Two Days in Beijing written on July 18 and 19
1. Embodied knowledge
Yesterday morning, Yang Qian and I came to Beijing by way of the Tianjin temporary train station, a hot, smoky, and crowded structure located in the semi-mangled space behind a Carrefour strip mall and a construction site. Two years ago, workers threw it together out of inexpensive bricks and cement; city officials designed the provisional station to be dismantled as soon as the new station opens on August 1. We approached the station along a clogged side street, walking past backed up traffic, stumbling over discarded bricks, and tripping when our suitcase wheels got stuck in a pothole. I bumped into a man who had paused to light a cigarette. We rushed through the main door, up rickety stairs, and into the airless waiting room, where several hundred people loitered restlessly.
I felt a drop of sweat run from my armpit to the crease of my elbow. Yang Qian used a tissue to wipe his forehead. A family squatted several feet away, playing cards. A cigarette dangled from the father’s lips as he considered his options. After decisively throwing down a five of hearts, he sucked deeply on the cigarette, pinched it between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, and removed it from between his lips, exhaling bluish smoke. His gaze turned to his son, who squinted at the cards carefully arranged in his hand. Two young women sashayed past us toward a concession stand. They wore sleeveless tee shirts, low-riding jeans, and spiked four-inch heels. Matching gold belts set-off flat stomachs and narrow hips. Several people slept on newspapers spread across the concrete floor, their heads cushioned on backpacks, their bodies arranged protectively over large, plastic bags. Another phone rang and I heard someone scream, “I’m at the train station, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Can’t be helped.”
The train boarded five minutes before departure. The crowd abruptly surged toward the platform door, carrying us through the narrow door, down metal stairs, and onto the sleek white commuter trains that connect Tianjin to Beijing. Our first-class tickets brought us into air-conditioned coolness. We stretched comfortably into our seats and within minutes fell asleep, only waking as the train pulled into Beijing station.
2. Spatial awareness
In Shenzhen, Tianjin, and now Beijing, I have been staying in new developments: City Square, Ruijiang Estates, and Fuli City, respectively. While in Tianjin, I was struck by the lack of amenities that have become standard in Shenzhen these past five years, including large malls, coffee shops, yoga studios, and clean restaurants. The apartments in Ruijiang Estates were large and comfortable. However, the shops downstairs were small and sold inexpensive necessities like soap and salt and beer, while the services provided were limited to standard haircuts. In contrast, the absence of inexpensive breakfasts and markets defined the Fuli City complex, where coffee shops, malls, Thai and western restaurants, as well as expensive spas and salons surrounded us. Our place in Beijing was two subway stops away from the China Television Building. Remnants of the capital’s socialist neighborhoods crumbled silently behind glass and steel towers that showcased sports apparel and Armani suits, gold jewelry and summer bright accessories, and we only discovered them by accident, when our evening walk detoured through a back alley.
Last night met a good friend at Jing Wei Lou (京味楼), a restaurant located near Zhongnanhai. We got on the subway underneath the CCTV Building station and off at Tian’anmen West (north exit), where across the street, the new National Theater shimmered in the evening haze. We walked past the red walls of Zhongnanhai and turned north at the next intersection. Traditional hutong’s still define this area, which serves China’s leaders, tourists, and locals who want authentic local flavors. Jing Wei Lou serves ordinary Beijing dishes—sesame toufu, peanut and cashew spinach, zhajiang noodles, stewed intestines, dai fish—of extraordinary flavor and reasonable price. In other parts of the city, like Fuli City, food of similar quality easily costs four times what it does at Jing Wei Lou. Indeed, in Fuli City, we often ate at chains simply because they were significantly cheaper than unique restaurants. Apparently, many leaders use Jing Wei Lou as their working canteen and so taste and price reflect market conditions.
3. Temporal consciousness
I am differently aware of time in Beijing, where I have fewer distractions than in either Tianjin or Shenzhen: no internet connection, no urge to walk around in the afternoon sun, no relatives to hang out with, no yoga studio, no prepaid service at a salon, no membership at a swimming pool, no interviews to conduct, no deadlines to meet, no books to read, no movies to watch…In Shenzhen, appointments structure my engagement with the city grows out of shuttling from my home to work to the yoga studio to a restaurant to an interview and back home to write an article or blog post. In Tianjin, family obligations organize my time. I eat breakfast, hang out, eat lunch, take a nap, watch some television with my sister-in-law, talk with my mother-in-law, eat dinner, and then go out for a movie or a coffee or a dessert with my niece. In Beijing, I still think about eating and going out and taking pictures, but there are no immediate social consequences to my decisions and so how I feel at any given moment shapes my day. Am I hungry? Bored? Thirsty? In the absence of definitive feelings, I grow lazy, flipping through my dictionary or sitting at my computer writing blog posts that will be uploaded only after I return to Shenzhen.
This afternoon a five hour trip to Chengde with a good friend and a new friend.