Everything you’ve heard about Beijing’s air pollution is true, and for me at least, it overshadowed the Beijing experience. It’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to breath and function when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is pushing 400 unless you’ve spent some time in it. (For context, as I write this, Seattle’s AQI is currently 21, “Good.”). Just as this expat describes in detail, I was constantly distracted by unfamiliar cold and allergy-like symptoms, mixed with burning sensations in the nose, lungs, trachea and skin. It feels fantastic to breath clean air again.
Despite constantly feeling sick from the air pollution and “hazardous” air conditions, we got out in it and saw what there was to see. An added bonus for this particular trip was that the official selection of new Chinese leadership happened while we were there and we saw evidence with tight security at the major intersections around the Forbidden City and various government buildings. The number of men in black was disconcerting and it would be interesting to know how much of a security presence there is when the government is not in session.
Just about everything in an alien culture can seem peculiar, and many different categories of things caught my eye in Beijing (architecture, traffic, Chinese faces, big brother’s presence) or were amusing (signs, food).
Getting around via subway is relatively easy–all of the signs are in English letters, and navigation is straightforward. Catching a taxi on the other hand can be troublesome; taxi drivers are reluctant to pick up foreigners because…who knows. We speculated: Lack of English skills? Fear of losing face? Compared to travel in other developing areas however, Beijing was relatively easy.
One morning we got up early and went to Tiananmen Square to watch the daily flag-raising ritual, which is attended by thousands. Security is tight around the Square and entrance requires passing through something akin to airport security. As foreigners I think we got off relatively easy and after we battled our way through the crowds (the Chinese have quite a different idea about queuing), we were waved through.
Later that day (after touring the Forbidden City) a small group of us hired a guide to take us on a bicycle tour of Beijing. The tour toodled down wide boulevards and through some of Beijing’s “hutongs,” which are the narrow streets and alleyways at the heart of Beijing.
The UW international experience ended in Beijing, but my wife and I stayed in China and cycled in Yunnan Province for an additional ~10 days.