Beijing — City of contrasts

I have recently returned from my second trip to Beijing in less than three months. So what is it like to visit the third most populous city in the world? Well, the first impression is that it looks remarkably modern and western in the sense that the entire city (at least from what I saw and I criss-crossed it many, many times) is composed of large, wide boulevards containing dual carriageways with smaller, local access roads on either side of that. All the buildings are high-rise (10-15 stories) and largely anonymous looking and wouldn’t look out of place in many Western cities. The only clue to where you actually are, being the Chinese signs. These lego block buildings are interspersed here and there with more traditional buildings sporting the kind of stylised roofs that we often visualise when we think of China. The other notable thing about the Beijing skyline is the number of truly interesting ultra-modern buildings that stick their heads into the clouds at irregular intervals throughout the sprawling mass that is the Chinese capital — bear in mind that the greater Beijing metropolitan area is approximately the size of Belgium. It’s as if the city fathers had held a competition to find the most futuristic and architecturally ‘out-there’ designs and awarded them all first prize!

I don’t suffer from asthma or any similar respiratory complaints so I can’t say that I noticed any particular diminution in air quality but there appears to be little doubt that air pollution is a big problem in the Chinese capital and the city seems to be covered by a low lying fog or mist most of the time. My visits there were in December and march so I don’t know if such ‘fog’s burn off in the hotter summer months so something to be aware of if you suffer from such medical complaints. No doubt much of the pollution in the city is due to the huge numbers of cars — largely European — clogging the city’s main arteries. Traffic right across Beijing is extremely heavy and whilst not quite the gridlock that you experience in places like Bangkok, does nonetheless greatly increase the amount of time it takes you to get from A to B and like I say, Beijing is a huge city! Having said all that, Beijing is very clean and not at all like what you would experience in, say India. The thing that perhaps surprised me most — on both visits — was the friendliness of the people! Here is a city more than twice the size of New York and yet the human interaction at street level is more akin to what you would expect in any typical town or small city. No doubt Beijing operates like many giant metropolises — a conglomeration of intersecting and interdependent communities — each with its own unique personality and identity.

Beijing is not, I suspect, what most people expect when they visit and all I can say is that it exceeded my expectations in many respects. Future blogs will examine in more detail, the delights that this world-class city has to offer the intrepid traveller!

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