an afternoon well wasted

November 22nd, 2008

So sometime yesterday- I don’t think either of us remember exactly when- Roubaozi and I decided that today would be a good day for a little bit of adventure. Nothing strenuous, mind, just a good day for jumping on a bus either just before or comfortably after lunch, heading off somewhere and going for a wee stroll. Of course, this suggestion brought my minor obssession with the Qianmen renovations back to the surface, and I suggested taking the 34 to Tianqiao Lukou Dong, thence walking up to the southern end of the new Qianmen Dajie pedestrian (and soon to be tram) street. After all, I hadn’t yet gotten around to checking out the newly reopened street and its renovated and rebuilt buildings. So just before lunch today I sent him a message and we arranged to meet outside our building at 12:30. Roubaozi suggested chuan’r, and I hinted that that could be a good idea, so we wandered up to the local Chinese barbeque joint and got ourselves fed. And the plan? Well, Roubaozi thought my idea sounded good, so once fed we wandered back down to the bus stop and jumped on the 34.

Getting off the bus at Tianqiao Lukou Dong meant a rather boring walk northwards. Somehow the renovations managed to thoroughly sterilise the stretch between Zhushikou and Tianqiao. South of Tianqiao down towards Yongdingmen is awesome. North of Zhushikou is the new Qianmen. Tianqiao to Zhushikou is a nice idea, but dead boring. It used to be a lively neighbourhood. Now it’s a few lonely pine trees.

Well, it didn’t take too long for too long-legged Kiwi lads to get to Zhushikou, where the old church stands strangely beautiful in its plainness. The easiest and quickest way across the road to the new Qianmen was the overbridge to our right, the one with E=MC2 and other out-of-place equations on it. We crossed over and wandered in to the new Qianmen.

Qianmen viewed from the Zhushikou end of the new street.

Qianmen viewed from the Zhushikou end of the new street.

Yeah, from the south end it looks at once promising and deserted. Well, we walked further in and I have to say I was disappointed with one thing: Almost all the buildings were empty, especially at the south end. That was quite disappointing, I mean, the area has obvious potential. How hard would it be to rent one shop and use it as a teahouse/cafe? Considering the current dearth of competition, you could easily make a killing off weary tourists in need of refreshment, even if you were selling drinks and snacks at merely reasonable prices without any tourist gouge. But as we moved north, things got busier. Still, one thing I did notice, and one thing we would’ve been in the market for, and one thing Wangfujing has provided in one form or another (although until recently generally over the summer months only) was a place to sit with a cool or hot beverage- depending on your mood and the weather, of course- and watch the world go by.

An intersection with a hutong in roughly the middle of the new Qianmen Dajie.

An intersection with a hutong in roughly the middle of the new Qianmen Dajie.

But the relative desertedness of the southern end allowed us to observe the fixtures in a little more detail. The lampposts look alright:

Alright, so I could've worked with the light better, but still, a new Qianmen lamppost.

Alright, so I could

The caption was supposed to say: “Alright, so I could’ve worked with the light better, but a new Qianmen lamppost.” It seems some of the words got lost. Oh well. The planters were pretty cool, too:

An early winter Qianmen planter.

An early winter Qianmen planter.

Ah, neither words nor image got lost! You can see from the sun that it is fast approaching December and mid-afternoon. In other words, I was on the western side of the street looking south and very, very slightly eastwards. The roadworks cones are cordoning off a strip of tram tracks under repair.

I’m struggling to find words to describe our northwards progress. The trouble is that empty buildings and sparse crowds meant there wasn’t a lot to write about, and yet, the buildings meant there was. Here are a few random street scenes:

Just some random buildings at Qianmen.

Just some random buildings at Qianmen.

Further north, as you can see, but still just a few random buildings.

Further north, as you can see, but still just a few random buildings.

Several buildings bore this red star, which I found a little less than convincing considering they were aiming for a 1930s look (or so I believe).

Several buildings bore this red star, which I found a little less than convincing considering they were aiming for a 1930s look (or so I believe).

Qianmen's got a cool post office.

Qianmen

And philately, too:

And philately, too.

And philately, too.

