Changing Faces: Beijing, China
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.