Almost exactly 10 years after I first arrived in Beijing in 2007 I found myself back there in March 2017. As has sadly become the norm, the city was shrouded in a thick blanket of smog so we decided to head out of the city for the weekend for a hike in the mountains.
A friend of mine, Cai Qing, was recently in Chaoyang Park (Beijing) when she noticed a group was holding open auditions for a part in an upcoming Chinese movie. She’s not an actress by profession but thought it would be fun so recorded a couple of short introductory casting videos and went on her way. For most people the story would end here but things took an intriguing twist… Read more
In my last post from Beijing (for now) we take a trip to a remarkable new landmark floating behind the Great Hall of the People, colloquially known as The Egg, which houses the National Centre for the Performing Arts. At a cost of 3.2 billion CNY this was no cheap egg to lay and indeed caused much controversy given its location next to some of China’s most holy of holy sites (Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are also next door).
Seen here beautifully lit up at night I stumbled across it almost by accident when its shimmering titanium and glass surface caught my eye at the end of the street near where I was staying. As if a UFO had just landed in the middle of an old hutong it does look rather out of place and locals complain that it’s upset the feng shui of the area. When viewed from the hill in Jingshan Park you can see why…
Photo by hectorhannibal
Sitting in the middle of an artificial lake, it has been described by the French architect Paul Andreu as “a cultural island in the middle of a lake” and despite its aesthetic incongruity it’s a spectacular structure. Access to the interior Opera, Music and Theatre halls is made possible via an underwater walkway which I was unfortunately unable to enter at the time (a guard said “no” rather abruptly as I approached) but is supposedly as impressive on the inside as it is out.
Like so much in China old and new exist in an uneasy sort of harmony which smacks of having a deep identity crisis (or perhaps just bad taste). Beijing has both benefited and suffered from being a foreign architects playground with many examples of hits and misses. I’d call this an awkward hit but possibly misplaced in its location. It will probably never be the icon that the Sydney Opera House is but will undoubtedly serve its purpose admirably.
Two years have passed since I spent three months in Beijing in 2007 and it only seems like yesterday that I was writing a series of posts about how Beijing was changing in its mad dash to get ready for the 2008 Olympics. Of course the games are long over but the city has been forever changed by its passing and on my first return two weeks ago I was surprised at the extent of the transformation. Using photos I snapped on previous visits (and a few more I found online) I’ve put together a few comparative impressions from my fleeting visit…
Pollution & Traffic
Upon landing at Beijing Capital International Airport we were greeted with the all-too-familiar blanket of smog suffocating the suns light casting a grey hue over the city’s many architectural monstrosities. Whist initially depressing things cleared up for the rest of the week with almost-blue skies giving much better visibility than I ever remember in the past. A wander through the Forbidden City and up the hill in Jingshan Park visibly confirmed this:
Forbidden City from Jingshan Park – March 2008
What was an invisible haze in early 2008 is now a beautiful vista in 2009. Whether it would be like this everyday is another matter but with this sort of view the imagination runs wild. I quite fancy the job of Emperor if it comes with a palace like this!
Hall of Supreme Harmony – March 2008
Aside from the much improved view the restoration work has now been completed on the centrepiece of the Forbidden City. I hesitate to use the word “restore” as its not so much preserving the original as it is replicating and rebuilding to reproduce the original look which is a sad reflection on China’s obsession with new being good and old being bad.
As for the traffic – it’s just as bad, if not worse, than it ever was. Taxi drivers are still rude and unhelpful.
When climbing the Great Wall at Mutianyu previously there was a certain point at watchtower 20 where you could go no further due to the deterioration of the wall (and a man stationed to stop you!) but over the past year they seem to have done a big restoration effort and are opening up further sections:
Mutianyu Great Wall – March 2008
I didn’t have time to climb the new section but it looks exciting. The nice part about Mutianyu is the relative lack of people compared to Badaling which is the main tourist site being closer to Beijing. The quickest way to get there is by a bus from near Xuanwumen subway station.
The Beijing subway used to be somewhat of a groaning monster under the streets which was neither comfortable nor convenient to use and invariably overcrowded most of the time. This has mostly changed with the advent of an automated ticketing system, new/refurbished trains and additional lines to ride on making the city much more accessible. There are still too many people but this is more bearable now that the trains have working AC:
Photo by Tan Yu
Weirdly they are still insisting on scanning everyone’s bag as they enter the station which seems more of a token act than a real security precaution. It’s almost like nobody has told them the games are over or that now ticket checkers are no longer needed that the staff have been blindly given this job to keep them employed. Whatever the reason it’s a bit of a hassle and bottleneck.
