20 March 2006

Administrative Malaise


Of course this isn't going to be fair. Opinions don't have to be fair. We arrived in Beijing at 6:58am today having taken the train from Shanghai.

We were sorry to leave Shanghai. We walked a great deal on our last day there, much of it along Suzhou Creek which is very interesting and may, if the urban planners have their way, become very attractive. We ate the very finest xiao long bau, juicy pork dumplings, that we have ever had the privilege of eating. At a mere five yuan (about 62 cents U.S.) for eight perfect dumplings, we couldn't help ourselves and went through three servings and just barely managed to stop ourselves from a fourth.

We must have covered five or six miles and nearly every block had something that stopped us, at least for a little while, to photograph or gawk or admire or ask about.

Then the train was great. Modern, comfortable, fast, quiet for a train - everything that Amtrak in America isn't. We enjoyed ourselves and slept reasonably well.

Entering Beijing, all was bleak. The apartment buildings and slums we passed looked run down and very used up. A lot of areas, pretty much all the old ones we passed, looked like they'd been saturation bombed. The people we could see walking through the dense haze and dust were hunched over and colorless. As we got into the center of the city, the big buildings, even the new ones, looked no better than one might expect of mid-1960s Soviet architecture.

The boulevards are broad with overly long blocks, lined with uninspired and uninspiring buildings and the occasional monument that it's hard to imagine anyone really takes all that seriously anymore. The crowds of people everywhere - in a country where people are not usually known for common courtesy - seem to aspire to even greater depths of spitting on the street, belching in your face, pushing and shoving while cutting in lines.

The Forbidden City was forbidding indeed. Jam packed with tour groups, the scene of a great deal of noisy and dusty restoration work and ill-served by the feeble attempts of the signage - brought to you by American Express - to explain the significance of the place, much less such matters of interest as daily life or anything else that took place when it was something more than a tourist site.

Tiananmen Square is, as advertised, enormous. It used to be bigger until they stuck the Mao-soleum (as it is sometimes called) in the middle of it. It is utterly barren, carpeted in a good plush inch or two of dust and manages to feel - if a place can be said to express such a thing - arrogant. It is also lousy with cops - and, reportedly, plainclothes cops. They're ready to pounce on anyone who might dare raise even a minor stink in public about the oppressive government here.

On the way to the Forbidden City and the Square we walked down Wangfujing Dajie, a huge pedestrian (in both senses of the word) shopping street. Until relatively recently it had been the site of an old, renown hutong - a traditional neighborhood. Now it reminds me of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California - only a lot wider and with fewer and less interesting shops.

For dinner we did manage to find our way to a truly superb, small, family-run roast duck restaurant called Li Qun. It was down a meandering route through narrow alleys running through an actual, remaining hutong. Not for long though. About a third of the small shops and houses looked as if they'd been totaled in an artillery barrage; two-thirds had suffered some sort of damage. It is an area over which Beijing's rapacious developers are greedily licking their chops.

Despite China's near constant nagging reminders about its great and glorious past, there seems to be very little real sentiment in favor of preserving the remnants of it. There are some sites, such as the Forbidden City, that cannot be levelled to make way for a shopping mall. But I would guess that within the next five years there will be expensive boutiques lining the courtyards of the Forbidden City. It is already reported that Starbucks has breached the City gates. Although I must admit that we didn't see it ourselves.

So, so far Beijing has not made a good impression. Not even close. We have been told that there are a lot of good, avant garde art galleries here, and a wide variety of interesting cultural events to be viewed. We'll see. Meanwhile our feet hurt, and in the service of not much gain.

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