Mission to China

It’s the 25th of September and we are on a plane to Beijing. After roaming Africa and Central Asia on motorcycles, sitting on a chair up in the air is not how we envisioned our first arrival in China. But this is the beginning of our trip and of this journal. The plan is simple: buy a pair of second hand bicycles in Beijing and ride them south to Vietnam or Laos, then we’ll see…

Of course we wanted to take our KTM and DRZ along. But China is arguably the most expensive country in the world for riding a motorbike: permits and compulsory guides cost from 1500 euros per head and if we were to believe those who have done it, traveling like this is would not fit our idea of adventure. On the other hand we have been meaning to do a long cycle for quite some time, and it feels right to do it in the country that is hailed as world’s fastest growing economy. We did not have time to train or prepare in any way for a cycling trip. As the sheer size of China and the idea of taking a bicycle across do not immediately suggest themselves as an obvious double-bill, we don’t know what we will accomplish on this journey. Our strategy is an idea: skim the surface of the urban north and focus on the south-western provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan.
On the plane I am unable to give in to sleepiness. I am gawking into a monitor laying inches from my face, hypnotised by a dot on a screen. It has the word Ulaanbaatar under it. It makes me uncomfortable that it takes a few hours to span a distance we worked for four months to achieve. Air travel is brutal. It makes me feel both guilty for cheating and angry for having been cheated on. To my left an intractably anxiety-ridden John is trying to push away the moustached man who is gently leaning against his shoulder. To my right there is a man who looks like an Asian Johnny Depp. Look Ray, I tell him, I think we should talk about doing a joint project or something. The man straightens his cascading locks with a hand gilded in vintage jewellery, and says: Let’s meet at the Beijing Design Week. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. Interestingly enough, China Airlines has accidentally boarded three architects next to each other. If I and John have been straying off the Path to vagabond into the world, Ray is a Design Director for one of China’s most influential Architecture practice, The Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. But as hours pass we become more exhausted. Instead of discussing project ideas, nods are pretty much all we contribute to the conversation, as we are pinned to chairs by the means of our respective belts. We finally touch ground at world’s biggest airport. But we are zombified. Hardly in the mood for hi-tech architecture.

We have a meeting with someone who is supposed to give us a key to the tiny office where we shall be bunking for the duration of our stay. As we walk out of the subway, our contact person is waiting dead in the middle of the door, crowds roaring around her. Kilva calls later to check on us. Are you settled in, she asks. We tell her that we are gobsmacked by the sheer amount of people on daily commutes. She laughs hard: This is nothing, she says. Wait for the next week. Try to leave the city by the 1st of October or stay inside until the end of the Golden Week. You have been warned.

We do stay inside, with a terrible case of jet lag. For the next few days we barely see anything of Beijing, condemned to the underbelly of the night. And what better to do after dark than eat. We begin in mellow fashion at the famous Wangfujing Snack Street – which more circus and less panem.

Then our foodie friends Kilva and Bridge take over the operation and take us to “Ghost Street”, one of Beijing’s most unique streets. Tucked behind Inner Dongzhimen Street, Gui Jie spans 1,442m of shops and restaurants, which used to be owned by Beijing’s old traders whose kerosene lamps formed a ghostly sight from late at night until dawn. The name “Ghost Fair” has been changed to “Gui Jie” by the Commerce Commission, underlining the current character of the area, (in ancient China “gui”was a round- mouthed food vessel with two or four loop handles). At sunset the street come alive. Red lanterns are lit, and the young crowd starts cueing at their favourite joint, to entertain a beer and chew on sunflower seeds while a lobster is being fashioned into the yummiest dinner.

In our district we’ve made a new friend. After ten p.m. Cheung (which means good luck in Mandarin Chinese) starts a small fire on the sidewalk and fetches a pot of bubbling water. Meantime his wife squats to roll soy and coriander jiaozi dumplings. The dough is as delicate as rice paper. Sunday is their day off, so we check the fare at various Chuan’er hawkers. This is a yummy, convivial concept, similar to the Sichuanese version (called hot pot).

When our bellies are about to pop, we discover China’s love affair with RGB. These are: a condominium by Steven Holl, the National Centre for the Performing Arts by Paul Andreu, The Water Cube, the Bird’s Nest Stadium by Herzog & De Meuron.

Seeing such buildings draped in neon is like peering at the world through weed-colored glasses. They seem quite popular with tourists and locals alike. The pensioners are also night birds; at sunset they gather at street junctions to participate in dancing sessions.

