The sun looks old. Wrapped in a blanket of dense smog the smouldering disc climbs low in the sky, heralding the start of a new day in suburban Beijing.
The EggBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Beijing
A stark metallic bulge emanating from behind Tienanmen, the National Center for Performing Arts could very well be an escape platform for times of alien invasions, zombie infestations or an all-out meltdown. Skirting it’s circumference runs a medieval moat that stops all but the brave, or stupid, from approaching the blemish-free panelled hull. Orbiting like satellites, small electric police cars whizz by, chasing would be intruders who step too close to the water’s edge.
A Stark RealityBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 500 f4 / Beijing
Winter is harsh in northern China. Long gone are the heights of summer, whiling away the days on the shores of the city lakes, eating freshly cooked street food with a cold beer and great company. Autumn is but a blip in the calendar, perhaps a day, a week or two at most, and then winter drops a long, harsh, steady stream of arctic wind, snow, and temperatures so low you barely make it out and back alive. As the cities’ power stations fire up to 11, so does the pollution descend across the entire northern countryside, spanning thousands of miles from the eastern seaboard to deserts far away in the west. A heavy, sickening, choking mixture of coal and petrol and diesel and smoke and chemicals and everything else burning for as far as the eye can see cooks up a dense grey veil to cover the city, and with it, heralds the beginning of another harsh winter.
Sheltered beneath flimsy make-shift, blue-roofed corrugated housing, peasants stir from fractured slumber to a cacophony of groans and sighs. Belaboured migrants don boots with matching hard-hats, swigging Baijo in-between mouthfuls of packet noodles and nicotine.
798Barnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 14 - 24 f2.8 / Beijing
An enclave in north-east Beijing, 798 district is a bastion of expression and freedom in an otherwise barren and repressed landscape. Or at least that’s what we’re told. Wandering the exhibitions, the galleries and work spaces, climbing the rusting steel gas works, peering through mouldy glass windows, peaking behind closed doors, taking in the art all around, you get the distinct feeling this enclave is more of a gated compound keeping things in, rather than the other way around.
Congregating en-mass outside their zero-star accommodation the blue hats meander like a heard of cattle, heading in the general direction of the nearest construction site for another day building Beijing’s skyline.
The early afternoon heat leads to heavy summer rain. Drops of sooty water crash down onto the lives of peasants and nouveau riche alike. There is no prejudice here, we all get wet. Gucci-clad animal furs dart from mall to mall in vibrant yellow Lamborghinis, dollar-sign eyes glued to large black mirrors as they plan their Friday night in the city.
There’s a whisper of a VIP party at a newly refurbished Ambassadors residence, cocktails at Alchemy and Mexican in NLGX. Finally, it’s off to the late night bars in Sanlitun and beyond for dancing and drinking in to the early hours. For others, a stark menu of Baijo and packet noodles in a wet, corrugated shed will be sufficient to see the day to a close.
The rain eventually lifts. A new moon lights the dusky city as a vast network of lamp posts ping to life, street-peddlers emerging from tarpaulin shelters to reassemble their mobile trades on saturated street corners. Mahjong tables are hurriedly setup for impatient contenders, street barbecues lit, noodles soaked.
PanjiayuanBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 50 f1.4 / Beijing
I leave feeling like I’ve just waged a war and am not sure if I won or not. My heavy rucksack suggests I found a few items of interest, my hoarse voice that I negotiated my heart out, my empty wallet that I didn’t barter well enough.
Red WallBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 50 f1.4 / Beijing
Rising high above Tiananmen, the dominant Red Walls of Beijing’s most revered Hutong keep out the prying eyes of passers-by. The once bustling inner courtyards link one another through ancient stone arches, each emerging to wide open spaces filled with an emptiness of biblical proportions.
Beijing breathes a deep sigh and sheds a warm glow across its crenellated skyline, a fiery horizon silhouetted by smokey orange haze. The promise of a better tomorrow, today.
CrowdedBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 50 f1.4 / Beijing
80 percent of domestic Chinese tourists are in 20 percent of the places, states the guide book, and a trip to China supports this rather intense fact. The famous destinations in the guide books are notoriously crowded as internal tourism has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. However, in order to escape the suffocating crowds, a short walk away from the main site can often offer surprisingly quick relief.