Notes from Beijing

While in China I jotted down notes for a friend on how I found the different places I visited. The notes were intended to go on Facebook, but word limits there preclude that. My blog posts get posted to Facebook, so I’m posting here for the benefit of those following there.

I won’t be making a habit of posting non-book/personal posts on this blog. It’s not what it’s for. I will though post up each of the notes I made for Beijing, Xian and Shanghai.

The notes are as I wrote them at the time, I’ve not sought to tidy them and they were made in a hurry (usually on the way to the airport), so they’re a touch stream of consciousness.

Caveats aside, here are my contemporaneous notes from Beijing:


Beijing feels like a capital. It’s large, chaotic, noisy. There’s a diversity of styles and looks, though it’s humid as hell so men tend to t-shirts and polo shirts and women to short skirts or light dresses. Sportswear is common. Some guys hoist their shirts up to their chests to cool off, mostly the flabby guys…

The roads are full of all sorts of vehicles; cars; motorbikes; motorised bicicles; motorised tricycles; tuk-tuk style three wheelers; motorised carts; and of course bicycles.

The pollution is so heavy everything is in soft focus. Music blares out from competing radios, hawkers tout their wares, nobody smiles much in public but people give up their seats readily on tubes and buses to those who need them more.

I saw two middle aged women dancing in a square to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. They were in time and looked pretty good. Nearby was the bar district, heaving and loud, but the best square there was full of pensioners dancing together with open air lessons nearby. The old here aren’t shut out of sight.

I’ve eaten in neighbourhood places that were good and a modern Chinese place that was excellent. I’ve seen starfish and locust on a stick (though not the same stick). I had lamb there, Anthony Bourdain would not have approved.

The Great Wall is impressive. What struck me with that though was the hills. In Chinese art hills often look oddly lumpy and crumbling. I always assumed it was an issue of painting style. Actually, that’s pretty much how they look. The countryside is stunning in places.

Xian next. I’m looking forward to it but I could happily have seen Beijing for longer. Then again, one should always leave before one wants to.



Filed under Personal posts

11 responses to “Notes from Beijing

  1. Sam

    Love the comment about the hills. I had the same reaction seeing the countryside around Florence. It’s not painted so that it looks magical. It *is* magical.

    Not to say Beijing’s not polluted, but sometimes people mistake dust blowing in from the Gobi for air pollution.

    I loved Beijing. Did you visit Lao She’s house? A literary must-do.

  2. I think it’s great to do some non-book posts every now and then on a book blog. Do you have any photos to add?

    I love your comment about the old not being shut out of sight. We noticed that in Japan too. Am off to Hong Kong in a week or so – but still need to get to China proper (besides the tourist-y day trip will do from HK, that is!).

  3. Famulimus

    Love these notes – stream of consciousness is good!

  4. Sadly there wasn’t time for Lao She’s house. I did visit a scholar’s house later in Suzhou which was fascinating in terms of giving me an insight into the conditions in which some works were written and in which they were intended/expected to be read.

    My best time in Florence oddly was in January. It was rainy, but free of crowds. It’s a different city without millions of tourists (of which of course I’m one) in it.

    WG, my wife took the photos, I’ll see if I can get some off her.

    It’s funny, some things are clearly much worse. It’s not a free country, there are appalling human rights abuses, but not everything is one sided. The old do seem in many ways better treated (in public than I’ve seen in the West, in hospitals it may well be horrific, though treatment of the old in UK hospitals is often pretty terrible).

    I’d much rather be young in London or Paris than Beijing, but I’m not sure I’d rather be old.

    Hey Brian, stream of consciousness is set to continue.

  5. A country I’d love to visit.

    My cousin married a Chinese and lives in China. When she first came to France, she kept on marvelling at the blue sky because in her city, pollution hides the blue.
    She got frantic when a rainbow appeared in the sky.

  6. I forgot to mention, there are adverts in the tube tunnels that seem to flicker and float outside the windows, following the train as it travels along.

    It’s an effect like something out of the Matrix, I can work out how it’s done (multiple screens I imagine) but it’s slightly eerie when you’re not used to it.

    There are adverts everywhere, TV screens in the planes showing adverts for the Shanghai expo, billboards on the sides of passing cargo trains.