Living under the stars it’s been impossible to carry out our mission of buying bicycles. When we are finally able to wake up before midday, we get to work. There are a few second hand bike shops in town, but there isn’t a lot to choose from. Same goes for buying cheap camping gear or goretex knock-offs (we need to replace the dead whisperlite, get some waterproof jackets, shoes for John and few other bits and bobs). Most of China is shopping legit goods at the mall; the other stuff is bought online. Most bike shops are not within the budget, and as Beijing is filled with old rotten bikes tied at subway exits, I suggest stealing a couple. Of course I am just joking, but the conclusion is that we’ll have to look for bikes and gear somewhere else. So we go back to sightseeing. China’s mammoth capital is a spellbinding city. At pedestrian level, the urban landscape makes us struggle to decide which side of the street we’re on. Six or eight lanes boulevards cut across cloud-defying residential buildings. Under the dystopian Beijing haze a dying sun appears to be sizzling like an egg in a hot pan.

This Chinese megacity feels so warped that it is possible at times to forget we are not inside a machine. Even if we are hyped to see in flesh certain creations of star architects, somehow the whole ensemble falls flat. There is a Soho, with its half empty neurotic skyscrapers. There are residential buildings designed for people who celebrate the invention of cars and enjoy good amenities, but who tend to have little concern for the environment. There are outlandish shapes dumped into the urban texture.

Kudos to the local hipsters for surviving such a place of crushing existential fears. For example they call OMA’s building “the pants”. Redemption comes in the form of Beijing’s traditional neighbourhoods, the  Hu Tong. Guo Zi Jian Street 国子监街 is arguably the most beautiful. Some visitors are put out by the fact that the residents must share public toilets (squats, no dividing wall, practically opened to street). But a walk in the hutongs reveals the layered life contained within these grey walls.

Nuclear families live in elongated houses separated by communal yards. In Africa infant care and child rearing is the responsibility not only of the biological parents, but of the whole compound and, in rural areas, the entire village. In China the one-child policy and a very elevated life expectancy allow toddlers to learn their first steps with their grand grand-parents. The old timers are still the most vivid presence in these streets, even as the area is slowly being conquered by hipsters.

There are already many swanky boutiques (we found one carrying a Romanian brand), hip cafes and trending night spots…

… but for now, the granny knickers are still hanging at windows.

The streets converge to the gate of the Yong He Gong LaMa Temple. The best time to come is the early morning, when Wu Dao Ying Hutong is quiet and there are no waiting lines at the Wu Yu Tai tea shop. We can have all the Jasmine Tea ice-cream that we want. Our friend says it’s the most popular in Beijing.

Once there were many more hutongs in Beijing, but they were demolished to make place for larger developments and infrastructure. The displaced families were given up to ten brad new apartments in residential towers, which were immediately rented out to expatriates. An entire social strata was therefore created overnight: the landlords. One can’t help but wonder what will happen to the vulnerable hutong within a decade. Perhaps the ghost of its future self is already visible in the background?

This is actually one of the developments that has uncharacteristically stirred a bit of controversy. It’s a shopping arcade with office spaces on top, designed by the one and only Zaha Hadid. While the design is certainly controversial for its location and the execution is quite poor, like all of Zaha’s designs, it retains a certain empty  je ne sais quoi.

One of the loveliest hutong area is situated right in the axis of the Forbidden City and the Jin Shan park. It contains the quaint Drum Tower and Bell Tower. The Chinese have a very poetic vision on things. Our friend tells us that just standing among the two towers one can feel that they’re watching each other like two lovers. The 63 ton bell is from the Ming Dynasty and legend has it that it could be heard from 5 kms away. At the Drum Tower there is an hourly re-enactment of a specific ceremony that used to be performed during the Ming. The show is half awesome, half parody, half tourist trap, but worth a go nevertheless.

Last night of calm before madness ensues.

If our nerves were frazzled during last week’s flight, the Golden Week is about to bring more special moments of tension. Suddenly the whopping 440,000 square meters of Tienanmen Square feel not wide enough. At 5 a.m. on the first of October it must contain a million people who show up for the flag ceremony. People are surging from all streets and subway exits, as exuberantly as wet fireworks. The watchful eye of the government is open: some fellows mingling with the crowds are spies in civilian attire, and the soldiers struggle to parlay their own anxiety into the performance. Taking the subway home is out of the question – I swear I have seen today more people than throughout all my life. To give you an idea of how large is the available workforce in this nation, for the duration of the holiday each train has been assigned its temporary valets that stand in front of each door, guiding and sometimes even shoving people away.

Not taking our friends’ advice one again, on the second of October we take a hike on the perimeter of the Forbidden City. It has been engulfed by amateur and pro photographers. I was not aware that the Chinese are such suckers for cameras. We are not as patient, so we cross opposite the North Gate and into Jing Shan Park. The photographers are up here as well. Whoever is not busy shooting, is taking selfies in minorities’ garb.

