Life in the big city can prove challenging at times. Beijing’s population is near the entire population of my entire home country (give or take a few million) – all in one large expanse of a high tech, fast paced, bustling, vibrant city. This adds a dynamic I have never experienced before. Surely, my time in Cape Town – a large, globally prominent city and omnipresence in my life would have prepared me a bit for living outside of the big-city-small-town-feel place I call home. However it has not. The idea of getting on a subway at all hours of the day (and night) and there is nary a seat to be seen between the crush of bodies is completely foreign to me. Granted, the concept of a subway is also foreign since back home we rely on the world’s most unreliable bus system – but I digress. The lines of the subway run under the entirety of Beijing, it’s veins, transporting you to exits unknown where pretty much anything is possible. Though the vastness of traffic, highways, cars belching exhaust into the air, horns blaring at all hours and the constant game of Frogger as one tries to comprehend simply crossing the street can be a bit overwhelming at times, so can the rush and push to get on Beijing’s various subway lines.
As I wake, the light of dawn breaks over the skyline of Beijing, which can be seen from my large window. The sun burns off the last of the twilight and it’s light reflects off the countless high rises and skyscrapers, brightening the day that much quicker. By the time I am prepared for the subway, one can feel the days heat and humidity rising, the air thick with dampness and the slightly tangy taste of future rain mingled with the beginnings of the days traffic fumes. Slightly Dr. Who-esque, traffic is wall to wall by 7:00 despite there being at least three lanes on small streets, the highways having near six at times. Those not sitting patiently in their car file quickly and effectively down the long escalators into the cool dim of the subway station. Four separate exits and entrances for one station mean four times the amount of people you expect waiting on the platform. There is a rather ingenious, even if rarely practiced properly, method of boarding and disembarking the subway cars – all simultaneously. Those inside the car line up to make one line to disembark right in the middle of the doors while those waiting to enter the car wait in the wings, so to speak, to enter from both sides. Though clever, most people carry bags that are too big for this process, or the car is too full to form a single exit line so there becomes a general push for the door while those outside wait patiently for their window and pray not to be left behind.
Once embarked the subway moves swiftly, smoothly and with great finesse. The map of your current line is lit up above each door with stops in both Chinese and English marked clearly. Over the PA a lovely woman’s voice tells you what the next station is, which doors will open and to please prepare for your arrival. With each stop more people enter and leave, bringing with them the smell of hot breakfast, laughter, music and conversation. Most get off at a transfer station to carry on with their journey to destinations unknown, further line changes until they arrive where they want to be. Some find a destination already on their line – on Line 10, for example – the line that I live on at a lovely area called Shuangjing; one could step off at Tuanjeihu – turning left will take you to Tuanjeihu park where I ended up this weekend, wandering through trees and small stalls of street food, outdoor pottery classes, groups of people doing tai chi – at least until you wind down the path that takes you to the makeshift beach where you can spend the day doing laps in the pool, floating and splashing in the man-made waves or freeing your inner child by falling headfirst down marble waterslides, laughing as you plunge into the cool water. However, should your feet take you right you will find yourself wandering the Village, home of the high end, name brands of today – your Nike, Louis Vuitton, Swatch, and so on. Can’t afford it? Not a problem, only a block away is Yashow, five floors of knockoffs and bartering goodness. Everything has a price, an amazing one if you’ve got the bartering skills. Any brand slightly out of your price range in the Village can be bought for pennies on the dollar (fake of course) – giving you the look of haute couture at the Wal-Mart price. If all this shopping makes you hungry there is Sanlitun, the bar street where expats go for icy drinks on a hot summer night, dancing amidst the throngs and living up the night life. During the day the food is fantastic, of all varieties – some free standing restaurants, others tucked into the side of tall buildings housing more clothing shops and spas where you can treat yourself to the cheapest mani/pedi I have ever come across.
If you carry on Line 10, you can get off just shy of the airport line and find Beijing’s Ikea. Not exactly a reason to come to Beijing, but an experience nonetheless! Having gone there last weekend in search of a mirror – I faced that ever present, yet always surprising fact I am in one of the largest cities on the planet. And, just as all the folks in Ottawa go to Ikea on Saturday, it does seem that all of Beijing does the same thing. Cute couples walking the aisles picking out furniture, women squabbling over whether the dark wood or the light wood would be better, children climbing on the furniture – although it was a big of a shock to see people all climbed into the beds, under the blankets and everything, grabbing a nap! The place was packed – carts, kids, bags and furniture; there simply wasn’t enough room. A lovely Ikea lunch (surprisingly, didn’t go for the meatballs…) was a welcome refuge when we found it. By the end, we simply wanted to pay and high tail it outside to find a bit of personal space – with our new purchases of course.
Switching over to Line 1 – the main line of Beijing and the original; one can stop at the infamous Tian’anmen Square. For those of you like me who aren’t 100% sure what to expect from Tian’anmen Square let me lay it out for you. It is, in fact, a rather large square. In the middle is Mao’s tomb, on the outside lay some gorgeous buildings and the entrance to the Forbidden City (an adventure for another day, I’m afraid) but generally speaking it is simply a square. A square full of tourists, photographers and surprisingly cheap drinks sold from a small trailer. A few guards stand around looking professional, but really – it’s a square. If you are a blatant foreigner such as myself, odds are you will be stopped and asked politely to take a picture with someone; a bit flattering really – or on the opposite end of the spectrum they may be videotaping the joys of the large square and suddenly turn the camera on you and stare. Great fun at the square. The highlight is if you walk to the next subway stop on Line 1, taking in the sights, you’ll find yourself at Wanfujing. Mostly a shopping district (home to Beijing’s first Forever 21, which unfortunately got to me pretty quick) it has one of the largest foreign language bookstores (also found it’s way into my wallet) and some fantastic food. It was there I got my first taste of Macau food; which left me a bit startled as it was heavily influenced by Portuguese flavours. After a brief history lesson (and the realization I should probably learn more history) I learned Macau was in fact a Portuguese colony at one point. Who’da known? It is also considered the Vegas of China, good food, gambling and general tomfoolery? I may need to take a weekend away.
