The city gets in through your pores, your ears, your eyes and your taste buds – assailed so comprehensively, overwhelmed so completely, you have no choice but to become, willingly, part of Beijing itself. The city absorbs you, takes you in.
Staying in a small, and very beautiful, hotel, on a narrow alleyway, a hutong, barely wide enough for the one-way vehicle traffic, the hutong teems with life, commerce and industry, hidden supermarkets, road-side stalls, hotels, restaurants, public toilets discernible by nose before eyes, builders, hair-dressers, chefs, all half-in, half-out of the small buildings so one thinks it should be called a halfong; walking carefully along, listening out for bicycles and other two-wheeled vehicles, the absorption is total, the assimilation complete. Anything you don’t know how to do, from using chop-sticks, to cooking your own hot-pot in a restaurant with a cooker in the middle of your table, to sourcing porridge for breakfast or figuring out the metro system and, of course, the currency, where a casual passerby will pay for your ticket when they notice you are struggling with the wrong money and two smiling teenage boys with a little English will travel out of their way on the Metro to make sure you get off at the right stop, the people of Beijing take care of you; kindly, smiling and with no expectation of any reward, or even thank – you – except maybe, occasionally, a shared selfie. If you are struggling, someone will volunteer to help you, an english speaker across the restaurant will come to your aid or be summoned and off you go – assisted, welcomed, absorbed, enjoying life, enjoying Beijing, smiling, laughing, both finding the communication and cultural variations a cause for amusement, a shared joke.
Everywhere, young people in official jobs, security at the metro stations and the significant areas like Tiananmen Square, no hint of bureaucracy just there doing their jobs, you get the impression that thousands of students have filled thousands of holiday jobs to keep the city moving along.
Our first visit, aided as described above, was to Tiananmen Square, – large, open, flat and fenced off from the surrounding busy roads, filled with tourists, mainly Chinese, mobile phone cameras on overload. Such a symbolic space. Across the busy road to the north lies the Forbidden Palace and, on a wall facing the Square, an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao, still watching over the Chinese people. We cross under the road and enter the Palace, surrounded by people and their chatter, we queue for tickets. The only unpleasant experience being the constant use of loudspeakers to tell people what to do, where to queue, repeating the same instructions over and over again.
The red ochre colour of the buildings, the multi-coloured intricately painted wooden ceilings with all the beams exposed and painted, the pagoda-like orange roofs – these are the images that become burned in your memory, along with the multitude of people thronging through the buildings and courtyards.
While male fashion is relatively confined and conservative, t-shirts and shorts for the young, polo shirts and pants for the older, the womans fashion is kaleidoscopic – from simple shirts and shorts to what we Irish would call frocks – old-fashioned and simple in design and material but looking so elegant on the Chinese women, to dresses and outfits which would not be out of place at any prom dance or select first-night or even on the cat-walk itself – worn with a casual aplomb as if they had been specifically designed for a trip to the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace – and so it was everywhere we went in Beijing, a fashion event as well as a tourist experience.
The sense of style only jarred by the habit of middle-aged men of larger girths to role up their shirts to allow their bellies to perspire more freely in the humid weather which enveloped Beijing during our visit.
We had arranged with a taxi-driver to be driven to the Great Wall in two days time, ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow’ was our agreed date and an example of the linguist compromises necessary for communication. An early start, assistance beyond the call of duty as our driver even produced an umbrella when it looked like it might rain on our great wall walk, cable-car to the Wall itself, and our first sight of this mighty construction, impressive in everything except, perhaps, the execution of its intention as it was breached many times. We were not expecting the many steps along the wall as it hugged the contours, crossing valleys and summiting the surrounding hills.
As time passed, the crowds thickened and we appreciated all the more our quieter, early arrival, more kudos to our driver whose advice on timings we had followed. We could not stay forever of course, though we left with reluctance wondering if we would ever visit this mighty construction again. In the shops at the base of the wall, i purchased my confirmatory t-shirt and we had our photograph taken and certificate provided. Our taxi-driver, refreshed by a peaceful sleep, soon delivered us back to our hotel, our feet up but our minds still stumbling will all that we had seen.
Temples, streets, shops, restaurants, morning rice porridge, people everywhere, and the wonders of the Summer Palace, all kept our senses reeling, soon though it was time for us to move on, our rendezvous in Shanghai awaiting.
But i have left part of me in Beijing and i’m sure i will return some day.
Travel safely my friends.