Hooked on Bei­jing

NewsChina - - ESSAY - By Cein­wen Michael

I've been re­flect­ing a lot re­cently on why I'm still in Bei­jing, on why it has me hooked. I first came here in 2001 and in­stantly fell in love with the place. There was some­thing ar­rest­ing about it – the peo­ple, the pace, the old ver­sus new, the neigh­bor­hoods that felt like vil­lages within a megac­ity. Back then there were only two sub­way lines, and now in 2018 there are 22. The city has grown mas­sively but still the same fac­tors are present that keep draw­ing me back. I'll call these my 5Cs, and here they are in no par­tic­u­lar or­der.

Cui­sine. Bei­jing is a food­ies' par­adise. When I was trav­el­ing around South Amer­ica re­cently I re­al­ized I'd be­come a food snob. Bei­jing had made me a food snob. Here, I have ac­cess to the most in­cred­i­ble cui­sine. Firstly, all the cuisines of this vast coun­try are rep­re­sented. There are fan­tas­tic restau­rants for all the clas­sics such as Sichuan, Yun­nan, Xin­jiang and Shaanxi in most neigh­bor­hoods and for the more ob­scure, lesser known prov­inces I can seek out the provin­cial gov­ern­ment restau­rants. Old clas­sics like Dadong for Pek­ing Duck sit along­side pi­o­neer­ing new restau­rants such as Haidi­lao for hot­pot. Korean and Ja­panese cuisines are well rep­re­sented and there's amaz­ing Western food that's on a par with other global cities. I can dine some­where up­mar­ket for a frac­tion of the price of home. Then there's the food or­der­ing app Dazhong Dian­ping. When I visit cities out­side China I strug­gle to find an app that's the equiv­a­lent – es­sen­tially a foodie bi­ble. Thanks to this app I've filled up on good food in many un­fa­mil­iar neigh­bor­hoods of the city.

Ci­tyscape. The city's tra­di­tional al­leys (hu­tong), high­ways, mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, an­cient tem­ples, parks – I love this city. One of the first places I vis­ited when I re­turned re­cently was Jing­shan Park, to the north of the For­bid­den City. The ex­pan­sive views out to the moun­tains in the north and west then east to the CBD en­com­pass some of my fa­vorite spots. You can spy some of the city's mod­ern ar­chi­tec­tural gems like the Birds Nest Olympic Sta­dium or the CCTV build­ing, to my fa­vorite an­cient icons such as the For­bid­den City, Drum and Bell Tow­ers and the Con­fu­cius and Lama tem­ples. This is one of the world's great cities and it's un­de­ni­ably stun­ning.

Change. Back home in Europe the pace of change is so snail-like that you barely no­tice it hap­pen­ing. Not so in Bei­jing. The rapid pace of de­vel­op­ment keeps you on your toes. It's ex­cit­ing and lends a cer­tain en­ergy to the city. I'm not say­ing all change is pos­i­tive, but a large amount of it is and I love ex­plor­ing new places that have opened or be­come more ac­ces­si­ble due to de­vel­op­ments in trans­port.

Com­fort. The fact is, I feel safer in Bei­jing than I do in many other cities world­wide. The risk of petty theft and crime is low and I feel safe walk­ing home at night, or hav­ing my phone out in my hand while walk­ing down the street. The vast and re­li­able sub­way sys­tem makes much of the city con­ve­niently ac­ces­si­ble. It's also still a bike friendly city de­spite all the cars on the road, and new cy­cleonly routes are cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion as is the new air­port. The bike shar­ing scheme makes life easy, as does the con­ve­nience of new phe­nom­ena such as on­line shop­ping and ex­press de­liv­ery and apps like Wechat, through which you can seem­ingly or­ga­nize your whole life.

Com­mu­nity. Bei­jingers are a friendly bunch. Dur­ing a rain­storm re­cently I was get­ting soaked on my way home when a lady kindly lent me an ex­tra um­brella she was car­ry­ing, then walked out of her way to take me to my door. I've lost count of how many in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions on a wealth of top­ics that I've had with taxi and Didi (China's Uber) drivers over the years. And I love how com­mu­nal the city feels; life seems to be car­ried on for the most part out­doors. At dawn and dusk peo­ple are out in the parks ex­er­cis­ing, while the streets, mar­kets, malls and restau­rants seem to be bustling al­most 24/7. Then there's the peo­ple. On a per­sonal level I have formed some of the strong­est friend­ships with peo­ple from Bei­jing, be they Chi­nese or for­eign. I have made friends from many dif­fer­ent prov­inces in China and from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries around the world, more than I ever did while liv­ing in Lon­don. I dis­agree with peo­ple when they say Bei­jing is not cos­mopoli­tan.

Of course, my beloved city of Bei­jing does have its short­com­ings. Pol­lu­tion is still very much present; there are too many cars for my lik­ing; the mu­sic and arts scene is lamentably small for a city of this size; in­creas­ing rents are forc­ing more and more lo­cal restau­rants and shops to close. But the essence of the city has re­mained un­changed. That's what I love about Bei­jing, and that's what keeps me hooked.

Back home in Europe the pace of change is so snail-like that you barely no­tice it hap­pen­ing. Not so in Bei­jing. The rapid pace of de­vel­op­ment keeps you on your toes

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