I first visited China with my future wife and some dear friends, for the Chinese New Year of 2007. It was an exotic and stifling place. We walked and laughed, diligently dodging puddles of urine and occasional human excrement on the crumbling footpaths.
We stayed in central Beijing, just a walk from Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, which even then, disappointingly, had a fucking Starbucks!
The air quality was… well, there was no quality to speak of, and I still credit my lack of Chinese respiratory illness to the cunning plan of consistently filtering the fetid smog through a lit cigarette. The late Douglas Adams once wrote, ‘…to breathe, the best plan is to open a window, and stick your head in a building’. That always reminded me of Beijing.
Five of us stayed at a place called Leo Hostel, which served cheap beer and huge sandwiches.
Of course, we also ate Chinese food, which we discovered is delicious, pretty much everywhere, except in China.
We each paid ten American dollars, for a full-day tour of the ‘Secret Wall’ (an unreconstructed section of the Great Wall three hours from Beijing where we saw literally only one person not from our minibus)… and a complimentary traditional lunch.
We climbed high into the mountains, through vast crumbling guard towers.
…hundreds of miles from the tourist crowds.
…up and down ridiculously steep stairways.
…scrambling up mountainsides of loose rocks.
…and along sections that had apparently been stolen.
It was a fantastic, exhausting day, and I would say the best ten bucks I ever spent, especially considering that same ten dollars also bought us entry the following evening to see the famed Chinese acrobats.
2007 Beijing was dirty, amazing, and astonishingly cheap.
More recently I had a lengthy stopover in Beijing, and went into town. The woman at the airport information desk didn’t speak a word of English (some things don’t change), but in the decade that had passed, which included the 2008 Olympics, the city had transformed itself. The air was cleaner, and the streets were lined with trees rather than shit. Gone were the rickshaws and bicycles, replaced now by European and Chinese cars (there’s a noticeable absence of Japanese or American cars on the streets of Beijing, but no shortage of Audis and BMWs).
I wandered into a hostel for a couple of beers, and had a good yarn with a couple of gay Danish psychologists. On a whim, I asked the barman if he knew of a place called Leo Hostel. He told me it was just around the corner, about 100 feet away. I was in exactly the same neighbourhood as a decade prior, and had no idea. The place was unrecognisable.
Inside, the Leo Hostel looked exactly as it had ten years earlier, except much quieter. Instead of talking, people stared at their screens. The prices had risen; the sandwiches had shrunk.
I guess some memories should be left as just that. It was time to head back to the airport, so I strolled randomly, looking out for a taxi. The water was now cleaner around the Forbidden City.
What I didn’t know was that it was Chinese National Day, and suddenly I was in a crowd that was frustrating even the Chinese. I dragged my suitcase through the seemingly endless throng, which in reality spanned about six blocks, after which I thankfully found a taxi.
It was a strange experience retracing steps from a decade prior. Beijing is cleaner, shinier and richer… and somehow made me sad. Perhaps the Tsingtao at Leo Hostel just tasted better between five young friends, one of whom has already passed away. So I raised my bottle, alone.