Asia,  Travel

Nine million bicycles in Beijing: my lost city

Bicycles and rickshaws in Liu-Li Chang, an artisanal market, in the centre of Xuan-Wu district of Beijing, as appeared in 2006.

Nine million bicycles in Beijing. The beautiful song of Katie Melua, accompanied my first trip to Beijing in the late 2005. Once I arrived there I found a city so different from that you can see today… and so far for our western perception of life. Beijing was just starting its opening to the rest of the world, up for the 2008 Olympic games. Bicycles, bicycles and bicycles painted as colourful snakes the huge roads of the city. Few cars, the main part taxis, were just hidden by this bicycles river and by the traditional rickshaws. This is the first image I remember of my sweet Beijing which doesn’t exist anymore…

Beihai Park, with the elegant White Pagoda, reflecting in the Beihai lake, is one of the most preserved memories of the Imperial period of Beijing.

There were two different cities that lived together in one another. The great and representative Beijing, where the large and desolated roads made you feel small and lonely, as the majestic Chang’An Jie, which reaches the famous Tien’an Men Square and the door of the Forbidden City. Symbol of the Imperial power, before, and then of the Communist Party’s propaganda, this majestic architecture represents itself the image of Chinese politic: a cloak that has always enveloped the people from above, during the Ming dynasty, as well as after the Revolution. A father who silently provides for his children, showing always himself severe and unattainable.

The huge Tien’An Men Square at the beginning of the night. Considered the hugest square of the World, it was the theatre of the Chinese Story from the Ming Dynasty until the today.

But you just had to turn the corner and you were invaded by a mix of smells, sounds, colours and people. From the majestic and impersonal order to a chaotic, but warm confusion in only few steps. The lonely and huge roads dissolved in the countless small streets of the Hu-Tongs, populated by merchants and peasants from the country side surrounding Beijing, where the mix of foods and smells penetrated your nose and dominated suddenly your thoughts. The roasted lamb, the red lanterns, the Harbin pijio (one of my favourite Chinese beers), the dumplings and finally the small KTV (the traditional Karaoke, so common in China, as well in Japan) are another sweet memory of my old and lost Beijing. There, in one of this small KTV I knew my first Chinese friends, I spent my first moments of leisure and there I familiarized with the heart of Chinese culture and with its traditional and popular music. Once I arrived in Beijing I discovered a world different from our life perception. I discovered and I tasted different foods, different smells. Even the way people walked seemed me strange and different. In Beijing, I learned to communicate with eyes, with smiles and gestures… and I remember and always bring in my heart the sweet smiles of people when I did my best to communicate without words… In Beijing, I found great friends and I experienced an important step of my life… and the emotions enrapture my mind and my heath each time I fly there with my thoughts…

The chaotic life in the small streets of the Hu-Tongs, during my first trip to Beijing in 2006.

I went back to Beijing last time in 2016. The sweet city of my memories doesn’t exist anymore… but still I found there the essence of a city poised between past and future, between tradition and innovation. Beijing now is a modern and busy city. The nine million bicycles are just late memory. The Story and the social changes are there very fast and the high technology is the main stream of current Chinese economy. The young generations are now starting to follow western fashion and way of life. However, they are paradoxically rediscovering their late past, their traditional philosophy and their traditional arts. It is very common that getting inside a park during summer evenings, you will find people dancing tai-chi and singing traditional songs, or writing with traditional calligraphy. And once you cross the doors of the Forbidden City, you will still understand that, although life there is moving all so fast, there is still a part of this city that is taking life slow and where the time seems stopped 100 years ago. Teresa Teng, a former national singer, knew it very well. In her beloved song “Tien ni mi” (“Is sweet to stay with you”) described a slow and sweet love story started during an undefined time and suspended between dream and reality… this is Beijing. A city with two faces and a lot of emotions. A bridge between tradition and high-tech, a corner around the past and the future. A place where I will always preserve an important part of my heart.


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