There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.
They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.
The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.
The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.
The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.
The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.
You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takes a trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.
Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.
You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.