In the mostly friendly Beijing-Shanghai rivalry game, I’m firmly on Shanghai’s side. I spent six months in Beijing in 2005, and have made regular visits since then, but I’ve never quite warmed up to the city. When people defend their choice to live in the capital, I point to Beijing’s chronically smoggy skies, its often crippled Internet, and the interminable length of its city blocks, which makes walking around more of a slog than a pleasure. But I know that Beijing has its cheerleaders—as I’ve said before, they keep making movies celebrating their city (recent new entries include “Happy in Beijing” and “Rhapsody in Beijing”)—and during the five days I spent there last week, I gave myself stern instructions to keep an open mind and hold the Beijing jokes to a minimum.*
And really, Beijing does have many things to recommend it. I’ve narrowed my list down to five ways in which it’s a great city—both in general, and specifically when compared to Shanghai:
1. The Airport Express: Shanghai has its ultra-modern Maglev that’s supposed to connect Pudong Airport to the city. There’s only one problem: the super-cool seven-minute ride only gets you about halfway into Pudong district. It’ll take you an additional 45 minutes (or more) on the regular subway or in a cab to reach most destinations in central Puxi, the heart of Shanghai. Beijing’s Airport Express train may not reach a top speed of 431 km/h, but the ride from Capital Airport to the Dongzhimen subway station only takes 20 minutes, and Dongzhimen is a useful transfer point in the central business district. The Airport Express also only costs 25RMB to ride, versus 50RMB for a Maglev ticket. The Maglev is impressive—and any first-time visitor to Shanghai should ride it once—but it’s not actually a useful piece of urban infrastructure. The Airport Express most definitely is.
2. Spectacular sights: Shanghai’s waterfront Bund is classic and beautiful, and the winding streets of the French Concession are pleasant and lovely, but Beijing has the jaw-dropping photo ops. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, Jingshan park, two Summer Palaces (Old and New), the Olympic Park (kind of aging badly, but worth a visit), Beihai park plus dozens of other green spaces scattered across the city, Yonghegong Lama Temple, the hutongs … I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot, but those are the must-see Beijing attractions that I can name off the top of my head. Shanghai is a great place to live and hang out; in terms of tourist sites that will knock your socks off, though, I think we have to concede that Beijing has the advantage. The Pearl Tower just looks kind of sad in comparison (though its Shanghai history museum is awesome!).
3. (Sometimes) Excellent weather: I accidentally wound up timing my Beijing trip perfectly, as Michelle Obama was in the city for three of the days I was there. Magically, the smog cleared and blue skies appeared when she arrived. I had expected, based on my previous Beijing spring, that it would still be chilly in late March, but the weather was early-spring perfection: sunny, breezy, warm. Maybe any city looks better when spring arrives, but Beijing seems to wear the season particularly well.
4. Absolute legibility: I’ve probably spent a total of about eight months in Beijing, versus close to three years in Shanghai. Yet I can navigate Beijing with almost freakish accuracy (I’m known in my family as somewhat directionally challenged), whereas I can still get turned around by Shanghai once I venture out of my neighborhood. Why the difference? Central Beijing is an almost perfect grid, with Tiananmen Square at the center. As long as I know where I want to be in relation to the square, I can get anywhere. Shanghai’s winding, twisting lanes are pleasant to wander, but make it easy to find yourself lost.
5. Dumplings and Xinjiang food: Shanghai has a lot of good dumpling stands, but my sentimental favorite restaurant in all of China is Beijing’s Laobian Dumplings. Are they the best? Probably not. But I used to eat there two or three times a week (they had a location just around the corner from my school), and I go back every time I’m up there for a steamer of carrot-and-egg dumplings. Beijing also has way better Xinjiang restaurants than Shanghai, serving dishes from western China like cumin-coated roasted lamb skewers and saucy chicken and noodles. I had never even heard of Xinjiang food before I came to China, and now it’s one of my favorite cuisines—but only in Beijing. (Well, I’m sure it’s even better in Xinjiang, but I’m still trying to find a time to go there.)
And, of course, have I mentioned the Friends’ Café?
*Postscript: After I wrote this list, I started to worry that it could sound annoying or condescending—like, “Wow! I always thought Beijing was terrible, but it’s actually only not bad!” It’s not intended in that way at all. Rather, I feel like other Shanghai expats and I spend a little too much time Beijing-bashing, and I wanted to clarify that there are indeed many things that I like about the city, and several ways in which it definitely has an advantage over Shanghai. I might joke about Beijing, but I do it with affection, not malice.
Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the same way I treat New Jersey.