The thing about Beijing that struck me the most was how gritty it all was. Gritty to the point that you could taste it when you walked outside. There’s a constant layer of dust that settles in to your mouth with each breath.
I don’t say this to disparage Beijing in any way. It’s a fine city, with lots of interesting sights and interesting things.
Standing on top of the hill in Jinghshan park, behind the mighty Palace Museum, we could see the Forbidden City stretched out before us in all its ancient magnificence. The sparkling new skyscrapers of modern Beijing were all but lost in a grey haze. The buildings where we were, at least, were lower than expected. The city seemed to stretch out for miles, perhaps into infinity, before disappearing into the haze.
In the hutongs
The grit was there in the hutongs as well, that ancient labyrinth of alleyways that burrow between the wide modern streets. Sure, some of them are all gussied up for the tourists. Venture a little way beyond, though, and it’s not too hard to find the grit of Beijingers who’ve stubbornly maintained their old single-story grey brick homes against the onslaught of development.
Here was an old man with a long white beard and missing teeth smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of baiju. There was a couple, much like us, out for an evening stroll wearing matching pajamas. I think we might have seen a Siberian weasel.
I had to pee in the hutong, so I walked in one of the many public bathrooms. A middle-aged man was squatting over the toilet, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, watching a video on his phone. There were no stalls. No dividers. No doors. Just a row of squat toilets in the floor along the wall. I peed next to him and left.
When we finally found our way out of the hutong labyrinth, we ended up in a small bar, the 1989 Bar. It was a very nice little place, that was relatively inexpensive and seemed to be where the cool Beijingers hung out. Like, the genuinely cool ones who are arty and intellectual, but also welcoming and not snobby. I would hang out there again, but I can’t remember how we got there, and it doesn’t seem to be online.
The Forbiden City
Outside of the hutongs and the grit, there are numerous remnants of the city’s former imperial glory. The Palace Museum, a.k.a. the Forbidden City, was the home of the great Chinese Emperors, dating back all the way to the Ming dynasty circa 1420.
The palace is truly impressive, and even though large sections of it are still closed to the public, it still was an all-day trek from south to north. Sprawling courtyards, gorgeous bronze statues, massive buildings, armies of selfie sticks. The people who lived here never once had to poop in front of strangers.
We walked down the touristified Qianmen pedestrian street to Quanjude restaurant where we paid a lot of money for some delicious and truly succulent Peking duck. The crispy skin and meat that almost melts in your mouth made me feel like royalty myself. The restaurant itself claims to be 200 years old. It’s definitely in an old building. And it was delicious if perhaps a bit over-priced. But, what can you expect from a duck restaurant down the street from Sephora?
Beijing still has its share of weirdos. A man walked down the street with a dangerously fat Corgi. He had a stick and gently smacked the dog’s behind on the left or right to guide it. A man with a bird on his arm approached us outside a subway station. He whistled and the bird jumped on Rachle’s arm. Then he whistled again and the bird jumped back to his shoulder. I thought he was going to ask us for money, but he simply smiled and walked away.
Our second night we stayed away from the hutongs and imperial palaces. We were near the train station, surrounded by sprawling high-rises. They reminded me of the public housing complexes in the South Bronx. Are those still there?
There were still ruins in this part of Beijing, but not of ancient palaces or temples. They were the empty shells of old warehouses and industrial buildings. Storefronts sat empty and bits of garbage rolled through the broken streets like tumbleweeds. There were a disturbing amount of school supplies stores.
We were on the sixteenth floor. The window was open in order to allow the grit and haze to come into the bedroom on the cool autumn breeze. We could hear the laughter of children echoing against the walls of the high-rises. I looked out and saw two kids playing badminton, using a cement barricade in the middle of the street for a net.
Overall, I would like to go back to Beijing. I liked the grit and the weirdos. I liked the ancient buildings. But, I’m glad I don’t live there.
You can call me a snob or a prude or whatever, but I like being able to close a door when I poop.