Tuesday, May 11, 2010
4:00 p.m. Beijing time
Beijing (‘Bei’ ‘jing’ – ‘north’ ‘capital’)
I walked out of the international arrival gate at the Beijing airport, luggage in tow, scanning the crowd of Chinese faces for Dr. Zukosky, who said he would be meeting me at the airport. Soon enough, I saw Dr. Z’s relieved face and exchanged a waive. Before I departed from SEA-Tac, I got a text message from my mom, urging me to “take care of myself in that foreign country.” As I look around me, it is quickly apparent that it’s me that’s foreign, not the country.
We take a taxi closer to Beijing’s city center. The driving is erratic, the marked lanes seem to be open to interpretation, and the speed limit a mere suggestion. It’s around 5 p.m. local time and we get stuck in traffic. Looking out onto the five or so lane highway and the overpasses that crisscross it, I think to myself that I could be in any developed metropolis in the world. I notice that there don’t seem to be any late model cars on the road.
The taxi drops us off at the corner of Xinjiekou and Deshengmen Street (along which runs a raised freeway?). The intersection is busy and throngs of people weave their way between moving cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and other pedestrians. I am to make a mental note of this intersection as a landmark and also the location of the Jishuitan subway stop. It is warm, loud, and smoggy. There are vendors running their respective trade along the sidewalk – one of them appears to be in the bicycle repair business.
We walk east on Deshengmen St. and pass a visual/performing art center on the right, as well as a rock garden that surrounds a small pond. Dr. Z explains to me that I am staying near a series of four, man-made lakes that connect end to end, and eventually lead to the Forbidden City. We make a right turn onto Xihai Xiyan and find ourselves walking alongside Xihai (the last of the four lakes). Almost instantly, the noise from the busy intersection fades away and we are in the neighborhood. The street is fairly narrow, with cars and sometimes motorcycle taxis parked on either side. Pedestrians have to be savvy about approaching motorized traffic. As we make our way to where I will be staying, I recognize the architecture of the grey ‘flat houses’ that we learned about in Civ. of Asia class; Dr. Z points out the narrow streets that lead away from the road and tells me about Beijing’s famous ‘hutongs’, or narrow alleys that run between the old, traditional, one story courtyard style houses.
The Forbidden City and Imperial Palace in in the center of Beijing, and the Xicheng district (famous for its hutongs) is where administrative level officials lived. Some of the homes are old and falling apart, while some have been completely renovated by some of Beijing’s wealthier residents (e.g. actors). While many of these neighborhoods were torn down during Beijing’s push toward newer, Western style buildings, the remaining hutongs have since been recognized as an important cultural icon, and are now considered worth preserving.
We pass men fishing on the lake, women with children in tow, older people stimulating their circulation by clapping and arm stretches, and a mix of people using the exercise equipment at another small park. Dr. Z remarks that one of the nice influences of [Soviet?] communism was the creation of many public use spaces. There are also restaurants alongside the lake, and Dr. Z points out one that he says has a good vegetarian menu.
I am staying at a three story hostel style accommodation called the Sleepy Inn, located on Deshengmennei Dajie in between Xihai and Fouhai. The young ladies at the front desk are friendly and speak English. I haul my luggage up three flights of stairs to #301 – I get my own room, and what a room it is. From two tall windows, I can see willow trees that line the canal connecting the two lakes, Xihai itself, and a busy street that divides it from Houhai. I have a full sized bed, a desk, and my own bathroom. There is a black carafe on the desk that reminds me that I shouldn’t drink the tap water.
By the time I meet Dr. Z downstairs, dusk has settled in and I can see, but not hear, small bats acrobatically grabbing their meal of insects midair. For dinner, we head to a busier area of the lake where promoters are doing their best to persuade passers-by to patronize their restaurants or bars. We end up at a Muslim restaurant at Dr. Z’s suggestion (the food is halal). The menu is extensive and I am relieved that color pictures accompany the type of dish and description. We order date tea, a stir-fried beef dish, a vegetable dish made from a type of lily, and a fried chicken dish complete with the chicken’s head. The waitress takes down our order on a cell phone, which is new to me. I notice that the foreigners at the table next to us are enjoying a beer and with some surprise, I inquire about this to Dr. Z. He tells me that there is a full range Islam practiced in China, that some Muslims consume alcohol, and that there is even ongoing debate about the interpretation of what sort of alcoholic beverage is being referred to in Islamic religious text. I wonder about this supposed loophole.
This is what the schedule looks like for the next four days in Beijing:
Wed. 5/12 – Meet at 10 a.m.
Thur. 5/13 – Practice interview with Flora & Fauna International at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Fri. 5/14 – Free day
Sat. 5/15 – Fly to Urumqi