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The road to Bowen School cuts across dusty fields and through grim industrial zones in southeast Beijing. As we arrive in the yard I spot two boys, aged about 10, racing ahead into the school. It is a cold, two-storey building of the uniform drabness that characterises the China of the toiling masses. Forget the tyranny of first appearances: the boys have alerted their fellow pupils to our arrival and I am greeted by a vibrant mass of children. They clap, they cheer, they surge around us like a living sea. “Hello.” “What is your name?” The English words are carefully pronounced and with relish. Clearly much effort has gone into their learning.

I am here on a Beijing Buddy visit, one of several programmes run by the Migrant Children’s Foundation, which promotes cultural exchanges between foreigners and the schools. Helen Boyle, who runs the programme, has watched children grow in confidence: “When we started teaching over a year ago, they weren’t able or very willing to speak at all and were quite shy. Now they can make sentences and are always very enthusiastic.”

Knowing the Chinese fondness for legends, I summon up some Celtic tall tales from my childhood that involve ferocious warriors, vicious kings, an improbably large potato, a brave young prince and the inevitable triumph of good. An enthusiastic Chinese volunteer translates. My heroes are cheered. My villains are hissed at. And the laughter and smiles stay with me all the way home.

Late in the afternoon, I go to see the old Summer Palace, the Yihe Yuan (“Gardens of Nurtured Harmony”). Here, the Empress Dowager Cixi spent vast sums of money reconstructing the complex after it was attacked by vengeful allied troops during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It’s a powerful symbol of restored Chinese national pride. Parties of schoolchildren pass by, doubtless being regaled with stories of iniquitous foreigners in times past; they pay me no heed. I sit by the edge of the Kunming Lake and, beside that wide expanse of water, after all the stimulation of the previous days, I feel a sense of peace.

Beijing may not capture your heart immediately. It is a proud, quirky, challenging place, a city of hustlers and of poets, where hard realities and dreams collide every day. On its streets you wander through yesterday and tomorrow, from ancient history to accelerating future, sometimes in the same shimmering minute, and there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere, quite like it in our world or in our time.

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The article ‘A Beijing state of mind’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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