The saddest part of my trip was seeing the newly rebuilt Qianmen street that has taken the place of some fascinating old hutongs which have been almost totally destroyed. I’ve written about this specific act of cultural vandalism before so I’ll try not repeat myself but it makes me feel quite sick at what they’ve done.
Qianmen – March 2006
Photo by mikeccross
Photo by olgainchina
..the processes of stripping a real place or event of its original character and repackaging it in a sanitized format. References to anything negative are removed, and the facts are watered down with the intent of making the subject more pleasant and easily grasped. In the case of places, this typically means replacing what has grown organically over time with an idealized and tourist-friendly veneer…
I know which one I prefer.
Beijing is undoubtedly a more modern and easier city to navigate for all its recent changes but in the process of modernisation a big part of the old China has been lost to be replaced with something frankly more generic and fake which is a big pity. I only hope that the country can wake up to saving what it’s got before it’s all lost.
For the first time since its completion I finally had a chance to see Beijing’s centrepiece National Stadium dubbed the “Birds Nest”. On both of my previous visits to Beijing in 07 & 08 I had wandered around the perimeter of the building site to get a glimpse of this striking steel lattice structure but had never been inside before. Getting there is pretty easy using the subway line 8 spur.
After purchasing a ticket (50 RMB) though a gap in the iron railings which surround the stadium you’re basically left to wander around the stadium freely, which has been left pretty much as is was, complete with thousands of red and white seats sitting expectantly in neat rows. It’s an awe inspiring structure which is as impressive in the flesh as it was on TV but you have to wonder what on earth they can use it for now, other than a tourist attraction.
It was evident by the somewhat haphazard approach to the way in which the area has been opened up to tourism that the Chinese authorities didn’t really have a plan about what to do with the stadium and other facilities once the 2008 Olympic games were over. Right now it’s a bit of a white elephant, albeit a beautiful elephant!
I’m sure someone could think up a creative idea about how to bring the place back to life. For starters they could so easily play highlights of the games on the enormous screens which still hang dormant at either end of the stadium and give a little history about the construction process etc. Even better would be if they were able to put on some sort of daily re-enactment of the opening ceremony which I’m sure would pull in even bigger crowds.
Sadly the chances are that it’ll be allowed to slowly mould or be turned into a gigantic shopping mall which is the mainstay of modern Chinese urban planning. Whatever the future holds the Birds Nest and the neighbouring Water Cube are triumphs of creative and imaginative architecture and I only hope they wont go to waste.
Below is a short video I put together from shots I took during my trip to Beijing last week. It’s nothing fancy but hopefully can give those who’ve not visited a small taste of the grandeur of some of the main sites there. As the country’s cultural and historic centre Beijing is not to be missed if you visit China and a good place begin exploring the country as a whole (although somewhat misleading if you expect the rest of it to be like this).
I’ve not had much time to pay attention to the technicalities of shooting video yet but hope to improve in the future. Like taking good photos it needs time and patience which are often lacking when you’re travelling with others hence why I sometimes prefer to go alone. In this way you also have a bit more space to soak up the atmosphere and go at your own pace although in general I’d prefer to share the experience with others.
…whilst for most the scenery is spectacular for others it was nothing special!
One of the great things about China is the staggering variety of snack food available on most street corners for a couple of yuan and differing from region to region. Whilst hygiene standards may be questionable (most of them are illegal) I’ve never had any problems and quite often enjoy getting some spicy dry noodles or a meat stuffed pancake on the way to work.
Wangfujing night market (王府井小吃街 in Beijing) has an exotic selection of insects, sea creatures and even scorpions which can be deep fried to order. I have a feeling that most of this is just for the sake of tourists who screech when they see the scorpions twitching on the sticks they have been harpooned on. I didn’t take my parents (who were visiting) here as I thought it might be a little too much for them!
You don’t see a huge number of people actually trying them, myself included, and none of my Chinese friends I asked would dare either. Most people opt for the more typical foods like barbecued kebabs or caramelised fruits. There was also a locally produced yogurt which was very refreshing. I’m curious to know where they get all the scorpions from – do they farm them somewhere?
