw yesterday with another agent. This system is clearly very different from that in the U.S. since many agents are in charge of any one unit and they might cross paths some time. Little did I know, this particular incidence of re-seeing an apartment with a different agent will come back and bite me in the butt later that same day. Since we both really liked one of the apartments we saw (the same one I liked yesterday), we quickly signed with the agent that took us around today and happily handed over our security deposit and was told that we could move in at 8pm that same day after the current residents move out.
With that being said and done, we traversed the busy streets to the nearest shopping center called U-Center, which is about 5 minutes away on foot. After a few laps around the restaurant-packed 5th floor, we decided on a place where the mixture of food was to be served in a large wok in the middle of the table while everyone is handed their rice and chopsticks. As we waited for our food to arrive (a mixture of pork, mushrooms, and cabbage in a relatively hot sauce) and drooled over the possibility of scrumptious food, JK and I built up the meal in our minds only to be let down by something that was positively lacking. The large red peppers that inundated the dish did nothing but add color while the entire mixture left a lot to be desired in all flavor categories. Although we had to fork out a total of 75 yuan for the entire meal, the lunch turned out to be a small victory after all since I ran into an old friend from Thailand, AH, who is also in Beijing for two months with another language program and made promises to meet up.
Since we made plans to meet up with another friend, JC, for dinner at a Beijing roast duck restaurant, we did not have enough time to do anything real (like go to the National museum like we initially planned) and just ended up taking the subway to the Wangfujing street where a lot of the shopping and fooding occurs. I was extremely hyped for the food street since JK showered me with promises of authentic Beijing street food. We were promptly lulled to the food street by the delectable smells and were surprised to discover a street with matching-uniformed stall owners selling novelty items such as starfish, sea urchins, snakes, scorpions, and more. Although we were absolutely confused about the commercialization and uniformity of everything, we went with the flow and immersed ourselves into the fray only to discover much later in the night (after we already bought and ate a 15 yuan stick of disgustingly-flavored squid) from the Lonely Planet guidebook that the particular strip of land is a well-oiled tourist trap of overpriced novelty food items. The one “good” thing that came from this trip to Wangfujing street, though, is that I have decided to try dog meat if I ever do come across it. Obviously will feel immensely guilty with every single bite, but hey, when in Rome…
JK, JC, and I met up at Beijing Dadong Kaoyadian (北京大董烤鸭店) and were completely thrown back by the posh-ness of the entire establishment. Stepping into the restaurant, our shorts and t-shirts were quickly thrown into shame by the accessories and fashionable items hanging off other local bodies and the intricate and modern designs lining the walls of the restaurant. Luckily for us, the kaoya we were there for was relatively cheap despite its fancy backdrop. Rows and rows of uncooked duck lined the open kitchen of the first floor while fires raged in open ovens to cook the ducks to perfect crispiness. We were led up the stairs through the large maze of the establishment to be seated in another cavernous room with modern décor filled with lines of tables as far as the eye can see. We could barely contain our excitement as we saw that chefs would bring up a whole fully-cooked duck to each table and carve the skin right there in front of you. When we came to our turn, our cameras were at the ready and our chef quickly morphed into an A-class celebrity as he expertly skinned and dismembered the duck. Probably sensing our sheer incompetence (was it our clothes? Was it the camera? We’ll never know), our waitress promptly came up to our table after the duck was carved to physically show us how to correctly eat the kaoya (read: less hands, more chopsticks – this soon became troublesome for JC who resorted to full-on grabbing later into the meal). She showed us everything from what condiments to put to how to correctly wrap the duck in the wrapping paper. The duck was delicious to say the least. The sauce, duck, wrap, cucumber, all melted together to form a delectable meal bite after bite after bite. And for 10 bonus points, the skin basically did not even have a layer of fat sticking to it! Although it cost us only 238 yuan for the entire duck, the meal came complete with duck soup, raspberry sorbet and lychee fruits at the end of our meal. It should be noted that our cheap selves refused to pay the 60 yuan ($10) for Evian water and landed ourselves the cheaper alternative of juice for around 16 yuan.
The problem with this apartment leasing process is that the apartment was shown to me twice by two different agents. Oblivious of industry standards, I signed for the apartment with the second agent and was met with angered cries from the first agent. While on the phone with Beijingbuddy agents (www.Beijingbuddy.com; a program of volunteers that helps foreigners like myself find accommodation when traveling to Beijing) who were helping me resolve the problem, I was inundated with horror stories of evil agents trying to get back at their residents for something or another (ex: super-gluing the front door so that you cannot leave, picking up and leaving with the apartment deposit) and the realization that local police tend to side with agents and landlords when disputes ensue. Thankfully the agents from Beijingbuddy was able to help me settle this matter in a timely manner after some heated back and forth between the two agents and a highly mellowed landlady who just kept smiling and saying that she is very easy-going and can settle with whichever conclusion we arrive at (probably because she is nabbing 19000 yuan in rent from us nonetheless). After the case was settled, we paid our full two months worth of rent, electricity, internet, gas, TV fee, and managed to move into our 7th floor apartment in building 10 of the Huaqingjiayuan complex by 9:30pm. Yay new apartment!
