Beijing was not what we expected. While we’d anticipated being impressed by at least the scale of China‘s capital city, with its 15.6 million strong population and vast size (roughly the size of Belgium), we had assumed it would be chaotic, sprawling, overwhelming and perhaps not particularly enjoyable. Instead we left were in awe not just of its size but of the calm that reigns supreme in Beijing, despite the vast numbers of people, with well ordered traffic (and cars that use their indicators rather than their horns), efficient public transport, clean streets with rubbish and recycling bins everywhere, English language signs (a happy legacy of the Olympics), and bike lanes along all roads that keep cyclists separated from the cars and buses. Transport for London could learn a lot from the city authorities here - particularly from the cycle lanes which are so much better than ours.
We walked and cycled for miles along wide, spotlessly clean boulevards, past huge skyscraper office blocks, fancy hotels, shopping malls and heaving flyovers. With much of the city’s architecture dominated by shiny, new, glass and steel constructions, you could be almost anywhere in the world – it certainly doesn’t feel like a Communist country, or such an ancient city. And yet the city is unmistakably Asian, and with Chinese script on every poster and billboard it’s impossible to forget where you are. And it’s clear that the cult of Mao is still alive and well with images of the former leader everywhere (even every banknote) and hour long queues on the weekday morning we visited his mummified corpse with thousands of Chinese tourists (pilgrims?).
And scratch below the surface only a little and dive off a main street and you quickly find evidence of China’s ancient past, getting lost in the Hutongs, the narrow alleyways of one-storey buildings introduced by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. They crisscross the city, creating a rabbit warren effect and now house a mix of traditional houses, boutique courtyard hotels (like the lovely one we stayed in), food markets and slightly down at heel cafes and barber shops.
China’s imperial past also intermingles with the new. The magnificent Forbidden City dominates the centre of the city, enclosed behind a huge moat. It was off limits for 500 years until Puyi, the last Emperor was removed in 1924. The huge complex of halls, temples and palaces, raised on marble terraces above great courtyards and opulent gardens, is magnificent, as are their names. Our particular favourites include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Mental Cultivation. Even with the inside of the buildings closed to visitors it is easy to imagine the beauty and magnificence of court life during the imperial dynasties, and even with all the crowds to lose yourself in one of smaller courtyards and find yourself almost alone.
We spent two days travelling out of central Beijing, first to the Great Wall, and then cycling to the beautiful and serene Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing, and on both trips were struck by the beauty of China – something we hadn’t heard people talk about before. At the Great Wall, we walked a 5 mile section of the wall itself, as it dramatically wriggled along the mountain ridge, rising and falling steeply all the way to the horizon. We were surprised at how intricate the wall itself was, as well as being fantastically strong, and it was made – to our eyes – by its setting, with jagged, empty, tree covered mountains stretching out in all directions as far as we could see, fading to pale blue in the distance.
The Summer Palace was built as an escape for the Emperor and the court during the hot summer months in the city, and is set around a picturesque lake, surrounded by weeping willow trees, huge gardens and pavilions with a mountain backdrop. While less awe inspiring than the Great Wall, it was beautifully serene, and we spent several very happy hours just wandering around the lake.
So although Beijing feels very modern and aspirational, it wasn’t as hectic or chaotic as we’d expected – and to our mind was all the better for that. I’m sure some of our abiding memories of the city will be of strolling around the lakes in Beijing’s beautiful formal garden, watching people practising Tai Chi, taking dance lessons, or simply doing their exercises, or of seeing children and adults sitting by the side of the roads playing cards or watching the world go by. And so, much to our surprise, Beijing has been a gentle and enjoyable as well as a fascinating introduction to China.