Peking, Beijing, at last. My first days in the city. Love on the first sight. Who would have thought that?
Just like Moscow, I of course grew up with the images of China being the old communist country. The massacre of Tian An Men is still pretty much in memory for all who lived in 1989. And after seeing Moscow, I expected to see a second capitalist-ised capital. But Beijing hasn’t as much changed (or gone decadent) as I would have imagined. It feels very much like the China I had in mind. The China in the comics of Tintin, Le Lotus Bleu.
The Smog in Beijing
During my stay in Beijing, the smog meter hit scores over 300. While the rest of the world sees 10 as the absolute limit, life goes on while we hit 30 time that. No wonder some people tell me stories about kids who spend their whole youth in a hospital with respiratory issues. The NY Times even called up to stop calling it smog in Beijing but to see it as Meteorological Disaster. It seems that both Beijing and Ulan Bator are the sad world record holders in bad air…
01-14-2017 16:00; PM2.5; 12.0; 50; Good (at 24-hour exposure at this level)
— BeijingAir (@BeijingAir) January 14, 2017
25, or even 50 is considered “good” by the Twitter account that follows the smog in Beijing…
Tien An Men
It’s weird to come here, knowing what happened here in 1989 and how there is NO reference to that anywhere here. The presence of SWAT-type police, security agents in their black suits, and the way the people’s guard is present shows that it will not be easy to surprise Beijing a second time. I made sure not to miss the flag ceremony at the end of the day. ( know you can go in the morning as well, but early rising isn’t my strongest.)
There are a couple (well, more than that) of Hutongs in Beijing. Areas of small streets, where you find hairdressers, shops and small restaurants. A good plate of dumplings will cost you about 8RMB (not even US$2). It’s a pretty typical view when you walk in these streets to see the steamed baskets at the doorstep.
I’m addicted to thee small places. I’d eat dumplings three times a day in Beijing.
I could not go to Beijing and not see the forbidden city. So the day after we finished our last interview in Beijing, Jimi (who does magic with moving images and joined me as a videographer in Beijing) and I went to have a look. Just like hundreds of Chinese tourists. This is a crowded place.
Lotto form food order
When we went to eat something (no dumplings this time), we ended up in a restaurant with an Ikea-like catalog, that had pictures and Chinese writings in them. We received a form and a pencil. The Chinese letters on the form were probably made in a different font or style, as we could not make all digits correspond between the book and the form. But we managed to puzzle our way through both of them, and handed in our order. All plates except 1 were even exactly what we imagined we had ordered. Beijing returning some of its love?
The Beijing Subway
As a New Yorker, I’ve been spoiled with a subway that works 24/7. And in Moscow, I saw the beauty of the Moscow Metro System. The Beijing system is a modern subway system, that can compete with the systems in other large cities I visited. As you see in London, or in Moscow, many lines go from the center to the suburbs. And some circle lines (line 2 and line 10 here, similar to line 5 in Moscow). I hardly used any other means of transportation in my weeks in Beijing than this metro system. I even got used to the security checkpoints at the entrance of every station.
What was getting used to again, was the double-check of the card: once when entering, once when leaving. Making sure there was enough money on the card is key. Fortunately, enough recharging systems. And the nice way of directing people and making it a one-way walk between lines is something that would be a dream for New York.
A morning in the park
On one of our mornings, in search of typical images for our reporting, we ended up in one of the many public parks. I had seen often people doing Tai Chi in the morning, but here people, mostly older people, were also teaching one another to do some sword-dancing, traditional Chinese dances, and choir singing.
Temple of heaven, Beijing
Another can’t miss on the list of things to do in Beijing is to visit the Temple of Heaven. A beautiful park surrounds the temple. I could not have imagined that Beijing had so many nice and calm parks, where one can find peace in a sometimes hectic city. To see the temple, note that you not only pay to get in the temple park but have to pay a second time to get in the center walled area.
Zone 798 is an old military complex that the Chinese converted to a zone for the art. Exhibitions, galleries, outdoor shows, graffiti, etc… find their place here.
I’m not sure yet whether zone 798 Beijing is a tourist trap, or a support system for local artists in modern art. I saw a couple of very nice exhibitions, but it felt all very commercial to me. An art class was having painting lessons in the open air, and that showed me there is some art activity still ongoing here. Artists I interviewed in Beijing (More on my chat with Fang in a later article) had organized some expositions in the 798 zone, and confirmed it mainly targets the art budgets of tourists.
The Plans, they are changing
For the first time on this trip from London to Peking, I feel that even having more time isn’t enough. My original schedule had me here for about a week, but soon after we finished the filming work here, I decided to extend my stay. When Jimi, the cameraman, left back for Europe, I changed hotels and added a week (for now) to my stay. Limited by my visa, I couldn’t stay longer than a few weeks now, but I definitely will be back, and could even see me spend several months here. Being a digital nomad is also understanding when to travel and when to stay: Beijing is one of those places where I can stay and work a bit.
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.