If you’re looking for a more authentic experience then it’s probably best to head into the depths of one of the many, but rapidly deminishing, Hutongs in Beijing where some of the best street food is to be found (minus the creepie crawlies). I’d recommend the area between Xidan and Hepingmen metro stations (west of the opera house) where many small and cheap restaurants can be found.
Whilst studying Japanese at university in 2004 I wrote a post about a hugely popular cartoon character called Doraemon. For some reason it caused such a stir that it’s still the no.1 most read page on randomwire.com to this day. This has always slightly irked me since it wasn’t exactly a scintillating post but I have since come to terms with the fact that a cute robot cat is infinitely more popular than I’ll ever be! With 133 comments (and counting) I can’t really complain.
While wandering in Shenzhen’s mangrove forest on the southern coastline of Futian last weekend I was reminded of this feline from the future when half a dozen Doraemon shaped kites appeared in the sky as if they’d just flown in from Hong Kong (which lies across the bay). Chinese kite flying is an age old tradition with many styles dating back to the Tang Dynasty when some believed that it could be used to avoid bad luck and bring prosperity by flying high.
Whilst the kites were innocently fluttering in the breeze someone reminded me that less than 20 years ago people attempting to escape the mainland of China to Hong Kong by swimming across the bay were likely to be shot and indeed banners still warn people of the severe consequences that will face them if they attempt it. Even when living in a modern Chinese city you can’t help but feel that there are still darker elements lurking just below surface. For the most part foreigners here are blissfully unaware since the language divide prevents most from understand everything that goes on (myself included).
In other news… the lack of posting recently has been down to my crazy schedule and other shenanigans which will become clearer soon. My parents are arriving in Hong Kong tomorrow from the UK to pay me a visit and we plan to spend a little over a week travelling around, including a trip to Beijing which should be exciting. Drop me a line if you’ll be in the vicinity April 29th – May 3rd.
I only have one word to describe the opening ceremony to the Beijing 2008 Olympics – Spectacular!
China certainly knows how to put on show and with Zhang Yimou at the helm you wouldn’t really expect anything less. London now has a lot to live up to but I can already guarantee you it’ll be tame in comparison to this.
I’ll let the photos do the talking… can’t wait to download this in HD!
One of my most curious discoveries in Beijing came on my final day when I visited the grounds of Peking University (colloquially known as Beida) which can be found in the northwest district of Haidian (very near where I used to live). The rambling grounds are located on the former site of the Qing Dynasty royal gardens and retains Chinese-style landscaping as well as many traditional buildings including a large lake and pagoda.
It’s ranked as one of the best universities in Asia and, having been originally established by a group of Americans, has a rather colourful history – during the Cultural Revolution students were sent for “re-education” (they call it “re-adjustment“) to cleanse them of their liberal misunderstandings!
I wasn’t entirely sure if visitors were allowed to wander around the campus uninvited but none of the guards bat an eyelid at the gates, possibly because I’m still young enough to pass as a student, but nevertheless I was allowed to continue unimpeded! Having walked around the lake, passing a number of groups taking kitsch wedding photos (as the trend appears to be) I ventured off the main path into an altogether less well kept area and stumbled across a cluster to abandoned traditional-style buildings which I can only presume used to be classrooms.
As the whole area seemed to be deserted I decided to have a poke around inside. Most of the rooms were filled with rubbish and mother nature was clearly starting to get the better of the interior but what intrigued me was the rather artistic graffiti which previous inhabitants had left on some of the walls. As if echo’s from the past the walls clearly had a story to tell although sadly I have no idea what any of it says. If anyone out there would be kind enough to translate I’d very much appreciate it.
Whilst walking through the silent courtyard overgrown with weeds it struck me that the whole place had a bit of a bleak atmosphere and it was a great shame that it had all been left to rot. It remains a mystery as to why it has been abandoned but hopefully they’ll get around to restoring it before the deterioration gets much worse…
And so, after a very delicious dinner of Beijing Duck with my former colleagues, my second stint in Beijing came to a close. It had been a busy week to say the least but I was extremely glad to get another glimpse of this amazing pre-Olympic city with its many faces both young and old. I’m not sure when I’ll be back next but I’m sure we will meet again!
Sidenote1: If you’re into urban exploration then you may like this list of websites which feature rich photo galleries, stories and other background information including maps and building plans (for the more adventurous!).
Sidenote2: If you’d like to donate to the earthquake relief effort in China then Google have setup a site to do just that. They have options to donate to two different bona fide charities.