Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Back in Blighty!

tvnewswatch has returned to Britain after a year in China. However it has taken a little time to get things up and running hence the lack of posts over the last week. Obtaining a new broadband account is not as easy as flicking a switch. After an order was placed it took 7 days to become active, and so far appears to work fine. At least access is unrestricted; there are no Internet blocks as seen in China. However the Internet is still not without its problems. Twitter went down late Monday causing many people to 'lose' all their tweets. Twitter claims all will soon be put right soon [Daily Mail]. 

The most noticeable difference on arriving in London from Beijing was the clean air. Despite a week of mostly cloudy weather it has been relatively warm. While Beijing has seen humid conditions and temperatures in the 30s, London has experienced an average daytime temperature of around 20°C. Traffic on the M25 was relatively light despite continued roadworks to widen the London orbital motorway. In fact the most obvious difference between London and Beijing is the lack of cars on the roads, and indeed the fewer people on the streets.

Streets are noticeably cleaner, there is no spitting and people queue. There was no lingering followed by a mad rush as the Post Office opened its doors this morning. Instead, customers formed an orderly line and filed in without any panic whatsoever. Of course, not everything is perfect. For the smoker the continuing ban in pubs, bars and restaurants still creates consternation, though non-smokers are no doubt happier. There is no waitress service in British pubs, something commonly seen in other countries including China. But drink is most certainly cheaper. 

China is not known for having a drinking culture. People may have a beer with their meal but it is often relatively weak compared to foreign products.The alcohol content of Chinese beer is often around 3% or less. At a street food stall a 500 ml bottle of TsingTao will cost around 5 RMB [£0.49 / $0.73]. This may rise to 15 or 20 RMB in a restaurant [£1.47 / $2.19]. It is only at certain bars that foreign beers and cocktails may be found. Most are, of course, targeting foreign expats and tourists. Those located around Qianhai lake to the wst of the Forbidden City may charge more than 50 RMB for a 330 ml bottle of TsingTao, even more for foreign beers or wine.

But even in Sanlitun, and outlying areas where many bars are located, the prices are still comparatively high. Even during 'Happy Hour' the cheapest pint of Strongbow [cider] or Guinness will still cost around 30 RMB [£2.97 / $4.39] a pint [568 ml]. Outside of 'Happy Hour' this can rise to more than 60 RMB [£5.94 / $8.78]. In comparison many British pubs rarely charge more than £3 a pint. For example in the J.J.Weatherspoons chain a pint of Strongbow is only £2.35 [23.71 RMB / $3.47]. At a privately owned pub in London with live music the price was slightly more at £2.60 [26.23 RMB / $3.84], but still less than the prices seen in Beijing. For cocktail fans there isn't so much choice, though.

Many people have often said how cheap China is. It is, if you want to live like the locals. For expats this is perhaps more difficult. Living without Guinness, French wine, cheese, Marlboros, cream and proper bread is all too possible, but many westerners find living without such familiar commodities uncomfortable. There are many stores providing such products in Beijing, and many other cities across China. However the cost is either the same or a great deal more than seen back home. Some prices also make little sense and seem to point to high import tariffs. 

Anchor New Zealand butter is a particular example. At Jenny Lou's in Beijing a 225g pack will cost 13.90 RMB [£1.37 / $2.03]. However in Britain a 500g pack will only cost £2.38 [24 RMB / $3.51]. This would make a 225g pack £1.07 [10.79 RMB / $1.58]. Not a huge difference, but consider the distance travelled. It is over 18,000 km from New Zealand to the UK. Beijing is only 10,000 km from New Zealand. French products are extremely expensive. A 250g round of Coeur de Lion Camembert costs around 64 RMB [£6.34 / $9.36] in Beijing. In Britain the price is around £2 [20.18 RMB / $2.95]. French wine will often see high price tags varying from 50 to 150 RMB a bottle [£4.95-14.86 / $7.31-21.95]. In France itself a bottle may cost as little as a couple of Euros [16.72 RMB / £1.65 / $2.44], but even in Britain a reasonable bottle of wine can be bought for only £3 or £4 [30.27-40.35 RMB / $4.43-5.90].

So what is cheap in China? Basic vegetables, if bought at the local market as opposed to the superstore, can be exceedingly cheap. But there is not always the same choice as seen in the west. In London it is as easy to find Pak Choi or Chinese cabbage as oranges, lemons and limes. But even in Beijing the choice is often limited. Outside big cities the choice of products falls away dramatically. The hunt for specialist products to make Thai, Japanese or Indian cuisine will often be a lost cause.

Noodles and rice are often cheap, and oil is readily available and not cost prohibitive. Street food is very cheap. Rou Chuan [肉串] literally meat sticks, are served across the city. Extremely popular, they consist of several pieces of meat skewered onto a stick and barbecued often with chilli and cumin. Five sticks may cost as little as 10 RMB [£0.99 / $1.46]. A popular noodle dish known as Mi Xian [米线], or rice noodles, will often be less than 10 RMB. But few westerners can live for long on noodles and meat sticks.

Getting around is very cheap of course. Even taxis in Beijing are very economic with a standard fare starting at 10 RMB [£0.99 / $1.46]. The subway is 2 RMB [£0.19 / $0.29] for any journey while buses are less than half that with some journeys costing only a few jiao amounting to only pennies [One yuán or RMB (元) also known colloquially as a kuài (块 - "piece") is divided into 10 jiǎo (角) or colloquially máo (毛 - "feather"). One jiǎo is divided into 10 fēn (分)].

Britain can be expensive. Eating out is often considered a luxury, taxes are high, and many continue to complain at the television licence fee. But there is choice and fewer restrictions on the individual. Cigarettes are far more expensive than seen in China, but perhaps that might be considered a good thing. Internet access is unrestricted and 8 Mb broadband is fast becoming the norm and at half the price charged in China. Beijing is exciting and fast becoming a more cosmopolitan city. But it is far from cheap, and nowhere near the world city it might claim to be. It is perhaps no surprise that Beijing came 114th place in Mercer's Quality of Living listings. In terms of it's Eco listing it fell even lower at 181st place. In comparison London fell in at number 39 in the Quality of Living standard and number 63 in Mercer's Eco rating.

For those wondering, Blighty is English slang for Britain, derived from Hindustani and harking back to the days of the Raj.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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