Beijing is a beast, an enormous dragon with millions and millions of people running through its veins. The fire it breathes has sunk the entire area under a deep mist; there is rarely a blue sky here, just an oppressing heat and a milky haze that makes the sun seem harmless. But a glimpse beyond the mist shows that history and beauty are intertwined all over. The new and the old thrive side by side. Post-modern architecture changes the skyline almost daily, stuffing more and more people into this already overcrowded metropolis.
This is truly a city that never sleeps and one that never stops running. Beijing is a China beyond my expectations: vibrant, modern and alive, but also incredibly crowded, busy and pushy. The myth of the bad Chinese driver was proven untrue here; men and women can pull maneuvers worthy of a race car driver. Even cyclists who should be safe on their bike lanes have to dodge cars, pedestrians and buses. Traffic seems to be guided by miracles or by some kind of sixth sense. Everything is a race here: they run to get ahead of you in line, they run to an empty seat, to the metro door, to the elevator, to the Buddha image on the local temple. They rush and push to win what everyone else also gets a few seconds later. There is no personal space here.
Whenever not running, the people of Beijing can be found eating. Everything your heart desires can be savoured here: restaurants of all denominations are always busy. And then there’s the street food. What do you fancy, shrimp? Perhaps a skewer of scorpions? There are also crickets, octopi, even starfish on a stick…mmm, crunchy.
This city is so old, with so many layers and so much history. There is so much to see to the point that sights must be chosen carefully. The mandatory first is the Forbidden City, the old centre of imperial power. The Forbidden City, once the dwelling of reclusive emperors and the inspiration of legends and myths for everyone else, sits at the very centre of the city. Off limits for five hundred years, this amazing fortress now offers a monumental glimpse into traditional Chinese architecture and the opulence (and detachment) enjoyed by the old ruling elites. An entire day is barely enough to peel section after section of this onion-like city, to see the royal buildings and temples, to follow the labyrinthine passages, to lose oneself in the gardens and glimpse at the old ornamentation.
If unbelievable sights is the ongoing theme, then it is hard to choose what is more amazing: whether entering the Forbidden City or having the Great Wall of China up close, with a chance of walking on its ancient bricks. There are many sections of the Wall one can choose to visit, the ones closest to Beijing have almost all been rebuilt to resemble their original splendor. We chose to go to Simatai, a section largely untouched and still in ruins. No tour bus for us, we went on our own using the metro, local buses, and hiring a suicidal driver for whom yellow and solid white lines on the road meant nothing. Simatai is amazing! A gondola trip through cliffs and mountains leaves you at the foot of the Wall…and what a Wall! Extending as far as the eye can see, this section, although slowly withering away, still demands respect. It is steep here, and high. Watch your step or tumble down to the nearest watchtower, or even worse, down the mountain to a rocky grave. For hours we walked up and down this Wall, wondering what it was like to live (or die) to defend it.
There is more beauty to see in Beijing that can be described here. There is a picturesque Summer Palace, a Temple of Heaven, the historical Tiananmen Square with the stuffed body of Mao, and so much more. I learned a new expression here: synapse collapse, so appropriate for this place. China is overwhelming, if one is not careful it would be so easy to stay forever and feed the dragon of yet another foreigner hungry for beauty, history and sensory overload.
Words and photos: José Canjura