I was personally very shocked at Beijing. What I knew about the city was from documentaries and National Geographic Mags I had read as a child, so I was expecting a small area of traditional buildings overfilled with people bicycling to work on cluttered streets.
What I saw was a city that dwarfed almost any other city I had seen. Our large tourist bus trundled along unnoticed amongst the sea of traffic along wide, clean streets devoid of bicycles. Our routes took us through downtown areas (although “downtown” is relative in a city with so many skyscrapers marching without stop across the horizon) filled with behemoth buildings.
I suppose it was the modernness that really shocked me with my static notions of Beijing. Our tour guide told us that back in the day, the mark of a upwardly mobile family was a bicycle and a watch, but that old Beijing was long gone, driven over by sleek new, imported cars. The streets were impeccable, and surprisingly green, hedged by carefully manicured flowers, trees, and grasses.
Yet, the rapid destruction of ancient buildings to make way for new high rises and condominiums has been halted in some areas. Close to the center of the city, we got a chance to take a tour of the traditional extended family houses, the houtongs, which offered yet a different perspective of the city. Riding in rickshaws through the narrow alleys and visiting a houtongs family, we got to catch a glimpse of what Beijing might have looked like before, albeit a tourist-friendly, government subsidized rendition of the past.
Photos courtesy of Jim Darling