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Changing Faces: Beijing, China

Morning at Tiananmen Gate

On the northern edge of Chang’an Avenue, a towering red wall guides me towards the gate at Tiananmen. To my left thirteen lanes of traffic thunder past a column of barren trees, their branches throwing long winter shadows across the paving stones.

The smell of diesel that is so prevalent in Chinese cities seems strangely absent, and I look up at the morning sky, painted a glorious shade of blue. This is my sixth time in Beijing, and like an awkward encounter at a high school reunion, I am struggling to identify a city that has undergone a rapid transformation in the years since we last met.

Beijing has changed, almost beyond recognition, but so have I.

When Tiananmen finally comes into view I am unnerved by what I see. It is not the familiar golden roof sparkling in the sun, nor the portrait of Chairman Mao that presides over the masses. Instead it is a security checkpoint manned by a group of gruff-looking guards, menacing in their Soviet-style winter uniforms. I take a deep breath and weave my way into the crowd, following an excited group of domestic tourists. But as we pass through the checkpoint the unthinkable happens. Completely by accident, I make eye contact with one of the guards. The edges of my mouth pull upwards, shielding my unease, but I am caught off guard by her response.

She grins. A wide, beautiful, flawless grin. It is sudden and unscripted, and my anxiety instantly evaporates into thin air.

Beijing may be intimidating at first glance, but behind its tough veneer there lies a genuine warmth and a friendliness that is best seen in the city’s parks and hutong, the lovely alleyways that crisscross the older neighbourhoods within the Second Ring Road.

That night I am with Niki, an American who has lived here for the past six years. We are somewhere east of the Forbidden City, on a main road packed with neon signs, showrooms and upscale hotels. We turn a corner into a dimly-lit hutong, where the din of traffic gives way to the gentle soundtrack of a low-rise neighbourhood. I can feel my shoulders relax. The evening calm is punctuated only by the occasional motorcycle and the sounds of children playing outside their homes. This is the Beijing that I remember from my previous trips, and the one I am hoping to share in the next few posts.

Lanterns at Qianmen

Qianmen Street, a recent reconstruction

The national emblem, Tiananmen Gate

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. James, is that Tienanmen Gate the same as Tienanmen Square that was so much part of our lives in the time gone by?. By the way i do enjoyed the piece. Thanks.

    February 18, 2012
    • They’re very much interlinked but not quite the same. Tiananmen gate was once the entrance to the old imperial city; the square itself, which is directly to the south, came about 200 years later (that was around 1650). However it didn’t gain its present, politically charged form until the late 1950s.

      February 18, 2012
  2. thanks

    February 20, 2012
  3. Jackie #

    I went to Beijing in ’04 and thought it was beautiful. I was only there for a couple of days with a group and filled itinerary so there wasn’t a lot of room for exploring on my own. We did see the Forbidden City (your post on it brings back memories!) and the Great Wall! I’m excited to read more about your travels!

    February 28, 2012
    • Thanks Jackie! I was really blessed with the weather when I went – and I had a whole week to fill so it was the perfect mix of sightseeing and sleeping. Glad you enjoyed the posts!

      February 28, 2012
  4. amyelsie #

    I’m visiting China soon! Seeing all your fantastic photos is just making me even more excited! I’m looking forward to spending some time trekking through Beijing… Did you manage to visit Shanghai while you were there?

    June 5, 2012
    • Beijing is fabulous if you’re a history buff! I was in Shanghai around two years ago, try not to visit in August because the heat there is just unbearable! I spent most of my time hiding indoors under the air-conditioning as it was a humid 40+ degrees Celsius outside.

      June 9, 2012

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