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I did myself no favours at China's Bookworm Literary Festival in March when I announced on stage that Beijing was "the ugliest city I'd ever seen". Even the expats were offended. Yet the problem wasn't simply my typical tactlessness. After a few days of trudging through that dingy fug, as ranks of monotonous, cheaply constructed tower blocks foreshortened into the gloom, I didn't think I was venturing an opinion, but stating a self-evident fact.

Though I'm no China expert, there may be some modest value to the fresh eye. The native Chinese and expats alike had over-adapted to their dystopic town and could no longer see it.

The air? I'd read the news reports, and fancied I was prepared. I wasn't. The atmosphere was so thick and brown that I could taste it. This hard-to-pin-down flavour (imagine sucking on a nickel in one cheek and on a multivitamin in the other — mmm) coated the entire inside of my mouth with a greasy, toxic film, inducing a mild but persistent nausea. Unless you're treated to the rare, much celebrated "blue-sky day" — when the wind disperses the auto and factory emissions, coal smoke and the singe from rice paddies being burnt off for spring planting — the coffee-stain air leeches the vibrancy from colours, all of which become variations on beige. Walking around Beijing is like watching the world on 1970s TV.

Thus despite an impressive absence of litter, everything is filthy-covered in the same dingy film that coated my mouth. The facades of buildings are paled over with particulates, the creases of dilapidated window frames emphasised by grime. Dull and lifeless, public shrubbery looks plastic. The very trees are dirty.

Expats find a perverse satisfaction in checking daily American embassy air quality readings; the higher the pollution score, the more they feel intrepid, a breed apart. But especially foreigners with kids cited the air as a leading reason why they were planning to leave.

And the architecture! Never was any city more captivated by the rectangle. As you take off from Beijing airport, clumps of residential developments rise relentlessly into the distance, each cluster often 60 or so high-rises apiece, each high-rise 50 or so stories tall — seeming to reproduce SimCity-style as you watch. They are all drab, they are all the same, they are all hideous. (A student asked after my event whether perhaps I didn't care for Beijing's architecture merely because it was "unfamiliar". I looked at him in astonishment. "Unfamiliar!" I exclaimed. This stuff is all over the world!" And an assault of Bauhaus is hardly Chinese.) Put up in the engineering equivalent of 15 minutes, none of these buildings is made to last — but when I asked my winsome Han tour guide what would happen when they collapsed, she said with cheerful gusto, "We'll build them again!"

For a Londoner, the difference between a city of eight million people and one of more like 22 million is staggering (and it tells you something about the limits of the seemingly all-knowing, all-powerful Communist Party that the authorities have no idea how many people live in the capital). The city's numbing extent, its smog, and the wearing anonymity of its dreary housing recalled eco-disaster films of my youth like Soylent Green.

Most Chinese would have little time for my aesthetic reservations. Those identikit apartment blocks have indoor plumbing, electricity and running water, thereby raising the living standards of millions of former peasants. The sheer logistical feat of having housed and built infrastructure for a population of such inconceivable size is humbling. In the UK, HS2 is meant to be finished in 2033. The Chinese would knock together that rail line in a weekend.

More upside: great food, great people, great time. I'd recommend taking one pilgrimage to China, if only to confirm that it's there — so very there, so very much of it; these vast overnight metropolises are physically improbable. Moreover, after one visit to Beijing you know their government can't possibly control this many people and keep tabs on what they think. For a nominal fee, a virtual private network will elude the censors, and I spent a pleasant morning reading in the Bookworm café, though the website was officially blocked.

The fact that all over Beijing you have to put soiled loo roll in a little basket beside the toilet is telling: the infrastructure is fragile. It's easy to imagine that finally one too many migrants arrives, and all those tower blocks collapse like dominoes. The plain practical challenge of keeping Beijing and countless cities of similar size from imploding or coming to a standstill surely absorbs the majority of the regime's energies. I left China horrified and awed in equal measure. I'm betting the party's functionaries are less concerned with blocked websites than blocked toilets.

