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Beijing: First Impressions

View Summer 2007 on tnichols's travel map.

You know China is very different pretty much as soon as you cross the border. The geography and climate between southeastern Russian and northeastern China is obviously very similar, but the use of land and the buildings are very different. The old buildings follow a recognizably Chinese style, and the new buildings contrast sharply with the general disrepair of Russian buildings. The first full day on the train through China you could see the waterfields, with people still carefully planting sprouts at 6 in the evening. If Russia was a contrast of the colorful with the drab, China is a sharp contrast of traditional with modern.
Beijing itself is a perfect example. There's so much construction and so many new buildings that almost gleam through the dust clouds on Wangfujing street. At the same time, you can't go very far without encountering a historical site or older buildings with the traditional stone walls and tile roofs. Another seemingly ubiquitous part of the scenery are the many police. I'm still not sure if that makes me feel more or less safe, and how it affects the local citizens.
One of the nicest things to see is how everyday people enjoy their historical monuments and parks. It's not at all uncommon to go to the Summer Palace on the weekend with your family to take a nice leisurely walk and enjoy an ice cream, or to go the Temple of Heaven and relax in the walkway by singing or playing games with your friends. It's not a history lesson or an obligation, it's their culture and their home environment, and they are very comfortable in it. We have parks in the U.S., but I can't really imagine anyone grabbing a book and sitting on the steps of the Lincoln memorial for an afternoon to relax.
The city retains its color at night as well, which gives it a very lively atmosphere. However, going in search of true Chinese night-life is an interesting enterprise. Without a decent command of the language or a better knowledge of the city, it's easy to get sucked into a rather expensive tourist-heavy bar. It is disappointingly easy to find meccas of western culture, english songs, english captions, and english clothes. The modern style obviously must be Chinese since it occurs here in China, but I can't help feeling sometimes that much of it is a version of Western style not very subtly stretched into a pop culture frame for Asian youth.
The people themselves overall are much more down to earth than the Russians, with easy smiles and sometimes much more casual clothing (especially young childeren lol). You just have to be careful that a few bad experiences in a shopping market or with a dishonest driver don't ruin your perception.
China also has a rich and interesting history that's easier in some ways to access then Russia, but also more difficult. There are many signs in English, but a sign only tells you so much and not often many subtleties about cultural references or more interesting historical stories about individuals.
Overall China is much more colorful, open, and accessible than Russia. But they are both such different countries and cultures that most comparisons are completely unfair and pointless. China in its own right is definitely a sight to see, but to really experience "China" is something not all Westerns are able or even encouraged to do.

Posted by tnichols 22:39 Archived in China

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