The soldier was humming. He stood still on a small raised platform, sharply dressed in his dark green uniform, his arms by his side and his feet touching heel to heel, staring solemnly at the brick wall of the British Ambassador’s residence with his back to the traffic – and he was humming. It was a bouncy happy tune like a nursery rhyme, and I was so surprised and pleased I felt myself blush as I walked quickly past him.
I pass these military guards every day on the way to my language lessons, standing at their positions outside or nearby the embassies that sit behind imposing gates and fences along tree-lined roads. I’m always worried about the soldier who’s assigned this particular post on the corner of the British Ambassador’s residence, because for some reason he has to stand not looking out at the crossroads but turned the other way to face the wall, with only the odd pedestrian – like me – who passes between him and wall to break what must be mind-numbing monotony.
The soldiers’ barracks are near our flat, and in the morning DD and I hear them shouting something in unison as part of a drill, while in the evening we sometimes find ourselves falling in line behind them as they march back from the embassy district. They look appropriately serious from afar, but on closer inspection they’re rather sweet, chatting under their breath as they walk, and carrying some kind of signal thing that looks like a toy version of the lollipop lady’s lollipop.
At the start of my daily commute, it’s the porters who open the gate of our building with a cheery “nihao” that make me smile, especially since I’ve recently noticed that two of them are quite cute – one has a face like a baby bear and the other looks like he’s stepped out of a 1980s Japanese boy band. The other side of the road is currently a construction site, with whatever had stood there beforehand knocked down so quickly in the first few weeks we were here that we hadn’t even noticed what kind of buildings they’d been. On windy days I get covered with a layer of dust that blows off the rubble and I can barely keep my eyes open as I turn the corner on to the big road, where there is initially no pavement and cars are parked along the edge three vehicles deep.
I cross the road and walk past vans unloading plastic bags, presumably stuffed with clothes to sell in the exotically named Alien’s Street Trade Market, and take a shortcut through the Russian quarter, a slightly scary area with tacky neon signs and shops selling mink coats. If I’m running late I go past the North Korean embassy, a large functional building with a display case outside showing pictures of the Kims looking jolly as they tour their country and their people looking jolly in factories and schools, and then I turn right past Jenny Lou’s, the supermarket selling foreigner-friendly groceries, and the cafe with possibly the world’s slowest barista.
But if I have time I prefer to walk through Ritan Park, with its sign on the gate reassuring me that it’s free entry, picturesque water features and winding paths that quickly get me lost. In the morning it’s a playground for retired people, men writing beautiful calligraphy on the ground using water and giant brushes, and women gathering to exercise to music. Throw in other groups doing slow martial arts moves with swords and the odd trumpeter or operatic singer having a quick open-air rehearsal, and I’m in a much happier place than when I’m dodging rickshaws and jumping at car honks.
On the other side of the park I trot past Maggie’s, a bar I hear is notorious for foreigners’ misbehaviours but never seems to have anyone going in or coming out, and past the British embassy, a relatively inviting building painted in Mediterranean yellow, small compared to the Albanian embassy standing opposite. If I need to pop in to sort out some admin, I show my pass to the guard, tap in through the black gates, and in the reception area I’m greeted by a large framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth while I put my phone in a locker, an anti-spying measure.
From the embassy it’s just a few minutes to the language school, past street fruit sellers and noodle shops, but first there’s a horrible junction I have to cross. It’s a big one, in the middle of which cars, bikes, bicycles, electric bicycles, rickshaws and other forms of taxis that look like baby Smart cars or just tin boxes on three wheels, all come at you from every direction. My survival technique is to look nonchalant as I attach myself to a local person, ideally with them acting as a buffer between me and the traffic, and I crunch my toes in and tuck in my arse as we make our way to the other side. I have to be careful who I choose though, as some locals, particularly the older ones, actually dare to cross the junction diagonally, looking totally unbothered as they saunter through the madness.
I’m ready for a sit down by the time I reach the building that the school is in, a weirdly designed thing resembling a block of cheese with uneven walls and round windows, part of a giant property conglomerate called Soho that appears to be taking over the city. Walking in Beijing is eventful, what with side stepping people spitting on the pavement, dodging the men sitting on tiny chairs playing Chinese chess, and trying not to stare at the odd person wearing a full-on anti-smog mask that makes them look like Hannibal Lecter. I don’t feel quite so relaxed yet that I can hum like the soldier guy, but I’m getting there, one successful road-crossing at a time.
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