Third day in Beijing, and I think my internal clock may finally have synched with local time. The past two nights have seen me spinning sleeplessly in bed in the small hours and finally reading Proust in the lobby. I padded around the hotel before four o’clock, listening to the snores of the night man, watching from the roof terrace as a night-shift demolition man in an excavator took down another low old house to build a shop or hotel for us, the tourists. A Hanoi-style temporary sidewalk restaurant had sprouted in our hutong lane near the Gulou bell tower. There was no sign left of it when we went out at nine.
The funny thing about Beijing’s tourist make-over for the Olympics is how patchy and piecemeal it is. Along the lanes intended as tourist traps, every third property is a knick-knack shop, every third is a newly demolished ruin and every third remains the run-down home of a poor family. Ostentatious 19th century Qing architecture, which is rather amply preserved around the city centre, is largely in pretty poor shape, plaster and paintwork flaking, the reinforcing straw sticking out. This goes even for the Imperial private apartments in the Forbidden City! Yet I’m not entirely unhappy with these signs of decay, as they signify authenticity. The Chinese are all too fond of tearing down the real thing and re-building because they are ashamed to display anything that looks old and worn.
Travelling with children adds new pleasures and takes accustomed ones away. Forget lounging in a park with a book unless there’s a set of swings nearby. Forget concentrated study of architecture and museums. Forget walking for walking’s sake. But we get a lot of friendly attention from the locals thanks to the kids, particularly our Swedish-Chinese daughter. A pretty Asian-looking four-y-o with chestnut curls can pull quite a crowd even in Beijing where foreigners are a common sight. With a bit of luck the world will have more kids like that soon, as a consequence of tomorrow’s wedding. I hope my suit hasn’t become too rumpled in my suitcase. And that I’ll still remember how to do my tie.