The first time I was in Beijing was a decade ago on a stopover flight, and I never left the airport. All I remember from that brief visit was the thick smog that blanketed the city.

It was in 2017 when I actually stepped foot into the city. Beijing was the final stop in our rail journey that had started in Hong Kong and brought us to Shanghai, Suzhou, Shenyang, and Harbin. I had planned the trip based on where I could get us a complimentary hotel stay – an employee perk at my previous employer.

We arrived in Beijing expecting the dreary air pollution that the city is notorious for. But it was not the case. We even caught sight of the setting sun as we left the railway station.

Beijing railway station
People making themselves comfortable outside the railway station while waiting for their trains

We woke to a clear skyline the next morning. We soon remembered that it was Labour’s Day, and in China this meant that workers get three days off.

View from China World Summit Wing Hotel
On the left is the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV Tower, affectionately nicknamed “大裤衩” (“Big Pants” in Mandarin) by Beijingers

We took advantage of the good weather and cool, crisp air, walking around Beijing with a friend. A long-time resident of Beijing, she remarked with surprise that this was the first time that she had “seen so far!” when we were at the top of Jingshan Park.

万春亭 @ 景山公园

万春亭 @ 景山公园
Overlooking the Forbidden Palace from Jingshan Park 景山公园

We followed my friend as she brought us to some of her regular hangouts in the Chaoyang 朝阳, one of the most populous and largest districts in Beijing. Travelling on foot, we crossed the first, second, and third ring roads over a couple of hours.

Beijing street

Beijing streets - Sanlitun

We arrived in Sanlitun 三里屯 as the sky turned dark. My friend was  confused when we turned down a street that was in shambles with piles of broken concrete on the side. This used to be Sanlitun’s popular “dirty bar street,” until about a month prior when dozens of shops, restaurants and bars were demolished. It was all in the name of urban renewal as the businesses were housed in illegal constructions.

Beijing streets - Sanlitun
Convenience shops operating out of street-level apartments in Sanlitun

After quenching our thirst with a cold bottle of water from a convenience store, we looked around for a comfortable spot to hang out. A discreet light on a dimly lit red brick facade caught my eye. It read: Janes + Hooch. I had no idea what either word meant but had a good feeling about it. My gut instinct served me well – the cocktails were excellent.

We met up with my friend again the next day. This time we went to 798 Art District where we spent most of the time chatting in a quiet coffee bar.

Voyage Coffee @ 798 art district

I was hesitant about visiting 798 Art District. I imagined the former industrial-area-turned-arts-zone to be overrun with tourists with selfie sticks. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, many shops were selling cheap replicas and several galleries displayed fugly stuff passed off as contemporary art.

798 art district
While I didn’t enjoy most of the galleries, I love the stark, light-filled and immense interiors of the former factories in the 798 Art District

AB had to work in the afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel. We headed out later in the evening for drinks, which I’ll write more about in a next post.

The next morning, we woke up to a smog-filled Beijing. It was Monday. Everyone was back at work after the Labour Day vacation. Factories were back in full operations. The roads were packed with cars. Fortunately for us, it was time to fly back to Hong Kong.

View from China World Summit Wing Hotel
The smog returned to Beijing after the Labour Day holiday

4 replies on “Fleeting moments in Beijing

  1. Thank you for this fascinating look at Beijing, Angelina! I’m glad you had a couple of days to explore without the legendary crowds and smog … but how sad to see the impact of all those workers returning to work after the Labor Day holiday.

  2. Unbelievable how one day’s work makes such a difference with regards to air quality. I read time and again that China is embracing a renewables revolution, I hope they really do!

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