not such a wild goose chase

January 25th, 2008

I dislike the noisy, crowded, touristy places. I love the boring places. The boring places, the ordinary, every-day regular parts of town where the faceless masses of ordinary people live and work and play, are by far the most interesting places to be. You can come to Beijing and spend your days travelling around the Great Wall and Ming Tombs and Summer Palace and Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, setting some time aside for fake shopping in Yaxiu, the Silk Market and Hong Qiao, and your evenings partying at Sanlitun and Houhai, and it won’t matter how long you spend doing that, a week, a month, a year, you’ll still know nothing about this fair city. And neither the forgotten parts of the city nor the little known corners will get you much closer- slightly closer, but not much. That’s why I like this little corner of Beijing, and even more the maze of lanes and alleys stretching west of here, across Wusheng Lu (which has to be my all-time favouritest street in China), over to the Third Ring, from Huawei Qiao up through Panjiayuan to Jinsong Qiao. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do here, no reason to visit unless you’re visiting me (and you’re more than welcome), it’s just ordinary, everyday Beijing, the way the real city is. There’s a time and a place for all the touristy stuff, but in general it’s that boring, mundane, ordinary city that I’m interested in. And so yesterday afternoon was spent getting up close to Beijing’s history while avoiding as strenuously as is humanly possible anything that had even the slightest whiff of “tourist” about it, and it was good.

And before we continue: I think the reason I am starting to appreciate the CBD is that it is rapidly becoming an ordinary part of Beijing, nothing particularly special. Several strata up the socio-economic ladder than lzh and I can afford to spend much time in, but still, it’s growing into a real part of Beijing.

It’s a pity that yesterday’s goodness had to framed by unpleasantness. But nevermind, that’s how things go.

So I escaped unpleasantness round one, a kind of unpleasantness discussed here, and headed round to Fangzhuang to pick up Matt, then we walked down to Liujiayao to get on the Line 5 subway.

Line 5 is nice. It’s all super sparkly and shiny and clean and new. And the glass anti-suicide walls along the sides of the platform make you feel so safe. And the trains themselves are so spacious and comfortable and clean and smooth- real smooth. I think that short trip up to Chongwenmen was by far my best ever (so far, at least) experience of the Beijing subway system. Now I can’t wait till Line 10 opens this summer- Line 10’s southern terminus is just up the road from here at Jinsong Qiao, and it’ll follow the Third Ring northwards past Gongti Beilu and Nongzhanguan… and yeah, it’ll be real convenient for getting to Sanlitun. I can’t see any other use for me for Line 10. Well, that Gongti Beilu stop will be convenient for lzh getting to and from work, but Jinsong is a bit much of a walk for a daily commute…

So, anyway, we got out at Chongwenmen and walked up to the Ming Dynasty City Wall Park, the park holding the last remaining section of the Ming and Qing Dynasty City Wall. Kinda explains the name of the place, doesn’t it? Well, in most respects, it’s not much of a tourist destination, just this 1.5 km section of ruined city wall with grass and scrub growing out the top set in a very ordinary park.  But only a few years ago it was the ruined section of wall mostly concealed behind one-storey buildings that I would call shanties had they not been made of brick and more-or-less a permanent and generally accepted part of Beijing’s cityscape of the time. It was one of those rundown, filthy, low-rent and yet established post-’49 communities that can still be found in the poorer parts of Beijing (the film 《苹果》(Lost in Beijing) provides a good close-up or two of one such community along with a stark contrast with the CBD) but the slum was cleared and became the park, plaques were added explaining the historical significance of the park, and the result….

Well, I wanted to go there because I’d seen what it was, and many times I’ve been past the new park, and yet I’d never gotten up close and personal with the park and the wall, so I just wanted to wander through and have a nosey and see what it’s like.

And so yes, just like the almost totally fruitless search for the temple the day before yesterday, my motives for leading Matt on this particular wild goose chase were purely selfish. Sorry Matt. Next time you can choose the destinations.

And even though it’s a very ordinary park, it’s a very nice, pleasant little place for a stroll. And it’s one of those rarest of things: A park that has no fence, no walls, no ticket office, just totally open and free for all. Well, there is one section that is fenced off and charges 10 yuan to enter, at the eastern end, guarding the entrance to the watchtower and the Red Gate Gallery, but unless you need access to the tower or you’re there for the art, I don’t see the need to bother going in. The open part of the park is more than adequate.

And it’s not just a nice place for a stroll, even in the depths of winter (although had we gone there in the winds of the day before yesterday, it would’ve been horrifically painful, especially for Californian Kunming-dweller Matt), but they’re also done a good job of presenting the wall and its significance. Spaced out more or less evenly along the wall are large, black marble plaques, mostly bilingual, and mostly with a photo of the wall in the late 19th or early 20th centuries engraved, explaining this or that point of the wall, or the signal station that has been preserved with the wall, or the railway that used to pass along there on the way down to the old railway station at Qianmen. And I have to say that most of the English translations were very well done, with only a few minor awkwardities here and there, but otherwise decent-quality English.

