Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows and the "Next Great Travel Writer" contest winner Suzanne Roberts are currently on their way to Mongolia. They'll be blogging about their experiences, and today Keith tells us a bit more about his favorite spots in Beijing...
Ninety minutes at the Great Wall of China leaves me breathless. After an up and down hike taken under unremittingly overcast skies, the smog is back after yesterday's hiatus and so is the gridlock. The Wall is engulfed in tourists, a surging, smoking, ill-mannered melee that clogs the ancient ramparts that once repulsed Mongol hordes but now, frankly, are painfully overrun. Do I regret coming? Not at all—filter out the human stampede, and the landmark remains stupefyingly impressive—and I see but a smidgen of its 4,000-plus miles.
After a stop at a jade shop that gives me sticker shock (and where I learn that I was born under the sign of the rabbit and so exhibit great wisdom) we crawl back into the city at a pace that approximates that of navigating a crowded parking lot.
Beijing is back to normal.
Before dinner, I flip through the China Daily (“I hope that isn’t the only paper you read,” a Beijinger has warned me. “It will give you only the good news). Still, I learn that the Bible will be distributed free throughout the Games (there were rumors that China would break rank with tradition); that two women claiming the same dead husband are suing his company for death benefits; that the health of residents in Wuhan is being threatened by a surge in the yellow weasel population; that police officers in Nanning arrested a man who walked the city’s streets nude for three hours to retire a gambling debt; and that a 55-year-old Kaili farmer recently graduated from primary school after six years of study. Important stuff.
The real shocker—in a meaty business page section on China’s emerging green initiatives—is word that Shanghai’s 80-year-old Jin Jiang Hotel is going eco (last year it claims to have saved 202.8 tons of oil, 1.54 million kwh of electricity, 25,558 tons of water, and 2.07 million Yuan with its “Green Hotel Program”). This is an example of China’s effort at eco sensitivity. It aims to decrease energy use in new buildings by 65 percent before 2020 (by 2015 half of the world’s new building construction will occur in China, according to the World Bank; over the next 20 years, say McKinsey Global Institute predictions, the country will construct up to 50,000 new skyscrapers).
That night, Suzanne and I take a 20-minute cab ride to the Red Capital Club, a restaurant I visited on my last visit to Beijing. It is tucked away in an ancient hutong alley in the Dongsi Jiutiao region. We wander past open doorways that offer a peak into locals’ kitchens, living rooms, and inner courtyards. Shirtless men stand around in what appear to be boxer shorts. The second floor of a small dwelling houses a menagerie of chickens and pigeons that will likely soon grace dinner plates. Outside the door of the restaurant is a vintage black limo, one of six once used by Party apparatchiks. Inside, the place is filled with couches, easy chairs and memorabilia of a 1950s era when Mao Zedong and his Red Army cronies ruled China. They supposedly lived nearby and the club’s wait staff—dressed in Red Army uniforms—serves dishes said to be Party favorites and named after the likes of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. The cigar bar is filled with period paintings, photos of Party bigwigs, ceramic statues of Mao (pick up the old porcelain phone and you can hear him on the line).
We sit in the outside courtyard of the 200-year-old house and order plates of broccoli, cauliflower, shrimp, chili chicken, and mushrooms. Each dish on the banquet-style menu comes with a story—for instance, Marshal’s Favorite (minced pork and hot green peppers) was supposedly a staple of the epic Long Walk. The pricey food isn’t as good as the ambience, but servings are huge and come with kitschy carved vegetable animals—roosters, pigs, cows.
We have the leftovers packed to give away to some of Beijing’s legendary homeless. One problem: Search as we might, we can’t find any. “They are all gone,” the doorman tells us when we arrive back at the hotel. “They have been taken away. Given tickets to go home.” Or, I later learn, dispatched to one of four shelters built for the Games. It’s another example of Beijing’s Olympian facelift.
The next morning I awake to three TV channels that drone endlessly about the Olympic progress—in fairness to the Chinese this is likely to be the first Games in recent memory that will be ready on opening day. And the papers are filled with Olympic chest-beating and minutiae: the 100,000 volunteers are the most in Olympic history; a record 4 billion people are expected to watch the Games; the Olympic Torch relay was the longest in history; 4,500 doping tests—25% more than in Athens—will be administered; a staggering 400 million students in 500,000 Chinese schools have been given lessons in Olympic etiquette, history, and lore; the $43-billion costs of the Beijing Games is the greatest ever and its ticket prices are the lowest; 4,104 Chinese babies have been named Aoyun (Chinese for “the Olympics”); an estimated 15,000 will be married on the 08-08-08 Olympic opening day—auspicious because of all the eights.
Tomorrow we head to Mongolia, the so-called “sandwich country” between China to the south and Russia to the north.
Photos: Above, The Great Wall, By Suzanne Roberts; Below, courtesy of the Red Capital Club.