  7. Thanks for this post — couldn’t have been more timely as I’m going to China next month. It’s kind of a spur of the moment thing, as I’ll be jobless this time next week, and I figured I should use my payout to see a bit of the world before looking for new work in the new year. Your thoughts on Beijing have me itching to get there now!

  8. I really liked Beijing. My wife had been before, and commented how much it had been improved since before the Olympics.

    Even taking account of the dust Sam mentions, the pollution is extraordinary though.

    Oh, in the Forbidden City there’s an amazing museum of Chinese art. It’s not particularly obvious, you have to leave one of the big courtyards by a side gate and go down a road that’s well kept but doesn’t seem to particularly go anywhere. There’s also a tremendous porcelain museum through a gate on the opposite side.

  9. I concur with your impressions of Beijing Max. I found it a rather paradoxical place, part repressed, part liberated, at times utterly filthy (your ‘soft focus’ comment is spot on) yet also capable of providing standards of luxury as great as anywhere on earth.

    The first thing that I noted on the drive in from the airport was a Lamborghini sales room. Not what I expected. It was the starkest reminder of where the Chinese economy is going. Indeed, only a few weeks back I found myself talking to a guy whose job was to export Luxury goods into China to satisfy the generation of uber-wealthy billionaires that inhabit the country. Things are on the up (for some at least).

    The other weird thing I noted was that it possible to listen to pop music, wear Western fashions, get loaded on alcohol and dress provocatively, but try and get your hands on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights Of Man’ (or the BBC website) and you’d feel the wrath of the Party. The adaptability of the Party to accommodate anything that doesn’t threaten the Party struck me as a curiously primitive but effective survival technique.

    Elsewhere, I visited the Forbidden City only to find a Starbucks tucked away within its walls. This didn’t bother me as frankly we needed a drink and all sense of dignity had already been surrendered on the door when I noted Roger Moore voiced the audio guide for visiting tourists.

    And yes, the dirt was immense. At the time we got hit by a dirt storm that had swept in from the Goby desert – cars were using their wipers to deal with it, as if t were snow. Pollution seemed to be a way of life.

    My favourite place – and I recommend kimbofo goes there – was Ghost Street, where the local cuisine proved to be a rather great, white knuckle ride. Extraordinary.

    You’ve brought a lot of rich memories flooding back.

  10. The Starbucks is gone now. Otherwise though, your memories are similar to mine.

    The selective restrictions are odd. I couldn’t access facebook for example. When the internet first started booming I remember predictions that it would lead to the downfall of authoritarianism, that authoritarian states would find it impossible to control the flow of information and so would lose control.

    In truth though it seems that authoritarian states vary widely, and some adapt surprisingly swiftly when the need arises. China has managed economic liberalisation without political, something that back in the 1990s was thought impossible. The Chinese though never made the mistake of proclaiming history as being at an end.

    Given they are the rising superpower and that the US’s hegemony looks increasingly exhausted, it looks like history will continue to be with us a while yet. If anything, it is we that have become more authoritarian, not them less.

  11. That Starbucks was quite controversial; yet a lot of the objections were raised by visitors to China who want the rest of the world to retain its antiquity so it can be showcased museum-style to tourists, irrespective of the wishes of the indigenous population and their legitimate desire to have the same facilities (for better or worse) than everybody else in the world.

    The other big myth about China concerns Tiananmen Square, still wrongly believed by many to be an uprising in the name of democracy, but actually a protest against corrupt business practice that led to a stand off between students and the Party which only after several weeks escalated into a moment of brutal madness. The West spun it as a pro-democracy attempt at revolution. It never really was.

    China is difficult to fathom as such to the Western observer. We cannot really comprehend the vastness of the place, the many sub-cultures within it, the sheer quantity of people involved. It’s something Deng Xiaoping understood brilliantly. He was arguably a far greater world leader than the West would dare to admit, evolving the Party from Mao Zedong’s brutal tyranny, and embracing Capitalism gradually.

    China’s human rights record is indisputably monstrous (95% of all Asian executions take place in China). But it lingers behind Iraq and Saudi Arabia in world rankings (with the USA 12th on current estimates) and is showing signs of improvement. The future is indeed going to be fascinating.

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