Imagine the person sitting next to you on an airplane is eating chunks of brie. Fragrant, eh? On our flight to Beijing Matt manages to get through a whole wheel of it, nice and soft from being in the backpack for eight hours or so. Perhaps the person sitting behind thinks it is me and that’s why they keep up such a regular schedule of kicking my chair.
Needless to say I’m desperately happy to arrive in China’s grand capital, even if it is 3am and our first outing is cruising an industrial estate trying to find the Super 8 Hotel. We stand at reception, heads nodding, as two, then three reception staff spend 20 minutes searching for a piece of paper with Matt’s name on it. Inside the hotel is larger than seems possible, and has a slight tinge of The Shining about it. Still, we sleep okay and in the morning we’re raring to get into the city and start our trip. We ask at reception about getting a shuttle back to the airport so we can get the tube to town. There’s a shuttle in half an hour says the receptionist. Boom!
50 minutes later we are still sat waiting. The receptionists chat and laugh, engines and tyres screech in the carpark outside. At a kiosk on the other side of reception the attendant appears to be watching a live stream of a baby crying on her laptop at full volume. We’d forgotten that silence doesn’t really exist in urban China.
Them’s the rules
On the airport express into town we become transfixed by a safety information video laying down some ground rules for riding the tube. Here’s the GENUINE 101 of the rules it depicts:
- If the driver gets out of the front carriage at the station, don’t jump into the drivers seat and hijack the train.
- Don’t run in circles around and around the handrails inside the tube carriage.
- Don’t sit on your cases and have a three way discussion at the bottom of the escalator.
- Don’t walk the wrong way up the escalator.
- Don’t try and rollerblade up the escalator.
- If your ticket doesn’t work, don’t repeatedly kick the barrier.
- Don’t throw rocks at the CCTV screens
We speculate with a fellow passenger about whether the video was made in response to genuine incidents or whether they were second guessing the kind of incidents that Beijing residents might inflict on the tube. I’m not sure which way round would be more disturbing.
The fellow passenger turns out to be a very friendly American. He’s been living in Beijing 3 years and seems to enjoy it. He helps us buy our tickets and navigate to our station, reinitiating us into Chinese culture – you have to push your way forward or you’ll be pushed. As his tube pulls into the station he is hastily writing down the names of tasty dishes for us in Chinese. We part ways, feeling that familiar glow of being assisted by a friendly American in a foreign land, a feeling I’m convinced every single human being will experience at least once in their life.
Things disintegrate from there. It’s been a good few years since me and Matt have had to negotiate a strange city with the equivalent of three small children piled onto our backs, and we promptly get lost and collapse in sweating heaps on an unknown road in Beijing. There’s a moment when it seems we may never find our hostel, and then we realise that life before smartphones existed and we work it out.
That afternoon we head out to pick up our tickets for the Trans-Siberian. On the way we encounter another interesting public information cartoon on the tube. This one depicts a woman struggling with a pushchair at the top of a steep staircase. She tries to push it down headfirst, tries plucking the baby out and wheeling it. Once more, we debate how many small children accidentally took a bumpy ride down three flights before this video was released (none hopefully). Then suddenly what appears to be a small, brown, friendly midget (think Mr Hanky) in a uniform appears. It leads the woman to a lift round the corner and then jumps daintily into a disabled symbol in the corner of the screen. Okayyyy.
Hanging in the Hutong
Aesthetically, Beijing somehow reminds me of Berlin. It’s something about the scale – wide roads and pavements are flanked with medium rise rectangular buildings. Colours are muted. It’s modern but not ultra-modern. Rusting bicycles are propped against the bright lights of western chains like McDonalds and Starbucks. It’s thriving but not hectic, and much of it seems unfinished – there are broken up pavements and piles of rubble and people rummaging through bins for treasure.
People aren’t rushing, many seem to be unaware of the world around them, barking into mobile phones, barging out in front of you then stopping in the middle of the street oblivious to the five person pile up they’ve caused. I realise how much my Chinese genes have influenced me – there’s something impractical and daydreamy about the way many people behave that I really recognise in myself.
We head to the Hutong district, old traditional style Chinese houses, some of which have thankfully been preserved from demolition. They are low rise, grey buildings with grand entranceways and narrow streets linking them. We peek down side alleys and see old women sweeping with straw brooms, low bellied dogs trotting, haphazard mishmashes of objects littering the ground.
It’s fascinating to see how the modern tourist twist on this area exists alongside the traditional way of life. As we traverse the main street past newly built shops selling ceramics and tea and Chinese sweets a man with a beer gut, no top and a fag in hand shimmies out of a side street, small dog at his heels. He doesn’t seem to notice the visor-clad, snap happy tourists parting ways for him.
We seek out the Bell and Drum towers that sit opposite each other on a sweeping square. As we enter the square we’re greeted with a cacophony of voices, rickshaw drivers calling to offer us lifts from beneath red velvet canopies. They soon tire of us and return to talking and smoking. As we admire the beauty of the old towers we become aware of techno music approaching from behind us. We turn to see an elderly lady in a floral top wandering past. The music is blasting from a hidden device attached to her hip. Somehow the hectic rhythm doesn’t match her leisurely gait, but somehow it also sums up the randomness of this country for us perfectly.
This part of the Hutong has gained a reputation for being a hipster area, and sure enough we find ourselves at the Great Leap Brewery, drinking craft beer in a traditional Chinese courtyard while The Smiths croon from the speaker above us. It’s a really nice spot, not too busy, mild evening perched on a bench beneath a rustling old tree.
From here we move onto Grandma’s Creative Kitchen, a cosy little spot round the corner where a friendly waitress with a gold tooth and hair wrapped in a headscarf brings us braised duck breast, and steamed root vegetables. The best part of the meal though is a hotplate of aubergine fried with masses of chili and garlic. Gets me a bit overexcited. Then Matt confuses me by announcing he just saw a ferret run through the restaurant. I ask if it was a rat or a cat but he insists. I point out that none of the staff reacted in at all. But we both know that here of all places, they probably wouldn’t anyway.
The Summer Palace
The following morning on the way to breakfast we’re passing a square in front of a series of busy shops and cafes when we become aware of a loud thwacking sound piercing the air. Looking over, we see an elderly Chinese man with his shirt open. He’s standing in the middle of the square brandishing a 5 metre long chain with a leather whip on the end of it. The thwacking is as a result of him thrashing the concrete ground with it. There are many people around but none are paying any attention, especially not the security guard who stands with his back to him gazing at his mobile phone.
Still processing this, we head to the Summer Palace, a stunning collection of royal buildings set around a beautiful lake, special retreat of the Chinese emperor. As I understand it he would use this as a tranquil escape from the pressures of court life, padding the quiet courtyards and admiring the views from the pagodas. We have quite a different experience, fighting our way through crowds of tour groups with mikes and megaphones. Despite this, the fine details of the site and the buildings are captivating. It’s one hundred percent worth a visit, but if I went again I would aim for a quieter time (if such a thing exists).
Later we head out into the cool, rainy evening for dinner. The streets are quite dark and we pass along the pavements beneath towering old trees. Outside our restaurant, Little Yunnan, red lanterns are letting off a smudgy glow. Inside, there are murals painted on the walls, more red lanterns, the croon of jazz. There’s too much to choose from on the menu, but we pick well, working through potatoes fried with mint, chili and garlic, a divine beef stew, fresh wilted pea sprouts and rice fried with jasmine flowers. It turns out to be the best Chinese food we’ve ever had. Perfect way to end our brief trip to this beautiful, eccentric, bewildering city. Tomorrow, we’re bound for Mongolia.