There were moments during my visit to Singapore that were accompanied by a nagging sense of familiarity. Something about the carved wood and ancient rituals of the Buddhist temples, set so starkly against a backdrop of rampant modernity and towering skyscrapers, brought back memories from a couple of years ago of another (working) trip to a very different but similarly extraordinary city: Beijing.
So much has been written about Beijing there is a danger of feeling that you know the city before you arrive. Rarely does a day go by when it isn’t featured on the news, giving the first time visitor numerous ill-conceived notions of familiarity. It doesn’t take much time in China’s political capital to be disabused of that notion. I’ve hardly ever felt such a degree of cultural ‘otherness’ than in my first few hours in Beijing. I mean, how many hotel rooms have you stayed in where a gas mask is provided free of charge as a courtesy to guests?
Against expectation and despite my early impressions, I loved my time in Beijing. This is a place where the ancient and modern rub up against each other, not always comfortably; where the pace of change and destruction of the past has acquired a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Yet it is also where cultural traditions stretching back centuries are daily played out on the crowded streets and in the public spaces of this mind-boggling place.
The obvious thing to hit you when you arrive in Beijing is the sheer number of people: home to well over 21 million people, this is one of the world’s true mega-cities. Everywhere you look there is activity, but like so much of Beijing this impression is misleading. I often found myself alone wandering down an ancient hutong, Beijing’s traditional alleyways, or on an early morning stroll through a park. Nothing is more surprising than finding yourself alone in the midst of 21 million people.
It transpires that Beijing is a city full of surprises, no more so than how easy it is to navigate your way around. In such a massive city, public transport is simple to master and use – and thanks to the 2008 Olympics many signs are in English. When public transport isn’t an option, there are plenty of taxi drivers willing to tolerate attempts to communicate in terrible Chinese to get a fare. Thanks again to the Olympics many taxi drivers speak basic English, although it can take time for them to reveal this information.
I took a cab to the Jietai Si temple – a round trip of four hours during which I had to communicate where I wanted to go, and that I’d like the driver to wait for me and take me back. Leaving the taxi in the car park to explore the temple complex I couldn’t be certain he’d be still waiting for me when I returned. Luckily he was, and we drove back to Beijing in silence. It was only when we reached my hotel that he decided to speak in English to me – a language he’d learned on a government-sponsored course to make Beijing a more welcoming Olympic city. Truly, a city full of the unexpected.
Another surprise is the increasing popularity of religion in this ostensibly communist country. The cult of China’s consumerism may be a major story for most newspapers, but I was taken aback by the devotions I saw people making at a number of temples in and around the city. This wasn’t something I’d expected, just another contradiction in a city that seems to specialise in contradictions.
I’d go back in a heartbeat, and that was before I’d explored the immeasurably glorious Great Wall of China…