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.