Pollution is the main concern whenever Beijing comes up in conversation these days. Inevitably, I always go back 15 years to when I first landed in a city that is almost unrecognisable from what she has become today. Beijing had two subway lines then, served by rickety old trains and the trolley buses, while small illegal minibuses that raced along the street picking up and dropping off were the most popular means of motor transport. Of course, bicycles were the thing! Everywhere was accessible on two wheels and a cycle to work or school or the shops was almost a right of passage for every Beijinger—no need for face masks in those days. Sadly, those days are long gone.
I remember in 2007 meeting a man in a McDonald’s in Shanghai who worked for Ford and he told me how the car companies had played a part in dictating policy to the Chinese government about car ownership, and wonder how naive I was in thinking that surely a nation that loved cycling as much as China would never allow the beauty of the bicycle to be outdone by the ugliness of the modern car. However, I also underestimated how easy it would be to manipulate the Chinese mindset into believing that car ownership was both a good thing and a sign of increasing wealth for themselves and the whole country, but when I look at the roads and the sky in Beijing, I can’t help thinking that I was right and that surely sitting for three hours in a traffic jam isn’t at all preferable to cycling beneath blue skies.
Things change. When I return now, people don’t seem as friendly. Beijing seems to be inhabited by people from other cities or other countries, and the sound of the natives of the city curling their tongues around the ending of words are fewer and further between. The sentimentalist in me wants things to be as they were back then but everyone is too busy chasing money to stop and reflect. The buildings I used to love are all gone. The streets I used to love have been widened. The restaurants I used to eat at are franchises of a chain from another land entirely. These days you are lucky if you can see a bicycle—and anyone on one is ridiculed as someone who can’t afford a car.
Beijing is now a ‘supercity’, its population growing exponentially and the border with Tianjin becoming less and less clear. As she continues her sprawl, she becomes less and less the city that I once loved and more and more yet another anonymous city, indistinguishable from all the other big cities on the planet. Sad times.