I’m often asked what it’s like to travel to Beijing. I’ve never known how to answer the question. Ask me what to do here and I’d have to reach for a guide book before making any suggestions. I’ve never turned up to this city as a tourist or an outsider. From my first visit over 17 years ago I was welcomed into the city as a local. I can still remember looking out an apartment window at a snow covered Beijing below. Everything was strange. I couldn’t speak the language and yet I felt so comfortable.
To understand how much the city has changed, back then there were 3 subway lines. There are now 27. The building I’m sitting in didn’t exist, it was a field at the end of a road that led to nowhere. It would be easy to say the city has changed beyond recognition, but it hasn’t. But, as I look out of the window now, it is still the same snow covered Beijing I remember from all those years ago.
Some things have changed though. As I take my sons around the city, I find myself telling them stories of my early visits. We share the things that surprised me and the things I enjoyed. I make a point of talking about the things I found strange or difficult.
I share these moments from my latest trip, not as a guide for what to do in Beijing, but as a way of answering the question. “What is it like in Beijing?” This is how I experience it.
The temperature in summer was 40ºC+. The heat was unbearable and we found it difficult to spend much time outdoors. If I was travelling alone I would have pushed myself a little more to explore the city. But with a four month old child, we tried not to take too many risks with the heat. When we booked our flights for this trip, we knew December would be cold. But we expected it to be bearable. Just before we set off, the temperature dropped significantly. Day 1, and the high was -7ºC, dropping to -15ºC at night. We timed this well.
The cold and the snow haven’t dampened the excitement of the children. Whereas in summer all we wanted to do was camp out next to the air-conditioner, in the winter all we want to do is be outisde. My eldest in particular wants to jump around in the snow, hear it crunch as he lands. He wants to be the first one out and leave a trail of fresh footprints for others to follow. But before we let him out into the snow, we needed to find him some shoes.
I’m used to buying shoes by first selecting a pair I like, then seeing if they have something in my size. Here it appeared to be different. You just browse what is available in your size. I prefer this approach, but it requires a little more real estate than a typical London shop.
I once remarked that the shopping malls in Beijing had changed since the onset of Covid. In the discussion that followed it was clear that some believe the malls have changed for the better. There was rarely a need to visit them as you can do everything on your phone these days. I’m not convinced this is a positive change. In this particular mall, there was a whole floor dedicated to children’s activities. It now stands empty, a reminder of when childrens’ clubs were thriving, keen to charge you an annual membership. These days, the hollow shells of unused arcade machines line once busy floors. A tinny looped voice encourages you to scan the QR code to play.
In a different wing of the mall we found signs of life. The Kyosho Mini-Z Grand Prix was mid way through the heats. Maybe this is why the rest of the mall was deserted. Competition was fierce and at times heated. We witnessed parents arguing after a car malfunction saw their child eliminated.
My Chinese isn’t good enough to understand the rules of the competition. It seemed to involve a lot more than just racing an RC car aroud the circuit. There were tables of people repairing and tuning cars. Pizza was everywhere. It was so nice to see people of all ages throwing themselves into competitive fun.
After lunch, we ventured out to the local park to catch the last of the sun. The park is predominantly used for exercise, but it is also a nice place to walk. It was late afternoon and people were still hard at work clearing snow and ice from the roads and footpaths. In the UK we don’t know how to deal with the slightest extremes in weather. Trains come to a standstill, we run out of grit, busses stop running. Here the approach seems to be, get on with life.
As we walked home, we past what was once the local pool. In today’s weather I didn’t expect the pool to be open, but this pool closed a while ago now. It lives in the shadow of a newly opned private gym. We used to come here in summer to enjoy some time in the water. It’s the same story we see time and time again in the UK. Private sports facilities seem to succeed whilst charging a small fortune. Public facilities charge next to nothing for entry and fall into disrepair. Despite the differences in politics, ideals and governments. Some challenges look remarkably similar.
As the sun finally set on Beijing, we walked home past this recently opened school building. The colour was striking in the setting son. There is something about the colour red in Beijing. In summer it stands out in contrast to the grey walls. In winter it is even more striking against the backdrop of snow. But it was the scale of this school building that I found most impressive. Back in the UK we’ve been struggling to keep my son’s class size in double digits. At one point the class was so small they had access to more classrooms than pupils. In contrast, this school building was incredible in scale. The fact it was a construction site only a few months ago is hard to believe.
On the one hand, it doesn’t feel like we did much today; a trip to the mall and a walk in the park. But am exhausted. I love these non-event days, they allow me to feel at home in Beijing.