thirty-one. Beijing S/XL
5.5 thru 5.10
somehow the written word never prepares one for the reality of the dusty winds from the parched plains which both weigh down and renew the city at once. journalism that emphasizes the communist regime's hegemony, or capitalism's increasing unraveling of that, don't illuminate the on-the-ground atmosphere of familiar interest, casual optimism, and lack of intensity that is striking after Mumbai/HK/Bangkok/Tokyo's scrambles for space and money. it is surprisingly easy to be here, albeit a constant surprise.
the gargantuan scale of the Official city was established long ago with the Forbidden City's yawning open spaces and massive buildings. in kind, 20th century DPRC buildings are both liberating and oppressive -- the exact intent, perhaps. built at the scale of mountains, monotonous brown-gray columnaded facades adorning platonic massings dwarf, intimidate, & awe the human body. the world's largest 'public' square (Tiananmen), across from the world's largest parliament building, is heavily controlled and, although often crowded, is rarely truly inhabited. Tiananmen and its surrounds is a three dimensional facade for notions of a 'public,' and a symbol of official China's austerity & ability to reconfigure, indeed even erase, history. the streets surrounding the square are mind-bogglingly wide, for easy tank navigation should the need arise again.
the above is not to suggest that a vital social existence is stifled; notions of the communal are expressed vibrantly, loudly, and are manifest in the smallest gestures built and behavioral. on a given afternoon, the city's parks fill with middle-aged groups of singers who congregate around accordian players or conductors. sheet music is printed and left in a pile for whomever would like to join in the aural celebration of spring in Beijing. public exercise areas with candy-colored analog workout machines can be found in small pockets of urban space -- lining a sidewalk, at the entrance to a housing project, along a strip of green. at night hutong sidewalks fill with food stalls and tables, and wall-like stacks of beer crates are testament to the city's lively enjoyment of food and drink. additionally, i have never seen so many public toilets in my life -- often one every two blocks, in response to the hutongs' lack of a sewer system. (if only the Mumbai government could become so responsive).
these are necessary reminders of life in the small that help to balance out an otherwise surreal landscape of a city undergoing reconstructive surgery. the world is coming to Beijing now (in the form of the Olympics), has been for a couple decades (in the form of global capital), and this has generated a city full of facades, old and new, literal and figurative. no housing typology escapes this generalization; entire hutong neighborhoods lie in various states of abandonment/demolition/renovation, surrounded by vinyl billboards depicting promises of sparkling new developments to come. (one particularly difficult-to-digest sign depicts a "chinaman" in traditional garb whose arms are weighed down with shopping bags). oddly, the sound of construction is rarely heard behind these flimsy visions. in areas where there is an attempt to preserve old-world hutong, brightly painted Ming-era facades provide entrance to air conditioned interiors full of tourist wares.
high rise residential buildings abound as one moves further from the city center (which remains largely low-rise in homage to the Forbidden City and governmental monuments). currently about 30% of these buildings are half-covered in glass, damp concrete frames protruding from beneath a fragile exterior. this ubiquitous state of growth and decay has generated an unsettling cityscape, and it is hard to say if there is more standing than there is lying in rubble and wait. the city maps optimistically depict the future that will happen, and are currently prematurely updated.
this frantic charrette in preparation for the Olympics has its pluses and minuses. some hutongs purportedly need a significant infrastructural upgrade. however, it's too easy to wonder what is being overlooked in the mad rush to present a pretty face to the world. excluding the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, both near completion, Olympic Park, north of the Forbidden City, is currently an empty field of rubble, a few stalwart sqauatters persisting in half-standing shacks. the expanse is covered in a gauzy green screen in preparation for massive grass plantings and the arenas whose foundations have yet to be poured. wandering through this off-limits zone the other day, having passed through several guarded gates by taking advantage of the immunity that foreigners unofficially enjoy, i was finally accosted by a boy-guard no older than 12 who yelled at me for being in an off-limits zone.
Beijing's tourist city is significant but also hard to get out of. it announces itself as soon as you leave the arrival hall at the airport, where the familiar green letters of a starbucks awaits. (there is also a starbucks in the Forbidden City, in addition to many other eatery stalls nestled into the modular pavilions). this insularity of the tourist track is partly a product of the language barrier, which remains significant, but it's easy to wonder if if this barrier might be partly intentional. everyday infrastructure remains largely unpenetrated by travelers, who more easily resort to tour buses or taxis.
relatedly, due to its spread and scale, Beijing is not a foot-friendly city. however, its total lack of topography, wide roads, and bicycle-designated lanes make it one of the world's most bikeable cities (save for the air quality which can be cough-inducing). the city's automotive transit flows, but doesn't scramble, and when it does become slow, it rarely piles in stasis. the highly gridded streets are wide and easily navigable, and are surrounded by 4 (and increasing) concentric high speed ring roads. if bus or metro bound, walking distances can still be significant; bus stops (staffed during rush hour by flag-waving queue managers) are sometimes a near kilometer apart. there are only 3 completed metro lines (of a proposed 5), and cabs, although cheap, are an indulgence for everyday commuting. the metro system is one of the more lo-tech i have yet used, with paper tickets, and tear-by-hand ill-regulated gates. the atmosphere is casual and somewhat dingy; conversations, both real-space and cellular, are loud, and food is not a taboo.
i hurry to post this as i am Lhasa bound tonight, excited to experience the world's most highly engineered, and politically controversial, rail route (which begins from...you guessed it, the world's largest train station). signing out...