I’m writing this post in a sort of frantic state right now.
Allow me to set the scene for you: I’m about an hour into a 16-hour ride to Shanghai on a sleeper train with three fellow bunkmates, one of whom is Zibby. Another is a relatively mild-mannered guy of about 30 who’s in the bunk above me. He seems to be largely keeping to himself, and I don’t think he speaks any English, so communication is pretty limited (unless of course I want to greet him, thank him, or politely request that he not take my kidney). All fine by me.
But the third bunkmate, an older, businessman-looking type to whom I’ll henceforth refer as the Night Walker, is threatening to make this an extremely long journey.
The Night Walker is in the bottom bunk, opposite me and below Zibby (who’s a heavy sleeper, damn her). While I’m quite certain he’s asleep, he appears to be the rare type that sleeps with his eyes open – and of course he’s lying on his side facing me, making it feel like he’s staring directly into my soul. As if that’s not enough, he’s snoring something fierce. His snores are frighteningly guttural, like the noise I imagine a dying sheep would make as the last few breaths of life were strangled from its lungs, all while a broken dub step record played on loop in the background.
Why I’m fantasizing about strangling sheep – and worse, dub step – I don’t know; this is the kind of mania I’m dealing with at present. I’m offering such granular detail here because I seem to recall hearing that discussing traumatic events early and often is a good way to reduce the risk of PTSD. I thank you all for briefly playing the role of armchair therapist for me just now, here’s to a happy and healthy life from here on out.
Alright, now that that’s off my chest, I wanted to share a few more Beijing-centric stories while they’re still somewhat fresh in my mind. We of course did the obligatory tourist sites (Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square), and each was well worth the visit. We also tried many of the staple dishes, with Peking duck topping the list – though I’ve honestly yet to have even a sub-par meal in China. What I think will really stick out when all is said and done, though, is the time I got to spend with the locals in Beijing.
I mentioned in my last post that Zibby has a friend from college, Andy, who’s originally from Beijing and who lives there now. He acted as our host / unofficial tour guide for the week. He showed us a fantastic time, exposing us to an alternate, more personable Beijing that we would have otherwise never seen.
While I can’t remember the names of specific restaurants or bars that he took us to, they were definitely off the beaten tourist path and each memorable in their own way. Sometimes, it felt like Zibby and I were the only Westerners for miles in any direction, which was a pretty cool feeling. Andy was even kind enough to invite us to stay with him at his apartment, which he shares with his mom (an incredibly sweet lady, though we had to rely on Andy as our interpreter as she doesn’t speak English), for our last weekend in the city.
Another highlight was going out for dinner one night with Andy and a big group of his friends, about half of whom spoke English. The night started out rather awkwardly, as is often the case when you’re meeting a big group of new people. Exacerbating that was the fact that even those that did speak English seemed a bit shy at first. As the Tsingdaos and Beijing Beers continued to flow, though, everybody loosened up a bit, and we started trading stories about travel, life in China vs. life in the U.S., and so on.
After dinner, we partook in one of China’s great cultural pastimes: karaoke! It’s really amazing how quickly language barriers and cultural differences evaporate when you can bond over a shared appreciation of the likes of Guns N Roses, Aerosmith, and Taylor Swift (yes, Taylor Swift – go ahead and judge me).
There was also a good mix of Chinese music worked into the mix, including one particular song that jumped out, due to both its catchy hook and its relevant title: One Night in Beijing (hence the title of this post, which narrowly edged out “I Think This May Be My Last Night on Earth Because the Night Walker is Poised to Eat My Soul”). All in all, it was a great night in which a number of new friendships were forged, and I can safely say that I’ll always have somebody to call should I find myself in Beijing in the future.
Olympic Hangover? Hardly
There’s one last topic I want to touch on before moving on from Beijing, and that’s the rapid pace of growth and modernization that the city is currently experiencing as it cements its reputation as one of the world’s premier cities. While the 2008 Olympics may have been its official coming out party, it’s safe to say that the city has yet to lose any of that momentum – if anything, it has only increased since. This seems to be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it’s spurring ever more economic opportunities and pulling many out of poverty and into China’s burgeoning middle class, and a curse because there’s genuine concern that modernizing at such a rapid pace has the unintended consequence of erasing much of what makes China, well, China.
Case in point to the latter effect is the disappearance of Beijing’s hutongs, traditional neighborhoods of interconnected low-rises that fostered a greater sense of community and identity than the anonymous high-rise buildings that the government is quickly slapping up in their place. I’m paraphrasing here, but I recently read that something like 10 percent – less than 1,000 total – of the city’s hutongs remain, with the majority having been demolished in the past decade alone.
At the same time, though, there are definitely efforts being made to preserve older buildings and traditions, and the heritage they represent. One such example is Gallery 798, a huge complex of once-abandoned factories on the city’s eastern outskirts that has been converted into a series of art galleries. While factories aren’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of a country’s cultural heritage, it was fascinating to see these vast factory rooms housing modern art exhibits while still featuring authentic Maoist graffiti all over the walls. It was a definite highlight of Beijing for me, and well worth the visit for anybody that plans to be in the area anytime soon.
Overall, the general consensus among Beijingers is that the current growth surge is a very good thing for China, and it’s hard to argue with that perspective. Their economic progress since the nearly-ruinous Cultural Revolution in the 1970s is self-evident; on more than one occasion, I was reminded of the fact that China is buying up America’s debt, and may well effectively be our landlord someday…
Are things perfect there? Of course not. I’ve already referenced the smog and general pollution crisis in Beijing several times – not to mention the questionable economic policies pursued by the Chinese government in recent years, nor the well-documented series of serious human rights abuses they’ve perpetrated. But this much is true: there’s a tangible energy and excitement that’s pervasive throughout Beijing, and it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else.
It’s almost like a Wild West scenario, one of those rare times in history where anything seems possible, and nearly anything can be attained in a relatively short time with the right combination of hard work and luck. Beijing is counting on, and expecting, even bigger things to come in the years ahead, and it’s hard to bet against that vision right now.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pull my bedsheets up to my nose, clutch them tightly, and turn my back to the Night Walker, all while I quietly mutter, “there’s no place like home” to myself until I fall into an uneasy sleep.