Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 13 2006

At breakfast, shiny food trays lay empty on the ta…

At breakfast, shiny food trays lay empty on the table. Other than me, the place was empty of patrons, and the staff gathered for their own meal as I ate the greasy fried noodles. “Don’t eat in front of the foreigner!” someone said, but nobody paid attention to them.

I called Brendan on Thursday morning. It turns out that he lives in this area, and we met outside my hotel. I expressed my interest in the small corners of the city, the old neighborhoods, so he took me through a nearby maze of alleys that felt different than the old parts of Shanghai. The architecture was different, for one thing. Though the buildings shared the ubiquitous dark red doors and window frames, the buildings are all painted a blueish gray. We ducked into entrances, where I shot pictures of interesting doors that must date back to before my grandparents were born, while a man on a three-wheeled bicycle peddled slowly behind us droaning something unintelligable even to Brendan, whose Chinese is excellent.

Periodically we would be passed by a rush of rickshaws filled with fat, old western tourists, all armed with cameras and looking slightly bored. “Do you ever get the urge to yell ‘Exploitation!’ at them?” I asked Brendan, who was gazing at the tourists with an expression of distaste.

“I’d call them much worse,” he said. We stopped at a cafe next to a shop run by Mongolians, and chatted over tea. Although the place had wifi and air conditioning, there was no toilet; one had to go across the street to one of the ubiquitous public toilets in the neighborhood. Brendan let me listen to some local rock bands on his iPod, and I reciprocated with some my favorite Wu Bai and Zhang Zhenyue songs on my iRiver.

We walked on to another touristy area, slightly reminiscent of the awful Dazhilan area but cleaner and more interesting. Behind it was a canal between a couple of lakes. There we had lunch at a restaurant that wouldn’t bake anything between 2 and 5.

We walked around the lake, past a line of cafes and bars decorated with Christmas lights. Brendan pointed out laborers working on “another future ancient building.” But he had to go meet some of his father’s co-workers, so I set off around the lake alone.

I’d noticed that the air in Beijing is a bit dusty, but now it really began to bother me, coating my mouth and nose with a fine grain and giving me a slight cough. The lake was larger than it seemed. I explored a few more old neighborhoods that were in the process of being torn down. Workmen lined up single file in a ditch they were digging, calling out “Take my picture!” when they saw me with my camera.

The sun set and I was still walking around the lake. Eventually I found my way back to the dark mass of the Drum Tower, and after looking at the map and seeing that I was on the same street as my hotel, I decided to walk back.

I passed restaurants adorned with red lanterns and surrounded with nice cars, took photographs of children playing on the sidewalk, and looked into dark alleys. But my feet were sore, my mouth dry and full of dust. When I was in Qingdao the dry air didn’t agree with me, but the air in Beijing is dusty as well as dry. It put me in a bad mood, though I did feel that for the first time I was actually in Beijing, seeing the city from the ground, as it were.

Beijing is so spread out that walking is seldom a useful means to actually get anywhere. It’s like someone took a regular city and expanded it to fill a much larger area. So far I haven’t been to a place where I could say “this is downtown Beijing.” Everywhere is downtown, and yet nowhere is. Zhang Yongning had told me the night before that Beijing is more like a zhongxin, a center unto itself rather than a real city with it’s own center.

In my bad mood, the capital city seemed oppressive and inconvenient, striving to prove itself through a serious inferiority complex, a city with the CAPS LOCK on, where importance trumped beauty. That’s a hasty and no doubt unfair description after only a couple of days, however. We’ll see what happens next.

posted by Poagao at 4:48 am  


  1. All this time I’ve been reading your journal, and I never knew you liked Wu Bai 😉

    I’m enjoying the vicarious trip to the Mainland. I suppose one day I’ll go myself, but for now I’m content to read about the travels of others. I hope your mood improves as the days pass.

    Comment by 500CBFan — October 15, 2006 @ 6:23 am

  2. Yeah, I love many of Wubai’s songs. It’s too bad I seem to have come down with something during my stay here; maybe next time will be better.

    Comment by TC — October 15, 2006 @ 6:26 am

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