As the winner of our 2013 Travel Writing Scholarship, Andrew traveled to Beijing, China to write about its unique cuisine, culture and art.
Late afternoon, I met Martin – my Rough Guides mentor and walking Bible on all things Beijing. After a late lunch of pork, prawn and horse meat dumplings, we headed out to Dashilar, the local backpackers' area. The brief was to update information on some of the main hostels and to locate a restaurant to recommend. Brief fulfilled, as in the evening we feasted together on beer and delicious Peking Duck with all the trimmings (plates of crispy fat, meat and meat with crispy fat)! The meal also blessed us by providing shelter from a sudden downpour that cleared the low-lying smog and brought a welcome freshness to the streets outside. Off the hostel main drag, the web of streets opened into surprisingly quiet Hutongs (narrow alleys) where we dodged children playing, open charcoal stoves and hundreds of silent electric bikes.
Beijingers live shoulder to shoulder all day; pushing onto subway trains, skipping queues, jostling for pavement-room and dodging stalls, smells, shit, each other, and occasionally their own reflection in mirrored shop-fronts and high-rises. So they love a good park. Who doesn’t? And they make the most of the green afforded to them. Tai Chi is the perfect parkside activity: it’s silent, slow, measured and methodical. And it can be done in groups. Collective exercise, whether dancing or martial arts, is popular and springs up on street corners and grassy areas like forgotten bulbs of last year. I joined in. Fun, if a little awkward. Not sure if I was meant to, but it gave everyone a giggle.
Away from the food, I could easily give you 798 reasons to visit the art district of Beijing that shares this number in its title. North of the city towards the airport lies a grid reference of abandoned industrial buildings that offer homes to countless urban, edgy and chic art galleries and cafes. At its centre sits ‘Power Square’, which would provide the ideal setting for any post-apocalyptic movie of your choosing: towering brickwork chimneys, rust-orange water reflecting giant abandoned metal cranes and colossal mechanical structures, walkways, boilers and platforms. The art is as much in the setting as inside the galleries themselves.