The light is different. And the way the air feels. Not just because of the pollution, which is everpresent in Beijing, even when it is not polluted. Those rare days are experienced in heightened joy exactly because there is (almost) no pollution.
But also on those clear days one feels the air is very different from what I am used to in northern Europe. Must be the humidity. Beijing air cracks my skin half of the time. In winter, when pollution is at it's worst, and in early spring, when the sandstorms come, it doesn't just crack it, it blasts the skin, parches it, wraps it in dust and soot.
More so, even, in Song Zhuang, where I had my studio for two years, where the buildings were heated with old coal stacks, their low, small chimneys barely higher then the rooftops, the smoke they bellowed ominously darkbrown. That heating, which I paid for inclusive in the yearly rent, was not really heating. It kept the studio from freezing in winter, which meant it was about 6 degrees celcius in there during winter months. Acrylic becomes less fluid then. And painting for more then three hours becomes a really cold endeavour, even in old ski clothes.
For that reason, I did not go to my studio in the winter months, and every time I returned in march, the dust was piled up half a centimetre inside. I did not have an air purifyer there. I have made many a brushstroke with a slight headache. That is how it goes.
I went there by electric scooter, a one and a half hour trip from where we lived near the fourth ringroad, a journey through newly built and more to be built middle class Beijing neighbourhoods, past crumbling hutong like neighbourhoods, dusty suburbs, past the last kilometers of the Grand Canal, through the last open fields between Beijing proper and Tongzhou, into the conglomeration of farmers villages surrounded by migrant workers homes, muddy markets and newly built galleries, highrises and studios that stand forlorn in the plain that is Song Zhuang, waiting for inhabitants, fame and fortune. Somewhere behind one of the muddy markets was a small community of artists in a U shaped courtyard, built by an investor with a heart for art. Mostly Chinese, one Belgian, two french and me. Only my direct neighbour spoke a bit of english (broken, but much better then my chinese)
It was an adventure. To go there, to be there, to walk around the migrant neighbourhoods, the bustling markets (liangmian! jianbing!) the absurdity of the empty neighbourhoods being built and built and built, standing there in the wind, trying to embody prosperity, modernity, promise and artsiness in the middle of nowhere.