It’s not the start of a joke, it’s a question I’ve been mulling over this afternoon.
Beijing is full of beautiful sights. Its parks are glorious and it’s the capital of the country. I had a fantastic time there.
Xi’an, on the basis of one day wandering around, could not be called ‘glorious’ and I’d be hard pressed to call it ‘lovely’… but somehow I like it more than I liked Beijing.
I spent most of last week trying to work out why I wasn’t warming to Beijing. This came up as a result of a number of friends telling me how much they had loved the city and I was trying to work out why I didn’t.
Beijing has everything I want to see, do and experience in a city. History, without a doubt; variety of sights to visit, absolutely; parks in which to laze around and relax, definitely; good food, you could eat your way across the city; and friendly people, so friendly and willing to engage, it’s humbling.
So what didn’t I like?
I don’t think it’s so much that I didn’t like Beijing, but there was a feeling that just didn’t sit right..
The central parts of the city (where all of the historic sights are) made me feel quite unsettled.
I wasn’t put off by the endless security checks. That was fine. I think it was something to do with the scale and the Imperial history.
All of these buildings and places are vast – they are not on a human scale. They are absolutely a statement of power, similar to the Soviet monuments in Moscow.
The difference is that in Russia they were defined monuments not vast areas of land.
And, historically, in Imperial times these stunning places (Forbidden City, Beihai Park, Jingshan Park, Temple of Heaven etc) were not for ordinary people to enter. They were the domains of the emperor.
Collectively they probably cover a ten mile square area, in the middle of a city and they were for one man (plus his household and servants).
These spaces are all walled and cost to enter. Coming from England and Russia where there are so many open and free green spaces in the centre of cities, this feels odd.
It’s not as though England hasn’t historically had private spaces (all the country estates) that have been barred from ordinary people – it just doesn’t seem to be on the same city centre scale as in Beijing.
The hutongs, by contrast, were very much built on a human scale. I spent quite a lot of time wandering through these.
The houses were no more than two storeys, often only one. They were close to each other, built of grey brick and often featuring traditional painted wooden arches and decoration.
They were all decorated with flags for the National Holiday.
The streets were busy and bustling and life was very much lived out on the streets – neighbours playing board games and families having dinner. It was so different to anything I’ve seen before, I really enjoyed it.
I loved the hutongs.
Walking around Xi’an this afternoon and I think what I wasn’t keen on about the central/formal part of Beijing is that it felt sterile.
The street art is limited to the 798 Art Zone and I didn’t see any homeless people – in a city the size of Beijing? I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be any homeless people.
I didn’t see any beggars either. Again, in a capital city, this seemed really unusual.
It’s not that I want to see people destitute, it’s just that I cannot believe that they aren’t there.
On arrival in Xi’an, after a restorative coffee, I went walking around the city.
It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Beijing and it looks like cities in many other places. Lots of huge shopping centres, shiny glass buildings, roadworks and the National Holiday is going strong here too: decorations, patriotic music blaring from speakers in public areas, the whole nine yards.
But as soon as I saw this just beyond the Southern Gate of the Old City walls (ok not to everyone’s taste):
(On residential blocks near the Big Wild Goose Pagoda) I just decided that I really liked Xi’an. It feels like a city where people live rather than are suffered.
I like to see street art – it makes, as far as I’m concerned, a place feel vibrant. I like to see artwork – it’s expressive. I might not understand what the message is or what the point is, but it doesn’t matter. People live here and are putting their mark on the place.
The 798 Art Zone in Beijing is fab, but it’s one small enclave where this expression is tolerated.
So, the difference for me is that Xi’an feels like a lived in city whereas Beijing feels like a place where people aren’t really wanted as residents.
I’m not sure if any of this makes sense but it’s the closest I can come to an answer.
*Featured Photo: One of the many beautiful murals I saw this afternoon.