BEIJING — The subway here is one of the world’s largest. But it’s hard to get a “sense of place” from underground, so I walked around the neighborhood and hired a car and an English-speaking guide to get to know China’s capital.
The sedan was a comfortable BMW 5 series built in China. This is BMW’s largest market. A young man who introduced himself as “David” was an affable English-speaking tour-guide. His business card read “David Kwang.”
We spent the afternoon tooling around Beijing. Central Beijing is surrounded by rings, starting with the 1st ring, then the 2nd ring and so on. We spent most of the time in the core area.
We passed well-known places such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the resting place of Mao Zedong, Temple of Heaven, Houhai Lakes, Jingshan Park, and the Drum & Bell Tower.
At some spots, we got out and walked around. It was good to have David around because he could answer random questions that occurred to me.
One of the most fascinating sights are the hutongs, which are alleys formed by rows of courtyard houses, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The lanes have exotic sounding names such as Nanluoguxiang or Yandaixie Street.
I remembered these alleys and residences from visiting Shanghai last fall, where they are called lane houses, dating back to colonialism (early 20th century). This so-called real estate showdown between Beijing and Shanghai is further explained here.
Signs commemorating China’s 70th celebration are posted all over, as they were in Chengdu. National flags were posted all along the boulevards.
I also noticed the Western influence: billboards touting the new iPhone Pro at bus stops, as well as Starbucks coffehouses, and Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurants.
As we traveled around, I recognized the spot where Chinese President Xi Jinping gave his 70th anniversary speech on national television earlier in the week.
I also recognized the boulevards that had been the sight of a massive military parade on TV— about 15,000 personnel, and hundreds of pieces of weaponry and equipment.
Along with the other buildings, David also pointed out the Zhongnanhai compound (AKA “Gate of New China”) that houses the offices of Xi Jinping.
David said Beijing had attracted record crowds for this week’s 70th anniversary celebration. People came from all over China for the weeklong festivities.
It resulted in traffic gridlock and countless road closures — and we experienced the tail-end of all that.
The streets of Beijing are a mix of bicycles, pedestrians and vehicles. Compared with other cities I’ve visited, they mostly stay out of each other’s way — except for the occasional pedestrian who wanders out in front of a car, daring the driver to stop. We experienced a few near misses in our sedan.
Some of the colorful bicycles that line the streets are offered for ride sharing. Chinese mobile apps such as WeChat are used for communicating, while others such as Mobike are used for renting the bicycles.
As with Chengdu and Shanghai, I was impressed with the cleanliness of the streets and boulevards — at least the main ones. I figured they were kept extra tidy for this week’s festivities, but recalled that Shanghai’s boulevards were clean too.
The sight of electric cars is becoming more common in Beijing. I spotted a few Teslas, among other brands. The electric cars have green license plates compared to blue for gasoline-powered vehicles
In recent years, more electric cars have been sold in China than the rest of the world combined. The government offers incentives to electric-car owners, such as a less expensive licensing procedure, David explained.
Though Beijing is notorious for its smog, I have been blessed with relatively clear skies this week. I think fall is a good time to visit from that standpoint.
We returned to the hotel around dusk. I said goodbye and headed inside for a cup of green tea in the lobby. I went for a swim in the hotel pool, ate a hot pot for dinner and caught up with the international news on CNN. It seems that whenever there’s news about the protests in Hong Kong, the TV goes dark for a moment before returning to the next news item.