1,300,000,000 people are never going to be inconspicuous, but in China the presence of humankind is overwhelming. Not surprisingly, Beijing is no exception. Such is the scale of this city that walking is barely an option. Although less high rise than we expected, Beijing makes up for this with shear urban sprawl – vast multi-lane highways plough the city from which innumerable hutongs (alleyways) radiate like arteries, pulsating with rickshaws (mainly electric), taxis, shops, food stalls and …people.
Green spaces are hard to find, and somewhere to sit down in them (or anywhere for that matter) is even harder. The parks resound with noisy dance classes, singing practice, conversations shouted on mobile phones and the background din of the city. Compared to the gentle lilt of Nepalese, Beijing mandarin sounds harsh. It seems to be barked aggressively regardless of the situation, making any encounter feel like an interrogation. The other sound which prevails is the vigorous throat clearing, which seconds later is followed by a loud spit. This is not an endearing habit. Nor is the complete disregard for any personal space – queuing is an alien concept to the Chinese, and they delight in any opportunity to form a tightly packed mob.
Showcasing all of China’s regional specialities, Beijing’s culinary scene really does offer the chance to eat anything you can imagine (and a lot of things you can’t). Items on menus we saw included: whole terrapin baked in a clay pot, pork intestines, pig’s trotters, whole frog, seahorses, tarantulas, silk worm larvae, scorpions, locusts and snakes. Chicken feet are so common as to not fall into the “unusual” category. They are even sold individually vacuum packed as snacks in every grocery store.
More tempting to the western palate is the Peking Duck. For this we headed to the popular chain Quanjude. Less crispy than the UK equivalent, this came with the requisite wafer thin pancakes and theatrical showmanship courtesy of the waiter who carved it at our table. A particular delicacy is the fatty skin from the spine, which is served separately together with a bowl of sugar to dip it into. Weight watchers can turn away now. After the main course, the duck makes an encore appearance - this time its dismembered carcass is served in a white watery soup, while the two halves of its neatly bisected head watch on from a side plate. As the soup cools, a thick layer of fat congeals on the surface. Not one of our favourites. Better in our opinion, was the less fatty Peking Duck served at DaDong Restaurant.
While Beijing is not exactly picturesque, it and its surrounding areas do contain some of China’s most revered sites. Not least of these are the Lama Temple and the Forbidden City, the latter of which being the former administrative and cultural heart of the capital, and still the epicentre of the city.
Heading south from here is the infamous Ti’ananmen Square, still watched over by a huge portrait of Mao, and the ideological centre of the Chinese universe. Reputedly the largest public square in the world, Mao used to address crowds of up to one million people here, although it is now forever blighted by the bloody events of 1989 (about which you will find precious little if you do an internet search in China). Metal detectors and soldiers guard its every entrance, and surveillance masts bristle with CCTV cameras. Most ominously, rows of fire extinguishers flank the square at the daily flag raising and lowering ceremonies. The day after we visited, a fellow traveller described an incident he had witnessed that day at the flag lowering ceremony – a man standing next to him had suddenly thrown some Tibetan flyers into the air and started to shout. Before he could finish his second word, five plain clothed policemen had pounced on him, their hands smothering his mouth and face before they had even reached for his arms. A minute later, after he had been bundled into a waiting van, it was as though nothing had happened. By sad co-incidence, we learnt five days later that two Tibetan monks had died after setting fire to themselves in Kirti monastery in Aba county of the Sichuan province (link to news story).
A welcome break from the capital was a day trip to The Great Wall at Simatai. Stretching into the fog in both directions, this was a beautiful experience, made all the better by the relative lack of other people.
But on the whole Beijing had been a tough city to warm to, so we decided to move on in search of a different angle to this vast country.