It had been almost 7 years to the day since I first set foot in China and Beijing with my friend James. At that time we were going to embark on the Trans-Mongolian railway train journey. This time it was going to be a different journey through China.
On our arrival in Beijing we actually checked into a Days Inn hotel which was way above budget but a treat to ourselves after our time in India, Days Inn it would appear is a high end hotel in comparison to its sister hotels in the US. We ended up doing absolutely nothing for 24hrs! It was amazing how good clean white bed linens and towels and a nice clean, quiet hotel room can make you feel.
The next day after our sojourn in luxury we were back on the journey and metro’ing into Beijing and walking to our hostel and dorm.
Over the next few days as we wandered around Beijing seeing the sights and such I could not help but notice big changes since my last visit 7 years prior. At that time Beijing and I suppose China as a whole was gearing up for the Beijing 2008 Olympics but there was still a sense of Old China about the city, bikes were still used en masse even in the central areas, fashions were still conservative and English was not widely spoken and if it was it was very broken. The environment was also an issue, we never saw blue skies in Beijing and the smog was bad, probably on par with LA I would say back then.
In 2005 you got a sense that things were changing and rapidly in the ramp up to the Olympics, I mean China has been changing rapidly for some decades in an effort to keep up with the modern world and its growing population, but this was geared more around infrastructure and economic growth.
Being in Beijing this time the feel was very different, the old school bicycles had now become mountain bikes or electric scooters, cars were much more abundant but also so very new, with a plethora of high end European cars; fashions were as bright as any other metropolitan city, and in fact the female fashion was probably even more scandalous at times than on the streets of Europe or the US. The vibe was different, it was a kin to KL or Singapore, it is an emerging new Asian city of the modern world. Even as we walked the Hutongs they had changed massively becoming tourist attractions with all the associated frills and in some areas more trendy shopping streets and funky accommodations for the traveler and young professionals.
I am not writing that this is a bad thing but this is probably the first time I have visited a place and noted such huge changes not only physically but also in the cities psyche and culture, I can only imagine in another 5/10 years Beijing will be a vibrant, diverse and cultural hotbed.
But one thing had not changed and had become worse and that was the pollution. Speaking with locals some argue it’s the factories and industry, some argue it’s the increase in traffic, no one argues it’s the amount of cigarettes smoked, but if definitely contributes! Ha! Albeit that this sounds ridiculous I don’t know a culture that smokes as much as the Chinese, I think even the French have cleaned up there act! But whatever are the causes it has definitely deteriorated. It is to a point that at times you can see a smog if you look in front of you a mere 50 metres, if you can imagine a bonfire when the smoke thins and trails away from the source it leaves a thin bluesy haze, its like that, except its worse as it does not have the great smell of a bonfire and its more toxic. I can see why masks are worn on the streets as people commute about the city. I am not sure what the Government is doing or what can be done, but one can only wonder about the impact on health in the city from this smog.
One thing that has not changed and that I love about Chinese people is its old people. When I say old, I mean pensioners, they must have experienced and witnessed such rapid and diverse changes in there lives that it defies an ability to keep up. But what I love so much is that no matter what has changed or is changing they have stayed true to what they know and like and love. There is great respect for your elders in Asian culture which I am a strong believer in and they still stand their ground in the face of change. My favourite is their complete disregard for anything bigger than them on the roads, be that they are crossing a road or cycling a bike they just bowl out into the thick of things and let the rest of the world work round them, there is no fear, they have the right of way no matter what, we and the rest of Beijing will just have to wait! Love it!
It will be interesting to follow Beijing’s evolution over the next few years, but its good to be back, although I think a few of their tourist offerings may need a little tweaking….