Goodnight Beijing, sleep tight

For the past 8 months I have tried to tell readers about Beijing the way I see it. There’s no way I could just end all of that and not feel some nostalgia, some sense of loss, some poignant emotions. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also relieved. Beijing is not an easy place to live during the very best of times. But during a veritable panic, when the city seems to hover on the brink of total breakdown, closing its schools and businesses and hospitals….during a time like this, it’s hard not to feel as though you are being slow-roasted on a spit. With the flames being turned slowly but continuously higher and higher.

Today I oversaw the movers as they carted away my things, and tomorrow I am off to Xi’An, Yunnan (Dali, Kunming, Shangrila, Li Jian). Guilin and Hangzhou, then off to Singapore via Shanghai and Hong Kong (yes, I am actually going to HK to see old friends and pick up some belongings).

For those of you who have come to read more about SARS in Beijing, I might disappoint you tonight. My brain is too fried, and I’m too busy to keep up with it. Let me just say that tonight it seemed as though Beijing has become resigned to its plight. The mood everywhere seemed subdued, almost reticent, philosophical. (Although this, of course, may have been merely a reflection of my own mood.) The long lines at grocery stores are over, the palpable sense of fear has melted into one of acceptance. It’s still a sad city, under enormous strain, but it appears at least to be coming to grips with the nightmare.

I finally went to the Great Wall today for the first time. Gorgeous, of course, but my friend and I had it all to ourselves, just as we had the Forbidden City yesterday. Tourists are nonexistent, and you can cry looking at the desperate shopkeepers whose fates are tied to the traffic to Beijing’s tourist attractions. Yes, it’s a sad, sad city, and I can’t say I am sorry to be leaving now. Sure. I will miss the excitement of knowing I was helping to provide breaking news to readers thousands of miles away about one of the scariest stories since 9/11. But it’s definitely time to move on.

I’ll probably post for the very last time from Beijing tomorrow morning, provided my Internet connection is working. (It is down about 40 percent of the time.) In any case, thanks for adding an incredible new dimension to my life by coming here, and I hope I was able to shed just a bit of light into a country that still, for all the propaganda, thrives on keeping its people in the dark.

I know I will never, ever have an opportunity that can approach the one I had here. China, for all of your harshness, your inscrutable ways and your daily hardships, I can’t say that I do not love you. I will certainly never, ever forget you, and I thank you for making me a more tolerant and knowledgeable person. Thank you, and goodbye for now.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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