The pagoda on top of the hill has the best view in Beijing. In front of us is the Forbidden City. Looming at the left and right, there are loud, striking skyscrapers – the towering symbols of capitalism framing world’s biggest – and one of the few remaining – communist states in the world.

The sunset is beautiful and very 15th century – light ebbing over a city of many secrets, then distilled into this audience facing the glare of infinity. It’s a love story told to those who listen.

But China is full of other contradictions, more jarringly displayed during the holidays. Take the subway crowds. Some are provincial folk who have saved hard to afford this trip to the capital. Some are the urban poor, the un-acknowledged people living at the fringes of the city in a legal gray zone until the money and luck run out or the demolition trucks roll in. Some are living in the dull habitats visible in the background. They are rural migrants from the provinces — the historic Hubei, the impoverished Anhui, the subtropical Sichuan — whose lack of marketable skills and inability to gain an urban hukou, or residency status, limit their access to housing and prevent them from obtaining basic social services like education and health care. Many of the workers sleep in makeshift residences alongside construction sites. Most have to burn coal to keep warm and to feel lucky of they have access to public baths and toilets. Certainly manners are not a priority for these people. They grew up in a generation of basic survival, fighting to the front of the food ration line. They could not afford the luxury of personal space. So there is shoving, talking loudly, jay-walking, spitting and kicking. Occasionally crowds implode and dozens fall like dominoes in a roar of laughter. The accidental PDA seems to be enjoyed even as it turns violent. Our friends explain that what could be labeled by a westerner as rude behavior stems from “a lack of international exposure and therefore lack of exposure to international etiquette”. The struggling working class is on a hard path. Those men who have made it are proudly displaying their long pinky nails. It’s a social statement: it means that they are now rich enough to escape manual labor.
On the other hand we are puzzled with the way people behave towards us. First of all, there are very few foreigners anywhere. Secondly, the Chinese are keen to avoid eye contact, looking right through us as if we were made of glass. If two weeks ago in Moscow people were reading actual paper book on the tube, here most are steeped in pads and smartphones and tablets and whatnot. We see even couples talking not to one another but ranting and gesticulating to their respective computer operating systems. I was hoping the movie “Her” was not yet overlapping with our own world.

Next day we meet up with Ray, the architect from the plane, and some of his gang. The Design Week is a great reason to have our coffee in Beijing’s most famous art district. Following the global trend of setting up artistic communities in the empty cheap warehouse and factory spaces left over in post-industrial cities, the 798 has already fallen victim of its own ambitions. Ray thinks that it has become just an off-the-beaten-path hipsterdom, increasingly commercialized and tourist driven, soon to be toppled by the tourist mob.

Sensual art. Each piece is made of a different essence of wood.

We need a gulp of fresh air. So even if we know it has been restored and beautified to appeal to the tourist mob, it’s time for The Wall. Still lacking our own transportation, we show up at an enormous bus stop just outside the Dongzhimen subway exit and catch a bus to Mutianyu. Luckily the touts are busy harassing a bunch of Chinese tourists,  so John and I make a quick escape. But I have a feeling that we will soon regret not buying a panda paw or at least one of those matryoshkas, and that Che Obama will make a second appearance on this trip.

It’s hard to be nonplussed about this stunning structure of adobe and stone. Some of the bits are from as early as the 8th century BC!

Little is left of the original structure built by China’s founding emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Most of the wall is from the Ming Dynasty. There are many watchtowers and some sections climb in steep slopes or follow the mountain. The local folk used to call it “the earth dragon”. The alternate name – “purple frontier” – might have been more fitting. Erected to keep nomadic intruders at bay and to regulate caravan duties, The Wall has always required blood – to build it and to fulfil its purpose of final frontier of the Silk Road. Today its the bureaucracy that prevents the travellers from crossing from one side to another.

There are rest stations where folks indulge in selfies and burping after all the mix of cold beer and climbing.

John doing the tourist. Forgot to mention that we struck a great deal for an used macbook that will replace the one that broke in Tajikistan. Also John has decided it was time for us to acknowledge the 21st century and prevent such hiccups by acquiring a smartphone.

A few weeks ago we were riding motorbikes beyond these rugged mountains and the Gobi, somewhere in Mongolia. The empty steppe where yurts scatter and yaks graze seem like a distant past. We miss them empty horizons. We miss them hard. So tomorrow we are hoping on a train towards the south to find our wheels.


We reach the end of the Silk Road, where we find am army of clay, a Chinese who knows Arab cuisine and a Romanian who knows the Chinese.