Back From Beijing

3 11 2010

Beijing is Big. Brawny, burly and bursting at the seams kind of Big.

I’ve been fascinated with China long before Beijing took centre stage for the 2008 Olympics – and indeed centre stage on many peoples’ bucket lists. It started when I read one of the best books I’ve ever read about 12 years ago, Wild Swans by Jung Chang. The book is an epic biography that spans almost 80 years and documents the life of three generations of Chinese women during the height of communism.


So when I found out that one of the annual tourism conferences that we attend was to be hosted in Beijing this year I was first in line to sign up. Bonus that Rob and I work together and double bonus that our intrepid friends Steed and Jenna decided to join us… October 2010 and we were all set. But set for what we had almost no idea…

Just as I have almost no idea where to start talking about the immenseness of everything – the smog that smothers the skyline for days on end, the development that is ceaseless, the drama, the entertainment, the smiles – and our unwavering surprise at the fact that absolutely everything is considered edible.

Quick-witted, sharp thinking and fast talking, Beijingers were an endless source of fascination to us. As was our cave-man style sign language to them no doubt, because that’s another thing – people spoke a LOT less English that we’d assumed. I eventually took a photo on my phone of a sign reading ‘toilet’ so that we didn’t have to act it out every time we wanted to ask where one was – and they have squat toilets almost everywhere except shopping malls and western hotels, so yes, let your imagination run wild with that one….

China is the proud curator of the world’s oldest civilisation and the retrograde force that was the communism of the last century has been eclipsed by a fresh-faced and forward thinking dynamism to staggering effect. And the Chinese are reveling in their country’s swift upward climb. Both Beijing and Shanghai having doubled in size in the last 10 years and due to do the same in the next 10 years. Both currently have populations of about 20 million people.

Fizzing with energy, Beijing is one of the worlds true ancient strongholds and fully intent on maintaining its status as China’s capital. And there’s a compelling contradiction at every street corner. Most of Beijing’s architecture has communism written all over it’s every edifice, but then strikes you dumb with breathtaking ancient temples and palaces that just ooze imperial grandeur, juxtaposed against skyscrapers rising up from the footprint of the past.

The architecture basically traces every mood swing of the nation for generations. And my were there some cranky ones. I am not a cynic but I couldn’t help but ask, is all this forwardness and dazzle just to woo the West? Or are they genuinely delighted to see past obstacles falling away? That Mao’s narrative is still wholeheartedly accepted in most parts of the country and that tens of thousands of local Chinese flock to view his preserved ‘pickled body’ every day with children in tow dropping yellow flowers into an ever-growing pile at the base of his memorial left me cold. And yet, that by no means erases the disarming charm of the ordinary person you meet on the street. Anyone will give you the time of day and even though they probably won’t understand your questions they’ll chat away anyway. And the elderly still get priority for seats on the underground. Simple values are still treasured.

So do I love China til forever and would I move there tomorrow? Unlikely. Do I recommend it as one of the most intriguing eye-openers I’ve encountered to date and worth every minute of a visit? Absolutely.

And on that note, we left The People’s Republic of China two weeks later, hop-skipping happy to head home as you always are at the end of a long trip – and by some sweet twist of irony we got into the taxi to take us to the airport and playing on the radio was the goose-bump inducing South African World Cup Soccer anthem ‘Waving Flag’. And the driver played it twice.

My other two cents? We don’t own the democratic freedom that we so blithely enjoy here in South Africa, we are merely it’s custodians and people paid with their lives for us to have it. The question is are we good ones?

And flip the rip what about the food???? I know, what was I thinking, food is WAY easier to talk about than communism. Next post. And it’s worth waiting for, believe me.

A few of my fave pics from the trip – some are mine and some are Jenna’s…


One of many incredible views of The Wall. It was built to protect the northern borders of the empire from wayward nomadic groups. Building of the 6000 km long fortification took place between the 5th and 16th centuries.
And no you cannot see the wall from the moon.

Rob, Sarah, Jenna, Steed – The Great Wall

Jenna walking The Wall

The Birds Nest Stadium and The Cube – Olympic Village

Keeping it tidy – Inside the Olympic stadium

Entrance to The Forbidden City – Emperors home of old and entrance prohibited to ordinary citizens. It’s surrounded by a 7m high wall and boasts 9000 rooms. Building started in the early 1400s. It’s from this gate that Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Chinese boy with his country’s flag


Steed, myself and Rob in Tiananmen Square at night. Tiananmen lliterally and ironically translates to ‘Heavenly Peace’. At over 1km long and is the largest public square in the world and amongst many infamous gatherings held here, the protests of 1989 are probably the most well known. The uprising saw the massacre of possibly thousands of civilians protesting against the shackles of communism.


Beijing Bicyles by night

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2 responses

3 11 2010
Barbara Graham

A most interesting account of the culture we know so little about and one that is so tremendously huge and therefore important.

22 11 2010
Everything is edible in Beijing « afoodieliveshere's blog

[…] can read more about our trip to China in another post here as […]

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