Beijing: China in your hands

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore embarks on a sensory tour of Beijing, arguing that the visitor must engage all of their senses to experience fully the Chinese capital
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The Independent Travel

On first contact, Beijing is harsh on the senses. It is a city injected with growth hormones. The Chinese capital's landmarks, buildings and boulevards are constructed to exaggerated proportions and people get high on the speed of development.

Sandstorms, construction dust and chemical pollution infiltrate the city's air. A haze – white, like chalk – blocks out the sky and the sun, seeping from nostril to lung, between fabric and skin, under window frame and onto tiled floor. High-rises stand stiffly and soullessly in the barely visible distance.

It's easy to feel dwarfed in Beijing: 10-lane avenues mean you cross the road by climbing overpasses or burrowing down subways.

The Olympic Games, which start on Friday, are only part of the story. Although Beijing is a stringently controlled city, this frontier town at the height of its goldrush gives people a feeling that almost anything is possible.

Beijing residents manage this paradox by ingenious ways of living, and interacting via all of their senses. For all its gated communities, demolition, construction and river-like roads, Beijing is a sensory city, and it is through all of your senses that you can get to know it.


For the best view of Beijing, climb Jingshan Hill in Jingshan Park, just north of the Forbidden City. See inside the expanse of chambers and courtyards of the Emperor's palace, how it is surrounded by old houses and engulfed by the modern city which expands out from there.

Drive down Chang An Avenue and you will see futuristic feats of architecture and of the imagination that few other cities in the world have the space, money or gall to build. Once your cheeks are sore from "wowing" and you notice that many of these offices, apartment buildings and hotels stand empty, you may wonder what lies behind the show. These structures have no connection with the lives of most Beijing-ers. Turn your attention to the street, and see how people claim and reinvent the spaces in between to suit their needs.

In the evenings after work, neighbours take exercise together underneath flyovers, gathering for calisthenics holding bright red and pink fans on the street corners of giant intersections. Dancing takes place on open squares, near lakes or rivers; Beijing-ers tango by the north gate of the Forbidden City. Gaze for just long enough to show you are tempted and someone of either sex, will come along and take your hand or lead you into a ballroom embrace.

Outside shops, near marketplaces, and on the side of the road people play chess, mah-jong and cards. Small crowds gather round to observe the games. People stop what they are doing to watch others perform. In department stores, teenagers dance on electronic machines and gather an audience of admirers around them.

Beijing has all the features of a modern city, but it is also has strength of community: in attitude and pace, the capital is a cluster of overlapping villages. Much of what is now Beijing was countryside until recently and many have transferred rural ways of life to their new high-rise apartments. Whole generations from entire villages around China have moved into the capital together: bringing gestures, habits and accents.

Beijing-ers walk, and their cars glide slowly. The city is neither too shy nor too busy for eye-contact. A shared glance invites a pause, brings a smile, may inspire an exchange of hellos, occasionally a conversation, and it's not unheard of for friendship to spark this way.

Pockets of the city have defied the city planners. Old buildings like Factory 798, which was once a German electronics plant, have been reinvented by artists and curators into a collection of privately-run visual arts galleries with a designer café and restaurants, like the hip AT Café. The avant garde 798 has been slated for destruction more than once, but the community and its supporters kept the developers away.

Makeshift independent businesses, by sheer force of their popularity and simplicity, have become Beijing institutions. By night the main streets are a blur of neon signs and pictures. Kebab stands take their place on street corners: tiny cubes of lamb on elongated toothpicks are brushed, by Uigers from Xinjiang province, with cumin and chilli powder. Each kebab stand announces itself with the same long plastic tube filled with tiny red or yellow lights curled into the Chinese character for "kebab". You can learn Chinese this way.

Without formal permission to be there, these stalls are vulnerable and most have been banished for the Olympics. Beijing-ers looking for their midnight snack hope they will be back soon.