And those two China Post buildings, in the same style, were separated by a more traditionally Beijing-style building. And to the left of the philately building above you can see one of the many pretty walls barricading Qianmen Dajie from the still-under-refurbishment areas to both the east and west. (actually, viewed from the west, from where those photos were taken, the Post Office proper was on the right and the Philately joint on the left. I could correct it, but what for?)

Of course, Quanjude is up and running (or so it seemed from the outside):

Yup, the roast duck joint.

Yup, the roast duck joint.

And then, the end:

The pailou, with Zhengyangmen protecting the Square.

The pailou, with Zhengyangmen protecting the Square.

It was at about this point that it started to get busy- which was, oddly, a relief. It was also at about this point that we came across:

The entrance to Dashilar.

The entrance to Dashilar.

Oh, yes, the spelling is very deliberately chosen, because so far the only person I have ever heard say “Dazhalan” is myself. Obviously the crowds by this point had started to build up, but, as those of you who live in China can see from the photo, were far from  as intense as you’d expect at a major tourist attraction. And yet, judging by the sheer number of cameras wielded, most of those present were tourists. Well, I could not see anything other than the bus or subway out of there to attract a local.

Anyways, so we walked out of the pedestrian street and onto the Qianmen semi-circle at the bottom of the Square, and decided to hang a left. Actually, a couple of buildings struck me as being relatively interesting:

The old silk store is still there, it would seem.

The old silk store is still there, it would seem.

Perhaps not as new as the sign proclaims.

Perhaps not as new as the sign proclaims.

Ah, well, so we continued wandering in a bit of a zigzaggy way, passing through Liulichang but studiously avoiding anything touristy- most of the stores there do not feel the need to have touts on the street calling “Hello! Hello! Bullshit attempt at faking traditional Chinese art at overly inflated prices!” In other words, we only stopped in and looked through places whose workers behaved like normal people, and those places we enjoyed. I mean, I, for one, would enjoy Liulichang a hell of a lot more if it did not attract so many tourists and (because it’s not really the tourists’ fault) the scum tourists attract. Liulichang does stock in abundance about 50% of what I love about China, after all.

But before too long we found ourselves here:

The back end of Dashilar.

The back end of Dashilar.

Yep, we definitely zigzagged and found ourselves at the back-end of Dashilar. I suspect you can see the reason why had Roubaozi suggested strolling down Dashilar the police would’ve spent a good portion of their afternoon removing him from the pavement. I’ve definitely seen places- including the Dashilar of five or six or seven years ago- more crowded, but the older I get the grumpier and less tolerant of tourists I get. I also noticed that Dashilar extended further westwards:

Dashilar, heading further west.

Dashilar, heading further west.

And thence we continued zigzagging south, ducking through hutongs in the direction of the Friendship Hospital from where we could catch the 34 back home.

I should note: Several of the photos have been touched up, but either to fix the light so you can see something approaching what I saw (you may have noticed several of the photos were taken facing southwest, i.e. into the sun) or cropped to remove people who were too close to the camera- Roubaozi included- as part of my policy to not identify people who have not given their express permission to be identified (hence Roubaozi instead of his real name; or lzh instead of my wife’s real name)- I mean, I was using a Nokia N72 to take the photos, and some people got too close, and you don’t have a huge amount of control using a cellphone, and so I chopped the photos down to remove people I hadn’t talked to whose faces came out too clearly in the originals.

Anyways, the verdict: Have the Qianmen renovations succeeded? Not yet. But there’s still time and huge potential. Indeed, had I the capital and experience, I would go back tomorrow, sign a lease on one of the multitude of empty stores and open a cafe. But more importantly: No, I would not call it ‘Disneyfied’. I mean, no, it does not look old, but:

  1. You have to maintain and occasionally renovate buildings, otherwise they fall down; and:
  2. Yeah, a lot of the new buildings have been built in a new style referring back to the 1930s. But you know what? I can’t see anything particularly wrong with that.

Actually, what I saw today makes me want to wait a year or perhaps two and head back once Qianmen has, hopefully, settled in and re-established itself. Right now I can see the potential, but potential has to be fulfilled to be of any use.

And it would be cool to see the trams cruising the street.

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