Beijing: househunting, housetrapping, housebaiting

The plan, as much as it existed, had been to find a job with a flat. The two were supposed to arrive together. In all the hassle of getting here, though, both were indefinitely delayed, and after a couple of days at a hostel I found myself sleeping on John’s floor again, sharing the space with a couple of Mexican turtles.

Fortunately I was due to move in with V, and she was very much on the case. We trawled classified adverts together for an afternoon, then started looking at some of the lower end options. The following afternoon we looked at a couple of places – an unworkable semi-renovated room in a hutong and a reasonably nice room in a shared flat near the Communication University, which we would have taken but for my hesitancy and indecision.

After this expected frustration we decided to answer Chinese adverts rather than English ones. For the usual reasons, flats for foreigners in Beijing tend to be expensive. One landlord doubled the rent when he found out I was English, after first checking that I wasn’t black, as he “wouldn’t have a black tenant whatever the price”. The landlord of the place we ended up taking (the flat underneath the one we missed out on) had slightly more reasonable stipulations – no Tibetans (“trouble”), no Muslims (“terrorists”) and no Americans (“responsible for the financial crisis”). As I was none of these, and the place looked reasonably good, we decided to take it. Which was a mistake.

Returning with my bag the next day the first problems became clear. The lights in the bathroom and kitchen had been fixed, but instead of improving things, these just revealed how dirty the flat was – beyond normal levels of filth, the other tenants had evidently left it to fester so long that simply cleaning wouldn’t even begin to address the squalor. It was so bad it even resembled the infamous house I shared in Newcombe Road, Southampton.

The next problem to be encountered was a lack of hot water. This provided a good excuse not to use the horrific shower for a night, but obviously needed to be fixed as soon as possible. The door lock didn’t work at all, and V’s increasingly agitated phone-calls persuaded the agency to send round a handyman who, instead of replaced the lock, simply fitted a padlock; sturdy in its way, but leaving us open to burglars in possession of a screwdriver.

These minor quibbles were quickly forgotten when we got to the police station to register my residency. The officer, a sour round-faced woman of about 22, insisted on taking down the landlord’s ID. V called the rentals office, not expecting any problems, but received a simple immovable answer – “we don’t rent to foreigners.” Pointing out to them that they had just rented a room to a certified foreigner didn’t seem to alter their viewpoint. There was no option but to walk out of the police station and consider our very limited options.

I was unregistered, liable to a fine, but unable to move to avoid it. The house was in an almost uninhabitable state. Money was running pretty low. V attempted to resolve the situation by calling the agency, but by bedtime the only compromise they would make was to allow me to stay there. V was all for tearing up the contract and moving out, but I had a feeling the situation would get better soon. It didn’t.

The next morning we were woken up by a banging at the door. Was it the landlord, come to throw us out? Was it the handyman, come to install a real lock? Or maybe the police, tipped off and ready to fine me? No. It was a builder who had come to renovate the bathroom, leaving it unusable for “about a month”. If we wanted to use a toilet there was one in the basement, though it turned out this was the private property of a very angry man in a string vest.

It was at this point that I agreed to move, whatever it took. There was another room available in the same block, but we’d previously turned it down on the grounds that the guy opposite looked like a triad. Another visit showed it to be a good deal cleaner and more functional than our place. After half an hour of haggling we managed to get a good price, and started moving our possessions from the 13th floor down to the 3rd. V arrived upstairs first, and found the agency showing people round the place already. Since the room had been locked they’d taken the executive decision to unscrew the padlock themselves, and were sitting on the bed investigating our electrical equipment when V showed up.

Later that day we visited the rentals agency office. It looked like a modern police station – bare cubicles undecorated save for a plain table and plastic chairs, each with large holes in the walls facing into the corridor. We sat down with a couple of unhappy looking estate agents in casual suits and V argued with them while I sat and failed to understand what anyone was saying. After half an hour we left with our rent, deposit and a full apology. Finally, not bad.

We’ve been in the new place on the third floor for almost a week now. It’s all been plain sailing apart from a lack of internet, curtains, and a collapsing sink, problems which have been resolved rather than dragging on and worsening. I’ve even found decent-paying work – more on that later, maybe. Things are looking up, at last.

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