It’s a sad truth: the city proper of Beijing usually gets neglected in favor of the tourist attractions in and around it. And when you consider the scope and scale of those attractions, it’s understandable why people tend to feel that way–monuments to the China’s past (recent and distant alike) such as the Summer Palace and Forbidden City lie within its urban core, while the majestic Great Wall is just over an hour away by car or train.
Sharing the blame, however, is an assumption among foreigners–largely gleaned from reports by the mainstream media–that the Chinese capital is a congested, dirty place with smog so thick you can’t see the sun. While such characterizations are certainly not without their merits, I implore you to dig deeper–beneath its gritty and sometimes even ugly veneer, Beijing is a vital, eclectic city with a charm unlike any other in the world.
MORE PSYCHEDELIC THAN CONFORMIST
Although its often grouped alongside Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen for being one of China’s “Big Four” cities, Beijing differs from its more southerly cousins first and foremost in that its urban aesthetic is mostly of a bygone era. For example, the yellowed ceramic pieces that tile the insides of Beijing’s subway stations, many of which date back to the late 1960s, are starkly different from the brand-new furnishings you might find adorning any of the just-installed lines in Shanghai–and are themselves older than the entirety of construction in Shenzhen, which was only officially founded in 1971.
Indeed, although it generates most of its tourist interest and traffic based on more ancient constructions–the Mao-era Tian’anmen Square notwithstanding–a disproportionate amount of Beijing’s cityscape is dominated by bizarre relics of the Cold War era that look more psychedelic than conformist. Outside of the Chaoyang central business district and the swanky, ultra-modern residential plots that extent a few miles outward from it, fruit-orange phone booths and tall, misting mushrooms punctuate street scenes that would otherwise range from forgettable to foreboding, many of the tall, gray walls topped by coils of barbed wire.
MAGIC IN ACTION
Of course, part of the reason many visitors get a limited view of the Chinese capital is that it’s simply too massive to take in from a single vantage point. With an area of more than 6,500 square miles–somewhere between the U.S. states of Connecticut and New Jersey in size–the municipality is among the most sprawled and vast in the Middle Kingdom. Although the city center comprises only a small percentage of said area, commuting by car in Beijing makes Los Angeles rush hour traffic seem like a race. And that’s if you can find a vacant taxi in the first place: it took me longer than an hour to spot one on more than one occasion–and the reason many empty taxis aren’t carrying passengers is that the driver’s on his way home.
Beijing’s aforementioned subway system is expansive–and not expensive, at just two yuan one-way, regardless of how great a distance you need to travel–but like the city itself is spread out. While sequential stations along a single metro line in Shanghai or Guangzhou might be spaced less than a mile apart–especially near the city center–you may find yourself walking for at least a half-hour to reach your nearest station in Beijing. I strongly recommend, however, that you resist the urge to hail a taxi, the difficulty of doing so notwithstanding: you need to be on foot–and walking slowly–to spot the magic of the so-called “Northern Capital” in action.
BRIGHT GREY SKY
One commonly held belief about Beijing that unfortunately holds true is the extent to which it is polluted. Although mornings and afternoons of full sunshine frequently occur, it’s just as typical for the sun to present itself as a fuzzy, dim glow behind a bright grey sky. The oft-publicized traffic jams are no joke either; quarter-mile wide expressways look like parking lots even at off-peak times. One great vantage point from which to watch such traffic is atop the esplanade that encircles the “Bird’s Nest” stadium from the 2008 Summer Olympics, a staggering expanses of concrete which passes over one of Beijing’s busiest thoroughfares. Its vastness in relation to the small number of people who now visit it perfectly exemplifies the often-contradictory contrasts that set the city apart.
Opposite many street corners being patrolled by staunch, expressionless police officers hang flamboyant, rebellious graffiti murals. Mess halls with jiao zi dumplings in dozens of gourmet flavors sit sandwiched in city blocks wedged between anonymous alleys and streets which also have no names. Restaurant and retail developers have converted many of the traditional hutongs along the shores of Hou Hai lake into swanky dining and shopping establishments, while millions of locals within a mile’s radius still call the historical dwellings home. Rose bushes are the rule rather than the exception when it comes to urban landscaping, adding elegance (and even luxury) to even the most grungy of neighborhoods.
NO SECRET AT ALL
The secret to getting to know the true character of Beijing is that there’s no secret at all. There is no specific restaurant at which you must eat, no one street that stands out among all others or even a district that best embodies the otherworldliness for which I’ve come to love Beijing–and in parts, the city does feel like one of a planet not our own.
My best advice is to get lost: finish up your sightseeing, book a hotel in a part of town with which you’re not familiar, set out in the morning and walk until your feet can’t move anymore. Have yourself a quick rest, then find your way back without accepting help from anyone who speaks you language–or accepting a ride from a motor vehicle.