After a surprisingly easy arrival in China, it was during the taxi journey to the city centre that I noticed that Beijing had its own special sort of chromatic grey. Paris has a crispy feel to the air, Rome is mellow and Khartoum is just plain brow dust. Perhaps it is the permanent haze or pollution coupled with so much grey concrete but the light in Beijing is a bright light grey and even the greenery is grey green.
The city has undergone an Asiatic Haussmannisation., with enormous soulless boulevards carved out of the old Hutongs. These boulevards are lined with concrete and marble clad monolithic buildings calling themselves plazas, housing banks and corporate headquarters, with no other life other than the occasional entrance to a mall. So wide apart are these boulevards that there are up to fourteen lanes of traffic in various formats between them.
Beijing lies behind in the form of the hutongs. The soul of the city. A sort of single story neighbourhood constructed mainly in grey brick with typical Chinese tiled roofs. With a number of main streets wide enough for one car (or 30 bicycles). All real life, that’s life excluding bankers and corporate goes on here. Each is self contained with restaurants, butchers, grocers, bakers, barbers, hardware stores, plumbers etc all operating out of small little shopfronts.
Our taxi driver had no idea which hutong our hotel was in and that was when I realised that I hadn’t booked us into an internationally famous hotel. The Forest & Land hotel had sounded like a relic of an earlier era when party members from the department of Agriculture and Forestry would stay in when in the capital on party business. I imagined a soviet style construction, spartan but clean with portraits of the nomenclature on the walls. Wrong.
Beijing is one of those places that is so different that sitting at the nearest road junction is wonderment enough for a few hours.
In the next Hutong we found Restaurant 9. With a menu in babelfish English and chickenfeet in soup ..we didn’t have that but did eat Duck in blackbean sauce and Chicken Kung Pao.