I stepped out of the unlit hutong alley, dodging rubbish and stray dogs as I headed closer to the main strip. I turned the corner onto a side street filled with small shops adorned with neon signs all in Mandarin. No English signs suggesting these stores welcomed Western customers, no flags showing what languages other than Chinese could be spoken. This was Beijing, but not the part where tourists usually visited.
To my left was a scowling, muscular man sitting outside what looked like a butchery. He took a drag of his cigarette before leaving it on the lip of his ashtray as he stood up from his rickety wooden stool. He clenched his fist, punching it into the palm in his hand, as he slowly rose to make eye contact with me. In a loud voice, directed at me, the man shouted:
“Hello mister, you want meal? English menu!?
I smiled, politely declined, then kept walking. A few minutes later I began to hear languages more familiar to me – German, Hebrew, Spanish, and of course English. I’d reached the main strip again. Sometimes to get lost – be it on purpose, as I often try to do, or accidentally – you only need to walk one street over from the main thoroughfare.
I suppose that gentleman sums up Beijing for me. He was friendly, helpful, and welcome – but at first glance a little intimidating. Perhaps I came to Mainland China expecting similarities with the Taiwanese, and was struck immediately by the differences instead. The people of Taipei were ready with a smile, rarely raised their voice, and wouldn’t consider spitting in public! But as wrong as it would have been for me to measure the people of Beijing by New Zealand standards, I equally could not judge them by Taiwanese standards.
I suppose I also naturally felt more at home in Taiwan – I’ve been told I have a Taipei personality…
It look me a little while to find my hostel, as the instructions in English largely referred to signs written only in Chinese. I’d been so busy brushing up on my Italian that I’d neglected learning enough Mandarin (or Ukrainian for that matter) to ask for directions, but I managed to figure it out in the end. My hostel was in a traditional hutong neighbourhood – populated largely with two-story stone tenements built around central courtyards. The alleys were closed to most vehicle traffic, but the constant blare of moped horns or bicycle bells meant I spent more time jumping sideways than walking forward. Some alleys had clearly been redeveloped, whereas others were a lot more run down and felt a lot more authentic. Apart from every second pedestrian being on their phone, it felt like what I imagined China was like in the 1950’s.
I only had three days to explore Beijing, so despite being exhausted from a fourteen-hour flight and four-hour immigration clearance (or was it the other way around?) I rushed out of my hostel as soon as check-in and baggage-drop had been completed. First up – the Summer Palace. This was actually lowest on my must-see list, but given the opening hours or time required for other sites it worked out better to come here first. Exiting the subway station nearest to the palace complex felt like entering a different country – instead of narrow alleys and open sewers, I was on a long boulevard lined with fragrant trees. As I passed the modern Western restaurants near the station, bicycle rickshaw drivers rushed to offer me a ride to the palace. They weren’t asking for much, but I felt like a walk – and it was only 400 metres away.
The palace complex was nice, but with no real “wow” factor. Perhaps I would have felt differently had it been less crowded, or had my audio guide been working properly, but it just seemed like a series of buildings indistinguishable from each other, all merging into one. In a way it felt like I was walking in circles. However, I knew the was at least one part of the complex I had to see, and the Tower of Buddhist Incense was not going to let me down.
The tower was one of the sites where an extra fee was imposed, but it was worth every yuan. We weren’t able to go inside, but the structure was impressive enough from the outside to justify the cost to get up close. The nearby Temple of Sea Wisdom was also impressive, and the view of Lake Kunming was worth the hike up the hill, however nothing else in the complex could compare to the tower. I took the long way back to the gate, hoping to find other gems along the way. However, I ended up spending most of the walk finding new angles for photos of the tower.
Whilst the Summer Palace was last on the list, the Temple of Heaven was second only to the Great Wall. I went to the palace first on the basis that I’d need less time at the smaller Temple complex, which worked out to be true, but the Temple of Heaven was easily the highlight of the day. It was another case of “crowded site with no entrance to the building” but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. To me the Temple of Heaven (specifically the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests) has always been the image that comes to my mind when I think of Beijing – like the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Statue of Liberty for New York, or the airport for Auckland. There was an attached museum, but with all the exhibits in Chinese only (or to put it more fairly: “with my inability to read Chinese”) I didn’t stay too long. I wandered the temple grounds further, only to find a lot of the other buildings closed. The gardens behind the temple were empty apart from a few elderly Chinese couples, enjoying the fragrance of the blossomed flowers. I joined them for a few minutes, sitting back with my eyes closed just breathing it all in. It had been a long day, and it was good to decompress for a minute before heading back to my hostel.