Friday, 1 October 2010

My Beijing-a-ling

Beijing is the new San Francisco.  Well, substitute hills around a bay for the North China Plain, the sea breeze for haze, gay-friendly liberalism for conformity-friendly authoritarianism ... alright, so there's not much in common. Except that I don't know anyone who's been to either city and not liked it.

Beijing is enormous, old, brand-new and fascinating.  It's been the capital of China since the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (of Marco Polo and 'In Xanadu did ...' fame), so it's packed with history.  The King Kong attraction is the Forbidden City, the exclusive palace/fortress complex that the emperor, his concubines and horde of eunuchs rarely strayed from.  It's the biggest star of the excellent film The Last Emperor, and is just bloody magnificent.  It's huge - like Pompeii, you can spend a day walking and not see everything..  There are endless treasures: rooms full of delicately carved jade, intricate gold pagodas, beautiful porcelain and a vast number of amazingly elaborate clocks.

 It's a wonderful place, with art everywhere - from the procession of beasts on the rooves to the marble walkways.  Naturally it's very popular, but fortunately because there's so much space everyone spreads out and it's possible to find some quiet spots to do what we do best - jumping photos.

Beijing has really had a facelift in the last decade or so too.  Opinion is divided on whether or not it was a good thing.  On the downside, many of the very atmospheric hutongs (the tangled alleyways of old Beijing) have been levelled.  On the upside, they've gained many a grand skyscraper and the mightly impressive Water Cube and National Stadium, the Bird's Nest.

On the whole, we found the city a great mix of old and new.  While the traffic is pretty horrible, the biggest downside is the haze.  Even on a fine day there's precious little blue in the sky.  The air pollution is so bad that, after spending most of a day walking around the Forbidden City and the concrete vastness that is Tianamen Square, I had a coughing fit that lasted half an hour.  So do go to Beijing, but just take it easy with the deep breathing.

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