Beijing's sound level peaks with the the clang of construction. Every citizen seems to travel with their own, zany, mobile-phone ringtone. Karaoke malls give you and a group of your friends the opportunity to shut yourselves in soundproof boxes and sing your hearts out.

Yet the very centre of town is peaceful: visit the Forbidden City early in the morning, walk around the moat where men fish, migrants wash their clothes and old men practise the er hu (a two-stringed, bowed instrument) or sing scales before the tourists come. Weeping willows keep guard behind the moat like dragon soldiers bowing and shaking as the wind whispers though.

Beijing's parks and central lakes are sanctuaries. Sip gently fermented tea for an afternoon in the Purple Vine Teahouse to detox, unwind and clear your mind. You can also use sound to travel back in time. On Sunday afternoons Beijing's parks are meeting places for the songs and music of every era of Chinese history. People gather to sing odes to Mao and the revolution, Chinese opera and traditional folk music. Conductors keep each group in time, if not in tune.

At sunrise and sunset each day, a ceremony to raise and lower the Chinese national flag takes place on Tiananmen Square. The tinny, echo-ey loudspeakers that used to relay Mao's speeches have also played the national anthem as the flag goes up and down every day since the Communist government came to power in 1949. This old technology enhances the sense of nostalgia. Chinese tour-groups, many making their first visit to the capital, create a scrum as each tries to get closer to the action with their cameras and paper flags, speaking in dialects from all across the country.

To hear the sounds of the old way of life which still continues in pockets of Beijing, find some of the few hutongs, old, narrow, alleyways, which have escaped destruction. Here people share courtyard houses, some of which are hundreds of years old.

Every so often you will hear someone riding a tricycle, ringing a bell and announcing their services or wares in low, stylised chants: "mooorh jiannn mooorh daooow": "sharpen scissors, sharpen knives", he calls to the neighbours as he goes. u


oLanguage may be a barrier to understanding, but the vocabulary and grammar of physical communication is not always clear either. Beijing is neither a city of Western manners nor personal space. Appreciate how the rules differ and you will not feel offended if someone bumps right into you without apologising, or if no one notices they are leaning on you in a queue.

Touching strangers in public is rarely considered violent, sexual, or rude, just an acknowledgement of people sharing the same space, part of a big family.

At times people push past each other as though they have become a little frustrated with the family, but touch is usually a currency of equality and kindness; a Chinese antidote to air-kissing.

Today many more people are taking on Western touch-taboos, and handshakes have become the formal greeting; and as many more migrants enter the city class divisions have emerged and they have become untouchables.

Beijing-ers buy opportunities for touch more than any other city I know. You can take advantage of this by visiting the massage parlours and reflexology malls which have sprung up all across the city. People used to go for Chinese medicinal massage in hospitals, or for preventative medical massages by blind masseurs in small outfits around town. But today a massage parlour is a place to take a date, to have a night out with a group of friends or to visit alone after a long day.

Beijing nightlife revolves around physical comfort: bars around Beijing's Back Lake put large, cushioned sofas on the pavement in the summer. There are also spas here, such as the River Seine. When you enter it, you'll be given pink or blue pyjamas depending on your sex; they rub, scrub, steam and sauna you before you can go and mingle with the other pyjama-wearers over a buffet meal.


Chinese gastronomes believe strongly that taste is enhanced by fragrant smells, a variety of textures, colourful sights and appropriate sounds: a good Chinese meal is one where all the senses become aroused together.

Dishes brought to the table unmixed require you to stir them with your chopsticks so that the fragrances release just as they are placed under your nose.

A balanced meal includes the five tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, sour; as well as different textures from chewy and squishy to hard and bite-able. Some will arrive sizzling loudly while others, like "beautiful heart radish" – cut so that each piece of fuchsia-pink radish belly is outlined by its grass-green skin – bring visual contrast.

Restaurant menus are as long as PhD bibliographies. Ordering a meal is a difficult discipline. Choosing dishes that will complement each other, go well with the weather and nourish the body, is almost as much of an art as cooking the stuff.

