This morning I woke up very early again. It looks like it is just getting light and after driving all night I am very curious about the Chinese landscape and Beijing. When I look outside, I see that everything is already a lot greener and hillier than the Gobi Desert. I also no longer see deer tents, but houses. Although in better condition than Russia, you can still see the poverty here between the better houses.
Rapper Def P and his wife Fenske make a world trip by train across the northern hemisphere. He has written his adventures in the book Back and forth and can partly be read on our site. In this part, Def P travels from Mongolia on the Peking Express to China, where he stays for a few days in Beijing (Beijing). This time Def P writes about how gigantic the city actually is, how it is built and the food.
The last leg of the Beijing Express
In the course of this ride the hills get higher and greener, until we are in a beautiful mountain range. Everywhere you see high, steep and erratic shapes and now and then you look down into dizzying depths. It even seems that you can see the Great Wall of China in the distance at some point that morning, but unfortunately we don’t notice it.
In the afternoon, the view increasingly resembles an endless industrial estate. Gradually, this changes again in the gray suburbs of Beijing. In between we also briefly see an army with dozens of tanks in a strange camouflage pattern of mustard yellow tones. Judging by the suburbs of Beijing, we have to drive into a gigantic city.
The view is getting more and more impressive. We see incredibly high residential flats, interspersed with small, dusty streets with half-decayed low-rise buildings. An extreme contrast. When I see a huge power station in the middle of the dilapidated residential flats, I get the feeling of driving through a gigantic science fiction set. The closer we get to the center, the greater the contrasts between rich and poor become apparent.
It takes a remarkably long time before we reach the center of this metropolis, but the drive is not boring for a second. We enter the central station of a city with more inhabitants than the whole of the Netherlands in total. The flats are now so high that I still can’t see the tops with my nose against the train window. Almost unreal! I feel small and insignificant. What a colossal city Beijing is!
A little later we are at the station with our luggage. We can take a shuttle bus to our hotel. That is certainly another hour away, so we can get a first impression of the center of the city. At first glance, almost every store looks like a Chinese restaurant, due to the Chinese characters you see all over the windows. So you have to take a closer look here to see what kind of store you are dealing with. Reading is no longer an option, because everything is indicated in detail in Chinese. In Russia we could reasonably recognize the letters, but here this is impossible. Fortunately, the driver finds our destination effortlessly.
The hotel looks fine, but the fourth floor is the lowest we can get. That is a lot less relaxed for Fenske with her extreme fear of heights. Actually, they even reserved the honeymoon suite on the sixth floor for us, but we deliberately let it pass us by. Its a shame, but there is nothing to do about it. Fenske has to make do with a place on the fourth floor and that doesn’t appeal to her. It looks like it will be a restless night for her.
Block structure of Beijing
After recovering a bit from the trip, we head into town. We soon notice that Beijing is built according to a certain block structure. Large, wide roads, where our highways are still narrow, cross the city. All kinds of tall, stately buildings, mostly of companies, are located along these broad connecting roads. When you drive through the city by car, everything seems very impressive and modern.
Everything is crawling, teeming, walking and cycling together like a kind of ordered chaos
But once you are on foot and walk between the ordered structure to the inside of these blocks, you see how old Beijing still lives within the high walls in the so-called hutongs. These are small, chaotic, traditional neighborhoods with all kinds of dilapidated low-rise buildings that have been built criss-crossing each other. Hectic mazes of small alleys and crooked streets. Everywhere there are poles with huge tangles of power wires that disappear here and there into the slums.
All over Beijing, Chinese are sitting on the streets cooking, eating, trading, talking or playing games. Everything is crawling, teeming, walking and cycling together like a kind of ordered chaos. A human ant nest. Amazingly, no one seems to bother each other. The hutongs may be very poor, but the atmosphere is relaxed. Even for us as westerners.
After some zigzagging through small streets we arrive at a market with all kinds of strange, fresh vegetables and meats that we can’t identify. We decide to go to a restaurant there, because with so many fresh vegetables around it must be good. We are the only tourists in the entire restaurant and the waiters clearly show that they are not used to it either. A young girl in a canary yellow uniform tries to help us kindly, but does not speak a word of English. Fortunately, we can point to some pictures on the menu. We think they are a kind of small dishes like tapas, because it all costs nothing. We point out a few things that look nice and wait curiously.
A little later, the small saucers in the photos turn out to be huge plates in reality and we have food on the table for at least five people. The girls in the canary-yellow suits look on curiously and are clearly holding back their laughter. Luckily I’m hungry like a wolf and the food is delicious. Even the hot peppers can’t stop me from bravely eating most of what’s on the table. I wash everything down with Chinese beer and it falls very well too! A bowl of bright green meat patties really doesn’t fit anymore, but they are neatly packed for me.
I am immediately recognized as ‘the rapper from the Klokhuis’
When we return to our hotel lobby late at night, we also have a drink there. Coincidentally, the entire lobby is just completely filled with a large group of noisy Dutch people between 50 and 70 years old. loiterers! They have all just come from Shanghai for the World’s Fair. I am immediately recognized as ‘the rapper from the Klokhuis’. So that becomes a mandatory chat out of politeness. Have you driven such a long way from home, you still have that hassle. We don’t stay there long and get tired of it after one drink.
Before we go to our room, we walk past the guys at the desk. Fenske eats strictly vegetarian and it turns out to be extremely difficult to make this clear to non-English speaking Chinese, who are also not used to that kind of food. I ask the guys behind the counter, all hoisted tight in stylish neat uniforms, for a small favor. They look at me curiously. I ask if one of them can write ‘I can only eat vegetarian food’ in Chinese on a piece of paper. Then we can use that again at eateries. When he understands what I mean, he starts scribbling some shapes on the paper with a serious head. The other boys look on in agreement.
When the boy returns the piece of paper to me, I ask him not to secretly add that she is crazy. The neat counter boys are out of the fold and spontaneously burst into laughter. The Chinese seem to like a joke. In general, we also find the Chinese very pleasant. The staff of our hotel in Beijing is very polite and helpful. Really nice place. It is also by far the most luxurious place of our trip so far. I’ve slept worse in our own Netherlands, even if I was supposedly ‘the famous artist’.
The other half of this chapter can be read in the book Back and forth by Def P, in which the adventures of his journey around the world are linked to stories from the life of Def P. Besides the countries and regions he visits during his train journey (Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan and Canada), the book also contains special trips to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, a Bosnia in ruins, the Spain of tourists, the slums in the US in the early 1990s and the slums of South Africa.