The Sights, Sounds and Smells of Beijing

Ni Hao,

The sights, the sounds and the smells of Beijing are unforgettable. Cars honk their horns incessantly and the continuous buzz of conversation and movement of myriads of people is like the sound you would find nearing the farming of honeybees, but a thousand times more. It is present at all times. At first, it assaults the senses; so many people, so many sounds and so much movement: continuously, and after time it fades away in the background….well, sort of. Your eyes are everywhere, scanning the crowd, checking your pack, keeping an eye on the kids, making sure the throng of people and the thousands of vehicle, doesn’t separate you. ( I am sure every second car is a cab!)

In a city of nearly 22 million people (some say less but it’s close enough), driving 4 million cars, and 9 million bicycles with as many mopeds, rickshaws and the like, it becomes an adventure just getting across the street. Cars come from all directions as each main street has secondary streets, so the traffic becomes a mishmash of cars, bicycles, mopeds and people darting in and out of the traffic on all sides, with Beijing-ers heedlessly heading to wherever they are heading, mindless of the traffic, talking on the phone, texting or playing games on some sort of electronic toy. Quite a feat in itself! Rule of thumb… priority goes to the biggest, so buses, cars, bicycles and mopeds in that order, then pedestrians. Imagine the commotion then in the midst of all of this, right out of the blue you will see something that makes you do a double take and question whether your eyes are deceiving you or… are you really seeing a man casually riding his bike with his wife sitting precariously on the back carrier, holding a 2 maybe 3 month (at the very most) old baby (we got a picture of that one). Or again, a 3 feet by 6 feet windowpane carefully balanced on a motorized bicycle weaving in and out of the traffic. Then yesterday, thinking I had seen it all I was once more blown away when a woman, driving a moped, comes barreling through the traffic with a full-grown golden retriever sitting on the foot ledge of the bike between her legs (no pictures for that one). Amazing! And all of this with the carelessness and nonchalance you would find in someone strolling leisurely along the waterfront of some exotic beach.

Throughout all of this honking and moving (an overload of information for all the senses) no one seems to get frustrated, aggressive, angry or bothered…honking is just honking, a way of saying “hey I’m here” or “I’m coming through “. No expletives, no rude signs and by all means, no swearing. It’s just the way of life. Loosing your temper in Asia is akin to loosing face, dishonoring yourself! Oh, that we would suffer from such a state of grace. I don’t think I’ll ever look at Moncton “rush hour” in quite the same. LOL! What rush hour?! It all takes some getting used to but being the polyvalent creatures that we are, you begin to join the parade… and join we have! Full speeds ahead, into the melting pot of humanity that is Beijing. YES!
Stepping away from the hustle and bustle of downtown cosmopolitan Beijing and stepping back, seemingly into time, strolling along the Hutongs is another experience altogether. Here is where most of the common people live their day to day live. The Hutongs are small neighborhoods made up of alley ways and old communal courtyard that use to, at one time, house many members and extended members of one family. Surrounding the courtyard were different living quarters where each individual family slept and the courtyard became their living quarters where they shared meals did laundry, relaxed etc. With weddings, came sons and daughters-in-law and extended in-law families, which made communal living an integral part of their lives. Unfortunately the 20th century also brought along divorces and the families that once shared these housings and the communal courtyard became crowded with remarriages and double sets of in-laws still living together. It is now very common to see people doing laundry, knitting, applying themselves to needle-point, , playing games, eating, and grooming themselves right in those streets or to see old folks sitting, on these tiny little stools, sunning themselves in the morning and at night gathered together playing a game of cards or majong to ward off the heat accumulated during the day till the wee hours of the night. You almost feel like you are invading their private space as the communal living once enjoyed within the courtyard spilled out into those little alleyways due to overcrowding. The street has now become their living area with some of those alleyways sometimes no wider than the breadth of your arms.

Cultures are different and what is okay in one country is not in another… Talking or chewing with your mouth full, spitting bones on the tabletop as you are enjoying your meal in a restaurant, spitting anywhere and everywhere (while walking along the streets, out the window of a moving car, in the sink of the kitchen in a restaurant and even in a bag during your journey on a bus). It’s not unusual to see people sleeping on park benches, on the trains, in public places like parks or main attractions that tourists want to visit… just about anywhere you could imagine) and my all time favorite: simply leaned over the counter, where they work taking a snooze (at malls, flea markets, different little shops along the street). Even the more dubious ones like picking your nose while walking down the street or sitting down by the side walk as they wait for customers to come into their shop seems the norm, and not at all impolite. Very different indeed. Takes some getting use… lol!

Last but not least are the smells, oh the smells! As amazing as they sometimes can be (spices for cooking), the bad ones will also they knock you flat on your ass… they are the hardest thing to get use to. Indeed by far the most distinctive, unmistakable and ones that I will forever remember (should the odd chance I encounter such a thing again). Unforgettable and at times overwhelming, it’ll sneak up on you while you’re walking along major streets, strolling along the Hutongs and most surprisingly in restaurants: the smell of human waste and open sewers. Never mind going to a public bathroom, though so far we have fared fairly well in that respect. With some, the warning comes way before the encounter…and one you want to avoid at all cost! LOL. The squatting itself is an art to master…one I’m not sure I want to achieve.

We’ve definitely enjoyed our 2 weeks here in Beijing and had we not have our visa problems we might not have experienced or seen all that we have. As it were, like, because “mom!” Duh!!! (yap it’s all my fault!) forgot to apply for our Indian visa while in Canada, we had to extend our stay in Beijing so we could send away our passport for a full 7 working days. Which, in turn meant, we could not travel around the country side as previously planned (no passport no hotels) therefore stretching our stay in Beijing by a whole 10 days to a full 16 days. All good and I’m sure we will have to adjust our travel plans more than once. We are learning to taking it all in stride…even for wound up Stefan. LOL! Miguel…well I’m not sure he would have even noticed had we told him that was part of the original plan…ok slight exaggeration… but he casually follows us around with an amazed look on his face taking all these fantastic photographs. Assuredly, an artist at heart, he sees things in a completely different way, switches off when he needs and goes to that place in his mind that makes him come up with all sorts of quirky comments or ways of looking at things. Most enjoyable! Stefan on the other hand is the organizer and the walking compass. Structured, logical, a man with a mission… I just hand over the map (I don’t trust myself) and let him loose…so far so good! I’ve taken a stand since leaving: I don’t do keys (I just never find them) and I don’t handle maps…(unless your heart is set on running around in circles).

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Beijing, with all the sights and side trips and visit to different places (Forbidden city, The Great wall of China, The Temple of Heaven, Lama temple and etc…). Walking the street has been quite the eye opener and in so many ways! We just don’t live all the same…you know it but seeing it up close and personal just brings it home.

We’ve also had a few adventures during our time in Beijing, some actually quite funny, but I will keep that for another time, so until then, take care.

Zai jan,



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