I Heart Beijing — The Bad Side
The one thing that was annoying about our hostel was the fact that it was a little too close to the club and disco district. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded being close to the bars, but these were way too loud to be any good. The noise was low enough in our room, but out in the hall it was really bad. Plus, there were lots of little beggar kids down there that pestered us for money any time we came home past dark. Once they realized we weren’t going to give them money, they left us alone, except for the occasional kebab skewer they’d jab us with or rude comment they’d give us. Then there were the young, well dressed guys who’d run up to us and ask if we wanted to go to the “Lady Bar”, which is apparently a whore house.
But the most annoying thing was the group of guys who would walk along with us and say things like “Hey buddy, I’ve got what you want.” “Hey buddy, you want some stuff?” “Hey man, how’s it going? You looking for something?” “Didn’t you say you wanted something? I’ve got it.” There were no fewer than a dozen of these guys prowling around at night. They weren’t intimidating, but the thing that bothered me most is that the only drug solicitors I encountered in China were all black. I try hard to fight against these types of stereotypes, only to this one shoved back in my face. Out of about 20 black people I saw in all of China, over half of them tried to sell me drugs. It’s discouraging.
Another thing that is discouraging is how the city has neglected its cultural sites. While we were in Beijing, we visited a few historical sites and only the Great Wall seemed to have preserved its sense of self. The first of the other two sites was the Forbidden City. This is where the Emperor lived and was a vibrant place. Now, however, it feels dead and soulless. Some of the buildings are undergoing renovations, but the ones that are open are underwhelming. The cobblestone streets are dilapidated. A similar fate has befallen the Summer Palace, a retreat for the Emperor which is now a museum. The paint is all faded and peeling, intricate woodwork has gone unrepaired, and things feel as if nobody cares to keep it up. The Communists have let these vestiges of its history become rundown.
However, the Great Wall does not seem to have suffered from a similar fate. That is perhaps because it isn’t a regal leftover, but it may also be because the thing has been crumbling and being rebuilt for centuries. The part we hiked (Simitai) was far from the city and difficult to get to. Because of this, it was also pretty devoid of tourists and hawkers, which is what we were looking for. It was also one of the steepest parts of the wall. It seemed to be fairly well maintained most of the way, but there were a couple of parts that were broken down. Another part of the wall we could see from ours looked to have been repaired recently and made to be quite a bit easier to walk. I’ll write more about the wall in a later post.
There also quite a few areas of the city called “hutongs” which are neighborhoods built in a more traditional style. The streets are narrow and the buildings are built in a 3 sided square with a wall and a gate facing the street. These are nice little areas and give a feel much different from the modern city. A couple of these areas have been restored, however, many of them have been torn down to make way for more modern buildings.
The Smog in and around the city is also terrible. I’m not sure if this was because of the heavy fog the night we arrived or the fact that it was Spring Festival and maybe the factories were shut down. But whatever the reason, we did have one gorgeous day there. The first day we were there, the skies were exceptionally clear, but after that the smog set in. While it isn’t as bad as Xi’an, it is still far worse than any other city I’ve been in.
I don’t want to give the impression that Beijing is a bad place or that I didn’t like it. Quite the contrary, as the title of this series of posts should tell you. But things should be a lot better for the capital of the country. The problems here that I’ve talked about can nearly all be fixed in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics to which the city will play host. The Chinese government seems to be moving toward it, but it will take a whole lot of work.