Beijing Calling
 
Beijing is an incredible city. It definitely belongs to my top cities in the world. Anyone who has ever pondered on the “spirit” or ambition that drives a city, as explored by Paul Graham in this absolutely wonderful article (definitely worth a read), will know that Beijing has an entirely unique and exhilarating energy to it. It is, on one hand, a huge, sprawling metropolis, lumbering along, slowly plodding its way through a mass of bureaucracy with a self-assuredness that befits the seat of the Communist Party, but on the other hand, the spirit of hard work and perseverance, coupled with an open-eyed sense of enthusiasm, excitement and incredible opportunity, provide a lively contrast and make Beijing, in my opinion, one of the most exciting places one could possibly live. Thus I gladly have adopted it as my temporary hometown. Experiences of pollution with AQI (Air Quality Index) levels above 200 on an average day (in the West, pollution levels this high are considered “severely hazardous” … read: we live in the equivalent of a smoker’s hotbox), hour-long commutes to get from one end of the city to the other, and that daunting feeling of having to strategically plan your exit from a rush hour-packed subway car at least three stops in advance of your actual getting-off stop…. Are balanced out by being able to find delicious street food on the street corner for less than a euro, but also some of the finest bars and restaurants in the world, by being able to wander through what remains of the tiny, winding, interconnected passageways of the hutongs and be immediately transplanted back into the Beijing of many decades ago, and most importantly, by the fact that Beijing seems to attract an incredible number of open-minded, positive, energetic people that are the driving force behind the hum and buzz that keep this city in constant movement.
 
But all this can get tiring after awhile. We had been in Beijing for just about a month when the wanderlust struck again for the first time. The initial cravings for all the food we had missed (savouring that first taste of Korean barbeque in over three years! – the tantalizing spicy bubbliness of the first Mongolian hotpot! – and of course, the way the first piece of Beijing duck that we craved for so long, slowly melts away on the tongue….) had been filled, pollution levels were running high, and I had almost gotten into a bicycle crash when I found myself pedalling my little pink bike next to towering trucks and insane drivers hurtling down the four-lane 4th ring road during an unfortunate side trip on my way home from a friend’s place. 
 
We decided it was time to escape the city for a weekend. Going old school and consulting a map, we drew a circle with a radius of about 5oo kilometres around Beijing, thus easily reachable by a journey on one of the many Chinese night trains. Having debated several options, we decided on the Wutaishan National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site located in Shanxi province, about 4oo kilometres southwest of Beijing. Train tickets in hand, looking across a highway intersection of four-by-four lanes, right next to the little window from which we purchased our tickets (RMB100 each way (approx. €12.50!!!) for a seven-hour hard sleeper bed), it was hard to imagine that we would soon be leaving the city, and would find ourselves in one of the oldest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China. 
 
(Photo: Pencil sketch of old Beijing Hutongs, Yandai Xiejie by Kuang Han)

Beijing Calling

 

Beijing is an incredible city. It definitely belongs to my top cities in the world. Anyone who has ever pondered on the “spirit” or ambition that drives a city, as explored by Paul Graham in this absolutely wonderful article (definitely worth a read), will know that Beijing has an entirely unique and exhilarating energy to it. It is, on one hand, a huge, sprawling metropolis, lumbering along, slowly plodding its way through a mass of bureaucracy with a self-assuredness that befits the seat of the Communist Party, but on the other hand, the spirit of hard work and perseverance, coupled with an open-eyed sense of enthusiasm, excitement and incredible opportunity, provide a lively contrast and make Beijing, in my opinion, one of the most exciting places one could possibly live. Thus I gladly have adopted it as my temporary hometown. Experiences of pollution with AQI (Air Quality Index) levels above 200 on an average day (in the West, pollution levels this high are considered “severely hazardous” … read: we live in the equivalent of a smoker’s hotbox), hour-long commutes to get from one end of the city to the other, and that daunting feeling of having to strategically plan your exit from a rush hour-packed subway car at least three stops in advance of your actual getting-off stop…. Are balanced out by being able to find delicious street food on the street corner for less than a euro, but also some of the finest bars and restaurants in the world, by being able to wander through what remains of the tiny, winding, interconnected passageways of the hutongs and be immediately transplanted back into the Beijing of many decades ago, and most importantly, by the fact that Beijing seems to attract an incredible number of open-minded, positive, energetic people that are the driving force behind the hum and buzz that keep this city in constant movement.

 

But all this can get tiring after awhile. We had been in Beijing for just about a month when the wanderlust struck again for the first time. The initial cravings for all the food we had missed (savouring that first taste of Korean barbeque in over three years! – the tantalizing spicy bubbliness of the first Mongolian hotpot! – and of course, the way the first piece of Beijing duck that we craved for so long, slowly melts away on the tongue….) had been filled, pollution levels were running high, and I had almost gotten into a bicycle crash when I found myself pedalling my little pink bike next to towering trucks and insane drivers hurtling down the four-lane 4th ring road during an unfortunate side trip on my way home from a friend’s place.

 

We decided it was time to escape the city for a weekend. Going old school and consulting a map, we drew a circle with a radius of about 5oo kilometres around Beijing, thus easily reachable by a journey on one of the many Chinese night trains. Having debated several options, we decided on the Wutaishan National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site located in Shanxi province, about 4oo kilometres southwest of Beijing. Train tickets in hand, looking across a highway intersection of four-by-four lanes, right next to the little window from which we purchased our tickets (RMB100 each way (approx. €12.50!!!) for a seven-hour hard sleeper bed), it was hard to imagine that we would soon be leaving the city, and would find ourselves in one of the oldest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China.

 

(Photo: Pencil sketch of old Beijing Hutongs, Yandai Xiejie by Kuang Han)

  1. janicewanderlust posted this