Second in a series
All images by Greg Gross and property of I’m Black and I Travel unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.
China’s capital is a place of power and history. You feel both of those the moment you step off the airplane.
The first thing that stuns you is the traffic.
Thirty years ago, “rush hour” in Beijing meant rivers of Flying Pigeon bicycles in all directions, much as Amsterdam (and to a slightly lesser extent, Berlin) still are today.
Now, it’s rivers of cars, buses, trucks and electrified carts and rickshaws that barely move. People still ride bikes here, conventional and electric, as well as scooters and motorcycles, but they’re all but engulfed in a tidal wave of automobilia.
It may take your bus or taxi an hour and a half to cover the eight or ten miles or so from the airport to you hotel.
What? You say you’re from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, so traffic doesn’t faze you? In the words of a former NFL head coach, you think you know, but you don’t know.
At its worst, Beijing traffic swallows you whole. At its very worst, it won’t even spit out the bones.
Then there’s the smog. Car exhaust. Factory exhaust. People burning coal to heat their homes.
We arrived the day after a rain storm, which left us beautifully clear skies for two days, but clear skies in Beijing are the exception.
Most days, you can almost scratch a match on the atmosphere.
So once you’ve fought through the traffic and more of less resigned yourself to the smog, what will you actually see in Beijing?
For one thing, you’ll see some serious, cutting-edge architecture.
WILD BUILDINGS, WILD NEON
We’re talking skyscrapers with roofs built in the shape of a wing from the Greek god Mercury — or perhaps it’s the flame of an Olympic torch — with video screens four stories high built into the sides of the building.
Then there’s the headquarters high-rise for CCTV, China Central Television — or as locals call it, “the pants building.” That’s it above. Amazing, no?
Note to U.S. neon manufacturers: If you’re not here, you need to be. China loves neon.
If the traffic weren’t such a nightmare 24/7, you could do a fun night tour of all the neon in central Beijing. And it goes far beyond the visual cacophony of Chinese symbols in the vivid reds that the Chinese so dearly love.
A Japanese restaurant covered in blossoming chrysanthemums and a neon volcano. A cake shop with long white irregular streaks like rain down the sides of the building. A Chinese restaurant whose entire front is covered with a flower-like symbol whose colors change in waves.
Las Vegas may be the only city on Earth that can compete with Beijing (and probably Shanghai, as well) when it comes to splashing waves of liquid-looking color up and down their buildings.
You get a good view of it all from the elevated highways that thread through the major cities — even if they do make you feel as if you’re on the set of “Blade Runner.”
In its own way, Beijing is actually a pretty photogenic city — or it would be were it not for all the air pollution.
The Chinese do big things in big ways; the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics showed us all that. But the Middle Kingdom’s tendency to super-size everything started centuries ago.
You realize that the moment you hit places like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
Those two sites alone take up square miles and visually come at you in waves. Vast squares, sprawling temples and palaces with towering gates. Seeing either of them in all their ornate entirety would take days.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you see that little has changed. Office buildings and condominiums aren’t merely high-rises. They’re massive, brawny, imposing structures. Apartment towers 30 stories tall, with the width of a football field but no deeper than three or four car lengths — whole blocks and clusters of them.
GO BIG OR GO HOME
Beijing has shopping malls galore, but their malls are not like our malls. Theirs more often are single, massive, multi-story buildings, often serving as the base for office towers or high-rise hotels.
There are practical reasons for this building style. When your country holds one-seventh of all the people on Earth, the idea of “living space” tends to emphasize living over space.
You’ll scarcely see a single-family house. Lawns? Forget it. Privacy? A relative concept.
Still, when you see all this crowding the skyline, you understand that you are in a place of power. It’s a sight that inspires awe and national pride.
It also encourages humility and obedience, even more than the thousands of surveillance cameras that track your every step in public.
When it comes to closed-circuit television, London’s got nothing on Beijing.
It’s not just a feeling of being in the seat of power. You also get the sense that there’s a lot of money flying around this city. Everywhere you look, it’s this bank, that investment company.
Still, when it comes to being livable, it looks as if there are some things that Beijing gets right.
Public transportation — subways, buses and taxis — are plentiful and cheap, though they definitely need more. Not much in the way of green space, but they’ve created linear green belt flanking the river that runs through the city, with pedestrian bridges over the river here and there. And they seem to have left a bit more air between some of the newest condo towers.
Don’t have time to get to Xi’an to see its famed terracotta army? No worries. You’ll see several of ancient life-sized warriors in Beijing’s airport within five minutes of leaving your plane.
All in all, not bad.
LIFE IN THE CITY
A lot of the restaurants here are big. They have to be; restos here double as dining halls, wedding halls, gambling halls. Most folks don’t have room in their own homes to really socialize, so the restaurant becomes your living room and dining room, while someone else does the cooking.
It’s the same in much of Europe.
Even in the midst of all its modernity, traces of the old Beijing remain. Hutongs are alleyways formed by walled compounds in which families live in deceptively humble single-story homes built around small courtyards.
I say “deceptively” because they might be big enough to house multiple families, even in a country where families may sleep in single rooms.
You might not think so from my description, but hutongs are really family-friendly. Your little ones can freely run around and play in the courtyard, with no fear of the traffic and chaos outside the walls.
They’re also amazingly quiet. The loudest thing you’re likely to hear inside are the pet parakeets, the preferred pet in China, chirping in their cages hanging out in the courtyard.
In the hutong we visited, even the parakeets were subdued.
Ever since capitalism was turned loose in China, real estate developers have been bulldozing the hutongs to make way for those massive high-rises. In recent years, though, the Chinese have come to realize that it’s not just their ancient palaces that have cultural value.
So here and there in Beijing, the hutongs survive.
But to really find peace in Beijing, you have to get out of central Beijing and drive about half an hour to what may be my favorite place in China.
And that’s next.
ALSO CHECK OUT:
IBIT in CHINA: An introduction
Powered by Facebook Comments