American Culture

China, Day Seven: The capital

Part seven in a series

If Shanghai was New York City, then Beijing is Los Angeles. The city sprawls over some nineteen thousand square kilometers—all of which is clouded in smog.

The heavy traffic, smog, and city sprawl make
Beijing feel like L.A.

Beijing lacks the glistening skyscrapers of glass and steel that proudly advertise Shanghai’s modernity. Instead of building up, Beijing has built out. The city radiates outward in a series of rings with beltways, called ring roads, circling around.

Smack dab in the middle, where a typical city center might rise skyward, sits the Forbidden City, the former palace of the emperor back in the days when China still had one.

In that regard, Beijing might be more like Washington, D.C. than L.A. The two metropolises were both planned cities.

In ancient times, ruling dynasties constructed temples and palaces following the principles of feng shui, which seeks to find harmony by balancing the natural flow of unseen forces. Palace gates and temples pointed in specific directions in order to facilitate the flow.

In modern times, as the growing city needed a growing infrastructure, the government constructed the ring roads to facilitate transportation.

Beijing and D.C. are also alike, of course, because they’re the seats of government. Both have long cultural histories.

But with all the smog in Beijing, it’s hard to shake the comparison to L.A.

“In all fairness to the Chinese,” one ex-patriot tells my group, “the environment is something that’s becoming more important.”

Beijing is home to roughly 17.7 million people, but again, as in Shanghai, it’s tough to get a firm count because of the large number of migrant workers.

It’s obvious as soon as we arrive in the city that China recently slapped a snappy coat of paint on everything not too long ago. When Beijing hosted the summer Olympics in 2008, the event served as a huge “coming out” party for China, so the country bent over backwards to put its best face forward. (If that seems convoluted, in many ways it was.)

The Birds Nest (left) and the Water Cube stand side-by-side in Beijing's Olympic Village.
The Birds Nest (left) and the Water Cube stand
side-by-side in Beijing’s Olympic Village.

We pass the Olympic village on our way into town. The Bird’s Nest, the stadium for track and field events, stands right beside the edge of North Fourth Ring Road. Just next to it stands The Cube, the swimming facility where Michael Phelps won all his gold medals. The National Indoor Arena stands nearby, too. All the buildings are open to visitors for only a few yuan.

The area around the buildings remains open as a public park, with wide walkways for strolling pedestrians. In-line skaters zip by in single-file lines of three and four, weaving through the crowd as necessary. Groundskeepers water the patches of lawn that fill the irregular shapes between intersecting sidewalks.

We’re in China under the gracious invitation of Beijing University, one of China’s premiere institutions. (Scuttlebutt is that BIT is where China developed its version of “The Bomb.” It also served as the site of the Olympic volleyball competition.) BIT is one of several major universities in the city, which serves as the countries major center for education, although other cities and provinces have universities of their own, too.

The BIT campus sits just a couple of blocks down from our hotel on Zhongguancun St. South. The Beijing Friendship Hotel is actually a gated hotel complex with twelve buildings, including shops, restaurants, a mini-supermarket, post office, and spa. The Soviets built the complex as one of many construction projects intended as acts of good will toward the Chinese government in the 1950s. In a city full of ugly Soviet architecture, the Friendship hotel stands out as a luxurious exception.

In the evening, several of us explore a little bit of the neighborhood. Crossing the street is like performing our own daredevil act. We joke about playing “Frogger,” the 80s-era videogame where the player has to hop a little frog across a highway without getting splattered. There are fewer bicyclists that we saw in Shanghai, but there are plenty of cars to compensate. Beijing’s streets are wider and straighter, again reminding me of the boulevards of L.A. Except for the bridges around interchanges, there are no elevated expressways like there were in Shanghai.

We wander into the local supermarket, Chaoshife. Instead of front doors, we pass through wide strips of heavy transparent plastic, like the kind a grocery might have in a walk-in cooler, that hang in the doorway. We walk into an explosion of noise and bustle and groceries. The first five letter of the store’s name says it all.

Smells jostle in the air even more competitively than shoppers on the storeroom floor. I can’t identify any of them except for the individual cobs of corn being roasted on spits at the front of the store.

Every ten or twelve feet, a store employee stands next to a display or food stand, hocking items to passing customers. Personal selling is a huge deal, although shoppers have plenty of space to pick and choose from the shelves and racks and coolers themselves without molestation.

A deli counter features a variety of dumplings, including a special kind made only at this time of year for the upcoming Festival of the Dragon Boat: steamed rice and dates wrapped in a palm leaf. The meat section features traditional cuts of beef, chicken, pork, and lamb, but I also see pork feet and a breakfast food that turns out to be delicious: chicken sausage.

Across from the deli, three rows of crockpots simmer with beans, more dumplings, noodles, and things I don’t recognize. The seafood section features tables of ice covered with squid and various fish, including a something that looks like a stocky silver eel with a barracuda’s head and nasty teeth. A row of tanks with blue backgrounds holds ten or twelve species of live fish and a couple turtles.

“Your seafood can’t get much fresher than that,” my friend Darwin says. The clerk speaks no English, so I can’t ask him what anything is.

We take a ramped escalator to the second floor. To the left are more groceries and to the right is household merchandise, including clothes. That part of the store looks like an old Woolworths.

We pick up some bottled water and head back downstairs, where we discover blueberry-flavored popsicles. A pair of young girls on rollerblades follows us around a little, giggling and practicing their English on us.

On the way back to the hotel, Darwin and Carl and I crack into the popsicles. “Mmmm,” Carl says. “These will have to be a new China tradition for our trip.”

For the rest of our stay in Beijing, we’ll make several trips to the supermarket for more popsicles even as we explore the business environment and the rich cultural and political history.

From the grand sweeping history of a nation to the daily life of an average person, Beijing has a fascinating character all its own.

4 replies »

  1. a stocky silver eel with a barracuda’s head and nasty teeth

    The Chinese eat moray eels?

  2. They weren’t moray eels (I would recognize those). They were silvery like a barracuda and the head looked like one, but the body was long and streamlined and had an eel-like tail rather than “normal” caudal fins.

  3. Mmm, chicken anus sausage. Just kidding, there were probably no anuses in the sausage as that would dilute the “stamina” found in the anus with less stamina filled cuts. Chicken anuses usually come on a plate by themselves.