I stand on the small hill top looking out over the Forbidden City. I’ve climbed here for the views, which are said to be spectacular. In fact, I don’t see anything. A haze of smog and pollution hangs over the entire city. I can see the entrance to the Forbidden City some 50m below me, but further than that everything disappears behind the mist. My eyes are stinging and my nose is running. There’s a tickle in my throat and I can taste the lead of a million car exhausts on my tongue. Beijing’s air pollution is all it’s cracked up to be and worse.
I’ve been in the city for six days and, air quality aside, I really like it. It is a low level city with plenty of green, tree lined avenues. It has a city vibe but not the frenetic pace that defines Shanghai or London. People take time out to breathe. The residential neighbourhoods – or hutongs as the small alleyways are called – are charming. In the evening, neighbours sit outside their homes playing cards or badminton or chatting, kids ride their bikes and skateboards and it feels homely and welcoming.
I’m staying in a hostel that’s in the middle of a residential hutong. It has a small courtyard garden with red Chinese lanterns hanging from the beams and a softly trickling water feature. A fat smiling Buddha welcomes you at the entrance.
At the end of the street is a small park. A row of 12 table tennis tables lines the back fence, exercise equipment fills another corner and tables for mahjong and chess are set under trees. Anytime of the day and right into the deep dusk of evening you find men and women of all ages here, doing their exercises, competing vigorously for ping pong points or watching a game of chess, three deep around the tables.
Small restaurants dot the hutong. One night I eat fresh dumplings filled with pork and mushrooms, another night I savour a dish of spicy chicken with peanuts and chilli.
I arrive in Beijing on a Tuesday morning at rush hour. The roads are busy but no busier than a London rush hour; the bus is crowded but no more than a London bus at the same time. It takes me a few days to realise that the traffic and the crowded bus aren’t a function of the time of day. Whether you’re travelling at 8am on a Tuesday or 8am on Sunday or 8pm on a Saturday, the roads, the buses, the sidewalks are heaving with people.
Tourist attractions are unbelievably busy. Most visitors here are Chinese tourists and they find the foreigners they see as exotic as the city itself. I’m walking down the hutong one night. A man beside me is driving a small flock of geese along but the tourists who are walking towards us train their camera at me, trying to surreptitiously take their shot. At the Forbidden City people are always edging themselves beside me and when I look up I find I’m the subject of another photograph, sometimes with a smiling Chinese person standing beside me in the frame.
After a few days the sheer volume of people becomes exhausting. The Ming Dynasty Forbidden City becomes a crushing, seething mass of humanity that needs to be manoeuvred; the vast spaces of Tianamen Square (think London’s Trafalgar Square multiplied by 10 or Melbourne’s Federation Square multiplied by 50) resemble a paving stone where lines of ants are jostling and bumping and just about finding their way from one side to the other.
I take a breather from the city and take a day trip to the Great Wall. We drive for 3 hours to Simatai, a section of the wall that’s relatively unrestored and with few tourists. We hike up and there it is, a dragon’s tail of bricks and towers running over the hills and mountain tops in both directions. It’s surprisingly steep as it climbs up the edge of the hillside and down again.
We walk for three hours and I keep having to pinch myself at the reality of what I’m doing. ‘I’m walking the great wall of China,’ I tell myself and when the reality sinks in again it makes me laugh out loud with the improbability and pleasure of it.