In 2003 during my first visit to China, I visited both Beijing and Shanghai and both cities left me an average impression that was just like any other metropolis. At that time, the Forbidden City or now also known as the Palace Museum didn’t impress me. Neither was Pudong’s skyscrapers as crowded as that in Hong Kong’s Central. Fast forward to 2010, Beijing has hosted the 2008 Olympics and the city is much cleaner, or even as clean as Singapore. Shanghai is organizing the crowded Expo and this goes without mention, the city has also become as livable as many metropolitan areas around the world. What both cities have done in the past 7 years is remarkable, as it has achieved what Singapore did in the last 15 years I studied in that little island nation. Livable though they may be – but which one leaves me a lasting impression after this round?
The last time I visited, I enjoyed Shanghai better for its more modern image and its waterfront location. Not to mention the various sights around the city including Suzhou and Hangzhou. Thus arriving at Shanghai in September, I was greeted with that terrible hot and humid weather. Somehow I seem to have the misfortune of experiencing Shanghai in both its extreme cold (during a Chinese New Year visit in 2005) and close-to-extreme heat. Though my cousins mentioned that the worst of the 40-degree (celcius) weather was over, it still felt terrible even coming from tropical Indonesia. What I found delightful was how much more developed the city of Shanghai has now become. Convenient and brightly lit metro stations, decent traffic flow, more amicable drivers and generally cleaner air surroundings has shown that change is underway to make the city one of the top in Asia, if not the world. Having been delighted with Shanghai, I found that Beijing also had improvements to show to visitors. Especially after its successful hosting of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has become much more organized, cleaner and more navigable for tourists.
Arriving at the older Terminal 1 in Beijing’s Capitol Airport, the arrival reminds me of my first step into China back in 2003. The domestic flight, though meant no immigration check and straight into the baggage conveyor belt which was reasonably quick and efficient. Even the wait for the taxi felt as fast as the one in Changi Airport. Solo passengers could, however, take a shuttle bus to Terminal 3 before taking an airport express train ala HK-style into town. As a group, though, it meant we were travelling in 2 taxis into the city centre, and I experienced the first infamous Beijing traffic jam. Fortunately, it was a short one and we arrived at my uncle’s apartment in the business district. This was one area of Beijing I have yet to visit during my last trip to Beijing. The taxi journey also meant I managed to catch a glimpse of the China Central Television (CCTV) Tower which was one of the architectural masterpiece that seems to remain uncompleted and faced with much controversy. It is an imposing building in the middle of the business district amongst many other skyscrapers that befits the capital of the world’s fastest growing economy. My uncle will be staying with one group in his apartment, while I will occupy another of his apartment which is still vacant. (As a property investor, he rents out some of his property portfolio in China). The weather when we arrived was crisp and cool unlike the hot and humid weather of Shanghai. After supervising the cleaning crew in the apartment complex, the air-conditioner in his apartment that he will occupy is found to be faulty, and this meant some of the travelling party will move over to company me on the other apartment as we arrived on a Saturday and there was no available air-conditioner part that was faulty could not be replaced. Fortunately, the cool weather at night made things bearable. We left for dinner and grocery shopping at the mall opposite the apartment complex and the guys headed over to Qianmen (Front Gate) on a cab for a first sneak peek to the changes that Beijing has undergone since the Olympics. For one, Tiananmen is now off-limits to tourists and visitors at night, with cordons and guards standing around. It remains open in the day, though, so foreign visitors need not fret. Qianmen, though, is a very nice place to venture at night, with shops and cafes opening up till late at night along a pedestrian-only street. It is located just south of the Tiananmen Square, so it would be perfect after a day out venturing the square and the Forbidden City.
