Eleanor's Beijing Travel Diary 2008


2008 - wachtel_beijing.jpgEleanor Wachtel on her visit to Beijing, a city balancing between cherished traditions and building booms as it prepares to host the Olympics

At Quanjude Beijing Shichahai Roast Duck Restaurant, my Peking duck comes with a certificate: 1.15 trillion served (eat your heart out, McDonald's) and this very duck is additional number 4007. Quanjude was established in 1864 - the third year of Tongzhi, Qing Dynasty. (I later learned that another duck restaurant claims to have been established in 1416 during the Ming Dynasty.)

Quanjude serves not only the best Peking duck I've ever eaten (from soup to stuffed pancakes) but also puts on what my mother used to call "a floor show": plate spinners, an acrobatic woman keeping enough hula hoops in motion to embody a Slinky toy; she also balances and twirls two other dancers suspended on either end of a pole across her feet. I know, hard to describe, hard to imagine. There's also a sort of Punch and Judy puppet Peking Opera. It sounds touristy and is - located along a strip of bars with couches on their terraces beside a pond - but is also favoured by Beijing locals. You can ride on a boat under bridges, along the canals. On the other side of the lake is an odd sign: "Warnings!" Then a cartoon head with a speech bubble: "Hello!" Below, "Tourists from home and abroad are welcomed to built [sic] Shichahai into a harmonious scenic area." (All this, by the way, in Mandarin as well as English.) And underneath, the 2008 Olympics slogan - "One World One Dream."

Of course, sign collecting is a favorite tourist sport in China. For instance, at the Mansion and Gardens of Prince Gong: "Free admission for retired cadres who began performing revolution work prior to the PRC's [People's Republic of China] founding and for children below 1.2 meter in height." Or this somewhat baffling one: "Cherish the Cultural Relics, No Striding."

One of Beijing's biggest surprises for me is the prevalence of cappuccino. Not just at Starbucks with its mugs of the Great Wall but wherever coffee is served. Unlike tea, coffee is expensive and it's more economical to prepare it in individual shots than to keep a pot brewing. One lovely spot was at a cosy bar/restaurant in the old hutong area. Hutong literally means alleyway but refers to whole neighbourhoods of courtyard houses that used to make up the centre of the city of Beijing. Most have been destroyed to build everything from highrise apartment blocks to the new opera house, but some are being restored as hotels and shops. A fewer older ones remain - their courtyards filled in with more improvised housing, collective toilets (no stalls) down the street. Some 1.5 million residents of Beijing were displaced by building for the Olympics. In a city of 17 million, that's still an extraordinary figure. It's a cliché to talk about destruction and creation - even in a country where the imperial rooflines virtually always end in a stylized phoenix (the bird that rises from the ashes) curving upwards. And it was China that gave the world both gunpowder and movable type. But contradiction is almost too easy a way to try to understand the complexity of Chinese society.

Even six weeks before the Olympics, there's a forest of construction cranes. I go out to see Rem Koolhaas's controversial, massive headquarters for Chinese television, the CCTV building. Although slated for completion later this year, it's not as far along as I expected. Its two leaning vertical square towers have been connected, skyhigh, by a huge horizontal section some 13 stories wide. Dubbed "walking pants" by critical locals, the CCTV is hard to read, as in legibility, as architects put it. "The ugliest building," is how a friend refers to it when she picks me up that evening. I point out a strange new hotel with a wavy black chain-mail curtain front. She concedes: it's worse. I ask what it's called. She doesn't know. "We just say, let's meet at the ugliest hotel in town."

On our way back from dinner, a crew of police are stopping cars. They approach and ask her to blow into a tube -instant breathalizer tests. She laughs because she hasn't drunk alcohol in years. I roll down my window. They won't bother you, you're foreign, she says. A few evenings earlier, police were pulling over taxis to check on whether drivers were wearing seatbelts. Mine whipped his on. When I started to follow suit, he told me it wasn't necessary, not for foreigners. Unlike in some other countries, these spot checks seem genuine, not an excuse for bribes.

My other experience with officialdom was early in the morning at the Forbidden City. It was relatively uncrowded (incidentally, it's mostly Chinese tourists who pack the sights, from the Temple of Heaven to the Great Wall). Suddenly, some uniformed men with megaphones are shooing us all into one area because dignitaries are coming through. We suspect the V.P. of Sudan because his visit to Beijing was mentioned in the newspaper but they won't say who.

I go out to the garden in back where I see the sign: "A single act of carelessness leads to the eternal loss of beauty."

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