Well, we got to the watchtower end and decided against paying 10 kuai to go through the the gate that had been punched in the wall to allow trains through. I felt no need to go to the tower, and I had no particular interest in visiting the gallery, and nor did Matt see any point in going in, so we wandered around the outside, northwards, then hung a left down towards Beijing Zhan, but turned northwards before we got ourselves too surrounded by travellers, crossing over Chang’an Jie then walking up Nan Xiaojie northwards from the International Hotel.

This is a tangent, but it explains my interest in that part of Beijing: A few years ago, when he was still fairly regularly generous to foreign teachers (because he had only one foreign teacher), my boss took me to lunch in the revolving restaurant on top of the International Hotel. Now, that, sitting in a revolving restaurant, is the most migrainatory way to eat I have ever come across, especially when the food is that fancy hotel buffet highly-refined, incredibly bland rubbish. But anyway, it’s a good way, if you can stave off the impending migraine, to get a good view over the old city- on a clear day, of course, and that day was a clear day. So I was sitting there trying to eat and I noticed in the hutongs north of the International Hotel and east of Nan Xiaojie a decidedly European-looking house and, in a separate hotel just a little further north, a small temple. Not long afterwards, I found that temple, but arrived too late to get a look inside. And Beijing’s old Western buildings fascinate me, and no, I’m not referring to the cathedrals. They’re mostly buried down hutongs, and most of them in only slightly better repair than the Siheyuan around them. Well, Dongjiao Minxiang is a good street to walk down for its Western architecture, being the old legation quarter, but to be honest, as well looked-after as the buildings are now (or were last time I walked down that way), I’m not convinced they’re going to survive Beijing’s development. But the most fascinating of the Western buildings are the almost purely random ones you stumble across buried down some old, unrestored and somehow not yet 拆ed hutong.  I’m really curious about these buildings.

See, it’s Tianjin that’s famous for Western architecture in the old International Settlements, not Beijing. Beijing is famous for Chinese stuff. And yet here these buildings are, sitting buried deep in hutongs, no doubt with more than a few stories to tell, and it seems nobody’s asking. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking in the right places yet. And these buildings, where they are in the last remaining intact hutong communities, are very much a part of that community infrastructure. They don’t look at all out of place, they stand out by their ordinariness, by their total integration into the surrounding community.

This time I found that European building I’d spotted from the top of the International Hotel, and found it firmly behind a high wall. Didn’t find the temple again, but that may be because we didn’t go deep enough into the hutongs. Doesn’t matter, the point was simply to get out and walk around, I mean, I didn’t see any sense in wasting yesterday’s brilliant weather and clear air, and the Ming Wall was just an excuse to get out, really.

But looking northwards up Nan Xiaojie from the International Hotel was the quintessential contemporary Beijing. On the eastern side of the street, immediately north of the Hotel, was a destruction site. Presumably that will soon be Just Another Fancy Real Estate Development. Then there was a small section of as yet unmolested hutong. Then there was Just Another Fancy Real Estate Development. The western side of the street wasn’t much different, except that there was more intact hutongs. There was also another of these apparently random European-looking buildings behind a wall, right by the street, bordering what looked like another destruction site, right at the southern end of the remaining hutongs. Once again, I was intrigued.

Well, by this time we’d done enough walking, it was getting time for a break, so after much humming and hahing we jumped on the subway and went up to Dawanglu then made for O’Farrells. Then lzh heard where we were, and thought, hey, that’s on the way home, and there’s lots of shops with 漂亮的衣服 (pretty clothes, and one of her favourite Chinese phrases) for me to sift through, so she said she’d meet us there. Then Brendan showed up, closely followed by Matt’s host, and food and drink was consumed and good conversation was had, and it was a good time…. but of course some arsehole taxi driver had to make sure it ended on a sour note for lzh and I by being a dick. I’ve been having bad luck with cabbies lately. It’s frustrating because the overwhelming majority of Beijing’s cabbies are decent, honest folk, but there’s still that small but disproportionately loud and obnoxious group who go out of their way to give the whole of Beijing’s taxi industry the worst name possible.

So it was a good day, but I’m still irritated that it had to start and end with such unpleasantness.  No sense in getting upset about it, though, because in between was an entire day filled with exercise in a pleasant environment and unusually comfortable (for Beijing) air, excellent company, good food and drink, good conversation…  A successfully spent day, in other words.

3 Responses to “not such a wild goose chase”

  1. nick Says:

    I’ve had some shockers in Beijing, especially from the airport.

  2. nick Says:

    taxis that is!

  3. wangbo Says:

    There are some shockers, I won’t deny that, I mean, the prick we had to deal with last night was a real piece of work, but trust me, the overwhelming majority of taxi drivers here really are decent folk who you’d be happy to sit and drink a beer or five with if he weren’t driving.

    As for the airport, you’ve just got to remember: You’re best bet is to get the bus in to the closest stop to your destination, and taxi from there, is ideal. Otherwise, you only ever get a taxi from the official taxi queue. The arseholes are still hanging out trying to scam rides away from the official queue, but the city has worked hard to clean up the airport, and you’re probably quite safe if you go to the official queue and follow the official’s directions to the next cab.