Ten years ago, cabbage was the only vegetable available during the winter. Beijing-ers therefore invented hundreds of different ways to cook a cabbage, so if it makes it any easier, start with one of those.

Avoid Beijing's official tourist restaurants. Well-meaning, they attempt to cater to Western tastes by recreating the dishes that have been popular in Chinatowns around the world. Dishes such as lemon chicken are three generations away from the original and will leave you with the idea that the Chinese in China are no good at making their own food. Instead, be aware that you are in one of the only cities in the world where all of Chinese cuisine is thoroughly, and deliciously, represented.

Restaurants owned by entrepreneurs from all China's provinces bring in their chefs and ingredients, from Mongolian mutton hotpot to Sichuanese chilli fish soup, from Yunanese cheese and potato rosti to the delicate flavours of China's east coast and the dim sums of Hong Kong, China's "fragrant port".


Like any place amid an industrial revolution, Beijing emits smells like a city whose infrastructure doesn't quite fit. Some odours that you are not meant to know about creep about you: petrol, gas, public toilets, liquid cement; as if the city sometimes forgets to wear its deodorant. But people have made up their own ways of surrounding themselves with fresh smells.

In the summer, street vendors sell gardenia flowers tied to necklaces and bracelets. Put them on and all day you travel with a smell of sweetness around you.

People get to know a lot about their neighbours through the smells that come from their homes. Extractor fans propel aromas of stir-fried garlic, chilli, ginger, and spring onions on to the street. Communal kitchens in courtyards inform on what the neighbours are cooking for dinner and therefore also their financial situation: whether or not they are able to afford meat that night or that week.

Fragrance in Chinese combines scent, flavour, and the weight of the air that carries it. In the hills just west of Beijing stands Fragrant Mountain. Its air is fresh with the sweet and savoury smells of beautiful and ancient trees and plants.

Some leave the city for the weekend to walk up and down this hill to keep fit and breathe cleaner air. They break their climb at pavilions, temples, tea houses and picnic areas along the path. On Fragrant Mountain the air is thick with little but the hiss-hum of crickets, and little-bird-chatter.

However bad the air in the city, Beijing is nevertheless worth breathing in, if for nothing but a lesson in ways of living through the senses, and to witness some ways which are becoming extinct.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Beijing is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; and Air China (020-7630 0919; from Heathrow. Regional flights are available with Emirates (0870 243 2222; via Dubai.

Tou can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444;

Staying there

Xiang Shan Hotel, Fragrant Hill Park, Haidian District, Beijing (00 86 10 6259 1166; Doubles from Y1,000 (£74).

Visiting there

Forbidden City (right), Beichang Street (00 86 10 6 513 2255; daily Apr-Oct 8.30am-5pm, until 4.30pm Nov-Mar. Admission Y60 (£4.40) Apr-Oct, Y40 (£2.90) Nov-Mar.Jingshan Park, Jing Shan Qian Jie 1 (00 86 10 6404 4071). Open daily 6am-7pm; admission Y2 (15p).

The Seine Spa, by Li Shuichao metro station (00 86 10 8482 2858).

Eating and drinking there

AT Café, Factory 798, 4 Jiuxianqiao Road (00 86 10 6438 7264;

Purple Vine Teahouse, Sanlitun Jiuba Jie (00 86 10 6 606 6614).

More information

British passport holders need a visa, which can be obtained from the Chinese Embassy, 31 Portland Place, London W1B 1QD (020-7631 1430; Single-entry costs £30.

China Travel Service (; 020-7388 3388; ) offers an excellent visa and travel service.

