Beijing is a sensory assault. Smell of diesel fuel, incense, sewage, the ubiquitous, dividerless public toilets. Narrow hutong alleyways that suddenly widen into courtyards, markets and astonishingly good restaurants. Beggars with crippled feet and congenital dwarfism. The low-hanging Great Pall of China, in your throat and in your lungs. Constant honking, the gluey-sharp sound of Mandarin. Fortune-tellers, Buddhist monks, old men playing Go. Endless press of humanity, dizzying walls of light. I want to photograph everything and I don’t know where to start.
We’re staying in an honest-to-god hotel (with ensuite! And air-con! And a bar!), albeit a very reasonably priced one – arranged round a covered courtyard in Dongcheng district. I still get surprised every time at the difference between how overwhelming a city feels when you stumble off a train into the chaos of a large international railway station, versus a few hours later when you’ve successfully navigated the public transport system, found your hotel, maybe even consumed some food. The vista when you emerge from Beijing Railway Station is no picnic – a huge crowd, hawking, sleeping, spitting, hustling, dragging luggage, under the eternally smoggy sky. Six days later, though, the city had crept under my skin, as they do.
We didn’t manage much that first night, as ever – for all you’ve just spent thirty hours on a train mostly lying down, it tends to create an intense desire to lie down some more. Our wandering in search of dinner took us into a hotpot restaurant where the only word we had in common with the staff was ‘beer’. Once we had each managed to order a pot of bubbling stock (in itself a bit of an error), the endless plates the restaurant kept putting in front of us – from tofu and spinach to raw squid and sea-urchin – were eye-popping. We loved the hutongs, though – the narrow alleyways that riddle inner Beijing and that hide all kinds of compelling cafes, boutiques, restaurants, and street stalls. We planned to do the basics first – the Forbidden City, Tian’amen Square – but we’d overlooked that the former is closed on Monday, and the Square is just a big anonymous Soviet space, where you stare at flags and visualise students being mown down by tanks. I managed to come down with a nasty temperature on Monday night and retired to bed for the next 24 hours, but things looked up on Wednesday, where the sky came close to clearing and we spent the day in some of the more tranquil corners of the Summer Palace. In the evening, we visited Donghuamen Night Market, the street stalls where you can buy any kind of food on a stick deep-fried, and then went for dinner to the neon-and-lantern-lined Ghost Street, where the restaurants stay open 24 hours and you can order whole steamed turtles, duck heads, deep-fried scorpion. I was feeling mildly smug at our assimilation and our status as the only Westerners in the crowded restaurant, and said as much to Loz. At this precise moment, our waitress silently removed the chopsticks from my hand, repositioned them, and corrected my rice-eating technique.
Thursday was devoted to the Great Wall, trekking along its steep and ragged surfaces from Jingshanlin and attempting to avoid the flock of souvenir-sellers and ‘guides’ who descend on each tour bus with a truly worrying intensity and stalk you along the Wall. The thing I most looked forward to was our trip to the 798 Art District on Friday – the semiderelict East German factories that have mostly been taken over by studios and exhibition spaces, where we could see some contemporary Chinese photography and I could indulge my enthusiasm for street art. (As an observer, Mum.) We also dropped in on all six floors of the Silk Street market, where you can have a suit tailored or buy fake designer everything, but I hate the chivvying, the constant shouts of “You want handbag? You want watch?” The Peking Opera show we ventured to was, as expected, thoroughly strange and stylised, but with a certain hypnotic grace. It clearly draws more heavily on dance than Western opera and reminded me, in many ways, of the fight sequences in House of Flying Daggers.
Only eight hours more on a train and our rail odyssey will have come to an end, for now. Beijing was hazier than ever as we left by train on Saturday morning, looking like a ghost city of skyscrapers as we crept away.