rustbelting

July 30th, 2008

So yesterday afternoon, because the air was so clear after the wind and rain finally cleared out last week’s thick soup of much, I jumped on my bike and went out cycling through an old industrial area…. I dunno, I guess my lungs were crying out for some pollution or something.

I started by heading along the southern side of BeiGongDa and cruised past the badminton stadium…. and yep, confirmed my impression from Monday. It looks all ready. Seems like the security checks are all set up and waiting for the gates to open. There are festive flags and banners everywhere, making the steel grey UFO shaped stadium look like it is actually meant for human use. People’s Armed Police standing sentry every dozen-odd metres. And nothing intimidating or heavy-handed. The PAP definitely had some kind of equipment on their belts, but I couldn’t see if they even had pistols. No, they were dressed smartly in their regular uniforms standing at attention as if they were on their regular sentry duty at an embassy or government building at the most ordinary of times. I was just curious, because you know the way some people have been talking…. Still, I’m sure the situation is different in other parts of the city, areas more likely to attract trouble.

Well, then I got on with the business of going for a ride, getting some fresh air and exercise. I went across Sifang Qiao then out along the side of the Jingshen Expressway, past 欢乐谷 (Happy Valley?) and all the big, fancy yuppie compounds until the area started looking normal again. I hung a right (I wasn’t wanting to go all the way out to Qinhuangdao, after all, or even as far as Tongzhou) and cruised through some older neighbourhoods, much like this area, but 10 or 15 years older, like the older apartment blocks to our immediate north and west. It wasn’t much to look at, but that’s the point. The road was paved in a series of large, square concrete slabs which shook me up a bit, but otherwise it was the usual urban-China mix. It could’ve been middle class Taiyuan, but with a lot less coal dust and smog. Followed the road along a bit, realised I was on Huagong Lu (化工路- Chemical Industry Street) which probably most would not consider a good sign, but that’s exactly where I wanted to be.

Well, as is to be expected, the neighbourhood went downhill quickly. Old apartment blocks gave way to one or two storey buildings used as various kinds of workshop, the road got rougher, various items of construction machinery were lined up at various points waiting to be hired- a row of diggers here, a row of cranes further along. Still, every now and then I’d pass quite a new, shiny KTV or hotel or restaurant. Then there was an old Maoist style building behind a gate and a seriously overgrown wall. It looked like an attempt at a fancy hotel or even a palace for the factory leadership, judging by the fading colours of the corroded, peeling paint and the random pieces of grime-covered statuary lining the driveway. The gate was firmly shut- perhaps rusted permanently shut, although it looked like a gentle nudge with the front wheel of my bike would get me through. Well, I didn’t, I just observed as I was riding past. This very, very overgrown wall continued, apart from the occasional shack housing some attempt at a business of a more or less mechanical nature, unbroken. The land behind seemed almost completely overgrown, tall, mature trees stretching up freely, untamed. The occasional broken, rusted end of piping or pillar or something managed to make its presence known in the midst of this jungle. Was this the Early Industrial China version of Angkor Wat?

I never got to find out. I hung another right, not really wanting to go beyond the Fifth Ring. I was discovering the hard way why the colleague who sold me this bike warned me it wasn’t much good for long distances. My bum was starting to hurt, in other words. I went down a street whose entrance was guarded by an archway proclaiming this to be the “stonework paradise” or words to that effect. I can’t remember what, exactly, the wording was in either English or Chinese, but it made it clear this was the place to go for all your stone needs. I mean, building material kind of stone, paving, decorative stuff, everything you need to give your new building that air of solid permanence only a good bit of stonework can provide.

I was disappointed, though. There was definitely a smell in the air that suggested stone was being worked in some of the workshops, but I saw none of it myself. Sure, a lot of what’s on sale now is the tacky shit that appeals to nouveau riche tastes, but I’ve always liked the stone lions that guard doorways. None to be seen.

Oh well. At the end of the road I turned…. ummm…. somewhere. Right, I think, but I’m not sure. I spent the next half hour or so randomly zigzagging through this semi-industrial, semi-way-lower-working class residential area.

Actually, friends of lzh’s used to live out this way, and we visited them one night in their tiny room in a modern version of a siheyuan (but clearly built for the purpose of renting out cheap rooms). They came down from Yanqing to Beijing (she’s from lzh’s village, his village is further west and lower into the basin) after high school to seek fame and fortune, but had to settle for those low-paying jobs that don’t require much education, experience or skill. The room had just barely enough room for a double bed- which took up about 80% of the space- one of those metal frame with a cloth cover fold away wardrobes, a small cabinet on which rested a TV and a DVD player, and in between the furniture and the bed, enough space for one adult to walk. Enough space to put a hotpot on a foldaway table and the four of us, three sitting on the edge of the bed and one on a small plastic stool in that narrow slice of floor space, to get stuck in to some good food. There was a communal tap in the courtyard for washing and preparing food and, presumably, doing the laundry, and the toilet was of the kind that has long since disappeared from downtown Beijing, the shallow concrete ditch with concrete planks across the top to provide squatting space, and no lights. The evening ended with us riding bikes up to the main road in the hope a taxi would come along to take lzh and I home- fortunately we didn’t have to wait long, although I have to admit I collided with a pile of logs and knocked lzh off the back of the bike I was riding along the way. In my defence, there were no street lights. Yeah, it was a rough-and-ready kind of a night, but it was a good time.

Anyways, that was a long time ago, and the friends in question have since moved to a basement room somewhere near Jishuitan- they’re moving up in the world- a room lzh refuses to take me to because its upper reaches are strewn with pipes slung so low there’s no way I’d be able to stand up. There’s absolutely no way I’d be able to find my way back to their old place now. All I know is that yesterday afternoon I was somewhere nearby.

Then I noticed something: Parks. Really large parks with lots of tall, mature trees, exercise equipment, courtyards, lawns, apparently free of charge, and being put to good use by the local residents. One of the things I really like about Beijing is the parks. Beijing has plenty of great parks, and not just the old imperial sites, lots of local parks where people go to hangout, meet friends, fly kites, play chess, practice calligraphy, let the toddler grandkids have a good run around, exercise. Beijing’s a great city for parks. But this old, rundown industrial area was the last place I was expecting to come across a park. I passed at least two, the biggest of which, so far as I could tell, was at Laojuntang (老君堂- now there’s a name just crying out for a look into its origins), and that was a park that just screamed out for exploration.

Well, I didn’t venture in to either park, that wasn’t what I was on my bike for, I just cruised past observing what could be observed. But I was impressed, and I may well venture out to Laojuntang again some time.

This map shows you roughly the area I was exploring- the area bounded by the Fourth and Fifth Rings and the Jingshen and Jingjintang Expressways (the orange lines, in other words) is where I was rambling, and Laojuntang (老君堂) and its huge park are down towards the southern end.

So I continued zigzagging, now thinking it would be a good idea to head home and give my bum a break from the hard bike seat and rough roads. I roughly followed the 852 and the new Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway- I saw one of the trains zipping by, it looked pretty cool- eventually meeting the Fourth Ring at Shibalidian Bei Qiao (十八里店北桥), following that northwards back to Sifang Qiao then across to the inside and back up home.

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