Beijing remains much the same, although my interaction with it has differed vastly from last year. I think one’s greatest enemy in this city is naivety. Once you know that hardly anyone speaks a word of English, least of all the taxi drivers, and that half the people are out to make a quick buck out of sheltered tourists, then it’s possible to get by and actually enjoy yourself here. You just need to treat the place like it’s a spoilt child, and not take any crap. Armed with that attitude, you should be fine.
Despite niggling health problems (jetlag still taking its toll, vicious mosquito bites), I’ve been able to get out and see a different side to this city, albeit one that only reinforces my initial suspicions about the place that were formed while I was here last year. Walking around the hutongs near the Bell and Drum Tower, I witnessed a society mired in grime and poverty. Whilst I don’t condone the actions of the Chinese government with respect to these neighbourhoods (mowing them down in anticipation of the Olympics), it becomes clear why they are a source of such anxiety to the powers that be. They do not in any way give an impression of a thriving, successful city, which is an image that the government is so determined to portray. Thus, the callous moves being made in order to clean the place up are simply an act of desperation, borne out of a desire to impress.
The problem is that no matter how much spit and polish the government applies, they will never bring the populace of the city up to perceived acceptable standards, because there is an intrinsic lack of etiquette which will never be eradicated. For all the flashing lights and shiny facades, any impression of civilisation evaporates when you watch someone cycle up to a pair of bins, look inside them, rummage around a bit and then continue on their way. As I was paying for an item in a supermarket today, the (female) cashier snorted and then spat onto the floor next to her, just before giving me my change. Yet every newspaper I open (state-sponsored as they are in this country) is awash with success stories about how Beijing is bang on course for the Olympics.
Is it really?
Onto more trivial matters. I found my way to the Pyongyang Art Studio, tucked away in the Chaoyang District (the area of Beijing I’m staying in), and came across a Korean phrasebook which was published in Pyongyang in 1989. True to form, the first word it teaches you to say is ‘comrade’. Delightful.
Chaoyang is actually an excellent area of Beijing to stay in. Aside from the aforementioned army of expats, there is a myriad of kooky restaurants and bars, which provide everything from Belgian beer to fish ‘n’ chips. I’ve also found the people easier to handle than last year, and in contrast to the looks of mistrust and downright distaste I received in Tokyo, the majority of people here seem to regard me with a mixture of confusion and stupefaction. Puzzlement I can handle, antipathy is harder to take.
So to the long awaited departure to North Korea (or DPRK, as we’ve been instructed to call it – that’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) – tomorrow morning, we fly out to Pyongyang. That means very little contact with the outside world, so until September 16th…