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 nytimes.com 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.