We did actually see more in our week in Beijing than just shopping malls. Not usually listed in the Beijing travel guides but definitely a recommendation: Visit all the expat living locations. Or at least, that is what we did.
While surrounded by a billion Chinese, the typical expat scenario seems to be to live together with other foreigners in a fancy high rise apartment building, with broad band Internet, HBO or BBC, access to a pool, and the occassional kid's playground. Not that I am complaining, because all those places looked very nice. Sometimes we would point at another apartment building and ask our real estate agent from iHouse about it, and she would just say: "you won't like it, it's not for expats." And I have to say that the one time we did not listen to her advice and insisted we wanted to visit a certain complex -- a set of houses in the city mostly inhabited by Japanese (and not that they aren't expats either!)-- we did indeed not like it very much.
So what did we see? Here's a partial list:
Park Avenue Apartments: Nicely located at the bottom of Chaoyong Park (kind of a Central Park like in New York, but with more amusement park type features). Pros: Seems OK-ish for kids, close to huge park, nice swimming pool and coffee place, and comes with air filters to reduce the pollution indoors. Cons: It's a huge appartment building complex. I am not typically afraid of heights but didn't particularly feel at ease on the 32nd floor. (Though the view was great. Maybe I can get a poster of the view.)
Seasons Park Apartments: Nice neighborhood and cool outdoor pool. It was really close to some restaurants and stores, but from what I learned later was not the easiest place to build up a new community as mostly everyone was out during the day for work. (This may be true everwhere, but it sounded like some apartment buildings had more of a community life than others).
Area around Workers Stadium: We visited a couple different apartments here. I can't for the life of me remember specifics -- the big blur is already setting in--, but it is a nice area, conveniently not too far from Paul's work. Unfortunately though none of the places I remember as particularly kid friendly. I think the boys can be "fine" in many places, but either a balcony or decent area to kick around a ball would be helpful.
CBD Area, the Central Business District. We looked at one or two apartments here, and while nice, the area itself is just too much of a... well, a business area. Lots of shops and offices, but despite some nice landscaping I could count the trees on one hand. (Well, 4 hands perhaps, but you know what I mean).
And then, let's skip over to a whole other opportunity: To live outside the city in an expat compound. Very close to the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), a school we've been looking at, is the Beijing Riviera, and also a neighborhood called LaneBridge. Expat communities all come with nice, romantic vacation names (one of my favorites is "Euroville" in the Shunyi area, though "Yosemity" is a close second in the names department). So the Beijing Riviera is a nice neighborhood with western-style house in a gated community. Its club house is the most active of all the communities apparently and has a swimming pool, restaurant, store, and lots of activities for the kids and parents. (Can't picture it? Think "Center Parks" in Holland, but then with bigger houses and people living there all year round.)
And LaneBridge.... well the only way to picture that is to visualize a pretty common neighborhood in Holland. Unbelievable, just like home. Including the bikes against the houses and a watery sun in the sky. (Or was that the pollution?). Very nice neighborhood and directly across from the WAB School. If we go for a Dutch lifestyle -- walk to school, brown bread with cheese, and biking in the streets -- we would have to live here. Except for the fact that you have to drive to work.
What else? We saw some apartments around San Li Tun, a fun neighborhood with lots of restaurants and events. Two duplexes (a mini "house" in an apartment building, because you have two floors connected by an internal stairs) were pretty cool. You felt like you were in a house while being in an appartment. (That is, until you tried to walk outside). Then we also saw a house in a "hutong", be it a fancy huton western style, but very pretty. And also a nice Apartment Building in East Lake Villas. (We can't live in the villa's, but we can look out over them! :-) )
After visiting all these places, we really weren't so clear on where we should live. One day with were all excited about LaneBridge (the "Dutch" neighborhood), the other day we were convinced we had to be in the city to be close to work. It's an interesting dilemma - we'll see in a few months where we'll end up!