By Paul Robinson
Great capital cities are windows into the soul of a country. Just like the eyes of a person, capital cities are occasionally beautiful, often captivating and always provoking. China’s enigmatic capital city, Beijing, offers a glimpse into country which continually captures imaginations whilst is often misunderstood.
The city of Beijing is located to north of the expansive plain which acted as the cradle to the Chinese civilisation. The city’s history can be traced back to the 7th Century BC and it became China’s primary city in the Ming dynasty. The city has witnessed many of China’s defining moments and as a result it is bursting with history. In addition to the population of 19 million, a further five million tourists each year visit the city. Beijing’s pull is undeniable.
To try and get under the skin of China, to get a true sense of place, can be a challenging proposition. Especially if you cannot speak Mandarin. The ideal place to start for most is the Forbidden City. The Chinese Imperial Palace is the spiritual centre of Chinese civilisation, and has been so since 1420. The huge complex contains numerous gates, walls, courts, gardens and palatial buildings. Every detail, large and small, has been designed to reflect China’s philosophical beliefs. Foremost to this was the majesty of imperial power.
Foreigners were once precluded from entering the palace (hence its name) and being found entering the Forbidden City would cost you your life. Today, it’ll cost you 60RMB. Crowds of Chinese and foreign tourists incessantly stream through the Merdian Gate and into a world of history, politics and intrigue. An enthusiast could spend days in the palace imagining the imperial entourage at its height, whilst enjoying the views and decoding the symbolism.
A keen imagination is a necessity here, because unfortunately there is a real lack of narrative. An accompanying English language guidebook will rattle off lists of mundane facts but it is hardly appealing. A carefully curated tour of the Forbidden City could be one of the World’s great attractions however at the moment, it is something of a missed opportunity. However this acts as a neat microcosm for China. Its history is palpable, interwoven with a pervasive philosophy and architectural style, but it somehow largely misunderstood by its neighbours, near and far. The magic is lost in translation.
The opulence and permanence of the Forbidden City is perfectly countered by Beijing’s Hutong. Hutong are traditional homes connected via courtyards and narrow alleyways. These ephemeral developments have been home to thousands of the Beijing’s less fortunate for hundreds of years. Famous tales and myths surround each of the unique hutong.
Unfortunately the contrasting culture of the hutong is disappearing beneath a wave of contemporary development. Whilst numbers are declining, areas such Nanluogu Xiang, in the Gulou Hutong, have fought back. The area wasn’t of note until the early 2000’s when the now famous Passby bar opened its doors. The bar offers an international menu and beers from around the world.
Slowly the area has transformed and now hosts scores of cafes, bars and boutiques. You can shop chic and cash in on the kitsch. The young and beautiful promenade alongside the old and wise. Some work hard to make a living whilst others spend effortlessly. Nanluogu Xiang offers something to everyone.
Whilst recent renovations are clearly apparent, immediately behind the veneer of fresh paint you will find the charm of the hutong. Step inside a gate and you can follow paths which twist and turn and quickly remove you from the crowds. You may have to step over micro-allotments or broken bicycles but you’ll always discover something unexpected. Maybe a local gallery, possibly some counterfeit Hermes handbags and more than likely, people’s homes.
The hutong are vibrant and alive. Without trying, they capture the enigma of China. The rich and the poor. Tradition and progress. Enterprise, community and hospitality. China is a captivating country and it can satiate everyone’s taste. Whether it be history, shopping or culture, you can find it in China. Beijing, China’s great capital city is the ideal jumping point into an amazing adventure.
About the Author
Paul used to think that Manchester was the centre of the Universe until he had a nosey around a few other countries. Now you can’t shut him up about all things Asian. You can read his ramblings here: