Beijing. An Englishman’s impressions…
Written whilst living there between 2009 – 2012. So many changes have happened since then that this is now just a snapshot in time…
Dedicated with gratitude and love to Lizzie. She made it possible…
by 何爱东 (Nigel Hilton)
Chapter 1 – Overview of a Fascinating City
Seventeen Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing
Beijing, previously Peking – or Youzhou as it was known a couple of thousand years ago, is presently home to some 20+ million people and has been, periodically, since the Mongols under Kublai Khan adopted it in 1271, the Capital City of the massive unified nation of China.
Looking West at dusk from the Central Business District
Presently, capital of The Peoples Republic of China, Beijing has not in recent times been at the very top of most Western peoples list of places to see, partly because of an out-dated perception of the City as being crowded, polluted and unwelcoming; And partly because, until fairly recently, it was not the most accessible of places – and visiting Westerners were not exactly encouraged by the authorities.
The Working Peoples Cultural Palace
In more recent centuries, intrepid souls emulated Marco Polo, and once again brought home wondrous tales of The Forbidden City, The Great Wall and the multitudes of rickshaws and bicycles. More recently, thanks to the astonishing show the Chinese put on for the 2008 Olympic Games, many more have since been and seen for themselves what a varied and interesting and, (we’re told) compared to the more industrialised parts of the country, relatively unpolluted place it is, though it has been pointed out to me that the quite regular fogs we experience here cannot, in fact, be “fog” as the air here during the Winter months is far too dry! (And that pollution readings taken at the various embassies regularly go off the scale…)
In fairness to the Chinese authorities though, becoming aware what a turn-off smog is to both residents and visitors, they are now spending more on research in to non, or less polluting forms of energy than anyone else in the world, planting millions more trees than any other nation on earth and, in addition, stated in their last 5 year plan that they were going to monitor – and publicise – the pollution levels in certain cities themselves, and have even agreed to also publish the stricter, American particulate-size, data.
China has the advantage at present of owning the most accessible reserves of Rare Earths which are essential for the manufacture of hi-tech, long-lasting batteries and thus Hybrid and Renewable Energy. Perhaps mindful of the limited nature of these minerals, they have recently begun to hoard said reserves. It would be of great economic interest to China to be a major player in what may well become the next Big Thing after Oil – a resource of which China has great need, yet little of, and for which it has been hugely reliant upon the Middle East and Africa.
China does not like to be reliant upon others…
Skyscrapers and Pagodas – Central Business District from Jingshan Park
The Olympic Games themselves were a catalyst to open Beijing to the world at large, and the Chinese, with some justification, felt that having banished from the City most of the smoky factories, power stations and coal home fires, they had something worthwhile to show the world. The improvement of the public transportation system around the City, dramatically accelerated for the Games, continues apace with the already impressive Subway system expanding significantly, with several more entire lines opening over the next year or two.
If a visit to China is on the cards perhaps Hong Kong or Shanghai, or the Yangtze River or the Three Gorges Dam, or Chengdu and Xian to see the Giant Pandas and the Terracotta Army, consider adding Beijing to the itinerary. Read this first and it might help you get more out of your visit. Visas are still required, so plan ahead, bring comfortable walking shoes, lots of energy and an open mind and you should return with a better balanced regard for one of the World’s Great Cities.
The best time to visit Beijing is during the brief Spring or Autumn. The North of China is bitterly cold and very dry in Winter and hot and humid in the Summer, whilst the South is hot and humid for much of the year. Beijing in March and April is pleasant, as is October, and the weeks immediately surrounding those aren’t too bad, but, unless you enjoy bitingly cold Winter days or hot and sticky Summers, best to avoid this City for the rest of the year.
A common perception about Beijing is that one will never see the Sun – or blue skies, because of the smog and, whilst there certainly are days that visibility is somewhat restricted particularly in the Summer, there are also lovely clear days most often in the Winter, and it was always a joy (on a clear day) to look West from our 39th floor apartment across the City to the Mountains beyond. These opinions are, of course, relative. A friend from Colorado feels the skies here are never clear and blue, whereas, I’m comparing with England…
If there’s one criticism I can make, not just of Beijing, but of the whole of the People’s Republic, it’s that, generally speaking, the Chinese way of restoring buildings seems to be to tear them down and rebuild them in the original style. Not all, of course, but many, and it does give a somewhat artificial feel to a lot of the sights.
The Lakes in north-central Beijing