Expensive China: A Quizzical story of Delusion in Beijing

Yes, this is a quiz: how does a tourist find affordable fresh food in China?

I am in North Beijing about halfway from Tienanmen Square, the centre of Chinese politics and culture, to Badaling, the tourist centre – what is now a tourist city – of the Great Wall.

The land is flat as is all of Beijing and the traffic a permanent feature. I like to walk where I can and the walkways are clean, mostly relieved of the carpet of leaves from the autumnal fall and winds, by the ever-present street cleaners with the wicker brooms.

I have to dodge the bikes, abandoned everywhere and anywhere by those who have reached their destinations or just given up. It is getting cold so a spicy hotpot could excite. But that is for later in the day. It is late morning, before the usual 11 30 rush to lunch and I am searching for fresh food.

I am a lover of much of Chinese cooking, except maybe the famous autumn lake crab and the inevitable fish head soups. Maybe my western upbringing has likened me more to fried and grilled vegetables and fresh fruit, plus, dare I say, Peking Duck.

Mrs Google informed me that there are many fresh food markets in Beijing, but none under about 20 minutes taxi ride from where I stay, so I have inveigled a friend from the Institute to share a walk to the nearest supermarket, 2 km along the main road near the metro, which interestingly is owned by the Japanese and resembles a mall in `No Place` – anywhere in the world.

Entering, I am immediately seeking a bargain in the fresh foods section. After a quick scan of the golf ball sized mandarins, my Australian heritage drew me to a display of rockmelons cut in half, out of season up here in the north, but surely grown in the more tropical south.

Searching the prices, I notice that they range from over 30 RMB to about 38 RMB which, with the exchange rate of about 8, is 4 to 5 Euros. My compatriot sees my astonishment and reminds me that there is nothing cheap in China any more.

Yet I think of the Chinese owned clothing and general goods stores throughout Italy, and decide to check a few other items that I would normally have on the weekend list. To my disappointment, there is nothing in the supermarket that is cheaper than Aldi or Coop in Italy, not even the Lux soap. And my local wine shop near Rome has fine local `drops` for less than half the cheapest Great Wall variety.

I yearn a little for an Italian café and an espresso, yet find only Starbucks in No Place, order a small flat black and small latte – and receive no change from a 50 RMB note.

How does the average Chinese worker afford this? Returning to my hotel, I decide, with tired legs, to eat on the cheap, at least the cheapest I can do, at the hotel.  Yes, a club sandwich is 87 RMB and a Chinese buffet is 180 RMB. To top it all a beer at the bar, the only bar, is 46 RMB. Maybe I can diet!

I obviously have to carry out another search, as I must have missed the real China.