Living in the Shadows of Beijing

After years having the countryside on my doorstep in the UK I can’t believe the level of feeling I have for this place now but I do. I feel utterly at home here.
“I don’t know how you live there. I couldn’t do it” one of my friends said back in England, referring to the enormity of Beijing and its vast sprawl encompassed by six ring roads.

I love wandering the streets at night.

Putting the negatives aside, Beijing is one of the safest cities in the world. Of course there is crime; it’s an expanding city of over 21 million and still going strong after all. Relatively though, it’s a really peaceful place with no drugs or drug related crime anywhere. Consequently, you can just wander around the darkest tenement blocks in the middle of the night with only your imagination to make your heart beat faster.

Spring is coming and some of the windows are open revealing the life within the thousands of old apartments; a sensation I find compelling. You could wander around for hours and never get bored.

A darkened warren of passageways and dimly lit stair wells in sepia-yellow light; worn over the years and plastered with small stencilled adverts in Chinese characters. Dirty windows are protected by ornamental black iron bars of various designs, while bicycles in various states of disrepair fill up any space against the ground floor. This is standard Chinese life to the letter; simple; effective; practical and incredibly resourceful.

Ram-shackled corner shops merge with apartment blocks providing colourful illumination to the passer-by.

Down a narrow alleyway, an old-boy with a baseball hat squeezes past on his tricycle-cart laden with a collection of strung together plastic bottles destined for recycling. He parks up next to an apartment and clears his throat heavily on the corner before going inside.

One window is open at head height revealing a bare room with no pictures on the walls, just a bed and a TV. Somewhere the sounds of plates being washed catches my attention. There is an echo of children playing somewhere inside. Sounds are singular and detached rather than merging together in the usual daily cacophony. As a result, at night noises stand out prominently with their own unique signature. One can pick them out and catch them in the air even if they come from some distance away.

There is a wonderful evening stillness in this apartment complex and a woman greets a girl with pig tails in the middle of the road

“Ni chi fan le ma?” (Have you eaten yet?)
“The girl happily replies “Wo mei you!” (I haven’t) with a smile as she breaks into a skip.

A pack of playful dogs run by and disappear into the darkness.

A girl carries her baby sister past in her arms singing a song to her while her Mum follows closely behind
“Xiao chuang er qing qing piao dang zai shui zhong” (the little boat is floating in the water).
“Ying mian chui lai le liang shuang de feng” (and the cool breeze is blowing on our faces).

Through a college campus; there are many in this area. Another warren of darkened red brick apartment blocks. Each one is packed with dorms. Through the windows, wall to wall bunk beds are visible with the possessions of six or more people crammed in with little space. Some live together for years while they do their study. Often they have no heating and live in damp and unhealthy conditions.

I can disappear here. I can become nothing more than another of the shadows, vanishing and merely existing in thought; no judgement; no worry; nocturnal and in total freedom. I can live here. I can roam around capriciously, completely in the moment down avenues of black, silhouetted trees against yellow street lamps. At this moment I become nothing more than extreme peace and contentedness that has no reference in space and time.


60 replies

  1. I’d never be brave enough to be a shadow on the nighttime streets of any city, but what a joy to tag along with you. I love your observations & writing style! Shared on my FB & Twitter accounts. 🙂


    • Hiya 2Chicks – Its great to have you tagging along. Maybe we can stop off and grab some laziji (if your not vegetarian that is) – Actually after the first wave of culture shock slides off and you get used to the environment over here you can get comfortable really easily. After being over here for so long I reckon I’m finally shedding my Western way of being. People just don’t seem to react in the same way as they do in the UK. You can let the world go past you without the slightest worry or negative thought. I guess that’s Beijing for you. Cheers for sharing 2Chicks. Awesome 🙂


  2. I love this, it is so beautifully written and I admire the way you find beauty in places like these. The type of solitude on these streets you describe are exactly the reason why I want to travel to places with such culture differences. Enjoy your adventure x Carly

    Liked by 1 person

  3. great observations. and you figured it perfectly. wonderful evening stillness– liked your usage.
    on the lighter side.. I also love to walk in the night with the company of a long stick.;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha ha > Hi there Akhila. Lots of people say that but it’s really safe. I did get my bicycle seat and back wheel stolen but that was years ago in the busy student area. Nothing dangerous here > That’s Beijing for you. I discovered a really special place I go to in the evenings now. Cant decide whether to blog it though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hiya Akhila > Actually this is a metropolis of 20+ million people so normally there’s no space. Chinese folk go to bed pretty early so evening is the best time to go out. Next door there is a huge apartment complex. The buildings are so wide and tall that its actually an enjoyable feeling being below and looking up. There is a garden and recreation area which is empty at night. That’s my place! I go there and lie on the benches looking at the sky and an inverted view of the tower blocks. Its actually one of the most blissful places I know. No people and the sound echoes. At the moment all the trees are decorated with flashing fairy lights of different colours as it’s Chinese New Year. Lines of illuminated red lanterns are hanging all over the place. Nice! Sorry to ramble but I’m writing at the moment and in full flow ha ha 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow .. that’s nice. I will admit that I cannot live in a city with 21 million people, in fact i can’t be in a city with 2 – 8 million people, which pretty much rules out all the major cities in the world (Paris, NYC, London, Houston, Tokyo, and Addis Ababa), but I can’t wait to visit them. And after reading your blog here, I can’t wait to visit Beijing. It looks wonderful. Great shots btw.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you came along Ellen. It’s an easy city to navigate. No curved roads anywhere and they all go north, south, east or west and that’s it. Even so many locals still have no sense of direction. Cheers for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I grew up in Manhattan, so I’m a child of the grid system. Even after ten years, I can’t get my head around the British roads. Did Henry the VIII outlaw the straight line or something?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha ha ha > I’ve always loved seeing the UK from the air. All the winding roads and patchwork of gardens. I used to go to Playing Place near Truro every year. You must live in a stunning area.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Chris > Cheers for that big time. Yes that’s the reason I’m here I guess. People are generally really friendly and almost too helpful at times 😉 ha ha


    • Thanks Dweezer and thanks also for the follow. I think it’s because most people stay inside after around 10pm so your senses become a lot sharper to individual sounds and smells etc. It is an amazing experience. Cheers bud

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think there are some in the very centre of town, but really anyone messing around with drugs in China is doing so at a very high risk. In the UK its a slapped wrist and off you go. Not so here, ha ha! No drugs > no crime > no assaults!


  5. Wonderful post!

    An the images all very creatively original…

    As i have read through, i see the city have some much character, i can image the people of the city are lovingly responsible…

    i also see that you favoured a comment..

    i find that interesting…


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic – and a great atmospheric photoset too. The company I work for has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and around the world, Last year I got the opportunity to go to China for a couple of weeks but couldn’t make it as my partner became ill. I doubt if I will have the opportunity again, but if I do I will certainly jump at the chance 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can imagine your initial reaction to the contrasting life style. I live in a village in the UK, and would find Beijing vastly different, too. But there is beauty to be found in all places, as your great photos show. You are obviously well adapted to city life now. Some lovely descriptions. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The photo essay is nostalgic or even bittersweet. I thought the decaying facades add character to the presentation. I am reminded of the Chinese district in Kuala Lumpur or some areas in Taipei and Hong Kong. I understand why these scenes provide lovely backdrops for films. The (historic) antique and modern mix so wonderfully together.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Shinandjim > Thanks for dropping by and glad you liked the post. Certainly Beijing is all about it when it comes to the evening and the big bonus is after 1opm most people are heading for their beds. Safe journeys guys.


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