October 24th, 2009
So as midday approached and my stomach grew insistent I started thinking, well, I haven’t been to the barbeque restaurant recently. The somewhat controlled tumble downstairs met me with a colleague, who was also hungry, and planning to meet another colleague in 10 minutes outside. And so I sat in the garden waiting. Then a neighbour, girl of 7 or 8 came out looking for our puppy, and, on being told that we’d taken the puppy up to the village, decided to practice long jump. The first colleague came back downstairs, followed by a third and a fourth (we were waiting for the one who has a slightly different understanding of “10 minutes”), and so this rather small neighbour decided to play with us games involving string wrapped around fingers. Eventually the one we were waiting for appeared, and so I and three colleagues (the third was on his way somewhere, but the fourth we managed to ensnare) headed off to our friendly, neighbourhood dead-things-on-sticks-roasted-over-charcoal restaurant, leaving the small neighbour with her mother who had conveniently arrived just as we were heading off for lunch.
And so there was lunch. It involved, as you’ve probably guessed, various dead things skewered on thin sticks and roasted over charcoal. It was good. But they all had things to rush off to, one to the airport and two in search of clothing to ward off the menacingly increasing cold. That left me in a state I quite enjoy: Staring out the window at the passings by.
The restaurant is down a lane a short walk north of our estate. It’s a lane marked by a hotel at its eastern end, a hotel built over what was a very stinky canal not too many years ago, but whose extent west of Xidawang Lu was encased in a tunnel, and a hotel which houses, along its northern side, the restaurant in which I was sitting. Beyond the hotel are a few restaurants in what should be temporary accomodation- those kitset buildings build around a steel framwork with steel/polystyrene/steel walls used for workers’ housing on construction sites or temporary refuge in disaster zones. Then there’s a construction site, a low-rise building going up on what has been mostly waste land for quite some time. That’s followed by a patch of land going to waste largely because of the low-slung high-tension power line that crosses it, followed by apartment buildings built any time between the 1950s and the 1990s- nothing new, and all very well established neighbourhoods.
Along the north side of the lane is all apartment blocks, largely the same as those along the western extent of the southern side of the lane, punctuated by that high-tension power line and a primary school.
But I sat in the restaurant just a few metres in from the eastern end of the lane looking northwards onto two housing estates. The nearest was the oldest, and of an age that is hard to guess. It could be anywhere from 15 to 50 years old, judging by the style, although I would guess closer to 15. No bricks were in evidence, but I would assume that’s because the bricks had been coated with cement and then painted. I’ve never been able to tell if they intended the buildings to be a faded pink with white trim or white with a faded pink trim. Most windows on the first, second and third floors, and many on higher floors, of course, were covered in steel cages intended to keep burglars out. Most first floor residents had, naturally, enclosed a bit of extra space as some kind of yard or an extra room, with the residents of one apartment having claimed quite a large area behind a concrete wall with jerry-rigged looking windows and a slapdash asbestos tile roof held in place by pieces of brick. In the neighbouring building one resident family, having found themselves on the end of the building, had put an outside door in the side of their “extra” room and an old armchair next to that door, where grandpa spent the time I sat staring out the restaurant window sitting and observing the passing world.
Two floors above that extra large “extra” room was what I first thought to be a balcony craftily converted into a pigeon coop that allowed the birds a certain freedom of movement and room for exercise. A second look showed it wasn’t a balcony, but one of those anti-burglar cages custom made to give about twice as much space between window and bar with a sheet or two of plywood laid across the bottom. A wooden box had been place at one end to give the pigeons a nesting space, but the pigeons had room to flit about within the cage. I presume there was a door to let them out to fly around in the open sky, as most urban Beijing pigeon coops have, but from my angle I couldn’t see it.
The restaurant is directly opposite what seems to be the main entrance to that faded pink/white estate. There are no major gates to it on Xidawang Lu, just one big enough to allow cars, but with wrought iron gates permanently closed to all but pedestrian traffic. On the north side is a very new housing development, and along the west is a lane just as small as the one running along the southern side, which took me to and from the restaurant, but considerably more isolated from the bigger roads.
Pedestrians, cars, bicycles, tricycles, and scooters both electric and two-stroke petrol came and went for reasons personal and commercial. A white VW Jetta with Henan licence plates entered. Last I heard, cars registered outside Beijing needed a special permit to enter the capital. I don’t know how that works or how that is obtained, but I can understand people resident in Beijing registering cars in Hebei or Tianjin, obtaining that permit, and driving here. But surely Henan is a bit far away for that to be practical? But then again, I regularly see a car with Guangdong plates parked on the side of the next lane south of there.
That new development immediately north of the faded pink/white complex I have watched grow from the hole-in-the-ground phase to basically complete. Last time I went past its northern face it was still a construction site, but one in the final stages of finishing off and polishing up. Judging by the number of curtained windows and aircon units on balconies I saw today, they must be very well into the process of delivering units to buyers. But whereas this faded pink/white 5-storey complex immediately to its south looks organic, like an established community, the new complex looks modern, tan, sterile, and clinical. I guess it takes time for a development to become a community.