I’m not sure what I expected Beijing to be, but it certainly wasn’t this so-alive, ground-level tangle of laneway life. The old part of the city is a warren of “hutongs,” tiny lanes that snake between the main streets, where some families have lived for centuries. Some still don’t have indoor plumbing — every hutong is dotted with public washrooms that look… cold.
The hutongs have become more commercial and sought-after in the past few years, and the government is demolishing many of them in favour of “progress” and tall squat buildings — but there are still hundreds of them, plenty of life amid the tea houses, restaurants, street food sellers and graphic comic shops.
My hotel is down a hutong and then hidden off to one side, and behind this grey narrow passage is a super-comfortable place centred around a courtyard, complete with cat and a friendly central lobby bar/coffee space. My room is the most cosy and serene I’ve had so far on this trip. The hotel is smart enough to give each guest a good map and a cellphone pre-loaded with phone numbers to call if you get lost.
I borrowed a ludicrous tiny folding bicycle from the hotel and rode around Beijing for 5 hours today, watching winter sports (chair skating? people either push others around or pole themselves around on these chairs-with-runners).
I pedalled around the edges of the Forbidden City, through the north end of Tiannanmen Square (where an old man on an equally tiny bicycle gave me a thumbs up), through obscure hutongs and giant modern shopping complexes. Most streets have a bicycle lane separated from the main traffic, used by bikes, motorbikes, walkers and random strange 3 wheeled vehicles of all kinds.
I looked ridiculous — bundled up, toque on head, perched on folding bike, wearing a smog mask part of the time. But I was absolutely joyful as I rode. The sun broke through the haze, and I was entranced over and over by the architecture — ground level, centuries old — and street life.
I stopped for lunch at a dim sum place I’d read was open 24 hours. There was a long line I had to figure out how to navigate — there was a little tent where you got your number, a printout with a QR code, and where people crowded around a large screen tv waiting. Everyone else milled about outside. There were dozens of people ahead of me.
The numbers were only called in chinese and there was no visual of any kind, so I kept showing my ticket hopefully to the shy door guy, who had no english and kept shaking his head. (His demeanour was identical to the man who later served me dinner at a Malaysian Chinese restaurant. I realized how anxious some people must be when Westerners come in and try to communicate so ineffectively. Apparently my charade of “I’ll order spring rolls and a beer now and please come back in a minute when I’ve had a chance to look at the menu” was not easy to follow; my dinner guy hovered in suspension right by my elbow until I stabbed at something in the menu).
After half an hour of waiting in the dim sum line, a young woman overheard me gently accosting the door guy again and pointing to my number. She asked me if I wanted to join her and her boyfriend, since they had a table for four. She had just come back from doing a master’s in landscape architecture in the US. I stuffed myself on pork buns and har gau and bean curd rolls and some things I’d never tried before. They insisted on paying.
China has so far been kindness everywhere for me. I don’t know what I expected — more of the sense of oppression I felt in Xian, maybe, a sense of dis-ease and misery. I didn’t expect so much happy street life, or a sweet young woman named Sunny buying me lunch, or feeling at ease on Bejing’s streets on a bike. I wasn’t certain I wanted to visit China at all, my pre-conceived notions all making it feel like a somewhat off-putting place.
When I decided to come to Bejing despite the pollution warnings, someone said to me that it was changing so fast I could only know this moment in time, that this moment would be gone in two years. I can see how that is happening — and today it was pure delight, a 3000 year old city laced with stories and ground-level life.