An Olympic legacy full of light and life

The Olympics are supposed to be all glamour and glory. Yet the patriotic flag waving can’t disguise the fact that they cost a fortune and almost never leave anything in their wake. Despite the dubious claims of the International Olympic Committee, there has hardly ever been an Olympic legacy worth shouting about. Without a hint of irony, the London Olympics concreted over several football pitches, used regularly by teams from all over London, to create a car park – that’s some legacy.

There are so many examples of Olympic legacies magnificently failing to deliver on inflated promises – Athens anyone? – it is a surprise any country will host them. I look at London’s Olympic legacy and see only a lot of taxpayer money disappearing into the pockets of international finance. So I approached a nighttime stroll around China’s former Olympic Park with a degree of scepticism. As with so much else about Beijing, this was an eye-opening experience.

The Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The former Olympic site was crowded with people, flooded with colourful light and buzzing with a party atmosphere despite there being no obvious reason for anyone to be there. Then again, I was there and quite a large number of the 140 million domestic tourists who visit Beijing every year have a visit to the Olympic Park on their list of things to do. It may not seem like an obvious attraction, but a walk through this area was brilliant.

The Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The National Olympic Stadium – known by it’s nickname, the Bird’s Nest – is magnificent, especially illuminated and reflected in the calm waters of a nearby lake. The stadium, and the metal lattice that is its outstanding feature, used 36km of steel in its construction and cost US$435 million. Close by is the equally futuristic looking National Swimming Stadium, translucent blue light bathing the building’s energy saving ‘skin’. It was the people though, obviously enjoying themselves enormously, who made it so much fun.

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

National Swimming Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

Beijing’s Olympics were never far from controversy, not least because of human rights and massive costs. In a country with huge levels of poverty, total costs were around US$40 billion – the most expensive games in history. China’s appalling human rights record didn’t prevent the IoC awarding the games to them, nor did it prevent all but one National Olympic Committee from participating – Brunei withdrew its two athletes for no apparent reason, I think it fair to say that this didn’t impact on the medal tables.

I recalled a news story as I wondered around, a ‘sign of the times’ cautionary tale for our generation. China passed a law prohibiting the use of drugs in animals earmarked for slaughter and consumption at the Olympic Village. Animals were fed organic diets because athletes might fail drug tests as a result of eating the meat. That’s all fine of course, but does beg the question, “What about all the people who are eating drugged up burgers?”

Balls of light, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

Balls of light, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

Despite the controversies and the scary meat production, the games themselves were an unqualified global success, and instilled massive national pride in people all across the country. Perhaps that is why so many people come to visit the site even though there are no sports to see – a 21st Century shrine to the modern China.

I enjoyed wandering this area so much I decided to go back and have another look in the morning. The area wasn’t as atmospheric, and all the people had gone, but I did get to see a couple of wonderful signs…smiling seems to be a big deal in Beijing.

The Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

What grass? Sign near the Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

What grass? Sign near the Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

Road sign near the Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

Road sign near the Beijing Olympic Park, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City in a forbidding city

Beijing is old, very old. People have been living in this area for around 250,000 years, and the city has been a political and economic centre for at least two or three thousand years. Despite the nihilism of the Cultural Revolution and the contemporary efforts of city planners and construction companies to eradicate Beijing’s past, history still seems to be everywhere.

I’d prepared myself to be overwhelmed by Beijing’s size, suffocated by its air pollution and shocked by the rampant construction. In all honesty I arrived with a conviction that I wasn’t going to enjoy my time in the city. So it came as a shock that it was a city to which I really warmed. Walking around at a leisurely pace is helped by the flatness of the city, and with enquiring feet I found myself seduced by its ancient, winding hutongs, its incense infused temples and the fascinating insight into the public lives of its people.

Walls and moat around The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Walls and moat around The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The giant entrance to The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The giant entrance to The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

There are many hidden and not-so-hidden historical gems in Beijing, but there is one truly iconic and globally famous historical structure: The Forbidden City. This may be the capital of ‘communist’ China, and it may be over a hundred years since a true Chinese Emperor ruled from the city, but this was and still is an Imperial city. It has the cultural heritage to match, no more so than The Forbidden City.

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Much has been written about The Forbidden City, or the Gugong as its known, but there were a couple of things that struck me when reading about it before I went to visit. The Forbidden City is big, it has a fabled 9,999 rooms covering more than 183 acres of land – I was going to need stamina to explore it. Those are impressive figures, but the statistics you really need to consider when planning a visit are on another scale all together.

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior courtyard, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Golden roofs, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Golden roofs, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Beijing receives over 4 million (and growing) foreign tourists each year, but it also accommodates over 140 million Chinese tourists annually. Approximately 1-in-10 of all those tourists visit The Forbidden City, that is approximately 40 – 45,000 people each and every day. On Chinese national holidays that figure can be two or three times higher. This puts an enormous pressure on the fabric of the whole site and it also makes enjoying a visit with any degree of calm pretty difficult. You don’t come here for the tranquility.

Metal statue, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Metal statue, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Golden roofs, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Golden roofs, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Paintings, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Paintings, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Tour groups sweep through en masse, a hubbub of excited and joyful noise. Not a few tour groups, but wave after wave of groups from distant parts of this enormous country. This is fascinating, you get a real insight into the different ethnic groups that make up China, as-well-as those from less cosmopolitan or rural areas for whom the sight of a Western tourist is still a novelty. I was asked to pose for a couple of dozen photos with people, their eyes turned from the wonders of The Forbidden City by the sight of me wandering around it.

Metalwork details, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Metalwork details, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Reflection in a mirror, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Reflection in a mirror, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

It is unrealistic to expect to have any major historical or cultural site to yourself, but I decided to try try my luck and get there as early as possible in the hope that I would be able to wander in relative peace and quiet.

The sun barely seemed to be up as I strolled around the massive walls which once protected the city, people fishing in the surrounding moat. I managed to buy a ticket without queuing and entered as the doors opened at 8.30am with a small number of mainly Chinese tourists. The other consideration when visiting is the amount of time you need to see the whole thing. I spent several hours walking around but didn’t come close to seeing everything.

Metal statue, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Metal statue, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

As I headed back to the exit the vast empty areas of The Forbidden City that I’d passed through were now teeming with people. The atmosphere was fun and lively, and I enjoyed walking amongst the groups who seemed to be in party mood. You don’t get this level of fun on a visit to Windsor Castle…

People pose for photos, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

People pose for photos, The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Beijing, where the ancient and the ultramodern rub shoulders

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.

Chinese flag flying in Beijing, China

Chinese flag flying in Beijing, China

Portrait of Chairman Mao over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing, China

Portrait of Chairman Mao over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing, China

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?

The 'Birds nest' National Stadium, Beijing, China

The ‘Birds nest’ National Stadium, Beijing, China

A man gets a haircut on the street, Beijing, China

A man gets a haircut on the street, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

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.

A woman exercises in Yiheyuan, the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

A woman exercises in Yiheyuan, the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Prayer flags, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

Prayer flags, Jietai Si temple, Beijing, China

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.

Communist statue in Tian'anmen Square, Beijing, China

Communist statue in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing, China

Communist posters, Beijing, China

Communist posters, Beijing, China

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.

Stall outside a Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

Stall outside a Buddhist temple, Beijing, China

A man gets plays cards on the street, Beijing, China

A man gets plays cards on the street, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

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…

The Great Wall of China near Beijing, China

The Great Wall of China near Beijing, China