Thursday, 29 March 2018

Beijing: Day 2

First day in Beijing.

One paper, Shanghai would appear to be the bigger city, with a few million more in population. Looking at a map however, Beijing is an intimidatingly large city. The kind of city where even a person like me who will stubbornly walk miles and miles just to "see the sights" (even if there are none) feels it is necessary to take the metro to avoid having very painful feet at the end of the day.

Beijing is a massive sprawl of a city. Despite this, I could only see a tiny little sliver of it at a time. For somebody like me who orients using landmarks, Beijing was difficult to navigate: the smog is quite terrible. Shanghai had a bad couple of days, but minimum visibility there was maybe a couple of kilometres. In Beijing it was almost down to a few hundred metres: the sun was never fully visible, it was just a red orb that occasionally shone through the smog. When you come to Beijing you realise very clearly why so many people wear face-masks, and even though I'm sure they don't perform miracles, they are no doubt better than nothing: the air pollution must knock years off people's life expectancy.

The thing is, the smog is everywhere. Yes, it comes from vehicles, but it also comes from power stations and all the industry, all over China. From takeoff at Shanghai we quickly lifted into the smog and all of China was blanketed by it, invisible, until a few hundred metres above the ground as we landed in Beijing.

Every surface in Beijing is covered in a layer of it. Like thick grey dust. You might assume that cars and bikes have been abandoned there for months or years, when in fact they have probably just been parked up for a few days.

It is a beautiful city. Seeing the Lama Temple, where locals flock to burn incense (and probably wondering what some weird foreigner is doing taking photos of it all..). And the many Hutongs, the traditional Beijing neighbourhoods, long streets with courtyard housing off the sides. The buildings themselves are mostly a light slate grey, though I don't think this was entirely due to the buildup of smog residue. They were simply grey. In quite an attractive way.

The parks are beautiful. Huge lakes. The kind of lakes where when you look at them on the map you might think, "oh, sure, I'll just take a quick stroll around that". But then you start walking around it and think: "oh, well, this is like a five mile hike all by itself." Temples springing up from the couple of hills. The Forbidden City's rooftops looming out of the smog to the south, though not visible all the way to the southern end.