Saturday, Oct 25, 2014, 8:01 AM CST – China

Essay

Arrivederci, Beijing

I bear no grudges, Beijing has been a more than welcoming host, but change is refreshing and necessary.

Three men sit beneath a flyover practicing brass instruments. Construction sounds of iron and steel, crunching gears, out-of-town accents. Hawkers sing their wares, voices echoing through corridors of concrete. Others squawk into streets where money talks, often about itself.

A speaker blares sales-speak on repeat, another plays music for couples to swirl and dance. The slap of a Chinese chess piece, the tap of cards tossed casually. The clickety-clack of the mahjong rack.

The accelerating hum of electric trikes, curses muttered as taxis make a turn. Eerie creaks as big winds pass through. Thunder cracks and rain buckets, eking down a grimy pane. Pocket-sized dogs growl and yap. The sizzle of barbecue and bubble of vat.

Cackles of laughter peal off of baijiu bottles. Gaudy ringtones complement dubious fashions. Lovemaking and blind-eyed domestics seep through walls. Subways snore, buses hiss. Traffic crawls.

An old cyclist enlightens with a song. A grandmother scolds a gaggle of screaming young. The little dears still do no wrong. Whispered love vows. Shouted remonstrations invite the crowd. The traffic report, the nightly news, the morning exercises, the unspoken views.

After nearly six years in Beijing it is time to depart for pastures new. It has been an assault on the senses, as I hope the above free verse homage to the city’s soundscape does something to suggest. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and will miss it dearly. Many other expats have recently departed China, and some have been more vocal than others about their reasons for doing so. I bear no grudges, Beijing has been a more than welcoming host, but change is refreshing and necessary.

On sitting down to write this, I found myself trying to conjure pithy comments on the state of reporting on China, its economy and credit availability, capital markets and political reform. But those are topics better addressed elsewhere in this magazine, and not in keeping with the riotous experiences that will live longest in my memory of the city.

Instead, I asked an array of old hands how I should best spend my remaining time, and while suggestions including “get into a fight with a taxi driver” and “swim across Houhai Lake in winter” have been discounted for I hope obvious reasons, the following did make the cut.

The journey would begin at a point within spitting distance of Beijing: the Tsingtao brewery in Qingdao. Here I would test the oft-posited theory that the beer brewed on-site tastes much better than that found elsewhere before catching a ride to the outskirts of Beijing. Here I’d rendezvous with friends and enjoy a night camping in or near one of the Great Wall’s many abandoned towers. Marshmallows and ghost stories optional.

On returning to the city proper, a stroll through the hutongs around the Drum and Bell towers came highly recommended, not least because it is more than likely they will have disappeared by the next time I visit, as they are earmarked to be torn down and redeveloped. This would be a travesty on par with the recent destruction of an ancient pyramid in Peru, if only it were accidental.

Another reason to revel in a last evening in Gulou District is the proximity of the Beijing Qianding Old Baijiu Museum, which I have yet to visit but am told does plenty with China’s tipple of choice. Choosing a venue for the inevitable follow-up knees-up presents another tough decision, but Mr Shi’s Dumplings would probably fit the bill, for old time’s sake if nothing else.

After getting properly sozzled, the mood may well be right to stay up through the night, perhaps with a visit to the Beijing institution that is Maggie’s Bar, the city’s most infamous pick-up joint (again strictly for old time’s sake), before heading to Tiananmen Square to witness the national flag being raised at dawn. A final farewell to the Great Helmsman and his magnificent mausoleum should round off the morning nicely.

After sleeping off the hangover, it’ll be time to mosey over to the Emperor Hotel, Beijing’s unofficial Press Club, the roof of which offers fine sunset-dappled views over the Forbidden City. Those in search of a cheaper option can hit the hill in Jingshan Park, which itself offers a grand vista across the glowing golden eaves of the imperial palace. I’d finish the evening with dinner for two at Temple Restaurant or The Courtyard, luxuriating in the grounds of a 600-year-old Buddhist temple or the molecular creations of chef Brian McKenna.

I’d finish off a perfect finale by collecting my fee from the local Beijing tourist bureau, and fulfilling my China Dream by treating all the wonderful people I’ve met during my time in the city to dinner and drinks.

Cheers!

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