I am in Beijing, which yesterday was shrouded in bitter-tasting clouds of pollution settling unbelievably low across the city. From the window of the China World Tower, it was difficult to discern the shape of buildings only metres away. Today, however, is clear and beautiful and you can even see the mountains in the distance beyond the Forbidden City.
Beijing is difficult to imagine even when you're at the heart of it which (I think) I am, at least in the business sense. All the law firms we are visiting have their offices in the same place: China World Tower 1 or 2, and beneath the towers there's a labyrinthine, extraordinarily large shopping centre packed with luxury stores, cafes and sushi bars, supermarkets, and a small but perfectly formed ice rink around which we watched a tiny girl, wearing a pink lurex outfit with the universal tasteful (sic) flesh coloured patches, swish her way.
Going in to Armani and Prada and Marc Jacobs, it's hard to imagine who is actually buying anything. Prices are higher than Hong Kong, but apparently shopgirls are saving for months to buy. It sticks in my mind that there are nineteen (19) Chanel stores in mainland China; so even relatively obscure places like Dalian (in the north east) are part of the luxury brand phenomenon. It seems to fit with the Chinese notion of face value.
Looking out the window today, and actually able to see the scope of the city without the "mist", you realise just how vast it is. Unlike Shanghai it's not really a walkable city: you'll walk a block and the same building will still be alongside. Giant roads packed with slow moving cars slash across the vista in every direction.
Günther Grass lived in Berlin before the wall came down because he described it (somewhat pretentiously, I always thought) as the city "closest to the realities of the age". Without hyperbole, with its pollution and rapidly emerging consumerism, I think Beijing better fits that description now.