Ten Ways to Fall in Love with Beijing
October 2001So she’s not the world’s most beautiful city. Granted, she doesn’t offer much by way of naturalscenery, and what little she can boast—the mountains to her north and west—remains obscuredmost days by the dust and haze that hangs in the air. Her weather could be better and yes, her traffic sucks. Yet in the seven years I’ve lived here I’ve fallen in love with Beijing, irrationally andirretrievably.We have our bad days, when we quarrel, when I can only find fault, when I even threaten to leaveher. Keeping the love alive takes real work, as it does in any relationship. I recently returned froma vacation in France—sensuous France, with her lush, voluptuous terrain and her genteelmanner. I confess I found it hard at first to come back to my stern, gray matron, dressed sounfashionably, with that red band on her arm. But Beijing and I have since patched things up andrenewed our vows. I belong to her alone. Things between us are better now than ever.Still, I find it necessary to shore up my occasionally flagging commitment with a periodic recitation—how do I love thee, and all that. And so it’s as much for me as for you that I offer thesuggestions below for discovering, or rediscovering, what it is about Beijing that makes her soworthy of love. Try it. At the very least, the ten steps I’ve outlined may serve as a prophylacticagainst depression. There’s no better time for falling in love with Beijing that this, the fall—theonly truly glorious season, with its clean, cool air, bright sunny days and crisp evenings. If youcan’t see it in the fall, you might never find Beijing’s beauty. But if you can, then the passion youdevelop now should carry you through the bitter cold of her winter, the choking dust of her spring,and the stifling heat of her summer.
1. Make friends with real Beijingers.
Lazy, prideful, garrulous, hopelessly addicted to politicsand punditry, so the capital’s denizens are satirized elsewhere in China. Few Beijingers wouldobject to this caricature. The city’s full of real characters, all earthy wisdom and potty-mouthedpoetry. There is a bravery about them that I’ve always admired, the way they just don’t take shitlying down. Their nonchalance in the face of dizzying change betokens a basic constancy of character. And there’s the Beijing dialect, music to the years of the connoisseur of Mandarin.Spend enough time with them and you’ll understand their open disdain for anyone not fromBeijing.
2. Wander the hutongs.
The labyrinthine warrens of central Beijing are disappearing fast, soexplore them while you still can. Here you’ll find the distilled essence of Old Beijing, where lifemoves at its own, languid pace and remains largely untouched by the march of progress outsidethe alleys. Duck into the alleys of the Qianmen neighborhood, the hutongs by Houhai and theother central lakes, or those north of Dongsi and lose yourself in another world.
3. Watch the city wake up.
Beijing is an early riser, and watching her come to life in the earlymorning is essential to understanding her rhythms. Watch the folks doing
in the parks, theshopkeepers sweeping their front stoops, the
vendors heating up their deep-fry woks, andthe old codgers settling in on the sidewalks with their birdcages, chess sets and long pipes.
4. Eat your way down Ghost Street.
The culinary delights of the entire Middle Kingdom can allbe sampled along Dongzhimennei’s 24/7, two-kilometer-long restaurant row. Find out why Beijingstands to eclipse Taipei as Asia’s destination of choice for the discerning diner. Sample thisseason’s flavor-of-the-week, the absurdly spicy Sichuanese offering
, which tookthe town by storm this summer.
5. Bike the city by night.
Free of the noise, the careening minibuses and the horrendous car exhaust, the streets of Beijing are genuinely lovely late at night. Cycle through the LegationQuarter, through the midtown hutongs, or around the moat of the Forbidden City and feel anexhilarating freedom impossible to get in daylight hours.