Summer in Geoje is hot and humid; summer in Beijing is hotter and dry. Temperatures have been nudging forty degrees Celsius here these last few days and street hawkers selling bottled water and ice lollies have been doing roaring trade. Judging by the coverage in the local English language press and a few conversations this amount of heat is rare if not unprecedented and causing some concern. Life goes merrily on regardless.
Unsurprisingly, first impressions of Beijing frequently refer to size. Approach to Beijing Capital Airport from Busan is across a vast expanse of totally flat plains with agriculture claiming much of the space and nary a hillock in sight. The Terminal Three building might be comparable to Heathrow Terminal Five in essence but is twenty times larger and with a far more pleasant colour scheme.
Half an hour’s drive on the tree-lined Airport Expressway brings you into central Beijing where the main roads are still just as wide if not more so and the trees are replaced by much taller buildings. Navigating the city centre by district is on a similar scale to navigating London by borough.
In contrast, just a thirty second walk down a side street leading off one the main roads can lead to a different world. These “hutong” and alley ways have no raised pavements and the old-style, low rise buildings are barely far enough apart to allow the passing of two cars. The noise and the hurry of the traffic diminish rapidly with each step and a relaxed calm descends.
We spent our first two nights in Beijing in a courtyard hotel in one of these hutong areas. As the name suggests, the single storey building is arranged around a set of courtyards giving a cosy, secluded feel to the place. Our hotel had a scruffy resident cat raising three young kittens on the walkways to accentuate the homely atmosphere. The loudest sound was bird song during the day and there was total quiet at night.
Away from this seclusion, the nightlife of Beijing is as loud and as lively as you could want but that is an other story.