Trans-Siberian Railway: Four Days in Beijing
Surrounded by swarms of domestic visitors from all around China, my sister and I were guided through the Forbidden City by two tiny blinking Walkmen strapped around our necks by lanyards. Little plastic slabs that detect your location in the compound, light up, and automatically play back a little jolt of historical context depending on where you are.
I reflected back to six years ago, standing in the same very spot at the Hall of Central Harmony buried deep in the complex, when one of my friends was absolutely adamant that some of our fellow tourists thought I was the actress who played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. I was studying abroad during the summer of 2008, and just like this time around, it was in the very beginning of my trip.
What does this anecdote really give to the reader of this story? Not much at all, really. But I think about the places I visited twice in both of my trips, the perfunctory tourist stops that seem so nerdy but so essential to visit, and my mind struggles for something to distinguish the two. What are the small things that happened in each to make them unique?
For this trip, it wasn't the big sights we went to see, the Forbidden city or the hike along the Great Wall, though they were worth it if for no other reason than to watch my sister experience for the first time what I had years before. What really stood out though, was just the neighborhood we spent the majority of our time in — the Hutongs.
The area entranced me at once with an overwhelming energy. In a city that was filled with the historical charms and frustrating crowds of a tourism mecca, the Hutongs seemed different. They had that same crazed energy, but it seemed more local, driven by the actual inhabitants of the city. It’s that energy which inspired the majority of my imagery here.
Beijing's hutongs are the old courtyard-style dwellings, stitched together haphazardly in the center of the modern city. They’re suffused with crowds, converted into rows of brightly lit storefronts punctured by dark secretive doorways, leading back to the dwellings behind.
Our hotel in Beijing was buried in the center of town, a crazy kitschy hutong-style complex packed with different patterns, textures, and colors that somehow all seem to work together. After negotiating the streets of the hutongs, cars winding their way through the labyrinthine alleys with less than a foot on either side, we entered our temporary home base through a courtyard, passing two big birds with yellow beaks that look like they have probably at some point gouged someone’s eyes out and a glowing electric blue sign pointing us to the hotel bar.
Arriving late on this day, we only really had time for one activity. Luckily it was one of the most important experiences in Beijing — eating. It's the city you go to to bathe your insides in oil and MSG, dumplings, noodles, skewers, and stir-fry. Peking Duck from the North, Hot Pot from the West, Soup Dumplings from the South. There are chic and earthy restaurants hidden in nooks between more traditional family dives full of wooden furniture. Street stalls next to sweets shops, clean and brightly colored, peddling boba and tea and ice cream.
The restaurant we stopped at on the first night was called Taste, back in the Hutong alleys. It was completely abandoned except for the two of us, and a woman seated alone at the table next to us, and who I suspect from her interactions with the staff, was somehow related to the restaurant’s owners. This woman’s table was covered in food, and consumed dish after dish in a performance that would make a competitive eater proud.
We self-consciously but successfully ordered our meal, the proprietress all the time using an English/Chinese phrasebook to ask us repeatedly how everything was. She was much better prepared than we were, and this was the only location on our entire trip where either one of us had any sort of background in the language.
Our morning was spent navigating the crowds of the Forbidden City, and then attempting and failing to find the street food stalls of Wangfujing, the infamous street-food lineup of scorpion, starfish, silk worms, and who knows what else.
After giving up, we headed to my favorite place in the city from back in the day, The 798 Art Zone, which is a four-by-four block contemporary art district on the outskirts of the city center. It holds lovely memories for me, ditching class for the first time in my life to wander through the renovated factories and huge brick buildings. At the time I was first there they featured memorable exhibits from giants Comme des Garcons and Nike, side-by-side with smaller galleries full of almost always brightly-colored paintings and sculptures. There are similarities still, a three-story high sculpture of caged dinosaurs painted red, but is a bit more commercialized than I remember. Now, much more than the smattering there were six years ago, there are restaurants, shops, and food stalls snaking their way through the galleries.
Climbing the Great Wall is one of those experiences that makes you really feel the impact of being halfway around the world. Hiking up and down endless stairs in the heat on a structure that can be seen from space,
you can’t help but continuously ask yourself questions, not only about quotidian things like what you would be doing if you were home right now (probably sleeping), but also more random and interesting things. Like, “Did such a huge structure interrupt migratory patterns of any animals in China?” or “What the hell was it like in winter to be patrolling these walls?” And all the time you’re passing by other people taking selfies of their groups against the vast green hills, sweating along with you and crowding together to take refuge in the cool guard houses.
Returning through time to a more recent historical past, we closed out our Beijing activities by taking a Hutong tour, which is probably the most embarrassing thing we did all trip. Gripping onto the seat back of a bicycle rickshaw in the immense heat while a surly dude biked us, passing other tourists in an almost abandoned section of the hutongs, to a small compound. For the few people that were walking the streets of the area, I noticed pronouncedly more stares than anywhere else we had been. Or maybe it was all just in my head.
But what the ride to the compound did to my psyche negatively, the experience inside of it delighted me. The man who owns the complex runs tours for it, his family had inhabited through all of the cultural and political upheaval of the 1900s. He took us past his pet collection of crickets and birds and snapping turtles, into a back room full of pictures of the house through its transformations in various decades and when it was used as a filming location for a very famous Chinese movie that I had never heard of, excitedly chatting to me in very simple Chinese. His excitement in testing out my very rudimentary language skills was infectious, and set us up for a great rest of the trip — the next day, the trains and Mongolia.