A concluding statement, a full stop to my trip here in Beijing. Three weeks away from home, 21 days but it went by in a heartbeat. This is not fact nor is it coming from any place of actual knowledge or history, this is purely my reaction and my interpretation of my experience in this city.
Let’s begin with the end. Leaving Beijing after a disappointing hostel breakfast of warmed up bread and a tiny portion of cheap jam in Qianmen, I walk towards the subway station to begin my long journey home. My spirits are lifted as the last image of Beijing I see is a grand Temple building glistening gold in the sun. I decide against taking a photo and instead choose to just enjoy the view while it crept away behind the subway.
Beijing seems to be a city of great conflict, a conflict I imagine spreads through most of China, from what I have been told by locals and fellow travellers. The contrast between wealth and poverty, between free will and suffocating security, faith and atheism is clear just walking around the city. Most people I have spoken to while being here seem to be utterly confined to one way of being, unaware of what is beyond their borders and what they have been taught. Exceptions to this include the limited Western influence fed through select advertisements, coffee shops, English translation on public transport and television channels, teaching children the English language, spoken like an American. I am not saying Western culture needs to be more prominent here (if anything I strongly disagree with that scenario), I mean the lack of personal freedom or even just awareness here is obvious, and by coming from a culture that openly welcomes freedom and personal expression, I find this frustrating.
You can see new buildings: 5-star hotels, American chain stores; H&M, Apple stores, Addidas, Centres such as the Phoenix Media Centre in Chaoyang and the Park Plaza, a structure inspired by mountains and forests, a complex you cannot miss when you enter the Chaoyang district and one I wish I’d learned more about.
“The forms of the buildings echo what is found in natural landscapes, and re-introduces nature to the urban realm.” – MAD
Some of the largest buildings in the world can be found in Beijing, including the China World Trade Centre. It’s easy to overlook this fact and undermine it under the weight of India’s developments in Dubai and Beijing’s shiny and modern neighbour, Shanghai. But stepping out of the subway station into the streets it is astonishing and a little overwhelming how everything towers over you, all the buildings here seem massive compared to back home in the UK. This city is truly gigantic in both land mass and height.
Another contrast; on one side of the street you see these new buildings flying up, clean glittering glass, tall strong structures signifying wealth and success. On the other side, abandoned developments, not quite quick enough for the fast paced highs and lows of China’s economy. Even worse is the simultaneous and far too obvious poverty; the dusty hutongs, residential streets mostly untouched by the modern world, bicycles and rickshaws on their last legs, held together with tape and wishful thinking, hauling around heavy sacks on corrugated steel. They provide a source of charming historical value I suppose, and help towards the tourism of the city, but sadly it’s hard to tell how much of it is staged or kept around for popularity and how much is genuine.
Beijing is a city of delicate round-framed glasses, black clothing, with the occasional yellow polyester jacket and Harry Potter style scarf. There are odd English phrases on the backs of jackets: “sick and tired”, “I’ll take you back, meow!”, “Sabrina, do it yourself”, the Chinese student on my course back home wears a jacket with “fuck you” written on the back, I understand that a little more now. Beijing is a city of people wearing face masks to keep out the dust that appears to blanket everything left briefly outside. Nothing seems new but everything seems temporary, easily replaced. Still, even with the pollution, the sewage smell, dust and the regular smog days, despite my negativity towards certain aspects, I truly believe this city is a generally positive place to be. People are curious, accepting of new things; The freedom lost in personal growth is made up for in collective advancement. The country of China is famously up-and-coming, a leader of growth, production and success.
Alongside the contemporary technological development runs a deep religious and spiritual heritage; another contrast. When visiting the Lama temple, among others, I was surprised to see people praying at the alters and Buddha statues; still using the space for what it was originally designed and created for. Tourist attractions are more than historical structures, they have remained a genuine place of worship for many people. The most moving experience for me whilst being here had to be visiting the Buddhas of the Three Ages-Gautama in the Lama temple; I was drawn to these statues without realising their meaning. I do not consider myself to be a religious person in any traditional sense; I don’t believe fully in any single religion, nor do I pray to or worship any religious being or symbol, I like to follow my own intuition and moral compass based on the here and now and what I believe to be right and wrong, but Jainism and Buddhism hold values I do consider to be important; the value of life and of morality being just a couple of examples. Visiting the temple, you could feel the importance of the place; like the air itself was sacred. I felt privileged to just be standing withing the temple walls.
