First of all, thank you everyone for your wonderful comments, they truly make me feel closer to home! Second, apologies for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been busy getting adjusted/working/sleeping when I get the chance, but I will definitely be trying to post more often starting now!
Yesterday I was able to do a lot of wandering. I started the afternoon by taking the bus to Sanlitun, an area of Beijing that is teeming with international stores, bars, embassies, and expats. The area centers around Sanlitun Village, which you could essentially call an architecturally modern outdoor mall divided into two parts. I wandered in and out of shops in the North Village where I rediscovered my obsession with Uniqlo (a place that I can only think to describe as the Japanese version of Gap), and visited funky international chains that make up the unique street fashion of Beijing. Sanlitun also has a North Village which houses gorgeous upscale boutiques such as Alexander Mcqueen, Lanvin, and Balenciaga, but with my heavy backpack and sweaty face I didn’t feel chic enough to step inside.
After having some questionable street food and a bubble tea, I made my way to a well-known bookstore to finally buy my guidebook, Lonely Planet Beijing. For those of you who have travelled with me before (aka the 3 of you that have besides my family), you know that I really like guidebooks. Like, really like them. I’m absolutely all for exploring and discovering gems here and there on my own, but I also like the security of having a good guidebook tucked into my bag whenever I feel like relying on someone else to do the discovering for me. So after forgetting to buy one before leaving home and finally getting what seemed like the only guidebook about Beijing in the city of Beijing, I was embarrassingly excited to start reading. I hopped in a cab that took me to Beihai Gong Yuan (北海公园), a beautiful historic park nearby.
While I expected a nice patch of grass and maybe a bench for me to read on for the rest of the afternoon, after passing through the gates of the park I was greeted by Qing dynasty era statues, Buddhist temples, and an expansive manmade lake that begged to be walked around. Beihai Park, it turns out, is actually an Imperial Garden that was built in the 10th Century and was frequented by emperors of the Liao through Qing dynasties. While I arrived too late to explore the many museums and most of the buildings around the park, I was able to hike to the tallest point, the Jade Islet. On my way up, I stopped in said ancient Buddhist temples that paid tribute to many revered buddhist leaders and their close followers. At least, according to the very roughly translated signage I think that’s what I was looking at. After admiring the architecture and the view from the top, I walked around the lake for another hour before settling down on a quiet bench to read. Although the park is right next to a busy road, the high walls kept it remarkably serene and I stayed on my bench until the stiflingly hot day became breezy and comfortable.
I think my day yesterday sort of defined my own perception of Beijing so far. I saw two vastly different cultural aspects of the city back to back. There is this long-standing desire to preserve everything that is customary and beautiful: the repainted ancient temples that emulate ancient times, the traditional respects paid to ancestors and historical figures, all seen in the Beihai. Yet, at the same time there is this recently found ache to be seen by the rest of the world as modern, global, and fashionable. The mirrored shops and international restaurants in Sanlitun seem worlds away from the Imperial structures and yellow boats of the park. But they both stand in the same city, coexisting peacefully and possibly equally enjoyed and appreciated. I am still getting to know Beijing, and am not even sure that I have scratched the surface when it comes to figuring this place out. What I can say with certainty, however, is that it is proving to be as exciting as it is complicated.