The crossing in to China was a painless affair, assisted with beer purchased at the border from the convenient supermarket. A quick look at the shelves and it was clear we were no longer in Kansas. Vacuum packed pickled pig trotter anyone? And that was one of the few items that were identifiable. Many more nondescript but-almost-certainly-some-kind-of-offal lined the shop, and the fruit juices became all the more esoteric. Beer, thankfully, was easy to spot and with nary a crazy fruit or animal organ to be found in the bottle, it was about all I needed to take me to Beijing.
It’s difficult to really appreciate the immensity of population in China. For a country that is as large as it is, one might expect a bit of space between people. As with many things here, it isn’t evenly balanced. The two largest provinces in the west, Tibet and Xinjiang, are together 2.8 million km2 and yet less than 10% of this land is habitable. Between them, only 20 million people live here and this represents almost a 1/4 of China’s entire land mass. By comparison, Beijing in the east also contains the same number of people. This is a big city.
The Chinese capital has seen development transform the city over the past 60 years. Millions of rural dwellers flocked to the city during the ill fated “Great Leap Forward” and it has only grown since. Fortunately the public transport system is a modern marvel. With air conditioned trains arriving every two to three minutes, it is easy to get around the city centre. Due to the size of the city however, it may yet take another twenty minutes of schlepping to your final destination once you get above ground. Such exercise is a tough enough prospect at the best of times with a backpack on, but in China it takes on another dimension. The smog.
Pollution in China has been something of an international joke when the government, both local and regional, frequently attributed the visible (and even visceral) air pollution to dust storms from Mongolia among other things. The reality of it is that within a day in Beijing I had a sore throat and this simply didn’t go away until I left the affected areas. Causation/Correlation? Maybe not… but international reports talk of something much more serious: each year in China nearly 400,000 people die prematurely due to the air pollution, with more dying from water supplies that are awash with heavy metal contaminants – indeed, 50% of the entire population of China is without access to safe drinking water that doesn’t come from a bottle. Some things are showing signs of improving, with the government now openly admitting that there is a serious issue in the skies. The response is short term however – “Red Alerts” simply shut down factories until the worst of it goes away, then they start up again. What they cannot find the heart to do is slow the rampant development of the country, and so the industrial behemoth that is seeing progress that took 150 years to occur in Europe, keeps on rolling, belching brown coal and petroleum smoke for every year it keeps going.
What, is this a Greenpeace blog? Ok, so what is great about Beijing? Well, it’s packed full of history and unlike a great deal of China’s national heritage it wasn’t burned and/or plundered by either Western powers (more of that later!) or during the other ill-fated move of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. I’ll not bore you with the history of the Forbidden City. It’s where the Emperors of old lived and is a massive palace complex (the largest in the world) with many nearly identical temple-cum-palaces with such typically Chinese names as The Hall Of Heavenly Peace and the Hall Of Preserving Harmony, not to forget the Hall Of Medium Harmony and indeed the Hall Of Supreme Harmony. These buildings share an identical Imperial style, all with the same roof tiles and impeccably designed ornaments. There are thousands of these intricate ceramic and marble decorations that are completely identical. It is impressive when you think of it in this way, but it takes the gloss off when there is little new to see despite it being amazing in its own right. The same replication extends to many palatial areas in the city such as the Summer Palace and the Temple Of Heaven.
You should go to all of them though! The settings for each are wildly different, so while you might get fatigued from seeing the same architectual design details, the parkland and views from the Temple Of Heaven are as fresh as the lake side walk at the Summer Palace. One theme you will also see at these places is the history that they share with European powers in the 19th century. This history mostly extends to the Anglo-French forces (led by that renowned protector of other people’s property, Lord Elgin) that invaded and stole or burned everything they could get ahold of, due to the absolute effrontery of the Imperial government banning the sale of Opium to the increasingly addicted masses, by the East India Company and its doppelgängers. As such, most of the palaces in Beijing are restored versions commissioned indirectly by the Empress Dowager Cixi – an incredibly fascinating character whom I’d recommend a read about. Lady Macbeth could have learned a thing or two from her. These restorations are of a high quality and devoid of the overworked kitchness of 20th century reconstructions that can be found on sections of the Great Wall for example.
Goodness me, there is the Great Wall of China. You can see it from space (no you can’t). It is 2000 years old (the foundations might be, but what you can see are a few hundred years old at the most). It’s a continuous wall that kept the Mongols from invading (it’s scattered from the Gobi desert to the sea and most of it is less than a ridge of mud. As for defending against the Mongolians, since it was built, Beijing was captured and burned twice, and held by the Mongols for an entire dynasty). Seriously though, not paying the wall a visit is like ignoring the Eiffel Tower on your first visit to Paris, and there are plenty of opportunities to avoid the crowds if you put in effort/money/research – something that is rare in China. The area you’ve likely see in photos is probably Badaling. This is a bus ride from the centre of Beijing and as such is absolutely heaving with people the whole year round. Tour groups jostle like herds of camera toting wildebeest led by a ubiquitous ‘guide with a flag’. Touts will pester you for just about everything imaginable and there is shouting, spitting and very probably a shitting toddler in view. Avoid this place.
Russian food is mediocre. Mongolian food is little better. Chinese food is internationally recognisable and globally celebrated. From the modest noodle or delightful dumplings that can be found nationwide, to the regional specialities such as the Muslim spiced lamb dishes from the west or abundant seafood from the east, China covers a lot of bases. Many are recognisable from your local take-away: black bean sauces, sweet and sour pork, gong pao chicken and so on are all present but usually at least a little different to what you are used to. Beijing is famous for its duck. Tragically I didn’t get a chance to sample it, but I did manage to scarf down a lot of street food, noodle dishes and on one occasion an entire leg of lamb that we barbecued ourselves at the table. Just point and smile at what looks good, and you usually get something nice. This is not without risk of course, as accidental consumers of intestine soup will no doubt attest. The alleyways of Beijing (known as hutongs) are a foodie’s paradise. The smells are outrageously attractive, and all you need do is follow the smoke from the outdoor grills to achieve nirvana.
I could carry on writing about Beijing forever. It is a true capital city that even a casual visitor could spend weeks and not see all of it. After five exhausting days, my tired feet couldn’t carry on but despite seeing so much, I neglected so much more. I haven’t even mention Tienanmen Square, the phenomenal archaeological exhibit in the National Museum of China, the surprisingly immense sense of safety in Beijing, the crazy traffic “laws”, the armies of bike riders, the nearly perfect cleanliness of the streets and so much more besides. Most cities can be done in a long Weekend. Beijing needs at least a week. With only 30 days on my visa however, the rest of China beckoned. More trains…