Something else I noticed day-to-day is that there appeared to be no traffic laws at all, at least not strict ones like in the West. Cars run through red lights as bikes and pedestrians navigate their way over long zebra crossings, drivers sit at the wheel on modern mobile phones while rickshaws and e-bikes make use of the roads, pavements, any means necessary to get to their destination. Luckily everyone here moves a lot slower than back home, no-one ever seems to be in a rush, so I imagine the apparent chaos is a lot safer than it looks. Another contrast: Since getting here I have heard from many different people how safe the city is. This is then strongly countered by the stories of assault in taxis and pickpockets on the subway. While crime in Beijing is still less of an issue than in the UK, crime levels have increased dramatically over the last 3 years, with the most likely, other than bribery and corruption (a seemingly accepted fact in China), being vandalism and theft.
In the UK we move quickly through unnecessary processes, formalising every detail, confining things to categories, paperwork, applications, there is a written system for every move. In China they move slowly and smoothly, there is a definite flow, a smooth wave of progress, entirely different to the inconsistent zig-zagging jolting of Western advancement. Things get done quickly, and it works. While I was there I saw people welding their own steel roofs, waving and smiling at kids on the street, carrying children on motorbikes and scooters; things that would get someone put away for years in the UK just because it doesn’t line up with our objective way of thinking. In China things get done, and people do what they need to make them happy. It seems to work.
In Beijing it was rare to see anyone not Chinese, just a handful at most if you’re visiting a tourist spot or one of the slightly more Western, commercial areas such as Sanlitun. One of the strangest things about being in Beijing was how common it was for people to approach you for a selfie, alone or with giggling peace signing friends. Especially during the third week of my stay when I was in ‘tourist central’, Qianmen, where Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are. There was one time when a family stopped me on the street for a photo, at first I thought they were asking me to take a picture of the three of them; a man, presumably his wife or girlfriend and their adorable daughter who must have only been about 4 years old. Instead he pulled me and Richard over, placed his daughter down in front and pointed a camera at us. It was like a family photo where we had miraculously had the immaculate birth of a Chinese child. Very weird.
It is also rare to see anyone exercising. Running is not anywhere near as common as in the UK and America. This is probably to do with the quality of the air; smog days are a regular thing and people are advised to stay inside and pregnant women are advised to avoid the city all-together. Other than the extremely occasional pair of runners the only exercise I saw, oddly, was in the windows of office spaces. At precisely 9:30am you can see men and women in suits doing simple breathing and physical exercise before starting work. This baffled me as the image of a typical office worker in the UK is hugely different to this more active and energetic sight in China.
The whole trip was a massive, crazy experience, like I had hoped it would be. I was challenged every day, not like the fake challenges you get here; what projects to get in for a course that will most likely never make any real impact on the world, stats to get at work, how many ‘targets’ you hit. These were real challenges; learn a language or go hungry, walk to the top of the wall or let people down, let yourself down, be responsible, aware of your surroundings at all times or you’ll get lost in a foreign country, be assertive or let people walk over you, take everything in or it wouldn’t have been worth it. Those three weeks were real in a world where everything is so easily overlaid, commercialised or twisted, they were overwhelming beyond anything I had expected but they were so undeniably worth it.
I have so many more posts to write and upload, of photos, experiences, more silly anecdotes, but surprise surprise I have been launched back into the UK lifestyle, thrown meaningless tasks, and expected to move quickly and deal with all of the nonsense that living in Wales as a 22 year old student girl requires, so they’ll have to wait just a little longer. I am so glad I wrote the majority of this before I left or it just would have been thrown to the bottom of the pile. Now to get on with this dissertation and stay riding this wave.
Until the next adventure, keep smiling!