beijing seniors at park 248 courtesy.
(photo credit: )
The title of this article is not meant to scare. While I consider it a given that in China you are often being watched, nowadays it's a lot more out of curiosity than due to any governmental desire to know what everyone is doing. After all, there are over 14 million night time residents in Beijing, and you'd need at least that amount to keep watch on everyone.
The big brother I'm talking about is Beijing, the city. As an imperial capital, Beijing looms large over London, Vienna, Prague, Rome and the other (some former imperial) European capitals. Even compared to Washington DC, which is probably the closest there is in modern times to an imperial capital, Beijing is more impressive.
Beijing has undergone a massive reconstruction program in the last few years. It was visible when I was here last before the Olympics. But things develop so rapidly here, it's hard to fathom. Of course, when you have literally millions of working hands, the speed of construction becomes understandable.
Beijing exudes power, authority, muscle, clout. The wide boulevards, sometimes twelve lanes in the middle of the city, are lined with massive steel and glass towers. The overwhelmingly impressive array of architectural creativity - all of it Chinese - cannot but strike awe into anyone who visits here. This is a serious WOW factor.
Modern Beijing is also a playful city. The Beijingren (people of Beijing) are, in general, a happy bunch. They are talkative and gregarious, curious and outgoing, cheerful and hospitable. I get the impression that prior to the Olympic Games, the citizenry was encouraged to learn some Basic English, which they are all too keen to try out on every visitor. I cannot count how many conversations went like this:
"Hallo Sir!" - hello
"Where you from?" - Israel - Puzzled look - Yutairen (Jewish people) - "Ah! Very Smart!"
"Where you from?" - Canada/Spain/Germany/Brazil .
"Canada/Spain/Germany/Brazil very beautiful country." - Thank you.
"You are very handsome man." - Thank you.
Or, when haggling at the market, the standard response to my low counter offer on any asked price would be "You are killing me!"
Meeting with the Beijingren in the night market where folks go out to eat cheap and plentiful food (if you consider it to be food; among the offerings there are snakes, scorpions, and varied wriggling things) is an absolute delight. It seems that the Beijingren never eat at home. Actually, food is so cheap that, in fact, the folks do hardly ever eat at home. It's interesting that while a cup of coffee may be just a few Yuan in your local coffee place, once you hit Starbucks, the price skyrockets. Ditto with ice cream. Local ice lollies go for 2 yuan. Haagen Daz costs 30 Yuan per scoop. Ah, but then the latter carries an OU hechsher!
But the sky of Beijing is brown, and it's a pity. The impressive measures taken by officialdom prior to the Olympic Games has been allowed to fall by they way. The air of Beijing is horribly polluted. The sky is brown. And nothing but a serious downpour of rain will clean it up - and even then only for a day or two. In my opinion, the alternate day rule for cars should be reintroduced, and polluting factories should be fined into compliance with the yet-to- be legislation requiring purer air for the capital. It's a blight on this otherwise wondrous place.
In one of Beijing's Hutong districts I was hosted by a local family in their courtyard home. Beijing was once filled with these, but they have mostly been torn down to make way for the expansion and rapid modernization of this city. So much investment has gone into making Beijing's suburbs attractive and pleasant to the eye; the great lengths to which they have gone to ensure an esthetic and green environment around the multitude of apartment buildings, is simply admirable. But the Hutong is the authentic Beijing homestead - now populated mainly by party officials. Walked past the Prime Minister's home in a Hutong by the moat of the Forbidden City - no he wasn't the one who invited us in.
And Beijing is not a poor city by any stretch of the imagination. Just down the street from my hotel on Wanfujing Street were the following four car dealers all in a row: Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati. They were opposite the Legendale Hotel which makes the word 'opulent' seems like 'slum.' I have never seen lodgings anything quite like this.
And the crowds. Oh, the crowds. My best underestimation is that on a bad day the Forbidden City must get half a million visitors. The big advantage is that the place is HUGE! It wasn't called a city for nothing. Far more than a palace, it is a site, a location, an experience. The numerous halls and pavilions are overwhelming. The offices of the officialdom and the homes of the concubines, the courtyards and the passageways, the yellow imperial roofs and the red imperial walls, the marble - oh, so much marble!
There are a number of sites which are must-see places here in Beijing: The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, The Temple of Heaven and Jingshan Park, The Lama Temple and Ho Hai Lake, the Spirit Way and the Ming Tombs, and of course, a mere 40 kilometers out of the city you can walk on the most impressive item of all, the Great Wall of China. If you have some free time, take a jaunt over to the City Museum of Beijing. A wonderful modern Museum built in the best spirit of Feng Shui; it has an amazingly balanced design that incorporates everything that Beijing ever was and is.
General McArthur best summed up my feelings about Beijing when he said (yes, I know, about a completely different place): "I shall return."
The writer is a veteran travel guide who specializes in east Asian countries
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