The Great Travels to Beijing
May 11, 2016
When I travel, one the greatest treasures I gain is the experience of immersing myself in the culture I’m visiting. In other words, looking at life through the natives’ eyes, experiencing and imagining how life might be like had that been the cards I’d been dealt. Without history there would be no context for the present or future, and with it there’s something very fascinating to me about how that plays a part in a culture’s people, the way they move and talk, how they were built, and the way they live their every day lives. I ventured to Beijing, China last month and found some very new and exciting feelings on the emotional spectrum come to life.
From the moment I stepped off the plane at the Beijing airport, the word “great” sprouted a new meaning in my mind, and would continue to grow over the course of the trip. Taking almost over an hour to get out, I finally reached a cab out front and took off towards the city center (though I don’t think it’s even appropriate to call any one area a center). Imagine looking top down at downtown San Diego, grabbing two opposing corners, and stretching the size of it by about 500%. That’s what Beijing feels like. The freeways are twice as wide, the architecture is jaw-droppingly huge, and it continues for miles upon miles. It’s truly one of the biggest cities in the world.
Little did I know that this trip would consist of a new-found respect for urban driving. To set the scene, there is worse traffic and more driving than any bad day during rush hour in LA, unless you’re on the road between 1-5 am. The traffic has gotten so bad that they’ve had to regulate which cars are able to drive into the city on certain days. With a population of over 18 million, it makes sense. But despite the constant waiting periods and lengthy car rides, the Chinese are some of the best drivers I’ve ever seen. I experienced everything from driving on the shoulders, u-turns in the middle of the road, every kind of cutting off possible, speeding and all the while never seeing a single accident or driver getting road rage. It sometimes felt like I was in a movie car chase.
I spent a little under a week in Beijing, trying to cram in as much as possible. In any other city you could probably experience twice as much, but due to the sheer size and amounts of people, you have to be tactful. I walked the market places to see all of the different vendors with their unique handmade crafts, the street food consisting of scorpions, starfish, grasshoppers, the stunning silks and the iconic tea shops.
The Forbidden City took half a day, and was beautiful with its intricate designs and unique color pallets. Thousands of people from all over China come to visit the City with their cameras and selfie sticks to pay their respects and to stay close to their cultural heritage.
I was also able to visit the Great Wall. You imagine it just being “great” until you actually see it and stand on it, and then you realize “great” is an understatement. History is etched in every grain of stone. Trying to fathom hauling a little under 300 million cubic meters of materials to elevations of sometimes over 500 meters, and over 100 years of people giving their lives for their ruler, it’s no surprise it’s one of the wonders of the world.
Although China isn’t building massive walls anymore, it is turning itself into one of the greatest industrial centers of the world. Here I use the word great in a similar fashion, to mean so unfathomable until you actually experience it. The skies have become so ashen grey from so much factory production that breathing masks are used as much as we wear sunglasses. You can even stare at where the sun is without having to look away. Millions of people move and work like a well oiled machine, day-to-day, living in 1000sqft regulated sized apartments within 20-30 story buildings, built in the dozens, cookie cutter-like, some looking desolate and completely isolated from the rest of civilization.
There’s a unique beauty and juxtaposition within the Chinese culture that I experienced from being there, built on the iconic history of its culture and operating under the modern functions of its economy. Of all the places I’ve visited, Beijing has felt the most foreign but also the most captivating. “Great” will forever have a new meaning in my life.