I seem to be going backwards here. Mainly because it’s hard to know how to tackle Beijing, both literally and psychologically. Especially when you only have a few days.
Luckily, my guide, the wondrous June Chen, arranged for each day in Beijing to consist of 120 hours. Don’t know how she did that, but I swear it’s true.
Herewith, a few highlights:
1. The Bookworm, Beijing. The original branch of the Bookshop of my dreams. A great wi-fi cafe — not next to the bookshop, in the middle of it. The staff of the festival scattered around tables in the cafe, not hidden in some back room. Ditto a selection of famous authors. Everyone friendly. Great coffee. Open till 2am. When was the last time you heard of a bookshop open till 2am? Huge windows. Lanterns. Did I mention the festival staff? Gorgeous, helpful people. Festival audiences keen and enthusiastic. Thank you Kadi, Sharon, Alex, Giulia for inviting me and being the world’s best hosts. Wondrous.
2. The food. The brother of one of my oldest friends was bureau chief of CNN in Beijing for years — it’s been so long since I’ve seen him that he managed to have a son who is now 23 in the interim. Dan Chinoy took me to a tiny Szechuan dive so terrifyingly untrendy that I wouldn’t have dared walk past it on my own, much less go in. Still fantasising about the sliced lotus root. Much too much amazingly delicious food + beer + conversation for three came to about £10. Total.
3. Everyone I met loved Beijing. At another dinner with my foreign rights agent (a grandiose term — I have no foreign rights in China as yet), a young scriptwriter told us she’d got into the business by being the assistant director on her first film. Really??? In London, you’d have to work on four hundred films for thirty years as a dogsbody coffee-fetcher cum slave before you could even admit to anyone that you wanted to be an assistant director someday. Job market-wise, Beijing feels like the wild west. You ride into town in your dusty hat and next thing you know, you’re the sheriff.
4. Let’s be honest. Most of the new city is astonishingly ugly. Like NYC on steroids. Without the graceful historical skyscrapers. Whole neighbourhoods have been razed to make way for vast anonymous shopping developments, hotels and office parks. But threaded delicately through the contemporary carnage are what remains of the hutongs — (from the Mongolian word hottog, meaning water well). These rambling low-rise neighbourhoods of narrow alleys and courtyard houses hidden behind high walls are a source of huge public controversy (should they stay or be replaced by yet more modern highrises?) They contain so much life, it’s impossible even to start describing them. All human activity is here. Card players, migrant workers, calligraphers, stinking public toilets, amazing street food, centuries of tradition.
5. At The Great Wall I kept imagining what my 13-year-old’s reaction would have been (“and why, exactly, is this so great?”) Yet despite the tragic absence of a shopping mall, the wall is a breathtaking piece of history. It was empty the day I went. No tourists. I looked across the far side to Mongolia and imagined the loneliness of the outpost guards back in 700BC as they waited for the barbarians to attack. You don’t get that in Islington.