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Beijing Dispatch: Glimpses of the Real China

BeijingGiven the abundance of foreigners in Beijing in the weeks and months leading up to the Games, the curiosity of the locals all but disappeared in Beijing proper -- if there is such a thing. When I climbed the tower in Jingshan Park just to the north of the Forbidden City temples, I was facing south, and asked a friend from my original home town who now lives in Beijing if that was downtown. "Well, sort of," she said. "Take a walk all the way around the Temple." I walked to the west side, and saw city as far as the eye could see. To the south and east, I saw the same. Beijing is truly vast, and with 18 million residents, heavily populated as well.

Like China itself, and like many great cities, you can only understand Beijing in small bites of whatever is in front of you at that moment. Only over time does it begin to cohere into a single but variegated place.

As I mentioned previously, the Beijing of mid-August 2008 was the Olympics Beijing; as the Paralympics come to an end this week, it is already returning to the Beijing that Beijingrens know and, well, live in. During the Games, less than half the usual number of cars were on the roads. Many offices and factories were closed, and the employees encouraged to leave town and/or refrain from driving, both to reduce congestion and to mitigate the fairly serious pollution problem.

Further, cars with even-numbered license plates were allowed on the roads only on even-numbered dates, and odd-numbered plates on odd-numbered days. The switchover was complete and instantaneous each night; if you were out at 12:30 a.m. on August 18, you saw only even-numbered cars, where just 35 minutes previously it was all odd-numbered ones.-

With so much going on in Beijing in mid-August, it was hard to justify leaving the area save to go to the major attractions, and Beijing is big and interesting enough to deserve steady attention. Thanks to Beijingren-by-way-of-southern-New-Jersey Kathleen Boyce, who served as our local tour guide, I learned that the secret to touring Beijing is not to avoid the most famous sites, such as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (now officially called the Imperial Palace Museum in a dubious effort by the government to downplay the spooky name -- if you ask me, you'll get more tourists with spice than sugar on this one), but rather to figure out the most intriguing ways to get from one to the other. In other words, getting around is a big part of the attraction.

For example, our walk from the aforementioned elevated temple took us through an overwhelmingly busy commercial district, then through the quiet streets of a traditional hutong, and ended in the well-known Hou Hai district, where abundant restaurants and boutique stores garlanded in lights and flowers surround a small, manmade but charming lake.

At one end of the lake is a small square, where locals hovered at the edges, apparently waiting for something to happen. As we milled around the square, I purchased a small, noise-making, colorfully feathered toy that behaved a bit like a badminton shuttlecock and was used to play a game similar to hacky-sack, but with a lot of clattering noises and colors. The 6-year-old girl who sold it to me for the equivalent of 75 cents was ecstatic at her sale. Throughout, it was clear that our host knew something we did not, and we waited expectantly without quite knowing why.

waltzing couplesAfter a few minutes, waltz music started to emanate from an elaborate boombox contraption set up on the back of a bicycle, and the stones of the square filled instantly with accomplished dancers, most from among the elders of the neighborhood. As I understand it, this happens every night at the square; youngsters get their turn with a rock song that inevitably inspires an electric slide lineup, and then the terrace reverts to the experienced waltzing Beijingrens, many dressed as if for a ball.

We ate at a nearby restaurant with a view of the water and an oddly tiki-like patio, and although our meal choices were largely unadventurous (all of us having opted out of the pigeon legs and fish noggins), there was a plate of duck chins on the table -- I guess the thinking went that since there really isn't such a thing, it couldn't be bad? With drinks, the meal came to about the equivalent of $6 each; while the dollar isn't particularly strong in China, the general population is anything but wealthy, so costs remain relatively low (outside of the Olympic and hotel spheres, at least).

For instance, the best way to get to and see the Great Wall is to hire a taxi to take you there, wait for you while you climb up and down the Wall and perhaps have a bite to eat, then take you home again. The cost for the round trip comes to about $60, all told, for up to four people -- just $15 each for an entire day's on-call car service.


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