Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Greetings from Beijing...

I just got to Beijing last night after a long plane ride next to an adorable toddler…who unfortunately spent about half the flight wailing inconsolably. I'm on a train to Shanghai tomorrow, so my posting window is narrow and my energy is low—this will of necessity be short.

The Beijing air today was "very unhealthy" according to my handy iPhone app. Yeah, there's an app for that. "Protection is recommended." I did buy a mask before I left the US, but I haven't worn it yet. I'm saving it for "Hazardous" air, which is occurring with alarming frequency these days.

In spite of the bad air, I took a long walk around Gulou/Houhai, up Andingmen and then over to Yonghegong. These are the neighborhoods where I usually stay when I come here. They are some of the last old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, and every time I come, I wonder what old landmark will be gone this time.

The city planners (I use that term loosely) here deemed most of these old neighborhoods unsightly, impractical, unprofitable—not modern enough for China's capital. Most have been replaced by anonymous high-rises and malls. In some, the old buildings were replaced with brand new "historic reproductions" -- not actual siheyuan (courtyard buildings) but an incredible simulation! Inevitably the new versions house trendy upscale stores, Starbucks and the like. It's true that a lot of the hutong areas were rundown slums and probably not practical to refurbish, but they were also living, breathing neighborhoods.

The Gulou area in particular has a lot of character. Gulou itself, the Drum Tower, is one of my favorite landmarks in all of Beijing, and the area around the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is full of life: Small shops, bars, restaurants, markets, boutique hotels in old siheyuan. Locals come out after the tourist crowds have gone and walk their dogs in the plaza separating the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. Old men gather around chessboards, sitting on small stools, and play games I can't identify. Hawkers ride their bike carts around, calling out their services.

(yes, there are hipsters, too. This is near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple. Click to embiggen)

For the last few years, the "planners" have wanted to "improve" Gulou. For a while the idea was to knock most of the hutongs down, rebuild them and add a shopping center and a "Time Museum." That got shut down, but some new plan is in the works. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure who does know.  Whole areas have been flattened, surrounded by steel construction fences, battered blue panels that travel from demolition site to demolition site. Some of it is for a new subway line. The rest of it? Time will tell I guess. Right now the plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is fenced off. The locals sit on their stools next to the battered blue panels, playing their card and board games.

My favorite coffee shop is still there, at least. Last year, the fuwuyuan told me, her eyes tearing, that they would be gone in five months. A different worker was there today. She said they had at least five months, because construction there "is very complicated." Maybe they will get to stay. She doesn't know. It's not up to them.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out who this guy is…

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. Enjoyed travelling to Beijing with you, Lisa, without the air pollution and mask :). It's been quite a few years since I last visited the Chinese capital, and I don't miss it, mainly because of its smog, noise and crowds.

    Nice pictures - they are becoming rarer by the day. The city planners should probably bring back cycling and ban cars :)

  2. I figure the least I can do, Lisa, to thank you for letting us know that NYC is not the only place where construction goes on behind closed doors (at least up until yesterday's mayoral election:)), is answer your question.

    Zato-1 (ザトー=ONE) is a character in the Guilty Gear franchise. By sacrificing his eyesight, he became host to the Forbidden Beast Eddie and gained the ability to fight with his shadow. Following the events of Guilty Gear X, he is slain by Millia Rage, allowing Eddie to take over his body completely. By Guilty Gear XX, Zato has become little more than a moving corpse.

    Don't ask how I know all that...ask Wikipedia.

  3. Thanks for your kind words, Junying, and thanks, Jeff, for that info! Er, yeah. Now we know…

    I still love Beijing, as awful as it is in many ways. The people are great. Biggest cliche in the world, I know, but it's true. And it still feels like home to me.

  4. Thank you, Lisa for the travelogue. Vicarious trips to China are your great gift to me!

  5. So glad to hear about your travel to Beijing, and I love hearing the news and your observations and experiences.

    I agree that your vicarious trips to China are a gift to those of us who have never traveled there.