Well, we’re here. After being in China for nearly a year, we finally made it up to Beijing. Our arrival matched our expectations, which had probably been influenced over the last year by the Chinese where we live. In the Southern imagination, if you could say there is one, Beijing is a gray-skyed, gray-buildinged urban sprawlscape, populated by crude northerners and the equally unsavory well-connected.
So when we emerged from the neo-Stalinist-esque (is that a real category?) Beijing West train station, it was gray and drizzling, with the umbrella’d masses slowly jostling and squeezing through the fenced-in, narrow pedestrian lanes. On the subway, fashionably-dressed young women gave up their seats to get away from the exhausted laborers in wet cotton jackets who sat down next to them. And at the bus stops, the usual poster ads for Lenovos and iPads were replaced with “persist in supporting scientific development” propaganda banners.
But this wouldn’t be China (or a blog post) if things hadn’t actually turned out completely, totally different from what we expected. Our first morning, we awoke to gorgeous clear skies and headed out the door. By “clear” skies, I mean that from Coal Hill you could see clear ‘cross the city, even as far as the Xishan mountains to the west. But the real surprise was how cool this city has apparently become. When I was here in 2005, the place was in Olympic-preparation overdrive, and the awkwardness with which the city was trying to open itself up, while also covering itself in gritty construction dust, was interesting but not too appealing. Just trying in central-bureaucratically-directed vain to be more like Shanghai, I thought. Not gonna work. Now, though, I think Beijing may actually be China’s coolest city. First of all, there seem to be independent galleries, shops–even a brewery!–all over the place now, indicating both a level of creativity beyond what is normal in China as well as a more down-to-earth customer base than the strictly high-end Armani and D&G shoppers of Shanghai. Second, the sights in Beijing really are pretty cool, even after seeing them all once before and traipsing all over the rest of China. There’s no disputing, for example, that the Forbidden City is incredible, even if the actual exhibits are kind of a pain to see, and all the best imperial loot is on display in Taibei. Third, despite all the negative attention heaped on Beijing for tearing down so much of its rich architectural patrimonie, it seems to still have way more acreage of semi-traditional hutongs than Shanghai retains in its traditional lilongs. Walking these neighborhoods, you’re also more apt to come across Chinese-speaking young expats than elsewhere in China, where most foreigners are either doing business through a layer of interpreters and handlers or riding out the recession teaching English (no Chinese needed). Add in the sizable presence of other ethnic groups from across the vast Chinese empire, and the result is that Beijing can actually feel cosmopolitan, a place where people and cultures, including East and West, actually mix. Again, this a favorable comparison to other cities like Shanghai, where the feeling is that East-West (and rich-poor) is much more segmented.
In short, it turns out that this gray, dusty, packed northern city may actually be completely awesome. And even have some good weather now and then.