Beijing lacks the frantic quality of a New York or a Tokyo, but it has its own exciting pace – as is quite apparent when standing on a street corner watching the world go by. Take your time in gaining a sense of how to move in this city of 13 million people. Then, with a deep breath, plunge headlong into the flow. As you stride along in the company of those who count the Ming among their ancestors, chances are you will encounter charming customs, or maybe not always so charming, but certainly always interesting.
In the early evening, crowds of Beijing denizens gather in public spaces to dance. Although these areas are often poorly lit and the music scratchy, enthusiasts are not deterred from line dancing, slow dancing, or just grooving about to western and Chinese music.
The sight of dozens of Chinese, from toddlers to the elderly, moving in unison outside the gates to the Forbidden City is quite uplifting.
Beijingers love to sing, solo or in groups, humming along or in full voice, although the sounds are not immediately melodious to western ears. In parks, on the street, accompanied or a capella, the frequency and variety of public singing is surprising and entertaining.
Be warned! Attitudes to the use of lavatories in China may differ from your own. Public toilets abound but not all homes, shops or cafés have their own. So they send you across the road instead. But the quality of the loos varies wildly and many westerners have returned from a trip to the facilities a little pale and possibly traumatized. Curiously enough, the public lavs tend to be better kept than some private ones as they are usually maintained by an attendant. Oh! and don't be surprised if fellow users see no need to close their cubicle door.
Cycling is surprisingly easy and enjoyable in Beijing. Every major road has bicycle lanes and drivers are uber-aware of the hundreds of thousands of cyclists. Beijing is pancake-flat, so it takes no effort at all. This is not to say riding through Beijing traffic is without its perils, but common sense and a little gumption is all that is needed to feel like a local in this city.
Where do you start and how do you finish? Eating is the very fabric of Beijing life with an endless choice of imaginative and exotic foods. There is one rule: leave your phobias and hang-ups at home and come to Beijing with your chopsticks poised.
Something to try is a street food called Jianbing. This onion-egg pancake is cooked to order on a circular hotplate and flavored with black sesame seeds, spring onion, chilli paste, and at times coriander or sunflower seeds. This is folded over a crunchy rectangle of puffy, fried dough called youbing, and served piping hot. At about 2 yuan (35 cents) a serving it is an unbeatable bargain.
Reports of a spitting culture in China have not been greatly exaggerated. Sport in Beijing consists of side-stepping spittle on the street. The noise of snorting, hawking and spitting is ceaseless and widely practiced by men and women who regularly expectorate onto the pavement, on buses and trains, even in restaurants.
Beijing is a sprawling city lacking a clear center, but a slice of local color can be found at the nearest lake. As in the time of the imperial Chinese court, modern day Beijingers love walking beside the lakes designed and formerly enjoyed only by the various ruling dynasties.
Beihai Lake and Qianhai Lake are the settings for locals who wander through centuries-old temples, or indulge in sweet corn ice-cream, or play Chinese chess and mahjong in boisterous groups.
Signs in Chinglish are a sometimes baffling sometimes hilarious attempt to translate Chinese phrases into English. For example,I recently read a menu offering crackling puberty dove. Before laughing too hard at their efforts, imagine yourself translating the other way.
Beijingers are a friendly lot. Language is generally a barrier anywhere outside a recognized tourist area, but the locals will fall all over themselves to help. All other things aside, it is the Beijingers who make their city a great place to visit.