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December 31st, 2014
10:12 PM
Apparently the truth really hurts. Lots of butthurt from the China lovers on here. Take a deep breath guys! Oh, wait...maybe better not.

July 5th, 2013
2:07 PM
In Chinese, there is a saying that I think is apt to describe the author of this article: 不知所谓. Not sure how to translate 不知所谓 into English (stay away from Google please). Non-Chinese can never understand China until they have gone native in China. Others should count themselves lucky that their country's endowments - arable land, population, food, energy and history afford them a better living standard. Instead of appreciating the random nature of our being on this earth and empathize with others who are not lucky as we are, this author's attitude of mocking others is indeed 不知所谓

Peter A
May 21st, 2013
7:05 AM
The author is hardly knocking China, as some people here seem to think, she is knocking Beijing, and quite correctly. Of all the major Chinese cities Beijing is probably the most hideous, the dullest, and, for that matter, has the most mediocre food. Beijing at its heart remains a city of administrators and bureaucrats, a drab imperial capital. I'll take Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Taipei any day.

May 20th, 2013
1:05 AM
yeah, I've been there for a while, after living in Shanghai. It's a horrific nightmare. I appreciate the comments from Chen Li, who will never know what it's like to be on a Chinese bus and hear locals badmouth you (assuming white guys can't speak Chinese) for no good reason. Or imagine the very same experience at a club, restaurant, you get it. In that sense, you're right, I'll never experience the 'amazing' and 'wondrous' Beijing as you. Because I'm a 洋鬼子. Welcome to China.

May 17th, 2013
11:05 AM
One can both like Beijing *and* agree with the author's key points. Even the most hardcore Beijing/China fan has to admit that he or she is so *despite* the pollution.

May 15th, 2013
9:05 AM
"I'd recommend taking one pilgrimage to China, if only to confirm that it's there" ... Why does she conflate Beijing with China? China is a huge country, many nicer places to visit than Beijing; doesn't take much imagination to think there could be in a country this large.

May 14th, 2013
6:05 AM
Lionel Shriver (is that really your name?) is lucky. She can live in London and call her a Londoner, as she can in European or the USA and call herself an American, or in Israel and call herself an Israeli. The Chinese only have China and China is huge and has been huge since the 2 AD when a census was taken. It is a herculean task to feed and shelter a billion people and China has done a good job. I wish China was in the USA and only had 300m people to take care of so that Lionel Shriver could visit and marvel at the civilized open spaces. Btw, have you an inkling of the greyness and desolation of Dickensian England? Is that why millions of Europeans emigrated to the New World?
May 13th, 2013
3:05 AM
I really don't see that anyone can argue with this. Aesthetically most of Beijing is a wasteland, the pollution is horrendous and was even worse when she was here, and Beijing expats do enjoy the relative hardship of living in this city and talking about it, and having all their family and friends talk about it. Few can deny taking pleasure in comments people make along the lines of 'I can't believe you live there, I've heard the pollution is unbearable' and 'Doesn't the lack of food safety worry you' to which the answer is usually, 'I bear it just fine, nothing worries me and in fact I am scared of nothing - I live in Beijing don't you know...' I find the angry reaction to this article very amusing - 'she doesn't live here so she can't comment' (even if she does speak the truth!)

May 10th, 2013
4:05 AM
It is easy to just regurgitate the ideas about Beijing that have been bandied about in the media, and I am sure she thought she was safe with the "literary" crowd that hangs out at the BookWorm practicing their intellectual poses. Now she is looking for a way out of those assumptions and in doing so falls far short of the actual atmosphere of Beijing. Instead she reaches for clenches to describe that she cannot even begin to know. The unregulated free form of the city scape is what makes it unique as does the dirty little hutongs and the 4 and 5th ring road corridors that offer suburban style living. Night vendors slinging their over used oily made in china products, the air thick with the heavy smell of sidewalk wok cooking and traffic officers that frankly don't give a tinkers damn about sidewalk parking. Africans dealing within spiting distance from the local cop shop, where you can buy 大麻 Dàmá or an I phone at the "Village" mall....Beijing is what it is, but what it is not is cannon fodder for Cheap shots from a 2nd rate writer.

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