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Beijing Ten Years Later

CHINA | Thursday, 18 February 2016 | Views [548]

Forbidden Palace Beijing

After more than five years living in the Chinese capital, today is the last night that I will spend here before going back to Barcelona, my hometown. Everything is ready: I've vacated my apartment; I've sent all the junk I've accumulated during these years; and I've said goodbye to all of my friends and acquaintances. So, tonight is for me, and me alone!

To say goodbye to what has been my home over these years, I decide to take a long walk through one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, the Gulou neighborhood or the Drum Tower.

The Gulou neighborhood is a vibrant neighborhood which is unique in the world, a labyrinth of alleyways that offer a mixture of tradition and modernity which is hard to imagine if you haven't seen it for yourself. The traditional houses in this neighborhood, which are so hard to see in modern-day Beijing, have had very different fortunes. Some of them are dilapidated and look like time has stopped for their inhabitants, others have been restored and occupied by the elite, and others have been turned into modern businesses of a certain level, tourist stores, "alternative" cafés, and some are even home to the forefront of the underground scene.

While I walk along a dark street, avoiding being run over by a silent electric tricycle carrying gas tanks, I start to remember the first time I stepped foot in this city, in 2005, now ten years ago.

After years traveling around Europe by train, in the summer of 2005, I decided that I wanted to expand my horizons and started to look for cheap flights out of Europe without a concrete destination. Fate had it that Beijing was the cheapest flight I found.

As opposed to what is happening now, in 2005, the blogger phenomenon wasn't so widespread, and it was hard to find good guides to travel to China on the internet, so I got on the plane with only a one night hostel booking without the remotest idea of what I would find in this country, which I had never imagined that I was going to visit one day. The experience was such a good one that I decided to go back after a few years to live. What I am wondering now is, if I had taken this trip today, whether the result would have been the same.

Beijing in 2005 was nothing like the current megapolis, as at this time, China wasn't attracting even close to the number of foreign tourists that it now welcomes, and much less workers. To get an idea of what Beijing was back then, you would have to travel to third-tier cities like Zhengzhou and Shenyang, although these cities are also "modernizing" at vertigo speed.

In 2005, you could walk around many parts of the city for hours without running into a white devil, and you felt watched every step you took. Now, when I walk along the dilapidated alleyway, I have already run into multiple groups of westerns, and the locals no longer pay any attention to me. In ten years, I have gone from being a white circus monkey walking around the city to being an anonymous inhabitant of a large metropolis.

It isn't just this: ten years ago, the hospitality of the city was extreme, and at times, a bit stifling. For any problems you might have had, there was a multitude of people willing to help you. Now, it is very different, and the treatment of foreigners has a certain mistrust to it. This is something that I can understand, as many foreigners have abused this hospitality for too long, and the nationalist attitude of the new government doesn't help either.

As a coffee addict, I remember that the first time I set foot in the city, it was quite difficult to find my daily dose to survive. Normally, we had to look for five-star hotels, and once, we even had to teach the poor waitress at the new "cool" bar in the area how to use the coffee machine. Now, during my walk, I must have passed by at least ten coffee shops of Korean inspiration, and a handful of Starbucks as well.

Ten years ago, even the scam artists looking for unsuspecting foreign tourists were much nicer. In 2005, my travel companion and I fell for what is now known as the tea scam, in which women who are supposedly students approach you with the pretext of practicing English, and without knowing, you end up in a tea house with a bill for a few thousand yuan (more than 200 dolars), and a few Chinese men looking at you menacingly. When the two students came up to us in 2005, after taking with us for a long time, they asked us if we were hungry and if we would like to eat with them. We had been looking for a place to try the famous Peking duck, and we thought it would be a good idea to go out to eat with them. Yes, the food was much more expensive than usual, and they never had the slightest intention of pitching in for the bill. Nonetheless, we stuffed our faces and we tried Peking duck and dishes that we never would have tried if it hadn't been for them. Overall, it was not that expensive of a night, and was not at all unpleasant.

Thousands of other comparisons come to my mind while remembering all of my history with this city, and as I say goodbye to its streets, I try to keep back the tears. Tomorrow will be another day and I will be enjoying the sea, the blue sky, and the sun which warms you but doesn't burn you.

Finally, I decide to savor some delicious jaozi (dumplings) on the street before going to bed, and the last thing that comes to my mind is a feeling of sorrow. The warm and welcoming city that I fell in love with in 2005 has turned into a cold and "modern" city that has lost a large part of its charm. Nonetheless, Beijing will always be my second home, a chaotic city that never ceases to surprise you, a city where you can find a delicious new dish to try every day, and definitely a city that I will miss.

Tags: beijing, china

 

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