waicheng wandering

July 23rd, 2008

So last Thursday afternoon I jumped on the No. 34 bus and rode it round to Tianqiao and went for a wander. There wasn’t really much of a goal or an aim, but I was thinking to walk up towards Qianmen from the south to see what could be seen of the state of the renovations. Which is what I did. But first came a bit of a shock.

I got off at Tianqiao Lukoudong, which is still on Tiantan Lu- the street that runs round the northern side of Tiantan, then hung a right on to Qianmen Dajie. The narrow street with buildings pressing in close on each side had gone, completely gone, to be replaced by an apparently wider street lined with parks. Narrow parks backed by a wall that only just barely hid the hutong slums behind, but still, pleasant greenery, grass and flowers and trees. And yet somehow it seemed so sterile with the buildings and people and community torn out. Well, there were some people around, including a gaggle of old ladies in Olympic security volunteer t-shirts and red armbands sitting under an umbrella with a police woman, but otherwise the street seemed devoid of life.

Oh yeah, and I took a few photos, but all on my cellphone. Our camera’s batteries are buggered and don’t last more than a couple of minutes any more, and I wanted to look as little like a tourist and carry as little security-check-fodder as possible.

I got as far as the Zhushikou intersection and that was it, end of the line:

qianmen renovations viewed from zhushikou intersection

Oops, I guess I cropped a bit too much of that picture, but Qianmen Dajie from that point north was blocked and, although the main structures of the buildings lining the street were pretty much finished, there was clearly a lot more work to be done.

Well, there wasn’t much point trying to go any further north, so I crossed over to the west side of Qianmen Dajie looking for an angle to get a passable shot- the result being that photo above, taken from outside the Zhushikou Church, then walked a little further west, past an old art-deco-ish building that looked like it had recently been lovingly restored, but I hate art-deco so I won’t post any pictures. Then I went up on a pedestrian overbridge to see if I could get an overview of the Qianmen renovations. This is the best I could get, either on camera or off:

qianmen renovations overview

Yeah, it’s not much, and working with a cellphone camera…. Anyway, it seems as if only the buildings lining Qianmen Dajie are close to being finished. As you can see, there’s a huge empty space, walled off from Zhushikou Xidajie, just sitting there.

Ah well, I don’t want to play journalist and go sniffing out stories and details and stuff. I was just curious to get a look. From the southern end it looks like most of the structural work along each side of Qianmen Dajie is done and it’s just the finishing that needs to be… umm…. finished [sorry ’bout that], but it seems clear there’ll be no shortage of job opportunities for migrant workers reconstructing the Qianmen district after September 20.

So I went wandering off westward along Zhushikou Xidajie then ducked down a hutong, just seeing the sights. Reports of the death of the hutong would seem to be greatly exaggerated. Walls along Tiantan Lu and Qianmen Dajie up to Zhushikou only just barely concealed old hutong slums, and this one I ducked down bore no signs of impending doom. Then I got to the end and discovered the name of the street I was walking down:

liuxue lu

Study Abroad Street? How appropriate, considering my job…. Now, I’m really curious about this street and how it acquired its name. Might do a little fishing around the internet and see what I can find.

Well, I continued wandering, not-quite-aimlessly zigzagging my way back to Qianmen Dajie and the Tianqiao area. Now, Tianqiao is an interesting place…. Or at least, it was. It get’s quite a colourful portrayal in Lao She‘s Camel Xiangzi, for example. A new square has been opened up on the space between the modern theatre and the Natural History Museum on the other side of Qianmen Dajie. The square preserves an old and rather European-looking clocktower, but gives no details of the history or origin of said clocktower, and has several posters describing Tianqiao’s history, but best of all, has statues of Tianqiao’s Eight Eccentrics, each with a plaque explaining who each Eccentric was and what they specialised in. The Eight Eccentrics were eight street performers each renowned for a particular skill or performance. I did take photos, but decided against posting them here. Something else left me more impressed.

South of Tianqiao Qianmen Dajie suddenly splits into two, with north- and southbound lanes separated by a wide expanse of parkland extending all the way down to Yongdingmen. But unlike the two strips of parkland lining the road from Tianqiao north to Zhushikou, this park was teeming with life. Locals had put the area to good use and were out flying kites, playing badminton or even tennis, playing Chinese chess or cards or majiang, taking the grandkids out for a run around and some exercise, or just sitting and chatting with their friends and neighbours. The difference in atmosphere was amazing.

new park south of tianqiao

And I don’t know how clearly it can be seen, but running right through the centre of the park is a concrete strip marking clearly the north-south axis Beijing was built around. If you stand on it and look south, you’ll see the newly rebuilt Yongdingmen. Turn around, and if it weren’t for some silly, but temporary-looking flower arrangement, you’d be looking straight at Qianmen itself. And as you can probably see a bit more clearly, the central lane of this park is lined with good-sized trees which provide ample shade from the summer sun.

The southern section of the park is closed off, though, and what looks to be another Olympic venue of some sort is being installed there- ahh, road cycling, it seems.

Well, that brought me to Yongdingmen, which has been rebuilt. Compared to Qianmen and Deshengmen, though, it seems rather small and not that impressive, which is disappointing, situated as it is by the moat and the southern Second Ring Road.

yongdingmen

And then I wound up walking most of the way home, finally jumping on a No. 34 at the west end of Panjiayuan to give my sore feet a break, because try as I might I just could not find a bus heading round the southern Second Ring. It’s almost as if the buses had been taken off that stretch of road….. In hindsight, I should’ve walked back up to Tianqiao. Oh well.

So it doesn’t seem like much now, almost a week later, but it was a good walk, and interesting, too. But it leaves me a little conflicted on one point: Although more than a few eggs have been broken to make the omelette that is the renovations right along Qianmen Dajie from Qianmen to Yongdingmen, clearly there is potential to drastically improve the quality of life in the central city. That park south of Tianqiao, for example, is a vast, vast improvement over the narrow, crowded street that was there. And that section of Qianmen Dajie from Tianqiao up to Zhushikou, although it seemed rather sterile, clearly did improve the environment in that area. And although many, who, of course, do not have to live in the fetid, sordid conditions that hutong life has become, have complained about the ‘Disneyfication’ of Qianmen and the communities broken up and scattered, last Thursday’s trip left me with some hope that the result may well be a vastly improved Old City.

If you’re interested, a google.cn map of the area can be found here, and a google satellite image here.

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