An important side note for those who are looking for apartments in China: industry standards here rule that the first agent to show you a property should receive the commission. SIGN FOR THE APARTMENT WITH THE FIRST AGENT WHO SHOWED IT TO YOU OR ELSE SHIT CAN HIT THE FAN.
Note: JK figured out that it would actually be cheaper to stay the whole two months in the hotel that was booked for us by the school than to rent out an apartment. Damn.
Note 2: I put off writing this post for so long because I dreaded putting into words the drama that ensued with the two agents but it turned out to be much easier than I initially imagined. But then again, what I wrote up just now doesn’t even begin to cover the stress weighing down on me when the drama was in full-swing.
Although we were lucky enough to have spoken to the previous residents of the place who left us with kitchenware and lots of pillows so we did not actually have to start from scratch, we soon discovered that we needed to go shopping for things such as sheets, blankets, pillowcases, etc. On the way to Lotus supermarket (a 5-minute walk from our apartment – we nabbed a pretty centrally located place), I caught a whiff of something that was positively atrocious which forced all my cognitive resources into overdrive to prevent myself from doubling over and heaving. For those of you who have braved the sewage smells of Bangkok, Thailand (or anywhere else in the world for that matter actually), multiply that by 15 and then take that to the power of three. My handy-dandy Mandarin/Chinese-culture savvy friend JK, puzzled by my strong reaction to the smell happily informed me of the tastiness that choudoufu offers, despite its pungency. So THAT’S what the smell is. I was always told that choudoufu smells exactly like what its name implies (chou = stinky), but was absolutely unprepared for the overpowering smell that completely overwhelmed me in the 7 seconds it took to walk past the food stall. Needless to say, it’s going to be an interesting meal when I do actually try it.
Since we missed Lotus supermarket’s 10pm closing time by thirty minutes, we laughed to ourselves and accepted the unavoidable fate of starting off our first night in our apartment with none of the bedding we actually need to be comfortable. Deciding to make the best of our time wandering the streets and knowing that our water supply was running low, we asked the security guard of the main Huaqingjiayuan compound whether we could go inside to access the convenience store (entries into and exits out from the compound are only allowed with a specific access card which we were not provided with since we are in the building right next to the compound although we are technically under the same apartment complex). The main guard on duty yelled something at us in Chinese while another guard quickly walked over to swipe us into the compound. We are scheming up ways to cozy up to the guards so that they will be able to let us into the compound without further trouble (i.e. oh we had some leftover beer, do you want some?). Filled with an intermix of local residents, local students, and foreign students, the compound makes an interesting sight day and night ranging from an overwhelming amount of signs in Korean, kids playing in the centralized playground, daily activities for residents (chess, aerobics, etc.), and night runners. Although we wanted to purchase a large jug of water to fit into our water dispenser (no more drinking of tap water like in the U.S.), we were unable to locate a store with it in stock and settled upon a 4 or 5 liter jug that would definitely last us camels the night. In his lackadaisical attempt at befriending the guards, JK gracefully ended our night at the compound with a smile to the guards as we exited, but was unfortunately overlooked as they were all laughing away at a joke we didn’t hear.
Since my dad ended his last e-mail to me saying that the peaches in China is sweeter and smells better than peaches in the U.S., I forked out 13 yuan for a large peach in the mini-store right in front of our apartment building while JK bought an orange and peach for himself.
Although the landlady did not have the password for our internet connection, we tried calling one of the previous residents for the password and were happily connected to the internet in a matter of minutes after the call. As per usual, the internet and our VPNs quickly absorbed us into its intricate web and before we knew it, it was 11pm and we hadn’t even picked our rooms yet. Since we both liked the same room and I wouldn’t have survived the apartment process without JK, I let him pick the room and I ended up with the less-wanted larger room with the balcony (which, unbeknownst to me at the time, equated to bugs crawling around on me and flying around above me at night as I try to fall asleep). After pillaging through the different cabinets and drawers in the room, I actually found pillowcases a bed sheet so I guess it was pretty lucky that Lotus was closed! Snuggling down into bed after a quick shower (sans towel – my t-shirt proved to be pretty futile in its attempt at pretending to be a towel), I instantly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.