Walking the capital’s streets is first step to happiness
I find it hard to be positive when discussing Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s trendiest shopping districts. Like many of the city’s expats, I would often find myself there at the weekend. But a visit can be exhausting, ending with the vow not to return for a while.
However, I would be drawn back by the wide choice of bars, restaurants and shops. Despite the packed subway to get there and throngs of people once I arrived, I relied on Sanlitun for shopping and eating and paid the premium. But those days are done.
I had a taste of a different Sanlitun during the darkest days of China’s COVID-19 outbreak. Back in February, I wrote of the silence shrouding the city’s restaurants. Forcing the public health emergency to the back of my mind, I went out and enjoyed the peace. On the subway, I often had the carriage to myself and at normally busy shops, I received instant service.
When city life slowly began to return to normal, I knew I couldn’t go back to the old routine.
Since my arrival in Beijing 18 months ago, I’ve relied almost exclusively on the subway for navigating the city. Now it’s busier again and I want to practice social distancing for a while yet.
My choices were limited; use taxis or start walking. Buses are not yet an option because there is no bilingual signage and my Chinese skills are elementary. I knew taxis would prove to be expensive but I figured Beijing, a city of almost 22 million, was too big to walk.
However, I decided to test that assumption by walking along the Line 10 subway route. Having been a regular subway passenger for so long, I had no idea how near or far places were from each other. To my surprise, I found it only takes 20 minutes on average to walk between stations. After that, I quickly gained confidence in making my way around Beijing on foot.
I now marvel at how many areas of the city remain quiet — and how a select few stay busy. I had forgotten that there is so much more to see when walking. There are many districts I had written off as featureless because of my ignorance. It feels good to build up a detailed knowledge of nearby neighborhoods.
Here began my retreat from Sanlitun, I don’t need it anymore now I know quieter places to go.
As a challenge, I’m trying to avoid Sanlitun for the rest of 2020. I can now take a detached view of its character, which is in stark contrast to most of Beijing. The one thing I love about Beijing is that it’s a very traditional Chinese city. It has an individuality that plenty of cities across the world lack due to globalization.
By staying out, I will buy fewer international brands and spend more at local retailers. This, I hope, will help me develop a better knowledge of Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Chinese culture. I’m also sure that walking the city will add to my integration efforts.
I don’t accept that hordes of people are part and parcel of life in the capital. Despite it being a bustling metropolis, I have found a comforting peace in Beijing’s twisting and sprawling boulevards.
Corrie Knight Second Thoughts