Thursday, March 11, 2010


Given the pace of the changes we witnessed while we lived in Beijing, it should have come as no surprise that 5 years later the town doesn't quite resemble the images it burnt into my memory like a branding iron searing the flank of a very surprised calf.

It's not that Beijing doesn't at first glance appear the way I left it. The differences become a little more obvious the deeper I looked. The taxi drivers still speak an almost impenetrable dialect, but the cars are newer, and the meter now speaks to you in a stilted, robotic english voice, reminding hapless tourists to please remember their things. The high-rises are still there, of course, but there are more and more of them, shinier and somehow more adventurous, embellished with extra facades and angles. The biggest shock came with our first trip on the metro. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies selling tickets, printed on the ubiquitous cheap chinese paper. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies checking those tickets, tossing them into overflowing rubbish bins. They have been replaced by overworked slightly-less-surly younger women in crisp uniforms selling magnetised plastic keycards. There are even automatic machines, complete with touchscreens and english language options. The stations are bedecked with clean white tiles, guarded by x-ray machines and shining, blinking turnstiles. The trains are crowded (that I remember) but people line up at the assigned queues before jamming themselves (sometimes with the assistance of the blue-jacketed platform attendants) into clean carriages, again with english announcements and computerised subway maps. It was almost too easy.

I might go as far to say that the Olympics have ruined this city.

But then we made it over to the west side of town, to districts we once spent a lot to time in. The pavement was cracked. The buses were crowded and we could find our way around. We didn't see any foreigners, and when we did they had that same look in their eye: a studied nonchalance in stark contrast to the mix of exhaustion, frustration and wild-eyed wonderment that marks the tourists of Wangfujing and Tian'anmen. I remembered that look. It says "yeah, I know it's Beijing. It's big, crowded and noisy. It's hard work. But I can elbow those grannies out of the way on the bus, I can shrug off the scammers and beggars, I can get a local price on a knock-off North Face jacket, I can find the best
baozi in town." I may have imagined it, but when I wore that look it felt like I was a member of an exclusive club.

And maybe that is part of the indefinable appeal of China. It is hard work. It isn't for everyone. I've said before that this town could make or break a person. I am certainly not the same man I was when I first came here. I joined a club whose membership is defined by their ability to cope with Beijing and not go mad.

My membership may have lapsed over the last couple of years. In some ways Sweden has made me soft. The buses are too clean, the restaurants are too quiet, the air is too crisp, there are not enough people. So today I am going out to renew my subscription. I am going to haggle over prices and navigate buses and argue with grannies. I am going to find that elusive

1 comment:

dingobear said...

Great post.

Glad to hear you two have survived the trans-Siberian and made it to (quasi)familiar territory. Can't wait to hear more.