However there is something not for the faint of heart in Wanfujing. Nestled between two large shops is a tall archway leading down a narrow alley. At first it’s simply a mass of people, largely tourists crowding the entrance, cooing at the first few stalls. Once you pass them you are able to fully comprehend – a food district, you are able to buy the usual stuffed buns, noodles, chicken feet (don’t knock ‘em), and fried vegetables; but Wanfujing isn’t known for it’s dumplings, oh no. It’s known for it’s vast array of insects and creepy crawlies available for any brave soul to chow down. Four small scorpions on a skewer – still wiggling, or one giant black one, dead; skewers of fat silk worms, seahorses, insanely long centipedes, fuzzy black tarantulas, coiled snakes, stretched lizards, bright orange starfish and fat cockroaches line the windows as smoke and laughter (and the occasional shriek) fill the air. As you push through the crowd it thins until at the end of the long alley you are left pretty much alone to talk to the stall vendors who will tell you all about their wares. As part of a pact I had decided that I would at least try ONE bug, once I found one that, for lack of a better term, suited my palate. My accomplice, being vegetarian chose a relatively safe looking noodle dish that was basically noodles about the length and size of your finger in a pink/red sauce. I stopped at the cleanest looking stall that had the bugs already dead (I felt bugs skewered still alive and wriggling a bit too cruel for me – and yet I was going to fry and eat them anyways; the moral high ground is a bit foggy) and perused the options. A coiled snake? The protruding fangs were a bit too frightening and I felt they might ironically get stuck between my teeth. A big starfish? The size was a bit too much of a commitment for me – not to mention a starfish, alive or dead, does not seem appetizing; reminiscent of sandpaper and algae. Of course my marine conservation hackles went up at the thought of both starfish and seahorses, so I passed. A big-ass scorpion or four small ones? Well, to be honest I have already had a scorpion stinger in my body once and not too keen on having it again. The tarantula was a bit tempting but in the end it was the cockroaches that won. They were smallish, compact and easy to eat in one bite, quickly swallow and wash down with some water. There is a bit of a debate as to if it was a cockroach or not simply because it looked different from any cockroach that I’ve ever seen (yes, I am referring to the ones in my kitchen). Anyways, on I carried, agreed on a price and watched the vendor pop my four cockroaches on a stick in the deep fryer. My accomplice had her noodles and watched in horror as he salted the hot bugs and handed me the warm stick, smiling. I would like to say I simply munched down and swallowed like a champ, but there was a bit of psyching up to do first. I avoided looking at the bugs, then stared at them. I looked at the other options wondering if maybe the silk worms were a better choice. I chugged some water in hopes of filling and protecting my stomach from what I was about to eat and endured some taunts from my accomplice. All with a grin on my face. When the moment of truth came, she slurped a noodle and I rather tactlessly ripped a whole bug off the skewer and began to chew. Crunchy with a softness inside, salty, hot and surprisingly not that unpleasant. Then came a moment that surprised even me – my accomplice was making faces of utter disgust chewing her noodle, and I was making one of intrigue and making no move to spit out the bug. The noodle was made of some sort of gelatinous rice mixture making it slimy, chewy and just generally a terrible texture; in a sweet mystery sauce that didn’t help the flavor. After trying a noodle I immediately had a cockroach chaser. I would rather eat the bugs! So, the adventure ended with a full bowl of noodles meeting the trash bin and all but one cockroach in my belly. I felt both victorious and slightly alarmed that a bug could actually taste that good. Good being used loosely of course.
Of all the stops on the Beijing subway there is one I have enjoyed most of all. A few stations after my work there lays a place called the Lama Temple. Right outside the exit is a tall brick wall and trees that reach for the sky. The air is smoky and smells of deep incense, sounds of chatter and chanting carried in the wind. As you enter the temple lot, just before the long garden leading to the gate you are met with astounding colours – vibrant reds, deep blues, glimmering golds and rich greens paint the gate and the walls. As you cross through the gate you are bombarded with the smell of green grass and white clouds of incense fumes. When you finally reach the temple the sight is near indescribable – crowds of Buddhists, standing in front large troughs of fire lighting their incense and praying to enter the temple. The atmosphere inside the temple greatly differed from that only feet away on the busy street. Like stepping back in time – only the past has tourist and Nikons. It made me glad to see that the number of local Buddhists praying far outnumbered all tourists. I wandered slowly; though voices carried loudly, there was a great sense of quiet and peace. I joined in with the lighting of incense, paid homage to many of the Buddha’s inside the temple, including one of the largest, at least forty feet tall carved from one single tree. The atmosphere of the place was unlike any other, bustling with people all moving in slow awe. A complete oxymoron.
Which is what Beijing is; an oxymoron. It moves at lighting speed, constantly – even the night has a movement about it; yet walk to the nearest park, shelter or even small garden and you’ll find a completely changed environment where peace, tranquility and balance reign.