Last time I visited Beijing I was 4 years old (~1989) and I ran off in Tiananmen Square looking for bullet holes (which led to homemade personal locating devices attached to me for the reminder of the trip… aka little bells around my wrist). From my recollections Beijing was a sterile and oppressive city possibly because my parents and I visited not too long after the infamous Tiananmen Square incident. My memories of Beijing consisted of endless bicycle traffic with occasional motorbikes (cars and buses were few and far between); numerous soldiers standing guard everywhere; ice-sledding/tobogganing on a frozen lake (courtesy of nice Beijing locals); climbing the Badaling great wall in tears but got a “Great Wall conqueror” certificate; and my first encounter with snow.
Raised in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada when I was 9, I had a pretty good grasp in spoken Cantonese and I understood some Mandarin as well… Fast forward 20+ years my Chinese had regressed tremendously compared to the 4 year old me (shame!). This time I took my wife with me to hike the Great Wall of China (wild wall). My wife, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian who is fluent in English and French, turned out to be less useful in communicating with the locals than even myself lol. During our trip to the Chinese Capital we were essentially two foreigners traveling in Beijing where everybody expected us to converse in Chinese which led to some funny and memorable experiences (ie. We went into a store for some souvenirs and the shop owner would tell us a price, and as soon as he realized that we were English speakers our price immediately went up by 200%… I could still understand numbers in Chinese haha)
Beijing had graced us with a mix of western familiarity along with its deep-rooted eastern culture. We had seen and experienced the variety of Beijing’s food culture, from the world famous Peking duck to local dumplings (but we were too scared to try scorpions and starfish). It was abundantly clear that the Beijing I visited two decades ago had transformed into a world class metropolitan. The evidence of such rapid development could be seen at every corner of Beijing as old traditional Hutongs struggle to survive in a sea of new concrete developments. Beijing is now a modernized city by all western standards (in fact many North American cities are falling behind cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc), but in pursuit of development Beijing has evidently sacrificed some of its ancestral charm. In my opinion it is equally important to embrace Beijing’s rich heritage (3000 years!) going forward and maintain a proper balance between history and growth. However, despite all the cosmetic changes throughout the city one thing did remain constant: the welcoming and warm personalities of Beijing citizens.