Trying to Love Beijing
Beijing is not easy to love. It’s busy, dirty, and often just plain confusing. Every journey we made here seemed to involve some unnecessary detour or getting lost. Every meal involved scanning the menu with a smartphone app to find something vegetarian. And every trip involved battling against shoving, smoking, spitting crowds.
Those who do love Beijing do so with a sort of arrogance, with condescending statements such as “you just need some patience”, or “you should just look at the confusion as an adventure”. Both of which are complete nonsense. Having just travelled through Nepal and Mongolia, I’m well used to patiently navigating confusing countries. The difference is that Nepal and Mongolia felt like other-worldly wonderlands. From visiting friendly Himalayan villages to strolling around colourful, chaotic Kathmandu, and staying in remote ger camps to driving through the endless desert, every aspect of my trip so far has been a confusing adventure. But Beijing, this large,ugly city belching out pollution and filled with bland grey office blocks, didn’t feel like some other worldly destination- it felt like a large, ugly city. And so when we were told a certain bus would go to a certain destination and we ended up in the wrong place, it didn’t feel like a crazy adventure, it felt like a pain in the ass.
My partner Adam and I made the bad choice to start our sightseeing with a visit to Tiananmen Square. After navigating through the underground, we made our way to the entrance, had our bags scanned as we walked through metal detectors, and entered the square. It was an unimpressive stretch of concrete, clearly a destination famed for its historical significance rather than its appearance. And it was packed to bursting point with hordes of people grinning into smartphones stretched in front of them on selfie sticks. We soon realised there was nothing to do but grab a drink and sit on the concrete ground. Our only amusement came when a group approached us to ask us for a photo. Nodding our agreement and reaching for their phone to take the photo, we realised our mistake when they posed next to us and smiled for their friend’s camera- they wanted a photo taken with us, not by us. This would become a semi-regular occurrence in China, and there now exist several photos of me standing next to Chinese people and looking slightly confused.
Our next outing was more successful. We visited Lama Temple, which was a nice and interesting enough Buddhist temple filled with golden Buddhas and pretty Chinese architecture. Though, unfortunately, it, too, was filled with selfie-stick-wielding crowds.
My first happy surprise came when I discovered our hostel would be celebrating Halloween. Colouring in our faces with eyeliner in a sugar skull design (I have never, and will never, miss a chance to dress up), we joined a group of other backpackers in the bar for pints of local beer and cocktails. We were staying in the hutongs, winding alleyways where locals would sit smoking in their doorways, and chickens pecked their way along the paths. I far preferred this hidden, backstreet side to Beijing than the heavily trafficked roads and brand name stores of the main streets.
Beijing wasn’t exactly growing on me, but I did find myself tolerating it a bit more. While it did have its massive downsides, I focussed on trying to find the upside. When we struggled to find our way around, I’d remind myself that, once we finally arrived, the sights would be worth it. When I couldn’t decipher a menu, I’d focus on the fact that the food, once it was found, was pretty tasty. When people passing by would snort and sniff and hack phlegm on the ground… well, no, actually, I’ll always just find that disgusting.
Our final sight to see in Beijing was the Forbidden City. It turned out to easily be the highlight of our time in the capital. This time, the crowds couldn’t take away from the ornate structures and colourful archways. It was easy to imagine a beautiful, ancient Beijing, before it was taken over by ugly buildings and traffic. After exploring the Forbidden City, we climbed the steps of the nearby Pavilion of Everlasting Spring to take in the view. While at first the most noticeable part of the city view was the cloud of pollution hanging over it, looking past that we saw a city where the decorative curves of ancient roofs sat among tall high rises and even some leafy gardens. While I never succeeded in loving Beijing, I at least learned to find the bright side to it.
Have you been to Beijing? I’d love to hear how others view this city!