Reminiscing and looking for signs of aging in the mirror it seemed like I had been another person who had lived in another world when I had last set foot in the People’s Republic. Memories of lush forests and the South China Sea seemed distant now, this China was not the same. Vast, remote, toxic and pale were the words that flashed across my mind as the plane circled the winter city, like crossing the surface of a crystallized moon, even the ashen buildings seemed to eradicate into the anemic soil.
Wakeup calls were always the same in this new China. Riot police would bark through loud speakers around 6am and then the clearances would begin. Not only had my former self ceased to exist but Old China would cease to exist too … by any means possible. Boots against concrete, the sound of crashing walls and then the pleading, the crying in languages I could only assume must have been Chinese. I wondered if we would be next. Even though my hotel was beautiful and the staff didn’t seem to bat an eyelid to the asbest cloud meandering through the alley I still wondered if I would be homeless. I did notice the ramschakle buildings surrounding us seemed a bit haphazard while my hotel was well planned and firm. The hotel gave me a card to show to the riot police who had blocked off our alley so that I could come and go. I had been charmed by the idea of staying in a hutong, a traditional low-rise section of the city. These old areas are snapshots of how Peking used to be. Little did I know this was the part of the city that was being razed to make way for the 21st Century.
The say everything in America is bigger but in China it is huge. Train stations felt like airports and the queues at security check points were on a daunting scale. These checkpoints were everywhere. One frozen morning while shuffling in a queue towards a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Forbidden City I glared at one of those regimented soldiers. She was grabbing a poorly dressed man by the scruff of the neck and that man, all he could seem to do was smile politely.
Mostly central Beijing is on a grid. The wide systematic boulevards seemed to stamp their muddy footprints across the downtrodden soul of the city. Lined by dank Socialist highrise or secretive office blocks, speeding traffic and choking fumes I couldn’t work out where the appeal lay within this futuristic city planning or the sanity of the city planners themselves. Once while sitting beside a memorial to Lenin and Marx I saw a man on a bicycle get run over by a Mercedes. The driver jumped out, stuffed some money into the man’s hand then drove off again. The modern city felt warlike. While walking I managed to cover great swathes of the city and preferred to stick to the lowrise hutongs, using my phone to map through the labyrinth of alleyways. The last traces of a human soul could still be found in those alleyways. I would delight in getting lost feeling like a ghost observing the Chinese life but in no way part of it. I knew no westerner could ever be fully accepted into China and I was at peace with that. The older sections felt recognizable, familiar. It was there in the low city that I loved Beijing most, red lanterns swaying in the moonlight, the sound of opera from the radio, insects being sold as snacks, old ladies in furs walking Pekinese (everyone seemed to have a Pekinese), laughter, the sweet delicious smell of bread, pockets of silence. I imagined little had changed in the genetic makeup of Beijing there. It had a magical aura that the rest of the city didn’t have. It had life.
I had decided to visit the Forbidden City. What is strange about Beijing is that if you want to visit Tian’anmen Square (which is open space) you have to go through security controls. I waited for over an hour in one, shuffling with the Chinese through the nippy frost. Now and then a baby would unceremoniously be placed into my arms for a photo, families lined up around me, they seemed to like my blonde hair and blue eyes. Once while standing a family had even positioned themselves behind me for a family portrait only I had my back to the lens which I thought odd.
Still China was alien. These interactions were minimal as if they didn’t see me at all, they didn’t know me. I was just another Nordic hologram, alien to their eyes that had to be captured on camera holding their offspring. Maybe it was seen to bring luck, maybe I would be framed and put on the wall of a shack in the most obscure parts of the country. China is like Japan. People are polite but still you feel no part of their society. I thought back to Iran, Romania, Peru, India, the places where I had amazing interactions with their citizens. I longed for a deeper human connection.
I have mixed feelings about Beijing. I had heard that the Communist Annual Conference was happening on Tian’anmen Square so maybe that was why security had been tightened. Maybe that was why there were many security controls. I had heard because of the conference industry had been put on hold to clear the skies and true, I had never saw the infamous toxic fog. Maybe with Communism the people still saw westerners in some ways as an enemy and that is why interaction were to a minimum.
The Chinese are so far off from my world, to me as pale and remote as the landscapes they inhabit. As the plane took off I left memories of The Lover and China behind. I was heading towards the Middle East unbeknown to me towards the city of my dreams, towards the city of my future, Cairo.