[The second in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]
While it was raining when my plane landed in Beijing, it was in the 70s and sunny most of the next two weeks. I was staying on the 24th floor of an apartment building and could see the surrounding mountains nearly every day. The haze that the city has become known for wasn’t completely absent, but was generally never an issue. But with good weather combined with the National Day and Golden Week that followed, areas of the city grew to even more phenomenally crowded than what is normal. I had initially contemplated trying to travel outside of Beijing, but after hearing horror stories from travelers about overbooked trains, no hostel availability, and sleeping in a karaoke room for the night — I decided to stay put.
While it was sometimes frustrating navigating the crowds in the Summer Palace, Tiantan, and Houhai, I was smart enough to avoid Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City during the main holiday week. While I did venture to the Great Wall, I avoided the worst parts of it, and managed to find a quiet spot to enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while overlooking the surrounding mountains and valleys. (Oh, sweet culture clash). Walking along a few centuries old structure, crumbling in many areas, but still retaining the honored dignity and respect that it naturally deserves is a magical feeling, and anyone who knows my affection for cities and modernity will tell you I don’t spill such praise lightly. The walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, approximately 10 km and 500 m high at its peak, was a struggle at points, and bordering perilous at others. Little of this section of the wall, if any, has been restored the way it has been in the more popular areas. It seems to be one of the few things China will allow itself not to modernize.
While walking along the wall, we were approached a few times by farmers trying to hawk souvenirs or just drinks. A simple “No thank you” is usually good enough, but one lady insisted on following me for some time. It was an awkward situation. She attempted to help me down some stairs, and walked alongside me for a good 10 minutes before she got the message that I wasn’t going to buy anything. I was annoyed that she had disturbed me –and my grand idea of the wall as a place for reflection, clarity and general solitude. But later I felt guilty. She was just trying to make a simple living. And while I don’t have a lot of money, I certainly have some. I came to China, barely knowing the language, expecting to go into restaurants, find food, people, culture without being overly hassled. Then again, is it really so bad to feel uncomfortable while traveling? I knew consciously when booking the tickets that I become “The Other,” as so many do when they visit my city, Chicago.
Conversely, it’s easy to feel extraordinarily comfortable in Beijing’s nightlife scene. I avoided Sanlitun, a bar heavy area that caters more to expatriates, and despite the lakeside views and rooftop patios, the vibe in Houhai just wasn’t for me. Unexpectedly, I found myself attracted back to the hutongs. It’s not too difficult to find a jazz club, clever mixologists, or just a bar with a wide variety of imported craft beer. Modernista felt like an absinthe lounge straight out of Paris, and Cellar Door sold Brooklyn Lager for cheaper than anywhere in the city where it’s brewed.
With packed days riding around the city and seeing as much as I could, I wasn’t the night owl I normally find myself to be. While venues would list showtimes, events really wouldn’t start till at least an hour after the listed time (a tradition that knows no border). I missed out on some of the few shows I wanted to catch, particularly at the jazz clubs, but did manage to see some bands play at the Old What Bar. On the West side border of the Forbidden City, this place is an outlier in the otherwise quiet neighborhood. The second time I went there introduced me to two bands. Dischord, a four piece Chinese punk band, didn’t sound too far off from Rancid and Pennywise (complete with unspiked mohawks). They reinforced that “fuck emo” is an international sentiment. The other band was Skarving, who were reminiscent of the Specials. Not to mention that in true ska fashion, the singer must have been the dorkiest dressed guy in the room (sunglasses over bucket hat, oversized sweatshirt, striped pants). I was pretty surprised at the amount of ska, dub, and reggae I heard at various bars, as well as the handful of times I saw someone sporting dreads. At Dada, I even caught a showing of Babylon as part of their weekly cult-classics film screenings.
The experience of traveling to such a different culture has no end of surprises. To see people casually eating a hard-boiled egg at the Summer Palace, littering the sidwalks with egg shells. To sit down at bench after a long walk to discover a collection of toe-nail clippings already gathered on the ground. The cabbie who made “bang, bang” noises and a gun gesture when we brought up where we were from and President Obama. The gold kitty waving good-bye to me after eating at a Mexican restaurant. And I have to admit I’ve made more eye contact with defecating males hovering over the squat toilets in the public bathrooms than I’d like to admit. And there are always those lingering questions: Did I see enough? Did I buy enough? Did I eat enough? Did I take enough pictures? Did I value my time enough?
Traveling as a non-Chinese person, the physical difference is constantly present; it is literally impossible to blend in. Even in an international city like Beijing, people will stare at someone who looks different, although without the negative connotations such behavior has in American culture. The public displays of bodily relief, from gobbing, snorting, passing gas, or allowing children to relieve themselves in public, isn’t something most Americans condone. But viewing these subtleties firsthand allow for less of a critique of another culture, but rather the reverse: it allows one to reflect on the values they hold and to think critically about what we hold sacred. While an American may congratulate himself for not living in a society that censors its writers, it’s just as easy to recognize how strict limitations we have considering transportation, food, alcohol, etc.
The first time I left China, my expectations were fervently exceeded. This time, I felt cemented that it is a place that is endlessly fascinating, that the excruciatingly frustrating times are no match for the gems waiting to be discovered, whether it’s in the layered history, a food stand packed with locals, or sharing a drink with friends old and new. I can’t say when I’ll be back, but I will be. For now, it’s time for me to return to the States, and the megalopolis about which most other Chicagoans don’t admit their admiration, respect, and jealousy: New York City.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His last essay in this series discussed bikes, beer, and baozi in Beijing.