Zài Jiàn Beijing. Nǐ hǎo Shanghai.
At this moment I am writing this, I sitting in one of China’s new high speed trains connecting Beijing and Shanghai. We’re traveling at 303 km/h, already out of Beijing and cutting through seemingly endless farmland. It feels ‘slower’ than I expected, but that’s definitely not the only thing in Beijing that turned out to be different than I thought.
Beijing felt less chaotic, less dirty and less crowded than I expected it to be. I assumed there’d be way more street life of the type I saw in Hanoi – cooking, eating and living in general, that the streets and metros and just everything would be more congested. And for some reason, I expected the air to be even worse than it is. I mean, it really is terrible, I just thought I’d feel more of an immediate effect. So it was less chaotic, less dirty and less crowded, but more expensive and definitely more ‘modern’ and international than I assumed. The metros, the commercial business district, the airport, the Olympic park, the new railway station – this seems to be the ‘New China’ the government wants everybody to see. And there were thousands and thousands of domestic tourists who came to Beijing to do exactly that. Western tourists, there weren’t all that many.
In our five days here, we mostly stuck to what seems to be the commonly accepted tourist itinerary for Beijing. We stayed at the City Wall Courthouse in an old hutong (tiny, old courtyard houses, tight streets) close to the Forbidden City. We strolled around in the Forbidden City and Tianmen Square and were chatted up by Do-you-want-to-have-a-tea-and-conversation English students – at that time, still a bit too careful and not familiar enough with everything to take them on. We had Beijing Duck and a lot of other great food (as I said, more expensive than I thought) and decent beer in different sizes and shapes. We went to the Summer Palace and wandered what felt like miles to and around the Olympic Park and its Nest, along many domestic tourists. We took a bus to Jinshanling to hike the steep and Great Wall along some women selling water, souvenirs and stuff along the whole way – they are enduring. I think that was also the first time when we actually saw the summer sun and smell proper Chinese air. All of this is like you’d probably imagine it: interesting and quite often awe inspiring.
Yesterday then, we walked around in Chaoyang, the biggest and most populated central district, where the focus for urban and economic development lies. Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building is there, as well as the mall equivalent to the Great Wall of China, with more luxury than I’ve ever seen in an Austrian mall, and lots of other towers. We skipped a day trip that we considered to Tianjin for an additional day in Beijing, partly because of convenience, but also to have a look at Beijing’s Art District 798, an area some 90 minutes away from the hostel by subway and bus, but firmly within city limits. According to Wikipedia, this area is the latest refuge for Beijing’s Art scene and a focal point of gentrification following a pattern that seems familiar from cities like Berlin or New York: an old, abandoned DDR style factory building and what seems like former workers’ flats turned into art galleries, book stores and cafés. The interesting thing here being that it really feels like a different village, a place outside of the realm of Beijing, when it is really only separated by a gate from everyday Beijing life, with its small shops, street vendors, taxis and buses. That contrast, to me, made it feel a bit artificial, but who am I to judge art or art districts.
Comparisons, of course, are always tempting. After the first couple of days, one I made was ‘It’s a bit like Istanbul, but Chinese’. What I tried to express with that was the way that both Turkey and China are building a new country and city on the foundations of an old, formerly great and – for Westerners – sometimes mysterious, empire. In Istanbul the continuation is maybe presented a bit more prominently. For China, that whole ‘we’re continuing the one great nation of China’ theme is apparently a fairly new one. (From what I read, decades ago, the Forbidden Palace showed scenes of how the emperors suppressed and exploited peasants – and I was actually surprised not to see a more critical and revolutionary look on the old Monarchy. Continuity of the old and new Great China now seems to be the political communication strategy.)
My second comparison of street life is one with the mega cities of the US – namely New York and Los Angeles. I am most probably completely off on the micro level of how life actually works, but the many people finding their niches to make money, the small vendors and corner shops next to the huge towers, the ingenious ways of solving things, the old seemingly disregarded next to the new, food chains and luxury malls, the general gap between the rich and the poor. The dynamism and diversity and also the partly fucked up infrastructure of back streets. All that kind of things made me think of the US. But probably of every megacity. China is thriving for what the US are trying hard to keep up. (There’s this stat from a BBC documentary, that Obama once said it can’t be that China has the more modern and better infrastructure and how the US would pump a billion dollars into this. China is spending around 50 billion dollars into the worlds most advanced railway system.)
There’s a second thing pointing me towards an US comparison, though, and I am not sure if I’m making friends writing this. It’s the patriotism, the very self-conscious demonstrations of power, the monuments, an apparent focus on the family (I don’t speak Mandarin, so I’m only inferring from pictures) and the standing-behind-the country-as-a-whole theme, the safety instruction pictograms and appeals everywhere and the ubiquitous presence of police and security checks. That’d be the second thing. – And I’m fully aware that there are many, many things that are different between the two. As always, if you look for differences you’ll find plenty. If you look for commonalities, you’ll find those as well. And I still only had the tourist glasses on.
Do I understand what’s going on? Not nearly. While there are some familiar patterns there are also many different things that obviously seem weird. People covering the side of their car tires with cardboard for example. Or the seemingly non existing parking system. Or where everyday regular people in Beijing buy their food and what, when and if they cook. Or what the people are working and earning, and how the prices of goods and services vary dramatically in certain categories (taxis are very cheap), while they are way higher in others. Or why there are hardly any garbage bins in the huge new railway and metro stations they are building. Or the aesthetic judgments used to design stuff. And many more.
In a few hours we’re going to arrive in Shanghai. This time we’re staying with a Chinese-Dutch couple via airbnb and we’re going to meet an Austrian German teacher with a Chinese studies background and hopefully get to a co-working space that I find interesting. I’m also going to meet Rob, who’s been promoting a better understanding of China and Asia ever since I started to read planning blogs. I guess I’ll know more about the how’s and why’s of urban (Tier 1) Chinese living after having been in Shanghai – and I’ll continue reading the excellent The Geography of Thought and China in the 21st Century.
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