October 6, 2008
Beijing BicycleThe sun streamed through the windows. Next door, a baby cried. Its mother tried shushing it in a high pitched voice. It felt they were in the house with me.
I am staying in a renovated courtyard house in a hutong to the northeast of the Forbidden City. After arriving Saturday and putting down my bags, I had a simple lunch of leftovers with Ed in his kitchen. I almost cried at how flavorful the food was. He laughed and said it was what his ai yi would make on a regular basis, but he sympathized. He had spent two weeks in Mongolia earlier in the year and could attest to how bland the food is.
We left his house and wandered up the street in search of a bicycle. I had planned to purchase one and leave it with Ed, but the models we saw were too new and expensive. We asked if the proprietor had any bikes for rent. He pointed us to the next intersection and told us to look by the entrance to the subway. We thanked him and walked on.
By the station entrance a woman watched and rented bikes. She showed us some new models with advertisements threaded through the spokes of the rear wheel. I wondered if they'd be targets for thieves. We asked if they had any older bikes. She looked around and dragged out a beat up yellow bike. On the frame was written "Pleased." She was offering to rent us her own bike.
I tried it out, wobbling my way around the immediate area. I asked if we could move the seat up, and she said the bolts were too rusted. Ed said we could take it back to the original bike shop to try their tools. The woman told us she'd rent it to us at a discount for the week. We agreed. She said they were open 24 hoursthe attendant slept in the small standbut not to bring it back too late since she needed her sleep. I assured her we would.
With bike in hand, we walked back to Ed's house. T had come back from her errands and we made plans for dinner, choosing to bike to the Guizhou restaurant from the house. There, we had a sour/spicy fish soup along with vegetables and rice. The fish was still breathing as the soup cooked.
After tasting the dish, I said that I thought it was the same soup I had had with Teresa in Moscow. It had a similar southeast Asian flavor and color. Ed was shocked. He'd never had the dish before and was surprised I had had found it in Moscow. I wondered if the cook from that hole in the wall had come from Guizhou.
A light rain had begun to fall. The waitress urged us to bike home soon before it became heavier. We packed up some leftover spare ribs, thanked her, and wound our way through the alleys and streets back home.
The rain continued into Sunday. We got up slowly and hung around the house, finally deciding on dim sum at the Kerry Center. No one had been, but the restaurant had an 88 kuai all you can eat special and we were sold.
We took a cab to the area. As we neared, the new CCTV tower loomed ominously in the distance. The cab let us out at the base of the Kerry towers in a desolate area of town. Ed said they had considered an expat apartment in the area, but felt it wouldn't be as interesting. I compared it to living on Wall Street.
The restaurant looked fancy. We sat down and a waitress handed us a sheet of paper on which we could select what we wanted. We chose six or eight dishes and waited. We were surprised at how good and delicate they were. We ordered a second round of dim sum. Still unabated, we ordered a round of dessert, selecting every sweet option on the menu. A highlight was a grass jelly served with honey from Beijing. The jelly was bitter; the honey surprisingly sweet and fresh. We asked for the brand, and a waiter brought us a slip of paper with the name written on it.
The day had not cleared and rain continued to threaten. In the morning I had suggested going to the 798 art center in an attempt to escape the rain. We hailed a cab and set off towards the northeast.
A gate prevented the taxi from entering the compound, and so we alighted. Guards let us through and immediately it felt as if we were in an art theme park or campus. Signs pointed the way to galleries; the streets were full of tourists. Sculptures dotted the walk, and a large bulletin board advertising shows stretched along one side of the road leading to the main gallery area.
We toured a few photo galleries, buying a couple books, and paused to have a coffee at one of the many cafes. Chinese tourists with expensive cameras took pictures of everything. I did my best to keep up. We wandered further and further into the area, and soon found ourselves at the edge. Unreclaimed factory buildings surrounded us, their steel structures casting haunted silhouettes against the sky. Ed and I pulled out our cameras and shot what we could. The light was failing fast.
As we prepared to leave, a dog appeared out of nowhere and began to follow us out, soon changing its loyalty to a Chinese couple. We walked back towards the main road in the dark and took a cab home.
That night we met up with G for Beijing roast duck. The restaurant he had suggested proved to be a fancy place filled with foreigners. We ordered duck and eggplant and mustard greens and two types of rice and prepared to feast. G explained that the art center had prospered there because the state needed a way to pay employee pensions.after the factory had been decomissioned so they began leasing it to the galleries. I asked what the factory used to make. He didn't know, but thought that at one time it had been weapons.
The food was delicious and after the duck had been finished, I kept eating the pancakes, dipping it into the sauce and eating it whole.
Today, I spent biking through the city. I biked to the Forbidden City and through its courtyard, which was streaming with tourists. The sky was a pale blue, and the sun warmed the square. I biked past Tienanmen square, still decorated for the Olympics with floats and banners and flowers. The square was packed with people. I biked to the new home of the National Theater of the Performing Arts and admired its beautiful facade. I went in search of the hutong I had stayed in five years ago. I asked whether there used to be hutongs where we stood and a policeman told me yes. All the hutongs on that plot of land had been destroyed.
I biked through the hutongs that remained. The walls facing all the main lanes had been given a smooth cement coating and painted grey. They felt lifeless; the textures that used to tell their age and character had been washed away. On the plus side, new toilets had replaced the old stone sheds, but looking into the family courtyards, one could see that the changes had been cosmetic and only to the parts of the hutong that were outwardly facing.
I asked a man about a roast duck restaurant I had remembered in the hutong, and he told me there hadn't been one five years ago. He had lived 30 years in the hutong and did not know of one. I wondered if I was in the wrong hutong. He pointed me to the major intersection a few hundred meters away where a huge roast duck house was situated. I asked him if it was good. He said it was famous.
I biked to the new Qianmen area, where a new "old street" had recently been erected. You could almost smell the fresh concrete along the broad brick lane. The facades had been finished and gleamed (all of Beijing now seems to gleam), but most were unoccupied. Where there were restaurants, lines formed. I followed the crowd and stood in line in front of one restaurant where they were selling lamb skewers. The man in front of me ordered six. I got the last one in the tray. The cashier assured the rest of the people in line that there would be more in three minutes.
I ate my skewer and walked along to the lanes beside the new construction. There, the old stores remained, haphazardly piled one against the other. They were full of merchandise and the narrow street was crowded with shoppers. I let myself be pulled by the tide back to where I had parked my bike.
I rode home back along the wide avenue alongside Tienanmen square. The sun was setting, and the tiled Chinese roofs were silhouetted against the orange skies. In the square, children flew kites. I was amazed at how open the city suddenly felt. It was as if Beijing were yawning, letting as much of the sky spill over the squares and streets and people as it could.
Posted by eku at October 6, 2008 6:28 AM