The visit to Qianmen was brief and without much shopping, we were back to our lodging for a rest. After getting a shower to refresh myself, I got a call from my cousin about meeting up for drinks, and since I wasn’t that tired and wanting to make my stay in Beijing as productive as possible, I went down to the district of Sanlitun which was a 10 minutes taxi ride away. My cousin was having a late dinner/supper at a nice western restaurant by the area and they brought me to another area which was close by to experience the nightlife in Beijing. Being the capital, Beijing receives a fair share of expatriates and foreign students which make for a vibrant clubbing scene around the city. The diversity of the crowd on a weekend night made it all the more interesting for people watching and just to soak up the life of a city. Ten years ago, I never imagined a club would even survive or be allowed in a communist country, but the most enriching observation of the day was what the young adults in Beijing are there for. My cousin who graduated in the US, was initially studying Chinese, but got a job now in a skincare company while her friend is working in finance. There was some students on exchange in China, some learning Chinese, a couple venturing into a design business, and many others which I can’t recall. The amount of life throbbing in town stuck in my head and gave me a generally good impression of the city. After some drinks, I got a lift from my cousin and her friend by taxi to my apartment, and retired for the night.
The next morning, I was due to meet up with 2 of my cousins for lunch. But with lunch due for a late session, I tagged along with my uncle to Shin Kong Place 新光天地 which is a new mall connected to China Central Mall 華貿購物中心 and China Central Place 華貿中心. The former is recognizable to frequent visitors to Taiwan for a large department store operator, and as one may guess it, Shin Kong Place is a development spearheaded by that Taiwanese company. All 3 of the malls are connected in the interior and was a large complex comprising of prime grade office towers, shopping malls, residential towers and five star hotels like the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton. Several eateries lie in the basement of the malls and make for a good shopping stop for tourists. Coincidentally, my cousins had decided to have lunch at the adjoining mall, and this saved me travelling time for exploration of the malls. While the malls mainly sell upscale brands and shops, there was some shops of interest to me including a BMW showroom in the mall, a MUJI boutique and a Nespresso outlet in the Shin Kong Department Store. There was also a cafe with a nice artificial rain feature in the central atrium at the department store. No, it wasn’t a Nespresso-run cafe so don’t expect Nespresso capsules… By the time I met up with my cousins, we headed to Din Tai Fung for lunch. Unlike the outlets in Singapore, the ones in China had a more upmarket clientele and prices. A wider variety of food was also served. As usual, the standard of xiaolongbaos in the restaurant was great and delicious! We had the stomach to spare for desserts after the lunch which we had at another store in this vast complex of malls. While having desserts, my cousins offered to bring me around, but having seen nearly most of Beijing’s must-see attractions, I opted this time to visit one of the well-documented hutongs of Beijing. Much has been criticized about the destruction of hutongs which are traditional courtyard style residential complexes in Beijing. The one we went to – South Luogu Lane or 南鑼鼓巷 (Nan Luogu Xiang) – was one of the older residential communities in Beijing which the city authorities are preserving and would be soon renovated to look like Qianmen. The renovation of these historical complexes was one of the steps that the government is taking to ensure preservation with sustainable development. Imagine if all the hutongs are preserved, there would just be inadequate land for habitation and living in this rapidly expanding city.
The lane when we visited still looks authentic is lined on both sides by hutongs which used to house civil or military officers residing in the capital. Today, the lane is lined with snack vendors, souvenir shops selling memorabilia, cafes and restaurants as well as pubs. We browsed through metal mugs of another era with communist prints, silk scarves and products for ladies, obama-in-maoist costume t-shirts and interesting design stores. Suprisingly, the alleyway houses some very high quality products and have young and upcoming designers selling their wares in small shops with more affordable rentals. Along the way, we patronized the takoyaki stall, had some local yogurt or 酸奶 as they call in Beijing and I did some souvenire shopping.
After spending a leisurely afternoon strolling across the central lane of South Luogu, we proceeded to join the friends I met previous day for dinner. And where else but Sanlitun, where the initial plan was to have Iranian food, which was an interesting choice for me as I had never tasted how Iranian food tasted like but it sounds exotic and I was game for anything new. Though, a small change of plans meant we picked a local branch of South Beauty or 俏江南. As mentioned in my prior journal, I had been to one of their branches at Nanjing and found the food to be of a high quality. This meant it was an agreeable choice for me as well. The branch in Beijing Sanlitun did not disappoint and the meal was also meant to be a parting meal as one of the guys would be leaving Beijing for Ningbo to teach in a local school there. The opening up of China has truly made opportunities for many people! The dinner wrapped up my second day in Beijing and catching up with my cousins was great since I haven’t got the chance to see them for years.