Beijing, Briefly, Part I: Being Beijing

I recently visited Beijing, my first-ever glimpse of China. It was a very brief glimpse – only two days; but it was an unplanned, spontaneous response to an invitation to come and make a presentation on Russia’s development cooperation at a UNESCAP seminar hosted by China Agricultural University.

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Gardens along the train line from Beijing airport

Sure it was a bit mad to fly from Dublin to Beijing and back that briefly, and even the Lufthansa stewardess on the return flight recognized me and incredulously asked whether I hadn’t just been with them on their last round trip from Frankfurt. But it was absolutely worth it – I loved Beijing, loved the vibe throughout the city, loved the ease of getting around on the subway and in the streets, and the people I encountered were laid-back, friendly, full of fun.

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Sunny, smoggy Beijing

My first impression upon flying in to Beijing was that it had a retro feel to it  – because of the smog. I confess my initial thoughts at the time: “Smog! How quaint and old-fashioned – like my trips to New York City when I was a little girl in the 1960s.” But one can hardly maintain a nostalgic feeling about smog, and my next thoughts were annoyance that such a noxious and solvable problem exists in Beijing.

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Any shade will do on Tiananmen Square

I was lucky in that the one day I had to wander the streets of Beijing was sunny and hot and relatively smogless. The climate shock of going from the rainy coolness of Dublin to the relentless burning sun of Beijing was a bit daunting, but I adapted in Beijing style – by grabbing a parasol and pausing to huddle with other Beijingers in the shade of every lamppost or kiosk along my way. Fortunately venders selling icy cold drinking water where everywhere, and they cheerfully held up fingers to let me know the number of yuan I ought to give up for a bottle.

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Tourists twirling parasols at the Forbidden City

What do you do with a single day in Beijing? I took the subway to the center and wandered past the front of the Forbidden City – surrounded by tourists (almost all Chinese), it was strangely reminiscent of strolling past the White House in Washington, D.C. Then I went and stood on Tiananmen Square – I admit to indulging a bit of Cold War nostalgia there. It was… hot. From the center I set out walking south to the Temple of Heaven. The ritual monuments there are amazing; but I admit that what I enjoyed more was strolling through the surrounding park grounds after the monuments had closed.

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Tourist enthusiasm at the Temple of Heaven

Here everything was cool and green, and with the sun past its blazing peak, everyone could begin to relax a bit. And this is where I caught a glimpse of Beijingers being themselves: someone doing a bit of yoga among the gnarled cypresses; a game of shuttlecock hacky sack alongside a slide guitar player supplying a suitably lazy tune; a group of singers belting out folk songs in the pleasing acoustics of the wooden Long Corridor outside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests; single men practicing their ballroom dancing moves; and group after group of men and women card players using the wide wooden railing of the Long Corridor as a playing surface, slapping down their cards with gusto and clearly enjoying each other’s company.

None of that really has anything to do with Russia, does it? The next post will make the connection.

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A game of cards in the Long Corridor

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