Friday, 17 October 2008


Today is my last day in Beijing. It's funny, I booked my flight because I felt a bit overwhelmed by the city, wasn't sure what else to do with myself. As soon as I did, I started to really enjoy myself. Walking around Beihai park today, visiting beautiful buddhist temples awash with fragrant flowers and incense, soundtracked by evocative bell-ringing and harmonising voices from mounted speakers, I felt fully at peace. Pockets of serenity like this one, away from the frustrated gridlock or manic manoevring of the crowded traffic system, where the smog that pervades the city today seems mystical once again, protective. From the highest point the city hides in clouds of grey-yellow fog, but the boats on the lake, the belltower, the temples, these become part of my little world. I sighed contentedly, and wandered back to the hostel.

Beijing has felt like the deep end for me. Outside of the tourist spots noone speaks English, people haven't been very helpful - even taxi drivers - and the place has taken me by surprise, exceeding and undermining my expectations. At the same time it's hard not to love the place, the constant activity, the noise, the beauty, the size - it's all so idiosyncratic. The pace of change here is visible, which is not an experience I've ever had before, but the history is palpable too, standing side by side with sheer modernity.

Several things will stick in my mind about this city, but there's one thing I'll never forget. In the Forbidden City there was a sign beside a relic which read, in inimitable Chinese style:

Please remember a moment's carelessness can cause the eternal loss of beauty.
The irony of this quote - in a country that underwent the historical reinvention of the cultural revolution, in a city that all-but-destroyed part of its heart (the hutongs) to make room for wider roads for the Olympics - did not escape me. But "The past is another country" does not quite fit in here. Rather there seems to be a coexistence between past and present. This plea is a stark reminder of the risks of such a fast rate of progress in a country with so rich a history.

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