Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Friday, October 19, 2007
The China Chronicles - First Impressions
I knew going into this trip that China is a huge country, and that with more than 15 million people, Beijing is one of the largest and most crowded places on earth, and yet it still pales in comparison to Mumbai, Dehli and Karachi.

The first thing you notice is the dust. Sand storms blow down from the northern and western desert steppes and fill the smog with dust particles and grit so thick you can taste it. Everything is dirty, and a fine layer of brown, grayish grit covers every surface - including you.

I arrived in the evening - about 6:30 PM Beijing time. My flight out of Chicago had been delayed for four hours. So instead of dropping off the luggage and heading out to dinner, we simply headed home and got caught up over some wine.

My friend lives in the Chaoyang District, about 3 miles due east of Tiananmen Square, between the 2nd and 3rd Ring Roads, and near a lot of the diplomatic compounds, and the Worker's Stadium. Her building is very typical, middle class apartment housing, but as the time wore on, I appreciated how well situated her location is to a lot of things.

The very center of Beijing is Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Everything radiates out from there. Beginning with the 2nd Ring Road, there are now 6 Ring Roads - large, concentric multi-lane highways connected like a spider's web with cross roads. Most directions are given in relation to where a particular destination falls on, or between, theses roads. Beijing is growing at such a fast rate, that the 6th Ring Road was only completed in 2005, and there are plans for a 7th and even 8th Ring Road.

Because she is only living in Beijing "temporarily" - I kidded her about the term "Chinese Camping" to describe her situation, the apartment is furnished. It's really very nice. The floors are a polished marble or ceramic of some sort - it was very common everywhere - and she has two large bedrooms, a main living/dining area, and a small galley kitchen with a little enclosed porch on the back which houses the fridge. No oven - just a two burner stove, with a range hood situated far too low for a tall woman from Dublin. As a result, meals are breakfast only, and all other meals are eaten out. This is actually quite typical, and when a nice meal with two large bottles of Tsing Tao beer can be had for about $12 - not a bad way to go.

The bathroom has a shower stall and thankfully - Western Plumbing. However, that brings us to our next impression - the smell.

Beijing has its own smell. It smells of smog, and dust, and like cooking oil and exhaust. But there is a particular smell that you get a whiff of almost everywhere, that is sometimes vile enough to knock you over. I can only describe is a peculiar mix of sewer gas with raw onion. A very noxious mix of sulphur and garbage. The plumbing infrastructure of most Beijing apartments and homes leave a lot to be desired. Communal bathrooms in hutong neighborhoods consisting of a row of holes in the floor with no privacy, are still not uncommon. And most public restrooms are Asian style - no more than a hole in the floor - that vary drastically in both their cleanliness and accessibility. On a warm day, like we had when I arrived the first week, the smell will back up into the pipes and make for an odoriferous entry into the apartment in the late afternoon. I wondered that even with Western facilities, if the Chinese did not use traps and sewer exhaust pipes. I never saw any, but conditions were very basic.

And that is another impression. The juxtaposition between high tech, 21st century growth and sprawl, smack up against neighborhoods that have existed for hundreds of years, where people still live VERY simply, in very filthy, crowded conditions. The gap between modern and ancient culture is enormous, and yet they coexist side by side. Little doorway shops selling buns or noodles with living quarters in the back are very common. Stores in general are so small, they are little more than stalls with dim lighting, crammed to the ceiling with whatever they happen to be selling.

Tomorrow - Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City......
posted by Broadsheet @ 1:51 PM  
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