’ve been reflecting a lot recently on why I’m still in Beijing, on why it has me hooked. I first came here in 2001 and instantly fell in love with the place. There was something arresting about it – the people, the pace, the old versus new, the neighborhoods that felt like villages within a megacity. Back then there were only two subway lines, and now in 2018 there are 22. The city has grown massively but still the same factors are present that keep drawing me back. I’ll call these my 5Cs, and here they are in no particular order.
Cuisine. Beijing is a foodies’ paradise. When I was traveling around South America recently I realized I’d become a food snob. Beijing had made me a food snob. Here, I have access to the most incredible cuisine. Firstly, all the cuisines of this vast country are represented. There are fantastic restaurants for all the classics such as Sichuan, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Shaanxi in most neighborhoods and for the more obscure, lesser known provinces I can seek out the provincial government restaurants. Old classics like Dadong for Peking Duck sit alongside pioneering new restaurants such as Haidilao for hotpot. Korean and Japanese cuisines are well represented and there’s amazing Western food that’s on a par with other global cities. I can dine somewhere upmarket for a fraction of the price of home. Then there’s the food ordering app Dazhong Dianping. When I visit cities outside China I struggle to find an app that’s the equivalent – essentially a foodie bible. Thanks to this app I’ve filled up on good food in many unfamiliar neighborhoods of the city.
Cityscape. The city’s traditional alleys (hutong), highways, modern architecture, ancient temples, parks – I love this city. One of the first places I visited when I returned recently was Jingshan Park, to the north of the Forbidden City. The expansive views out to the mountains in the north and west then east to the CBD encompass some of my favorite spots. You can spy some of the city’s modern architectural gems like the Birds Nest Olympic Stadium or the CCTV building, to my favorite ancient icons such as the Forbidden City, Drum and Bell Towers and the Confucius and Lama temples. This is one of the world’s great cities and it’s undeniably stunning.
Change. Back home in Europe the pace of change is so snail-like that you barely notice it happening. Not so in Beijing. The rapid pace of development keeps you on your toes. It’s exciting and lends a certain energy to the city. I’m not saying all change is positive, but a large amount of it is and I love exploring new places that have opened or become more accessible due to developments in transport.
Comfort. The fact is, I feel safer in Beijing than I do in many other cities worldwide. The risk of petty theft and crime is low and I feel safe walking home at night, or having my phone out in my hand while walking down the street. The vast and reliable subway system makes much of the city conveniently accessible. It’s also still a bike friendly city despite all the cars on the road, and new cycle-only routes are currently under construction as is the new airport. The bike sharing scheme makes life easy, as does the convenience of new phenomena such as online shopping and express delivery and apps like WeChat, through which you can seemingly organize your whole life.
Community. Beijingers are a friendly bunch. During a rainstorm recently I was getting soaked on my way home when a lady kindly lent me an extra umbrella she was carrying, then walked out of her way to take me to my door. I’ve lost count of how many interesting conversations on a wealth of topics that I’ve had with taxi and Didi (China’s Uber) drivers over the years. And I love how communal the city feels; life seems to be carried on for the most part outdoors. At dawn and dusk people are out in the parks exercising, while the streets, markets, malls and restaurants seem to be bustling almost 24/7. Then there’s the people. On a personal level I have formed some of the strongest friendships with people from Beijing, be they Chinese or foreign. I have made friends from many different provinces in China and from many different countries around the world, more than I ever did while living in London. I disagree with people when they say Beijing is not cosmopolitan.
Of course, my beloved city of Beijing does have its shortcomings. Pollution is still very much present; there are too many cars for my liking; the music and arts scene is lamentably small for a city of this size; increasing rents are forcing more and more local restaurants and shops to close. But the essence of the city has remained unchanged. That’s what I love about Beijing, and that’s what keeps me hooked.