In case I never had the chance to go back to China, I’d asked the British Council during our planning for the residency whether I could tag on a few days in the nation’s capital at my own expense before flying home. And I’m so glad I did- I’ve had a fantastic week to top off my time here in China!
A stroll around the immense and iconic Tiananmen Square…
…and the Forbidden City.
I loved following my nose around the meandering lanes of the Dongcheng hutong where I was staying. Its famous Drum and Bell Towers are pictured here, along with the beautiful square they border onto.
Beijing’s hutongs are a mass of lanes and alleyways that form the heart of the old city. People have lived and worked in them for centuries. Compared to the busy multiple-lane roads choking with traffic, the hutongs feel somehow human-sized, have a different pace and atmosphere. Here in my room as I write this, I’m totally out of earshot of traffic- a rarity in urban China. I can even hear the birds singing! Cars do occasionally come into the hutongs but the lanes are so narrow drivers usually avoid it. Instead there are bicycles and pedestrians- and the occasional moped buzzing along. Small shops and nice little cafes are hidden among the lanes. Mooching around you see all of life- people mending things, selling watermelons and tomatoes from the back of a van, walking dogs, chatting to neighbours or having a midday snooze in the backseat of a rickshaw- I love it! I heard that the authorities were extending a hutong demolition plan across the city and forced evictions were happening. What a massive shame if true- the hutongs are pretty much my favourite thing about Beijing.
Beijing is famous for bikes- and with reason!
And though roads are often wide, sometimes with 2 or even 3 lanes per direction, pavements and bike paths can also be wide- and often leafy too! I love how many trees there are in Beijing, lining the streets, providing shelter from the hot sun and adding a lovely softness to the urban landscape. The pictures below were taken on a walk through the Dongzhimen and Sanlitun areas in the east of the city.
People often use brilliant little 3-wheelers to get their goods or customers from A to B. You see them everywhere!
On another day of exploring, I found the streets of Wudaoying hutong, with its lovely cafes and boutique shops. As is common in China, lots of people were out enjoying the outdoors around there, including a group of elderly people doing keep-fit in a park gym and others playing table tennis.
On another recommendation, I visited the former imperial garden of Beihai with its temple complex and pagoda- a short walk from where I was staying. There were great views over the city from the top and it was lovely to see the lotus flowers coming into bloom in the park’s enormous lake. You generally have to pay to get into parks in China, which is different from what I’m used to. There are gates to get in and a wall around, which adds a layer of officialdom somehow. Since the entrance fees are so small, I guessed it was more to do with security and control than revenue generation, but it’s always lovely to get amidst the greenery nevertheless- a peaceful place that everyone seems to seek out and enjoy.
It was nice to get in a bit of people-watching. I love how lots of Chinese life happens outside, from games to dancing to knitting with old friends.
I also saw people reading the newspaper- one which had been displayed along a path in the park. It reminded me of the realities of freedom of information and censorship, and what a different culture there is here in China in this respect.
There were some beautiful gates in Beihai Park too. I have to say, you don’t have to look hard to find a fantastic gate here in China! The Chinese certainly know how to build them! Imposing, ornate and amazing!
During my time in the city, I met up with some of the Beijing-based friends of my new Guiyang pals- lunch with Wendy and Lulu, and a portrait-sketching session with Snow at the 706- a lovely alternative hostel focussed on free knowledge and youth empowerment.
Beijing’s eateries are great too! I’ve had delicious meals in my neighbourhood at Dali Courtyard, Mr Shi’s dumplings, Le Little Saigon, and further afield at the lovely Bookworm bookshop in Sanlitun- a great recommendation from Leah at the British Council!
A lovely way to end my time here in China!