because i very much enjoy travel i try to tack on a little time before or usually after these events. sometimes it’s just a day or two but in this case it was an extra 6 days, which was plenty of time to get a feel for one of the world’s largest cities with 7.5 million in the city proper and some 11 million in the metro area, though that number is growing at mind-boggling rates; i heard one estimate that 200,000 people came to beijing in 2004 from rural areas to seek work. ouch.
my first visits to any place are usually filled with all the usual tourist must-sees. if i get the opportunity to return somewhere i usually end up wandering a whole lot and seeing off the beaten track things. so you can imagine the places i hit. here’s yours truly on the great wall:
it was probably the ideal time to see beijing. with the 2008 olympics on the horizon the city is practically shedding its skin. never since visiting (formerly) east berlin a few years back have i seen so many cranes. one estimate has 2000 building projects underway at any one time in this city, and i don’t doubt it. recently in the news you may have heard about the various hutong or old neighborhoods that are being demolished to make way for high-rise apartment buildings. though the reports are mainly from shanghai, it’s happening in all the big cities, apparently. as these homes are disappearing at the rate of about 10,000 per year, there won’t be many to see by the time the torch reaches the city. it’s unfortunate in a way: though the living conditions in these neighborhoods are very humble and at first glance they look like downright dangerous areas it turns out there’s a lot more to them that is being overlooked.
granted, china is preserving a select few of these in its overhaul, but it seems that if overhaul is what’s needed many of these old neighborhoods should be renovated to their former glory. if you’re going to displace the poorer folk anyway at least keep some of the architectural heritage! it seems china never learns since so many imperial-era buildings, gates, temples and walls were destroyed in the 20th century. granted, the westerners did their share in starting the process, but the chinese sure made sure the job got finished later!
we stayed in a b&b as is usual when i travel, smack dab in the middle of one of the hutong. it was a great example of a renovated and modernized courtyard home in a very safe and rustic area in prime location. our hosts were very helpful and polite, even if communication was a bit difficult.
i imagine that the ultra-modern tokyo i now treasure looked--25 years ago as it rushed into the future--a lot like beijing does now, and i suppose in another 15-20 years i’ll enjoy beijing about as much for similar reasons. it’s probably because i never knew the pre-war tokyo and most of it had been covered over by the time I visited.
though i somehow imagined different, beijing felt extremely safe and the people were very kind…unless you are in the various tourist-markets where haggling is the order of the day. there you’re likely to find vendors who’ll sell you shrinkwrapped batteries that were utterly spent and repackaged.
food was incredibly cheap for a westerner, and by and large delightful. one must eat peking duck in peking, and it did not disappoint!
as always, you can keep an eye on my travel schedule on my website.