First impressions of Beijing (or Chairman Mao vs Princess Leia) / by Thomas O'Malley

The most wonderful, intoxicating part of travel is the strangeness. The unfamiliar sights and smells, the brand names on bottles and billboards that hold no sway over us - it doesn't even matter where you are all that much, as long as it's somewhere else and somewhere new.

So being asked to write about Beijing, a city that's been my home for over five years, from the perspective of a new arrival is a tricky proposition.  I attempted to do so in a 'Travellers Tales' feature for ABTA, the magazine of the UK's leading travel association, but I reckon it's fairly clear the author ain't no noob.

Actually, on my first visit to Beijing in February 2008 I kept a basic diary (on a Word doc - thanks, original Asus Eee PC 701 - best travel laptop in history, but that's another post right there). So it's pretty easy for me to open it up and see what my actual first impressions of Beijing were / are. Here are some:

On Tiananmen Square:

  • Old men flying kites (sadly they don't allow this any more)
  • Police rescuing a kite from a tree (I can't remember this or even imagine it)
  • Chairman Mao had the same haircut as Princess Leia (yeah, kinda...)
  • China is the spiritual home of the megaphone (I guess there were lots more megaphones in general use back then)

On the Lantern Festival (15th and last day of Chinese New Year):

People come on to the streets at night to set off snaking trails of firecrackers and fireworks as loud as mortars. Sounds like a warzone, with the distant crack of guns, thump of shells and the ratatat of machine gun fire. The air is thick and choking with firecracker smoke (as if Beijing's pollution wasn't bad enough already...) and the streets are covered with shreds of charred red paper and empty fireworks boxes. All of which is dutifully cleaned away without a trace by the following morning.

Interesting to see the pollution was something I thought about then (3rd day of the trip). People claim it's worsened over the last few years but I'm inclined to think it's about the same - more that the awareness has grown.

On the train to Harbin:

Sinking cans of Harbin beer at 5 yuan a pop in the dining car, all frilly tablecloths and dusty old Christmas decorations, with Police Academy 2 playing noisily on the flat screen Chinese TV on the wall. Groups of Chinese men including police and young soldiers played drinking games and getting sloshed as the conversations got louder and more animated. “I  have one car, he has two cars, etc"

I can't quite believe that Police Academy 2 was playing on the TV. In 2008.