National Tourist Office: 020-7373 0888;

That summer: Beijing, 1995
By Rachel Burden

I allowed myself a small moment of panic. It was late evening and I had entered Beijing's cavernous main railway station to be confronted by a near medieval scene – through the darkness and hazy smoke I could make out the forms of thousands of people, congregating in no apparent order, standing in groups, sitting in any spare space, sleeping on the floor, undisturbed by the intermittent roar of huge engines pulling in and out – the smell of diesel, sweat and fried chicken heavy in the air. I had to find my way to the Trans-Mongolian Express – there were no signs I could decipher and no obvious information point, I had a ticket valid for that train alone, no credit card, only $40 to see me to Moscow and it was just minutes till departure.

I had arrived in Beijing after several carefree months in Taiwan trying to find my feet as an adult and experience the wider world before heading off to university in Dublin. I was teaching English amongst a lively international community in Taichung. That emerald isle was far from my Irish roots, but I loved the life.

I was 19 years old, full of confidence and a youthful sense of invincibility. So when I finished my teaching duties, completing the journey on my own from Taiwan to Beijing to catch the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow didn't faze me at all.

I landed in Beijing with no contacts, no accommodation and little money. China in 1995 wasn't the impenetrable monolith it had been just a decade earlier – McDonalds and Pizza Hut were an established presence by the time I was there. The economic giant we recognise now was slowly waking up and there were signs of affluence among some of Beijing's workers.

But it was the most "foreign" place I had ever been to – particularly because I was having to skirt off the main tourist routes as funds were dwindling. Very few people spoke English and my Mandarin was very limited. Moreover, the sight of a lanky pale red-head wandering the streets on her own was quite unusual.

People stared. Children would scuttle alongside for a closer look. One little girl urged me to bend down and pointed curiously at the marks on my face. "Freckles" I told her – at which point she screamed and ran off.

The day of my departure from Beijing, I discovered money was missing from my wallet. I had about $40 left – $100 had just disappeared and I had no idea where it had gone – possibly lost, possibly snaffled somewhere.

The panic was compounded by the realisation I wouldn't be able to get a taxi to the train station and would have to navigate the incomprehensible bus service. From one side of the city to the other, no English signs, no colour-coded map and no English-speaking drivers.

But I made it, and so I found myself completely disoriented in this enormous terminal desperately trying to locate the Moscow train. Racing round and scanning the crowds I found a queue for international ticket holders and was pointed in the direction of an enormous iron hulk of a locomotive that would be carrying me back across the continent.

I located the tiny compartment that was to house me, a Chinese student, two Russian women and half a dozen huge sacks of who knows what for the next seven days.

The train journey itself was probably the strangest and most surreal seven days of my life. Apart from a spartan restaurant car, the only other places to spend time and socialise were the corridor, other people's cabins or the claustrophobic smoking holes at the end of the carriage, which were always filled with the horribly pungent smell of strong, sweet Russian tobacco. I spent the days watching the landscape rumble by.

The two Russian guards in our carriage took a certain interest in me – one propositioned me, the other gave me a melon and warned me not to trust the two women sharing my compartment. The women were thick set, with wiry curly hair and gruff, throaty laughing voices, but in fact they looked after me just at the point in my travels when I needed it. They bought me food from the platforms of the stations we passed through, gave me sweets and extra blankets and insisted I wore my shoes at all times to ward off a persistent cold.

I began to loathe the Chinese student on the bunk above me, largely on account of his habit of eating noodles at 4am. I say eating, but the noise he made during this thrice-daily ritual suggested he was eating a bowl of pork scratchings smothered in jelly rather than a soft noodle snack. It would always be finished off with a loud belch.

If I'm honest, the journey was incredibly boring at times. But there were hilarious moments, like the last night party where around 15 of us crammed ourselves into carriage 13 and drank cheap Russian beer, champagne and vodka, and hosted an ad-hoc international song contest.

From China, through Manchuria, Siberia and the Urals and eventually to Moscow, I'd never seen so much of the world. But it was my experience in Beijing that had the greatest impact on me – I felt if I could manage there, if I could feed myself, house myself, get from A to B and make friends and contacts, then I would have nothing to fear from four years at university in Ireland.

I eventually arrived back in the UK feeling like I'd conquered the world.